An unfortunate consequence of my growing immersion in the world of running has been the nagging voice of others questioning my motivation for wanting to do the things that I do or the much more ominous and obvious question of my sanity. That question has never really bothered me much. My simple rationale behind running has always been simple; I enjoy running and it makes me feel good, so I end up doing it a lot. That’s always been enough for me.
I first became interested in the concept of expedition trail running when I finished my first big solo backpacking trip - 280 miles in 10 days on Vermont's Long Trail. I was happy with the pace of my walking, but I had been running competitively for several years and after a big triathlon, I felt ready to apply the focused discipline of athletics to the world of long trails.
A job in outdoor education had brought me to Australia, so I cast my gaze around Oceania for a long trail where I could explore the idea of expedition trail running. After a few listless weeks of clicking around on the internet I found the Te Araroa, a trail that ran the entire spine of the island nation of New Zealand. The southern island section was thirteen hundred kilometers of some of the most beautiful trail in the world. New Zealand was high on a short list of places that I wanted to explore while in Australasia, so it was an easy call. All that was left was figuring out how I was going to run eight hundred miles.
A photo of the author doing what he loves.
I started the planning process by asking a few friends if they'd be interested in joining. It seems to take a special type of person to willingly spend some good money to fly to New Zealand to run with me for three weeks without stopping. Eventually I found Casey. Between his passion for running, his fierce willingness to try crazy things, and his calendar availability, I found my partner.
Casey graduated from the same university that I went to when I was a freshman, so he still had that allure of the cool older-brother-type friend that had never really been filled by a close relationship with my own older brother. He wore a long mustache and longer hair, which fit with his vocation of following the summer tour of the band Phish and managing a crew of volunteers. I was never really sure what he was doing when he wasn’t skiing or cycling. It didn’t really matter, because our mutual love of physically and mentally demanding days in the outdoors and that was enough to cement a close relationship between us.
Our plan was simple enough. We'd meet in Invercargill, at the southern tip of the South Island. I'd have three boxes of food with me: five day's rations that we would start with, seven day's rations to drop about a third of the way up at Queenstown, and another six day's rations cached about two thirds of the way up, near Arthur's pass. We'd rent a car, and hide the supplies somewhere near the trail where only we'd be able to find them, before racing back down south to start the run. This approach would spare us the hassle of trying to organize and coordinate with a support team while still keeping our packs light with only fourteen pounds of food at it's heaviest. All of our previous backcountry-forays relied upon this self-supported strategy, and purity of style was something that is important to us.
Our timeline was tight, given that we both had jobs we had to get back to. Eighteen days of food - eighteen days until a flight was scheduled to take off from Nelson with us aboard, near our route's northern terminus. Our gear was also bare-bones. A sleeping bag, a head torch, and a small piece of plastic intended as an 'emergency bivy' filled out the bulk of our small daybags. As the day of departure drew closer, training intensified and final details were chased up and confirmed. Casey printed the maps and I bought a plane ticket. Things were unfolding well, all along the lines of the ambitious plan that we had set out.
Casey called me a few days before I was to leave and told me he wouldn't be coming. Tendinitis had hobbled his knees and his doctor was telling him that running eight hundred miles with weight on his back probably wasn't the best idea. I was on my own.
Despite this late-in-the-game setback, I managed to keep my cool. It's fine, I'll just do everything myself, I told myself. I was working in the field the last few days before the trip but I rented a car, printed an alternate copy of the maps, and tried to mentally prepare myself for the prospect of eight hundred miles of trail by myself.
I left my home in Moss Vale when the schedule dictated and picked up the rental car when I arrived at the Invercargill airport, amazed at how easily they handed over the keys to a brand new Toyota Yaris to a 21 year old stranger. After replacing the peanut butter that was confiscated from my rations at customs, I gunned the small car north, racing towards the second cache near Arthur's pass, a full seven hundred kilometers away.
The farther north I drove, the more I knew the situation was not looking good. The outdoor educator in me was the first to know that the plan wouldn't work. I had spent the night on a layover in Christchurch to fly down to Invercargill, only to drive back the distance that I had just flown. For this impossibly long solo drive, I only had the car until 10am the next morning - after 18 hours of travel I'd have to drive almost nonstop for a thousand miles if I was going to drop off the packages and make it back down south in time. My lack of accurate and detailed maps also left with me with serious concerns about whether or not I'd be able to quickly find the drop site.
I was pissed off. Even in the lowlying hills, snow covered the ridgelines and valleys in heaping drifts. When the sun dropped behind the mountains around 4:30, I tried adding up in my head the number of hours I'd have to be running in winter darkness to make my daily targets. All I wanted was to be able to get on the phone and call someone, if only to vent about how frustrated I was, but I was by myself and not really sure if I was going the right way.
Despite the fact that a small sliver of the intellectual, rational part of my being knew that I wouldn't be able to complete what I had come to this place to do, I pressed on into the darkness. Each kilometer of mountain road weighed on both my eyelids and my mood. Somewhere outside of Ashburton, the critical point was reached. The road that my rudimentary directions said I should continue following snaked off towards the left, back the way I had come. A road continued straight, towards the mountains, but it wasn't state highway 77, which was the single sheet of legal-sized paper said I was supposed to follow.
I wouldn’t need a GPS, I had told myself back at home.
I slowed the car down, unsure of what I was supposed to do. I slammed the steering wheel with the flat palm of my hand, hoping for some sort of navigational insight. I continued straight, figuring in my sleep-deprived mind that if I continued to head towards the mountains that I'd eventually find the extremely specific trail junction where I needed to leave this box of food. A few hundred meters down the deserted road I stopped, turned around, and went back. I performed the same cursory exploration of the other option, hoping for a sign that said something like "This Way For Te Araroa Food Drops For Underprepared Americans". There was no such sign, and I returned to Ashburton, continuing to curse under my breath the whole way.
I sat in the McDonald's there, walking in circles. Once that got old, I’d sit down at a table and look around the room for a few seconds before moving to a different table. I still couldn't accept the fact that I wouldn't be starting a record-breaking run the next day; the concept of going back empty-handed to those back home who I had told about the run terrified me. I posted an extremely pessimistic and forlorn status on Facebook, packed up my stuff, and started the long, miserable trip back south. I looked at the two big boxes of food on the backseat and almost laughed out loud at myself.
A photo of the author doing what he loves.
I arrived back at the Invercargill airport only an hour late to drop off the car, completely distraught. My gut reaction was to call up the airline to get my ticket changed and get on the first plane out of there, back home. I knew that I was in New Zealand and probably should take advantage of the time I had, since I was already here and had the time off from work. Perhaps it was the embarrassment of what had happened, the abject disappointment and the mounting recognition of failure that grew stronger with time. I spent more time than seems necessary on a pay phone trying to work out with Virgin Australia how much it would cost to get me on the next outbound flight to Christchurch. The price tag of leaving made me pause and reexamine my options. It seemed I couldn't afford to leave and couldn't afford to stay.
I walked out the deserted airport drive into town, thinking the walk would clear my head and finally be able to conceive of the possibility of some kind of solution. The road was wet and I didn't know what to do. For months I had been preparing for and training for a run that hadn't even gotten off the ground. I walked to the library and turned on my phone. I was pretty humbled by the amount of Facebook love my pessimistic post had gotten. Many of my friends were thoughtful enough to hazard an encouraging comment, and some messaged me directed to offer some words of support.
Most of the people who messaged me reiterated my overall feeling on the merits of setting challenging goals and reaching as far as possible outside of our comfort zones. Some, conversely, told me that I set goals that were too challenging and put too much pressure on myself. Sitting there in the lobby of that public library, agonizing over my decision and over my failure, I could see the merits of both of these perspectives. I tried to think of a Facebook status that would sound artistic and intellectual and explored the importance of failure while not leaving me open to rude comments from friends that questioned my resolve, ability, or manhood. I couldn’t think of anything.
I was pretty hard on myself during the few hours of soul-searching and self-punishment that followed. My ego refused to acknowledge that I had committed to something that was, that day, out of my reach, which just transitioned into me being angry at myself for telling people I was going to do this big thing and then messing it up. I wanted to run back home and hide in obscurity until everyone I knew forgot I had been talking about a trip to New Zealand, but I knew if I did that I’d be unable to fight the boredom. The thought of staying on the South Island and doing a shorter hike by myself was out of the question, due perhaps to my terror at committing to something else I might fail at. Only the middle ground was the way forward, so I bought a one-way ticket towards Wellington and a bus ticket to Turangi, where a friend of mine was living and working as a raft guide.
A trip that was meant to be a broad, expansive tour of the entirety of the island became a focused study of one town, next to one mountain and one river, where I'd spend two weeks with one friend in one farmhouse. The farm lay on the side of a mountain on the banks of the massive Lake Taupo.
Self-doubt bounced around in my head as the small prop plane crossed the Cook Strait over to the North Island, but it was starting to become a good trip again, all on its own. Without an agenda or any daily mileage targets, I ran in the hills surrounding the town, purely for my own pleasure. I won't go as far as trying to inject some kind of falling-in-love-with-running-again metaphor, but I will say that it was much more pleasant than running to trail for some abstract, remote record attempt. Two weeks flew by with the pleasant company of friends that I hadn’t seen in a while and probably would have missed if I had finished the run. I was again in good spirits when the bus took me back south and the ferry crossed the strait, heading towards my flight home.
The plane took off on time from Nelson with me on it. I felt good about what had happened. I hadn't run the south island, but that attempt felt months away. A friend had once told me that developing an athletic injury is just the universe telling you to slow down a bit and refocus on the basics, but that can probably be said about any failure. As my flight gained and altitude and banked towards home, though, I was making notes on things to change for the next time I come back to New Zealand and make that trail mine.