A blind Start in New Zealand

The first weeks running in New Zealand gave me a false sense of security on their roads – I’d noticed a fair few reckless drivers but in general the roads had been fairly quiet.

Leaving Dunedin on State Highway 1 burst that bubble very quickly.

The New Zealand road network is a actually very similar to that of Sweden’s in that they’re both long narrow countries with only one option of road from one end to the other. There are no ‘quieter’ roads or B roads and the smaller roads all branch off the main roads and usually have no exit.

Motorways are few and far between, and are actually just the very same main road, but just re-classified for a few miles into and out of the major cities.

Where Sweden and New Zealand differ greatly is that the Swedish roads are pretty much motorway standard (wide lanes with shoulders most of the way) whereas the New Zealand SH1 is basically a ‘country road’ where people are allowed to drive at motorway speeds. The main arterials are fairly narrow lanes, very twisty, with lots of sharp rises leading to many blind corners and rises.

Kiwi drivers are as guilty as the rest of the modern world of driving these roads far too quickly. Nearly every driver takes these blind bends or rises at full speed, even the trucks, when they have no idea what may be around the corner (a broken down vehicle, a slow moving tractor?). This does however appear to be a modern day norm where we all seem to be in a rush and the idea of keeping your driving speed to within that of your stopping speed has long since gone by the by.

What I found completely shocking however, something which is far from the norm, is the Kiwi’s habit of driving off the road, for some reason preferring to be driving on the hard shoulder instead!

This is incredibly disconcerting when you’re a runner minding your own business running along the shoulder of the road, several yards from the flow of the traffic and all of a sudden a car comes flying around the blind corner at 110-120km (the speed limit is 100km but rarely enforced). For some reason unbeknown to anyone but the genius behind the wheel, they’ve elected to drive not in the clearly designated lane painted between the bold, solid white lines, but instead put half of their vehicle into the shoulder!

This isn’t a case of the roads being too narrow and an occasional vehicle just breaching the line of the shoulder when passing a wide vehicle in the oncoming lane – no, it’s just a habit of thinking it’s fine to ignore the law and drive off the road in the shoulder.

One out of eight seems to be the average, that is, 1/8th of car drivers and 1/6th of truck drivers navigate their way around blind corners and/or blind rises in the shoulder. It’s truly terrifying and absolutely exhausting.

Running 50km a day is tiring enough without every time you see a hill or corner having the fear of a driver hitting you, not by accident but because they think it’s cool to drive outside the designated lane and hurtle around blind obstacles in the shoulder!

You get tired of the fear, and you get tired by the numerous cars and trucks which do this, driving straight at you countless times a day.

At least I’m facing the traffic, I always run towards the traffic so I can spot careless drivers and, if need be, jump off the shoulder. In most countries this might happen a few times a month, for example someone reading a map, or texting on their phone who just drifts out of the lane and into the shoulder.

For cyclists, where the offending vehicles are appearing from the rear they really stand little chance. Out of the 19 countries I’ve run across I’ve not been anywhere where the drivers are intentionally off the road and cruising along at motorway speeds. Instead of an accident once or twice a month it might by 90 plus times a day where I found myself with a vehicle driving straight at me in New Zealand!

I really wasn’t aware of this in advance, and thought maybe I’d become ‘soft’ to the traffic having spent so much time on long empty roads across Australia. After checking cycling forums online though it seems it’s a well-known problem and many a cycle tourer has cut their trip short after a few days cycling on New Zealand roads.

The problem is the roads are twisty and blind but long and mostly empty, there’s very little population density and so driving them full speed all the time has just become the norm. You could probably drive the same blind corner over 20,000 times in a row and never encounter a broken down caravan in the lane or a cyclist in the shoulder. So why would you drive to the conditions that ‘there might be’ a reason to take the corner more slowly?

This would be fine if New Zealand wasn’t spending hundreds of millions attracting adventurous minded travellers to visit. New Zealand has some of the most spectacular scenery that a cycle tourer could ever hope to see, and long roads with little traffic volume. It sounds like heaven from afar! On the roads however there’s a real problem with cycle safety out here.

I can honestly say I’ve never felt so threatened as a pedestrian on any roads anywhere in the world as those of New Zealand. The driving standards in India might leave a little to be desired in some cases, but this is generally due to poor road surface coupled with enormous traffic volume. At least the vehicles are only travelling around 60kmh on average in India – out here there’s no valid excuse for the 1/8 terrible drivers and they’re driving more than twice as fast!

Half way through my second week on these busier roads, I bought a fog horn to fit atop my stroller. I use it to make drivers in the shoulder aware of my presence and at the same time politely remind them of the whole lane, next to me which they’re supposed to be driving in. Not many drivers take kindly to being ‘hooted’ at by a pedestrian! But hopefully it’ll make them think of staying on the road in future.

Really, I’m doing the errant drivers a favour. If a driver comes around the corner driving in the shoulder and hits me, I’ll know about it for a few seconds and that’ll be that for me, the driver however will have a lifetime of guilt to live through, knowing that it wasn’t an ‘accident’ but that they’d ‘chosen’ to drive in the shoulder and that’s the reason they killed someone.

I’m using far quieter inland roads wherever possible, often adding many days running to reach the same spot along the route but it’s far safer in general. And the horn really does seem to work wonders!

 

Down Under – Four Seasons in One Month

It takes a while to acclimatise to temperature extremes. Having run through 42 degree celsius (in the shade, around 55 in the sun!) across India I wasn’t exactly converted from a sun dodging pale skinned red head into a sun worshiper, but I was kind of used to being hot all day long.

I landed in Perth to 39 degree days, however the humidity was down at about 50% compared with India – it was beautiful! It was still far too hot to run through though, particularly  when having to carry your own water between towns, even more so when said towns are over 200km apart!

I left Perth on a completely nocturnal timetable, running through the night and sleeping during the day. I improvised a camp from equipment picked up in a hardware store, Perth.

The foil tarpaulin is designed to block 100% of UV radiation in order to protect boats/cars paintwork being damaged by the hard Australian sun, I figured it’d protect my pale Celtic skin just as well!

It was difficult to sleep in the heat but after a couple weeks I was managing to get some rest. After 6 weeks the temperatures began to drop slightly so I began running two blocks a day 5am-10am and then 6pm to 9pm, it was easier on the body clock to sleep through the night and have a rest during the main heat of the day.

This wouldn’t have been possible when I left Perth as it was oppressively hot even first thing in the morning!

I now had two camp set ups, the foil tarp was only necessary to block U.V radiation as it rarely rained without warning! Here I just used the insect net and the groundsheet, it was quicker to set up and strike camp, plus it gave me superior views to the endless stars of the desert night.

Finally, a couple weeks later I was able to run through the day. Towns were much closer together and so I didn’t need tocarry so much water, justenough to match the added sweat of running in the heat versus the cool of the night. The temperature also finally dropped to 18-22 degrees most of the day – a bearable heat for endurance running.

As the temperatures dropped it became less settled, more thunderstorms and heavy rain so I returned to the comfort of my tent for the rest of the run.

The last two weeks into Sydney were unseasonably warm, an Indian summer (as if I needed two in 3 months!). Iit was hovering around 26-28 degrees, which felt pretty hot compared to the 18 degrees of the previous few weeks.

The biggest shock was the short hop from Sydney to Queenstown, New Zealand.  The first day running  here it dropped to -2 with wind chill. When you’ve become used to not going much below 25 for 4.5 months that’s a real shock to the body.

I managed to run okay but when I stopped to eat I just felt sick due to the rapid temperature changes.

It took me a whole week of running to find a layering system I could run in without feeling sick when I stopped running or sweaty, and hence freezing cold whilst running. It’s difficult to manage and means adjusting layers all day long. When I started running the morning into Dunedin it was -2 in Milton without wind chill and around -8 with wind chill, by lunchtime it was a very mild 12 degrees and by 5.30pm when I finished it was back down to 5 degrees. It’s frustrating changing layers all day long but an absolute must.

As soon as your clothing becomes damp with sweat in a cold environment, it’s impossible for you to maintain warmth.

My arrival in NZ meant that seam sealing and re-waterproofing my kit was a high priority. It’s cold here but guaranteed to be wet also, very wet!

The first week in New Zealand I ran past the remarkable mountains (yes that’s the name of the range ‘the Remarkables’ ) from Queenstown airport to Kingston, Lumsden, Gore and Owaka. One of my sisters lives in Owaka and it was amazing to catch up with her after not seeing each other for almost three years.  It was a highlight  to run itno Dunedin on the Saturday where I met my Sister and brother in law in time to watch England almost beat the All Blacks on the Rugby pitch – incredible timing!

I’m back on the road heading north-east towards Auckland now, should be one month of running before I arrive in North America, just in time for another massive temperature change!

 

The Longest Month – Part 3

 

The final stretch of the run into Sydney meant crossing the mountains known as the Great Dividing Range, the third largest range in the world.

Usually I’m excited to head into mountains, I find the terrain so inspiring that I usually run stronger in spite of the added effort required to tackle both the ascents and descents (unlike cycling there’s no coasting on the way down, often downhills can be tougher to run than uphills!).

Although the Blue Mountains (the name of the mountains in this stretch of the dividing range) are beautiful, the road crossing them is a major arterial road connecting Sydney with the fastest roads west, including all the freight carried by road trains.

Unfortunately, building roads in mountains isn’t a straightforward task. It’s expensive and difficult and consequently the roads are very narrow, twisty, steep and worst of all, there is little to no shoulder.

It’s no exaggeration to state that to run on this road with my stroller would have been courting death. There are fifty tonne road trains coming down narrow steep roads, they take up every inch of the lane, driving around blind corners with no attempt to reduce speed. If something, or someone, is the other side of the blind bend, they will simply be flattened, especially if (as it was when I ran) it is a wet, greasy road due to heavy rainfall.

Fortunately I was rescued from this predicament by World runner Tom Denniss.

Tom, an Australian who lives in Sydney, completed his run around the world on 13th September 2013. 26,232KM around the world in just 622 days.

Tom had helped me with advice via both email and phone and I had hoped I would get to meet him and his wife Carmel as they live in Sydney. Tom contacted me and kindly came to meet me for four whole days before I finished the Australian leg of my run. Basically, he wasn’t going to let me risk my life pushing the stroller over the mountains – not in his back yard! He knew it was too risky.

Tom met me on the Saturday, took the stroller off me and then drove and ran with me the final four days into Sydney, past the opera house and finally finishing when I touched the ocean at Clovelly beach, just 2 km from Tom and Carmel’s house.

Tom would drive 7-10 km ahead, wait a while, run back down the road to find me a couple km from the car, and then run with me back to where he had parked. Here I would have a drink, grab a snack and repeat, all day – literally dawn till dusk!

Over only two days Tom ran a Marathon in this fashion, providing me a real boost in morale and helping the large 65-70km days pass by.

It was so cool to chat about elements of the run with Tom in a matter of fact way! For once talking to someone who fully understands the enormity of the task, but doesn’t think I’m crazy for doing it!

It was definitely one of the highlights of the whole run so far! Tom and Carmel also put me up at their home, washed ALL my stinking kit, fed me wonderful homemade meals and shared tales and advice from the road, which less than a handful of people in the world could possibly share!

I couldn’t stop smiling the evening before I finished the Australian leg of the run. I had run all day and finished just 25 km from the beach (15 km if not for a detour for the opera house and harbour bridge but I really wanted to run there en route!) there was little point finishing in the dark, so we had dinner and then returned the next day to run the final stretch.

Running across a whole continent as large as Australia is an unforgettable challenge and experience and having to run the last part in record pace was a tough ask, but I made it.

Getting to meet Tom and Carmel for the final days was the icing on the cake!