John McAteer, a native of Rathcormac, recently came in 16th place out of 180 competitors in ‘Racing The Planet New Zealand’, a 155 mile running race.
This is an amazing feat for any Ultra Runner but has even more significance for John as he only took up Ultra Running a couple of years ago.
The Rathcormac man moved to Australia 10 years ago and decided to embark on his biggest challenge to date on the South Island of New Zealand at the start of this month.
It was a 6 stage/7 day fully self supported stage race. This meant that participants were required to carry a backpack containing 7 days worth of food, clothes, supplies, sleeping equipment and a whole bunch of mandatory safety gear for the duration of the race.
The first 4 days consisted of approximately 25 miles per day, the 5th day over 45 miles followed by a recovery day and a cool 10 miles to finish the race on day 7.
Out of over 180 competitors who started the race, John finished in an unbelievable 16th place overall, something which I don’t think he could have imagined before setting out on day 1.
He had a proud contingent of supporters following his progress every day, both here in Ireland and over in Australia, all of whom are exceptionally proud of his achievements.
The Ultramarathon took place on the South Island of New Zealand. The course featured the great variety of iconic scenery and terrain of this beautiful region.
Some highlights include clear still lakes, rugged hills, vast plains, rolling farmland where you will see local farm life, subtropical forests, open valleys with picturesque rivers running through and ice-age glaciers, all with spectacular views of surrounding peaks and dramatic scenery.
To read John’s thrilling blow-by-blow description of the physical, mental and emotional tests he experienced throughout the seven day race, continue reading below …
So had an absolutely amazing week in NZ. Was just completely crazy from the get go. Last Saturday morning we had to leave the hotel with only the gear and food we were going to need for the week. All of which had to be crammed into a 30 litre backpack which is a serious mission in itself and definitely the most stressful part of the whole adventure.
Forgetting something or not bringing enough food or even bringing too much could have an big impact on the race. It meant that everyone was dressed in there running gear ready to go, 24 hours before the face even started. This in itself was quite bizarre. We all went through the safety briefings and gear checks and were then loaded into buses and driven 2 hours into the middle of nowhere to camp 1. Awesome spot. We would get to meet out tent mates for the next 7 days. I got a really great bunch, 3 guys and 2 girls, 2 x English, Aussie, Polish and myself. Excitement levels were high and the fact that it took so long to finally get to the start with flights, buses etc. People were just mad to get going. People slept as best they could and then at 6 am the next morning in the cold and dark, we got up, ate, got out pack together and off we went.
STAGE 1 – 44km
And we’re off. The golden rule apparently is not to go out too fast on the first day. It turns out that’s easier said than done when excitement levels are so high. I tore off with the lead pack at what is still a fairly slow pace as everyones pack is at its heaviest. Mine was weighing in at just over 11kg. About 2kg heavier that most of the front runners whose kit was a bit more streamlined. First 5k or so was grand along a few gravel tracks then we went off trail and the difficulty of the race quickly started to reveal itself. Straight down the side of a mountain into pure bog. 10k with no track, navigating our way through mud, water and rough scrub. Welcome to new Zealand. We get through that and then begin to climb. The climbs seemed never ending at times but little did we know this was just a small taste of what was to come during the week. I drove on hard until I reached the checkpoint at the 22k mark. I was in 14th position out of 180 starters. Had I went out too fast? Probably…. But I wasn’t slowing down now. The sun was after coming out strong and my shoulders were in agony from the bag. I was going to keep pushing so I could get out of the sun and take the bag off. Hopefully I could recover for tomorrow. I pushed on…. The heat got brutal. There are no trees in NZ so we were completely exposed to the sun. The last 10k were horrific. This would become a common theme. Time to dig deep, grit the teeth and push. Finally reached camp in just under 7 hours. Broken, exhausted and soaked in sweat. 17th position for the day. Everyone who finished that day was hurting. It went down as one of the toughest opening days ever for this race series. There was a fear among competitors as we sat around a discussed the day. The general consensus was…. That was one marathon…. How are we going to do another 5?
STAGE 2 – 44km
I wake up in the dark again after about 2 hours sleep feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck. Some porridge and coffee and get the pack together. Still weighs a tonne. I’m super positive after my result yesterday and ready for road. Today was going to be tougher than yesterday by all accounts. Multiple people have already dropped out through injury and dozens missed cut off times the day before but were allowed to carry on. Today we climb… A lot. We start off, I break with the usual crew at the front. First 10k are OK from memory , then we hit out first big climb of the day. 1000m assent non stop over 10ks. You just need to put the head down and drive on. My climbing was good and was keeping good pace in the top 20. The views were emence everywhere we went. I took a few photos but just impossible to capture the scale and beauty of this place. I reached the top after a couple of hours. Quads shaking and back braking. I had a couple of nice ks running across the top which looked like a weird cactus desert that you might find in the likes of Mexico. I reached the checkpoint at the halfway mark in 15th thinking that the real hard work had been done for the day. As it turns out, that was the easy part…. The real hell was just about to start. I started the dessent down the side of the mountain down into the stinking hot valley below and again we went completely off trail into a never ending scrub of bush and scrub with no path to follow. Slowly stomping my way through rough terrain and spiky vegetation that cut and stabbed you non stop. As awful as this all sounds, I was bloody loving this. This is why I was here. Completely alone in the vast unforgiving wilderness and only my own will could get me out. Thats why most of us were here I suspect. I pushed on to the 30k mark and got myself out of the valley to be greeted by another massive climb. It had already been a long day and this was the point where most people started to break. With somewhere between 10 and 14k to go…. Head down and keep pushing. Up and up an up. I reached the final checkpoint with an Aussie lady that was suffering similarly. The lady at the checkpoint told us it was 6k to the finish, mostly downhill. She told this to everyone that came through apparently. Turns out it was more like 8k all up hill. A heartbreaking climb along dirt roads that led to a ski field at the top. The weather was turning and it was getting cold. We finally made it. 18th place in a time of 8 hours 30. Unlike our sunny camp yesterday, this was a miserable place. Perched on a mountain top, a cold wind ripped through it cutting you to the bone. Everyone wearing every piece of clothing that they owned. Everyone was broken, miserable and wondering what the fuck they had got themselves into. Most of the field were still out on the course and would have to do what I did in the dark and cold. There was no hope of most of them making the cut off times. It was coming apparent that the organisers had completely misjudged the difficulty of the course and how it would effect the mid to back of pack competitors. I still felt mentally strong. It is what it is, accept it, enjoy it. Eat, stay warm, sleep. Another day done.
STAGE 3 – 34km
After only two stages down people were well and truly broken. People’s feet were an absolute mess. We were crossing rivers and streams constantly. Running 90% of the time in wet shoes. The heat was also causing the wet feet to get hot and swell. This meant blisters…. Lots of them. Morning rituals included popping and tapping of blisters, disinfecting, retapping and so on. People were losing toenails left right and centre, or drilling through nails to release blood trapped behind. It was nasty. I counted my blessings every day that I had magic feet. I never blistered once and was the envy of every runner who saw my perfect unplastered feet complete with ten toenails. Stage 3 was about to begin and in the race briefing prior we were informed that they were cutting 10k off the course to compensate for extra distance covered in the previous 2 days and hopefully get the back runners in before cut off for once. This gave everyone a bit of a welcome lift. We still had a challenging 34k ahead where we would hit the highest point of altitude for the entire race. I still felt good and my pack was getting lighter as I consumed more food. Off we went. I hit my usual place in the top 20 as we set off. I was feeling confident and strong in the legs so made a decision to start to make inroads on the guys in the top ten. One by one I passed each one mainly on the uphill. At a guess I was up to 8th as we grinding up the bracken laden side of our climb to the top. The sky’s turned a dark grey and the wind started to howl. I pushed on to keep on the tail of the few ahead. A deep fog started to fall and I knew that this was not a place I wanted to navigate out of myself. We got higher and higher until we hit the exposed crest. We were in a different world now. The wind sliced through at at a speed I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Cutting to the bone, skin bright red, eyes steaming. The fog dropped and all off a sudden we had about 20 meters visibility. For the entire race so far we followed little pink ribbons and flags with relative ease. They are placed every 20 or 30 meters. A group of four of us proceeded with caution. Two Kiwis, two Irish. Miss a flag here and you were in trouble. We cautiously followed each other constantly on watch. It was amazing up there. The conditions were so raw it felt like we were atop of the mountains of Kerry on a furious November day. I felt the spirit of Ireland up there. I knew the other Irish guy James did too. You could just feel it. There was something special in the air that day. The two kiwi lads slowed down a bit….. James made a break for it. I instantly followed. What followed was a space in time I will never forget. Two thirsty Irish wolfhounds, bounding across the top of this barren granite mountain both in the hunt for glory but also aware of the danger in staying in such cold. I was probably the only one one the mountain wearing just shorts and t shirt. Most had put on a jacket and gloves a long time ago. I harnessed my inner Wim Hof and pushed on hard. I was good for now but knew I needed to get off this mountain as soon as possible. The problem was we didn’t know how long we had up here. We drove on at pace. We hit the next checkpoint. I hadn’t drank any water because of the crazy that was going on. I had a buff covering my head, ears and mouth. The only thing showing was my watery eyes. I remember volunteers shouting at me and me not responding. There voices were drowned out by the wind flapping the flags and gazebo that stood there. I was in 5th place. I was still in the shit up there and I needed to keep on moving. At this stage I had 25k to go…. I was feeling alive and strong. I put the hammer down and soon enough I was descending down from the mountain. I started to fly down into and he valley. I smiled as I knew I was safe from danger. I kept up the speed. Down the valley, through the rivers, up the hills, through the scrub. It didn’t matter…. I was flying. I ran relentlessly through anything that came in front of me. Running with more power and freedom that I had ever before. With 30k done I was still powering on. My legs were just moving themselves at this stage. The final 6k was a all downhill to the finish. Downhill was tough on the body with the extra weight of the pack. With 3k to go I looked back and seen a figure chasing me down. I picked up speed again to try and protect my 5th position. This was a bad move in hindsight and I would pay for it in the remaining stages. A time came when I knew I wasn’t going to outrun this guy and I slowed the pace slightly. A pure mountain goat from Switzerland flew passed me. Dancing down the hill with ease. It was an amazing sight and a skill I need to work on. I pushed on to the finish line which was a very welcome sight. Before this race started I wasn’t sure if I would be able to even finish a stage or two. Now after 130km of racing I was crossing the line in 6th place. It was an amazing feeling and one I will never forget.
The camp for stage 3 was beautiful. It had an ice cold river running through where we could soak our aching body’s and was wash our stinking clothes. Because it was a shorter stage than the ones previously, most people got back at a reasonable time and there was plenty time to chill, have a laugh and lay in the sun. A stark contrast the the night before. At this stage the 5 of us in the tent had bonded quite a bit and we were having a non stop laugh in each others company. Very important to finish a big day and have a bit of craic and also give each other encouragement and advice for what was to come. Tomorrow was been touted as the toughest stage yet. Time to get some sleep before we go again. At this stage this routine of walking up and running marathons was becoming normal.
STAGE 4 – 37KM
Stage 4 was the only stage that had section marked as ‘Difficult’ in the course notes. Before that everything was ‘Moderate’ which led to a few raised eyebrows. It was also supposed to be the most spectacular.
I headed of as usual in the top 20. The difference now was that both my knees were hurting. My speed down the hills yesterday was coming to haunt me. First 5k was fairly standard, then we started the long 10km climb up to the top of Mount Alpha. My knees were perfect going up and my climbing game was still strong. The views were spectacular at the top as promised. From there we traversed the thin Ridge line for 5k to the top of Roy’s peak. It probably was the most epic part of the whole race but it was slow going and fairly dodgy in parts. This is where my knees started screaming. Short, sharp, twisty, technical downhills were torture. I lost a few places here. When we made it to Roy’s peak it was our first encounter with real world people. Tourists stared at us, gave us some motivational claps and then caught a whopping waft of stinking body odor as we passed by them. I stopped at a checkpoint with 20k to go. The sun started to roast, I was in pain, and for the first time in the whole race I went into a dark place and started to doubt myself. I had 8km of straight downhill ahead of me to get off the mountain and downhill meant pain. I sat on a stool at the checkpoint. Filled water and electrolyte, sucked down a gel and popped a couple of ibuprofen. I had been given a small note by someone special to carry with me through the race. My plan was to open it in my hour of need. That time had come. I opened it up and read it. It’s words came as a massive boost. Everyone was carrying pain at this stage, whether it was blisters, sprains, swollen feet or whatever. I was lucky that my pain only came now, halfway through day four. It was now part of my race. Time to suck it up and accept it. As I stood back up I felt like a new man and started a charge down to hill. I was back in action. I weaved my way down the mountain at decent pace for the next hour. Tourists moving out of my way and shouting words of encouragement as I grimaced all the way down. I was delighted to reach the checkpoint at the bottom of the hill. They told me I had 12k to go to finish. No crazy hills left, just an undulating trail on the valley floor. Sounded great but at this stage the heat was just ridiculous with no breeze whatsoever. It was torture and everyone suffered here. There was Jeeps appearing with emergency water to keep people going. I made a couple of places up here until I finally staggered across the line in 21st place in just under 7 hours. A tough day but a very rewarding one. The camp was in a spectacular hillside overlooking lake Wanaka. The long march was tomorrow and people were praying that it wasn’t going to be hot. People may have prayed a little too hard.
STAGE 5 – THE LONG MARCH – 76KM (ish)
We were starting an hour later today as the course coordinator was still making a call on the route for the course. Heavy rain was forecast and a decision was made to avoid a certain river crossing because the water levels can rise really fast here. So we were told we were going to avoid it. Fair enough, nobody was complaining. It was dry when we headed off and I had a decent 25k under my belt before the rain came. I was feeling good and was running in 17th place. I did another 10k along a river bed. I was wet through but not cold. All of a sudden we take a turn into this spectacular, huge river delta. I pass through fast running water up to my knees and onto the vast expanse of damp grey gravel. Through another river, and another, and another. Each time getting deeper, faster and wider. I thought this very odd at the time as we were told that we had no river crossings. I continued on, through another, another, another. At this stage they were up to my waist and a started to worry how the smaller competitors would go. This was getting dangerous and there wasn’t any volunteers in sight if anything did go wrong. I kept going and at this stage I had hit the halfway point of the day and still in 17th. As I close in on the 40k mark I look ahead and see 5 or 6 figures standing still in the mist ahead. It seemed an odd place for a checkpoint but a knew we were close to one. As I got closer I realised it was other competetors stopped at a large deep river crossing. A volunteer there told us to put on layers and stay warm. It turns out the top ten people had made it through. The leading girl had fell in while crossing but managed to crawl out the other side. They weren’t leaving anyone cross. We stood there for ten minutes wondering what the plan was. We all had to turn back. Everyone I had passed out had now cought up to me. The race was turning to shit and the water all around us was only getting deeper. There must have been 30 people in the middle of this delta and we needed to get off fast. It took a while but we all managed to get to shore. I was pissed off at this point and the head dropped. Game plan was gone out the window, I had lost a heap of time on those who were behind me and I felt the race was over. We were making our way to the next checkpoint and I was walking with my head down along the road. My tent mate passed me and seen my face. He simply said ‘get your head straight, we’re still fucking racing’. It was all I needed. I couldn’t let a bump in the road stop me. Conditions change all the time in races, it’s just how you react to them. I had 35k left, the rain was pouring and I had 10k of decent trail to the next checkpoint. I put the hammer down and for the first time ran with anger. I started to overtake people quickly. Those that got the jump on me in the river feasco. Got to the checkpoint. Took in food, 25k to go. Off I went. I powered on until all of a sudden I’m on a long, dark, empty gravel road. I look ahead and though the rain I see something I didn’t quite expect to see. A huge black bull standing right in front of me on the road, staring me down. I thought for a while in my fatigue that I was just seeing things. Was this just a vision I was having? Was this just some representation of the obstacles I’ve overcome so far or the demons of my past. It was neither. It was just a real live black fucking bull standing right in front of me grunting in the rain. I had two options, go forward and walk right past him, or go backwards. I wasn’t going backwards, not today. If I got killed by a bull in the middle of an ultramarathon well so be it. At least it would be a cool story at my funeral. I started walking towards him. We kept our eyes locked. I don’t think I was even breathing. He was maybe 2 metres away as I walked past him. I kept walking and after ten or so metres I looked back…. he had also looked back at me for one last glare. In my mind I swear he winked before resuming his position to terrify the next runner. Oh sweet jesus. Time to run on. Many other runners I talked to after had the same experience. It was a crazy moment. I race on down the road and make a couple more places. At the 60k mark, myself and two other runners were directed to turn right off the track into a boggy field on the way to checkpoint 6. Across the fields and into dense muddy bush. Were battered our way through for about a kilometre. It was hard going. All of a sudden a volunteer appeared from out of nowhere to tell us that checkpoint 6 had been closed because another river on the way had become un-passable. We had to turn back and go back to the road. More time lost. By the time I got back to the road, all the people I had bypassed were all ahead of me again. Another kick in the nuts but I wasn’t going to let it get to me like last time. I had roughly 15k to go and I was going to get it done as quickly as possible. All thoughts of positions was gone now. This was turning into a race for survival. I was wearing a raincoat over a soaking wet t shirt. I had about an hour of daylight left. After that the cold would set in and I could be in trouble. We were directed onto a tarmac road for almost the first time in the race. I was still running well and knew I could make good time. I powered on again. Reeling in the same people for the second time today. After about 5k I had passed out everyone again and was all out on my own on this dark long road. All of a sudden a jeep came up against me and stopped. They rolled down the window and said they were taking my race number and location and that I could turn around and run the 10k back to camp. They were doing the same to everyone behind me. All off a sudden fror the third time today I was put to the back of the pack and would have to pass them all again. It was a pure circus but I didn’t care. This had become the absolute mental battle I came here for. I turned and ran. 10k from finish, dark now and pouring rain. I drove on…. Passed everyone for the third time and just kept running for finish. Guys that were ahead of me were now running against me in the opposite direction, I didn’t know where they were going, they didn’t know where they were going…. It was pure madness. With a kilometre to go the French guy who was the overall leader in the race passed me by. What the fuck is going on here? It turns out the top 6 runners had there own crazy adventure and ended up running over 90 kilometres in a 76k race. There was gonna be some stories to tell in the morning. I followed him home and finished in 12 hours. The finish line was a sorry sight. They gave us our emergency dropbags with warm clothes and we piled into the back of a trailer where both men a women scrambled to get naked and put in warm clothes. I was I good shape and had no problems but there were many stories of racers having to team up a strip down people and get them into sleeping bags before they froze. Everyone was been pulled off the course and the day was effectively shut down. What an epic day and an epic race. New Zealand through everything it had at us and thankfully everyone survived to tell the tale.
REST DAY – 0KM
The morning after the night before and everyone had there story to tell. It started off fairly grim and dark but as the sun came out, everyone put there entire contents of there tent out to dry. It looked like some kind of war zone or refugee camp. People kicked back back in the sun and reflected on the crazy week that passed. On day 1 nobody could even picture how we could make it this far. But we did. It’s astonishing what the body can do when summonsed. It was an emotional day. Everyone was there for a different reason and peoples personal journeys were all different but shared many common threads. It was a test of mental strength, the physical came second. It was a beautiful day and tomorrow it would be all over. What can we take from this experience into our comfortable day to day lives???
STAGE 6 – 15KM
The final stretch. A nice 15k run in the sun with one big climb and decent for old times sake. Not much to say about this only everyone smiled the whole way through. As the ks clicked by and I got closer to finish I was flash backing to different moments from the week, highs and lows, and also thinking of what comes next in life. It was a beautiful run. As I heard the finish, the crowds, the drums, I put the hammer down one last time a smiled from ear to ear as I crossed the line. Absolutely amazing and one of the coolest finishes to race ever on the shores of Lake Wanaka. I gave it absolutely everything out there and I have no regrets. A 16th place finish surpassed my wildest expectations. 44 hours of hard racing. What a week. What a race. What next???????”