This is the longest effort of my life, about 7 hours to cover just over 51 kilometers and 2800 meters of elevation gain. It has put my body and mind through Hell but I was definitely running in Paradise and Over the Moon to make it to the podium in a fierce competition for my first Mountain Race.
Friday the 8thof March
16:00 – Arrowtown
After a morning flight out of Sydney, Wayne picked me up in Queenstown’s airport in a Citroën C5 like my Granma’s in the Pyrénées, I felt like home straightaway. We stopped by the nearest Countdown for groceries and headed to Arrowtown, the finish line of the race to pick-up my bib #1099 – I loved this number – check my mandatory gear and collect a GPS tracker. We also met Nick and Robin, friends from Sydney running the Ultra as a team, and Fred, Charly, Antoine and Christophe, frenchies from New Caledonia who came across for the XTERRA Triathlon (Swim / Mountain Bike / Trail run).
Motatapu is an OFF ROAD event organized by Ironman:
- Saturday, the biggest crowd of about 1800 riders participated into the MTB race, the best triathletes of Oceania came to race in the XTERRA and 166 runners were on the start line of the Ultra Run
- On Sunday, there are shorter running distances with 8, 15 and 42km trail runs
After a nice chat, we drove off to Cromwell where Wayne booked a really nice B&B.
17:00 – Cromwell B&B
I went for a run on the lakeside to shake the legs after the flight and a lighter tapering week than usual as I’d been battling with a sore knee since Tarawera four weeks prior. Legs felt good, that was enough to be in a good mental place. We went to an Italian restaurant, Armando’s, where I had a nice lasagna with eggplant and polenta chips then back to the house to stretch, roll and prep my kit.
I sent my last message to everyone including the tracking link – then switched my phone off.
21:00 – Bed time
My race kit is ready, alarm set for 2:30AM to have breakfast and then another one at 4:20AM to drive to Glendhu bay on the Western bank of Lake Wanaka.
Saturday the 9thof March – RACE DAY
2:30 – First Alarm and breaky time
My breakfast was a green tea, a bowl of coconut yoghurt, granola and blueberries. No need to eat in extreme quantities, I believe less in carb loading than good food habits all along my training and I’d rather maintain my food intakes even pre-race to keep things stable rather than breaking the routine and risking to be sick – back to bed – 1 hour of sleep is important and it keeps the stress down while your body can digest.
4:10 – Time to get to the line
I woke up just before the alarm – dressed for the race and added extra layers that I kept for the warmup and until the last minute on the start line.
While you may smile, a small detail that has it’s importance, I’m almost 3 hours post breakfast and this will be my last #2 until the finish line – I know that the cubicles on the start line will be busy with stressed athletes so I used the public toilet in Wanaka, 10 min drive from Glendhu bay where there was no one. Another benefit of a recce (also where most of my photos come from), you even know where the best toilets are especially when you previously travelled in a van and showered in the lake 😀
It’s pitch black, the vollies help parking cars like navigators at the airport with starwars lighting sticks and I already know how cold it is thanks to my stop in Wanaka. I put my gloves, hat and headlight on (part of the mandatory kit), I’ll only remove my jacket and hand it over to Wayne after the briefing. The first 10k to the aid station where they will check the mandatory gear are uphill so I shouldn’t be cold even only wearing my short sleeves t-shirts – covered hands and head should be enough to feel warm.
6:08 – Start Line – Glendhu bay – Alt.342m
I hand my jacket over to Wayne, he wishes me luck and I’m on the front line, I briefly exchange with Lucy (Bartholomew), the only familiar face for me as she’s well known on the running scene and participates in her third Ultra Run here. Just before the green light, I squat, touch the ground, close my eyes and concentrate. When I stand again, we are 10 seconds from the start.
GO – I adjust my headlight and we create a little group at the front, Nancy, Lucy, Joe and myself, I can’t see any further and don’t look back. Joe pushes the pace on the gravel road and I can’t see anyone anymore. We swallowed the first 4k between 4:10 and 4:45min per k, a solid pace knowing what is coming up. The plan was to lead with a small group to tackle the first single trail easily. Past the KM4 it would be very hard to overtake. The memories from my December recce are solidly anchored in my head…it all comes back crystal clear and help me fly over the first section with Joe on my heels. The single track winds on the bank of the river, we follow green fluorescent sticks glowing in the halo of our headtorches, slowly gaining elevation on a smooth ground. I loved this section – almost fully runnable and the first lights of dawn illuminating our path ahead out of the forest, making place to tussocks – this characteristic thick grass – and uncovering our first views on Fern Burn Hut. Just before the aid station, I can see a third head torch slowly coming back on us – it’s Andrius.
7:13 – Fern burn hut – Alt.720m – 9.2k / 1h05 / 400m D+
Our trio arrived grouped at the aid station – I present my bag and can now remove gloves, beany and head torch – perfect timing and no time wasted – I had to show them at the control anyway.
Joe and Andrius leave slightly ahead of me – Andrius let me pass as I was running a bit more in the steeper sections at this early stage of the climb. We stayed together for a while, keeping contact with Joe. I know that we have 400m of elevation gain until Jack Hall saddle at 1274m, the top of our first 12km climb and highest point of the race, so I take it easy and realise that they both have poles, powering far more efficiently through the steeper sections.
I try not to think about it even if I can clearly feel Andrius on my heels when the gradient increases and I don’t know what to do with my hands to get faster.
We reach the saddle and start a well paced descent, we make a bit of time back onto Joe and finally fly through the descent leading to Highland Creek hut.
8:23 – Highland Creek Hut – Alt.850m – 16.2k / 2h15 / 800m D+
Andrius and I fill our water flasks – I keep a bit more than a litre, I know that I can refill in the river in the forest at the bottom of the third hill leading into the third aid station. I also take time to tighten my shoes, the last time I didn’t was at UTA50 and it costed me both big toe nails which still haven’t fully recovered. It doesn’t take long but enough for Andrius to go ahead and create a short but psychologically hard gap. In the steep hill following the aid station, I can see him chasing Joe.
I decide to make my own pace, the race is long and I’m unexperimented in this terrain at race pace. I don’t know my friends leading so can’t tell if they are mountain goats or gazelles of the plateau…but they look pretty fast up the hills.
On top of being steep, the single track sometimes disappears in the thick, long grass, it’s spongious as creeks flow all over the mountain, I can hear the water bubbling through the grass. I finish the second ascent and recognize the forest down the hill where I’ll refill my bottle. I take it easy down the hill especially as my ITB (Some tendon in the right leg) gets more and more vocal. As planned, I refill in the river and already notice the water flow is a lot lower than in December…good for the river section. The third hill starts straight up, no flat section after the downhill and no time to rest my burning quads.
As I climb, the sun comes out and for the first time, I almost feel hot, I’ve lost eye contact with the leaders and can see a white cap quite far behind. Nothing to worry about, my pace is all I can do knowing the longest hill is yet to come. I walk the steep sections and run as soon as the gradient diminishes, even for just a few meters, every second counts and I don’t want to feel that I’m giving in. I always run thinking – the good pace is the fastest you can do in regards to the terrain, I take it easy in the hills to be able to increase the speed when the terrain gets more gentle. At the top, I recognize the beautiful valley opening in front of me, green at the bottom with a river winding through and yellow higher up. I see the mountain bikes flying through the valley on the gravel road and Roses hut – where I slept in December – nested at the bottom of the last hill. I reach the gravel road, cross a river and meet a few bikes coming the other way, I’m careful as they are probably lacking lucidity and a collision would be disastrous. I turn off towards the hut, crossing flatish, high weeds sections in the open and there it comes….clapping in the sky like thousands of hands together…a beautiful black helicopter – for the story, I came to Australia, 6 years ago to work for the French company making those Helicopters.
10:09 – Roses Hut – Alt.700m – 27k / 4h16 / 2000m D+
The heli lands as I reach the aid station – I give my bib number to the check point and a super friendly volunteer asks if I’m French – “YEEES” – “Looking good” haha thanks cause I feel pretty tired – “#1 and 2 are 10 mins ahead” – I drop my rubbish and go again after getting water, time to tackle the last hill. It’s a long ascent of 3k / 500m D+ mostly on a ridge. As I go, the heli takes off again and comes next to me, I wave at the crew and they head off to see the leaders that I can now see again as well, still together. They look small by now and I know that the gap is too big to keep eye contact once they will pass the top of the hill and dive into the last valley, towards the Arrow River.
The last downhill is the most beautiful single track I’ve ever run… when I did the recce carrying my heavy backpack and sturdy hiking boots, I dreamed about the moment I’d fly down the single track, follow the ridge, work around big rocks and finally reach the river. I’m just enjoying the run…and I forget about the race for a few minutes.
As soon as I see the light blue mechanical excavator on the other bank, I recognize the track leading into the river. I regroup my mind, eat and get ready for the cold water.
No hesitation, I take the lower route and follow the shallows from a bank to the other. The first feel is brutal, my legs burn and I jump straight into the freezing water, probably around 10°C, most of it is ankle to knee deep except a few waist-deep holes. While it relieves the pain in my right knee, my fingers are numb and as I progress in the river bed, trying to follow the most direct line, I use the few sections out of the water to warm-up and I shake my hands, the forecast was planning a few clouds and the sun actually disappeared when I needed it the most. My watch reads…30, 31…34, 35…I’ll soon be at Macetown Aid Station where the 4WD track starts which means less time in the water and more time to warmup between crossings. I’m now running with one flask only, that I refill in the river. I can see the end of the high route joining the river, the check point will soon be on my right.
11:25 – Macetown – Alt.660m – 36km / 5h32 / 2750m D+
” 1 0 9 9 ! ! ” I give my bib number at the aid station, thank the staff for their work and keep going without stopping, the river is full of drinking water and my pockets of gels to get me to the finish line. As I’m leaving I can hear their voices supporting me, it doesn’t look like much but every “ GO GO GO ”, “ LOOKING GOOD ”, “ DOING WELL ” is a shot of energy especially when running on your own for extended periods of time when you lose track of things and get lost in your thougts.
From now on, I’m back into the section I know very well, I follow the 4WD track and cross the wider river another 10 to 12 times, it’s shallower, the ground more stable, I can push it – I run at about 5min per k. The sun is back and I can feel my hands again. With 14KM to go everything can happen, maybe picking up the second exhausted by a merciless battle?
I know this river like my pocket and its now ankle deep while when I crossed it in December I had water to my waist flowing forcefully against my legs and every crossing was a mission especially as I was getting closer to Arrowtown.
After the last check point, I join the mountain bike leg. They seem tired and I’m careful again not to get on their way. They don’t know that I’m battling for third place and it doesn’t matter, we all deserve the best line on the trail and with all the support I received, you know more of these “ GOOD JOB ” galvanizing me, I ‘m just grateful that we share the same pain.
I pass most of the riders up-hill and at water crossings while I wish I had full suspension legs when I see them flying down the winding gravel road, nested in the mountain, hanging over the river, 100m further down, leading straight into Arrowtown.
I even picked up a used gel that probably slipped-off his owners pocket, the mountain didn’t ask us to race there and whether racing or hiking we shall leave minimal traces.
Last crossing, 1KM to go, I keep pushing hard and decide to give the final assault to the finish line…I cross the line throwing my shoulders like I was taught when I was 7 years old and doing athletics in France.
13:06 – Arrowtown – Finish Line – 52k / 6h58min48s / 2780m D+
I hear the speaker saying my name and mention that while the first place was a shoulder to shoulder battle, 3rd was even closer with Caleb Pearson just down the line, 9 seconds behind me…even though I never saw him and we didn’t run together. He came to congratulate me and tell me that he was literally on my heels and just couldn’t go faster when I accelerated to cross the line, I always finish strong, no matter the distance, racing or even when training at the track…every meter counts. Well done for closing the gap, it must have been a very tough finish.
I ran exactly within the time range I gave myself with a target to run sub-7 hours as I knew that it would be a bare minimum to get a chance for the podium. The race record is still held by Charlie Sharpe from UK in 6h15 for mens and Ruth Croft for NZ in 6h38. A long way to go.
The best part was definitely to celebrate with Wayne, all my friends and family following the race on the live tracker. I read all the messages they were sending each others, speculating on the different positions as the updates are not always simultaneous. Looked even more stressful than for me. I knocked at the door of a house to ask to use the outside water tap for a quick clean-up…instead I was invited to have a hot shower inside, played ball with a doggy and had a chat with Lindsey and two cute kids waiting for their Legendary parents to come back after the XTERRA – this is New Zealand and the spirit of MOTATAPU.
Last but not least, I caught up with Neil, a good friend whom I used to surf with in Surfer’s Paradise and joined my travels on the Great Ocean Road before moving back to Europe. Neil is an ex Top Level Rugby player now dedicating his time to coaching – he made me discover the benefits of ice baths to heal my ankles when I rolled them.
The story also wants that he once pushed TCH00P, my 3 tons Troopy, to the nearest garage for 2 kilometers with Tim after a night shift – and they keep saying that I was pumping tunes on the radio while they were pushing.
THANK YOU ALL!!
For your massive support! I can say that my first mountain race is a success, I will train accordingly to get better uphill, fix my right leg to be able to fly down the hills and who knows, I may come back for another edition, with a crew of friends to share what is, to date, the most beautiful adventure I’ve done Down Under.
- Wrap-up my work project at APG&Co – Australian Fashion Retailer – within the next two weeks – they are a huge support in my Adventures
- Get back into shape and heal my knee so more swimming, cycling and less running at the moment
- Fly back to France for two months where I’ll be ski mountaineering if the snow conditions allow, mountain biking and running in the Pyrénées and the Alps while catching up with friends
- I’m really excited by a weekend of training with an ex cycling team mate, Julien Jorro who’s a very experimented trail runner, part of the Team Garmin Adventure and has a contagious smile when it comes to the Pyrénées, he loves as much as me
- I’ll spend time with my sister, my nieces and my brother in law in Normandy then hike in Spain with my mum
- A road trip to Slovenia in my 1999 Citroën Saxo is planned too, I’m dying to explore the mountains described in the book “FR – L’Etoffe des Géants / EN – Alpine Warriors” by Bernadette McDonald, about Alpinism when the country was part of Yugoslavia and a ticket to the Himalayas was the holy grail
- Race wise – it’s still unclear…the plan is to increase distances progressively as soon as my body is ready but no pressure, nature will decide