“Take a teaspoon of cement!” pants the Australian runner as he overtakes me. “Harden up mate – there’s only 20km to go.” I inhale a deep drag of water from the nozzle at my shoulder, then push off again – attempting to restart my inner cement mixer as well as my burning thighs.
Here in New Zealand, any long journey on foot is known as a “tramp”. Right now, I’m five-and-a-half days into the tramp to end them all. At speed. The planning for this trip was reassuringly precise: over six days, our little gang of bare-legged strangers would run 161km over some of the South Island’s most breathtaking trails, while a support van took the considerably longer road routes with our luggage. At distances between 26km and 36km a day, we’d be weaving our way through the beautiful, unspoilt heart of Lord of the Rings country, untroubled and unencumbered by anything (other than, possibly, blisters).
Our seven-strong group – the ‘Fellowship of the Run’ – contains an impressive diaspora of individuals, from a self-confessed Australian “party boy” to a father of three from Guam. The only thing this odd Fellowship genuinely has in common is a collection of marathon medals from around the world.
On paper the trip sounds nothing short of masochistic, but the trip’s organisers had advertised this as only “moderate to challenging” terrain, with the group’s speed no more than “training pace” throughout. I was far from peak fitness, but equally I was keen to explore the freakishly beautiful South Island thoroughly, and this seems like the perfect means.
From Auckland, I transfer down to Picton at the tip of the South Island and meet the Fellowship over some serious carb-loading. Our guide British ex-pat Mal Law, unfolds a map to explain our objectives.
“We’ve picked what we believe are the most spectacular routes in the upper South Island,” says Mal, a hardened running guide with decades of experience. “Some, like the Abel Tasman Track, are internationally renowned. Others are so remote that even some of the locals haven’t heard of them.”
Mal believes there’s a sizeable gap in the market for fitness holidays like this, blending the popularity of ‘tramping‘ in these parts with the surge of interest in trail running. “Guided hikes have been popular here for decades, so it seemed only logical to extend the concept to those who want to move a little faster along the trails and see even more,” he says.
The next morning we zip into our Lycra and catch an hour-long ‘water taxi’ out to Ship Cove – the natural harbour where Captain Cook anchored no less than five times during his exploration of the Southern Hemisphere. It also sits at one end of The Queen Charlotte Track – our first running challenge.
The track is forested and steep in parts, but I’m pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the pace is, and we stop at regular intervals to refuel. Within the first hour I come to massively appreciate the running cap on my head and the two litres of water sloshing around my rucksack’s bladder. It’s nice not to worry about directions too, as Mal leads, GPS on wrist, leaving the rest of us free to enjoy the sunshine and incredible views.
After 26km passes without incident, we arrive one by one back at the support van. I’m careful to warm down properly, but I needn’t have worried. As the trip progresses, I start to feel stronger every day, as my body adapts and my running becomes more fluid.
On the second afternoon I reach an almost meditative state – the cadence of my legs lost in the sundappled Nydia Track. Afterwards, we swim and soak our limbs in a deserted natural bay, washing the trail mud off in perfect topaz waters. Tiny specks of golden sunlight dance on the surface like confetti and its easy to imagine Captain Cook and the Endeavour rounding the headland again at any moment.
Over the following four days we run across gurgling brooks, through fairy-tale meadows and over swinging suspension bridges, as we zigzag our way down the best running trails the South Island has to to offer. On the fourth day, we emerge abruptly from the cloudline to find ourselves on towering Robert Ridge, 1,600 metres above sea level. From here, we can see for hundreds of miles, as New Zealand’s endless mountains ebb and flow toward the distant horizon, more Middle Earth than ever.
During our week of wild running, we stop at a wide selection of hotels and lodges before being transported to the start of the next trail every morning. Our accommodation ranges from the warm and homely to the downright luxurious, particularly our third night – a picturesque lodge in Nelson Lakes National Park, where a wonderfully restoring Jacuzzi with a glass of champagne is just the ticket for weary legs before dinner.
It isn’t until the final day – a monster 36km run through the coastal rainforest of the renowned Abel Tasman Track – that I have any problems at all. Around 16km into the route (or 141km into the week), my ankles suddenly decide that enough is enough, restricting me to a trot for the final 20km. But on the plus side, this gives me ample time to enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen in my life.
After the Fellowship is finally broken in the pretty town of Motueka, Mal has a typically fearless suggestion for us: “You should all go home and run a competitive marathon as soon as you can,” he says, seriously. “You’d smash your personal best.” It’s probably true: with that teaspoon of cement in my stomach as I start the long journey home, anything feels possible.