How NOT to Die in the Queenstown Marathon

By Hayden Shearman // Compared to the mountains that surround it, the Queenstown Marathon course looks decidedly flat. Its meandering riverside trails, long straight country roads, and million dollar lakefront views suggest “easy day out”. But be warned … from someone who watched the final 7k of the 2014 race from inside an ambulance, this marathon course can bite.

In its first year, I was forced to pull out of the Queenstown Marathon at the 35k mark as my achilles decided on an inopportune moment to give up the ghost. So the point of this article is to give you the tools to avoid what happened to me; to help you reach the finish line having enjoyed one of the most scenic marathons you’ll find anywhere on the planet.

The leafy, damp start to the Queenstown Marathon.

The leafy, damp start to the Queenstown Marathon.

So here are my top seven tips on how not to die at the Queenstown Marathon:

1) Check the Weather

Take a look at the weather stats for Queenstown in November. Swings and roundabouts is how I’d sum it up.

On average it’ll be gorgeous late spring weather around 20-degrees Celsius, meaning mid-teens at race start. Given the mid-morning start of the marathon this is a little warm for marathon running, but if you stay hydrated and make a habit at every aid station of putting one cup of water on your head and down your back and the other water or electrolyte down your guzzler you should be fine.

But Queenstown also has an equal probability at this time of year of taking a dive into either midsummer or midwinter—in the last 30 days Queenstown’s top temps have reached 28-degrees twice while also missed out on cracking into the teens four times.

In 2014 we had midwinter—particularly later in the race (for those running more than four hours) when torrential rain gave way to a biting southerly front. With no shelter on the lakeside trails to the south, and with tired and drenched bodies making their way into the teeth of this vicious wind, there were quite a number of DNFs due to exposure and the cold.

On the other hand, you could equally get stung by summer arriving a few days early and temps hitting the 30s. If this is the case you’ll immediately want to downgrade your time goals (think 2-3 minutes slower per hour of racing). But you’ll also want to dress and hydrate appropriately. More on that below.

2) Check Your Pre-Race Gear

If we strike similar conditions to 2014 and you’re not expecting to run under four hours, I would wear both a poncho and arm warmers, plus an old thermal. The thermal is to keep you warm while waiting in the exposed start area, chuck it once you get going (there are bins provided for this). But with the poncho and the arm warmers, just tuck them into your race belt or pocket once you warm up and save them for later if you are brought to a walk or the temps dive or the rain returns.

If it’s hot, wear loss fitting, moisture wicking clothing that provides some shade for your skin but doesn’t stop your skin from breathing. Stay cool in the start area by seeking out shade from the early morning sun.

If it’s normal (low of 9c and a high of 19c) and not raining, just have an old jumper you can discard once you get going.

3) Check Your Race Gear

The course is 70 per cent on trail and 30 per cent on road, but DON’T wear your trail shoes!

Trail shoes are built for stability and grip when running on mud and rocks and ice. The trails you’ll encounter here are mostly firm packed and even in 2014 when the torrential rain arrived, it was more like running through Hagley Park when someone has left the sprinklers on than through the Southern Alps in a rain storm.

The aid stations are spaced every 3-5k, with one particularly long gap between drinks around Lake Hayes. So if it’s warm and you feel you need something more regular, this would be a good time to make use of a fuel belt.

As with any race, go through the essential checks of:

  • Attaching your race bib to your top at least 24 hours before the race start (means you have time to find extra safety pins if needed);
  • Putting on your timing chip and double knotting your laces (crucial, especially if it is wet);
  • Allowing plenty of time before the race start for your fully charged GPS watch to connect to a satellite.

In 2014, the toilets were a little under supplied at the start area (either that or people were using them to stay out of the rain!). So try to do your “solid” business at the hotel and leave just the nervous pee for the port-a-potties.

Great signage all over the course.

Great signage all over the course.

4) Check Your Pace

From the start at Millbrook Resort, you drop down into Arrowtown, which is thick with supportive crowds, and then you start shifting along a beautifully undulating trail alongside the Arrow River. The rapidity at which these stimulating scenes come at you can conspire to convince you to run faster than you should, and faster than you think you actually are (particularly that GPS paces will underestimate your pace through the trails).

So go out easy!

Seriously, poor pacing is by far the number one cause of people having a bad marathon experience. So allow yourself the freedom of treating the first half as a warm up only and just enjoy the scenery.

If you’re not feeling like you’re going too slow, then you’re definitely going too fast.

5) Check Those Hills

The course is net downhill by 100m or so, but along the way you’ll climb a good 330m at least. Most of this climbing is inperciptable on the course elevation profile. They’re just small 2-15m gains that you do every few hundred metres. This would be perfect on a cruisy Sunday morning jog, but in a race setting where you’re aiming to run 42.2km as fast as you possibly can, it takes its toll.

So, first of all, you’ll want to accept that you will loose time in the first 19k. There are almost constant rollers and undulations on the trail alongside the Arrow River (3k-7k) and then you climb up and over Hogans Gully Road to reach Lake Hayes. The Lake Hayes trail section is 7k (11k – 18k) and continues the undulating theme before hitting a solid up-and-down on the western side of the lake (this climb is similar in size and duration to the Auckland Harbour Bridge).

Once you’re back on to the roads, you hit possibly the worst hill of the course up to Speargrass Flat Road. But don’t worry, even though you’re about to get beautifully flat and straight country roads, the hills aren’t gone for good.

The steep drop to the lake below the trail gives you an idea of what the hills were like around Lake Hayes.

The steep drop to the lake below the trail gives you an idea of what the hills were like around Lake Hayes.

6) Check Those Other Hills

From my memory, there are three main climbs remaining. The final two are the worst: firstly the climb up to the Old Shotover Bridge (26.5k) and then the climb up from the Kawarau River (30.5k). This final one is a bit of a heart breaker and I wouldn’t bother running it. Just crank up the arms and power walk your way to the top, preparing yourself for a predominantly flat run home.

7) Check Your Inner Voice

With all the hills now behind you, and one stunning lakefront trail standing between you and your finishers’ medal, now is the time to silence those messages that would tell you to quit or to slow down. Instead, crank up to 30 the voice inside you that has been getting you out the door for training runs these past months.

This is the voice that helped you grab one serving of desert instead of two and opted for salad over chips. Sure, you may not have listened to it all the time, but it is in you and now is the time to let it roar. You have 12k to let this voice have complete reign over your bodily functions.

Let that voice make the most of your earlier patience in pacing in order to mow down the runners in front of you who went out too fast. Let it put one foot in front of the other at a cadence that defies every signal of tightness and fatigue that your body can conjure up. Let it hunt around in your sub-concious for every cheesy Tony Robbins motivational quote you’ve ever heard. Pain is temporary, a negative split on Strava is forever!

Silence the doubts with your maniacal positivity. Let your running muscles party like your drunk aunty Cheryl who refused to leave the dance floor even though the wedding band had well and truly finished. Own this final 12k. Tell it who is boss. And put in a little surge for me around the 35k mark, affirming that you don’t need an ambulance to get you to the finish!

Be alive.

The view with about 2k to go—nice and flat to finish.

The view with about 2k to go—nice and flat to finish.

Happy running and let me know how you get on!

8 responses to “How NOT to Die in the Queenstown Marathon

  1. Beautiful scenery and thank you for these running tips! Very inspirational. I am currently training for Phoenix AZ marathon, first week of training down! Happy running!

  2. I will attempt the Queenstown Marathon this year (will be my first marathon) and I was looking for a map of the profile when I came across this very very motivating report. Thank you soo very much. Should I get that far- my thoughts at the 35 k mark will be with you!!

    • Julie me too! First marathon although it’s my third time down at Queenstown running. Good luck.

      And also thanks Hayden for this article 🙂 Very helpful!

  3. All the very very best to ALL 42K’rs & Half Marathoners on this beautiful scenic Queenstown Marathon Course 2021. Thank you to Hayden for his inspiring encouragement …

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