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!)

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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.

Routeburn

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.

Routeburn

When Big D gets you down.

Nope.

I think that one of the worst parts of having a chronic illness is that sometimes, it breaks you. Maybe you have several bad days in a row. Maybe you just have one really bad day. Whichever it is, you realise you’ve gone on for so long being fine and that today, you’re not. You’re so far from fine that you’re struggling to even move. You don’t know how you made it through work, and you don’t remember how you made it home. You hide in your bed under your blanket all afternoon as the sky darkens outside. But even then, even in the depths of your grief, your illness is haunting you. You can’t sleep easy with the thought that maybe you won’t wake up. You can’t even nap without checking your blood sugar to ensure you’re not going to die. You’re pissed off that you ate some fish you thought was ‘safe’, but in actual fact has sky rocketed your blood sugar. You’re pissed off that an hour later your correction injection has plummeted your blood sugar despite still having an hour left until its peak effect and with an already potentially dangerous level…and dropping. You eat, despite not being hungry. You eat to keep your levels up. You eat to stay alive. You feel like you’re trying to survive in a body that wants to destroy you. You check you blood sugar. Still low. You check again. Still low. And again. Coming up. You’re dosing in and out of your slumber, wondering if this is happening, or if you’re even awake. You’re exhausted. You skip your run. You skip the gym. You skip meeting friends at the pub. You curl up and cry in a ball in your bed instead because your illness has had you today. It’s got its grubby claws around you and its squeezed away your sparkle. And then you grieve. You grieve over the stupid little fish that you ate. You grieve over the simple foods you can no longer eat without your body reacting terribly to it. You grieve over the realisation that you have an illness that will never leave you. You grieve over not being able to eat whatever you want, without it having consequences. You grieve over the life you lost and the life you’re forced to live. You cry until your eyes are puffy and then you tell yourself to pull yourself together. Today is a bad day. It happens. But you will pick yourself up and you will remind yourself that tomorrow is another day, and tomorrow, you will be bigger than your illness.

The 5 Stages of Grief…

I’m usually inherently positive about diabetes, and to be honest, about life in general. I crack a lot of jokes. I laugh at myself, and I laugh at my illness. Sometimes. Of course, that’s not always the case – like when I was told I had Type 1 Diabetes, I quietly went through the five stages of grief.

Stage 1. Denial and Isolation

Maybe it’s all just a big mistake, maybe I don’t have diabetes. How do they know for sure? If I don’t check my blood sugar I can pretend it’s fine. Ignoring it will make it go away. If I isolate myself I can hide this.

Stage 2. Anger

What did I do to deserve this? Why do I have diabetes? I look after myself, it’s not fair! 

Stage 3. Bargaining

Please take it back, please tell me it was a mistake. I’ll do anything. C’mon pancreas, start working again and I’ll act like this never happened. I’ll run more, I’ll eat better. Please?

Stage 4. Depression

This is it, this is my life. I have an incurable chronic illness. My life is ruled by test strips and insulin shots. I can’t do this. I don’t have the strength for this. I don’t have the mental capacity to do the mathematics to keep my body functioning right. This SUCKS!

Stage 5. Acceptance

The fifth and final stage of grief is the reason I need to ‘clean it out’. It’s part of the reason I got my medical alert tattoo – to accept that this illness is for life. Diabetes turned my world upside down. I went from a low maintenance girl to a high maintenance girl – except instead of needing more time to do my hair, I need a little more time to test my blood sugar and inject insulin. Instead of holding my hair back when I’m sick, I might need you to open a juice box for me instead. Diabetes has taught me that my body is a little more fragile than it used to be. It’s a little more temperamental. It needs a little more care. But diabetes has also taught me that my body is stronger than I could’ve ever imagined possible, and that power was always within me. My body still endures pain, my lips still kiss, my skin still feels, my eyes still see and my heart still beats. I’m still here, and I’m still very much alive. My name is Tamsin and I have Type 1 Diabetes. 

 

Diabetes Blog Week

I wrote this post for Diabetes Blog Week – an annual blogging event designed to share different perspectives over the same topic, and to make connections and better understand Diabetes. Today’s topic is ‘Clean it out’ and aims to let go of something you’ve been hanging on to, physically or emotionally.

Shh…

Todays topic encourages us to spill the particular parts of diabetes that we would usually keep from the public sphere – the aspect of diabetes that we tend to keep to ourselves, away from our family, friends, and, well, the entire internet. 

There is one aspect of diabetes I choose not to blog about. And that, my friends, is my hope for a cure. No one wants a lifelong, chronic illness. With diabetes, I never want my friends to see me at a low. Just like I never want my family to see me on a bad diabetes day.

Deep, deep down in the bottom of my heart there is a candle that flickers with hope for a cure. And while I may go my lifetime without this never becoming a reality, that flame will never be extinguished. As long as there is life within me, there is hope. But that’s not what keeps me going. What carries me through life is the faith I have in myself: Faith in myself to jump from the world’s first commercial bungy despite my fear of bridges: Faith in myself to jump from Australasia’s highest bungy despite my fear of falling: Faith in myself to Skydive from 15,000ft despite my fear of heights. Faith in myself to white water raft despite my fear of rivers. Faith in myself to cross the Thailand/Cambodia border solo and in the middle of the night . Faith in myself to do a season in the snow despite trying snowboarding once in my life. Faith in myself to travel the world despite my shy and timid nature. Ultimately I live with the faith in myself to live the life I want with my health securely in my hands.

A small part of me will always hope for a cure, but it will never dominate my life. My faith takes up too much room. 

Diabetes Blog Week

I wrote this post for Diabetes Blog Week – an annual blogging event designed to share different perspectives over the same topic, and to make connections and better understand Diabetes. Today’s topic is ‘Keep it to yourself’ and aims to look at the aspects of diabetes you usually keep to yourself.

I can still run…

I can still run.

Here’s the thing about running.

RunRunning doesn’t care if you’re fat or thin, rich or poor. Running doesn’t care if you’re straight or gay, liberal or conservative, whether you live in Africa or the United Kingdom. Running doesn’t care what car you drive, what clothes you wear or if your bum looks big in that. And guess what? Running doesn’t care if you’re a diabetic. Functioning pancreas or not, the road will always welcome you back. And welcome me back it did, in the form of a marathon.

I ran my first marathon on a severe lack of training, two days after having one too many drinks. I’d also just worked 80 hours across the 7 days leading up to race day and would be running with a torn knee ligament. To add insult to injury (pun intended), I’d been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes just two months previously.

MarathonThe marathon wasn’t about the race, nor was it about the medal at the end. The biggest challenge wasn’t about anyone else on that course. It was about the slow and painful process within me that propelled me to be the best I can be: It was the rain dripping from my face at Mile 1: It was the sweat in my hair at Mile 2 and the aching in my lungs at Mile 4: It was the stitch in my side at Mile 5 and the nausea in my stomach at Mile 7: It was the throbbing of my calves at Mile 19 and the stiffness in my knees at Mile 20: it was the blisters in my feet at Mile 22 and the dryness in my mouth before every drink station: it was the torrential rain at Mile 25: it was being drenched to the bone at Mile 26: But most of all it was the voice inside my head that told me to stop. The voice that argued that there is no valid reason for my body to continue, and wants me to quit. But I didn’t. Even when my blood glucose monitor failed in the rain – I found cover and tested. Even when I had to pause to chug water on top of jelly beans so I didn’t choke on them – I kept going. I ran side by side with other non-diabetic runners. Whilst other runners paused to guzzle water, I tested my blood quickly, and carried on. Whilst other runners were taking their glucose tabs, I had my jelly beans. None of the thousands of runners we raced alongside with knew I was a diabetic, and they didn’t need to. We were all just runners, tackling a distance only 1% of the population had completed. We were all in it together. The day I completed the marathon was the day I realised diabetes wouldn’t prevent me from doing anything I wanted to do with my life. My body may be a little more temperamental these days, but it’s also holds strength I didn’t know possible. And  so I run.

RemarkablesPost-marathon, I went for an early run on an empty stomach. I’d been eating low carb for a while, and on this day it appeared as though I had become fat adapted. This means that rather than running on glucose (which I would regularly top up as I ran), I ran on fat. I know this because rather than testing every 20 minutes and needing to consume glucose, my blood sugar levels were steady. Not only that, but I managed to run powerfully and non-stop for over an hour. I’d ran an elevation of 450 metres. I was also running in one of the most spectacular parts of the world – Queenstown, New Zealand. I was running down through the trees along the lake with a view of the Remarkables when I suddenly broke into a grin and tears fell from my eyes.  Before diabetes, I ran to feel the fresh air in my lungs and the breeze on my cheeks. I ran to explore the beauty of our world through my footsteps. I ran because it made me love the feeling of living. I cried because I still run now for all of those reasons, and because I can still run.

Diabetes Blog Week

I wrote this post for Diabetes Blog Week – an annual blogging event designed to share different perspectives over the same topic, and to make connections and better understand Diabetes. Today’s topic is ‘I can’ and aims to look at the positive side of our lives with diabetes.

Diabetic Problem #3: Having a Hypo 1 hour before your insulin peaks

Jelly BeansThis morning I woke up to a slightly elevated level – 6.1, after going to bed at 5.8 just after eating a carb packed kebab (I’d been out drinking so I ended the night with some carbs to prevent a hypo while I slept). I took my usual correction for this – 1.5 units of NovaRapid and thought nothing of it. When I was tapping away on my laptop an hour later, I suddenly lost the strength to carry on typing. I was tired and drained, so I closed the lid to my laptop and lay my head down. An immeasurable moment of time passed with me staring into space before I broke through the fog and realised I was beginning to hypo. I grabbed my monitor and tested; 4.1. Good. I caught it early but alas, there was still insulin I’d injected into me that was going to peak in another 45 minutes. I had a jelly bean. I lay back down. I had another jelly bean. That would usually be more than enough to bring me up to a healthy range (I’m really sensitive to carbs and sugar!), but how much was I going to keep dropping until the NovaRapid had reached it’s peak? I kicked the covers off me as the hypo sweats began. I blew air onto my face. I had another jelly bean. Tested again. 4.3. Better but still dropping. I had another jelly bean. Was it too much? I never usually need 4. What if I’m over treating? What if I’m still dropping? I put the TV on to pass the painstakingly slow time. The shakes began to slow. The sweats started to dissolve. The strength began to come back. At the 2 hour mark, I was 4.7. Phew. Perfect. So then I  stood up, got dressed, and went to make breakfast like any regular person.

Diabetes Blog Week!

Diabetes Blog WeekSo this week is the Sixth Annual Diabetes Blog Week, and I’m excited to say I’m going to be a part of it. What this means is every day from May 11th until May 17th, I will be posting a new blog on a set topic. This will spread diabetes awareness as well as showing different perspectives on a topic. I’ve only just discovered that this is a thing, so I’ve gotta head on over there to look at the topics and get my fingers tapping on this keyboard. See you on the 11th!