The Evolution of a Fiordland Mountain Runner
October 2017 - March 2018
Running and belonging in a landscape…
I had a dream that I could be a mountain runner. I would run over hills and up mountain slopes with ease. I would rise each morning at the light of dawn and step triumphantly into the brisk sunshine – ready to tackle any challenge in my way. I would get stronger each day and go further, higher than ever before. I would make my home in the mountains of Fiordland, my favorite landscape, and traverse its difficult, steep terrain with grace. I would find inspiration with each sunrise and every new vista of grandeur. I would be unstoppable.
This waking dream came to me while running across the Heaphy Track in winter, unavoidably in a heavy downpour of rain. I needed a bit of inspiration and all-of-a-sudden there it was: a vision that propelled my legs to move faster. The run became exciting, my pace quickened, and I steamed back to Gouland Downs Hut, animated by dreams of the future. I vowed then and there to make it happen. I would make this dream come true. But how?
The notion of running up hills and cross-country across mountain terrain has fascinated me for years. I had heard of people doing it, I had even seen them pass me on a trail bound for some incredible hard-to-believe destination miles and miles away. I had always felt a flurry of excitement when hearing of or witnessing these epic feats and even imagined myself doing the same when a particular song caught my attention or when I felt especially inspired. However, moving this idea from concept to reality, leaping from imagined to action, seemed impossible in every sense of the word. Even though I had been a runner my entire life I could not fathom a real-world scenario that included running up hills, let alone mountains. The question often lingered in my mind: could I do it? Did I have the strength – both physical and mental – to achieve something that only existed in my wildest dreams?
There was only one way to find out.
Snap forward to early morning on a section of the Dusky Track known lovingly as “The Hump”: I see the hill rising steeply before me, I do my best to get some momentum as I start scrambling up the base but sure enough I soon have to break my stride to haul myself by handfuls of tussock over a rock step. Back to a slow jog – each step up and up again negotiating muddy holes, slippery gravel, and the constant brush of soaked tussock. All I hear is the crunch of each shoe-fall and my own pulse thumping in my head. I am vaguely aware of an ever-expanding scene unfolding below me: space opening to my left and right as I climb higher, revealing the undulating landscape of southern Fiordland - hills, tussock fields, and dotted tarns of varying shapes and sizes. I find it hard to catch my breath enough to enjoy the view.
Moving to Fiordland was the kick-start I needed. Over the last few years I have come to see moving as a chance to start fresh and focus on new interests or try to reach new goals. Moving to Te Anau and effectively Fiordland National Park in October was no exception. I carried the dream of mountain running with me all the way from Golden Bay as I traveled to my new home. Where would the challenge of realizing this dream take place? The surroundings of Lake Roe Hut on the infamous Dusky Track in the heart of Fiordland. Yes, the Dusky is renowned for its difficulty, its mud, its sandflies, its tree roots, its rocky ground, its steepness – the list goes on and on. But, I would only be trying to run across its mountains, the longest alpine section of the track, and would leave its tree root ladders and coastal sandflies to the trampers. So, I could do it, right?
The first morning of my training for work gave me a taste of what I was up against. Everything rose from the hut unless I wanted to go down into the Hauroko Burn and climb back up again. As field researchers we set off to tramp into the surrounding mountains in search of rock wren and I thought to myself of what a pipe dream this idea of mountain running had become. How could I find the time or energy to run over this terrain when I would be climbing these same hills each day for work? Is there reason behind this madness? What makes it worthwhile to haul oneself up rain-soaked hills before the sun has even crested the horizon? Is determination a means to an end or an end in and of itself?
Back to the track: As I finally crest the steepest climb on my morning run and hear the wind against my ears replace the thumping of my heart I know that it is determination that I am cultivating. It is determination no matter the odds that one needs in a venture such as this. To push the bounds of what is possible is an acceptance of failure along the way. On the first morning I rose before the sun and laced up my running shoes and every day since I have faced the truth that to run up mountains I must be prepared to fall down along the way. That first morning as I slipped and skidded back down the ridgeline leading to Tamatea Peak I saw my training ground stretched before me. This is where I would gain my legs on which to stand, in more ways than one.
It is impossible to spend almost every day of a summer season fully immersed in an environment and not feel the heartbeat of a place. Fast-forward eight months since that rainy-day revelation on the Heaphy Track and not only have I come close to embodying the image of my dream but I now feel comfortably at home in a landscape. My feet move quickly over uneven ground despite myself and, hardest of all to believe, there are times when I actually power up hills with euphoria driving each step. Although a new arrival in Fiordland, I now feel that I can join with those runners I used to envy who seem to move as an extension of a place itself – those who belong. I craved the privilege of running through a beautiful landscape I could call my backyard and I wanted what the runners I saw in towns or on tracks in my early days in New Zealand seemed to have: intimate knowledge, experience, and above all, a sense of place and purpose.
Intimate knowledge of place has been the lifeblood of my summer. While seeking rock wren in the cliffs and boulders of my mountain home above the Dusky Track I noticed the little details of the world around me: whipcord hebe flowers erupting in pure white spectacle from the tightly-woven scale-like leaves, patterns of ancient looking lichen meeting carpets of green moss on individual boulders larger than multiple cars stacked end to end. Through the simple act of moving across rocks, climbing up one step at a time, I discovered desolate and quiet mountain places that provided vantage points over lakes sparkling and dancing in light with shallow shores turquoise as a coral reef. Buttercups grow here that are yellow with a brightness and happiness that seem to reflect the sun itself. I experienced the primal feeling time and time again of dipping beneath cool water on a hot sunny day under the rocky face of Tamatea Peak: the powerful warmth of sun on my back in contrast to the refreshing water around me. And at night, floating on my back in the middle of Lake Laffy, letting everything go, I saw cloud lifting from Lake Bright in a tendril toward the moon as kea called from their roosts in the cliffs above. This experience, much like an immersion in the still, reflective water of the lake after a warm, muddy, hill-climbing run feels like life the way it is supposed to be: simple, visibly present, and engaging.
The twisting, narrow, boggy, muddy, and rock-strewn Dusky Track has been my teacher in the art form of mountain running. Living at Lake Roe Hut and spending my days observing the details of Fiordland’s alpine world has taught me of belonging on a micro and macro scale. To fully appreciate both lessons I have adapted and grown through the challenges of each day. When I mis-step into mud that engulfs my shoe or slip down loose rock and tussock tillers I am reminded of what it took to get here and face yet again the mental battle of tackling these challenges head on. But, regardless of what I encounter, I have found the rewards of this practice too great to entertain thoughts of giving up. I am empowered simply by the act of trying. Morning after morning, day after day, I get up and try even when it is not easy, especially when it is not easy. As a runner I have had mornings where my legs felt like stones and my mind asleep through an entire run. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and recalled the strength it took to try the very first time. If I did that, if I gave this wild idea a chance even when all the odds were stacked against me, I can certainly get up and get out there today.
Summer flickers by and I no longer sleep most nights tucked away in the hills of Fiordland but I still live out this identity as a mountain runner, perhaps now more than ever. It is as if I have discovered a missing piece of myself and I now have more that makes me whole than I had before. My eyes have been opened to the truth that there is no ending, no crowning achievement to my dream of becoming what I envisaged a mountain runner should be. I am still becoming what I dreamt I could be while simultaneously evolving this dream forward. The practice and journey to get to where I am today and the regular continuation of this action to reach greater heights is what matters most. I have learned how to put in the effort and this has given me the courage to feel capable of anything. Capable, even, of lacing up my now tattered running shoes and seeing where they might take me – through forest, beside denim-blue lakes, across boulders, and even over mountains.