How old are you Whippet? It was Chico, our embedded Daily Telegraph reporter who had been following Tim and I for the last 38 hours of our journey from Boydtown Beach on the coast near Eden. After all this time he was still conscientiously scribbling notes on his little reporter’s pad. Me? At the moment, I feel like I’m about 65. I’m actually only 44. Oh, same age as Tim then, was his reply. Yep, we’re twins, haven’t you heard? He looked at me slightly bewildered. I may have been dog-tired, but I still had some sense of humour left, however thin.
Here we were, starting our slog up the summit trail to the top of Mt Kosciuszko. We had a veritable entourage with Chico and “Evo” the Telegraph photographer, Lisa and Blair our crew, and of course Tim and I, the runners. The sun was setting, streaking the clear alpine sky with vivid crimson. A biting wind was whipping across the treeless landscape. The surrounding summits skulked in the fading light. Evo’s flash fired off repeatedly, keeping me awake, as he tried to capture the moment: two runners, dragging themselves inexorably toward the summit. As the light faded I could feel my systems shutting down. I had added layers of clothes to fend off the descending cold of night but the darkness of our second night on the road was closing in on my senses. My mind was being deprived of what it craved the most: sleep. My cognitive functions were fading with the light. Small obscure things took on greater proportion. I became fixated by a silhouette on the ridgeline that, to me, resembled a person bending over their pack. I could see the figure moving. There, right there, can no-one else see him? It was clearly inanimate: a rocky outcrop. Through their fatigue the others humoured me but it took a long time to move my gaze back to the business at hand: getting to the top of Australia.
What now seemed like a lifetime ago was merely a day and a half ago. Tim and I, along with 18 other runners had run, walked, and shuffled across the loose sand on the beach near Eden. Before we had even crossed the Pacific Highway onto the track that wound through the bush for the first couple of kilometres, the leaders were out of sight and Tim and I were at the back of the field. Only 4 weeks since the Great North Walks 100 miler, our third 100 for the year, and we needed to be very conservative. How did I get talked into this? I had had no intention of running Coast to Kosciuszko because the road surfaces over 246km guaranteed to aggravate the chronic arthritis in my big toe. But the lure of Australia’s biggest ultra, the mystique of running from sea-level to the highest point in Australia, the energy and excitement of the first official running of this iconic event, all became too hard to resist. Once Tim had organised crew and received approval for me to share his crew, the decision became easy. That remained the only thing that was easy.
The early hours seemed remote and relaxed. Running on open gravel roads with just a hand-held water bottle. Meeting the crew car every 4km to take on some food and refill our bottles. Apart from Jan Herman who had power walked past us up the first few steep hills only to have us repass him, there was no-one behind us. Neither Tim nor I wore a watch. We told our crew we didn’t want to know how far or how long we had been travelling. We were just out for a run. A really long run. The day warmed quickly, despite the cloud cover. When the clouds parted briefly the sun reminded us of how hot it could get out here. We would experience all kinds of weather. But for now it was good running weather.
Crew cars were leap-frogging us regularly and Jan and Richard McCormick’s cars carried the “Runners ahead” signs which were a constant reminder that we were close to last. The country rolled out before us with lush green paddocks and hills of thick native bush. The hours passed quickly. We chatted away the miles. Somewhere, we passed Richard while he was off the road. Then Lindsay Phillip’s crew car became more regular and soon we passed him as well, moving a lot slower than I would have expected so early on. We could see other runners up ahead on the long stretches of road. And always the crew cars, shuffling for position along the roadside. Susannah’s giant rolling motel, the rented Winnebago, became a landmark beacon and the envy of many runner and crew. We passed the now famous paddock of mannequin torsos but if the naked crew were still in there posing amongst them, I didn’t see them. More the better I think. The road surface was benign gravel so I changed out of my trail shoes and into my road runners. I had never changed shoes in an ultra before. But then I had never run 246km before.
The marathon point was marked with flour across the road. We passed here in about 5:15. Tim reminded me of Paul Every’s remarks during the race briefing that if you are through here in less than 5 hours and are not competing for the win, you are probably going out too fast. We were right on schedule. I was feeling good and had settled into the pace nicely, a reassuring sign when there was still over 200km to go. Best not to think about that. Still, I pointed out to Tim that we were now a sixth of the way there. We only had to run another 5 marathons. He had predicted I would say that and asked me not to do that the whole way. Hmmm, maybe Hermie (Rodney Ladyman) was right, perhaps we do sound like the odd couple? Chico scribbled on his notepad some more.
The clouds closed in and you could feel the moisture and electricity building in the air. I needed to use a loo and remembered there was a primitive toilet at the picnic ground at the base of Big Jack Mountain, only a few kilometres ahead. I told Tim I would meet him there and picked up the pace. It felt great to really wind up the momentum on the rolling hills. I passed Susannah limping off to her camper. A worrying sign and I assumed from then on that she was behind us for the rest of the day. Then I passed Hermie and Phil (USA) and eventually Lawrence Mead. Rain started to fall in large drops. Little puffs of dry dust rose with each spatter of rain on the gravel road.
The picnic area marking the start of Big Jack Mountain was a popular stop for crew and I made my way quickly to the amenities. There was even a running tap. The thin tin roof rattled deafeningly as the rain turned into a tropical downpour. As I huddled under shelter waiting for Tim, Hermie came through and grabbed an umbrella from Anne, his crew. What a generous gesture: carrying a metal shafted umbrella in the middle of an electrical storm to draw the attention of the lightning gods away from your fellow runners.
Lawrence and USPhil came through still ahead of Tim. I grabbed my rain jacket. The wind on the wet clothes had a rapid chilling effect. Off we set on the long, long climb up Big Jack Mountain. This climb is one of the sentinel landmarks of the journey. The rainforest was thick and the fresh scent of the wet gums was a rewarding and welcome change from the dry dirt roads of the open valleys below. The rain stopped and water dripped from the trees. The natural aroma was soon lost to the gastronomic delight of our veggie-burgers being cooked up by Lisa, halfway up the mountain. The burgers were a real treat. The rain had brought with it cool air and we had to keep moving to stay warm. Big Jack goes on forever and just when you think you are reaching the top, it turns yet another corner and kicks up even steeper.
Soon after cresting the top of the climb we caught up to USPhil again. After spending 20 odd hours together at GNW I figured he would probably run with us again for quite some time. We headed out onto the rolling plateau towards Cathcart and the big question of the day: would the Cathcart Store be open? Having sat outside the closed store for an hour last year while crewing for Tim, I had salivated in the heat, looking at the ice-cream sign. When Lisa asked what I would like from the store there was no hesitation: I had waited a year for that ice cream. Jackpot: the store is open and will probably have its busiest day of the year as 20 runners and another 40 crew file through an otherwise desolate landmark. My magnum is divine. I have to fight the flies off but I make short work of it. The high plains bring with them the new distraction in the form of flies, so out comes the fly net. This is a new toy for me and I spend the rest of the day trying to poke food into my mouth forgetting it is there and getting a mouth full of fury netting. Yuck. Even worse was getting a fly trapped on the inside. They would go hysterical while trying to escape.
We turned off after Cathcart and Rod (Phil’s crew) offered to drive into Bombala for ice while our crew looked after USPhil for a while. There is great camaraderie on these runs, and the friendships born of such endeavour forge a unique bond. USPhil decided to try a little of our Staminade. He went on to regret it. Or maybe it was just one of those days, but an hour or so later we lost him when we thought he had only pulled over for a wee stop. He was actually having stomach problems. Tim and I were running well and as the skies cleared again we pushed on through the afternoon without USPhil.
Paul and Dianne drove back through the field to check on progress. They counted out the runners ahead of us. The big surprise for me was Susannah, who was now in fifth place. I hadn’t realised she had passed me while I was in the loo at Big Jack, and had steamed ahead. Tim Cochrane was way out in front demonstrating his favouritism was well deserved. Martin Fryer was running his own meticulous race in second place, as expected. Our Mellum team-mate, Mr Consistency, Phil (Spud) Murphy, was in third. Debutante, Kevin Heaton was another surprise packet in fourth place. There was only Richard, Jan, Lindsay and Will Kaless behind us. It was great to get an update. You get starved of runner information when there are no checkpoints to relay what is happening down the line.
The evening approached. The light prematurely waned as a misty fog rolled in. We passed Michael Lovric and Allison Lilley’s crew having their dinner and figured they were close. Team Bunnylove as they were known became our measuring stick for much of the run from here on. We would be close to them until near the finish. I knew we were approaching the hundred kilometre tree but the light was beating us. It was another one of the milestones that I looked forward to. We went through the fork on the road and on and on into the mist. Every outline in the fog became the tree, only to lead to disappointment. I couldn’t believe how long it was taking to reach it. In this featureless world of the fog, we were running in a void that never seemed to end. And then I could see it. Crew cars were lined up, people were milling about. Time for dinner: a humungous slab of veggie-lasagne. Lisa had been busy yet again. We stopped and Tim tried to get me to sit. I refused, and Chico scribbled more notes in his pad. I dressed a small blister on Tim’s foot and changed my own shoes again. We heard that Sean Williams had dropped just past 100km. First man done. We grabbed our night gear and headed into the night our bellies very full.
We made the Dalgety Road turn-off just in light, despite the fog. USPhil had revived and caught up to us again. He was a welcome addition to our night train. The wide gravel road was easy to see even in the moonless night. I ran just ahead of the others, preferring the darkness to the glow of the head lights. The silence punctuated by my foot-falls was hypnotic. All of a sudden there were crew cars everywhere. We passed team Bunnylove, napping in their car. Then the big camper, broken down by the road. Past a hobbling Rob Boyce, struggling with an injury, destined not to finish. Past Innes who had been just in front of us all afternoon. Then a staggering figure emerged through the drizzle. It was Lawrence, half asleep, out on his feet. Soon after Paul and Di drove past again. Tim reminded them of his prediction that we would make a big surge at night. I felt it was more a case of attrition all around us. We were definitely moving along consistently but I could feel the fatigue washing over me, as well. This was weird considering I had gone much longer and further in the past without needing sleep. I think the immensity of the distance still to cover weighed heavily on my psyche and created this psychological demand for sleep. At the next stop Tim collapsed into his chair and I staggered around the front of the car and curled up under the warmth of the engine. I could not relax. The constant thought of the car rolling over me kept me awake. I heard team Bunnylove go past. With less than 5 minutes of restless rest it was time to go.
Suddenly there were five of us running down the road: Tim, USPhil, Allison, Michael and myself. And run we did. Headlights bobbing down the road in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. It was weird to be in such a big group after so many hours spread out for miles. Like nocturnal creatures we were busy doing what we love to do: running through the darkness. The staggered crew cars meant we soon lost Bunnylove and USPhil again. The drizzle in the dark played havoc with our headlights. First it would reflect back from in front of your face, blinding you. Then there would be a huge white halo encircling the road. I ran continuously through an imaginary Stargate. When I switched off my light an inky blackness enveloped me and I soon switched it back on. When a car went past our reflective vests would light up like neon signs.
There was little talk now. The crew cars were a constant reminder that the others were not far behind us but we didn’t see them. Blair ran with us for a while and was surprised at the pace we were maintaining. I guess our tired shuffling gait, with little leg lift looked a lot slower than it really was. If only we could maintain this. We hit the bitumen on the never-ending road into Dalgety. I stopped for another loo stop and Tim kept going. After leaving the lights of the small township, it took me a long time to see his headlight up ahead, and even longer to catch him. I passed Joe Raftery’s car, unaware that Susannah was asleep inside. She climbed out as we passed and she joined us for a while before our stops split us up.
Birds chirping signalled the approaching morning but rather than dawning it kind of crept through the mist. I started seeing all manner of things in the fog. Many times I approached someone on the side of the road only to have them disappear. A kangaroo would turn out to be a shrub. A car would be a bush. The fog grew brighter but there was still no real daylight. And then we were at the base of the Beloka Range and our crew welcomed us to the 100 mile mark. Another significant landmark, in 24:30.
I remembered this climb well from pacing Spud up it last year. It went on forever. We fell silent. I was so tired. I tried to focus on each footfall, just get to the top. My whole world consisted of just a few metres of bitumen. On and on, up and up. My legs grew heavy. My eyelids grew heavy. By the time we reached the top I was sleeping on my feet. I staggered over to the crew car, told them to wake me in 5 minutes and went straight to sleep. I woke with a start. The car door was open and someone was talking to me. How many have passed? I asked. Just Susannah. I climbed out and stumbled off in the wrong direction, half asleep. They grabbed me and pointed me towards Jindabyne. Tim rose from his chair and Lisa walked with us for a while to keep us moving. In the dawn light we saw a deer in the bush. It was a magical moment. It stopped and stared back at us. Just watching us. It was surreal. It could have been a dream, but it wasn’t. And then it was gone.
We came up behind Susannah, limping badly but still maintaining a good pace. I was worried about the tourniquet type bands she had around her thigh. There was a massive bruise running down the back of her thigh. I have seen this many times at work. There was no doubt she had torn one of her hamstring muscles. I counselled her on removing one of the tight bands, fearing the possibility of causing a venous clot once she stopped moving. Joe was still crewing for her and was driving into Jindabyne to try and buy some sort of compression bandage to alleviate her pain. I was worried about both her chances of finishing and possible further injury in the process. It is hard to fathom what it took for her to finish.
As we approached Jindabyne the traffic increased and the fog burnt off. We shed layers and came back to life. A new day but still a long way to go. Somewhere in the night I had strained a calf muscle and it was really starting to hurt. It was worse after stopping when it would stiffen up. This helped my resolve to keep moving. We sent our crew into Jindy to buy some supplies. When we reached the lake we were afraid of taking the bike path in case they missed us. So we stuck to the hot, hard, stinking bitumen. It was also longer than the bike-path. We reached the service station and I refilled my bottles, remembering Brendan’s plight of running dry out here last year. Then our crew rolled up, with ice creams and aeroguard. Lifesavers. It was back with the fly netting and sunscreen, as the sun and the flies began to bight into us. My ice-cream melted faster than I could eat it. It was getting hot.
Jindabyne had been a major mental focus. Now that we had passed it and begun the climb up Kosciuszko in earnest it required a new resolve. We still had over 60kms to go. That is a quarter of the distance. Careful not to say that out loud. Running was becoming almost impossible. My feet felt macerated despite having no blisters. The pounding from GNW a month prior and the unrelenting hardness of the bitumen from Dalgety had tenderised my soles. When I drank the flies would sneak inside my netting and drive me mad. The sun was getting hotter. And still we went up, and up. Into the National Park. We hung on every mileage sign, counting down the distance. When we discovered that one had been wrong and we still had further to go than we thought, it crushed us mentally. Blair and Lisa took turns walking with us to keep us moving. Their company helped distract us. The smell of the rotting wombat carcasses on the roadside and the incessant flies focused our attention back to the task, almost like smelling salts to the knocked out boxer.
We passed an unused ski hire depot and I headed straight for the shade of the drive through entrance. I lay down on the cool concrete and put my feet up on the wall. Give me five minutes, I said. Five minutes never felt so short. Blair hustled us on. We passed through one of the ski villages. I was oblivious to their names by now. A group of firemen came out to clap and cheer us on. After so long without any acknowledgement this small but generous act was overwhelming. I was getting tired. Really tired. Bunnylove's car seemed to be passing us more frequently. I didn’t really care anymore. As we crossed the floor of one valley I looked back and saw two small figures crest the ridge behind us. I could make out Michael running backwards, waving Allison along. I swear he skipped and then ran backwards. Oh god, if he has that much energy let him just pass me. Now. It took some time but as we sat in our chairs, Bunnylove went past. We leapfrogged them a couple more times before they disappeared for good up ahead. No more crew cars except those coming back with their runners.
Charlottes Pass. I thought we would never get there. I put on tights and long sleeves. I tried changing back into my trail shoes. They hurt my feet. I had no blisters but my feet felt like they had been tenderised with a meat mallet. Back into my road shoes. I grabbed my camelbak. I was struggling to think of what I needed. Paul was helping me and asked if I had my light. My light? I know I packed one, I’m sure I did. But where? It seemed so long ago. My mind was fuzzy. My light? Hang on, I had used it last night, I knew where it was. I really wasn’t with it. And so our entourage headed off on the final leg of our journey. Nine kilometres to the summit and 9km return. We had barely started when Ron Schwebel came barrelling down the path with Hermie only 100 metres behind him. How cruel, to be “sprinting” to the finish after 38hours. Tim and I had made a pact when team Bunnylove were chasing us down that if it came to a race on the summit trail we would concede graciously. Truth is we couldn’t run. I hadn’t been able to run for some time now. My calf screamed when I tried to break stride. And my feet were just so, so sore.
And so I found myself dragging my tired body relentlessly up the rough gravel path leading to the summit. We crossed the trickle that is the beginning of the Snowy River. We trudged from pole to pole. We passed Seaman’s Hut as all trace of the sun faded beyond the horizon. Just three kilometres to go. We reached the saddle, just one kilometre to go. There were porta loos here. Tim needed to go. I didn’t want to stop but we all did. I gazed across the distant landscape in a trance. Evo’s camera clicked away. Those crimson streaks across the alpine sky were a magical backdrop to this journeys end. But the darkness was taking over. As we reached the final path up to the summit a hiker came rushing along a side path to catch us. Evo and I were at the rear and she just caught us. She asked if we had lights? Well yes, but we needed them. She asked if Seaman’s Hut would be open? Well, yes, it is an emergency shelter. Turns out she was part of an inexperienced party of 4 day trippers who had underestimated their hike and found themselves exhausted and with only one tiny light and inadequate gear in the approaching darkness. We pointed them towards the hut, but also suggested they should be able to make it down to Charlottes Pass. We had to hurry to catch up to the others.
The final climb winds around the summit in a huge circle, like a spiral staircase. I knew there was phone signal here so asked Blair if I could use his phone to call my wife (first time since before the race). Her familiar voice dragged me hundreds of miles away, back to a world of quiet comfort and warmth. My emotions were overwhelmed and as I hung up tears streamed down my face. This was it. I was really going to do this. I was going to conquer Coast to Kosci. Euphoria swept over me. Michael and Allison came around the bend and we all hugged. More tears. I had no control now, but I was doing my best to just keep moving. We rounded the last corner and the wind pushed me sideways. There it was: the silhouette of the Strezlecki Monument. The highest point on Australia. Tim and I clambered across the huge uneven boulders and stood proudly on either side of the rock plaque. We hugged and held our hands aloft triumphantly. There was no hiding the tears now. I looked at the monument. I had to climb up and stand on it. Adrenaline took over and before I knew it I was balanced on top with my arms raised, saluting our victory. Evo’s camera flashed repeatedly, lighting up the blackness. The wind buffeted me as I stood on the perilously narrow platform but there was no way I was giving in to the elements now. This was what we had struggled through 40 hours and 237km for. Nothing was stopping me now. I climbed down and Tim said: why’d you do that, now I’ve got to get up there as well. And up he went. And he will never regret it. The exhilaration of his victory salute was captured by Evo’s flashing camera. A moment in time captured forever. The moment we reached for the sky and felt like we could touch it.
But we hadn’t finished yet. We still had 9km to get back to Charlottes Pass and the finish-line. At the base of the summit we ran into Jan. What an awesome effort to walk at that speed for so long. He is a true legend of our sport. We pushed on, just wanting it to end now. I kept looking for Seaman’s Hut and eventually it emerged out of the darkness. I went over and knocked and a rather dishevelled and tired hiker came out. They were planning to stay for the night and once we had established they were safe and had notified others of their plans, we left them most of our food and drinks to get through the night. Reassured they were safe we continued. Back on the path I realised I had used up all my reserves with the emotions and adrenaline on the summit. Now I was struggling to keep going. We met the rest of the field that would go on to finish still on their way up. First Will, then Lawrence and Susannah and then USPhil. A procession of raw determination. They all looked worse for wear and I pitied them knowing what they still had left to do but was proud to share in their achievement.
The finish line seemed to take forever to reach. The dim glow of torches finally signified the car-park and the end of the trail. Tim and I held our hands up in one last victory salute before collapsing into Paul and Di’s arms for celebratory hugs. Not much was said. It didn’t need to be. The last of my emotions were squeezed out of me. The satisfaction was indescribable. The relief was tangible. We hugged our crew, Lisa and Blair, without whom there was no-way we could have achieved this. I sank into a chair and was wrapped in blankets and retreated into myself where I reflected on the enormity of what we had just done. And I savoured the sensation that welled up inside of me, the realisation that I had conquered Coast to Kosciuszko.
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