For a few surreal minutes, I could have been on the moon. Giant strides take me downhill, deep into a valley filled with dusty, shifting rock, a chasm with an eerie stillness plucked straight out of outer space.
For a few short minutes Ruapehu's mighty crown, glowing white in the morning sunshine, lies behind me and out of sight. The thickening breeze confines itself to the ridges.
I imagine I'm bulletproof _ my thermal top is really Kevlar, my shoes have springs and my Camelpak hydration backpack is really a rocket booster. Obviously my brain has also somehow detached itself from my body.
Then out of the haze of sweat and dust and pounding shoes, a figure emerges dazed and blinking wildly, a rivulet of blood staining his forehead and cascading down his cheek.
Another runner stops and fumbles in his pack for a bandage.
My aura of invincibility disappears in a flash, and the pain returns just as abruptly.
Pardon the goat pun, but who am I kidding?
THEY call it The Goat, and the catch-phrase is `Have you Goat what it takes?'. It's a clever little nip at your ego, blinding you with the challenge while making you ignore reality.
In reality, the American International Assurance Tongariro Challenge is a 21km sub-alpine run across the spine of Mt Ruapehu, from Whakapapa's Iwikau Village to the chairlifts of Turoa above Ohakune.
Sweeping views of the Central Plateau dominate one side while an extraordinary close-up of the mountain casts an ethereal light across your left shoulder.
Former middle-distance star Jason Cameron first ran this track with a couple of running buddies in the winter of 2003.
They trekked through metre-deep snow in parts, quickly agreeing it should only be attempted in summer, but saw enough to know adventure runners would crawl over broken volcanic glass to get a piece of it.
Cameron is a Tauranga event manager who owns Victory Promotions, with former Olympian Robbie Johnston. They knew they'd stumbled onto a winning venue and within a year,they had attracted sponsors, got the marketing sorted and thrown together a wee pearler of a race.
Last year's Goat attracted around 230 athletes, subject to Department of Conservation approval. DOC lifted the limit to 400 this year for the second running, and the field was chocka three weeks before race-day.
Ruapehu is a precious piece of rock, a world heritage site, and Cameron is adamant their philosophy is about exertion rather than exploitation.
"One of the ideas we have is taking people into the raw fabric of the New Zealand landscape, and unlocking the door," Cameron explains. "It's taking people somewhere they've never been before."
I'D never even heard of The Goat until a mate dropped it into a conversation, and suggested I give it a blast. There's nothing like the comforting cloak of ignorance to cover even the most limited of preparations.
A solid training ethic has never been my forte. My swim squad coach greets me like a long-lost brother each time I turn up, and a couple of my mates have taken to calling me `Broken Arse'.
Apprehension grips me as I mill around at the start, 1607m above sea level. Commentator Mark Watson explains that this particular event is 17km worth of hope, and 4km worth of truth. The starting hooter sounds seconds later.
Unfortunately he's spot on. For 17km, I'm hopeful of finishing. I amble down The Bruce Rd until I get to the track, where the masses of competitors mercifully start to thin, set my sights on the shoes in front of me, and grit my teeth.
Within minutes, most people have stripped themselves of their compulsory gear _ the thermal gloves, the jacket, the beanie. The chilled alpine air soon heats with the breath of 800 lungs, and the cloud soon burns out into an inspiring day.
A pattern emerges. My quads start screaming at me on the downhill sections, and then my calves hurl abuse going up. The pace ebbs and flows like a tide. I'm washed along like helpless kelp. Each step becomes an immaculate blend of precision, pain and persistence.
CAMERON was the marketing manager at Auckland Cricket when he started the popular Cricket Mile series in the lunch-break of one-day internationals. He's directed the Rotorua Marathon, the Queenstown Marathon and has several events lined up in Bay of Plenty over the next 12 months. But Cameron reckons he's struck gold with the concept of organised off-road running. He believes it will do for the sport what fun runs and jogging did for athletics back in the 1960s.
It's not for the faint-hearted _ seven people were injured on this year's Goat, although all of them finished. In February, Cameron is taking The Goat to the South Island, hosting a 25km even from Lowburn to Cardrona.
He's got plans to increase the Ruapehu version to a maximum of 500 competitors _ subject to DOC approval _ and introduce electronic transponders so the competitors can be started in waves.
His race has attracted all shapes, all sizes and all ages over the last two years, and Cameron wants to challenge them, while providing a sense of achievement. He calls it a "holistic" approach to running an event.
THERE'S nothing holistic about my running as I near Mama's Mile, so named because that's who you'll be crying out for when you're embarking up the final 1600m of Turoa's Mountain Rd to the finish.
My 17km of hope ended when I got to the Mangaturuturu Hut. Hope just disappeared like a plug had been pulled and all I was left with was the truth. The truth was my 4kms of hell was about to begin.
A wise man said this race was just a series of false peaks. As I drag my sorry carcass over one knoll, Mt Ruapehu looms over a spectacular waterfall that's tumbling down into a valley from heights unknown.
All along its spine, ant-like athletes hug the rocks as they ascend. Forget the waterfall _ this may well be my Waterloo.
People scurry past me as I climb. I'm feeling like a punch-drunk sherpa. Luckily I've kept my gloves on, because I'm down to a crawl. I make it to the top only because it's too bloody far to go back. This day must end.
It's a vertical climb of 400m in the last part of the race, and never has tarseal looked so lovely as I finally hit Mama's Mile.
I'm down to a shuffling walk, but pride died long ago. Only when the finish tape appears do I muster one last gallop. I cross the line in 3hrs 15mins and 28secs.
The bloke next to me turns to his mate and says `that wasn't too bad _ I can see myself doing it next year'. He stops in mid-sentence as he catches a glimpse of my face. Maybe he thinks I've just swallowed a wasp. It's all I can do to mumble:
"You've Goat to be kidding."