The Big 'O'
The Scott Big ‘O’ Trail Run
There’s been 70mm of overnight rain.
I text my running friend: ‘What say we drive to Rotorua, soak a couple of hours at Polynesian Spa, enjoy a long lunch and come home? No one has to know.’ ‘Bloody great idea,’ she replies. But the rain stops, leaving us no excuse. So at an hour far too early to be called morning, four Tauranga mums load up a car and head to Lactic Turkey’s Big O, a 35km trail run around Rotorua’s Lake Okataina.
Like most women runners, we’ve over-trained. Two weeks earlier, we completed our build-up on Whakarewarewa’s Black Track, a 34km forest trail just 5km to the southeast. Today’s run is only a kilometre further, so we figure we’ll have another fifteen minutes on our feet even if we walk, and that’s not likely, with 25 marathons between us. Besides, we gave up this year’s Rotovegas marathon in favour of the off-road lake circuit. We’ve pre-booked the babysitters, adjusted our backpacks, taped against chafing and vaselined our toes. We’re supremely confident.
One is advised to take a more careful gander at the course profile before registering. The first five kilometres of this cracker ascend directly to heaven, 300m upwards, which, quite frankly, is just mean. That this section of the Western Okataina walkway sports some of New Zealand’s most beautiful native bush is hardly the point. Who has time to check out the flora when it’s all they can do to breathe? Bent over, I suck in lungfuls of cold air and wonder why there are no complimentary recovery switchbacks on this hill? My calves are as tight as Borat’s mankini and I feel green, too. I give up, walk the damn thing.
Down low, chugging slowly upwards, I notice a perfectly circular disc of waxy yellow fungi, like a tiny space invader put down in the wrong quadrant in last night’s storm.
‘Toxic,’ Tara says, behind me. The slope or the mushroom? Not long afterwards, we come across a bewhiskered gentleman making a descent.
‘You’ve done the hardest bit,’ he says cheerfully. We grunt cheerfully back.
Eventually, we make it to the summit, 700m above sea level, and I could swear the air is thinner. Wendy takes the photos to prove it, and then we’re away downhill, making up for lost time and appreciating the podocarps, the ponga and not passing out.
Chanting our team mantra, ‘We’re not in any hurry, we’re here for the day out,’ we settle into our natural peeking order. Karen leads out. She has the cutest hat and steadiest pace. She gets the hard work concentrating on the trail, which is only fair since it was her idea to run it in the first place. We step where she does and save our energy. Wendy, the speedster, is our sweeper. We have to put her at the back or she’ll dash off and post a better time than us. We can’t have that.
Tara and I round out the team. Tara coins a new term for the staccato run-tramp style we’ve adopted on the changeable terrain.
‘Hey, we’re rumping!’ she giggles. At the time, it seems hilariously funny.
I step on a flax stem, lying lengthwise on the track. The other end snaps upwards and hits Karen in the knees. It’s a scene straight out of a cartoon. The one where the guy steps on a rake.
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry!’ In front of me, I hope Karen is laughing.
Underfoot the ground is slippery after the rain, making our descent slow. We start to get worried about making the cut-off time. We reach the Millar Road water-stop with full fifteen minutes to spare. From there, the course takes us through a section of farmland with dramatic views of Lake Tarawera, but by midday, and 20km, there is still no sign of Lake Okataina.
‘Is that it?’ says Tara, pointing to a large puddle.
Since we are on private land, we must follow a strict set of rules: ‘Go under!’ the sign on the gate commands. The gap under the gate is big enough, but the muddy puddle underneath resembles a kids’ pool that the neighbourhood kids have all paddled in first. Nah! We open the gate and close it securely afterwards. ‘Climb over!’ orders the sign on the next one. This time we do as we’re told.
Then, we take a last look at the flattened top of Tarawera and head north.
Here, the scrub is denser, but Wendy is hard on my heels and keen to get on. I flick some gorse in her face, which slows her down suitably. She moves to the other side of the track and grabs a handhold to support herself. There’s a sudden shriek. Yep, there’s gorse on that side of the track, too.
Up until now, the trail markers have been a girly pink, but these make way for a ribbon of blue as we crash through 500m of untracked bush, separating the final gap between the Western and Eastern Okataina walkways. Looking back, the girls say this was the best part of the day: swimming through the scrub, striking out freestyle over rotting logs, and kicking through branches, like picture book images of Prince Charming hacking his way through the forest. We’re just getting the hang of it, when Karen says, ‘Oh no, we’re already there,’ and we find the track. We’re off again in our caterpillar formation, only steps now from the elusive lake.
Lake Okataina is the stuff of cliché: sparkling azure water with the early afternoon sun glinting off its surface. Its Maori name means the Lake of Laughter, after some witticism made here, which is probably funnier than the ones we are making in our tired state.
It is difficult to appreciate the scenery as we navigate the twisted narrow track with cliffs to our right and a drop to the left. To get the most from our entry fee, we stop for some gel and enjoy the views while listening to the sound of…nothing. It’s as if we’ve fallen into a black hole in the universe. It’s delicious.
Further on, close to the lake edge, we discover a grove of manuka, upright and elegant, like a choir on a stage of luminous moss. There are plenty of fungi, too: bulbous white ones and delicate orange, as well as your traditional leprechaun’s toadstool.
‘Chinese mushrooms!’ Karen and I say in unison, as we climb over a fallen trunk smothered in wood-ear jelly.
At 25km, I run out of water. Everyone is keen to offer me a slurp. Nothing at all to do with off-loading some water weight.
After nearly five hours, we still haven’t reached the 31km water station. Maybe they’ve packed up and gone home? Where is that promised boat ramp? But finally, at the northern end of the lake, beneath the luxury lodge, there it is. A kindly marshal refills my backpack, while we girls fall on the pick-and-mix lollies, scoffing them in twos and threes. Our mothers would be horrified. In fact, our children would be horrified.
Just 3km to go.
There is a final hill. It’s only half as big as the first one, but after running 20m we wonder who we’re trying to kid. We walk it.
‘Rumping again,’ Tara says. Was that only this morning she said that?
This bit is familiar; it’s the way we came out. We hold hands, cross the finish line together, otherwise that Wendy will get in front of us, and we can’t have that. We’re greeted by the late afternoon sunshine and the hardy souls who have stuck around for the free sausages and prizes.
At 5h28m, a full hour longer than our 34km training run, we’re essentially last. It seems some super-people completed the 35km route in times like 2h51m (James Bradshaw) and 3h30m (Rebecca Smith), which makes me suspect they slipped off the course somewhere and hitched a ride. Some others cheated, taking the bus and the 19km option from Millar Road, thus avoiding the big hill and missing some truly pretty bits. But for us, it’s been a great day out: off-road, O-nerous and thankfully, O-ver!
Published in New Zealand Multisport and Triathlete, Issue 77 (September 2010)