I don’t know Tomo but I already don’t like him.
I’m midway through the 18K course at Makara wind farm, race three of XTERRA Wellington’s five-race series. The sun is shining. I’ve just been handed a chocolate fish. But the only feeling that registers comes from a handwritten sign reading “Heartbreak Hill … thank Tomo.” I crane my head skyward and gulp at the line of runners-turned-walkers-turned-zombies shuffling up the steep dusty track into thin air. My legs beg me not to.
First let’s start at the beginning. XTERRA started in 1996 as an off-road triathlon in Maui. Since then, it’s grown into the gold standard of swimming, mountain biking and trail running events worldwide. XTERRA Wellington has been organising trail races around the capitol since 2008. Each race includes a short, medium and long course.
Today, I’m joined by 500 runners keen to test their strength against the coastal cliffs, ankle-breaking beach rocks, thorny bushes and never-ending, soul-crushing, sheep shit-covered hills. I have to remind myself I paid for this.
Although this hill wants me dead, deep down I’m excited to have a go. I’ve been training hard for this race. Last year I finished in the top half of the field. My goal today is the top quarter.
Halfway up heartbreak hill, I take a FaceTime call from a mate back in the states. I normally wouldn’t do this, but I thought a minute of New Zealand scenery might make him jealous. My plan backfired however when he showed no interest in the race whatsoever, and instead delighted in torturing me with video of the cheesecake and IPA he was consuming. I hung up and choked down another packet of citrus slime.
I eventually reach the top and enjoy a fine stretch through the wind farm. The turbine-covered tops of Meridian’s West Wind park is usually closed to the public. Today we’re lucky enough to have access to the park and its sweeping views of Wellington’s spectacular west coast. My runner’s high is in full affect. I want to hug Wellington and never let go.
The good vibes soon evaporate when I see what awaits me. The track, which last year continued lazily to the finish, this year demonically takes a hairpin turn and drops steeply back to the valley. One last foray along the gorse-lined bottoms, is it Tomo? Fine – bring it on. I scurry down the hill, dip and weave through the prickly bush and emerge for one last climb … the biggest one of all … up into the clouds, past heaven and onto the race’s summit, before descending to the finish.
I completed the race in 2 hours and one minute. Although I’m pleased to finish in the top quarter, the time elicits little response in me. I’ve never been a numbers guy. While others look at their watches I look at the birds. For real. What gets me out the door is the buzz that comes from the fresh air, mud, sweat and the general feeling of well-being that comes from leaving Tomo’s sign in the dust.
If I’ve painted a daunting picture of this race, good – it is daunting. But that’s why we compete, isn’t it? For the transformation that occurs somewhere between the start and finish lines, where the mind drifts and the body dutifully propels you toward a better version of yourself.
Truth is, I secretly like Tomo and his heartbreaking hills. And I’d venture to say that once we all return home and wash away the mud, leaving only the sore muscles and memories of a fun, beautiful and well-organised event, we all do.
The XTERRA Wellington trail running series continues 28 May with the Makara night run and 12 June with McKerrow’s Revenge. Register at xterrawellington.co.nz