Into the distance, a ribbon of black Stretched to the point of no turning back A flight of fancy on a windswept field Standing alone my senses reeled A fatal attraction is holding me fast, how Can I escape this irresistible grasp?
Pink Floyd, "Learning to Fly"
It started with a suggestion Paul Every made over dinner with David Criniti and I in the middle of the year. A run from sea level to the highest point in Australia, Mt Kosciuszko, 2229m ASL. It would, suggested Paul, be Australia's version of Spartathlon or Badwater, the benchmark event that Australian ultrarunning had needed since the Westfield Sydney-Melbourne folded in the early 1990s. Dave and I, being the obsessive compulsives that we are, fancied the idea and some hurried poring over maps suggested that a start on the far south coast of NSW to the top of Kosci and finishing at the return to the trailhead at Charlotte Pass would be in the order of 220-240km long, roughly the distance of the real Spartathlon, which Paul had run some years before. As far as we could work out, sea level to Kosciuszko had never before been done like this- certainly walked over a week or two, and in a day on bicycle, and even on skis (with some walking added in) but never in one sustained shove on foot to our knowledge. It seemed historic.
First up we decided to run it Fat Ass style to see it was feasible as an official race in future years. When to do it? We wanted to get it done fairly soon- we were eager! Logically it had to be between November and March- summer basically, as otherwise the weather would be pretty risky and the last section of the course would be under snow for several months. In November Paul was doing Ironman WA and Dave would be in Hawaii for the Ironman and the Deca Ironman, so we decided on the second weekend of December. As some runners could quite possibly take 48 hours or more, the start would be Friday 10 December.
In August I went to the USA to run Leadville and dropped out, then three weeks later finished the Glasshouse 100 miler in Queensland in my slowest time yet for that event, so, apart from the appeal of running from sea to the highest point on the continent, this run took on an extra dimension as a form of redemption for me. In October Paul, his better half Diane Weaver, and I went down the south coast to scout out the final route and measure it. The final route, starting at Boydtown beach, just south of Eden, was roughly half sealed road and half offroad (mostly the first half- logging trails and dirt roads) was 236km according to GPS and car odometer.
By December, Dave had ruled himself out of the running with an ITB injury suffered in Hawaii and, after some umming and ahhing, we had only four starters- my old ultrarunning headbangers Lawrence Mead and Jan "the Herrmannator" Herrman, plus Paul and I. As crew I had my mother Gayl and Chris Hockman, who had offered his services after I'd floated an appeal on Coolrunning Australia for crew- I didn't fancy spending two days alone in a car while I was running up a road.
The psychological element of the run dominated my thoughts in the days beforehand. I'd run 100 miles four times- three times at Glasshouse and once at Western States- in times between 27.11 and 28.59. This was a quite different proposition. 147 miles, almost half as far again... and certainly requiring a second night. Was I psychologically up to it? I was frankly terrified at the possibility that mentally I just wasn't going to be up for what I'd set for myself. The prospect kept me awake nights and I broke into a cold sweat when contemplating it by day. I reasoned that, as there would be no cutoff in this Fat Ass style event, I'd have to go by the old maxim "just don't quit" and go from there. Mathematically I thought a really good run would result in a finish in the 42-45 hour range.
On Thursday as we drove the eight hours from Sydney to Eden the rain was constant. I suppose this meant that at least we wouldn't get a scorchingly hot 40 C summer day, but the wet also bode ill for foot problems. Lawrence and Jan turned up late on Thursday evening- they had been beset with car problems and would run unsupported (or off what they could get from Paul's crew Diane and Richard Peacock, or my crew) for the first 60K or so, when Lawrence's girlfriend Carol would hopefully turn up with their van.
On Friday morning runners and crews assembled in the rain on Boydtown beach before dawn. I filled a bottle with sea water with the idea of pouring some of it out on the summit of Kosciuszko and adding some snow to the mixture. Photos were taken and we were off at 5. 35am.
The first 60km is pretty much all dirt roads and logging trails through State Forests and up the Towamba River valley. Paul hared off after about 3km and the rest of us ambled along in one group, more or less. We climbed through the State Forest to the top of Nullica Hill, then descended to the Towamba River. The rain relented for a while and gave us sublime views of the tree lined valley, with the odd mountain looming out of the fog. Apart from the humidity (my feet were squelching in wet from the very start) it was a superb setting; as David Toone once wrote, it was a moment that emphasised "the excellence of the sport of trail running".
Mum was stopping every 5K so I could refill my bottle and we could grab something to eat; I was subsisting off a mix of peanut butter sandwiches, creamed rice, nuts, chips and condensed milk. Run up to the car, hand the bottle over to Mum or Chris for refilling, grab a handful of food, take the bottle and go. It was probably overkill during the day to have assistance this frequently, but at night (both nights!) having the car to run to would be a BIG mental boost.
We were doing a lot of walking but nevertheless making good progress. Really it was three mates out having a chat as much as running at this stage. At around the 35K mark we were greeted by my friend Amanda, who had driven down from Canberra (!) along the course to cheer us on a bit. Certainly a gesture we all appreciated.... The marathon mark was reached in about 5 1/4 hours and not long after I directed Mum to drive out of the valley and meet us in Cathcart so she could avoid the wet and winding unsealed Big Jack Mountain Road. I slipped on the Camelbak with its 3 litre bladder, took a few sandwiches, and we jogged into the hamlet of Rocky Hall. The valley walls were on either side and ahead the end of the valley loomed through the fog- before long we were going to start some serious climbing.
I'd been in email contact with Ian and Carly Baker, who had a property in Rocky Hall, and they placed a sign on the roadside marked GO GO KOSCIUSZKO, which was a nice little boost. Carly walked with us for a little while and then sent us on our way towards the climb up Big Jack Mountain.
Herrmannator was not feeling very sharp at this point but had little trouble staying with us. He is one of the toughest runners I know- has suffered godawfully in some races, but is startlingly strong and always comes back VERY hard in the second half of any event. At 56K we reached the foot of Big Jack Mountain and started the 550m vertical ascent over 7km of forest road, and he walked away from Lawrence and I. We'd seen it before. As for myself, my feet were suffering in the wet and starting to develop a few hot spots on the balls of the feet. I reached the top of Big Jack Mountain to find Jan waiting at the top for us; I elected to run ahead and change shoes and socks at the car.
I removed my socks and NB856 shoes to find my feet had gone a white, swollen prune-like complexion. I did a bit more taping, put on some wool socks and put on a really old but comfy pair of NB1220s. We had a food break here, at the 64km mark, the intersection of the Mt Darragh and Big Jack Mountain Roads. The air was, at 900m ASL, noticeably cooler and I soon replaced my sleeveless shirt with a heavier, sleeved Coolrunning tritop as well as dumping the Camelbak for a single bottle again. The flies were also swarming with particular exuberance- attracted to the cattle I suppose, as up on the plateau here we were in the middle of farming country. Jogging into the village of Cathcart we passed, of all creatures, a camel in a paddock, then we saw Lawrence's newly-fixed van parked at the side of the road with Carol at the wheel. We were now a complete team. Lawrence was experiencing some trouble from an old injury and strapped up both knees and collected a pair of trekking poles to take some of the weight off his legs. We turned off Mt Darragh Road onto an unsealed road that led to Bibbenluke and the Monaro Highway. The sky was darkening and rain started to fall again, gradually at first and little bother to us. I discussed with the boys the possibility of a 42 hour finish. It seemed quite feasible at that point as we were still moving pretty well, but things would soon start to unravel.
However, by the time we reached the 96K mark on the other side of Bukalong, evening was falling (it was about 7.30pm), as was the temperature. We'd been walking a fair while- Lawrence to give his knees a break, in my case to alleviate some chafing that I'd acquired from my perpetually- wet clothes (even though I'd used bodyglide and hydropel in copious amounts) and Jan was walking with us. Moving as slowly as we were, the cold rain was sucking the temperature from our bodies, although by then we had donned rain jackets. You wouldn't have thought it was summer, given how miserably cold we were getting.
I curled up on the front seat of Mum's car with the heaters on full blast, shaking uncontrollably and thinking with great difficulty and not much success- not far off hypothermia. Jan was doing little better and took refuge in Lawrence's van. Lawrence himself elected to drop out as his knees were in pretty poor shape, then he dragged himself over to our car and leaned through the window. Over the roar of the heaters he passed me one of his goretex jackets (I didn't want to deploy my heaviest clothing as it would be more sorely needed the next night up in the snow country), a cup of hot noodles and told me to get my fucking act together or I'd have to be carried off with hypothermia. Start running again, he urged- hard. it was the only way that I could really warm up and keep going.
Jan hauled himself out into the rain and set off fast up a long uphill, trying to generate some heat for himself. I donned a beanie, dry longsleeve shirt and the goretex and set off in his wake, soon passing the 100K point and marvelling at myself that I could still run uphill strongly. I had very little fatigue and energy levels were good, although it took some time for my core body temperature to return to normal again.
In contrast to the aesthetic excellence of the Towamba valley, the 95km or so on the plateau between Cathcart and the climb up the Beloka Range (via Dalgety and Bibbenluke) was undulating farm country with grassy moorland rolling away to the horizon in all directions and very few trees or other features except for the road. I'd predicted beforehand that this long stretch would be like running through a black subway tunnel for hours, with sensory deprivation eating away at the runner's resolve. It turned out to be a WET subway tunnel but Mum decided off her own bat to stop only every 2 or 3km to give me a mental break, as well as for safety, given how badly I had been out of it not long before. I hauled up to the intersection with the Dalgety Road at 104km to find Jan getting some more hot noodles from Lawrence and Carol. I had a cup of my own and we set off together, but I could not keep up with the Herrmannator anymore and he strode into the darkness. I jogged along at what I thought was a pretty reasonable pace of my own (42 hour dreams resurrected, if I could get to Dalgety- 145km- by sunrise) but soon all I could see of Jan was the odd glimpse of his headlamp a LONG way down the road.
Overall it was downhill to Dalgety (about 150m descent over 40km or so) but there were quite a few uphills mixed in there too. I caught up to Lawrence's van at the top of one such hill at about 1am and he told me Jan had started vomiting and he was only a few minutes ahead, but I had little fight left, and when the road became sealed at 122km not long afterwards, with cold fog drifting in and forming a blue-white wall in front of my headlamp, I was in my usual early morning ultra death march, mumbling incoherently and weaving from side to side. My feet also really started complaining as soon as I stepped onto the bitumen. This went on for a few more kilometres before Mum offered the front seat of the car and the heater. I wasn't in much shape to say no. (Note- next year, make sure the crew is much harder on me, and preferably not related to me.) We duly nodded off and woke at around 6am as Lawrence pulled up next to us to see how we were doing. I'd never slept in a 100 miler, but had never allowed myself the opportunity either.
I stepped into the cold, foggy morning and felt pain shoot through my feet- they had swollen badly while I was out of it. Lawrence brewed up a hot cup of coffee and told me Herrmannator had kept vomiting throughout the night but had reached Dalgety not long before, so he was on my "good case" schedule which I was now quite a few hours behind. My mental doubts boiled to the surface again and I confessed to Lawrence that I didn't know if I had it in me to keep going for another 24 or more hours. The very prospect nearly brought me to tears. I wasn't in a good place mentally. He looked back at me and said "just keep walking and see what happens."
So I started walking- my feet were too trashed now to sustain much running. I was averaging about 5km/hour and the fog soon was soon burned off by the sun to reveal, in contrast to the previous day's clouds and rain, a cloudless sky. It was going to be a hot one and soon the longsleeve shirt and goretex had been replaced by a sleeveless tritop. I tried some more changes to see if it was possible to alleviate the blisters- first a second pair of thick socks over the first (for extra cushioning), then the NB1220s were replaced by Asics 1090s, which were briefly replaced by Teva sandals, then I brought back the Asics and reasoned that I wasn't going to be able to do much about how my feet were. I resigned myself to doing a lot of walking and pain tolerance and hoped that they wouldn't deteriorate too much more. As I said to Mum, I was now determined to finish regardless of how long it took- the mantra would be "just keep walking" and "just don't quit" unless I was risking long term injury, and trashed feet didn't count as long term injury- after all they would eventually heal. She was not particularly impressed by this mindset but resigned herself to a long time on the road.
Before the run I'd reasoned that I had no excuse not to get to Jindabyne, after all it was only 20km or so further to Jindy than I'd run before, so no real stretch, right? From Jindabyne it was 47km to the summit of Kosciuszko and a further 9km after that to the finish. 56km was another weekend training run, so I could surely manage that no matter how badly I was going. It was a good concept in theory, but in the cold hard light of day.... you get the idea. Nevertheless, I told myself many times out there that if I could get to Jindabyne I absolutely was going to finish.
First I had to Dalgety, then chip away at the course until Jindabyne.
Given how slowly I was moving I might not get to Jindy until dinnertime and finish well after sunrise Sunday. Okay. Couldn't do much about the pace, I just had to accept it and move on, no pun intended.
Coming to the top of a climb not long before Dalgety I caught my first sight of the snow-capped Main Range. It seemed a bit ironic given the burning sun beating down. From this direction Kosciuszko itself couldn't be seen but it didn't matter too much- I pointed at the mountains and screamed at them "I'll be there tomorrow, you hear?" We trudged into Dalgety (145km) a little before lunchtime Saturday. This town on the Snowy River had been the original selection as Australia's national capital until, six years after that, the decision had been revoked in favour of Canberra. Today there was very little hint of what could have been- it had one pub, one service station, one cafe and a scattering of houses. I paused to contemplate the Snowy River (which flows from the foot of Kosciuszko) then resumed my march. Only 90km to go, I told Mum. It would be slow going, but 90km was a distance you could start to get your head around, I added with a smile. She didn't seem convinced by my logic.
My Sydney Striders compatriot Jim Moody had gotten into my head. Jim incorporates in his electronic signature a quote from Bilbo Baggins- "the road goes ever on and on." This thought was mulled over and dissected for quite a few hours. Seemed appropriate as I reached the foot of the Beloka Range, a 300m vertical climb in 2km. This ascent was very slow going under the afternoon sun but halfway up it I passed the 100 mile/161km mark in my slowest time yet- 33.35.
Every step after that was a new PB for distance, further than I'd ever gone before.
I topped out at 1180m ASL and found the haul into Jindabyne had quite a bit more downhill than I remembered, which pounded my feet even more. By the stage I'd also developed a blister the size of a 50 cent coin under and up the side of my left big toe which made attempts at running fairly unpleasant as it proved too painful to "drive off" that foot. I'd never blistered there before.
As I turned onto the Barry Way a couple of km south of Jindabyne I came into mobile phone reception and my phone duly beeped into live- a profusion of text messages and some voicemails from friends. I returned a couple of calls as I walked, but I had no news on Paul and Herrmannator to relay and I couldn't reach their phones. However, as I reached Jindabyne proper, my phone came to life again and I heard Paul's voice, ringing from the summit of Kosciuszko. I congratulated him as he battled to contain his emotions, and he urged me to keep at it. I relayed this news on to others.
Mum and Chris had driven into Jindabyne and picked up a hamburger and chips for dinner, and a pizza for consumption during the night. It's a healthy sport. Night was falling again as Chris walked with me out of town along the Kosciuszko Road as I worked my way through the burger and we split the chips. I changed into a Striders cycling jersey and put on the goretex once more. It started to rain again, then lightning started to flash in the sky, then started to strike the nearby hills. Convinced that discretion was the better part of valour in the mountains we took shelter in the car for an hour or so, then after no lightning had been seen for a while I stepped out into the rain with Chris and we resumed our march.
After we crossed the Thredbo River a car pulled up in front of us. It was Paul, Diane and Richard, having seen our headlamps. Paul looked pretty dazed and out of it, but I wasn't doing too much better as I'd somehow shaken Diane's hand as I congratulated Paul.... I asked if they'd seen Jan and they said the Herrmannator had reached the summit after Paul and they'd finished together at Charlotte Pass trailhead in 39.26. I was staggered. Then they drove on, looking for some accommodation in Jindabyne- Paul was doing the Canberra Half Ironman the next day.
Chris and I did mathematics on the road. Jan had finished with Paul? No, not possible, he'd been in Dalgety on about 42 hour pace and had been vomiting, no way could he catch Paul, one of the finest ultrarunners Australia has produced. We must have misheard, we decided in the end. It just did not make sense that Jan could have run the back half of this course in so superb a fashion, even by his standards.
The next set of lights coming down the hill was Lawrence's van. I stepped up and asked Jan what had happened. He didn't look or sound too good either but he confirmed that he had indeed finished with Paul. Staggered was not the word for my reaction- I was awestruck. Chris had to get a lift back to Sydney so he got in with the others and I was left alone with the road and Mum's car every few kilometres. The lights of Jindabyne were glittering off to my right as the Kosciuszko Road relentlessly wound uphill through the snowgums, through the spookily lit National Park entry barriers standing starkly in the blackness of the Alpine night. A couple of cars went past me and the drivers stopped and asked if I was all right, if I needed help. I replied I was fine and was just out having a walk.
We reached Sawpit Creek at 1am or so. I was concerned that Mum wasn't managing to get any sleep in between my visits to the car, as she would need to be alert for driving on the mountain roads tomorrow. So I offered to get in the car for a few hours if that would put her in the right frame of mind and enable her to sleep. We both fell asleep and I was woken not long after 5am by the first rays of light from my third sunrise. I stepped from the car, found my feet had deteriorated further while I slept, and resumed walking uphill through Wilson Valley with Martin Harris' MP3 player to give me some music to mull over. (Thanks Martin!) I had quite a mixture of tunes prepared- Rammstein, Metallica, Midnight Oil, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and some lesser known European bands like Therion and Rapture. The common theme of all of this music was a hard-driving, aggressive nature. Bluntly, it was headbanging stuff.
Coming over the top of Rennix Gap I was hit with a chill wind and donned a beanie, then zipped the goretex up further and pulled the hood over the top of my head. Definitely in Alpine country now. The weather was pretty unstable- not the storms of last night but the sky varied between mostly overcast and sunny, although always cold. The 200km mark was brought up as I reached the Guthega turnoff and at 208km I reached Perisher, normally a big ski resort but, in summer, it seemed the only people here were a few workmen renovating some of the ski lodges. Snowdrifts were noticeable not far from the road. I fielded some more phone calls here (it was late morning) and contemplated journey's end, less than 30km away.
Walking up the road to the Charlotte Pass trailhead at lunchtime I got a few strange looks from passerby motorists. Mum was waiting in her walking shoes- she was going to walk with me up the Summit trail. I hoped she'd walk with me to the top- she'd been there before.
The sharp rocks of the trail pushed through soles of the Asics and made me wince with pain, but there wasn't much that could be done about it. Mum elected to stop at Seaman's Hut- at 2030m ASL, the highest building in Australia. She was a bit tired to walk the rest of the way, so I asked her to wait at the hut and I'd be back in two hours.
From Charlotte Pass you can't actually see Australia's highest mountain. It's only visible after Seaman's Hut, when it comes into view from behind Etheridge Ridge and is less than 4km away. The weather was poor- lots of black clouds and gusting wind- but I could make out some snowfields across the trail above Rawson's Pass. I'd borrowed a trekking pole from Lawrence to help my footing on snow- honestly I was surprised there wasn't a lot more of the white stuff.
There were a lot of people descending the mountain as I ambled up the trail. I negotiated the snow reasonably well and, as I approached the Strzelecki Monument on the summit I realised I would be alone on the top of the continent. No one to take my photo.... I produced the mobile phone and rang Paul as I walked the last few steps, reciprocating the gesture he made the previous evening. He'd just finished the Half Ironman- slowly, but he'd got there. I reached the summit with an elapsed time of 57.26.
I felt no emotion really. Emotion had been beaten out of me some time beforehand I think and replaced with a stoic desire to just get the bloody thing done. There were plenty of black clouds being blown up the Geehi valley towards the mountain but I found time to pour half my seawater onto the Strzelecki Monument, take a few photos of the view (and of the water pouring) and make a couple more calls. Just below the summit I stopped at the cornice and refilled the seawater bottle with snow, so I now had a mixture of Pacific Ocean water and Mt Kosciuszko's snow in the one bottle.
I was a bit disappointed in myself that I hadn't been more worked up about making the summit. It might not have been the actual end of the course- that was 9km away back where the car was parked at the trailhead- but the summit was powerfully symbolic and the evening before, on the phone, Paul- normally the most reserved of individuals, possessed of a Zen-like tranquility- had battled with his emotions, whereas I- a more extroverted type- had just grimly thought "that was incredibly slow, but at least I've done the whole fucking thing."
I met Mum back at Seaman's Hut and we set off for the trailhead. By this stage- perhaps because the desire for the summit was gone, or perhaps because I had blisters on the balls, the sides and the heels of both feet, as well as one big toe- I was shutting down completely and doing around 22min/km. I also had had bad pain in both hip flexors since that morning- because I'd never walked so far in my life, I suppose. Mum walked ahead and photographed me touching the trailhead sign 60 hours and 44 minutes, and 236km, after I'd started at Boydtown beach.
I was hardly able to get out of the car back at our hostel in Jindabyne, but managed to get inside with my bags and lay down on a bunk for a couple of hours before getting into the shower and wiping off three days of gunk. When I removed the tape on my feet I pulled a big flap of skin off the ball of my right foot, and made it back to my bunk on all fours.
The next morning my legs felt much better but my feet were still pretty bad. With the help of tape, vaseline and wearing two pairs of thick socks at once, I was running again the following Friday and that Sunday ran a 10K race in 43 minutes. I'm still cutting and peeling dead skin off my feet a fortnight later.
Oddly enough, I'm not sick of creamed rice, peanut butter sandwiches, nuts, potato chips or condensed milk, despite consuming vast amounts of all of these foods during the run. Stomach and nutrition wise, this was my best "big" ultra yet. Pity about the other aspects of the event....
I will be back to run a better, respectable time. I think I can do 42 hours, and a lot of that can be made up with a better strategy. Ideally that will be after we've organised a proper race director and the race becomes official- as a Fat Ass event it will never have widespread appeal in Australia, let alone internationally. It has, in our minds, the potential to get pretty big, in the same style as a Spartathlon or Western States- the apex of Australian ultrarunning. Mum has ruled herself out of crewing next year, so I'll need a few people who are prepared to be a lot harder on me than she was - who won't let me sleep and who will push me back onto the trail if I spend too long at the car.
And I need to really do some work on my blister strategy, although I think in this case most of my problems were caused by the constant wet of the first day- even when it wasn't raining, it was too humid for my socks and shoes to dry out.
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