The thunderstorm had just passed overhead, the hail and rain had stopped, the mist was blowing over the razorback ridge called the Crosscut Saw, and I was just starting to get glimpses into the Terrible Hollow, over to the Devil’s Staircase, and forward to Mt Buggery and Mt Speculation. A strange thought came into my head. ‘Time to write another blog post’, as I concentrated on not rolling my ankle on a loose rock, in high alpine wilderness. After 2.5 years, my final trip to Europe for ski racing, my retirement from elite skiing, winning the World Rogaining Championships (youth division) and many other adventures, the blog is back!
Reason for this post is a 50 mile (81km) ultramarathon on November 17th, which I decided to enter just over two weeks before the race, after someone on the Victorian Ultra Runners Facebook group offered to transfer his entry. The race is the Great Southern Endurance Run, an event which has a 181km run with over 10 000 metres of vertical climb as its main event, making it the fifth-hardest ‘miler’ (100+ mile run) in the world. I was in the sprint/short/kids’ event, at a mere 81km and 4200m vertical.
The day before
We drove up through about 3 hours of pouring rain, to a foggy, windy, and rainy Mt Buller. The overwhelming mood on the mountain was ‘thank god we’re not running today’, but the forecast for the following day wasn’t great – a few thunderstorms and below 10°C.
One of the shocks for me in taking up this sport is the requirement to carry mandatory gear. In cross-country skiing, you have to have skis and poles within regulation measurements (not difficult usually) then it is up to you what you wear. In rogaining, you have to prove you have a whistle and a compass, but otherwise you can choose whether to follow the recommendations for what to carry, according to weather and how long you plan to be out there.
For this race, we were required to carry approximately 20 different items! Most problematic in this race was a ‘200 weight fleece’, which basically means a heavy-but-not-too-heavy polar fleece, or a jacket made of synthetic down. After much deliberation, I forked out a substantial amount of money for the latter option, figuring I would appreciate the space and weight saving. A much cheaper purchase was a $4 high-vis vest, although this didn’t need to be worn anywhere for the 50 mile runners.
It isn’t an option not to take any of this gear — you risk getting disqualified or a time penalty.
The start was very different from that of a cross-country race — there you have the fear you are about to snap a pole or worse in a start-line collision (I have had a pole smack me in the face before), but here the nervous energy was more from dread about the difficulty of the course. Instead of my usual 45 minute warmup, I walked the 300m from my lodge to the start line at 4:40am, and when Sean called ‘go’ at 5am, 120 of us started to jog or walk, which quickly became a brisk walk for all as we went up next to the Bourke Street ski run, in the dark and in thick fog. Normally I start a race and can barely breathe from all the effort, this was a nice change of pace.
Before I knew it we were climbing the final stretch to the Mt Buller summit, avoiding the snow mounds that were still next to the track because of the terrain park jumps that had been built there in winter. Descending towards Family Run, I noticed some commotion up ahead: the leaders had taken wrong turn in the dark, and were going the wrong way! Fortunately I have skied Mt Buller on enough whiteout days to know where I’m going even when it almost completely dark, and so gained a few places on that turn.
We then dived off the edge of the ski run onto the extremely rocky 4 Mile Spur, which took us down to the Howqua Valley. Many of the other runners complained about the track being non-existent — I’ll concede it was a little faint, but I think the real problem is their eyesight! I ended up leading a group of ten runners down the mountain, and we would often pass people who had been in front but had strayed off the course. Many of these decided to join on the back of our group so they wouldn’t get lost again. Perhaps my rogaining skills were coming in handy…
By 6:40am we were down the bottom, all had wet feet from crossing the river, and were onto the Howqua River track, enjoying the sun which was just poking through the clouds. Perfect!
This was my favourite part of the day, and everyone else’s least favourite. I hadn’t done a heap of running before this event, but I am quite good at power-walking up hills, pushing on my thighs with my hands for extra power. The climb to the top of The Bluff took 1 hour 40 minutes, a Strava course record, and it felt good as I was able to overtake quite a few people, although many of these were would be running 100km longer than me. I got to The Bluff feeling over the moon: the wind was blowing, the air was fresh, and the view was magnificent. Little did I know that I had overtaken everyone during the last climb, and was leading the race, 26.5km in!
The next 19km were mostly the part of running I’m not great at: descending. I had run the Bright 4 Peaks two weeks before and had lost 2 minutes to one guy on a section which only took me 6 minutes, so wasn’t feeling that confident. Fortunately these runs are so long that no one goes particularly hard, and I didn’t lose as much time as I had been expecting. Some guys overtook me, then overtook me again about 10km later: thanks to a tampered-with track marker, they had gone an extra kilometre by turning the wrong way down a hill, which I had managed to avoid doing by looking at the map. I was glad I wasn’t in their position: an extra kilometre on 181k is sure to hurt!
Most of the descent was on a gravel road, which allowed me to relax a little. At this point the first heavy shower of the day hit, so out came the mandatory gear (a raincoat), and I trudged on, hoping it wouldn’t be like this for the rest of the day.
At the 45km mark, I arrived at the Upper Howqua aid station at 11:30 to… a crowd of cheering people lining the course, bright sunshine, campfires, the best watermelon I have ever tasted, and people everywhere doing what they could to help me out! I decided to spend ten minutes eating, getting rid of rubbish from my backpack, restocking food, and rubbing sunscreen into my dirty face — delicious! I then set off with Ashley, the guy I had briefly and unknowingly taken the lead from 20km before, up towards Mt Howitt, the second gigantic climb for the day.
I caught up to another guy, Charlie, about three quarters up the climb, just as it had started to pour with rain, and thunderclaps were getting closer. We were reluctant to climb into the alpine zone during a thunderstorm, because neither of us fancied getting struck by lightning, least of all Charlie, who had a close call the previous year in Europe. We decided to wait for Ashley, and move slowly up together, while the hail pelted down on us.
As we approached the summit, I realised the storm had passed so picked up the pace, and for the rest of the race (28km) I was by myself. Once again it was cold and windy on Mt Howitt, and the view was obscured by the clouds rushing from one valley, over the ridge, and down into the next. About this point I got truly into ‘the zone’, and was able to push through the pain of the steep and rocky Crosscut Saw, while awestruck by the spectacular scenery.
Episode II: Revenge of the Mandatory Gear
Having just passed a school hiking group, I made my way through the thick scrub to the beginning of the Mt Buggery climb. Yes, it’s still called that, and the name compliments nearby Mt Despair, the Terrible Hollow, the Devil’s Staircase, and Hell’s Window. At this moment I reached to check my backpack, and to my horror my rain jacket was missing. I immediately started re-tracing my steps to find it, trying to calculate the likelihood of finding it, the cost of having to buy another one, and the time penalty of finishing without mandatory gear, against the time cost of backtracking in a race. Fortunately, I had dropped it in front of the school group, and when I asked them to look for it they found it straight away! Overall the incident had cost me five minutes, but no one else had overtaken me.
On the other side of Mt Buggery, I slipped on some mud and landed quite hard on my backpack. At this moment I heard a loud bang, and thought I must have burst my Camelbak water bladder. However, the water down my back never came, and I eventually realised I had burst my packet of Smiths crinkle-cut salt and vinegar chips. Who knew I had been running with an airbag?
As I scrambled up the small cliff faces of Mt Speculation, and looked back at the ridiculous terrain I had just moved through, and noticed I couldn’t see anyone else. It started to dawn on me that I might be leading this race, but I made a conscious choice not to think about it too much.
Final Aid Station
I arrived at the Speculation aid station, which was very different from the last: no support crews were allowed up there, so it was just four race officials. I asked them how many had been through the checkpoint from the 50 mile race, and they said none! I quickly scoffed down the once-again-excellent watermelon, and trotted off, feeling the pain in my quads but with a spring in my step, for the first time knowing I was in with a chance! I was on a 9km section of flat 4WD track, which gave me a break after all the mountains, but I knew I was slower than many others on sections like this. I could also feel my quads getting noticeably heavier by this point. It was a relief to get back onto the Mt Cobbler climb, an out-and-back before the last descent to the finish, as I knew I was faster up the climbs than the others, and I would be able to see how far behind second place was on my way down. I was also slightly anxious however: I could once again hear thunder rumbling in the distance and getting closer, and didn’t fancy having to wait for a storm to pass, and potentially losing my lead.
As it happened, it was beautiful and sunny on Mt Cobbler, and I could even see the lake next to the finish line a few kilometres away. On the way back down I saw second (Ashley) and third place (Garry), but they were well behind, and I knew that, barring any disasters, I had this in the bag.
The final descent dragged on and on, and it started to rain, which made me worry about slipping over. The further down I went, the rockier it became, and by the end there were dozens of small fallen trees across the path, which I might have jumped over had my legs been fresher, but by now my quads were so dead that I sort of sat on the log and then swung my legs round to the side, not very gracefully.
I got to a creek crossing in the pouring rain, having heard cowbells and cheers in the distance: the finish crew had been told via the GPS tracker that I was nearby! I smashed my shin on a rock which moved unexpectedly while climbing up through rocks on the other side of the creek, but I knew by then I could make it even by limping to the finish.
I finally rounded the final corner, put my hands in the air, and finished in 12 hours 52 minutes 33 seconds, 18 minutes in front of second place.
Although it hadn’t felt quite as hard as some other events I have done (like almost any 24 hour rogaine), I still felt a wave of relief wash over me. Speaking of washing, I had been thinking about having a dip in Lake Cobbler at the end for much of the race. Unfortunately it was pouring with rain when I finished, so I wore my raincoat to the lake shore (to avoid getting wet!?) and had a towel in a plastic bag to keep it dry while I scrubbed the dirt of me as best I could.
We had a presentation with an audience of about five, including the guy who came fourth, and the fantastic people crewing the finish area in the sporadically pouring rain. I then managed to get a lift back to Mt Buller with the third-placed getter Garry’s family, which was a huge relief as otherwise I would have been waiting until 1am for the official bus!
The next day I attempted to walk around Buller Village, where I needed my hand held on the downhills because my quads were cramping so much. This occasional cramping continued for almost a week, and only 10 days later was I able to stand up without using my arms to push myself up! I think next time some more training in the lead-up might solve this problem…
I’m not sure what my next race will be, but in January I will be helping Jackson and Cassie on their epic run from North Queensland to Melbourne! Check out their social media on the web, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (click hyperlinks).s