Running The Routeburn

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Pausing at the lookout during my favourite running route around Mount Crichton, Queenstown – New Zealand (and holding my Freestyle Libre!)

I’d been back in New Zealand for just a few weeks, when my friend ran up behind me as I was rekindling my relationship with running and Queenstown’s mountains. I’d missed them both, and had recently discovered a new favourite track from the recommendation of a customer at work – a steep 7km loop through a Scenic Reserve, which sits 10km out of town (and phone coverage!). ‘Hi Stranger!’ a voice called out from behind me, and I looked over my shoulder to see my old Gym Trainer bounding up the trail behind me. I was walking by this point (it was steep…), but spent the next 10 minutes attempting to run alongside her while we chatted, before she left me in the dust and I spent a further 10 minutes walking and gasping with one hand on my hip whilst I got my breath back. During the conversation, Nat had asked me if I was running the Routeburn in a couple of weeks time. I wasn’t, but when I got home I had a Google of it anyway.

The Routeburn Track itself is an epic alpine ‘walk’ traditionally covered over 3 days, and passes through two national parks – Fiordland and Mount Aspiring. It is also part of a World Heritage Area and has been rated number 7 in Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Hikes of the World. The easiest way to describe the scenery in this part of the world is to say imagine Lord of the Rings – as Isengard was filmed just north of Glenorchy. The only issue with the Routeburn Track is the logistics of getting to and from each end – the Routeburn Shelter is about an hours drive north west of Queenstown, while The Divide is about 3.5/4 hours south west of Queenstown (see the map below – there really is no quicker way of driving to the Divide!)



The Routeburn Classic
, however, takes The Routeburn Track and, well, runs with it. The race is also limited to 350 athletes because the number of people on the track at any one time is restricted by the Department Of Conservation. The website says that if you ‘like a challenge, feeling of isolation and running through areas and landscapes straight from a postcard or fantasy novel’ then you are in the right place. My eyes were wide and I was grinning at my laptop screen by this point. The Routeburn Classic sounded right up my street, and so I signed up (being fortunate enough to do so because of other athlete’s misfortunes – dropping out through injury, or other – as the event fills up pretty soon after opening!) The terms and conditions of the race included statements such as ‘Participation in The Routeburn Classic is a test of a person’s physical and mental limits and carries the potential for death and serious personal injury’ which only heightened my enthusiasm. I also had to agree that I had no ‘pre-existing medical condition’ and had ‘sufficiently trained’ to participate in The Routeburn Classic… Ahem…

Because the race takes place in the Fiordland, which is known for its extreme elements, there is a list of compulsory gear which has to be carried at all times, and was checked upon registration the day before. If caught running without the items (one thermal bottom, two thermal tops, a hat, gloves, a seam sealed stitched wind/waterproof jacket, a survival blanket and a whistle), the participant would be not be allowed to proceed to the Alpine environment.
On Friday morning, the day before Race Day, I was counting down the hours at work. I had decided that a 5:30am-midday shift would be completely fine, but I found myself excitedly counting down the hours before running around in a frenzy to make sure I had myself ready, fed, watered, packed up and good to walk back into town to meet The Girls and register at Outside Sports by 1:30pm. Somehow I did all of this and still found myself time to buy a new pair of Lululemon tights to run the race in…completely necessary, of course (in my defence, they’re water resistant…something all my other running tights lack!).

I’m going to skip the next 36 hours spent in Te Anau/Knobs Flat and jump straight in to the start of the race – because it ended up being postponed for the first year ever because of the weather and the helicopters being unable to fly in if required).


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The race

The race began 500m before the Divide, which is to have the effect of ‘spreading the field’ before you reach the single track of the divide. I think I barely reached 50 of those cold, early, uphill metres before wanting to go home. I hated it. All I could think was ‘why the hell am I doing this?’...And then we reached the track – the ‘well-graded’ track – which basically means unless you’re super fit then you’re walking that mofo for a good 3.5kms – gaining an elevation of 400m. These were a tough few kilometres. It always takes me a few kilometres to get into the rhythm of a run, and because the track was so narrow and so steep, I found myself walking in single file behind many other people. If there was ever a chance to overtake, I struggled to find the motivation when everyone else around me was walking. But we were progressing, nonetheless. Up, and up, and up. It was somewhere along this uphill slog that I started to chuckle to myself as we hiked up the hill in single file, fully equipped with backpacks and a few of us with fly swatters sticking out of our packs, as this image popped into my head:

Because I was still in high spirits, and enjoying the atmosphere of the run, I couldn’t help but burst into a little ‘Hi Hoooooooo!’ which, to my embarrassment, was met with complete silence (!!!)

From here, there was a nice little descent into Howden Hut, where I managed to sly ahead of a few people, but I still really struggled to get past them. I enjoyed the downhill, and as this whole section of the track was covered by woodland, I felt confident in my step and did some good speed. From Howden Hut,  however, the ascent began again through a lush silver beech forest. At 7.2km and 1000m above sea level, we rounded a corner to see the incredible Earland Falls – a magnificent 174 metre high waterfall cascading down the mountain and spraying onto the track. At this point, I was glad to be sharing the moment with a fellow Routeburn Virgin – who’s exclamation at the sight of the waterfall added to the grin that was already spread across my face. I stared for a moment to take it in. I tried stepping forward, but couldn’t resist looking back up… and stumbled. Lesson learnt. The terrain of much of the track is far too undulating to try running whilst simultaneously giving the view the time of admiration it deserved.

Earland Falls

A little further up from the Falls and though the woods, we came into an area called The Orchard – a bizarrely located, small, open, grassy area filled with ribbon wood trees – before re-entering the woods. After 12km, I reached Lake Mackenzie before the 10:30am cut off time (anyone reaching this Hut beyond that time would have to return to the Divide with the marshals) and I falsely believed that much of the climb was done and dusted.Unfortunately for me, I was very wrong. We immediately began to climb through ancient forest, our runs becoming jogs, before becoming slogs. We climbed through moss and lichen, and I occasionally had to use my hands to clamber up rocks. Eventually, we broke out into the alpine world of daisies, buttercups, gentians and elderweiss where we had a cracking view of the Darren Mountains across the Hollyford Valley. This is where the views went from incredible to even more stunning as we climbed the open face. Think iced carved valleys. Think majestic snow covered peaks of the Southern Alps. Think mirror lakes. Think clouds beneath you. I looked up the mountain and saw we were climbing in a zig zag formation – not from the path in front of me, but by the tens of runners ahead of me, winding their way up. This was one of the occasions where I swore to myself. A lot. I kept having those moments where you can see what’s ahead of you, and you’re not sure that you like it. I persisted anyway, and then the snow started to fall and I broke into another grin. I loved it. And then a lady from Sydney who was following me up the trail was exclaiming her delight at the snow; ‘I’ve never ran in snow before!’ she said, and I could only smile and concur that it was flipping brilliant. There I was, a good chunk of the way through the Routeburn Track, running up an open mountain face in a singlet with a view too beautiful for words and snowflakes falling on my shoulders.

It was at the top of this section of the track where I remembered a piece of advice from someone at the race briefing: ‘layer up when you reach the bluff on the right, after the zig zig because you’re going to be exposed around the corner and lose all the heat you created on the way up’. So I pulled my thermal top over my head right before the bend around the bluff, and was instantly glad of it. The temperature had dropped to about -6 with the wind chill factor on the way to Harris Saddle. It was also around this point that my luck finally ran out on the rocks, and I slipped straight onto my bum. Luckily for me, though, this part of my body is naturally well padded and I was glad that this and my wrist took on most of the weight. I could finish the run with an injured wrist, but I did not want to injure my legs. I was fine and jumped right up – grateful to the man in front of me who stopped to check I was okay.

Somewhere along the last push past Oceans Peak, a loud orange figure stood on the horizon, before the path took a turn beyond her to the right. The figure was calling out to every single person. She high fived all participants, urging us all on. She was so full of enthusiasm, and I was amazed at her energy, especially this far into the race. As we approached her, the marshall told us we were half way, and I told her she deserved a medal, too. I was thrilled with the news of being half way (I ran with no watch or device that would tell me how far we’d ran, or how long we’d been running), and was especially thankful for her presence on that mountain.

19.5km from the start and we’d made it to Harris Saddle – the highest point of the course, sitting approximately 1300m above sea level. ‘It’s downhill from here!’ they said; ‘gravity will take you now!‘. I thanked the marshall’s for the information, and grinned as I pushed on. I turned a corner just past the Saddle, and it’s there that I saw the beautiful Lake Harris – and a large lens pointing towards me from down the track.


From here, we were blessed with more views of the mountains towering above the Routeburn River before we descended towards the Routeburn Falls Hut. It was here that I saw the remaining distance on a sign, and said ‘9kms to go!’ out loud, which was met with a silence from the marshals. I realised they may have thought that I saw this as a bad thing, so I added ‘awesome!’  to my comment which was met with more welcoming smiles. The landscape around the falls remained as dramatic as along the mountain face and the Saddle, until we descended into the alpine pastures of the Routeburn Flats. The track began to shadow the river which roared through a gorge. On more than one occasion during this segment of the track I found myself gripping the handrail fairly tightly and cautiously stepping my way down the path! Not much of the track had handrails, but on the parts it did, I didn’t hesitate to keep within arms distance of them.

‘Save something for the last 7km’ were words that I’d heard from multiple Routeburn Classic returners..and I can see why. Although the final 7km looks good on paper (just look at the elevation profile…it looks pretty flat, right?)… the reality is somewhat different. If you walk or run the Routeburn Track from the Divide expecting to find yourself cruising along down the final quarter of the track, then I think you’d be slightly taken aback. Although it is generally a gentle descent through columns of red beech trees, the wood also hides a few substantial ascents amongst its trunks, and they’re the reason you’ve got to keep something in the tank. I’ll admit to walking a few times during this section of the race. Not because I didn’t have anything left to give, but partly because my knee had been giving me grief since the descent from the saddle- and the field was so spread out by this point that I was often completely alone amongst the trees. I didn’t feel the need to give it my all – I just wanted to finish, and at this stage of the race, that was a given. The scenery was somewhat unstimulating compared to the surprises that the Routeburn Track had sprung upon me – I was no longer running along pristine lakes or above clouds along open mountain faces. Instead, I was back in my comfort zone of serene woodland. Don’t get me wrong – this part of the Routeburn is still beautiful – it was just a familliar kind of beautiful setting that I was used to.

It’s also during this stage of the race that I kept feeling myself well up. I’d have to slow to a walk just to calm my breathing. Someone overtook me and said ‘well done’ as I just about squeaked a ‘you too!’ back before choking up again. It happened on both of my marathons. The first marathon would always be a special event, after all – only 1% of the world’s population can say that this is something they’ve accomplished – and I completed it 2 months after my Type 1 Diagnosis, proud of my determination despite my body’s apparent retaliation against being well. With the second marathon, I struggled monumentally with my blood sugars during the second half of the race, and was left feeling incredibly frustrated at my body’s inability to run a marathon without having to fight death.

With the Routeburn, things were different. I cut my consumption of carbs to a minimum to ensure that my body was burning fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates – a state called Ketosis (to enter Ketosis, you generally need to consume around 20g of carbs or less per day – a single bagel contains 50g!) I eat low carb anyway , but taking it a step further to enter ketosis meant that I could run without the fear that I would to battle hypoglycemia at the same time – which is what happened during my marathons. Being in ketosis meant that my blood sugar levels had remained stable throughout the race (apart from an initial massive spike due to the intensity of the incline – but I came back down on my own to a perfect level). It also meant that I was able to complete a 32km run without consuming any food or glucose. I couldn’t have cared less about the pain in my knee at this stage, or the speed it took away from me. I didn’t care about how many people over took me, or how many times I had to slow, or walk. I wasn’t breaking any records. A long time ago I realised the best way to control this chronic illness was to eat low carb, and in doing so I found an alternative way to fuel my body to enable me to run the 32kms of the Routeburn safely. I didn’t have to eat a big carby breakfast, or carry lots of food with me. I didn’t have to test my sugar levels constantly, or keep topping up my sugar levels. I didn’t have to worry that my emergency Glucagon Kit was out of date, because there was no fear that my levels would plummet. I was safe in ketosis. I was just like the people around me, only I was running with Type 1 Diabetes, and crying with gratitude at still being able to run one of the most beautiful treks on our planet.


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