It must have been at the Poor Man's Comrades FatAss run in June 2004 that ultra nut Sean Greenhill told me about plans for a 150-mile run from a beach somewhere on the south eastern coastline of Australia to the top of the continent's highest peak, Mt Kosciuszko. Apparently, the idea was the brain child of Australian ultra deity Paul Every, of Trans-Australia Footrace and Spartathlon fame. At the time, I did not give it much thought and dismissed it as crazy talk.
Whenever someone suggests new runs before, during, or after an ultra, I tend to be less than receptive: The task at hand usually requires full attention, which is a weasely way to say that I am too nervous beforehand and too buggered during and afterwards to seriously think about ideas even more outlandish than the one that got me into the current trouble in the first place.
But time, as many of the repeat offenders in the ultra world will confirm, is an amazing memory filter. Its effect soon enough weakens the resistance to the lure of the challenge - to do a little better than before, to go a bit further, to attempt the seemingly crazy. Soon enough the vows to never, ever do something stupid like this again are forgotten or condemned to ignorance. Wobbly-legged arguments are constructed to put the task into some kind of reach. Last time wasn't too bad, and this is just a bit longer or hillier or drier; we'll be right. Before you know it, you are smack in the middle of the next one.
This pattern had repeated itself ever since I had returned to running ultras in 2000 after a seven-year hiatus. From the Six-Foot Track Marathon it progressed via the wonderful Sydney FatAss runs, including the Twelve-Foot Track, Poor Man's Comrades, and Katoomba-to-Mittagong, to the 100-miler at Queensland's Glasshouse Mountains.
Yet I remained reserved when Sean posted a note to the FatAss messageboard in the middle of July 2004 with a proposed route for the Coast-to-Kosci run and a call for expressions of interest. The idea of a 150-mile trek during the hot Australian summer seemed too daunting to me. On the other hand, this run would not be just another turn of the screw. To go from sea level to the highest point of a continent in one push, from the beach to the top of the mountain, from where the land meets the water to where it meets the sky, is something one does not get to do every day, and to be amongst the first to attempt such a feat made it even more tempting. Deep down, I knew that I would regret bitterly if I missed this without having at least given it a go.
The turning point came after the "Into the Blue" FatAss in October 2004. While I had suffered badly after becoming sick only 20 km into the run and battled for over 50 km from there before starting to recover, my FatAss friend Lawrence Mead had a great day and enthusiastically signed up for Coast-to-Kosci afterwards. He offered to give me a lift to the start and in doing so took away the major excuse I had for not fronting up. Lawrence's partner Carol would be crewing, so the plan was to stick together.
When the day of the run approached, it looked like there would be only four of us starting: Paul, Sean, Lawrence, and myself. David Criniti, one of the initial planners of the Coast-to-Kosci, had to pull out after injuring himself at the mind-bogglingly tough Deca-Ironman in Hawaii following his stellar performance at the Kona Ironman a few weeks earlier where he had run the second fastest marathon leg by a single second. Dave having to pull out was a real shame - he is a great athlete and would have given everyone a good sounding as to what is possible on the course.
The day before the run, Lawrence picked me up early in the morning with his trusty Toyota Trooper. The Troopie had taken him and Carol all over Australia on their numerous trips through the Outback and had never let them down, except for one time when a drive shaft broke on them. This had not, however, stopped the trip because, being a 4WD, there was another axle left that could be driven independently. We then picked up Carol from work - she had just finished her night shift and proceeded to bunk down in the back of the truck. After crossing the expanse of Sydney north to south we were approaching the turnoff to the Royal National Park when I saw a familiar character striding along by the side of the road. It was none other than ultra legend Max Bogenhuber, finisher at every single Six-Foot Track Marathon and multiple finisher of the Western States 100-miler in California. I took it as a good omen.
We made good progress southwards. When we passed through Berry, we saw a VW Beetle parked in front of a street cafe with Paul, his partner Diane and their driver Richard Peacock sitting at a table. We pulled into the next side street and went back to say hello. When we returned to fire up the Troopie again, something was not quite right. The brake power had gone and a warning light in the dashboard was on. Lawrence could not believe it, the truck had just been serviced. After seeing a nearby mechanic who was flat out and could only spare two minutes to have a look at the car, Lawrence followed his advice to slowly make his way further south to Nowra, where there might be a better chance to have the problem fixed. A nerve-wrecking half hour later, we pulled up at a brake specialist in Nowra.
Things were not looking too good. The vacuum pump for the power brake booster was history, and it would take at least a day to get a part and put it in. Strangely, the mechanic suddenly became a bit hostile, and we ended up lurching to another mechanic a few streets away. He was very helpful and promised to have the car back on the road by quarter past nine the next morning. That meant Lawrence and I had to somehow make our way to Eden and Carol would catch up with us along the course of the run. Fortunately, the daily bus going to Eden had not left yet; we had a bit less than an hour. In the meantime, we had alerted Sean and his crew to our misfortune, and soon after, they stopped on Princes Hwy just beside the garage. After a brief chat to Sean and his crew, mum Gayl and fellow runner Chris Hockman, one glimpse at the back of their car bursting with gear and provisions told us to can our plan of depositing some of our night gear and food into Gayl's wagon. She told us she would pick us up when we arrived at Eden, then they drove off while we changed into our running gear, stuffed a little food and drinks and some spray jackets and thermals into a few shopping bags, said good-bye to Carol, and hurriedly made our way to the bus stop.
During the 6-hour bus trip to Eden, the weather was changing. It had been sunny and quite hot when we left Nowra, but the further south we went, the thicker the clouds grew, and by the time we reached Batemans Bay, it had started to rain. In Bega it poured, and judging from the flooding on the fields, this was not the first day of heavy rain. Eventually, we pulled into Eden, where both Gayl and Richard were waiting for us. We were glad to have made it to the start, and a while later, everyone was assembled at the caravan park on the southern edge of town. As we had suspected, the weather had been wild over the last few days. The others told us that lightning had struck the park, ignited a gas line, and taken out the phone lines. I stayed in a cabin with Paul, Diane, and Richard and was mightily impressed with their meticulous crew preparation. Diane had crewed for Paul at many running and triathlon events, and Richard - himself a runner - had volunteered at running events like the Sydney Trailwalker and for his running club, the Sydney Striders. They both know about running and how to keep an ultra runner going.
A light rain fell when the four runners and the crews assembled at Boydtown Beach just before dawn the next morning. It was Friday, the 10th of December 2004. This stretch of Australian coast has a special place in Paul's heart. It was here that he and his fellow Trans-Australia racer Bobby Brown reached the Pacific after starting at the Indian Ocean and crossing the entire continent from West to East on foot in the summer of 2001. Paul waded into the surf and filled a bottle with seawater. He planned to pour some of it over the Strzlecki monument on the summit of Mt Kosciuszko and mix it with snow or rocks from the roof of the continent. Lawrence and Sean also collected water and beach sand; Lawrence used special hospital containers with little spades that are normally destined to hold quite different samples.
A couple of months before, Paul, Diane, and Sean had done a reconnaissance trip to scout out a possible course for the run. As a result, they had produced a route description for both runners and crews. It made for scary reading. Neatly listed were all the turnoffs and some other landmarks such as the marathon, 100-km, 100-mile, and 200-km points. I had also copied a few pages from my New South Wales Road Atlas and stuffed them into the Camelbak together with the course description. Six A4-sized, 1:250,000 scale pages to cover the route - scary indeed.
We were all excited and raring to go. Paul had previously finished the Spartathlon, a race of similar length, albeit with a 36-hour cutoff, so at least he had some idea of what was ahead. The rest of us had 100-mile experience from Glasshouse, Sean was also a finisher of the Western States 100-miler. I guess for us three "babies" the excitement was mixed with a good dose of trepidation. We did not really know what it would be like to have to go on for another fifty miles and heaven knows how many hours after matching the longest distance we had run before. I was, however, quietly confident -barring accidents, serious injury, or freaky conditions- about my prospects of reaching Mt Kosciuszko. After all, I had finished all the really long runs such as Katoomba-to-Mittagong or the Glasshouse 100 with the feeling that I could have gone further. (Of course, that could have been just the adrenaline rush of finishing, and it could also mean I should have pushed harder.) With alarming regularity I had had problems with nausea and vomiting relatively early into many runs, sometimes after only 20 or so km. I had experimented with different types of food and drinks to find out a cause, without a result. It had happened in hot and cool weather, after going out quicker and slower, with and without taking salt tablets. However, given enough time, which is to say, for runs long enough, the body would -more often than not- recover eventually and allow me to pick up the pace again and finish more or less strongly. So, for this run I expected problems in the early stages but hoped to be able to pick up the pieces later on.
When we finally got going -not until a suitable number of start line photos had been taken- my shirt and shorts were already wet, and the feet were not faring much better. At least we would not have to worry about keeping dry. We left the beach and its car park and followed the Princess Highway north for a few hundred metres. After crossing the Nullica River we turned left onto a fire trail that went straight up to climb the coastal hills. This trail cut through bush before emerging on Towomba Road which is unsealed but wide and well-graded. Paul disappeared from view as Lawrence and I stopped to wait for Sean who had dropped his camera and searched without much success for the missing battery cover. The three of us stayed together, all relying on Sean's crew vehicle for the moment.
Gayl stopped every 5 km as we traversed Nullica State Forest. There, we came across a road crew getting ready for work. They must have wondered what on earth those Camelbak-wearing, soaked lunatics were doing there early on a Friday morning. Soon we made our way into the picturesque Towomba River valley. Lush and green after the recent rain, the gently rolling hills on either side of the river with paddocks full of content-looking cattle reminded me of the countryside in the Saxony region of Germany where I grew up. We jogged along happily, past the school bus, and just enjoyed the tranquil scenery. It was great to see all the water around with the creeks running and the river flowing after the area had been in the grip of a long drought. By now, the rain had stopped. When we reached the turnoff to Big Jack Mountain Road at 35 km, a car was parked by the side of the road with a young lady as the driver who, it turned out, was there to cheer us on. Amanda was a friend of Sean who had come all the way from Canberra to wish us well! She told us that ahead were a few sections of road that had become a bit boggy, and that her car had got stuck there. Luckily, she had been pulled out by trucks moving in to put gravel onto the worst spots.
Initially, Lawrence had asked Carol to drive to this turnoff and follow the run route from here to catch up with us. He now started to leave signs for her to let her know that we had passed through - something that is like second nature to him. He just LOVES leaving signs. I remembered the Katoomba-to-Mittagong FatAss, where Sean, Lawrence and I had also travelled together from Yerranderie, about halfway into the 130 km run. Back then Lawrence, who had followed the same route before solo and knew the way, fashioned massive arrow signs from sticks and rocks at every potentially confusing turnoff or intersection for Kevin Tiller, who we believed was following behind. I also remembered the course markings at his "Thin Blue Line" and "Gone to the Gong" FatAsses - chalk marks on roads and sidewalks everywhere, especially in the middle of dangerously busy intersections. He even made little FatAss logo signs as markers and placed one at a critical turnoff in Thirroul. And his "GO FATASS!" message scribbled onto the road somewhere near Rooty Hill at the "Into the Blue" FatAss had gone a long way to cheer me up when I came across it.
For a while, Gayl and Chris had still seen Paul and his crew when leapfrogging forward after a stop. Now, he was too far ahead already. After crossing one of the numerous creeks, however, we saw a sign from them - a white line of flour across the width of the road, together with a flour smilie face. We had just completed the marathon distance. Before long, we reached the turnoff of New Building Road at 44 km. Gayl and Chris would leave the course here to give them a chance for a little break and to get some lunch at Wyndham. We loaded our packs with food and drinks and continued along Big Jack Mountain Road, deeper into the Towomba River valley. We would meet the crew again 20 km on, where that road would end at Mount Darrah Road near Cathcart, after the climb out of the valley.
So far, we had jogged along at a sedate pace, walking the longer uphills, and chatting away. Lawrence and Sean love their cricket, and Lawrence was looking forward to following the ABC radio coverage of a one-day game between Australia and New Zealand that was to be held later that afternoon at the "Gabba" in Brisbane. The two exchanged a plethora of obscure - at least to me - biographical and statistical details of past and current cricketers. Meanwhile, I started to feel a little queasy around the stomach and had to work harder to stay with the others. Therefore, I was particularly happy when all of a sudden we came across a public phone booth - quite a surprise here in the middle of the Towomba River Valley. There had been no mobile coverage along the way, so we stopped while Lawrence tried to phone Carol to find out where she was and to let her know about our progress. I was glad to be able to rest for a few minutes.
A short while later, we saw a roadside sign near a farmhouse proclaiming "Go Go Kosciusko!" We knew that Sean had been in touch with the Baker family who run a farm at Rocky Hall, so we paused to see if there was anyone around. While Sean went into the yard, Carly Baker emerged from the front of the house with her dog to greet us. She took a photo of us and then walked along for a while. The mountains at the end of the valley were getting closer, and Carly told us that sometimes in winter her husband Ian would schuss down the road on skis. Shortly after, she turned around while we plodded along Big Jack Mountain Road.
The name of the road had a particular effect on me. Most of the time when running, there is some melody or song playing in my mind. Often, it is just a tune I have heard recently, then there are some that I use for cadence, with Cyprus Hill's "Insane in the membrane" doing most of the dirty work there, and then there are those that are triggered by odd clues. This was one of those occasions: I couldn't get Harry McClintock's "Big Rock Candy Mountain" from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack out of my head. "I'm headin for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains. So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains..." That did seem to sum it up pretty well. The song kept playing and playing while we went on.
The serious climbing started at 56 km after we entered the South East Forest National Park and crossed the Towomba River. There was no way any of us would waste any energy trying to run up this 7 km climb. I managed to get my power walk going and soon started to feel a bit better. A few km up the hill, where a creek crossed the road, I paused and waited for the guys to catch up. This must have been near the 61 km point, annotated in the course description with "Curse Sean & Paul". Soon after, the road became sealed and steeper. The script asked to "Question Sean and Paul's parentage" around here. Where the road emerged from the bush and eventually flattened out, Chris was waiting at the top of the climb. He had run the few km from Mt Darrah Road, where Gayl was waiting with the car, to meet us here. Sean appeared a while later and went on towards the pit stop. I waited for Lawrence who was cursing the hill when he reached the top. After jogging through pleasant farming country we arrived at Mt Darrah Rd and the car. I was glad to be able to take the pack off my back.
We were now following the road westward through a high plateau, with pasture stretching in all directions and the occasional car screaming past. In this flat terrain, one could see miles ahead, so when we spotted something big in a paddock next to the road it was too far away for us to be able to tell what it was. It looked too big for cattle, and when we got closer I thought I had started to hallucinate, which would have been a bit early in the game with just under 70 km gone. But lo and behold, there was a camel right there in front of the gum trees, or a dromedary, to be precise. One would expect to come across one of those somewhere in the hot desert centre of the continent, not here on the green pastures of New South Wales' Southern Tablelands. Lawrence started bonding with it immediately, addressing it in expert Camelese. A couple of km on, we reached the township of Cathcart.
While Lawrence scratched Nazca-style messages for Carol into the dirt by the side of the road which were probably visible from space, we explored the wonderful goods for sale at Cathcart's store. I had not managed to eat anything since having half a banana and a few of Gayl's mandarins early in the day and an "Up&Go" halfway up the climb. My stomach trouble had banished any thought of food. Now I happily clutched two bottles of iced coffee and proceeded to gulp them down while sitting on a bench outside the store. When we got going again, I started to notice the first signs of a chill. Not a big surprise, fatigue was creeping up on me, I had just finished pouring litres of iced drinks into my stomach, and the air was markedly cooler here on the plateau. The flies, however, didn't seem to mind the cooler conditions at all and congregated in battalion strength on our backs.
A welcome sight greeted us when we approached Dragon Swamp bridge, just outside Cathcart: There were Carol and her Troopie, parked just past the bridge. The truck had been fixed, as promised, and now the expedition fleet was back at full strength. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said of Lawrence. Something evil had happened to his knees during the climb up Big Jack Mountain Road. He was in serious pain and had started taking some anti-inflammatories. He also grabbed some trekking poles from the truck to take a little weight off the knees. All this seemed a bit like a deja vu of his experience at the Glasshouse 100-miler two years earlier, where he was reduced to walking with bandaged knees and using walking sticks for the last 20 or so miles to a heroic finish on his third attempt. For the moment, we decided to walk for a while to see how the knees would respond.
So, for most of the next 25 km, walk we would, through rolling hills of sheep and cattle paddocks on either side of the dirt road. Sean was moving ahead every now and then, throwing in the odd jog, but we caught up with him regularly. Lawrence bandaged his knees, then ripped the bandages off again in frustration. He had also added pain killers to his medication cocktail. Meanwhile, the weather had taken a decidedly gloomy turn. It had been overcast most of the day, but now dark clouds were moving in. Rain was already falling in Brisbane, where the cricket had been postponed and eventually cancelled. Sean was now starting to suffer from chafing in the groin region and had decided to stick to walking, rejecting any of Lawrence's suggestions for ways of fashioning diaper-like contraptions from toilet paper to ease his discomfort. We crossed the Monaro Highway near Bibbenluke and picked up Bukalong Siding Road, climbed a ridge to cross the disused Goulburn-Bombala rail line, and eventually started to follow Gunningrah Road. All the while, the clouds grew darker, and Lawrence was in more and more pain.
When we reached a crew stop at a fork in the road after crossing Cambalong Creek, 96 km into the run, he made the call he had been mulling over for the last few hours. With both his knees shot and a little under two thirds of the distance to go, Lawrence probably had little choice. Even to get to that point had been increasingly torturous for him. I think we all felt a bit gutted, standing there in the chilly rain, the heart protesting what the brain had to insist on. I knew how utterly disappointed I would have been in Lawrence's position, and I am sure Sean felt exactly the same way. As runners in particular, we tend to get used to the mind being able -to some extent, at least- to override the signals the body sends out, and that makes it even more difficult to accept when that concept simply stops working. Sean summed it up later in one of his mantras: "...`just don't quit' unless (...) risking long term injury..." This was an "unless..." case, and it took serious guts to face up to that fact.
We were at a low point. Sean disappeared in Gayl's wagon to seek shelter from the driving rain. I pulled out my trusty spray jacket. While it does not breathe at all, on the other hand it is pretty effective in trapping air and keeping the wind out, thus preserving body heat. It had kept me warm in sub-zero conditions during the late stages of the Katoomba-to-Mittagong run. Lawrence had changed into dry clothes and was now, fatigued after 14 hours on his feet and on wrecked knees, starting to share crewing duties with Carol. There had been no hesitation for him to say that they would stay with me for as long as it would take, and I was enormously grateful for that, even if I probably didn't show it very well at the time. They made some instant soup and coffee, and though I still didn't feel like eating at all, I forced down some of it to fight the cold creeping in. Before long, however, I was shivering uncontrollably, my teeth clattering to the extent I had trouble speaking. I walked over to Gayl's car. Sean was finishing a cup of soup. He did not seem cold anymore, but also not too happy at the prospect of having to get out there and plod into the looming darkness. I told him I was getting seriously cold and would have to start moving very soon. He said he'd catch up with me. So, for the first time in about 25 km, I started jogging again.
It felt good to be running. The road climbed a long hill up to a range, and by the time I reached the top I felt warm again. I was moving quite strongly, maybe because all the walking had helped to conserve some energy. Flocks of sheep grazed on the unfenced pastures either side of the road. Slowly, dusk had set in. My eyes had adapted to the twilight, so I ran without my head lamp, occasionally startling some sheep hanging out on the road. I quite like running without a light at night, provided there is some moonlight. Unfortunately, we were only a day short of the new moon, so that would not be an option this time around.
In the meantime, Gayl had passed me, but soon I saw her car again by the side of the road, opposite a prominent dead tree halfway up a hill. According to the course description, I had reached the 100 km point. I rested for a while to see how far behind Sean was. After 10 minutes or so, Gayl grabbed her umbrella and some food and started walking down the hill to meet Sean, whose light had appeared on the road quite a distance away. I got cold again and decided to start moving. A few km later, where Gunningrah Rd ended at Dalgety Rd, the Troopie was waiting. When I arrived there, it had gotten even chillier, but at least the rain had stopped. I climbed onto the roof of the truck to grab the rest of the soups that I had stored in one of the metal boxes Lawrence had strapped to the roof rack. It was important to put something warm into the body. Unfortunately, I couldn't get more than half a cup of soup down, but that was better than nothing. Meanwhile, Sean had caught up with us and started refuelling as well. I think we both felt a bit better now, having run for a while and warmed up somewhat. The night, however, had only just begun.
From here, the route would follow Dalgety Rd for about 40 km across a plateau that, according to Sean's description from his earlier journey along the course, was rather uninspiring and drab. So we set off to plod our way through this testing stretch of space and time. The dirt road was well graded, so there was no need to concentrate on footing, and I soon fell into a good rhythm. "In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks. And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks. The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind. There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too. You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe. In the Big Rock Candy Mountains..." Sean started to fall back a little, but I decided to keep going for the moment, convinced he would catch me again. The crews went past. Lawrence would wait at the next landmark listed in the course description, Allan Caldwell Bridge where the road crossed the Maclaughlin River - a 7 km interval from the last stop. When I arrived at the bridge after descending into the river valley, I felt like I could really use a break, but the truck was not there, so I grudgingly started to climb out of the valley and back onto the plateau.
All of a sudden, I started to struggle. The last 15 km or so, I had run strongly, without any walking breaks, but now it seemed like I had overplayed my hand; I suddenly felt nauseous and extremely weak. Finally, where the road flattened out again on the top of the hill, the Troopie was waiting. I slumped to the ground next to the truck and just wanted to remain in that position for a while. There seemed to be enough energy left, however, to complain to Lawrence about stopping further down the road than where I had expected, but he certainly wasn't to blame for my sorry state. I think I was simply running very low on fuel to burn. But just when I should have eaten all I could, the dreaded nausea started to wrap itself ever tighter around my stomach. I rudely refused all of Lawrence's concerned and well-meant offers of food and, when the cold started to make me shiver again, dragged myself up to try and walk my way out of trouble. Shortly after the truck had disappeared on the horizon, I staggered to the side of the road, bowed to the gods of running, and farewelled the pitiful amount of food I had managed to eat thus far.
The next few hours were not particularly pleasant. The drill involved powerwalking the 5 or so km to where the Troopie would be waiting, and to repeat that ad nauseam. (Come to think of it, for that I wouldn't have needed any repeats, so maybe "until blue in the face" would be a better way to put it.) There was not a lot of power in my walking, which must have been more of a stagger, tracing a meandering path from one side of the road to the other, as bouts of microsleep became more and more frequent. Thankfully, after the two or three cars we had encountered earlier in the night that might have been returning home after a pub somewhere nearby had closed, there was now no traffic on the road whatsoever. My truck stops were more a nuisance to Lawrence than anything else. Eating was out of the question. In the cold night air and with me not travelling particularly fast, there was no great need for filling up my water bottle either. Still, I was ever so grateful to see the Troopie every time, because it provided the only structure and measure of progress in a night that was otherwise a cold, dark, largely silent tunnel of sensory deprivation and misery.
I do not remember many details. At some point, the road had become sealed. The course description also mentioned the turnoff to Cooma, and I recall the road crossing a creek on a large, wide bridge before climbing to a high point from which a few lights could be seen on the horizon: Dalgety, so I hoped. Ever so slowly, the eastern sky became brighter. The first birds were stirring. The terrain now started to drop towards a valley, and in the twilight, I could see farm houses in the distance. Even without a watch, I knew that about 24 hours must had passed since we had gathered at the beach the previous dawn. When I reached the sign announcing "Dalgety. Elevation 760 m", I was relieved to have made it to this landmark through the night, albeit going very slowly. I still felt weak, but at least the constant nausea had gone.
The Troopie was parked in the centre of the township, just in front of the local cafe which, like the rest of the place, was deserted at this early hour. A sign proclaimed this to be the spot for KEVS' "YOUNGINS". We couldn't help but grin, thinking of Mr Fatass Himself, Kevin Tiller, and that this would make us the "youngins". We took a photo, only to have a "low battery" warning flash up. I decided not to take any more photos from hereon to save battery power for Mt Kosciuszko - there is optimism for you! Lawrence had made a cup of coffee, and it was good to feel the hot drink trickle down inside my chest. I had another "Up&Go" and managed to eat half a banana. We discussed the way ahead. Lawrence would backtrack on Dalgety Road to see where Sean was and to give him something hot to drink since their crew did not have a stove. He would then return and go past me towards Jindabyne to wait at the roundabout near the Barry Way intersection, 30 km from here. This would give him and Carol a few hours to hopefully catch some sleep. I loaded my Camelbak with a couple of "Up&Go"s and about 3 litres of water. When I heaved it onto my back, I felt at least 10 kg heavier. Struggling to get a slow jog going, I left Lawrence to follow the road signs for my new destination - Jindabyne.
It was a brilliant summer morning. Overnight, the clouds had disappeared, and now the early sunlight made everything look fresh and clean. I crossed the historic bridge spanning the Snowy River and started to make my way out of the river valley. Initially, the going was slow, and the weight of the Camelbak made running difficult. But soon I was moving at a steady rate, following the road past large country estates towards a range of hills that rose abruptly from the plateau in the distance. I presumed that this was where, according to Sean, the second big climb of the run was waiting. I heard a car somewhere behind, and soon after, the Troopie pulled up beside me. Lawrence had met Sean about 20 km before Dalgety which surprised me quite a bit. Sean must have had an even worse night than myself. Carol told me I had gone 9 km since Dalgety. I asked Lawrence to take my 2 litre water bottle and dump it at the bottom of the big climb, saving me schlepping it around for the next 5 or 6 km. They drove off, and I resumed my trudge towards the range. I could now see where the road cut a diagonal swath up the side of one of the hills. From where I was, just past the township of Beloka, it did not look too steep.
I reached the cattle grid at the base of the "very steep hill" mentioned in the course description, picked up my water bottle, and sat down in the shade for a quick rest before tackling the climb. The sun had risen quite high by now and, with no cloud in the sky, the air had heated up quickly. Swarms of flies descended on me, attracted by the "interesting" stench I probably had developed. I got up and started tackling the hill. With the extra weight of the big water bottle in my pack, I was actually glad the climb was coming up next - I had an easy excuse for not running, and I was confident I could walk up hills like that fairly strongly. From the course description I knew that somewhere on this uphill stretch we would pass the 100 mile mark. The reconnaissance team had marked the spot by arranging rocks to form a "100" on the right verge. So I followed the right side of the road up the slope, on the lookout for the "100". The road was steep, but not outrageously so. I was more concerned about the sun burning down ferociously onto the shadeless stretch of road. I paused for a few seconds to watch a pair of red-tailed black cockatoos in a tree near the road. Their characteristic calls reminded me of tree branches croaking in the wind. No sign of a "100". I was nearing the end of the ascent, so I just assumed I had missed the small monument and silently congratulated myself for passing the 100-milestone. When I got to the top of the hill, I had to sit down, but not just for a well-earned rest.
A breath-taking view had opened up in front of me. Separated by a broad valley from the Beloka Range that I had just ascended, a massive mountain range rose in the distance. There were snowfields on the south-eastern slopes of some of the peaks. I could not have asked for a more dramatic way to get my first ever glimpse of the Snowy Mountains. Quite embarrassing, really, that after eight years in Australia, I had not managed to visit the Snowies yet. I tried to identify the highest of the peaks, but it was difficult from as far away as I was. Further north in the valley, I could see the shoreline of a lake shimmering in the heat. This gave me an indication of where to expect Jindabyne. It was good to be able to see where I needed to go, even with about 50 miles still to go. I remembered how, at the inaugural "Poor Man's Comrades" from Gosford to Sydney, my spirits lifted when I could see the skyline of Sydney CBD from Telegraph Hill in Pymble. For the moment, however, I would not contemplate the finish, but continue to break up the task into little, bite-sized segments that were easier to deal with mentally. The next bite was to get to the roundabout about 13 km away. That would take some chewing, but at least it looked like most of it would be downhill.
I got up and shouldered my pack again, in the process stirring myriads of flies who had been holding their annual convention on my back. I slowly picked up my running routine going down a pleasant decline, but was stopped in my tracks when, only a few hundred metres on, the Troopie came towards me. Lawrence and Carol had been to Jindabyne, but had not caught a lot of sleep. Both looked tired. They told me that they had come across Paul's crew in Jindabyne. That was a surprise, I had expected Paul to be much further ahead by this stage. Gratefully, I took the Camelbak off my back again and left it in the truck. We would be resuming our 5 km game from here on, so I could travel light with only a 700 ml bottle.
The descent from Beloka Range allowed a steady run. The road was winding its way through beautiful farmland. Frequently, birds would perch on the fence posts next to the road. I was delighted to see some parrot species that I had not encountered before. Some were green with light blue and yellow patches of plumage. All the usual suspects I knew from the bush in and around Sydney were there too - cockatoos, the different rosellas, and the magnificent King parrots. At the stops, Lawrence brought out the beach chair, and I had my little sitdowns for a few minutes. Unfortunately, my appetite still had to return. As it had happened before, I kept refusing all offers of food, just drinking cups of iced Coke and water and sitting in the chair. Having cold drinks was great because they helped to slow down the increase of the core body temperature. I knew that I could not cope with the heat particularly well from previous experiences at Glasshouse, where I repeatedly was reduced to walk through 35-degree days only to pick up running in the cooler night conditions.
The road approached a sawmill near a river crossing. Coming down the hill, I saw the road cross the valley floor and then rise steeply to climb an exposed, shadeless hill on the other side. Sometimes, it is not good to see what is ahead. I remember at least one more of those sharp drops and rises en route to the Barry Way intersection. The combination of fatigue and the sun beating down made for very laborious hauls up those slopes. Eventually, I caught up with the Troopie again opposite a petrol station near the famed roundabout. It was here that a slight variation in the "Sandwich?"-"Nah!"-"Banana?"-"Nah!"-"Fruitcake?"-"Nah!"-game produced a slight boost to my calorie intake. First, Carol offered me some grapes. Routinely, I declined, but then I thought that a coolish grape might actually be quite pleasant if I would just suck the juice out. I ended up devouring quite a few of the deliciously sweet little things. But the real magic happened when Carol produced a bottle of flavoured milk drink. This baby held 2 litres of chilled nourishment, aptly named "MOOVE". And it certainly helped me moove. I was not too keen on the strawberry flavour, but hey, it was cold, liquid, and loaded with fat. Beautiful! From now on, a mug of "MOOVE" and the odd grape would be my fuel at the truck stops.
From here, the route followed Barry Way for a few km into Jindabyne. Arriving there, I found the truck stopped in a nice park right by the shore of Lake Jindabyne. Lawrence and Carol were asleep, so I ducked into the amenities block nearby and gave my face and arms a good wash. It felt good to have some of the salt and grime taken off, even if it would last only for a short while. Lawrence awoke and told me to follow the cycle path hugging the lake's edge instead of the main road. The path took me through a caravan park and emerged at a service station to rejoin Kosciuszko Rd. From here, it was "simply" a matter of following this massive road all the way to Charlotte Pass, about 40 km away. The road was dimensioned to handle the hordes of ski tourists on their way to the resorts up in the mountains during winter skiing season. Now, only a few cars came screaming past. I had been a little concerned about travelling along a potentially busy road, but there was no need to be worried. Apart from the almost non-existent traffic, there was a very generous shoulder as well as, at regular intervals, long stretches of extra lanes for fitting snow chains.
After crossing Thredbo River, I arrived at the Kosciuszko National Park entrance gates. Hey, free entry to pedestrians. Soon after, the serious climbing started. One endless, straight stretch of road would be followed by a curve and the next endless, straight stretch of road. I powerwalked the uphills quite strongly; there was, however, not a lot of running happening because there was hardly anything remotely flat in sight. The greatest nuisance was the sun. Up here in the mountains, it burned down with particular gusto, and I could literally feel my neck, arms, and thighs sizzle away. Stupidly, I did not bother to apply any sunscreen. The thought of combining it with the rather unsavoury mixture of sweat and dust already on my skin was more repulsive than the discomfort of the beginning sunburn. In case I have not mentioned it before, logic and reason take a bit of a battering during ultras. (Sure enough, I would get broiled quite crisply and gave a decent lobster impersonation during the next few days.)
The 5 km intervals between pit stops were just the right length to avoid getting too exhausted, and I believed to have developed quite a good feeling for distance, even without a watch. At some point around Sawpit Creek I started to question the accuracy of the Troopie's odometer. At every bend in the road I expected to see the truck waiting for me by the side of the road, offering rest and another mug of the ambrosial "MOOVE". My mood darkened as I was disappointed time and again. There, I pointed out to an imaginary audience, were perfect spots by the side of the road where a whole caravan of trucks could have parked extremely conveniently! Surely, 5 km must had passed by now. Another bend, and another endless uphill appeared, and again, no Troopie. I started to become vocal, entertaining the trees by the roadside with John McEnroe impersonations: "You CANNOT be serious!!" This went on for a while and became its own little routine. Eventually, of course, I caught up with Lawrence and Carol where the road flattened out on a little plateau. They might have gone a little further than 5 km, but certainly not as far as my warped senses had imagined. That's what ultras do to your mind. Sure enough, a mug of "MOOVE" nectar calmed the crybaby down very quickly, and on a photo Lawrence took there, there was no McEnroe wannabe anywhere to be seen.
One of the next stops was in front of a beautiful old lodge near a little lake. A big "For Sale" sign had been put up in front of the building, and there was no sign of tourists anywhere around. The long climb that followed ended on an exposed, signposted saddle; its name escapes me now. It was about there that I first noticed a chilly breeze. I welcomed this respite from the day's heat. Ahead, I could see clouds, and I wished I could get there faster to take advantage of the shade they promised. I was still moving relatively well, walking up the hills quite energetically, and jogging down the short downhill stretches. I passed another landmark, the turnoff of the road to Guthega. 200 km gone. Not too much excitement on my part. Just keep going while the "MOOVE" still works.
The country now had definite alpine character. I love mountains, especially the region above the tree line. The views are unobstructed, and the features created by the earth, wind, and water are laid out to marvel at. There was plenty of water around, little creeks running down the hillsides and draining into the larger streams that were flowing along their rock-strewn beds on the valley floor. On the plateaus, alpine moors and little ponds collected the water. I tried to imagine how these places would look in winter, covered with snow.
Before long, I had reached Smiggin Holes. I had never been here before, but that name resonated with me. Time and time again I had heard Roy & HG tirelessly promote Smiggin as Australia's candidate for the 2010 Winter Olympics. "If you've got the poles, we've got the holes." Now I passed through this mythical place myself, a place that soon might be touched by the ski mittens of history. I was rather glad that I was taking this journey before the duo's plan of raising Mt Kosciuszko by 1000 ft would be realised, where volunteers would dump all of Australia's rubbish on the top of Kosciuszko, compact it and, "voila, Mount Steggall". For the moment, I mostly remembered the place for the steep climb that had to be negotiated there. At the end of it, I crossed another pass and started to descend into the neighboring valley towards Perisher Village.
The Troopie was one of the few signs of activity around. A few workmen moved between the numerous lodges and ski stations, but that was about it. Hard to imagine that this place would be crawling with tourists during ski season. I had expected bushwalkers and other visitors around on a summer weekend, but Perisher looked deserted. Carol told me I had been travelling at 8 km/h, which I found hard to believe. After all, there had been a lot of walking, and I had had my regular sitdowns every 5 km. Well, admittedly, I had walked the hills pretty hard and jogged most of the flats and downhill sections, so maybe she was right. I didn't feel too bad, my feet were OK, no nausea, just a little soreness in the quads. There was less than 10 km to go to Charlotte Pass. I did not think beyond that.
We decided to break up that last segment to Charlotte Pass into two halves of about 4 km each. I liked that idea very much. From Perisher, the road climbed for a kilometre or so to reach another saddle. A wide valley opened ahead. The road clung to its left, southerly side since most of the remainder was occupied by the wide, flat bed of a river. It was difficult to imagine now, but in spring the melting snow would probably cause the river to fill the entire width of the valley. From my vantage point, I could see the Troopie parked by the roadside in the distance. Much, much further, however, just where the road disappeared behind a bend, I thought I spotted another car, with at least one person beside it. There was not much traffic to speak of, and I thought it rather unlikely for random tourists to hang out by the side of the road. Hey, that might be Paul and his crew. It was late afternoon, the sun was low, and more and more clouds had started to move in. In the dim light and with the car so far away, I could not distinguish any colour, it just looked grey.
There was a little bit of extra spring in my step as I descended into the valley and approached the Troopie. I don't think Lawrence and Carol believed me when I told them I might have seen Richard's beetle. I was not sure myself. By now, I had expected Paul to have almost finished. There was only one way to find out, though, and so I pressed on further up the valley, nearing Charlotte Pass. On the way, a passing car asked me if I needed a lift. Soon after, a runner came down the road the other way, moving along fast and effortlessly. What a contrast to my own gait, but at least I managed to maintain a steady jog, even on the uphill section leading to the pass. When I arrived at the car park, Lawrence and Carol told me they had spoken to some people there who might have seen a runner a while ago. I had another sitdown and downed the remaining "MOOVE". No need to hurry now, I had made quite good progress.
It was now shortly past six in the afternoon, a bit over 36 hours had elapsed. For the first time, I started seriously contemplating finishing this thing. I was feeling OK, a little tired, legs a little sore, but not weak or nauseous. Barring an accident or freak conditions, it looked like I might actually make it. 18 km to go, 9 km to the summit, not quite 500 m ascent. The sky was now completely overcast, and the clouds had become darker. We knew that the conditions higher up could be completely different. I stuffed water bottles, a banana, and another "Up&Go" into my Camelback. Lawrence insisted I take his light cycling jacket. I thought my trusty old spray jacket would do the job, but the extra jacket would not make much difference in weight, and who knows what would happen up there, so better to err on the side of caution. This would turn out to be a very wise decision.
So I set off, optimistically proclaiming I would be back in about three hours. The trail was wide and rocky, with snow poles by its side. Initially, alpine pine shrubbery framed the trail, but after a while, the gnarly trees receded and I moved through high alpine landscape with only tussocks between the rocks. Lots of little streams of water would run down the sides of the hills and cross the track. Markers on the poles indicated the remaining distance to Mt Kosciuszko. A few walkers were returning from the summit. I asked one of them about the conditions higher up, and he told me that there were a couple of snow patches that made for difficult travel, and that the weather had been OK earlier on. I kept powerwalking up the trail, occasionally breaking into a jog when the terrain permitted it. I crossed the Snowy River on a small bridge and thought how I had done the same early that morning in Dalgety. The trail swung around and led up a rocky slope towards a stone structure perched on a saddle. This was probably Seaman's Hut. Lawrence had instructed me to be careful here and make sure to follow the less obvious track to the left, since the Main Range Walk was coming in from the right. I had no problem finding the way, though in different weather conditions that might have been much less straightforward.
The wind was picking up, driving low, dark clouds over the high, exposed ridges from the west. There was some thunder in the distance. Still, visibility was not too bad, and when I turned a corner on the trail just above the hut, a ridge hove into view that was higher than the ones surrounding it. I searched out its highest point which I presumed was Mt Kosciuszko. It did not appear too far away, but there was still some serious difference in altitude to be overcome. Coming closer, I thought I saw some people moving on the summit, but I could not be sure in the dim early evening light and with the clouds darkening the sky. I was very surprised I still had not seen any sign of Paul and his crew. Surely, they had to be somewhere between where I was and the summit. A while later, I arrived at a saddle just below the final summit rise. A few large, green boxes were lying around like giant Lego bricks. The trail swung around and traversed diagonally up and across the slope directly under the summit. I could see two patches of snow covering the track.
I had just started steaming up the trail when I saw three people rounding the corner of the ridge where the traverse ended at the other end of the slope. I met Paul, Diane, and Richard halfway through the first snow drift. Paul had a jacket on - the first time I had ever seen him in more than a shirt. He looked tired, but elated about having made the summit. Not far to go now, I thought and pushed on. The weather was looking increasingly ominous, and it had gotten darker. I reached the ridge where the trail took a left turn. It was reinforced with duckboards and plastic mats; I presume their purpose is to protect the fragile plants and rocks from the masses of tourists eager to climb the continent's highest peak. After more gradual ascent, I could see the ridge in front of me start to slowly fall away into the distance. Another sharp left turn, and there was a sign, a few rock steps, and a short, stubby obelisk. I had made it to the top of Mt Kosciuszko.
I would have loved to sit down for a while and savour the moment. The weather, however, had different ideas. Thunder was now rumbling ever closer, and I could see lightning crash down onto neighboring peaks. The wind gusts got more violent by the minute, and raindrops started falling. From the west, wave after wave of dark clouds were rolling in. I dragged my camera out and proceeded to build a little rock cradle for it so the wind would not simply topple it. With the little red battery warning light desperately blinking away, I set the self timer, squatted beside the Strzlecki Monument and hoped for the battery to go the distance. The shutter clicked, then the camera pulled itself back into its shell and went comatose. The rain was getting heavier and the wind got even stronger. I had no time to lose. I hastily scraped a few rocks from the ground and put them into one of the "special" containers Lawrence had handed on to me. Then the storm broke loose in earnest. I had wanted to put on Lawrence's extra jacket, but now I feared the wind would rip it right out of my hands. I had to get out of the wind, and fast. I put my hand on the obelisk one last time, then turned around and started to race down the trail.
The rain was pelting down now, the ferocious wind driving it into my face, hands, and legs. It seemed to take forever to get to the ridge where the trail swung around to the right, away from the wind. When I finally reached the turn, I went for a few more meters, then stopped to get the extra jacket out. It turned out that I was probably a size or two larger than Lawrence, but eventually I managed to squeeze into his jacket. It made a big difference in keeping the wind out. I threw the Camelbak back onto my shoulders and resumed my race down the mountain. There was thunder and lightning all around, and high up on a peak was definitely not the place to be. Thankfully, there was still enough light around, so footing was not a problem. When I finally reached the hut again, I felt relief, but was also quite exhausted. I had been pushing really hard for the last few km. I sat down on the lee side of the hut to rest for a minute. The last "Up&Go" was dragged out and slowly forced down. Only 6 km to go, mostly downhill. If only the weather would cooperate.
So, after a short rest, I set off again for the very last time, I hoped. So far, my feet had held up remarkably well. I had not taken my shoes off at all or fiddled around with my socks, following the old "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" adage. But now, both my little toes started to complain. My feet must have swollen slightly, such that the toes got squeezed constantly. For the last 50 or so km, the course had been mostly climbing, and the toes had been relieved, but now, on the downhills, they were in the thick of it. There was also something unpleasant happening under my left great toe, and the rocky track did not make things easier. But these were still only nuisances, not showstoppers, particularly with the finish almost in sight.
I mixed up jogging and powerwalking and waited for the energy drink to kick in. Eventually, past the little bridge over the Snowy River, I picked it up again. It was now almost dark, but as on the previous evening, I could still pick my way along the trail without needing my light. 2 km to go. I would make it. Unbelievable. Suddenly, I saw two dark silhouettes ahead. I thought it would be Diane and Richard. When I came closer, I recognised Paul and Richard. I fell in with them, and we walked the last kilometre together. 100 metres to go. Lights appeared ahead. Diane came out of the darkness, getting her camera ready. There was another light, Lawrence. We jogged the last few metres to the sign at the Summit Walk trailhead, stopped and shook hands. Not much was said. There was no need. We were too tired anyway. We had done it and finished together. It had taken us a little under 40 hours.
Paul and his crew disappeared quickly. They would need every minute of sleep they could get. The very next day, Paul would compete in a Half-Ironman triathlon in Canberra. The mind boggles. Paul is a very special athlete indeed. It was great to be part of this adventure, knowing how much it means to him.
I had a very cold washdown in the nearby toilet block using Lawrence's bowl technique. We got into the good old Troopie and started to head back. I soon fell asleep and woke when the truck stopped. Outside, I saw Gayl's wagon, then Sean walked up to the window and shook my hand. I had no idea what time it was and where we were and must have been mumbling rather incoherently. Sean did not look too bad, but it was clear he was a long way from the finish and not exactly feeling smashing. The crazy bastard would continue to walk on badly blistered feet for another 20 hours or so, stubbornly refusing to give in and finishing in 60 hours.
I feel privileged to have been part of something quite special. Paul, Sean, and David would like to see this race develop into a regular race. Having road-tested it with some of them, I hope their dream will become reality. If anything, I hope I have shown that an average runner, admittedly with some experience in running ultras, can finish the course. If I can do it, there are many out there who have even better chances to do the same and more. I am sure that better runners can go considerably faster. I hope we encouraged people to give it a go. It is worth every drop of sweat and every aching step.
This leaves me with the need to thank Paul, Sean, and Dave for having the dream and, most of all, Lawrence and Carol for nursing me selflessly to the finish.
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