We always have this choice

TLDR version: man vs nature vs nurture conquers a 53.14km (33.02 mile) run/hike/rock scramble with a 2400meter cumulative elevation gain (4800 gain+loss) in 10 hours while listening to the ocean, the wind, the birds, the sheep, and the audio book version of “The Places That Scare You” by Pema Chodron. Here are the too-many-pictures-just-show-me-awe-inspiring-panoramas to boot:

TOP: From Mount Vernon looking over to Mount Herbert on the Banks Peninsula, MID: Overlooking east Christchurch, BOT: Overlooking west Christchurch

We always have this choice

It’s no secret that sometimes I put my nose to the proverbial grindstone for so long that I can smell the powder of that stone turning to dust before I step away to consider how it feels. When I choose survival as my base operating mode I find myself hardened to the outside world. I don’t know if this is a consequence of my personality type (ESTP/ISTPs unite!) or if I have been trained and conditioned to be this way. I was going to post a longer writeup of this several weeks ago, but now is as good a time as any.

“This tenderness for life, bodhichitta, awakens when we no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, from the basic fragility of existence.” ― Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

Why do I run? Why would I challenge myself to exhaust my body physically, emotionally, and spiritually? The simple answer is that I need to break myself to bring myself back to the awareness of my impermanence. The more complex answer is that sometimes regular exercise, hiking, music, writing poetry, and meditation are not enough. I need real tears, real discomfort, and real adventure. I need my sadness, my depression, my anger, my exhilaration, my hope, my callousness, my compassion, and my joy to feel alive.

I knew going into this day long running/hiking journey that it would be a true adventure — I would need to make adjustments and use my wits to enjoy and win the day. This was partly the reason I needed to do it; I needed to push myself to respond to the physical, emotional, and spiritual trials of the journey. I had not anticipated that the decision points on the path would come so early.

At 4AM I awoke an hour before my alarm and knew that I was too excited to sleep any longer. I filled my water backpack and checked my food supplies and emergency plan. I determined that I would use the extra morning time to prepare my spirit for the meditations of the day. On a whim I decided to purchase and take with me the audio book version of The Places That Scare You (Pema Chödrön). I second guessed my choice of clothing for the day and then reminded myself of the many times I have second guessed myself incorrectly and went back to my original outfit. I shoveled down an extra PB+J sandwich. I walked to the bus stop only to find that it was running 15 minutes late, but that was good because I left my GPS watches at home so I had time to go back and get them.

My original route plan had been to ride the bus to Sumner Beach for sunrise. The 15 minute bus delay meant that I wouldn’t make it. I quickly hashed out my priorities and decided I’d rather see the sunrise outside of the bus even if it meant another 1.35 miles to go. I was rewarded with a beautiful sunrise over Moncks Bay and Rapanui Lookout. The day had begun and I could feel the energy of the sun coursing through my spirit with resolve. I could do this.

TL: Boat in Moncks Bay, TR: Taylor’s Mistake Beach, BL: Sumner Beach, BR: Rapanui Lookout

It was only 35 degrees at the start of my run and a strong breeze blew in from the ocean. I was glad that I went with the full legs/sleeves. After bidding adieu to the sunrise at around 7:20, I put on my headphones, started my GPS, and queued up the first hour of my book. I realized quickly that this book knew me; it spoke of me in a language I understand but have been unable to express to others. I realized that the day’s journey was not some crazy act of desperation, or an accomplishment to add to a list. I would not succeed, I would not fail, and I would not suppress my sensations to achieve a goal. I chose to go outside my comfort zone, to embrace discomfort, to run with it for hours, and to open my mind and body to the vulnerability of being only human in a natural world.

“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” ― Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

Scarborough Hill through Godley Head

After leaving the beach I navigated my way through several construction zones and closed roads/trails to climb Scarborough Hill. Janel and I had driven through here a few weeks back to run at Godley Head so I had some expectation to the difficulty and the beauty. This section of my day did not disappoint. I managed to find my way through the charming neighborhood at the top of the hill and down some side streets to find the Heritage Trail which leads down to the beach at Taylor’s Mistake. I will be honest though — I don’t think I would use the word heritage with that trail. It was more like a bunch of steep wooden stairways cut through a bunch of rich people’s summer house backyards.

I took a few more pictures of the stunning beach before heading up this shockingly picturesque trail run along Godley’s Head along the ocean. This has to be my favorite running place in all of Christchurch for its beauty (it has some tough inclines though and lots of sheep droppings in the path so it isn’t perfect but really I am not going to fault it at all for that).

Looking over the ocean from Godley’s Head trail. Yes, that is the trail along the shallow hillside to the right.

I had an invigorating check in phone call with Janel at around 9:00. I had gone 7.5 miles in about 1:30. I had to walk quite a bit of Scarborough Hills and I had stopped for pictures but I felt terrific and was really enjoying the ocean and the early morning energy. This is clearly not my normal running pace (last weekend I did 10 miles in 80 minutes on flat roads/trail) but I was going for the long haul today without a specific plan for time. I just wanted to make it as far as I could in one piece and enjoy the whole damn journey.

View over to Banks Peninsula from Godley Head. I did not plan on making it to those outcroppings but I was going to circle the bay whose mouth is to the right of this picture.

As I rounded the corner at Godley’s Head I was able to see across to the Banks Peninsula on the other side of the bay and I was able to preview the rest of the run as I gazed into the harbor mouth. I didn’t want to count the summits ahead (there would be dozens), but I did have the thrill of anticipation as I realistically envisioned trekking across all of them and ending up  on the other side of the bay. I stopped to clear gravel and dirt from my shoe and took off towards Lyttleton.

White socks and tights and neon green stability running sneakers. What did you expect? 🙂

Early Crater Rim

I had entered uncharted territory. Janel and I had run Godley Head before, but we looped back to the car park the last time. This time I would continue the bay side trail by connecting up with the start of the Crater Rim Walkway. One of the scariest things about my plan for the day was that I had not scouted every mile of the terrain ahead of time. I had seen parts of the trail at other times, but I knew the trail varied in difficulty through its ~14 mile stretch. The first sign estimated 2hrs 30min for the next 5km. I have found New Zealand time estimates to be fairly accurate for brisk hiking (these are no American park systems estimates where I can basically halve the estimated times).

Beginning of the Crater Rim Walkway

Should I be worried? I was doing fine on time, I had checked in with Janel about a half-hour ago, and my legs were still good to go, but there is a small bit of self-doubt that creeps in when I am alone in the middle of the wilderness having completed the only part of my journey I had a high certainty of completing. I took a moment to reflect on my meditations of bodhicitta; I basked in the uncertainty of it all and turned on my Lindsey Stirling violin CD and went for my first big hill climb (you can see it at ~6km in the distance chart). The sheep and a NZ police car pulling into the small car lot would be the only signs of mammalian life I would see for the next hour.

Various terrains to cross. TL: Running through sheep grazing land (easy), TR: Sheep grazing land with rocks (medium), BL: Hill tops with tumbleweed and uneven rock croppings (hard), BR: Cliffside rock formations (yeah that is just not runnable)

Over the next two hours I would find myself cresting every hill just to find that the ridge line was mostly a false comfort. Each summit reached would then drop me back down half of the hill just to start another. To make matters a little more challenging, this was one of the least marked sections of the walkway. Several sections disappeared along the road or in the middle of a paddock without an orange marked post to follow. One particularly confusing stretch apparently wanted me to follow the road for about half a kilometer before re-appearing inside of a private drive in another sheep paddock.

The sign for the continuation of the walkway… half a kilometer up the road and hidden in a grazing field.

Eventually I made it to Evans pass (in about 1:20 mind you!) and the craggy section of the walkway just before Lyttleton and reached my first impasse. I thought the hill climb of around 800m gain would be one of the hardest and slowest parts of the track. My quads were burning a little bit at this point so I was hoping for some level terrain. In some ways I was in luck — the terrain itself was sort of level, but it was a one foot wide, mostly muddy, often stone-crag-boulder ledge winding around the bay side of the hills. To my left for the next mile was a 500m drop. A few minutes in I had one of those random spiritual (and irrational?) thoughts — what if I fell here? What would I think of during the 30 second plunge to potential death? I consoled myself that my last conversation with Janel was less than two hours before and it was good and loving. My emotional fear response tried to take over and push me back up the ledge. It wanted me to cut over to the other side of the ridge line and take the slow winding road down from the heights and to safety.

I am sure that a fall over the ledge could have been deadly based on the sheerness and lack of brush on parts of it. I quickly proceeded through my decision making process of why I was here on the ledge this day. There was nothing amiss with any physical or spiritual preparation. I have faced my fear of heights many times in the last year and can muscle through it. Even if I am uncomfortable, I can take it slow and cautious. This fact was brought to my attention clearly when close to the end of this stretch I was passed by a ~50 year old lady and her dog taking a morning stroll. She didn’t seem to be in any kind of hurry but quite nimbly passed me. I saw her when she doubled back a few minutes later, so I pretended to myself that she must live near the trail. She couldn’t have walked very far already. This must be her local dog walk trail that she knows like the back of her hand. I couldn’t be that slow and afraid could I? And then I thought of her dog. The dog must be wondering the same thing about all of us humans. They can’t be that slow and afraid can they?

I took a moment at the next stopping point (a nifty little cave carved into the rock face with a trickle of a waterfall through its center) to collect my thoughts. Would it be a failure if I hiked the rest of the day? What if the rest of the trail is also a one foot ledge next to danger? Could I stay inside my fear response for another ~7 hours of caution? I let go of this worry; it didn’t matter. Right now I sense the mist of the water, the howling of wind against rock, the sun escaping the cloud, the tartness of the moss smell, and the freshness that it is still morning. I had turned off my music before the stop and vowed to listen closer to nature for the next 2 hours before “lunch.”

Mid Crater Rim overlooking Lyttleton through sign of Kiwi

Soon after the cave I began climbing away from the ledges and over hill tops, saddles, and various outlooks over the harbor. Since I had been slowly taking the cliffs (one mile registered at 40 minutes on my GPS!) I had renewed the running portion of my journey. I ran into a several groups of casual hikers and probably looked to them like some strange phantasm as I emerged from the wilderness. I did get a few asking looks, but actually got more “good on yous” from the vocal members of the groups. I quickly realized why there were more people in one place than I had seen the rest of the morning combined — the Christchurch Gondola dropped its passengers at a point about 5 minutes walk from the trail. The intersection point offered breathtaking views of both Lyttleton harbor and Christchurch city (the Port Hills ridge line that I was run-hiking splits the two; the only real road connection tunnels through the hill).

Looking over Lyttleton harbor from Mount Cavendish saddle (near the gondola)

The next few miles were some of the best trail running minutes of the day. The terrain was slightly rocky, but good parts of it were well-worn and followed alongside the summit road so the elevation changes were more gradual. I saw a couple of runners (the first I had seen since Godley Head, and none carrying packs or gear) so I imagine this section is fairly popular with trail runners. It is on the way to the Sign of the Kiwi at Dyers Road (about 20 minutes from our house) so I plan to come back there again.

The top of the Bridle Path. I did not take this path (it leads down to Lyttleton from near Mount Vernon) but the rockfall hazard sign was ubiquitous on my trek – I must have seen two dozen of these.
Various points of unmitigated natural beauty. TL: From early Crater Rim Walkway looking into the bay at the path ahead (I would eventually make it to the inlet across the bay to the left of my shadow), TR: From Summit Road after I finished the Crater Rim Walkway looking back out to the ocean, BL: View west over Canterbury plains, BM: View over downtown Christchurch, BR: View from around Sign of the Kiwi over the bay

I also stopped for a brief lunch (2 fruit bars, woohoo!) and a 1:00 check in with Janel atop Mount Vernon. This would end up being one of my last strenuous climbs for the day and I was 5:45 and about 18.5 miles into the run/hike (and about 2000m total elevation gain). I was in good enough spirits at the time with the beautiful views and my legs were good enough that I told Janel I would finish the Crater Rim Walkway no problem. I was planning to check in after the walkway and before the road run to Diamond Harbor. I still had about 4:30 left of day light, what could go wrong?

Sign of Kiwi to end of Crater Rim

After taking the Cedric+Gilpin tracks through Victoria Park, I landed at the Sign of the Kiwi (an outpost of the DoC; coffee shop is closed but the bathrooms and water fountain were operational). I refilled my water backpack (I had rationed enough because I knew this spot would be open) and took several long droughts before soaking up some sun. The angle of the sun at 1PM here is very different than I am used to. It is still winter here, so it appears to be later than it is to me. With the breeze still fairly strong and a long way to go, this is the first moment I passively acknowledge that I might not make the full distance I originally planned. I had told Janel I would consider shortening my run at the end of the Crater Rim Walkway, but even then I fully planned to push through to Diamond Harbor.

I resumed my audio book for the last two parts (it was split into four one hour reads) and churned away the next two hours with as much effort as my legs could take. This was the part of the run that was all technique. I worked myself into a zone and took each step purposefully. I walked the front side of the steeper short hills, short hopped down the back sides, and loped through the level sections. I listened to many suggested lists of how to meditate through various states of discomfort, fear, envy, anger, and my favorite — ignorance. I took this time to wish others to enjoy happiness and its root and to be free from suffering and its root. I played the unfamiliar terms of bodhicitta, maitri, lojong, and tonglen through my spiritual headphones. I recognized the familiar feelings and practices echoing my natural progressions. I saw the points at which I usually depart; the stresses that lead me to close down, the pain that reaches my reactive core when I lash out, the sorrow that wilts my will until I withdraw. And I celebrated the place that exists between the life of animals and the life of the stars. I extended my connection to my companions of the day: the sheep, the bikers, the trees, the flowers, the sun, the clouds, the hills, the trail, and the road beneath my feet.

My day companions. TL: Sheep, TR: Smiling cyclists, BL: Trees, BM: Flowers atop Scarborough Hill, BR: Cows (and bull in the road)

Summit Road to the finish

The Crater Rim walkway ended one hill before I expected. Several places of the trail after the Sign of the Kiwi were not clearly marked, but by the time I got to Cooper’s Knob I had clearly hit the end. There was a sign posted that the trail to the summit was closed due to dangerous conditions. I had to cut over to Summit Road and begin my road run descent. I passed the Omahu Bush Reserve which was the last vestige of the Port Hills greenery and continued alongside sheep and cow pastures. At one point a bull (yes, they let some of them roam freely here!) had escaped the pasture and was standing in the middle of the road staring at me. Fortunately I was able to keep distance and he eventually went back through a section of fence, but it did cost me 10 minutes and some apprehension about how to go forward if he didn’t move.

Road running is always better with scenery (and few vehicles). TL: From Scarborough Hill, TR: Summit Road after finishing Crater Rim Walkway, BL: Gebbes Pass Road winding my way back to the bay, BR: Charteris Bay Road as the day winds down
Somewhat blurry but colorful sunset at the end of my journey in Charteris Bay. I would like to paint a version of this soon.

The rest of the road run towards Diamond Harbor was fairly uneventful. There were no cars at all on Summit Road (although there were some CRAZY fit bikers!). I had hit mile 23 at around 2:30 (7:15 into the day) and was feeling weak but strong enough to run. I put in 4 miles of running and checked in with Janel. At this point I was clocking a 10-11 minute pace on the road so I figured I still had a chance to make it to Diamond Harbor before sunset. I started to really feel the burn in my legs around mile 30 and had gradually slowed to a 15 minute pace. I made a few calls to Janel to estimate finish time for the remaining 10K (thanks road sign!) and we worked out a plan. Unfortunately around 5:00PM I could no longer jog at all and was walking. After about 20 minutes of this I questioned my motives and what else I had to gain and made a similar decision to the morning. I wanted to see the sunset in a beautiful place; I needed to get off the bus and embrace what is now.

I called Janel, arranged a meeting point 500m up the road, spent 15 minutes watching the sun set over Charteris Bay, and cried for the vulnerability of my condition. I also cried when Janel and the kids picked me up and gave each of them a big embrace. At the end of the day when we have pushed our selves to exhaustion, when we are in a place of coldness and pain, we don’t have to grow numb and stumble our way to the ferry port to put ourselves back on the bus. We can soften our selves and open our selves to what scares us.

There are few things that scare me, but they exist. I have too many times chosen to wall off, avoid, repress, harden against, and fend off the things that scare me. What scares me? Needing help from others. And so I spent a whole day exhausting myself to find a limit. A limit at which I needed to ask for help. Thank you all for being there as I open myself to be a kinder person. We always have this choice.

My planned route. The green is the adjustment for getting off the bus early, and the red is the part I did not finish because sunlight was fading and my legs were shot. The actual distance ended up being 33.02 miles due to many switchbacks which were not in the manually drawn plan.
Elevation profile of the planned run. Total elevation gain was 2400meters (4800m total change). I actually think this was 10-20% lower than actual because the manually drawn plan route went straight through several sections rather than following the trail (the auto route planning apps didn’t have the full Crater Rim Walkway).

Bonus footage for those that read this far: a slightly motion sickness inducing time lapse of my first ~2 hours. I took a GoPro with me that was extremely helpful for taking pictures on the fly. I had it strapped to my chest and auto snapping shots for me for the first 2 hours and then I turned it to manual mode so that I could take a picture in a few second stop without having to fumble around with a camera:


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