Play
Prev
Next


Play
Prev
Next

The Labyrinth – A Run Around Ruapehu. By Martin Cox.

Almost a year ago we published THIS STORY by British mountain runner Martin Cox. That was an “unfinished” piece of writing, and today we are stoked to present the finished story, un-edited, in its entirety, as “ it supposed to be read in one go”.

It was a bad one, the summer of 2012. I ran in every known type of weather, I had no choice. It seemed certain forces in the world were trying to destroy my resolve. I remember the wind lifting me off the ground on the rim of the Red Crater. I remember the snow stopping me dead in my tracks more than once, swirling around me like a flock of angry nuns, driving me back down the mountain. I remember a few hot days, but only a few. I remember the rain most of all, endless rain like white noise, and shoes that were never dry.

00:00:00

The skunk he’d been smoking the previous night has left the warden of the Whangapapanui Hut in an ill humour. He takes a solemn sip from his cup of tea. He scowls at my new trail running shoes. He lights a cigarette. He shakes his head. He tuts loudly.  Then he delivers his speech. It’s one I’ve heard many times before. He wouldn’t be going out there in his pumps today what with the crevices and scoria and razor-sharp  rocks but that’s all irrelevant the trail is closed. Too Icy Mate You’ll Break Yer Ruddy Neck. Them’s The Rules.

Of all the things I hold in high regard, rules aren’t one of them. By way of rebuke I point out that I will smear myself in wasabi paste and go for a run in flip-flops and a g-string if the urge takes me. The warden’s soft grin and ample gut mark him as one of those creatures who make everything small, who seek to keep warm and earn a living and no more. So I tell him about the catfish.

They take Alaskan cod all the way to Japan. They used to keep them in big vats in the ship but by the time the cod reached Japan the flesh was all mushy and tasteless. So someone came up with the idea that if you threw some catfish in with the cod, the catfish would keep the cod agile. And it’s exactly the same in life. There are those people who are catfish in life and they keep you on your toes, they keep you guessing, they keep you fresh. You should be grateful for the catfish, because we’d all be boring and dull if we didn’t have someone nipping at our fins.

The dishevelled old stoner has a point though. While five rare days of sunshine have melted most of the preceding month’s snow from the lower valleys, ten degrees of overnight frost have turned what remains of Tongariro’s moisture to ice. Then again, I too have a point. Long pushes of physical endurance in rugged and unpredictable ranges of mountains are stupid and idiotic to their core. Irrational at the very least. And that’s the whole point.

Of course, there’s still time to give the situation further consideration. It’s just getting light. There’s always time for one last cup of tea and another slice of marmite on toast. With one last look up at the frigid mountains I toss my shoulders and swagger back into the warm hut, whistling with pleasure. She’ll heat up in an hour or two.

02:26:00

Early Morning On The ART

Early Morning On The ART

I don’t know about other people, but when I wake up in the morning and put my running shoes on, I think, Jesus Christ, now what? Indecision undoubtedly defined my state of mind that fateful day.

It’s my birthday. The earth has turned one more time around the sun. It’s 12:47 p.m. I have been running for two hours and 26 minutes. These are the only three pieces of information that I can glean from my top-of-the-range Scandinavian explorers watch. As I skitter and trip down an icy gully, my GPS appears to have lost touch with it’s brothers in the sky.

According to the watch, I am currently travelling at zero kilometres per hour. This is something the salesman promised me would never happen with the model that now weighs uselessly on my left wrist. In the strange way that the mind has of wandering during long runs, I wonder who pulled in the highest hourly rate. The genius who invented the watch. The advertising wizard who dreamed up the highly persuasive marketing campaign. The Indonesian child who assembled it. Or the bottom-feeding invertebrate who sold me the bloody thing. I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t make any difference, yet I harbour a secret urge to punch that salesman in the face, crack his teeth, put black rings around his eyes. Violent revenge strategies seem to be a coping mechanism for me at times of stress, and the run is definitely beginning to get a little stressful.

Now here’s a thing. My road marathon best is also two hours and 26 minutes. A journalist once asked me why I had chosen mountain running as a career. I replied that grew up Leicester, a ruined, charmless industrial city in the heart of England, and that I would much rather look at mountains than at tower blocks, car parks and shopping malls. Seeing mountains every day is now an important thing for me. Yet for a moment I want to be back on smooth tarmac roads following that perfect blue line. I long for the polluted air, the filthy streets, the famous landmarks and the ancient marvels of the European city where I ran my marathon, rather than the barren mountains of New Zealand’s North Island. I wish for these things because that would mean that the run would now be over and I could have a bath and take a nap.

In reality I am at one quarter distance on a clockwise circuit of the infamous Around Ruapehu Track. Or maybe it’s one third distance. I’m not sure. What I do know is it’s by far the easiest quarter or third. That’s the important thing. Because in mountain running, intuition and self-awareness are more important than the stop-watch or counting the miles. You can’t compare running on the roads to running in the mountains. It’s like trying to compare the McDonald’s Drive-In to hunting down and killing a wild animal, butchering it, and serving it up as a tasty meal.

02:56:00

It’s raining. Which is weird, as there are no clouds, not even on the horizon. The wind has died down. The rain falls like a blanket, throwing up a richness from the earth I can taste. Then it stops. That’s another thing about this place. The weather. The weather in this part of the world is eternally insolent. It is either unbearably hot and windy for weeks on end, or it is wet and windy. When it rains it rains for five or six days and it is always a wintry rain and higher up on the mountain it snows and the trails assume all the main characteristics of streams and rivers. The winds are carniverous. The cold can be crippling. Today is hot and blowing a gale.

I am an exacting type of person. I don’t really begin to understand something unless I put down my thoughts in writing. Running aound Ruapehu began as something I had written in 2010. It began as a debate between two friends. My friend chewed tobacco, drank cheap beer, and set records for solo traverses of various mountains, deserts and canyons in America. I didn’t. I like to race people head-to-head. I like lining up, running hard, and beating people. It’s probably an ego thing.

The FKT (Fastest Known Time) is seen by some as an act of rebellion, a test of an athlete’s honesty and sense of fair play, and a poke in the eye to the increasingly macho, commercialised, and over-sensationalised sport of trail running. Or to put it more simply, as Theophile Gautier once cried, la barbarie plutôt que l’ennui. Others see the FKT as a necessity in parts of the world with a surplus of fantastic trails, but with draconian conservation policies that prohibit organised trail racing.

Not everyone’s cup of tea. But it was summer in New Zealand and there were no mountain races that month that didn’t cost in excess of $300 to enter. And so the next thing you know, I had a pack on my back stuffed with spare clothes and nutritious snacks and was trotting along at six minutes per kilometre sucking flat coke through a tube and weighing up my chances of my first FKT. This is different, I thought. This makes a nice change. I could get used to this.

04:12:40

A Scene of Utter Desolation & Great Beauty

A Scene of Utter Desolation & Great Beauty

Without slackening my stride I reach into the side-pocket of my rucksack for a GU. I’m beginning to settle in. Things are getting interesting now that I am beyond the section of the track that mirrors the popular Tongariro Northern Circuit, beyond the hills that have been tamed with switchbacks and board-walks and steps and gravel, beyond Mount Ngarahoe with it’s sinister plume of yellow smoke. A vivid landscape of lakes, tussock and beech gives way to an undulating plain of wind-sculptured sands and rock. This is the Rangipo Desert. The track is hard to make out. Only a handful of hikers attempt the ART each month. The odd lop-sided and half-buried pole provides the only indication that there’s a track at all.

Here is the endlessly mute placidity of nature. There is something almost Biblical about the place, as if a locust plague has removed everything green and life-giving. I find these high lands of desert and mountain a joy to run in. I like it here because of the absence of anything human and interfered with, because no one’s around. It’s the antithesis of the tired, confused, consumptive world I left behind just a few hours ago. I consider briefly the possibility of a winter round, on snowshoes.

For the first time in longer than I can remember I feel almost peaceful. Not happy. Not sad. Not anxious. Not angry. Not horny.  All the higher parts of my brain seem to have closed up shop. The cerebral cortex. The cerebellum. The amygdala. That’s where my problems all originate. I’m somehow managing to simplify myself. It’s me and it’s not me. That’s how it feels. I am somewhere balanced in an almost perfect middle-ground between happiness and sadness. Running fluidly and pain-free in my own cozy void. Like that solitary snow tussock over there. Tussocks never have a bad day.

I’ll try to explain it better. The feeling has nothing to do with Chi or transcendence or returning to some primitive animal state. It has nothing to do with any of that phony new-age hocum that too many mountain runners seem compelled to write about these days. I’m not a Ronin, wandering the wild land alone, punishing my body to perfect my soul and thinking grandiose thoughts all the while. Don’t get me wrong, these things are massively interesting. I love philosophy and Proust and stuff. But don’t stories need some action?

And nor are the mountains are not objects of inspiration or beauty. When I look up at the peaks, or out across the desert, it’s like gazing into the eyes of a patient white animal, waiting for men to die and for great cities and civilastions to flicker and pass into darkness. All I see is indifference. To come out here and return unscathed is the best I can ever hope for. These days I think less and less on why I do this, what it’s all supposed to prove. I am trying to run as fast as I can for about 80km around a couple of active stratovolcanoes. I mean, how is this any different from pouring water into a tea-cup with a small hole in the bottom?

Whatever sense of energisation I feel will come later, in the bar, exhausted and spent, when I’m hit by sudden cramps in unexpected areas of my body. When the stress evaporates in the bubbles of a few pints of cool dark beer, when the pizza and the salty chips are the best I’ve ever tasted, when I wonder if I’ll ever be able to eat and drink enough before the day’s end. It will come with the dawn, when the idea of having done something improbable and survived has finally sunk in.

Anyway. To summarise and to put a finer point on it. The mountains don’t fucking speak to me. They’re just about the only place in the world I can get any peace and fucking quiet any more.

04:15:07

Poles In The Desert.

Poles In The Desert.

Seems like I slipped out of the ultra-distance runner’s zen-like state of disengagement for a few moments just then. A hairline fracture in my concentration perhaps. It’s true though. I’ve always had this itch for peace and quiet. Otherwise I find the pace of my life is all wrong. It’s the same in life as in a very long run or in a race. Pace is the essence. My down time is as important as the time I spend running. I think that without stopping entirely and doing absolutely nothing at all for a few hours each day you will lose everything. Yet how many people do this in today’s society? Very few. It’s uncool. That’s why people are all totally mad, angry, frustrated, and hateful.

Suddenly I trip. I roll across my hip and over my shoulder and come back up still running. Need a few falls to keep me focused, I decide. Maybe I’m slipping out of the zone, hitting the wall. Maybe I’m just going through a bad patch. It seems too soon for that though. I’ve been stuffing my face with peanut butter and jam rolls, bananas, and my own delicious coke-salt-water mix for the last four hours. It might be that I’m simply getting tired. I’m hungry despite all this eating. I’ve only stopped to piss once so far, which is not like me

These initial signs of fatigue have probably been brought on by the first big test of the day. A torturous, steadily rising succession of steep sand dunes interspersed with washed out gullies. A thousand vertical meters of ascent and descent in five kilometres. An increasingly strong headwind adds to my torment. Despite the sand that stings my eyes as I summount the crest of each ravine, I feel drowsy and have to make a very deliberate effort to focus on the intervening downhill.

And just as the dunes end and a gently rolling plateau appears, the track plunges unexpectedly into the deep and precipitous Whangaehu Valley. It’s a maze of lava bluffs, house-sized slabs of granite, black volcanic sand, and loose scree the size of cobble-stones. Route finding becomes a real problem and I take several wrong turns and have to retrace my steps and start again. The Valley marks the path of a lahar during Ruapehu’s most recent eruption. Large, hand-painted sign-boards in four languages warn the tourist that there are better places to stop for a picnic. English. Maori. German. Chinese. At least the GPS seems to be giving accurate readings now. Ten kilometres per hour. Downhill. I am sorely tempted to chuck it in. To turn around and jog back to the hut, call it a solid day’s training, and come back next week during better weather. I’d be back well before dark.

05:09:11

Pain seems to be a precondition in ultra-running. I have never ran for more than five hours non-stop before. Muscles hurt on me that have never hurt before. Those that open and close my eyes and those that work my thumbs, for example. The pain in my calves when running uphill is fierce. And as the acid shuts down my body capillary by capillary, the fatigue starts to work it’s magic on my senses. The hallucinations are beginning. Away off in the distance I see trees where there are none. A large rock standing alone becomes the much anticipated Mangaehuehu Hut. I’ve been told though that, with practice, you learn to handle seeing things like unicorns frollicing in the sand-dunes and attack ships burning off the shoulder of Orion. I stop to have  a stretch and a look-see around. I re-tie my shoelaces. Away to the east the green hills of the Kaimanawas look mightily inviting.

At first I felt good. And then I felt really good. And then I felt just plain ol’ good again. That lasted for a while. And then I started feeling bad. And then I did feel bad. This only seemed to last for a while because I started to feel good again. This lasted until a mile before the finish. Where I bonked. But luckily, in my pocket, I found some M&M’s. And then I finished feeling good again. Somebody gave me a beer and then I felt great. This is how a friend of mine described his first ultra-marathon. It’s been quite a while since I felt plain ol’ good. I feel plain ol’ lousy.

The wind is now, strangely, on my back and the sun begins to really burn. The sweat is dripping steadily from the peak of my cap. The steep climbs and unjustifiable descents are wearing me down. But I think I passed the point of no return about one klick ago. I’m well past halfway. I have no choice but to finish what I started. It’s a feeling at once both liberating and terrifying.  I try to ignore the first major signs of weakness, continue to trot along, keeping my stride length short and cadence high, force my heart and lungs to take the brunt of the workload rather than my battered legs. I think about the training of the previous three months, remind myself that I have put in the miles, that I have scouted large sections of the route, that I am able to take the punishment the Around Ruapehu Track demands.

Who am I trying to kid? The idea that you can base future expectations on past experience has been proved repeatedly to be flawed.  The schedule is impossible. An estimated 80km, with 4,000m of vertical gain, in 10 hours. Sounds easy. And based on my explorations of the route, 10 hours seemed like a reasonable goal. Seemed. But the reality is that the sections of the track that I failed to recce are providing some of the most technically demanding running I have ever done. The final 20km section of the route, a nasty series of peat-bogs and boulder-fields that is known locally as ‘The Goat’, will take me between three and four hours.  And it’s still a long, long way off.

06:15:30

I am very thirsty. I yearn to be drunk on beer. Maybe when I reach the shade of the forest things will start to improve for me. Maybe I will break through this low, through to the realm of the metaphysical. Through to what Tony Krupicka has called Riding the Wind.

I plan to race over 100km in a month’s time. To prepare, I have been following one of Tony Krupicka’s old training schedules. The additional stress, discipline and effort involved in training for an ultra-marathon (as opposed to a marathon) was something I could not attempt without help, even if it was help from a phantom but vigilant diarist. It was unknown territory, but for me that’s always been one of the most crucial aspects of life.

Tony is like some kind of Holy Man. His mind seems to turn on matters kept secret from the likes of me. I will meet him briefly in a few week’s time and my opinion of him will not change one iota. Tony runs and scrambles for two hours every morning, does something similar in the evening, and saves his long runs for weekends. Tony trains in exotic and wild mountain locations, a photographer often in tow. Tony runs without a shirt and has never cut his hair. Tony resembles a Greek god and quotes freely from Buddhist texts and Kurt Vonnegut. In another life Tony would make a small fortune selling designer jeans. I have done my best to imitate Tony and his training regime. I haven’t shaved for six weeks and have done a fair bit of running, though I prefer to keep my shirt on under the New Zealand sun and have failed to fully get to grips with one of Vonnegut’s complex and mysterious novels.

09:09:09

Lava Rock Formations In Rangipo Desert.

Lava Rock Formations In Rangipo Desert.

Hemingway wrote that the world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are strong in the broken places. Today it is a lack of know-how about the route that breaks me. Too little planning. Too much engagement with the unknown. Or possibly too much disengagement when I should have been looking where I was putting my bloody feet. My desire for isolation and the thrill of running a record on New Zealand’s toughest hiking track proves to be a double-edged sword. What was supposed to nourish me comes close to finishing me off. I had been operating on a razor’s edge for a couple of hours, tripping and stumbling over small objects, staggering around all over the place, twice turning an ankle. While descending a steep canyon of crappy rock and dead bushes, I catch my foot on some hidden protuberance. Or the rock just crumbles under my weight. Who knows. One second I am eagerly munching on a biscuit, the next I am airborne.

The first thing I remember is being on my back, panting. Oh shit, shit, shit. I see the sky. A taciturn, solitary white cloud stares back at me. I see mountain ridges. I see the top of a stunted beech tree caught by the sunlight. There is hardly any sound at all. No birds chirping. Just the hiss of what could be the wind or could be a stream. A weird booming from somewhere far away. I try to stand. The exertion is too much for me and I fall and black out again.

I wake up as the sun is reddening, and for about fifteen strange seconds I don’t know who or where I am. Then I remember. I am far away from where I want to be. The watch reads over nine hours. Although it is evening, it is still roasting hot. I feel stunned and useless. I feel like a piece of driftwood washed up on the shore. My only thought, an awful suspicion, I’m in a big pile of shit right now and I don’t have the shoes for it.

I am half in and half out of a creek and terribly thirsty but I lack the strength to take a drink of the water. I sit up and gaze around absent-mindedly for a long time, trying to get my shit together. But failing. My brain feels very foggy, weary, and sort of comfortably detatched. The extent of my injuries dawns on me slowly. My right knee is a mess, a couple of fingers feel like they are broken, maybe some ribs too. My left quad badly bruised and swollen and feels as dead as one of the tree stumps that litter the hillside.  The most over-whelming emotion at this moment, however, is a feeling of utter relief that I don’t have to run anymore.

I am missing many of the specifics as to  how I got home that night. However, I’ve always thought that when all the details fit together perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story. I just remember how the accident left me with a strange feeling, and for what remained of that night I didn’t say much, but merely sat at the bar and drank, trying to decide if I was getting older and wiser, or just plain old

48:00:00.

I’d like to think that I come from a long line of truth-seekers, lovers and warriors. But the fact  is I don’t know where I’m from. If there’s some truth to be found in this story, maybe it’s that without pain and sacrifice, us runners would have nothing, like the first monkey shot into space. It’s only after disaster that we can expect to be resurrected. Two days later, my watch is still running. One of the buttons is broken, I can’t turn the thing off.

The nurse in Taumarunui A&E draws attention to the tear in my quad muscle by pushing her little finger into it upto the first joint. About one centimeter deep. She does this repeatedly, as if to prove a point, and by way of consolation tells me, All the most essential lessons in life require physical pain. She doesn’t rate my chances of recovery in time for the 100k race. Six weeks rest and two months rehab is her best estimate. Yet she knows I will give it a go anyhow because, although she isn’t a runner herself, she knows runners. Her son was a runner and so was her grandfather.

I am often asked if I am a running addict. I usually answer Yes, in the sense that most of the really pleasant things in life are worth repeating endlessly. I went from plucky laggard to Grand Prix winner in just a few years. And mountain running has been my meal-ticket and my pay-cheque ever since. It’s the means I have chosen to define and understand myself. It’s kept my life interesting. It was a gamble to begin with, a test of faith and endurance, walking away from a good career and relying on my legs and my heart and my lungs for a wage. It meant reinvention. It meant rejection and quite often pretty miserable odds. It meant peeing in the sink. It meant climbing out of bed each morning and thinking, I’m not going to make it today. But then I’d laugh out loud like some crazed ascetic who’s lived alone too long with his god. I’d laugh out loud and remember the many times I’d felt that way.

These deceits are strong almost as life.

Last night I dreamt I was in the labyrinth,

And woke far on. I did not know the place.

Edwin Muir.

For more of Martin’s mis-adventures (and mountain running success!) check out his blog-  http://martinashleycox.blogspot.co.uk/


About Martin Cox

Martin Cox has written 7 .

Submit your comment

Please enter your name

Your name is required

Please enter a valid email address

An email address is required

Please enter your message

About

A Backcountry Running Community for New Zealand trail, mountain and ultra runners- We want this to be the place you come for all things trail running including race previews and reports, interviews with New Zealand runners and hopefully a whole lot more! Our aim is to provide as much original content- previews/reports/interviews on New Zealand trail, mountain and ultra races. We can't be everywhere- so feel free to get in touch if you have the scoop on a race or event.

Backcountry Runner © 2018 All Rights Reserved

Copyright Back Country Runner.

Design by Paul Petch