01 February 2017

Running the Great 8, Part 1: The Best Laid Plans

In 2015, I was given the immense gift of the Baxter Award, in honor of Matthew Baxter III, who died in a tragic rock climbing accident on El Capitan in 1998. When I was unable to complete my award as originally outlined, I turned my eyes toward New Zealand, a bucket list locale chock-full of potential adventures.

Eyes on the islands.

In my original proposal, I had stated that I wanted to set a new solo female FKT "not because I want accolades, but because I want to inspire other young women to connect with the natural world on their own terms."  It was in this vein that I scoured the internet for tales of FKTs in New Zealand. As stated previously, known FKTs are a funny thing - inspiring and informative, often quite aesthetic routes, but by no means, an exhaustive list of what is “good to do.” However, they do have the benefit of name recognition and elevating a cause from a whisper among a niche crowd to a newsworthy item.

I had high hopes of completing a deep wilderness route that would test my skills as a backpacker and demonstrate female outdoor competence in a profound way. As I identified two such routes which appeared to have no female FKTs, I got side-tracked by an intriguing feat completed by some Aussies the year prior: a speed record on the nine Great Walks.
The Great Walks
The Great Walks, as defined by the Department of Conservation (DOC), are “premier tracks that pass through diverse and spectacular scenery.” They are easily accessible, the most iconic, and the most developed of New Zealand’s trails (“tracks” in Kiwi vernacular).

Each has well-maintained huts along its length. To my confusion, one of the Great “Walks” is actually a paddle, down the Whanganui River. They total 338 miles (545km) and are spread across New Zealand’s islands (including the lesser-known Stewart Island), encompassing a wide variety of ecosystems and different challenges.

The Aussies had originally attempted all nine Walks, including the paddle, but due to river fluctuations and fatigue among their party, they bailed on the river partway through, and went on to complete only the walking tracks. Still, they were the first to ever complete the feat, and the record for the eight walks (248mi/400km) stood at 9 days, 23 hours, and 20 minutes. Due to the time they lost faffing about on the Whanganui, time spent filming their journey (running back and forth on stretches to get a good shot, carrying heavy equipment), and time slowed by injury, their record was relatively soft.

Even as a squarely average ultrarunner, I knew I could probably beat their record if I could get all the logistical pieces to align. I could own the record outright, and I could also be the first woman, the first to do it solo, and the first to do it without a crew (“self-supported” in FKT lingo). So, I got to planning!
And how.
There were permits to secure with the DOC, car shuttling and lodging to arrange, high tides to plan around, ferry time tables to negotiate, stretches with no open gas stations late at night, and weather windows to consider. I crafted an elaborate spreadsheet to chronicle the plan. As someone who prides herself on logistical know-how and making order out of chaos, I had a ball figuring it all out. It also had the side benefit of taking my mind off my nervousness about the actual running. According to my timeline, if all went well, I would break the record by almost two days.

The lynchpin of the entire ordeal would be the Milford Track, which is geographically isolated by water. The DOC runs ferries from the mainland to one end, Glade Wharf, in the mornings, and to the the other end, Sandfly Point, in the afternoon, but the window between the earliest and latest ferry is such a short window that only elite runners can really expect to run the entire track quickly enough. The crux is to find alternate transportation on one end so as to allow for an earlier start or later finish. However, options are extremely limited in this regard. There is only one concession contract allowed to run charter boats to the Milford Track. Fiordland Water Taxi is a family business and its owners Christine and Mark are the loveliest human beings imaginable.  Due to high overhead costs, chartering the boat is necessarily quite expensive.
Sick ride, dude.
After reaching out to Christine and Mark about rates and options for pairing up with other travelers, they connected me with one Ryan Thompson, a talented young adventure racer, who would be making his own attempt on all nine Great Walks…in SEVEN days. Wait, seriously?! Ryan, in the naturally gregarious manner I had come to know of Kiwis, immediately agreed to let me join his charter trip to Glade Wharf to minimize both of our costs. Though bummed to know that there was someone else attempting the Great Walks record, I knew his attempt would be much more legit than mine - mine could only hope to be another relatively soft mark that some athlete would crush sooner or later. It made me happy to know that a Kiwi would likely get to hold it…if Ryan’s ambitious plans could come together.
Ryan, stoked as always.
I figured my plans were all set; all I needed to do was convince the DOC to sell me a ferry ticket for the return trip, even though I did not have a hiking permit. This proved to be quite more difficult than expected. Though I had read a couple of different reports of people running the track and using the DOC ferries, no one I contacted at the DOC seemed to know anything about running it. They all repeated the same thing: “we don’t allow day use on our ferries. If you want to go to the Milford Track for day use, you’ll have to contract through the kayak or commercial boat concession.” 

After the fourth or fifth try, I managed to get a hold of someone who knew of the situation I spoke of…and distinctly had it out for runners. “You know it’s dangerous, right? We can get all kinds of weather conditions, like snow, even now in summer. Have you run 53 kilometers before? You’ll never make the ferry on time. We just don’t want to have to rescue you - it’s very expensive and labor intensive to evacuate someone off the Milford.” As I calmly talked her through my adventure resume and all the precautions I would take to be safe, she began to relent. She agreed to sell me a ferry ticket, and then told me I would need to show up in-person at their visitor center the day before the run to pick up my “letter of approval” that I would need to carry. “All of the hut wardens and DOC employees along the trail will ask you for it. You can’t run without it.”

At this point, I sighed. I hadn’t wanted to tell her that I was trying to run not just the Milford, but all the Great Walks. I thought it might lessen my chances of getting a permit if she thought what I was attempting was literally impossible. However, at this point, I had to show my hand. “I’m not sure I can make it to the office by 4pm the day before because…I’m running the Kepler Track that day.” Though the Kepler is located near their visitor center, it is 37 miles long, and I knew it could easily take me 12 hours if I was keeping my pace easy to conserve energy for later tracks. 
Hard to pick up permits from up here.
She scoffed. “Can’t you do the Kepler another day?” “I’m trying to run all the Great Walks in succession,” I said, evenly. “Isn’t there any way you could leave the permit somewhere for me or email it to me ahead of time to print?” “No, we need to give it to you in person in case trail conditions are looking nasty and we want to revoke your letter.” Sigh. Finally, after much discussion, she agreed that they would leave it in a box for me outside the office, but if conditions changed for the worst, I shouldn’t expect to find my letter. “Call in if you can in the morning to chat with us.” “Okay, I’ll try,” I promised, knowing full well I would probably be high on a ridge on the Kepler Track long before the DOC offices opened.

With the Milford Track finally sorted, all other logistics fell into place with relative ease. I drove to the southern-most tip of the South Island, then caught the most terrifying boat ride of my entire life: three hours in an "express catamaran" across Foveaux Strait in a storm. I watched as we crested one ten foot wave coming at us diagonally, dipped into its trough, then crested another...on and on.  Rain pounded all around us. The crew members laughed at me as I sat with a 
white-knuckle grip on the seat in front of me.  
It looks so benign here.

Needless to say, I was delighted to put my land-lubber legs back on solid ground. Oban is but a tiny village, made up of just a couple of blocks. Alan of Alan's Base Camp came in his old pick-up truck and immediately drove us several miles out of town, which I wasn't expecting. When we arrived, it was clear that the torrential downpours were creating a rather unpleasant muck field where I was to camp, so Alan insisted I stay in one of his rudimentary cabins, all hand-built by Alan himself. He would still charge me as if I was camping.  "They're unheated, but you should be okay with your sleeping bag, yeah?  Take some time to settle in and come up to the house for a cup of tea."
Alan and his truck.

I unloaded my gear and peered outside into the curtains of rain. Grim. "Tomorrow, I run?" I thought. "I hope this lets up."

I wandered over to Alan's house, where he had news radio on, and the woodfire stove burning. He quickly fretted over putting out snacks and tea. When I asked him about how many other visitors he had currently staying on the property, he laughed a little and said, "None currently. You're my first in a couple weeks." Oh. I asked him about whether he had other family on the premises. Also no. Just me and Alan, well-removed from any other people on an island in the middle of a torrential storm. What had I gotten myself into?

Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. Though Alan is a little hard of hearing and a bit of an odd duck at times, he's what I had come to find of most Kiwis: kind-hearted, giving, affable. I asked him one of my favorite questions to ask while traveling: "What foods/beverages must I try before I leave this place?" Alan said, "Blue cod. You typically only find blue cod on Stewart Island and the southern part of the southern island." When I told him I hadn't tried it yet and might not get the opportunity before heading north due to the busy nature of my running schedule, Alan said, "Well, we'll just have to fix that, won't we?" 
Inside Alan's cozy home.
After an afternoon of jabbering about world events, our life stories, and Alan's future plans for the property (a gypsy caravan!), we headed back down the hill to "town" in search of fish and chips. I bought Alan a beer and, despite my protests, he then bought me a beer and dinner...an amount in excess of what I would be paying him for my stay that night. Alan actually lost money on me because he was so dedicated to making sure I got the best of what New Zealand had to offer. He admitted later that his base camp was more of a project to keep him busy in retirement than to profit greatly, and I think he was just tickled to have some company.
My little cabin.
That night, I packed my running vest and laid out my clothes. I looked over my spreadsheet and mentally walked myself through the next week. Though I had been nervous most of the week, I found myself surprisingly calm that evening. There was nothing left to do but run. A video recording I took that night revealed, "The weather is complete shit. Complete shit. But it's supposed to get better." I went to bed at 9:30, a full hour and a half before darkness would hit this far southern latitude. The light shone in my heart, too.
Check out Running the Great 8, Part 2: Runnin' Down a Dream.

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