This is something that it seems we as endurance athletes talk about all the time. What are our best runs? If you were to ‘fast-pack’ a section of back country or link multi day runs in New Zealand – where would you run?
I’m fortunate with my years of bashing around in the mountains across both islands to have a pretty decent handle on where the running’s at. There’s a small hardy group of mountain-men and women that frequent the wilds, most of which I know well and we’re often engaged in enthusiastic discussion involving topo maps and audacious plans.
Each year my brother and I take as little gear as possible and test our resolve in the Southern Alps for a 10-14 day unsupported hike which typically includes run components. We’ve done this decades now and have lovingly bled on Spaniard Grass the length of NZ.
Where to run in NZ is a big topic, opinion based (mostly mine), and not something that could be covered in just one post. Once complete I’ll index the lot and wrap everything into a concise list. In the meantime please consider this PART 1 (of many) as I individually showcase the very best of BIG runs in Godzone.
Multi-day running in NZ
With hundreds of thousands of kilometres of trails we’re spoiled for choice. The quality of trails in New Zealand range from 2-metre wide groomed highways, to barely recognisable rough-cut (or less) genuine back-country routes. As the emphasis here is on trail running we can somewhat limit the trails and terrain a bit thereby removing those dotted lines on maps few venture on to. Your shins will thank me for making this consideration.
No snakes, no spiders, no leeches and nothing that will kill you save the cold, falling off something, having something fall on you, and the cold (it’s worth mentioning twice). Water water everywhere and all of it you can drink (pretty much) New Zealand is really Australasia’s running utopia.
So if I had a few days to fast-pack, multi-day or back-to-back really rewarding high-quality terrain, what would I do?
Tararua’s – Schormann to Kaitoke (S-K)
North Island long runs don’t come more historic or epic than this. The famous ‘S-K’ stretches the length of a long sequence of ranges north of Wellington.
Since time immemorial hardy souls talk of taking the Friday night train to Eketahuna, then hooking a taxi to ‘Schormann’ track (now closed and routed to Herepai via Putara Rd end). The goal of making it from the north end of the ranges effectively back to Wellington (Kaitoke) before the weekend was out. An arduous journey along ‘The Main Range” covering some 80km and around 7000m of vert – ouch! Further heroics have upped the ante since a sub-24hr record was completed in 1995. Since then, fewer than 20 people have managed to break the illusive 24hrs, myself included.
It’s the opinion of many that this route would be best halved and consumed over two days as a fast-packed multi day run. While it could be done with a superhuman effort across 24hrs the arduous torture of such an undertaking would detract from the enjoyment of what is some of the North Islands best alpine running.
How to Two
If you’re new to multi day running you’d want to brush up on your gear and food lists. There are many resources online for this but the basics will always be,
- Have a comfortable pack that you can run in, and will also be big enough to bare the necessities of life
- Don’t fill your pack if you don’t need to. Take nothing you don’t need. Empty space weighs nothing
- Sleep well with a minimal change of clothes and light-weight sleeping bag
- Stay warm with ample layers, long socks (some alpine grasses bite), and a good ‘HARD’ shell (jacket)
- Avoid the complexity of food that requires cooking unless you plan to stop somewhere that you know for certain has a stocked fire.
- Water laden foods are heavy so take dry food that can have water added. Water is available at most huts, few of which are more than 3hrs apart.
- Take poles. This one has vert and you’ll near half the hurt with good pole work. Take TOUGH poles.
The pick of places to bunk the night would be ‘Anderson Memorial Hut‘ which sits nestled in the tree line (FIRE WOOD!) with tank water and sufficient lodgings for a small group. While Anderson’s is past the mid-way point in the run it is importantly off the Te Araroa trail meaning that it wont likely be full or heaving with ‘Length of New Zealand’ through walkers like the two huts preceding it (Dracophyllum and Nicols).
There be dragons!
Make no bones about it though, you need to have your wits about you and the weather on your side to make it to Kaitoke. This is an alpine run that takes place within a few hundred kms of the windiest city in the world. If the wind doesn’t stop you the ‘clag’ will – if you’re running mountains in NZ ‘clag’ will quickly be added to your vocab… On average there are less than 80 ‘clear’ days on the tops and with a somewhat seasonal requirement to attempt this run near the summer months you may find fewer than a handful of opportunities suitable for your S-K.
Your navigation need be on point too with a myriad of trails intersecting the main range and several places where you could easily find yourself hours lost in the wrong direction.
I wanted to stress some of the safety considerations as this is an alpine run worth considering but treated with complete respect. With a million ‘outs’ you can leave the main range to a remote car park in any of a dozen or so places so you’re never so removed from civilisation that you’ll not die up there – BUT PEOPLE DO – even in summer. In fact, unlike many multi run options, S-K affords the luxury of getting out when the going gets tough and with blowing past something like 8 huts there’s always an opportunity for a ‘cuppa’ or well earned nap.
The trail itself is the full remit of challenging too fast with sections of tough track that bookend the Northern and Southern parts of the run. Dundas is lumpy with tussock and Marchant Ridge is a nightmare on tired legs. You were warned.
Southern sections around Kime and parts of the ‘Southern Traverse’ are quick under foot though and there are certainly stretches where 6min/kms could be a thing though you would be safer to average 26min/kms as an average. Yes – 26min/kms as an average.
So how tough is it? Well, it’s achievable if the weather gods shine favourably upon you. A reminder that the scariest demon here is the wind. This said (twice now, for effect) you will survive this. It’s one of the harder multi-day runs in the country but you didn’t choose this sport because it was easy. How tough is it as a measure of anything else? It’s tougher than Kepler, let’s put it that way. It’s hard to find the right yardstick but something in the vicinity of UTMB or Northburn 100mi minus a wee bit. For those across the tassie it’s quite comparable to the “Three Peaks” in NSW’s Blue Mountains, Wild Dog Ranges (expertly detailed here). Though harder than Three Peaks by maybe 15-20%. Few may ever be able to say but Great Southern Endurance Run GSER looks like it could be a measure of sorts. Maybe a couple laps of the Ultra-trail Australia course or one that included Mt Solitary and few firm kicks in the shins for good measure. As far as ‘established’ BIG runs go it’s probably one of the gnarliest without getting particularly creative on similar terrain like the Ruahines, or Kawekas.
Resources and Further reading
Being one of New Zealand’s ‘gold standard’ epic long runs, many a tale has been told of S-K attempts completed or failed and there’s a vast wealth of knowledge kept on Christopher Martins site here. Chris’ is “Mr S-K” and really the oracle and curator of everything in regard to running the main range. He’s a genuine kiwi ‘good bugga’ and if you are considering this adventure I highly recommend him as a resource or sounding board. Chris has captured many of the stories of those that ventured into the main-range and there is some quality tales retold on his ‘tararuafkt.wordpress.com’ site.
Route description and current conditions are available at TrailRunProject here.
Paul Stevens report from our 2016 S-K adventure here.
Backups and Alternates
If you’re planning travel to attempt S-K over one day and the weather just doesn’t play ball it’s worth considering a back-up options. Shorter alpine loops in the park like the massively popular ‘Jumbo Holdsworth‘ (also a late Jan race) or an extended loop that includes ‘South King, McGregor, Jumbo, Holdsworth’.
My ‘Relive’ of this longer loop here:
A further variation exists in the shape of the ‘S-K Valleys‘ which takes in much of the distance without the exposure of life above 1200m.
Make it harder!
You really shouldn’t but perhaps you could. A similar traverse of the nearby Ruahines has never been completed as a ‘run’ nor has the infamous “1500s challenge“. The later being a summit-bagging exercise of the 13-odd mountains in the Tararuas National Park. Perhaps most notable because no one has completed it in anything like the 24hr mark despite several spirited attempts by legend Tim Sutton. This one is most certainly on my radar!
Coming Next Instalment
North Islands Central Plateau! You want Volcanoes? We have volcanoes!
Promise this one wont be quite so brutal.