I’m half-way up Keating’s Ridge, in the foothills of Mt Buffalo. The rain has just begun, and I know it will probably rain for the rest of my run, another 26km of extremely steeps climbs and descents. I’d gone out a little hard – or with ‘blue-sky thinking’ in office jargon – and was now paying the price for it. The motivation is lacking, so I pull my phone out to play me some music, anything to take my mind off the misery. I manage to use voice command to get something playing, a piece of music starts, and… I burst into tears.
This has never happened to me in a run before, or in any sort of sport during a race.
Once the first piece has finished, I decide to put on something that is a classic pump-up piece of sportspeople everywhere – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. During its 66 minutes, I start crying every five minutes or so. The rain pours down, the wind howls, my legs get cold, and I literally slide back down muddy slopes that I am trying to scramble up. That familiar thought comes to me: why the hell do I do this? But first…
What I was doing there
I hadn’t planned to do the 75km (actually 77.5km) Buffalo Stampede Ultra Skymarathon (I didn’t make up the term I promise), until an illness earlier in the year meant I was unable to do a much shorter and more sensible race, and I was allowed to transfer my entry (thanks Sean and Mel!). I had heard that this race was hilly, spectacular and had tough competition, so I decided I might as well enter. I forgave the fact the race goes against the name philosophy of this blog – retracing your steps is half an adventure wasted – because this race was 99% out-and-back.
I had battled somewhat average health for weeks, but decided to run anyway; I had raced while nearly sick three weeks before and everything had gone smoothly. A and I packed the car and drove up to Bright, Victoria.
The first 10km
The starting gun went at 6am on Saturday, and about 120 of us nervously jogged into the darkness in Bright. I noticed many competitors had collapsible poles for the climbs; I don’t own any so was necessarily without them. I hop into about 7th place, leading a small group and knowing that if I was to get into the top 10, and hopefully finish in 10 hours, I should at least be starting near the front. As the sun rose we hit the first climb, the infamous Mystic Hill, up a track through a pine plantation, but sometimes on less-steep mountain bike trails. I can feel my legs a little but still feel comfortable.
On the way down the other side of Mystic, we come to a sudden left turn, and (figuratively) dive off the edge of the road down an impossibly-steep logging track. The dirt is dry so I keep my grip, but the others around me are much more skilled here; they fly past me while I try not to tumble down the 1 in 2 (45% average) gradient. My plan is to overtake them on the next hill, equally as steep but 200m higher than the first, which I do without difficulty. I do however notice that others just behind me (particularly Lucy Bartholomew, a professional runner) are talking much more than I would be able to, had I tried. I reach the aid station at Clearspot, 1000m high and 700m above the valley floor, in fifth place. A small crowd had gathered to watch us come through, the sun was streaming through the clouds, the view was spectacular, and I felt fine.
During the descent to Buckland Valley I was dropped off the back of a small group, but I wasn’t too concerned – I knew downhills were my weak spot before the race. The Mt Buffalo Gorge came into view, an enormous rock face, on top of which was the halfway point for the race. I lost more ground at the end of the descent, which was so steep it made me swear and fear for my safety. Eventually I hit a road section and I could relax.
After a brief wrong turn where someone had decided to remove a trail marker, I was back on track, heading over Keating’s ridge, and less than three hours after the start I had begun the Buffalo climb, having run 25.5km of 77.5km. The climb was enjoyable, as always – I caught a few people and enjoyed the view on the way up, although I was cold by the time I reached the aid station, and my feet were hurting from the rocks underfoot. A was at the aid station, and I requested my spare pair of shoes for the next time I came through that point, 8km later. I put on gloves, a buff, gloves and a thermal top, and set off for Chalwell Galleries, a 0.5-1m wide, ~15m deep rock crevice that requires a bit of a squeeze and a few descents using your hands to pass through. I had reached the half-way point 5h05m into the race, which left me on track for a 10 hour finish, considering the race was overall downhill from that point on.
If only it were that easy, right?
I swap shoes for something more protective, and start running down. My legs aren’t as warm or as fresh as they were two hours ago, and it begins to dawn on me that the endurance I sometimes have isn’t quite present today. Two French runners pass me, and one says to the other ‘c’est maintenant que la course commence’ (trans: now the race begins), which makes me realise that my race is somewhat over: my legs are tired and my balance doesn’t feel fantastic while hopping over rocks on the descent. It was time to switch to survival mode.
I felt the odd drop of rain, and was thankfully nearly at the bottom before I needed to put on my raincoat. I saw A at the aid station down the bottom, and realised that I didn’t really feel like running for much longer. I commented that not finishing (DNF-ing) was possible, but then I decided that this was not the day for my first running DNF – I needed a better excuse than a bit of rain to justify not finishing. I set off back into the gloom, and decided to pull out my phone for some music (see beginning of article).
The music did actually help me to run a bit faster: it gave me a tiny jolt of energy which lifted my pace. It wasn’t enough to avoid getting overtaken by a few more people, some of whom asked how I was going. ‘A bit rough’ I would reply, adhering to the Australian tradition of understatement.
I was 62km in, with a mere 15km to go, as I started the climb back up to Clearspot. That hill that had made me shit my pants – figuratively, but worth clarifying this in an ultra – had now turned into a natural slippery-dip. At some points I was taking steps that went nowhere: I would plant my foot then slide back down to my starting point. My pace slowed below 3km/h as I struggled up. We were on the exposed edge of a recently-harvested pine plantation, so the rain was coming in from the side, with a wind that whipped up the exposed slope and hit us with decent force. I was managing to gain ground on the last two people who had overtaken me; one didn’t finish the race in the end, and the other I caught briefly, but then he pulled away from me again when the slope levelled off.
As we neared the summit, it became clear to me that I would need to put my waterproof overpants, as my legs and core were feeling pretty cold. A had asked me the day before whether I would ever use them to run (they were part of the mandatory gear so I didn’t have a choice to carry them), and I said that I wouldn’t put them on save for the foulest weather. Thankfully the pants were mandatory, as I probably wouldn’t have brought them otherwise! As I stopped, there was sleet mixed in with the rain, the wind was gusting, and the clouds had a dark quality to them. This qualified as the foulest weather!
I reached Clearspot, the final aid station, and realised that those staffing the station were having almost as bad a time as I was! They were exposed to the elements up there; the marquee was fortunately lashed down to prevent it blowing away, but the people didn’t look like they were having the best time. I had hot tea and soup, then Mel (race director) told me to get out of there so I didn’t get too cold by not moving. I reluctantly took her advice, and started off down the steep hill back to the bottom of Mystic. I realised that I wasn’t gripping the mud, so decided to half ski down, which was fine until I fell on my arse, and then just slid for a few metres. I grabbed onto whatever little shrubs were there to control my descent, but it wasn’t much use. At some points I literally sat down in the mud and pushed, sliding a few metres each time. At one point, I noticed the mud moving under me and gathering its own momentum; as I regained some traction I turned around to watch a small mudslide following me down the hill.
Remember that first impossibly-steep track? It was now time to climb it. I looked up, gave it the biggest scowl I could muster (see photo) and started climbing. There was a stream of muddy water going down the middle of the track; in many points the only way I could get traction was to climb in the stream because it flowed over rocks. I felt the mud flow over my gloves and into my raincoat sleeves, I slid back down the hill at times, I went off into the bush to bash through shrubs instead at times. At times the wind gusted so strongly I thought the trees were about to snap, and the roar was deafening. After much swearing, shouting and a bit of crying, I was back up at the top, ready for the final descent. My speed had dropped below 2 km/h at times.
By ready, I mean my arse and back were already muddy, so falling on it five more times made no difference at all. I made it down, and hit the river track for the final 3km to the finish. I nervously looked over my shoulder, not wanting to concede any more places. I reached the finish line in 11h18, after 77.5km and 4500m of vertical climb (more than half of Mt Everest). I am completely wrecked. I burst into tears (for the final time fortunately), slump in a chair and am covered in a blanket. I am cold, exhausted, and have been sodden for hours. I was in 15th place, below my expectation and well over an hour slower than I had hoped. I did allow myself to feel some satisfaction later, when I learned that I was one of only 47 to finish, as they had cut the race short because of the terrible weather. An hour later, I was back in front of the fire at the house where we were staying, starting the slow process of restoring my body’s heat control.
Will I be back for next year after such a scarifying experience? I haven’t decided yet, but I know if I want to stay with this sport there will most likely be similar experiences in the future. I also know that my sub-10 hour goal still needs completing…
Thanks to Sean and Mel for organising the race, Sue and Geza for hosting us, all those who braved the cold to help the runners, and most of all to my girlfriend, who got a unique insight into just how crazy we ultra-runners are, and was a huge help on the day.