January 4, 2013 7:36 pm

A week’s run in New Zealand

It is the perfect new year challenge – a week’s journey on foot and at speed through New Zealand’s fairytale valleys
On the run past Lake Rotoiti on New Zealand’s South Island©Tim Cuff

On the run past Lake Rotoiti on New Zealand’s South Island

You need to take a teaspoon of cement!” shouts the Australian runner as he passes me on the woodland track. “Harden up mate – there’s only 20k to go!” I take a deep drag of water from the nozzle at my shoulder, then push off again, attempting to jump-start my burning legs.

Jonathan Thompson approaches Stonefly Lodge, south of Motueka©Tim Cuff

Jonathan Thompson approaches Stonefly Lodge, south of Motueka

It is, to put it mildly, a different kind of holiday – the first of its kind in New Zealand according to the organisers – a chance to combine the landscapes and sense of exploration you get on a mountain hiking trip, with the adrenalin and physical challenge of a cross country run. Over six days we would run as a group, led by a guide, across more than 160km of trails on New Zealand’s South Island, moving between hotels, with our luggage transported by a van that took the considerably longer road routes. Each day, we would cover between 24km and 35km, weaving our way through the beautiful, unspoilt heart of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, unencumbered by anything (except blisters).

Our seven-strong group, which I come to imagine as the “Fellowship of the Run”, is a mix of ages and nationalities. They range from Lee Smith, a fun-loving Australian thirtysomething, to Steve Tulley, a 52-year-old beekeeper born and bred on the South Island. Steve Redman is an American father of three who has flown all the way from Guam, while Sally Paxman is an endurance runner in her early 40s who has made the short hop from Auckland. The one thing that all the others members of the Fellowship have in common, however, is having already completed a decent number of marathons.

On the other hand I, rather like Frodo Baggins, appear to be woefully ill-equipped for the daunting journey ahead. Nevertheless, Running Wild, 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 am far from peak fitness but I have completed 10K races and a couple of half marathons before, even if my times are not going to give Mo Farah sleepless nights. Plus, I am becoming a genuine convert to trail running, having just joined a local club, East London Runners, making weekly forays into Epping Forest.

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In this I am not alone: trail running is growing rapidly, helped perhaps by crossover from other booming endurance sports such as cycling and triathlon. Last year saw record numbers attending trail running events from Cornwall’s Classic Quarter to the Hakuba International in Nagano, Japan. In the UK, a survey by sports equipment manufacturer Salomon found that shoes designed specifically for trail running now make up 50 per cent of all running shoes sold. Sweating out frustrations at the gym, it seems, is being abandoned in favour of the muddy outdoors.

“Running has seen a tremendous growth in recent years,” says Topher Gaylord of Mountain Hardwear, an outdoor equipment company that has recently turned its attention to trail running. “There’s been a tenfold increase in trail running events over recent years, and the events themselves have seen a massive rise in participation because it’s such a natural way to engage with the environment.”

Map of New Zealand

Turning the popularity of these one-day competitive events into a multi-day holiday is, perhaps, the next step in the sport’s development.

After reaching Auckland via Los Angeles, I transfer to Picton, at the top of South Island. It’s here, on our “meet and greet” evening that the Fellowship is formed over some serious carb-loading. Malcolm Law, 52, the founder of Running Wild, unfolds a map as he explains our objectives. A British expat and experienced running guide, he has numerous competitive medals and in 2009 became the first person to run New Zealand’s seven “great walks” – totalling 360km – in seven days (his book about the challenge will be published by Penguin next month).

“We’ve picked what we believe are the most spectacular routes in the upper South Island,” he says. “Some, like the Abel Tasman Track, are internationally renowned. Others are so remote that even some of the locals haven’t heard of them.”

The next morning, we squeeze into our running kit and take an hour-long boat ride to Ship Cove. This is the serene natural harbour where Captain Cook put in five times during his exploration of the southern hemisphere, resting men and replenishing water supplies. It also sits at one end of the Queen Charlotte Track, our first challenge. The path is forested and steep in parts but I’m pleasantly surprised to find how comfortable the pace is, as we stop at regular intervals to refuel on sports bars and take photographs. It’s nice not to worry about directions too, as Law leads – GPS on wrist – leaving the rest of us free to enjoy the incredible views.

After 26km passes without incident and we meet the support van, I’m careful to warm down properly. 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, lost in the cadence of my legs, my breathing patterns and the sun-dappled Nydia Track. Afterwards, we sit and soak our legs in a vast deserted bay, washing the trail mud off in perfect blue waters. Little specks of golden sunlight dance on the surface and it feels as if Captain Cook might sail the Endeavour around the headland at any moment.

Over the next four days we run through gurgling streams, across fairy-tale meadows and over swinging suspension bridges. On the fourth day, we emerge abruptly from the low-lying clouds to find ourselves on the towering Robert Ridge, 1,600m above sea level. From here, we can see for hundreds of miles, as New Zealand’s young mountains ebb and flow towards the distant horizon.

“It’s like Scotland on steroids,” gasps Smith, as he tries to catch his breath. To me, as we skirt remote valleys and high alpine tarns, it feels more like Middle Earth than ever. I half expect us to drop into Rivendell after we crest each rise.

The hotels each night range from the warm and homely to the downright luxurious. One constant is the high standard of the cooking, particularly at our third stop-off, the beautiful Alpine Lodge in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Jonathan Thompson is greeted by John Kerr©Tim Cuff

Jonathan Thompson is greeted by John Kerr

The pinnacle of the lot, however, is the award winning Stonefly Lodge – a smart eco-lodge on the banks of the Motueka river. Surrounded by three national parks, the Stonefly is completely powered by alternative energy sources. As I arrive, I’m greeted by the owner, John Kerr, and the sound of a cork popping. It’s a somewhat surreal but, nonetheless, welcoming experience to sit on the high veranda of the Stonefly Lodge in full running kit, sipping fizz and being served canapés as the sun goes down over the wide valley beyond. It’s a shame we can’t stay longer than one night – Kerr has a helicopter on standby, for everything from heli-fishing and heli-golf to bespoke Hobbit and Lord of the Rings location tours.

It isn’t until the final day – a monster 35km run through coastal rainforest on the famous Abel Tasman Track – that I have any running problems at all. Around 16km into the route (or 142km into the week), my ankles decide that enough is enough, and started to throb, limiting me to a Spamalot-esque trot for the final 19km.

After the Fellowship is finally broken in the pretty town of Motueka, I have one more treat left: a skydive from 5,000m over the Abel Tasman National Park. From up here, as we freefall for 40 seconds, I can see everything – the three national parks we ran through, the lofty Robert Ridge, even the North Island scratching at the distant horizon.

“We should all go home and run marathons now – we’d smash our personal bests,” said Sally Paxman as we parted. It’s true that after a week of pretty much constant running, I had thighs like an Orc and genuinely struggled to squeeze my jeans on over them. But I’d gained something more than muscle mass too. With that teaspoon of cement in my stomach as I started the long journey home, anything felt possible.

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Details

Jonathan Thompson was a guest of Running Wild (www.runningwildnz.com), Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com), and Tourism New Zealand (www.newzealand.com). Running Wild’s next “Top of The South Island Trail Run” takes place from March 916 and costs £1,455 per person, including breakfast, lunch and some dinners, and transfers. The company also tailors luxury running trips for small groups. Air New Zealand flies daily from London to Auckland (via Los Angeles), from £1,217 return. The tandem skydive over Abel Tasman National Park costs from NZ$249 (£127), see www.skydive.co.nz

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More trips to kick-start a fitness drive

High-altitude detox, Bolivia Elite athletes have long known that training at high altitude can give them a competitive edge, writes Tom Robbins. Now, UK-based tour operator High Lives is offering a range of trips to Bolivia which, it claims, exploit the same physiological phenomenon to encourage weight loss and improve fitness. The tailor-made trips combine sightseeing with trekking, horse riding, cycling and spa treatments. From £700 per week; www.highlives.co.uk

Running clinic, Morocco This week-long trip is based at Kasbah Angour, a hilltop hotel in the Atlas mountains, just outside Marrakech. There is running coaching and tips on breathing, gait and stretching, as well as a range of other activities such as cardio circuits and boxercise sessions. Departs March 9; from £1,395; www.fitscape.co.uk

SAS coaching, UK Hardcore fitness training from ex-soldiers has become popular, but this weekend retreat led by Floyd Woodrow, a decorated former member of the SAS, promises a softer approach. Based at Dewsall Court, a country house in Herefordshire, the retreat’s activities range from walks in the country to yoga, “sound therapy”, cooking demonstrations by nutritionist Kerry Evans and personal coaching on goals for the coming year. February 1-3; from £590; www.dewsall.com

Bush training, Senegal The packed schedule for this week-long trip includes circuit training on the beach, kayaking, running through the bush and dance lessons to the sound of traditional drums. It’s based at Toubacouta in the Saloum Delta National Park, a Unesco world heritage site. To maximise benefits, guests based in the UK get three weeks’ personal training prior to departure and a week on return. Departs April 19; £3,200; www.fitnesstravelcompany.com

Daley Thompson©Getty

Train with Daley Thompson

Daley Thompson coaching, St Lucia His role as ambassador for the 2012 Olympics now complete, double Olympic gold-medal winning decathlete Daley Thompson is running several spring fitness retreats. Between March 18 to 29, he will be coaching at The Body Holiday, a specialist fitness and spa resort in St Lucia where the latest innovation is a spinning and yoga studio set high in the forest canopy. From £422 per night; www.thebodyholiday.com

Five-star fitness, UK Lime Wood, the luxurious New Forest hotel known for attracting famous guests, is running two women-only, three-night bootcamps this spring. Time is split between outdoor activities in the forest and on the nearby beaches and exercise and treatments at the hotel spa. Camps begin February 24 and March 24; from £1,750; www.limewood.co.uk

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