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The Highs and Lows of the Three Peaks Mountain Race
Photo by Pam Andrew
There being such a shortage of hills around Dunedin, the Three Peaks Mountain Race is an annual 26km trail race up and down three of these; starting just above sea-level, runners slog their way up to 700m to reach peak number one (Flagstaff), wend their way along a saddle to peak number two (Swampy Summit), drop down to about 250m, climb back up to 700m for peak number three (Mt Cargill) and then drop back down to sea-level once more. In short: it’s long, it’s tough, and there’s a lot of up and down.
This year’s event took place on Sunday April 1, and while official starting time was 9.30am, an 8.30am start was provided for those runners who predicted they’d take more than three and a half hours to finish. Yes, that would include me. Having looked at the race results from previous years, I knew I’d be one of the last to finish, and having run most of the course before, albeit not in one go, it wasn’t a question of whether this race would hurt - it was a question of how much.
Anyway, feeling entirely like a chubby-thighed imposter amongst the “real” athletes, along I went to the early start where, out of a total field of 110 runners, maybe thirty or so others were gathered. Some encouraging words from the race organizers and we were off! We made our way through the greenery of Woodhaugh Gardens and the Ross Creek Reservoir before attacking the relentlessly steep Pineapple Track. It was a hot day, the sun high in the cloudless sky, and rivulets of sweat were running down my face and dripping off my chin.
Having reached Flagstaff, our race numbers were checked by race officials before we were sent back on our merry way through the tussock to Swampy Summit. Here, I gratefully knocked back a cup of water from the aid station, then dropped back into the dense undergrowth, knowing that the respite of the downhill was false comfort, as any elevation lost here would all too soon have to be regained on the way back up Mt Cargill.
In a particularly muddy and densely forested section of the track, which hinted at why Swampy Summit had been thus named, as I was doing an ungainly Tarzan-style lurching from tree to tree, clinging to tree trunks and stray branches to stop myself slipping into the squelching, sucking mud underfoot, the race leader - having made up the hour’s head start - overtook me, his pace barely slowing as he nimbly picked his way through the mire. Amazing.
No sooner had we descended to the Leith Valley floor, more wiry men in club singlets also catching up by now, than it was time to tackle the uphill to Mt Cargill. I clambered over a fence, dragged myself through some more farmland and forest, then followed a dusty four-wheel drive track for the final summit push.
The relief of reaching the top of Mt Cargill, grabbing another cup of water, and knowing that from here it was “only” down a mountain and then another few more kilometres along the flat, was offset by the tell-tale sting of chafing on my back, the result of an ill-considered combination of a Camelbak, a racer-back sports bra and bare skin. However, this was really not the time to stop and faff about, so I instead concentrated on keeping a steady footing through the rocks on the downhill.
The final two kilometres from the base of Mt Cargill to the finish line were, how shall I put it, a bit of an effort. My limbs were tired and heavy, and more than anything else I just wanted to stop and sit down, but I knew that if I stopped, I wouldn’t have it in me to start again, so the only option was to keep going. Crossing the finish line in a time of 3 hrs 48, I flopped onto the grass, dog tired. My roommate turned up with iced coffee, aka the elixir of life, and I glugged it down, my cells soaking up its caffeinated goodness, then lay in the sun for several hours, chafed, tired but content, the memory of the pain already fading, and already eyeing up my next event.