I mentioned in my write-up of our trip to New Zealand that we’d decided to take part in the Queenstown marathon while we were away. Because a holiday wouldn’t be a holiday without a marathon sandwiched into the middle of it, right? It was actually the second thing we sorted, straight after flights – it was too good an opportunity to overlook.
We arrived on the Thursday afternoon having spent the morning in Milford Sounds, which was absolutely stunning. We stayed in an airbnb over the weekend, owned by a lovely couple, Jan and Tim. They were fantastic hosts for the duration of our stay – if anyone is heading to Queenstown, let me know as I’d recommend you stay with them.
It made sense to head to the expo as soon as we got to town to avoid the expected crowds on the Friday, so we want to grab our race numbers and have a browse around the various retailers. Unfortunately, Katie had been suffering with a knee injury so had to drop down to the half distance – the good news was that she’d decided to run, which was looking unlikely a few days previously.
Leaving the expo we were pounced upon by a local reporter (there was no one else around and he needed to interview someone), and managed to make it into the local paper.Buoyed by our new found fame, it was straight to Ferg burger, which is a bit of an institution in Queenstown that’d we’d heard so much about. The queue snaked out the door and down the road; but the wait was worth it and the hype was justified – we chowed down on one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. Delicious.
It was a pretty unconventional pre-marathon day – we spent Friday racing down the Dart River in a jet boat, which was so much fun. You get taken out onto the lake and then up the river, with the driver racing around, throwing in some 360 degree spins and sharp turns. I spent half the time clinging to my new Ray Bans, terrified of losing them (another awesome birthday present Katie had got for me). This is another activity I’d thoroughly recommend doing if you find yourself in that part of the world.
We got a relatively early night and had quite a healthy meal (better late than never – we’d been pigging out for the entire trip up until that point). I slept really well – probably because I wasn’t taking the race too seriously – I just saw it as something really fun to do while on holiday. I usually wake up multiple times in the night before a marathon, but woke up to see that there was about 2 minutes until my alarm was due to go off (5.30am) – perfect.
After getting ready and having some porridge, Katie and I went out separate ways – the half started at a slightly earlier time and in a different location. Luckily, some of Jan’s family were also staying at the house and taking part so Katie could get a lift with them instead of having to go all the way to town and then get the bus. Jan also very kindly gave me a lift to the start in Arrowtown – what an absolute legend.
The start area was based at the Millbrook country club, a stunning little venue just outside Arrowtown overlooked by the surrounding mountains. It was immaculately kept and bathed in sunshine, had plentiful portaloo’s and loads of room to stretch out and relax in the sun pre-race. Obviously I’d come completley unprepared so went scrounging around for some sun cream, meeting some felow Brits in the process and whiling down the time until the start talking about how cold it probably is in the UK right now.
Lining up for the start, you had to self-seed yourself into an appropriate time zone, so I headed towards the ‘sub-3 hours’ zone. I’d run 2.49 around 6 weeks ago in Berlin, but hadn’t done much training since and also eaten a ridiculous amount of unhealthy food since being away. However, I still thought running under 3 hours should be manageable taking into account my current fitness levels – how naive this sounds looking back now..
As they counted down the final 60 seconds, the nerves started to hit me all at once – despite the fairly relaxed build up, I was still about to do a marathon, and there will most likely be a high level of pain and suffering involved at some point. I was about 3 rows from the front and reminded myself of the promise I’d made not to go off like a lunatic, and take it steady during the first half of the race.
The course runs through Arrowtown for the first couple of miles before dropping down on to a scenic little river with some shelter from the sun. The field spread out pretty quickly, and from about mile 3 I was running solo, trying to keep the effort level constant and my breathing under control instead of worrying about running to a particular pace. It would have been difficult to run even mile splits anyway as the terrain was pretty lumpy, with plenty of climbs and descents to stop you getting into any kind of rhythm.
After 10km (41:24) I was in 24th place, and at this point we dropped down on to the shores of Lake Hayes. When I saw on the route map that we’d be doing a loop of this lake (around 4 miles), I naively assumed it would be flat. In reality, we climbed away from the water to a higher point overlooking the lake – awesome views, but not appreciated by my already flagging legs. That was one huge positive about this race – the scenery was just insane – stunningly beautiful. Whenever things starting getting uncomfortable all you had to do was glance up at the surrounding snow-peaked mountains looking down on you to take your mind off the pain.
Rather cruelly we then dropped back down to the water, before a horribly steep hill reared up ahead of us, taking us off the lake trail and back to the road. Some spectator fancying himself as a part-time comedian chirped up with ‘don’t worry, this is the last hill’. Yeah, right. Wondering at that point if he may actually we telling the truth (he wasn’t), I gave him a grin and a thumbs up, not able muster words as I wheezed my way up.
We were back on the main road now, and at this point a little pack of 4 guys formed, which was a blessing in disguise. I feared that I’d already ran too hard in the first half of the race, and a nasty headwind was blowing directly in our faces. Initially I thought I’d just sit behind and take shelter, letting them take the full force of the wind. However, pride got the better of me as I felt guilty just sitting at the back, so I edged through to the front and took on my share of the work pushing the pace forward.
The 4 of us hit halfway in 1.29.43, so still on track for 3 hours, but I knew it was going to take a huge effort, especially as it seemed the wind was going to be against us for the majority of the second half. We shared a few words of encouragement and resolved to give 3 hours our best shot, continuing to run at roughly the required pace. At this point I’d moved up into 18th position.
At 15 miles we ran down a ridiculously steep hill, and I inadvertently pulled away from our group, as I received a bit of heckling from the others about having young legs, but that won’t last forever, with a parting shout of ‘wait for us at the bottom, won’t you’. All good fun. However, we never did come back together as a group, with 2 of the guys coming past me in the later stages and the other finishing slightly further back.
The problem with this was that I was now fighting the wind all on my own, and it’d gone from being a pest to being a real issue – at moments you could feel it physically pushing you backwards. Then at 19 miles we were faced with what I can only describe as a wall. I may have even rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw that we were in fact being directed up it. It was a no-brainer for me – I was walking. I don’t like walking in races, but my ‘power-walking’ saw me gaining on those ahead of me that were attempting to run. For me, it just didn’t seem worth going into the red zone for minimal gains. I took solace and motivation from the fact that Katie must’ve already ran up this earlier in the morning, so at least we were suffering together!
I hit mile 20 still in 18th place, but the tank was running out of gas, with the sub-3 time hanging by the thinnest of threads. It was going to be an all-out war from here if I wanted it. Which I did. So I pressed on, a grimace now etched onto my face. I was slowly reeling in the second-placed lady, and as I passed her I encouraged her to run with me, as I saw the leader ahead in the distance, and it looked like she may be able to catch her.
We ran the next few miles together and sure enough, at about mile 24, we passed the leader, meaning Mel (my new running buddy) was now in the lead. I was concentrating on my own run, frantically trying to do the maths of how quickly I needed to run the last two miles in. The end result was that I couldn’t work it out, but that didn’t really matter – the answer was just to run as hard as I could for 15 more minutes.
We rounded the Queenstown gardens and got our first glimpse of the town centre. By now we were passing a steady stream of half-marathoners who all offered up loads of encouragement and were (on the whole) quick to move out of the way which was much appreciated – my legs felt like giving way at any second and a quick change of direction was not going to end well.
The combination of heat, hills and wind had completely done me in, but everyone was now helpfully reminding me that I was about to be overtaken by the leading lady, apart from Katie who just seemed happy to see me as I lumbered past, as usual mumbling out some words that I apparently thought were in the English language, but in reality just talking complete nonsense.
With the finish in sight I saw that my watch was going to tick agonisingly past 3 hours, but I still mustered a ‘sprint’ as Mel was right on my tail. I pulled away just before running down the final ramp into the finishing area, where the organisers were frantically motioning for me not to break through the winners tape but run around it. Fortunately, I managed to decipher their windmill like arm-movements, as I crossed the line and crumpled into a heap which can be evidenced by this video, which has been the source of much hilarity for both work colleague and friends alike;
I don’t remember Mel coming over to me whilst on the ground, I just know at some point I was back on my feet and shaking her hand and offering my congratulations. It turns out she’d come 2nd in the last 2 Queenstown marathons, so was understandably thrilled to take the win this year – a lovely story. I finished in 3 hours and 43 seconds – the first person to finish outside 3 hours, but happy with 14th overall and more importantly first Brit! Full results can be found here.
It took me a while to get myself together post-race, I had a good lie down on the grass before eventually hauling myself up to go and find Katie. I was thrilled she’d got through the race without any serious issues, and she finished in a fantastic time considering the fact that she hadn’t really been able to train at all in the build-up.
We headed to the pub for a massive lunch – I was absolutely famished, as I don’t take on any fuel in races (barring a few sips of water). After this we spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun watching the later finishers come in while sipping on a couple of beers. Katie had organised another birthday surprise for the evening, as we headed up the gondola to an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant at the top of a mountain overlooking the town and lake. The views were incredible and the food was absolutely superb. I think we nearly put them out of business.
The race itself was flawlessly organised, with everything on the day running like clockwork. If you’re looking for a beautiful race in a destination location, Queenstown is the place to go. It’s just a shame that it’s so far away! Looking back, I was stupid to think trying to run under 3 hours was going to be an ‘enjoyable’ experience, and I probably didn’t show the marathon distance enough respect. However, I still had a great day and will be gutted if we don’t go back and give it another go one day. I need to find 43 seconds somewhere though.