Ring of Fire (ROF) Volcanic Ultra

Date: 7 April 2018
Distance: 72km (we measured 76km)
Time: 18:15

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Hundreds of headlamps snaking up the mountainside.

Forty-five hours after we finished the most gruelling event we’ve ever done, and I’m still at a loss for words. Not even a few glasses of the best kiwi wine could help get the creative juices flowing. So here I am, wondering what to make of it all and where to start.

When I first caught wind of this new event on the calendar, I was intrigued. Not just because circumnavigating the mountain in one go has been on our to-do list for the past seven years, but also because the acronym “rof” is actually a word in my home language that loosely translates to “rough”. I thought this was a very apt description for an event of this calibre, and it obviously sparked my interest.

Organised by a consortium (called The Event Collective) of three stallwards of the New Zealand trail running fraternity, namely: Victory Events (Jason Cameron), NZ Trail Runs (Paul Charteris and Tm Day), and Ohakune Events Charitable Trust (Nick Reader), this was sure to be an event of note. We’ve done the Round the Mountain Track a few times and knew exactly what we were letting ourselves in for. And yet, even now, having done it, I still find it hard to get my head around the mammoth undertaking.

A super early bird entry fee option was on offer (at $330pp, normal $420). We thought it might be a good idea to make use of it, and so entered eight months out, thinking we had lots of time to process the prospect and train some. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t imagine going round the mountain continuously, but thought I had the best chance doing it in an event where you have aid stations, drop-bag support and back-up emergency plans should you need it.

Soon ROF became a household name and the event everyone talked about (each time reminding me of the “roughness” of this event) and in the end no less than 635 runners entered, of which 163 were entered in the 72km solo event (151 finished), 154 (141 finishers) entered for the 50km event, and a total of 106 teams (318 runners) signed up for the relay option.

As the day drew closer, my enthusiasm wained. After our 101km adventure “training run”, I was ready to take a break and cut back on our mileage for a couple of months. As it turned out, I was in no condition to run after our 101km event anyway, and had a forced two week break. Off course by then (three weeks out from ROF) it made no sense whatsoever to try and “train” anymore – there is no use in exhausting oneself so shortly before an ultra. The timing was bad, and we shouldn’t have done both events that were only five weeks apart. But, how do you choose between the two?

The five weeks between the two ultras really tested my resolve. I had a niggle in my knee, couldn’t really run much and didn’t want to risk doing anything that could jeopardise my chances of finishing ROF even further. It got to the point were I just wanted it to be over. I wasn’t looking forward to it anymore, hated the thought of having to drag my unfit, ill-prepared ass around the mountain, and just wanted it all to go away. Never before had I been so negative going into an event.

Finally the day before the event arrived, as we frantically tried to still get everything packed. Later than planned, we finally left from Palmy only to arrive at the Chateau Tongariro for registration with thirty minutes to spare before the 4pm race briefing. A long queue of participants were lined up outside the entrance to the registration hall, as everyone’s gear had to be checked, shoes had to be cleaned and cleared by DOC, and participants in the 72km solo event be weighed in. Only after all this could we pick up our race numbers, tag our drop-bags and hand them in.

As we were charging up the steps for the 4pm briefing, the hall was already packed, and we could only huddle together at the doorway with a truck load of other participants trying to hear what was said. Understandably, no one wanted to stay for the 8pm briefing, as that would mean a very late night before the 4am start of the race. Unfortunately, the hall didn’t cater for that many participants and heaps couldn’t get in or hear what was said.

By 6pm we were driving to our accommodation at the Discovery Lodge where we had our pre-cooked meal of buckwheat, stir-fry beef strips, gerkins, cucumber, with a mustard vinaigrette, and cooked beetroot. This was followed by a cup of tea, and a nice chat with a fellow participant in the camp kitchen, meaning that we only got into bed by around 9pm. Gerry set the alarm for 2am, and needless to say, I was wide awake for the biggest part of the evening/night. We are night-owls, so going to bed before 11pm thinking I would fall asleep, was doomed to be a fail.

We got up, had breakfast and while getting dressed, disaster struck: my Injinji socks were both left-footed! I had only two pairs of Injinji socks, one pair for the first leg of the event, and the other pair in my drop-bag for the remainder of the course. That meant that both my pairs of socks for the event were for the same foot. On hindsight, I can’t believe I hadn’t given any thought to checking that they were correctly paired beforehand. The only logical thing to do, was to turn the one sock inside out.

Disaster averted and we started making our way to the race headquarters. It was very cold and windy (according to Metservice the temperature was 2 degrees and 40km winds by 6am, so it was probably much colder before 4am) as we parked and walked to the porte-cochère of the Chateau Tongariro to join the 633 other runners for the start. And then the second disaster struck – Gerry’s tried to take a sip from his bladder when he realised nothing was coming out. Trying to figure out what was going on in the starting shoot while we were meant to be off any second, didn’t help. In his frantic attempts to pull out the pipe and getting it back in properly, he seemed to have lost a washer in the nozzle, so water was streaming out getting everything wet. Why is it that the one time he didn’t suck out the air and check that everything was working beforehand as he always does, was the time things didn’t work? But, the show must go on, so without a working bladder, we set off with the knowledge that there are lots of streams on the first leg. He still had the two flasks in the front (totalling 1 litre), and I had 2.5 litre capacity. We figured we’d be all right between the two of us.

Leg 1 – Chateau Tongariro to the Massey University Alpine Club on Ohakune Road

What was meant to be a waved start, turned into a mass stampede through the bunted entrance of the Chateau (or did I miss something in the bladder-havoc?), before tuning left onto SH48 (Bruce Road) to run past the Whakapapa Village i-Site. A few hundred metres up the road, we reached the turn-off onto the Round the Mountain Track. We were right at the back and already in a queue even just to get onto the actual track. It went this way all the way to the Whakapapahiti hut (at about 9.5km). Each time there was a difficult section, or a bridge, the runners would bottleneck and we would be reduced to a walking queue.

The first 7km was a fairly easy trail and quite runnable. But it was all in the pitch black dark. When we entered the valley and reached the river crossing shortly before Whakapapaiti hut, I was surprised to see how much lower the water level was compared to January when we passed through there. This was the case for all the stream crossings – not nearly as high as it was a few months ago.

At the hut, we queued again at the toilet and the tap to fill up water bottles. It was still dark as we started making our way up and out of the valley before veering right and starting to cross the valley. But as you cross through one valley and top a ridge, another one awaits. And so it went, up and down all around the mountain.

After about 2.5 hours it started to get light and we could finally turn off our headlamps. Unfortunately, due to the cloud, we didn’t really have any of the spectacular sunrises or sunsets that could have been on a clear day. But expecting “perfect” weather around the Maunga is probably wishful thinking. The trenches on this section (making up part of The Goat trail run) are quite a challenge. Off course I had to slip going up one and ended up rolling in the mud. That happened more than once, but luckily we had no incidents in the rocky areas, which could have been disastrous.

At one point we saw a woman sitting in a little trench by a stream, hiding from the wind and looking all depressed. I’m guessing it wasn’t a marshall, but rather a participant who got injured and couldn’t move. With the cloud and cold wind, it makes one realise again how important the compulsory gear actually is – it is not so much for when you are on the move as it is for when you can’t move. It could not have been more than 4 degrees and I was hoping for her part that help was on the way very quickly.

Only a few minutes later we saw a helicopter flying over, which I though might have been to pick her up, but we learned afterwards that another athlete (a guy) had to be helicoptered out due to an injury.

This is partially the thing that got to me in the weeks leading up to the event. The stress of knowing what lay ahead was all consuming and exhausting. I was well aware of all the hazards and everything that can potentially go wrong in an environment where you are so removed from civilisation. If something serious happens, the only way out is by helicopter. If the weather doesn’t allow for a helicopter to pick you up, you are in grave danger. This is the gist of this event – it is no mickey-mouse run! A very scary undertaking indeed. Luckily the organisers were well prepared and had in excess of twenty medics around the course, some with tents and camp stoves in the more remote areas between the huts where injured runners could take shelter from the elements.

Finally we had Lake Surprise in view, and passing it was the infamous sign that read “5km to go”. Ha, I thought to myself. We are not even close to the Mangatururu hut yet, and from there it is about 4km to the road, if my memory served me right. Even though I knew very well it can’t be, I still wanted it to be right.

My legs were lead. They hadn’t recovered well enough for this run, and all I could think of was to keep soldiering on and making it in one piece to the finish, no matter how slow. I have absolutely no intentions of coming back to this event (or do I?), so it is a case of do or die. The first leg allowed seven hours to complete, and I was trying my best to get some minutes in the bank for the next leg which also allowed seven hours. Leg three had to be completed in six hours, so allowing a total of 20 hours to complete the event. But every minute spared is an extra one for later on.

Even though the organisers describe the first leg as the most technical, I luckily knew that the second leg was far worse. When we finally reached the Mangaturuturu hut before heading up the Cascades, the sun made a brief appearance to defrost our stiff limbs as we stopped to top up our water bottles (Gerry had to make use of the streams for water supply as we went). Up and over the Cascades, we followed the path going further uphill before dropping down, just to go up again toward Ohakune Mountain Road.

We reached the transition point in 5:45, so knew we had more than an hour in the bank for the second leg. Trying to get through the transition point in less than 15 minutes took some doing. We wanted to change socks, swop a cap, fill up water bottles, eat something at the aide station, use the loo, and get all our food for the second leg. The wind was blowing a gale, and it was freezing up there. It made changing socks, especially Injinji socks, very tricky. My fingers were numb and even though Gerry wore gloves the whole morning, his were not much better. Wet feet and socks is a bugger. But we made it out of the transition point in 10 minutes.

Leg 2 – Massey University Alpine Club to Tukino Ski Road, what the organisers called “the missing link”

The 3.5km down the tarmac proved to be a challenge of its own. The gradient was quite steep causing havoc on our already knackered quads.

We entered the forest where, sheltered from the worse cold wind, we instantly felt warmer. It was about 10:30 in the morning, yet it felt like it was four in the afternoon. The gloomy weather, paired with the fact that we were already up and about for the past eight and a half hours, made it feel like the day was nearly over.

From previous rounds, I remember some sections of the forest to be very hilly. A few one-man swing bridges, following the trail through the forest, and soon enough we reached the Mangaehuehu hut. More friendly marshalls were on hand for a chat as we filled up our water bottles. On we went as the forest became less dense and we popped out above the tree line. A light drizzle had me donning my rain coat – I did not want to be wet in the cold wind. By then, Gerry had taken a tumble in a muddy section and lost a bit of skin in his hand which he wrapped with a buff, while I had another roll in the mud only a few minutes later.

The rocks and boulders of this section make for very tough running conditions. I was scared senseless that one of us would fall and break something. So we approached the course extremely cautiously and going very slow. The misty drizzle subsided, but the wind kept blowing a gale. On our way towards the Waihianoa Gorge, it would blow me off-balance quite a few times. Needless to say, I was working myself into a frenzy knowing that the Waihianoa River gorge has a very steep drop to the right going down. The fear of being blown into the abyss kept my mind off the pain in my legs and feet, and I pushed on as hard as I can, just to get past this “obstacle”.

Going down it, one participant a few metres in front of me, actually slipped off of the track, making my heart stop for a few seconds. He regained his balance, slipped a couple more times, but made it back onto the path. Thinking back, it is probably not totally as bad, but a scared mind has no trouble creating the worse possible scenario. The wind going down wasn’t nice, but it could have been worse. Out the other side, a few more ups and overs, before we reached Rangipo hut. Gerry filled up again, as this section of the track doesn’t offer much in the line of streams, especially this time of year which seems to be quite dry.

When we crossed through the lahar valley, I couldn’t believe my eyes to see how much lower the river was. It was also brown, compared to the white-silver water we had three months ago. Not nearly as scary as it was then. Grateful that the bridge was in place, we could cross comfortably and easily.

Eventually we reached the second transition point, where again we had to collect new food-stuffs, spare batteries, more warm clothes etc. We finished this leg in 6:35. Even though we lost some of our “banked” minutes, we still finished within the official time allowed.

Leg 3 – Tukino Ski Road to Chateau Tongariro

This transition point had a “cabin” on wheels, where participants could take shelter from the freezing wind. They also had nice warm soup for participants, but being allergic to just about everything, I can’t make use of any aide station provisions with the exception of fresh fruit. Gerry had a jam sarmie, we filled up water bottles, shared a banana, and hid next to a ute wheel to get ourselves sorted before taking off again in less than 15 minutes.

From here the course is easy. One could potentially run most of this leg, but being completely knackered from the first two legs meant I couldn’t utilise the runnable terrain. We still shuffled some of the first few kilometres, but soon it started to turn dark again. We donned head lamps and from there it was just a walk to the finish. Knowing that it will be over quicker if we ran, didn’t help to get my legs going. I would try for two steps, and just give up. I guess if we were in danger of missing the cut-off at 12am, I could have forced myself into a trot.

The night was very cold, and it got colder as we went. For an hour or two the wind died out and we could walk comfortably. But then it picked up again, and at some point we had almost everything on, including rain jackets, but I was still freezing. Constantly eating as we do (every 20 minutes), became a tedious task and a real pain, and we ended up skipping it altogether for the last hour or so.

A few possums accompanied us on the track and every now and again I saw something scurrying in the bush in the corner of my eye. It could have been sleep-monsters, but I thought it might be rats? Luckily I didn’t see any green baboons as a friend once did on an 250km Adventure Race!

From the point where we passed the last marshall, I got increasingly more convinced that we were on the wrong track. Even though we walked the Taranaki Waterfall Track just this past December, nothing looked familiar in the dark. The few participants we could still see earlier, also disappeared and we were by ourselves. There was nowhere else to go, so we just kept trucking on. What felt like an eternity eventually also got to an end when we reached the first signs of civilisation at Whakapapa Village. Up the road for a few hundred metres, back into the bush for a small detour, before reaching the grass in front of the Chateau Tongariro and the finish line.

But wait, there’s more. Tim kindly informed us that we still had to go into the Chateau and follow the red carpet, up the stairs (stairs!), and through to the ballroom where Kerry and Ali greeted us, amongst claps, cheers and high-fives from the party goers on the dance floor, as well as congratulations from the other event partners. What a welcome that was!

We got weighed in. I lost half a kilo and Gerry lost three. But, taking into account that he was weighed with his denim, leather belt and a few more clothing items than what he wore after the event, it probably looked worse than it was. Nonetheless, he most likely consumed too little water.

Happy to not have gained weight again (as I did during the Tarawera 100), we collected our drop-bags and hobbled back to our, by now, lonely car in the carpark. I haven’t been so cold in a very long time. Back at the cabin, the slow, difficult walk to the ablutions took far too long and not even a hot shower could warm my frozen limbs.

Glad to have made the cut-off with almost two hours to spare, we quickly ate some pre-cooked rice with onion, corn and green pepper (just to stabilise any jelly-bellies), before diving into bed for a deep sleep. So deep, we nearly missed prize-giving the next morning at 11am.

This is a great event. I would recommend doing it, but with a disclaimer. 🙂 Do not underestimate the challenge that is the Ring of Fire Volcanic Ultra. Even though we, all things considered, had pretty decent weather it was still not ideal. The poor support crew and medics all deserve medals for getting to random spots around the track and spending lots of time out there being exposed in the pretty damn cold, windy and generally miserable weather. We saw quite a few runners being walked-off/out by medics and volunteers – those who were still capable of getting to safety on their own two feet.

This is one of those events where two days later you realise that every single muscle in your body hurts, even my forearms. But the worst offender was definitely my feet. It felt like they were hit by a ten pound hammer for 18 hours continuously. Suffice to say, we will be taking a few months off from marathons and ultras before we start building back up again towards the next goal.

Having said that, there’s no depression like the feeling of “emptiness” and “loss” after completing such a big event, or reaching a long-planned goal. Better to get out the calendar and set a new target soonest. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Ring of Fire (ROF) Volcanic Ultra

  1. I just can’t believe that anyone wants to put themselves through this! I have heard that others have also said, “Never again”. I would rather be able to run most days than doing one huge event then need weeks to recover. Congratulations on having much more bravery and drive than me. The younger legs might also help!

  2. Pingback: #dontforgettotrainnexttime – Tarawera Ultra – Jog around the Blog

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