Trail running the Routeburn Track

While training hard for the Coast to Coast Longest Day, Holly, found a new freedom of taking it easy when she least expected it... Trail Running the Routeburn Track!

Written by Further Faster Athlete and friend, Holly Weston.


"An element of training is always going to be numbers focused. This part I understand, it’s a great way to gauge where you are at – power, speed, distance, time, cadence – some of my runs this year I would catch myself cringing at how slow my zone 2 plod must look to those scrolling through the strava feed, as if this defines where I am at physically. I find at times it can be suffocating – I feel like a caged animal and want to rebel against no one – just the numbers themselves.


6 weeks until race day – a time when each session really seems to matter, the start line on Kumara beach looming not so far in the distance, my heart racing at the image of it. About this time I tend to go into a bit of a panic mode and try make up for every session I felt was lacking in quality or missed, a rabbit hole that I would climb down without the reasoned insight of a coach. This also coincides with my holiday break, where I loose the structure of the work week, a wonderful thing but sometimes it takes a bit to settle into the routine of not having a routine at all.


Great walks and runs of NZ


So it was an interesting experience when I went to run the Kepler track on one of the first days of the holiday. I went with a new friend, a local adventure racer with a much more relaxed approach to life than me but the same “lets just send it and see how far we go” personality. When he saw a mother of his close friend, he stopped our run to walk and talk to her. He gave her his time rather than your standard, “hi how are you”, “good thanks” and leave approach that I was so accustomed to. I had to supress the hamster running around my brain – take a few breaths and simply walk for a moment as the pair took the time to check in with where each other were at. It was then I could actually appreciate the meaningfulness of this connection, one that would have been missed had I had my way and proceeded without stopping at all on our run.


My new friend and I surprised ourselves about how natural our conversation was – somewhat encouraged by the level of stoke for this beautiful part of the country and our privileged view point up high above the Luxmore Hut. I often think that there is a thing called “wilderness talk”, a non-romantic version of pillow talk, where you are able to shed your layers until you reach a level of transparency and openness that you would never share otherwise. Where the cloud of uncertainty, anxiety and confusion lifts to a new plane of clarity and understanding. Never have I felt more connected to who I am than out here dancing amongst the mountains and the beech forest.


I was overwhelmed by the amount this lifted my spirit, and was given a huge amount of gratitude for my legs and lungs that now so easily carried me over vast distances of exploration without a second of hesitation.


I left my friend and headed to the place I call home, Glenorchy at the top of lake Wakatipu, embarking on what I considered to be a training camp as much as a catch up with some of my closest friends. I was scheduled to do a long run that had at least some similarities to Goats Pass. Having not run the Routeburn in years I thought this would be an ideal opportunity for an out and back to Conical Hill, the track only recently opened after severe weather damage.


As a local to Glenorchy growing up I typically had this sort of ingrained prejudice that the Routeburn was full of tourists, a place to be avoided, preferring the much less beaten tracks that surrounded the area.


Holly weston multi sport athlete nz


However, on this last day of the year 2020, I was able to have an appreciation for the beauty of New Zealand’s population getting out and enjoying what this country has to offer. The well formed track making this possible and achievable for those who would often be deterred due to lack of experience and/or fitness levels.


I set out on my run, looking at my watch and heart rate, ready for a decent work out – one which I had hoped would level out the holiday season and start what would be the next 6 weeks of focused training.


I was immediately joined by a couple that were also planning on running the Conical Hill return. Somewhat annoyed that I seemed to not be able to shake this pair, speeding up and not dropping them, slowing down and they would follow suit. I had planned to have a solo run and this was already being derailed.


At the first bridge there was a line up of people waiting to cross due to the limits of weight capacity for the swing bridge. “Sigh” – pause the watch – wait. I had started to go into a downwards spiral of frustration. This wasn’t what I had planned – maybe I should have chosen a less popular route after all?


I walked across the bridge with an older couple. The woman asking me about what I was doing without my large tramping pack and recounted to me about how her son had once done Coast to Coast and that it seemed like awfully hard work. I guess I agreed but shrugged it off. Once over the bridge I was about to take off when the woman seemed intent to carry on our conversation. I reminded myself of the lesson I had learnt two days earlier.


Beautiful Pure NZ


So we walked for a few moments and discussed what the last day of the year meant to us. The man with her saying he couldn’t wait for it to be over, the worst one yet. I could concur to be honest. But then found myself saying “but look where we are!” The woman smiled and thanked me – as if this was not the first conversation they had had of this kind. And then for some reason I was bold enough to ask them about their turbulent year and what brought them to the Routeburn for New Years.

I was lucky enough to gifted with the most incredible story. Of a man who had lost his job he had been working at for 20 years, that he had devoted his life to - but also of a family that was finally brought back together – children returning from overseas – the gift of time together – many of the usual distractions taken away. And the children had purchased their parents 3 nights on the Routeburn, a track which had been in its own hibernation and had finally reconnected with the people. I thanked the couple for their transparency, told them I would most likely see them on my return and ran on with a spring in my step – energised by an appreciation for this beautiful track, the vibrancy of the deep rainforest, the crunch of the brown leaves underfoot and the sound of waterfalls crashing all around me.


And so I spent the rest of my run stopping and listening – taking photos and learning an immense amount about these wonderful country people who had taken on the challenge of putting down their ipads and trudging along the track from the Divide (or reverse). I made the point to those that thought it was somewhat insane to be running along, that what they were doing was so much more impressive, noteworthy and remarkable. My vest weighing very little and my body well-conditioned to this sort of thing. Their courage in taking on the challenge, carrying what seemed like an excessive amount of equipment for three days, and taking on the great outdoors was really quite remarkable. I revelled in the numbers that were ready to experience what this country had to offer, in exchange for a trip to Japan for the ski season, a family pass to Disney Land, or for the younger generation, 8 days partying on a boat in Croatia. Here was a chance to reintroduce themselves to their backyard, to leave only footprints, carry their own gear, to drink from a stream that required no filter, and to stand and appreciate the wide expanse of the National Park.  


I leaped and I skipped, so overwhelmed by the stories of the people I stopped to talk to. Not once did I look down at my watch. There was the group in their 20s who choose to sit out the festivals for a night in a cabin playing cards with their friends. The seven year old who proudly told me she was almost 8 and that they had a new dog but they couldn’t bring it with them.


The older looking woman who flew past with her Kepler beanie on, clearly well versed in the meandering track. The woman who was looking quite overwhelmed by the climb and didn’t appear to want to engage, which was fair enough – and this point my mood was becoming somewhat full on, smiling from ear to ear, pigtails flying behind me – the energy of the mountains reverberating to my core – healing and recreating the same sort of wonder I had experienced only as a child.


In my first solo run in a long while I was anything but alone. I was free to engage with all of those around me, available to chat to the group on the tour who had stopped to swim in the freezing cold glacier pools – the children hysterical with laughter as one of the larger men in the group (with an even larger amount of hair on his body) bombed into the pool and almost sent the children flying onto the rocks.


Then there was the mother with her two twins and her friend she had to take along to carry one of them – her path of life changed considerably by the unexpected news that she was to be the mother of not one but two children. Of the incredible nature of the human body and mind to adapt – to let go of an expected path to embrace another – one with even more wonder than could ever be imagined – the beautiful babies completely immersed by the green surroundings and the fantails – a reminder to stop and appreciate the smaller things.


Routeburn Track NZ


I powered my way up Conical Hill – running around beaming, taking photos of every group at the top. Standing somewhat awkwardly for my own photo – marvelling at the expanse of the valley below, the flowers that found a way to grow up on this mountainous terrain, the lake up high completing most wonderful view in the world – one that was so remarkably accessible to the wide range of people that were standing with me on top of this mountain – the ones that took the extra time to detour.


On the descent I realised that this was a prime opportunity to practice a bit of technical running and I couldn’t spend all day being a social butterfly. I put my chatter box away and started to hoon down the hill without inhibitions, politely skirting around those still going up and down, feeling on top of the world until…. “SPLAT” I hit the deck, a stark reminder of my lack of coordination and propensity to forget about some of the dangers posed by a slippery rock face. I looked up and saw a woman staring at me, shocked and clearly reaffirming her earlier thoughts that I was going far too fast. I picked my ego up off the ground and grinned at her, a reassurance that this happens all the time (which it does) – and jogged off a bit more tentatively with blood pouring from my knees, only reopening the scars from previous adventures.


After getting back into my rolling pace and heading on the return journey – It was invigorating running past all of the groups that I had caught up with on my way out – I felt like I knew them now – passing a few exchanges as if we were old friends on the trail. I knew where they were from, why they were there and where they were going. Whilst our purpose on the track was in many ways so different, it was also very much the same. We were levelled out here. We had all experienced some form of adversity – but that’s the essence of living and what it means to be alive. And out here there was little that mattered other than where you placed your feet and where you rested your eyes.


Learning to relax... keeps you young NZ


Whilst this run certainly wouldn’t have earned me any strava crowns, the value of the human connection was so much more rewarding – out here talking and sharing the experience with complete strangers – a realisation that sometimes it is ok to slow down and listen."





1 comment

  • Josie

    Alrighty, time for me to give the Routeburn Track a go. What a beautiful piece :)

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