Mukamuka Munter

Date: 15 August 2021

Distance: 32k (we measured 31.7k)

Time: 5:48

Since our eight months hiatus last year, we have been running reasonably consistently from the beginning of this year, working on a decent base. It has been tough, and slow going. We’ve had some setbacks, some no-running weeks, and times where the weather just made getting out of bed a challenge, let alone trying to be active. As the event date drew nearer I realised that I wasn’t nearly ready, which seems to be a recurring phenomenon. And then I made the mistake of ‘not caring’ about it anymore either. The Mukamuka Munter would be our first event in two years, but for the past couple of years, I am feeling somewhat over events. Not sure why that happened. 

The final six weeks before the event were a serious hit and miss. After three 70k-per-week weeks, we hit a bit of a slump for three weeks. The first of those was a work week away, and with terrible working hours comes terrible training runs. Despite that, we still managed a 42.5k week. The one thereafter I want to blame on the weather (only covered 37k), and the last one, well, I’m sure it was also the weather, coupled with general lethargy and lack of event enthusiasm (only managed a 6k walk). So we were well and truly tapered, rested even. Definitely not over-trained, which, I consoled myself with, is always better than toeing the line on tired legs. 

On the Thursday, three days out from the event, we made a trip into town to check out an exhibition at Zimmerman Art Gallery. On the way there, we thought of having a quick nosy at the COVID-19 vaccination centre to see how things worked. We were not in the age category to register yet, but called in none the less. The friendly usher in the carpark gave us a number to call to see if they might have openings, and what do you know. Twenty minutes later we waltzed in and got our first Pfizer/BioNTech jab. After the 20-minute waiting period, our planned walk was quickly swopped for a celebratory treat of coffee and cake at the Square Edge’s Cafe Royale. We contemplated the idea that it might not be the best thing to get vaccinated so shortly before the event, but while my arm was pretty damn sore, neither of us had any other significant adverse symptoms. (I was rather disappointed afterwards that my 5G and Bill Gates chip didn’t want to connect with the kettle.)

On the Saturday, Gerry had to work. I started gathering our running gear; hydration vests we haven’t used in more than two years, remembering that the last time we cleaned the bladders the connector/nozzle of the tube broke off in the socket of the bladder and needed fixing, sorting the compulsory gear, and figuring out what food/fuel will keep us going for a day. 

With a list of items, we dashed into town after work to remedy some of the missing parts. Bivouac Outdoor was closed already, Torpedo 7 was too expensive for my liking, so in the end we used an El Cheapo bladder that came with an El Cheapo hydration vest from AliExpress. Some of the soft flasks that go in the front pockets of our hydration vests also started leaking, and since I do not like them anyway, I bought some flavoured water just for the 500ml bottles. 

Packing our packs with all the compulsory gear, including maps and compass, my pack weighed a tonne and was super uncomfortable. Of course I wasn’t used to wearing it, but it felt like I had a fire-extinguisher on my spine, strapped over my shoulders. The vest is a bit too small to house all the compulsory gear, turning it into a solid-packed bulging tube. And that is excluding the additional layers I usually take (a super light base layer, and wee down jacket – weighing 272g in total). I know myself and I know that if I were to break a leg somewhere out in the sticks and have to wait around for hours, in shock, to be winched out, I will die of exposure.

After some pasta, mince, and salad, we went to bed later than we hoped, but still managed almost five hours sleep.

For the drive down to the south Wairarapa coast, we got up at 3am, picked up Nina and Suzanne at 4:45 in Glen Oroua, and were treated to a much needed brew for the road. It was cold, but at least the rain and wind subsided during the previous evening. With all the roadworks between Palmy and Wainuiomata, I thought it would take three plus hours to get there, but we arrive after 2:30 hours, bright and early at 7:15am. Registration and gear check went quickly as there wasn’t much of a queue, and we could see off Tim and Michael who did the 50k event (which sounded brutal, by the way), and started an hour earlier than us.

Unfortunately, this is one of those events where participants have to sort their own transport between the start and finish (this is not a loop race). And anyone who knows me will know that I absolutely despise this. It is one thing to take responsibility for yourself out on the trail in terms of your health and safety, but quite another when you have to pester someone else to give you a ride somewhere.

Gerry drove Tim and Michael to the 50k start, and came back just in time for our race briefing, before driving us to the start at Turakirae Head. While he was away, we chatted to one of the regulars who had done this event before. She told us that the first 12k is easy and all runnable, then there’s the technical 10k in the middle where you just have to get over the mountain one way or the other, and then comes the last 10k homestretch which is all downhill and easy running to the finish.

When we got out the car at the start on the coast, the wind was quite strong, we were freezing, and I needed to pee. We were still cracking jokes and giving some running commentary when next thing people started running. On a video afterwards, I saw there was actually some talking and counting down in the front. Perhaps the wind can be blamed for not being able to hear anything at the back?

The first 12k is run around the coast, and fairly easy going, as the runner mentioned. It is a hard-packed 4WD-track for the most part. It allowed us an opportunity to ease into things, and it wasn’t long before I knew the too heavy hydration pack will make its mark. When we rounded the first corner, we ran into the easterly. The sun was out and the weather was otherwise perfect. The hard-packed track gradually started to change into something more challenging: some parts were rocky, others sandy, with a few stream crossings thrown in in the later parts. We could keep our feet dry for the bulk of this first stretch, but eventually had to give up and just barge through. 

We started near the back with only a handful of runners behind us. In the last few kilometres of this stretch to the bottom of the Mukamuka Valley at 12.5k, everyone passed us so that we were right at the back with the tail-end Charlie where the first marshals where ticking off runners. It took us 1:34 to get to that point, which I thought wasn’t terrible going. But taking into account that the course record is 2:31, I guess it is rather lame.

The next two kilometres into the vast valley were on a gradual incline with a good few stream crossings. The hard-packed grassy patch at the bottom quickly turned into rock, sand, and gravel. It is beautiful, canyon-like, and I was quite happy for the change of scenery and terrain underfoot, from our usual swamp city mud and claustrophobic indigenous forest. It reminded me somewhat of the Stony River in the Naki, but more so, the Fish River Canyon which we did multiple times over the years. After a few times, you start to know the best route to take, which side of the river might be the better option, and often the shorter route was not necessarily the better/easier route.

At 14.5k we reached a fork in the road (in 1:55) with huge tributaries to both left and right, but with a marshal there, everyone was sure to go up the middle valley. After a quick pee stop – finally – we could start the most challenging part of the course. The route became more narrow, steep and very technical as we made our way up the mountain. As the valley narrowed, so the incline increased. Clambering over rocks, negotiating sand, debris, windfall, and crossing the Mukamuka stream a million times, made the going quite tough. Following the stream, you are in the water for big parts of the ascent, and in the shaded spots my feet were numb from the icy water.

On this part of the course, we passed five or six people. Maybe technical terrain is more my thing after all. Haha. At some point not halfway up the hill, my calves and thighs started to cramp. Most of our training runs were on the flat, and often onroad. I realise this is not the way to go about it – specificity is the name of the game – but, even road running was far better than no running.

At the ridge – south saddle of Mt Matthews – and shortly before we reached the highest point (587m) on the course at 18.7k (in 3:09), a group of marshals were cheering us on and taking down race numbers. Was good to quickly catch up with Liz again, whom we last saw on the flight to UTA. Their spot was quite exposed, but thankfully it wasn’t raining and the wind wasn’t extreme. The easterly was a bit chilly and after many hours of being exposed, I can imagine they would have been rather cold. That actually goes for all the marshals, and I’m grateful that they all went to the trouble to make our outing a bit more safe. It is thanks to marshals at these key points, that we never had to use our map.

As we started making our way down the mountain on the Mt Matthews Track, I knew that my legs were shot. One of our slowest kilometres was on the downhill stretch. Even though it was not in a valley and in a stream, but rather on a ridge, it was just as steep, and a little bit scary in places. We passed another runner on the way down. 

Once back down the mountain, we crossed the Mt Matthews River before making our way to the Orongorongo Valley floor at about 21k (3:55). The Orongorongo River, that could have changed things to plan B should it be impassable due to the water level and flow speed from the rain the week prior, was about thigh deep at the far side. The clamber out on the other side was straight up to my head height with no footing (after a 100+ people scrambled out there) and nothing to hold onto aside from a tiny short patch of grass, which thankfully proved to be enough.

Wet and cold to my bum, I was thoroughly looking forward to the ‘downhill and easily runnable’ last 10k. This, of course, turned out to not quite be the case. Never before had I cussed and cursed at some stranger this much. 

After the river-crossing, we followed the Big Bend Track. There was mud. Lost of mud. And tree roots everywhere. The whole way was undulating at best with little ups and downs all the way. On tired legs even a well-trodden trail, that might be totally runnable otherwise, becomes rather challenging where tripping over a tree root or stone is a real concern. Which is exactly what happened to one of the other participants shortly after she passed us. (One of the runners we passed on the technical stretch on the way up the mountain, caught up and passed us again on the trails in the last five or six kilometres.) She was a little bit up ahead so we didn’t see her fall, but she was still on all fours when we got to her. Luckily, she was fine and went on to beat me to the age category third place position.

At 25k (4:44) the start of another hill (elevation 82m) dragged on for a kilometre (4:56). Shortly after, a split in the road had two signs – one read 4.6k to the carpark and the other 7.5k to the carpark. The longer distance seemed like the correct distance according to our calculations, and therefore the one we should be taking. Gerry had the GPX file on his watch navigating the course and according to that it seemed like the shorter distance was the correct one. Little did we know that the carpark on the signage was not the carpark at the finish. As the kilometres ticked by, the GPX file was off course and all over the place for the most part, only occasionally linking up with the route. This had us worried that we might be on the wrong route, or taking an accidental shortcut. Not sure what went wrong, whether the file got corrupted or just the result of a plain and simple lack of satellite connectivity.

At some point Gerry saw a little rabbit in the road up ahead, but the ears quickly turned into just another tree root. I find it fascinating how one’s mind, once it decided on what it is seeing, finds it hard to see the actual thing, unless one adjust one’s position and viewpoint. And I had to wonder if people with a strong sense of pareidolia aren’t perhaps more prone to hallucinations on ultras? That can bode interesting for Gerry on ultras.

Another fork in the road indicated that it was 800m in both directions to the carpark. Yay, I thought, we’re nearly there. We opted to take the one on the right. Two other participants must have followed suit, as when we reached a picnic area and carpark at about 29.7k (5:33) the two others were hot on our hills. A few course markings might have helped to take away all the humming and hawing at turn-offs, forks on the tracks, and especially at this first carpark, where the four of us were going off in different directions trying to find the way. We were of course all brand-spankingly new to this area, and things would have made a lot more sense even just driving around in the park. Huge was my disappointment when I realised it was not the finish, and we had another 2k on the road back to the finish line (which also had a couple of short inclines). I should have tried to remember the course description a bit better, or checked the map. But who does that back in civilisation and on a sealed road when you can almost smell the finish line?

After going backwards and forwards in all directions trying to figure out which way to go, we eventually just took off in the general direction of where we thought we should be heading. My legs were totally shot and even though the sealed road made for easy going, it felt super hard. 

We finally reached the finish area, and happy to be done with it, I quickly changed into dry clothes. The bottoms of my feet were white, looked like prunes, and a few hotspots and blisters added to the gory sight. Luckily nothing too serious. We were treated to soup, and Gerry also had a hotdog and beer. About an hour after we finished, Gerry could finally get a lift back to our car thanks to the runner we passed on the downhill. 

Arriving back home just before 7pm, I was exhausted. It is a very long day out if you make the trip from Palmy. Despite my reservations in the weeks leading up to the event, I’m glad we ended up doing it. For as long as we have been in NZ, this event was on the to-do list.

The race is categorised as a ‘wilderness’ run, but it is really only the eight to nine kilometres in the middle to get over the mountain that are ‘wilderness’ – still on a DOC track. The first 12k can be reached with a 4WD, and the last 10k are on walking tracks. We saw lots of day walkers and families on this last stretch as well as some of the 50k runners coming from the front. The weather gods were very kind to us, as the weeks before saw heaps of rain and strong wind, and the day after the event the terrible weather returned in full force. Even causing a huge slip, closing SH1 down to Wellington and a train to derail.

Not being used to the hydration pack, my shoulders were sore and collar bones bruised. But the worst part was my spine that was so hammered from the pack that I couldn’t sit against the back of the car seat or a chair for two days. That also goes for my legs. If I hope to do anything longer or hillier, I really need to train more specific: hills, technical terrain, hydration pack, and everything that goes with ultras.

Two days later the whole of NZ went into Level 4 lockdown again due to the Delta COVID-19 strain finding its way through the border. Fingers crossed it can be contained and not spread too much through the country. We have been super fortunate to be able to live a ‘normal’ life since last year’s initial lockdown. Here’s to the trails, tracks, pathways, and roads, and freedom to run them all again soon.