The 3 mountains of the central plateau each show a different character. Tongariro is strange and varied, irregular and cratered. Ngauruhoe is the most aesthetic – a near perfect cone. Ruapehu towers above and stands with a powerful sense of scale. At no time is size of Ruapehu more appreciable than at dawn and at dusk. The huge snow capped mass provides a sharp contrast against the dark blue hues.
This scale is reflected when driving on the morning of The Goat. The road skirts the bottom of the massif, meaning that the time taken driving from Ohakune around Iwikau Village for the start seems far too long. The hour in the car gives plenty of time for contemplation of the race to come. The final km up to the start area retraces the start road section of the race. Hooking 3rd gear in the car for the last part of the climb reminds the legs that they are in for a pounding on the way down.
I lined up near the front of the mass of runners. I’m often one for fast starts, and I wanted to make sure that I could stick with the leaders down the road. Looking around the field was pretty stacked. A good spectrum of off road runners was represented. The strongmen from the Eastern Bay of Plenty were there, a fair few multisporters, some pure trail runners and a couple of orienteers – a real mix of skills, strengths and experience. I figure attack is the best form of defence, so with the start hooter I shot off fast.
Off down the Bruce I wasn’t the only one letting the pace go high, Sam Manson was lighting it up. We tore off ahead of the pack. Glancing at my Garmin I could see 2.45min/km on the screen. A good deal of the pace was thanks to gravity, and the effort didn’t feel too hard. We ran as a tight pair down to where the trail turns left off the road. I rolled past Sam as we left the road. I wanted a nice clear track into the rough moonscape. I hadn’t dared to look over my shoulder, but according to Sam we had a good 70-80m gap on the chasing group.
A by product of the fast start was that my legs were good and warmed up. I felt great for the first 15 minutes of the trail. I made it up and across the first spur before Sjors appeared. Down the rough switchback section he flew past. His downhill running is something to behold. He seems to float more than anyone I have seen running. The rough, rocky surface posed no issues as he glided past and created a gap.
Around 5 minutes later Shay Williamson and Matt Ogden appeared. I was in the pain cave up the climb at this point, and took a chance to refocus things as I slotted in behind Matt. Shay powered off up the hill, distancing Matt and I. We settled into a good tempo at this point, sharing the lead as one would find a better line through the rocks and tussock.
Up on the mountain the scale of the slope means that the trail ahead is never completely visible. The curve of the mountain takes it tantalisingly out of view. We could catch glimpses of the route ahead, we could see Shay and Sjors slowly drifting ahead.
After the halfway point Matt did manage to gap me. He opened the pace on a descent and gained some separation. I wasn’t able to reclaim this on either of the steep escarpments that characterise this section of the course. Matt had perhaps 20 seconds as he turned downhill for the spur section to Lake Surprise. This section would be the decisive part in terms of my race. Looking back on our Garmin GPS times, I lost around 90 seconds to 2 minutes to Matt down the long descent past Lake Surprise to Mangaturatura Hut. At the time I sensed I had drifted off (I couldn’t see him ahead) but I didn’t realise the scale of my time loss. This also let Hamish Fleming and Chris Morrisey move back into the mix.
Into the waterfall I had another issue – I could feel the calves starting to ping with cramp. Very poor timing. My reading of the evidence around exercise associated muscle cramps is that they are a neurological phenomenon – the result of muscles being subjected to an effort and intensity above what has been done in training. That would be a fair assessment of where I was at. My longest runs in the buildup that had any intensity were around the 80 minute mark. Here on the waterfall I was about 15 minutes beyond this, and cramp was creeping in.
Chris bounded by effortlessly. I was able to jump on behind Hamish through the final saddle. He built a gap down the final descent towards the Turoa access road and Mama’s mile. I was still optimistic of being able to at least close the gap on the final stretch up the road. I finished the last sip of Vitasport and turned off the loose rock and onto the hot tarmac of Mama’s mile.
I could see Matt, Chris and Hamish ahead. All 4 looked like they were fighting hard against the gradient. I tried to lift my tempo. As the meters went by I didn’t seem to make much of a dent in the deficit. I crossed the line 6th, in 2.06. Short of my best time, but still a time and result I was pleased with. I felt I ran well on the day, making the most of my strengths. Cramping at the end was a reflection of a deficit in my build up, something I had crossed my fingers about pre race, but a good learning for the future. Best of all it was a fun race, having a few battles out on track makes a race memorable, as does a stunning, clear central plateau day. Bring on The Goat Kaimai!