I was intrigued with the idea of trying this 150 mile run from the south coast of New South Wales to the top of Australia’s highest mountain, Kosciuszko, ever since my friends from the Glasshouse 100 told me that the idea for the run was taking shape, having been hatched in 2004 over beer in a Sydney pub. The run was envisioned as Australia’s version of the Spartathlon or Badwater and a replacement for the discontinued Sydney to Melbourne 1000K run, an event that drew huge national attention to ultrarunning. The inaugural run of Coast to Kosci (or C2K) was held in December 2004, 4 people started and 3 finished, each contributing photos and detailed accounts of the experience to the race’s first website. In 2005, 7 people started and 5 finished. The third running of the race was set to start on December 8, 2006. As the date approached, I decided that, at age 59, the time had come and on November 22 emailed the race message board, “I’m in.” No woman had attempted the run before, nor had anyone over 50.
On December 3, husband Phil Brown and I arrived in Sydney after a 14 hour flight. Setting foot in Australia I felt a wave of panic that the crazy notion of doing C2K was becoming a reality. We spent the following day driving south on the scenic coastal route, about 300 miles, to the fishing port of Eden near the Victoria border. The start of the race was nearby at Boydtown Beach in Twofold Bay on the Tasman Sea. Sunset over Twofold Bay was streaked bright orange, the sun crimson, due to an enormous forest fire burning out of control in Victoria.
All but the start and finish of C2K is on country roads, mostly dirt roads. We spent the next day driving most of the course, following the description on the website. The early part of the course winds through state forests full of eucalyptus, ferns, goannas (tree climbing monitor lizards that can be several feet long), wallabies, cockatoos and whip birds (a small bird that makes the piercing sound of a whip snapping across the forest). At about 35 miles there is a steep 2000 foot climb up Big Jack Mountain to the tablelands, vast expanses of open, dusty farming country, with few houses and occasional small herds of sheep, a few cattle. Here, and throughout most of Australia, the country is parched from the worst drought in a hundred years. Plans to make C2K an “official” race this year were scrapped because townships along the route expressed concerns about traffic and liability, however we almost never saw another car, indeed sheep freely hopped the fences and wandered in the road and a couple of times we waited while farmers laconically drove their herds down the dusty road.
At mile 110 the course reaches the alpine village of Jindabyne then climbs along a paved highway past other ski resorts up the slopes of Kosciuszko to Charlotte’s Pass, where there is a parking lot and a 5.5 mile trail leads to the top of the mountain, slightly over 7300 feet. The race goes to the Strzelecki monument at the top (Strzelecki was a Pole who claimed the first ascent of the mountain in 1843 and named it for a Polish freedom fighter who otherwise had nothing to do with Australia), then finishes back at the parking lot. Phil and I trekked up to the top. The crisp air and sweeping alpine vistas, despite the haze from the fire, were a surprise in a country of red desert, tropical rainforests and warm beaches.
On race day, a Friday, we assembled on the beach at Twofold Bay, eight lean and muscular Aussie blokes and me, surrounded by the people who would aid us through this epic. We were giddy with anticipation in the 5:30 dawn start, the sky and water shimmering magically with streaks of pink and orange on translucent blue. The tide was out, making the course perhaps 10 feet longer than previous years. A starting line was drawn in the sand. Some runners followed a tradition of filling a vial with water from the ocean to pour on the Strzelecki monument. Instead, I took a pretty shell from the beach to bring to the monument.
“Go!” The preparation was over, and finally we were doing what we were primed to do.
We ran briefly through sand, crossed a small highway, then on a few short steep trails before emerging on a dirt road in a state forest where we expected the crews to meet us. No crews. The crews miscalculated their timing, perhaps after being startled by Phil momentarily driving like an American, on the right. Aussies drive on the left. The crews soon caught us.
The group ambled easily along, with 2 runners off the back, 2-time finisher Jan Hermann, who was walking due to a knee problem and 2-time DNF Lawrence Mead, who was attempting to run solo, with neither pacer nor crew, hoping to find water along the way at the occasional farm. At the top of a climb, I briefly took the lead on the downhill then was joined by the three strongest runners, 2004 winner Paul Every, Wayne Gregory and Phil Murphy. They gradually pulled ahead, and Ian Twite caught me. He said he had never gone longer than 100K, but he was doing this run to raise money for a cancer unit at a Melbourne hospital after his 2 best friends died of cancer. He gradually pulled ahead, but I guessed that he was pushing too hard so early.
Over the pretty miles through eucalyptus forest before Big Jack Mountain, we were graced by black cockatoos with yellow streaks, a rare species, as well as flocks of screeching white cockatoos and numerous colorful little parrots. Wallabies spied on us, and kangaroos crashed through the bushes. Brendan Mason repeatedly caught up to me then dropped back to get aid about every 5K from his crew, Andrew Hewatt who was driving a VW van known as the Mothership and also crewing for the next runner, Tim Turner. After learning a lesson at San Francisco One Day about wasting time on too many aid stops, I had Phil meet me every 10K and the stops typically consisted just of switching bottles and taking a few bites of melon.
The climb up Big Jack Mountain was grueling, and the course description appropriately invited us to curse Paul Every and Sean Greenhill for devising the course. The temperature rose into the 90’s. The long steep climb sapped my energy, and my stomach began to protest, the start of GI problems that would get worse in the next hours. Brendan and Tim passed me, and I could not catch them. I reluctantly accepted being in 7th place but tried to put a positive spin on it. Even if I finished last, I’d still be the first woman.
After cresting Big Jack, the course wound through the tiny rural town of Cathcart. When Phil and I drove there, the one general store was open and we bought two delicious little homemade fruit cakes, very like those made by my mother, who was Australian and a reason why I love running here. Today, despite our telling the owner that (relatively) many people would be coming through because of the run, the Cathcart store was closed. I learned that Jan Hermann had text messaged that he was dropping and would hitchhike to Cooma, where he could catch public transport back home to Sydney. That night, Jan was back in his own bed. Phil checked on Lawrence, who was continuing steadily with no problems.
I continued on through dusty brown land that served, marginally, as pasture for small herds of sheep not effectively restrained by makeshift wooden fences. One big sheep bleated in fear and tried to get back inside the fence as I trotted by. Perhaps it was the smell that frightened him. I was covered with flies that were undeterred by Deet. Two men in a ute (pickup truck) drove by and asked if I was in the race. They said they were Ian’s mates and were looking for him. They asked if I was going to be out on the course all night and seemed surprised that I didn’t find the prospect particularly daunting.
At about 90K it was late afternoon, the temperature had dropped steadily to the high 60’s, my gut problems subsided and I felt increasingly strong. I caught Brendan and Tim, who were together, and found that I could run pretty steadily without walking. Soon I got ahead of them, then I could not see them on the long vistas. The 100K point is marked by a big dead tree at the edge of the dusty road. Phil met me there with hot soup (Campbell’s ready to eat, yummy with astronomical salt content), as the temperature continued to drop into the 50’s, and I “rugged up” into an American River 50 windbreaker, gloves and fleece headband.Phil met me next at mile 66, the turn onto Dalgety Road, a straight road through bleak backcountry that we would follow for the next 25 miles. I enjoyed running without turning on the flashlight in the darkening twilight until my toe caught a rock and I fell, smashing my knees, hands and elbow on the rocky road. Shaken and bleeding, with throbbing knees that soon began to swell, I turned on the light but remained scared of tripping on more rocks so could only walk. I remembered that parts of Dalgety Road are sealed. After a long time I met Phil and asked him to drive behind me to light the way until we reached the sealed section. This he did, and I was able to run.
I soon got over my fear of tripping, and we began our nighttime pattern of Phil driving ahead about 10K, arranging my food and fresh waterbottle in the trunk, then going to sleep with an alarm set. When I got to the car, I’d quietly do a self-service aid station and continue running. Phil would waken in time to meet me 10K down the road, thus getting about 2 hours sleep. The crews kept in contact with cell phones during the night, and we learned that Tim Turner had dropped with a calf injury.
Phil drove into the town of Dalgety, at mile 90, and walked back to meet me. I was delighted to have reached this pretty, historic town where, a few days before, we had carrot and ginger soup served by a young woman who said she would never leave Dalgety because the people are so friendly. This night, Phil cautioned me to be quiet because we were waking dogs, setting off a chain of barking that followed us through town. As we left, we crossed a bridge over the Snowy River, flowing from Kosciuszko. I felt that the mountain was reaching out and welcoming me.
We were now on the road to Jindabyne, the alpine village where the runners would stay after the race, and dawn was breaking. About ten miles later, the hundred mile point was somewhere along a steep thousand foot climb. I had done about 25 hours for the hundred, and was pleased to still be able to run the flats and downhills. The sun was soon blazing, the day was turning into a 90 degree scorcher. I changed into a yellow mesh singlet, changed socks and put on EEEE width shoes that I had special ordered for the run. This was my only stop for foot maintenance. I had mummified each toe in thin tape the night before the run, and the tape stayed in place, successfully preventing blisters. Nonetheless, my feet were swollen, sore and bruised, so the extra wide shoes helped.
The next ten miles brought us to the outskirts of Jindabyne, a summer tourist area lively with more people, houses and traffic than I’d seen in the past hundred miles. The Snowy Mountains towered in the distance. Soon Phil met me on a hill above the town and directed me down to a park where a bike path through town started, but first, gloriously, there was a cool bathroom with running water. It was luxurious to wipe off the sweat and dirt that the flies so loved. Then, on the bike path, the work continued, the sun was blazing and the flies were no less enthusiastic. At the end of the bike path, Phil guided me through a mobile home park up to the Kosciuszko Road, a paved highway to Charlotte’s Pass, where we would finish after the final ascent.
I was tired and exhilarated, still able to jog the flats and downhills. Each running segment began with gradually accelerating chugging, and I was pleased that my legs could still find the rhythm of a run. Phil disappeared to go to a gas station and returned happily with a new array of drinks, delicious fruit juices, a welcome change from the increasingly unpalatable contents of our mobile aid station. I changed shorts, from clingy compression style to flimsy nylon, which felt delightfully airy. As I jogged down a long hill, a car drove up with Paul Every and his crew. I was amazed and saddened to hear that this icon of Australian ultrarunning, who had run across the country and finished the previous two Coast to Kosci runs, had been forced to drop with injuries. They told me that Ian was just ahead and struggling, I should be able to catch him. Wayne Gregory was near the finish and Phil Murphy was two hours behind him but also struggling. They said I looked better than anyone else, the only one still smiling and running.
We passed a large nature center and ranger station where a park entry fee was collected. Now we were officially in the park. There were lakes and trails in the white eucalyptus forests, and people were out enjoying the early summer. At about mile 130 we passed the ski resort of Smiggin Holes at 5400 feet, its ski lifts resting in the sun. Phil said he would meet me in 5 miles. In a mile or so I came to another ski area with many houses after the resort, Perisher Village. I ran for a long time on a road that seemed to be heading away from Kosciuszko and started worrying that I had missed a turn. No one was around to ask, no one seemed to be in the houses. I decided that the Kosciuszko Road must run along the top of a hillside to my left, and, with shaky legs, I climbed through backyards up to that point, only to find that there was no road. With difficulty I climbed back down, soon the road turned, and there was Phil waiting for me. This excursion wasted about 20 minutes.
In the last hot miles before Charlotte’s Pass I caught Ian walking with one of his two mates. I was walking too but moving faster and soon they were out of sight. I was delighted to be in 3rd place but worried that Ian might revive sufficiently to retake 3rd. When I got to the parking lot at Charlotte’s Pass, Phil was ready to go, pacing me for the final stretch, with jackets and camera in his backpack. He said he had 2 bottles of water.
We entered the trail at about 8 p.m. I had been pushing to put some distance on Ian, but once on the trail I relaxed into the idea of a beautiful hike with my husband. Immediately, my body started to shut down, hoping to finally get some rest. The trail is only gradually uphill for a few miles before a steep climb to the top, but soon I felt so cold and weak that I wondered if I might have to ask Phil to carry me. I put on a jacket and mustered a reserve of determination. Against the sky streaked with orange and purple, I could see the black silhouette of the Seaman’s hut, a stone room about 1.5 miles from the summit. We crossed a bridge over the Snowy River, near its source, and the trail wound more steeply toward the summit. I was very thirsty, but Phil had brought only sports drink and I could not choke down any more of it, nor could I stomach another gel.
The climb that had seemed easy a few days ago was interminable. Small rocks poked my tender feet and made my ankles twist. Darkness fell. We greeted a lone man camped in a tent, his silent reverie would have many unexpected interruptions that night. I expected to reach the monument at every switchback, but the trail only led onward. My determination became tinged with anger. Finally, there it was - the monument. My legs were so weak that Phil had to lead me over the rocks to prop me up against the monument for the obligatory photo. I placed the little shell from Boydtown Beach on top of the monument. The time was 10:06.
Next I wanted only to get to the finish line as quickly as my debilitated legs would allow. I was still worried about Ian catching me, particularly since I was going so slow. When we got down to Seaman’s hut we saw lights in the distance. Below the tent of the bewildered camper we met Ian with his two mates by his sides. We later learned that Ian would reach the summit but would be unable to complete the journey back down on his own. After a quick chat, we continued the now arduous descent to the Snowy River, then onto the last couple of miles to the finish. The light from my flashlight created a precisely defined 3-dimensional oblong beam that appeared to be a huge balloon. The balloon was pretty and distracting. I tripped on rocks and came crashing down onto them. I tried to force myself to look through the balloon and onto the trail.
The stars were brilliant and seemed very close in the velvety sky at this highest point on the continent, their brilliance not diffused by any other light. Even the shy Southern Cross glowed. Phil hung back to take in the awesome sky. I pressed forward as fast as I could, but started to worry that we were on the wrong trail when we seemingly went for miles without reaching the trailhead. I turned to call back to Phil, my legs folded and I fell into a muddy ditch. I felt soft mud on the side of my face. Phil reassured me that we were on the right trail, indeed the only trail.
“Check your watch. We’re here!” Phil said suddenly. We passed the trailhead, into the parking lot. The finish! It was 12:23 Sunday morning. A small crowd cheered and hugged us. I drank several glasses of water from our car then luxuriated in sitting on the soft car seat. Flashlights appeared down the road coming up to Charlotte’s Pass. Brendan and Lawrence were approaching. I rolled down the window, and we exchanged a hearty “Well done!”
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