Waitomo: A mudder of a trail

The only things gritted are competitors’ teeth, writes Justine McLeary.

What do you get when you combine rain, wind and a trail-running course? Mud, mud and more mud. Take on the Waitomo Trail Run and you’ll get plenty of it.

So I discovered during the 2018 event, held in April. It was certainly memorable.

I’m a relative newcomer to trail events. I’d done just three before my husband, sick of nursing me through injury, banned me from trail running a couple of years ago. Unwilling to give up the sport completely, I’ve brought the kids to walk the 11km Waitomo course with a friend and her son.

The weather’s not on our side; it’s forecast to rain right on our start time. In the lead-up to the race I scan the horizon every few minutes and cross my fingers the rain won’t eventuate. It does. But we’ve got waterproof jackets bought especially after race organisers deemed them compulsory so, our day packs jammed with Jet Planes, Gummi Bears and other healthy delights, we set off.

The Waitomo Trail Run started in 2016. Launched by Paul Charteris and Tim Day, it offers three distances: 6km, 11km, 22km and 35km. To avoid the congestion of last year, organisers have divided the field into waves. We registered too late for the early wave and got stuck with a 12pm start. That means the course is pretty well churned up by the time we hit the bush after 4km of gentle farmland strolling. The event becomes more mud slide than trail run.

I slip and slide, laughing as my friend does the same and hoping I don’t finish this event in an ambulance as I did on a previous one. Five-year-old Amanda shouts regular encouragement. “You’re getting the hang of it now, Mummy.”

Around the 5km mark is a shortcut back to the finish line. We take stock there: the kids are muddy, happy and full of energy. We can do the full 11km, we decide, and plough on.

Someone told us at the start there was a hole in a rock worth going through, and the kids can’t wait to reach it. When we do, I peer up at the impossibly tiny gap. I don’t want to go through. But there are people behind me and the kids are already on the other side, stuck on a muddy slope and screaming, so I have no choice. “It’s worth it,” the man behind me says. He’s a second-time participant who says the mud was worse last year. I squeeze through — the gap is bigger than it looks — and tumble down the other side after my backpack.

From here on in the going is tough and the laughter stops. The bush gives way to rolling farmland, exposing us to driving rain and a freezing wind. Amanda’s hysterical with cold and exhaustion. There are no distance markers — if there were any throughout the course we missed them, and my friend and I agree organisers should include them next year — so I don’t know if we’re nearly there.

Skipping the shortcut was a big mistake.

I squeeze Amanda’s hand. “Not far now,” I say, hoping it’s not a lie. I feed her a constant stream of lollies to keep her going. She won’t sleep later but I’m past caring.

“We can see the finish,” the others yell from the hilltop ahead. The bright tents are indeed visible, across several valleys. So close and yet so far. Nicholas, 7, comes over and takes my hand. “I’m struggling,” he says. I smile, pretending I don’t want to collapse in a heap and wait for rescue. I can’t teach the kids to be quitters. Somehow we make it up the last hill, one foot at a time.

Holding hands, the three of us run across the finish line. Amanda promptly falls flat on her face but gets up laughing. I’m teary-eyed with pride and so glad the ordeal is over. I won’t forget it in a hurry.

The kids, though, have short memories. In the car on the way home Amanda stops eating well-deserved chocolate biscuits to ask a question. “Mummy, can we do that walk every day?”

The fourth annual Discover Waitomo Trail Run is on April 13, with 6km, 11km, 21km or 35km courses.

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