The High Country

It’s dawn in the tussock-covered Motatapu Valley. The sun is breaking over the surrounding mountains, whose summits are veiled in light fog. I feel far removed from the party vibe of nearby Queenstown as I walk along a dirt road to the start line of the Motatapu Icebreaker Off Road Marathon with 600 runners.

The sold out race attracts all types: from elite mountain runners, to walkers, to a young guy in a hoodie and a New Orleans Hornets flat cap. All are here to enjoy a marathon that traverses high-country valleys and mountains across the historic Motatapu, Soho and Glencoe sheep stations, finishing in the quaint village of Arrowtown.

Soon after sunrise we are off, and the first 10 kilometres involve the steepest climbs of the race, up a well-trodden grassy sheep trail. If running up these hills doesn’t take my breath away, the scenery certainly does. In fact, within the first 500 metres, runners stop to photograph the incredible vista of rolling hills, creeks and valleys.

There is a unique atmosphere at this race: completing a marathon seems secondary to the privilege of taking in the spectacular landscape. I feel in no hurry to get to the finish line and it appears, I’m not alone – some runners aren’t even wearing watches to track their kilometre splits! But when you run this course it’s easy to understand why. This historic route – a passage used long ago by Maoris for hunting and gathering – is only opened once a year to the public. Winding between snow-capped peaks, the constantly changing terrain means I am never disinterested: there are open valleys, sheer mountainside drops and deep river crossings.

In the later stages of the race, river crossings become more frequent, wider, and deeper. I try rock-hopping or finding the shallowest path through, but mostly end up thigh-deep in the pristine water. As the clouds dissipate and the sun beats down stronger, it becomes tempting to dive in for a swim.

The four aid stations are a race highlight. Because the course is inaccessible by car, volunteers hike in and camp at the stations overnight so that they are in place and ready to provide drinks to runners as they pass through. Each station is manned by amiable people: whether it is two teenage boys competing to be the one who gives out the most Powerade, or enthusiastic volunteers providing encouragement as I run towards them.

The last kilometre of the course truly demonstrates the event’s strong community spirit. Spectators walk in from the finish line to cheer competitors to the end. After the serenity and stillness of the valleys and mountains, approaching the finish line in Arrowtown feels loud and electric.

It is a relief to complete the tough course, and the locals sure look after competitors with their friendly hospitality. Post-race, the place to be is Amisfield Winery en route to our accommodation in Queenstown. The winery’s bistro is the perfect spot to refuel with delicious local produce and reflect on what was the most enjoyable marathon I have ever completed. It’s no wonder the race has a high rate of returning runners.

New Zealand prides itself on its adventurous culture and this is certainly embodied at the Icebreaker Motatapu Off Road Marathon. A huge thanks to Iconic Adventures and race director Tracey Neil for providing a race that no other can rival in its scenery, terrain and spirit.

RUN IT: motatapu.com

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