Trial by Trail – The Queenstown Marathon

Of course no two marathons are the same (unless you are running Traviss Willcox’s on consecutive days on the Kent coast), but the contrast between Podgorica and Queenstown, just four weeks apart could not have been much more stark. The first was 100% road, almost pancake flat and very little of worth to look at once out of the city. Queenstown was 70% trail, totally undulating for more than the first half with stunning views of the surrounding peaks, the forests we ran through an the lakes we ran round. And of course many of the locals in Podgorica spent the evening before the race staggering through the results of smoke bombs and tear gas while most of the Otago locals just bleated and ate grass.
Queenstown, near the bottom of the Southern Island of New Zealand, is probably the furthest I could travel to a proper marathon (The Antarctic Ice Marathon, slogging through snow and ice might be 42.2k, isn’t my idea of a ‘real’ marathon) and also provides a great north-south variation to The Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromso, Norway just 5 months earlier. For those who lump NZ and Australia together as really just the same place separated by a small stretch of water, Queenstown can illustrate how different they are. Last year was the first running of The Queenstown Marathon and the conditions were horrendous. The heavy rain on the day, and previous days, had made the hard packed trails slippery and flooded in parts and the hail storm that hit those who were on for a four hour plus finish produced hypothermia and forced withdrawals for many. So like almost all of the other participants I had been watching the weather forecast for the previous 10+ days and even up to the Friday, it was a Saturday race, a lot of rain seemed to be likely. As I made my way towards the coach that would take us to the start close to Arrowtown I still hadn’t finalised my running shoes or top.
But Tāwhirimātea (the Maori god of weather) took pity on us and provided perfect running conditions, overcast and cool with almost no wind. Although I started with the 3:30 – 4 hour wave I didn’t expect a sub 4. I knew I hadn’t regained my first-half-year pre-fall fitness, and together with the marathon just 4 weeks previous plus the knowledge of one to follow in 2 weeks a sub 4:30 would be fine.

The bridge

Bridge over Shotover River

The route started on a road that lead us through Arrowtown, one of the major tourist destinations (for those that were not holidaying in Otago for the many thrill activities that the area offers) where very enthusiastic crowds and a loan banging drum greeted us for a couple of hundred metres, before we immediately hit the trails. Although nowhere near as demanding as my local North Downs Way, my encounters with the later have never been in a race situation with many 100s travelling over the same track that was sometimes narrow, always undulating (but rarely with excessive gradients) occasionally narrow but always with spectacular views that enhanced the experience. I happily chatted to a very experienced lady US runner who had the 50 States under her belt, for much of the first half of the race before she unsurprisingly went off ahead; she had said 4:30 was her target but I suspect she was much nearer to 4 hours.

halfway

Although much of the 2nd half of the course was relatively flat there was a considerable sting at 30k, a hill which no one running at a similar pace to me actually ran up; actually walking wasn’t too easy. At the post race awards money was presented to the organisation responsible for maintaining the trails and we were told it could be used to restore the section of trail that had collapsed before the inaugural marathon, that the hill was replacing. We were actually asked for a show of hands if we thought the hill should stay; I voted ‘yes’ but it was decided the overall vote was too close to call and a decision will be made later.

Profile Queenstown Marathon

Elevation profile

My wife was waiting at the 35k mark, and before this point I had had to begin running ‘defensively’ to keep cramp away from my right calf. This continued well after the race had finished, as bad as I have ever suffered with and I think it was my own fault. As always I was carrying my own electrolyte fluids but Poweraide was provided very regularly and I just drank small amounts of this every time, hardly touching my own stuff. A wrong move, I am sure.

The finish involved a trip up through the centre of Queenstown then a specially constructed ramp down to Memorial Centre Recreation Ground, which could have been awkward to negotiate if it had been wet. The arrival of most runners was announced by two local broadcasters, and I received a full description of my alphabetic project which received an enthusiastic reception. I’m sure the over-the-top welcome the commentators gave to the Japanese runners would have been branded politically incorrect in the UK, very loud shouting of words that sounded Japanese but were total nonsense! But they were amusing!

finishing

Finishing

My 4:19:52 wasn’t good enough to place in my age category, but it was 60 – 69 rather than 65 – 69 and it was won in an amazing 3:24. The fact that road closures were not essential for the later portion of the race, and the park setting for the finish, allowed all that could finish to do so, a few even taking well over 7 hours, and a pleasant setting to laze around in the sun before the essential beer so a photo with the medal could be taken.

beer and medal

It isn’t one of the cheapest marathons, the race itself was $149, the coach to the start $15 and an extra $50 (so a total of over £90) for a rather uninspiring technical top; (I do like these to very clearly show the name of the race, it was about a 14 font for this, with the name of the sponsor being more prominent than the race itself, and white on lime green hardly shows up!) For anyone willing to spend the air fare to travel from the UK, and presumably combine it with a holiday as well, in Oz and NZ the cost is minimal.
So number 17 has been done, one which after number 9 just 12 months ago seemed a bit of a wild dream; but it did take us to visit friends in Oz and our first return to NZ after our honeymoon there 41 years before.
And so it is just 2 weeks before the final one of the year is due, again one that will throw up interesting challenges in another ridiculously distant country.

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