<Long post warning!>
Much has been said about what it is like to stand on the start line of an ultramarathon, particularly those upwards of 50 miles. The buzz of excitement, the anticipation, and the vibe of a thousand runners waiting on their toes knowing that, despite all their best laid plans, the sheer distance, extended duration, technical terrain and unpredictable weather mean that the outcome might just well be beyond their control.
Well, there was none of that for me. On 16 May, 2015, at 0630hrs, I arrived at Scenic World, Katoomba, the starting venue for TNF100 Australia, around fifteen minutes early for my 0648h start. Half dazed from having only four or so hours of sleep the night before, I found a quiet spot on a bench away from the buzzing crowd, and somehow managed to slip into a semi-daydream. I’m not sure how long I actually sat there in that state, but instinct drove me to check my watch which, to my horror, said 0647h – one minute before my wave was due to start. I snapped back to reality just in time to hear a countdown of “Three, two, one” just as my watched ticked over to 0648. I looked up and watched my start wave charge through the gantry in slow motion.
I scrambled to put my pack on and hurried to the starting chute, weaving my way through the runners from the next wave who had already begun to gather. I then had the privilege of making my way across the start line all by my lonesome and embarassed self. The crowd were charitable enough to give me an amused cheer nevertheless! And so, half asleep and without really having contemplated what the day had in store for me, I plodded off down the street on the start of an epic ordeal that would take me into the wee hours of the next day.
Leg 1: Scenic World, Katoomba to Narrow Neck, 10.5km
The overcast sky was a sheet of pale grey, and the air a crisp 7C – perfect running conditions in my book, as I didn’t have to worry about overheating. My bumbling start also had some unexpected benefits. For one, instead of the usual ambient heavy breathing and chatter of hundreds of other runners, I got to enjoy the calming silence of the morning, and the refreshing scent of the cool, fresh morning air. Also, I didn’t have to deal with weaving through the pack and rubbing sweaty elbows to find a comfortable spot. Other than a few stragglers from the main pack, I had the full width of the course to myself, and within seconds I was able to settle into my own rhythm and immerse myself in the serene tranquility of the Blue Mountains.
My goal for the day was to get my hands on a TNF100 bronze buckle, which meant a finish time of 20h or less. 100km is a distance I was familiar with, but 4300m in elevation gain was new territory for me, and having had to deal with a series of injuries in the lead up to this event, success was anything but certain. Still, I had a plan which I felt was realistic, and as long as I stuck to it and avoided any injury, I felt I had a reasonable chance.
The first four and a bit kilometres of the course was on the tarmac – an out and back along the rather scenic Cliff Drive. There were stunning views to the south of the sheer cliff faces that were a signature feature of the dissected plateau upon which the region lay. the tops of the cliff faces were highlighted a brilliant orange by the slivers of morning sun that had managed to sneak their way under the edge of the nearly endless sheet of cloud. There were a couple of steep ups and downs, but in terms of magnitude, no more than a bump in the road compared to what lay ahead.
I rounded the last corner before the turnaround point just as the main body of my start wave had begun making its way back towards Scenic World. Everyone was still all smiles and chatter, but I was still glad to be out of the pack. There would be heaps of time for socialising later, and for now, I was still in the process of easing myself into my race mindset, something I just needed a bit of alone time for, and so, other than expressing sincere thanks to the volunteers scattered along the route, I pretty much kept to myself and started going through the game plan in my head.
As I neared Scenic World, I could just hear in the distance the roar of the crowd marking the race flag off for the 50km runners. Our route however, took us along another street round the back of the start area. My dad, who had dropped me off earlier, was waiting round the last bend of the road amongst the large bunches of spectators which had gathered on either side. I took a moment to enjoy the energy of the crowd and cheers of support, gave a quick smile for my dad’s camera, before the course turned south off the road and into the network of walking trails along the cliffside.
The first teaser obstacle for the day was the long descent down the Furber Steps, a 200m zig zagging stairway descent down the sheer southern cliff face below Katoomba. The challenge was more mental than physical, but it was twofold. Firstly, there was the inevitable stress raised by funnelling 1200 fresh, adrenaline fuelled runners (albeit in waves of approx. 200 runners at a time) down a bottlenecked, steep stairway with almost no overtaking opportunities.
As it goes in most ultras, everyone was friendly, supportive and patient, but behind all the polite smiles and humourous quips of “Oh no, please take your time, we’ve got all day after all!”, it was easy to sense the frustration of those were itching to go a little quicker. And the ones who were doing the holding up had it no easier, the guilt running through their minds as the gaps in front of them grew larger and larger was made clear as they kept apologising and pulled to the side on any rare opportunity where the stairway widened a fraction. Despite all this, everyone was a gem of encouragement, and I heard not a single harsh word spoken all the way down.
The other mental challenge the descent posed, was that we all knew we would be revisiting this stairway in the final kilometer of the race, except at that time we would be coming back up, most of us in the dark, and with 99kms and over 4000m of elevation in our legs, a thought that the stunning cliffside views did little to ease. Once again, however, a steady stream of light hearted banter (which you almost never get in a road marathon where everyone has music blaring straight into their heads from their ipods) was all we needed to get our focus back on the immediate task – getting down these stairs and off along the trails. And so, our off-road adventure began with a psychological battle of patience and focus, but the camaraderie of the ultra-running community won the fight, and we all made it to the base of the steps in good spirits and rearing to go.
The next 4km or so brought us along narrow singletrack about mid-way up the steep mountainside below the cliffs. The path was rocky and had the odd root stretching across here and there. There were also some tricky bits where the path had been eroded by landslides, but other than these, most of the track was runnable. It was still relatively crowded, and there were a couple of brief bottlenecks where some scrambling was involved, so the going was still slow, but smooth nonetheless.
Along the way, I passed a person lying on the ground in a space blanket, being attended to by a pair of other runners. I later found out through the event’s facebook feed that the gentleman was a TNF veteran who had completed every single TNF Australia since its inception. Sadly, on this occasion, a bad slip had caused him to twist his knee and snap his patella. He had to be heli-lifted out.
Just as I felt I had found a good rhythm, the slow and steady forward progress was promptly cut by our arrival at the Golden Stairs, a 200m stair climb that was rather similar to the Furber Steps in terms of gradient, but minus the stunning views since we were deep in the vegetation for the most part. The other primary difference was of course that this time we were going up. The course was still packed, and any frustrations felt during the Furber Steps descent were only amplified as the line of runners ground to a standstill every couple of minutes as someone along the line gave in to the burning in their lungs and stopped to catch a breath.
Determined to save my legs as far as possible for the onslaught in the second half of the course, I grabbed my poles and marched upwards, leveraging my arms as much as possible to relieve the load on my quads and glutes. Staying positive, I took every pause in the line as a chance to have a rest myself, knowing well that trying to save a few minutes early in the race by pushing too hard, could easily cost me hours when it came to the crunch at the vastly more difficult tail end of this course.
After 18 minutes of climbing, most of it with my face inches from the rear end of the runner in front, the stairway arrived at a short a path that broke out of the trees almost without warning and led on to a nice fat dirt road with a clear view to the sky. It caught me almost by surprise, and I trotted along in a bit of a stupor until I spotted signs that indicated that I had indeed reached the top of the Golden Stairs and was now on Glenraphael Drive. Glad to see the end of the stairs, it was time to seize the opportunity to really get some moving done, and I began a merry canter along to CP1.
The relief in gradient only lasted a couple hundred metres, and the road soon began to climb sharply, a welcome signal that we were only a km or so from the checkpoint. At any rate, I vastly preferred ascending on the smooth, easy surface to a quad and glute destroying stair climb. My trusty walking poles made short work of the climb, and in no time at all, the road levelled out and I rolled in to CP1 with 1h 42min on the clock, only two minutes behind my planned schedule. No harm was done though. I had allowed myself 10 minutes for logistics at the checkpoint, but since I was feeling fresh I just grabbed a banana and a gel, topped up my water bottle and was back on the road in two minutes.
Leg 2 – Narrow Neck to Dunphy’s Camp via Tarros Ladders, 21km
The course continued along Glenraphael Drive, and the easy, open fire trail and the refreshing cool breeze was clearly a welcome thing for everyone as, instead of grimacing faces and clouded eyes that had been the feature through the gnarly singletrack and stair climb earlier, everyone around me had their heads up, smiles on and were happily chatting away.
I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who was trotting along, holding a walking cane like a tightrope pole and looking quite spritely. “This is the Cliff Young shuffle!” he quipped, and proceeded to narrate the tale of the famed Aussie potato farmer who, aged 61 at the time, took a surprise victory against elite runners in the 1983 Sydney to Melbourne ultra by running for six days and five nights straight without sleep. I was already familiar with the story of Cliff and his fantastic underdog victory, but it was quite something else having it regaled to me with such enthusiasm and vigour from someone of a generation who had been there and able to appreciate the feat, so I gladly turned a listening ear.
The wide open fire trail was long and undulating, but the surrounding vegetation was far less dense, varying between short, scrubby bush and open forest, all of which allowed the gentle morning wind to cool our skin and dry our sweat drenched tops. There were several long stretches across the top of a ridgeline where marvellous views of the Megalong Valley and surrounding mountains presented a welcome distraction from the easy but monotonous trot and the sound of feet on the dusty path.
There were several climbs where I did not hesitate to whip out the trekking poles and plough on upwards. I noticed though, that although I was far from the only person carrying poles, up to this point I seemed to be the only one using them at all, even up the Golden Stairs earlier on. I wondered for a brief moment if I was just being too soft, but I brushed the thought aside. The pole attachment system on my Salomon pack made stashing and retrieving the poles on the move a quick and painless affair, so if I was going to carry these poles over 100km, they would jolly well earn their ticket from the get go. It would be my legs, not my arms, that would carry me most of the way through, and so I was determined to preserve them as best I could. This was only my second ultra, after all, and if everyone else was happy with extra dead weight on their packs, who was I to argue with their strategy? I just had to stay focused on what worked for me.
As all good things go, the 10km long and easy dirt road section soon came to an abrupt end, and we were diverted down a steep and rocky goat path. The trail was rough and in parts involved a steep but enjoyable downward scramble through narrow crevices between boulders. The more surefooted were having a heap of fun, whilst others who were a bit more timid were grateful for a sturdy rope that had been strung along the side of the rock wall in some parts, making the going a little easier. I probably sat right in the middle of the spectrum, and while I was somewhat enjoying the brain-teasing clamber, there were a couple of nervous moments where I lost my footing and found myself desperately clinging to the rope to avoid a 1.5m slide down a jagged rut.
Eventually, the path came out into a small opening revealing a T junction manned by a course marshall. We had arrived at the Tarros Ladders, and were given the option of going right and waiting in the queue for the ladders (there were about 20 or so people in line), or turning left and hacking it down an apparently steep and technical unmarked path called Duncan’s Pass, which would add another 400m to the journey. Someone behind me yelled out “which way’s quicker?”, to which the marshall replied it probably was a minute or two quicker by the goat path given the queue. On hearing this, a number of people cantered off to the left down the goat path. To me, it was a no brainer – I turned right, opting to take the chance of giving my legs a good rest whilst waiting in the queue. I was keen to check out the ladders, and two minutes certainly wasn’t going to make that much of a difference over the 20 or so hours I had planned to be on the course. At any rate, if the track was as steep and tough as I had heard, then chances were that I’d make up that time by virtue of having rested my legs as opposed to trashing them on an extra 400m of rock hopping downhill.
I took the opportunity while waiting in line to make a quick call to J and give her an update, and got the cheeriest “Good morning Daddy!” from E. I was glad to feel the ease on my cardio system as my body calmed down, and also spent a couple of minutes enjoying the view from the top of the ladders while munching on a gel (yes, munching. Cold Gu is very viscous). I’m not sure how long I actually spent waiting, but the time passed quickly and I soon found myself clinging to the steel rungs of the extension ladders, cautiously descending and trying not to tread on the fingers of the person below me. While it certainly wasn’t trail running, there’s no denying that the ladder descent was quite a bit of fun, and a well timed break from all the walking and running. By the time my feet touched down on mother earth, they were all set and rearing to go.
From the base of the ladders, a fun and twisty bit of singletrack descended to Little Cedar Gap. It then levelled out for a bit, then started to ascend gradually to the base of Mt Derbert, where it quickly turned into a short but near vertical scramble up and over the top. The descent on the other side was steep and interspersed with small rocky drops, which would have made for quite a fun downhill run, if not for a thick layer of fine dust and loose topsoil which made the footing very unstable. I discovered this the hard way when jumping down one of the drops. I grabbed an overhanging branch in an attempt to do a semi tarzan swing to preserve my forward momentum, but that worked a bit too well. When my feet hit the ground they promptly slid out from under me as the soles failed to bite the powdery surface. I landed squarely on my arse, pretty much in the same spot which I had fallen on two months ago at the Sydney airport. The sheer embarrassment masked any immediate pain, and red faced but without skipping a beat, I popped back up and continued my descent. Two ladies in front of me stepped off the trail to let me through, and as I passed I heard one say to the other “better let him go first, we don’t want him playing tenpin bowling with us on this hillside!”.
As I continued down the slippery track, the spot where I had landed on began to throb a little. Clearly some parts of my left glutes had taken a bit of a hammering. I didn’t feel any loss of strength, which I took to be a good sign, and so I decided to press on and see how things went. Before long, the trail arrived at Medlow Gap and popped us out onto a nice and wide fire trail. It was nice to be able to relax a little and settle into a rhythm without having to worry about roots, rocks and loose surfaces, and with another few minutes of gentle jogging, the literal pain in my rear began to subside, eventually disappearing, never to be felt again.
It was pretty much dirt road / fire trail for the rest of the leg, with some climbing and a relatively long descent into Dunphy’s Camp. By this time, my section of the field was pretty spread out, and most of the time there was at least a couple hundred metres between myself and the people ahead or behind me. The blanket of cloud that had blotted out the sky for most of the morning had also begun to dissipate, and the warming rays of the sun were starting to poke their way through the overhead foliage. I had elected to run essentially the first half of the race in a long sleeved top, and I could feel the heat starting to kick in. I rolled up my sleeves, which helped a little, but my core was still warming up and I was starting to sweat a little more than I would have liked.
Eventually, the road reached a bend where the tree cover broke, revealing open terrain and lush green pastures and, more importantly, CP2 which was a hive of activity. A light hearted hop over the stile, down a grassy slope, and I had arrived at Dunphy’s camp, a little sweaty but still fresh. It was now around 11:20am, and I had completed leg 2 in around 2h 50min, under the 3h 10min I had planned for, so I was now in a pretty good spot. There was a decent selection of food, and I grabbed a gel, a handful of chips and a muffin, and was on my way within minutes.
Leg 3 – Dunphy’s Camp to Six Foot Track, 15km
For the next two and a bit kilometres, the course took us on a mixture of wide dirt road and singletrack through rolling hills on private farmland, with stunning views of pasture, mountains in the distance, and the odd horse here and there. By this time, the sun was out in all its glory, and whilst it was certainly starting to warm up and get a little sweaty, things still remained on the comfortable side of the bearable line thanks to a faint breeze that wafted over the trail.
Pottering around the edges of the grassy fields, I had settled back into my rhythm, when I ran into the back of another traffic jam. I looked up ahead and saw a line of runners zig zagging up what looked literally like a vertical wall. I tried my best to stop my heart from sinking into my shoes, and steeled myself as I prepared for the onslaught.
The climb up to Ironpot Ridge rose about 110 vertical meters over a less than half a kilometer of zig zagging (straight up it would have been at least a 60 degree slope), and while the trail was chock a block, there was barely a sound other than the trudging of feet and deep heavy breathing as everyone’s focus was anchored on putting one foot up and in front of the other, all the while trying not to lean too far back or lose their footing, as that would have meant a certain tumble back down the hill, with a high possibility of bringing everyone else below down with us. As I hauled myself up on my poles, a lady in front paused, hands on knees, for a break and waved me through, to which I replied “Nah, I don’t need to go any faster. I’m just thinking about how I paid someone money to do this to me!”. She responded at the top of her voice “Yeah! Because we all love this!”, and that sparked a chain of whoops and cheers all the way down the hill. And just like that, she set the average morale on that hillside up by a notch and a half.
After clambering over the top of the vicious ascent, a short trail led to a raised rocky outcropping where a course marshal perched comfortably directing traffic, sending us up and out left over Ironpot Ridge, whilst directing those returning from the turnaround point at the end of the ridge down right and in to the valley below. The two way traffic along the ridgeline made things crowded, but once again, everyone showed patience and consideration that you just don’t get in the city runs these days. This turned what could have been a frustrating jam of sweaty runners in to a rather pleasant out and back trip.
As we ran to the turnaround point and back, we were given a bit of a treat. Two of the tribesmen from the local aboriginal tribe had set themselves up at separate points along the ridge, playing traditional instruments. The feeling of running along the top of a rocky ridge line to the rhythm of a well played didgeridoo is one I will long remember, especially as I had to run 100km to experience it.
The descent down from Ironpot Ridge was steep, and once again had a loose layer of topsoil. Although the pain was all gone, the memory of my fall in leg 2 was still pretty fresh, so rather than take any more risks, I gingerly pottered down the track, keeping my centre of gravity well back and taking care not to gain too much speed. The trail soon led to a bit of a farm maintenance track, and more open pasture with a clear view of the cliffs below Katoomba in the distance. This was followed by another long but this time very runnable descent down to the floor of a valley and across Galong Creek, before climbing sharply out up a ridiculously steep dirt road. That road eventually led us out of the farm and on to Megalong Valley Road, which led back in to the forest along Green Gully.
Along this stretch, I started chatting with a gentleman that I had been leap frogging for some time now. We were both really looking forward to checkpoint 4, and as it was already 1pm, the conversation inevitably shifted to food, and I was soon imagining a yummy bowl of instant noodles floating just about three feet in front of my head – the proverbial carrot on a stick.
After about a kilometer, the road began to climb, gently at first, and then steeply through Green Gully Saddle. At this point, I could feel a hot spot developing on my left big toe. I tried to ignore it for a bit, reluctant to make an unplanned stop, but I quickly came to my senses, realising that limping for potentially more than half the race on a blistered toe would cost me far more time. A stitch in time, as they say, so I pulled up by the roadside to slap a band-aid on my toe.
The road continued to ascend steeply, winding up around the hillside. There was quite a bit of vehicular traffic on this part of the road, and though they courteously slowed down to give way to us, the thick clouds of dust churned up by their wheels did our gasping lungs no favours. Eventually, the road broke out of the forest and began to border another block of private farmland. At this point, it levelled out, and I was able to pick up the pace a fair bit.
Along the way, I passed a runner who was clearly limping. It turned out he had sprained his ankle back at 8km, and had been hobbling on it for close to 20km now. While I did have some respect for the guts it took to do that, it seemed a bit of a silly thing to do. Then again, months of training goes into an event like this, and I could also appreciate the reluctance to withdraw so early in the race. I offered him my trekking poles and even a stick by the roadside to use as a bit of a walking support, but he gratefully rejected any help offered by those around with a determined smile.
Shortly after this, the dirt road descended sharply. At the base of the descent, another course marshall directed us off the road and across a stile into a grassy field. I thanked her, and commented how boring it must be to sit there. She replied that she didn’t mind a bit watching all these good looking people running by. She couldn’t have meant me though, as I was now a sweaty, scraggly mess with a fine layer of dust coating my skin and clothes. I probably smelled like a sheep farm too.
I ran the last km and a bit along the farm maintenance tracks and up a small hill, where I could hear clearly in the distance the festive, buzzing crowd at CP3. Excited to see my family for the first time since setting off, I dashed down the hill and in to the entry chute, and was promptly greeted by my beaming wife and son. My dad was there, of course, and my brother, sister in law and niece had made the drive up from Sydney that morning, which made it one big happy family reunion.
This was the first checkpoint in the race where spectators and support crews were allowed to join us, and so it was quite a merry spot. Other than the usual spread of food and drink for the runners, the supporters had also brought music, deck chairs, picnic mats and were making quite a party of it.
I was all to glad to finally get hold of my drop bag, and the first thing I did was to swap my socks and shoes, and change out of my sweaty long-sleeved top into a lighter one with short sleeves. The immediate comfort brought about by the dry clothing and new socks was refreshing in itself, and just as welcome was the cup of instant noodles that I had been mentally chasing for the last five or so kilometers. As all this was happening, I was thoroughly entertained by E and my niece playing together with sticks in the sand. In a few short minutes I was set to go, albeit with some reluctance as it was so nice seeing everyone there.
Leg 4 – Six Foot Track – Katoomba Aquatic Centre, 11km
Coming out of CP3, I ran through a short bit of singletrack through the trees, and came to a stream crossing where I promptly got my fresh socks and shoes wet. I was then given a nice, perfectly straight 4km stretch of fire road with next to no view, so all my attention could be focused on my damp shoes. My only brief distraction, was crossing the half-way marker, which was surrounded by a bunch of people trying to take a selfie with it.
By this time, the field had spread significantly, and whilst I could see a couple of runners in the distance ahead of me, I was essentially on my own for the first half of the leg. My only human interaction was to compliment someone on their bright red and furry fedora hat – quite a refreshing sight amongst the usual caps and visors.
Given the same stretch on one of my regular weekend runs, this could just as well have been a pleasant run in the woods. However, given the absolute stunning quality of trail running we had been presented with to date, this particular stretch was turning out to be just a bit boring in comparison, and with 50km in the legs, the boredom started to chip away at my resolve. To add to the mental sandpapering, the road appeared delightfully flat, but was really on a slight upward incline and was peppered with sludgy mud patches, which quickly clogged up my shoe treads. The sun began to slip lower into the sky, and dropped behind a patch of cloud, dimming the environment and lowering the contrast. As I slipped further and further in to boredom, I began to feel tiredness in my legs. My light footed steps turned into heavy plodding, and my form began to disintegrate.
This leg could well have been the end of my race goal, if not for a large black cow which was nonchalantly munching on some grass through a fence on the side of the road. As I passed, it looked at me and rolled its eyes almost as if to say, “here comes another one of those nutters”, shook its head ever so slightly, and then went right back to its evening meal. For reasons unknown, I found that so amusing that I laughed out loud. The change in mood lightened a heavy load in my chest, and that was when I snapped out of it and realised that the fatigue was mostly in my head, and I had allowed myself shift my focus to the minute, temporary negatives of the moment. With a quick prayer, a swing of the arms and a few skips to loosen up, I shifted my mental game back into gear, and just like that, everything was all fine and dandy again.
It was just in time, as I had reached the point of leg 4 where the going began to get tough. The course now left the main dirt road and led us on to a relentlessly climbing bit of singletrack, which was somewhat overgrown with vegetation and required quite a bit of effort to get through at some points. I could hear the voices of some other runners just up ahead, but I never actually got a visual on them throughout this stretch of trail. I had my poles out, and just kept to a steady, onward march, all the while steeling myself for the challenge which I knew was just a short distance ahead. It had to come eventually, and sure as eggs, with no respite in the upward hike, I found myself at the base of the Six Foot Track stairs.
Without skipping a beat, I ploughed on upwards, and managed to steadily clear the first 70m or so in elevation gain. By that time, my lungs were screaming, and it took every ounce of strength in my arms and legs to haul me up each step. I had to take a break, and took the chance to hydrate and eat a gel. As I paused to catch my breath, a runner from Malaysia came up from behind. He was wearing a black bandana that was dripping with sweat. As he passed, he spoke what was on everyone’s mind – “these stairs are crazy!”. There were grunts and moans of agreement up and down the line of exhausted runners.
Not wanting my legs to get too comfortable, I quickly got moving again, working up a steady rhythm with my arms and legs. The stairs were relentless – far more challenging than any of the other stair climbs the race had thrown at us thus far. There were no flat spots to break the hammering on our quads and glutes, and every fifty metres or so, I would pass someone seated by the side, heads down, huffing and puffing with a blank look in their eyes. To add to the already depressing situation, the dense tree cover and low sun meant that we were climbing in twilight darkness even though the sun wasn’t due to set for another two hours or so. Time slowed to a crawl as I hauled myself up the seemingly eternal stairway to nowhere.
I would be hard pressed to describe the wave of relief that swept over me when I finally crested the top of the stairway. As I broke into a jog down a gently descending rocky path, I could physically feel the lactic being flushed from my calves. The late afternoon sun’s radiant orange rays sifted over the top of the opposite canyon wall, lending it’s warm colours to the pale white and grey rock before me. The same relief was clear in the eyes of my fellow runners, and one gentleman looked like he was tearing with joy as we started down the last kilometer and a bit to the checkpoint.
The trail eventually led back to the streets of Katoomba. My dad was waiting for me round the first corner. I had just under a kilometre to go, so he called ahead to let the others know that I wasn’t far off. After over 8 hours on the trails, and with all my shock absorbing muscles in varying stages of fatigue, the paved surface of the streets felt harsh and jarring, and wherever I could, I hopped onto the bordering grassy nature strips for some relief from the pounding. Before long I rolled in to checkpoint 4, and was greeted by a tiny pair of open arms.
Leg 5, Katoomba Aquatic Centre to Queen Victoria Hospital, 21km
I had around fifteen minutes to get my stuff done in order to leave the checkpoint by 4:30pm. Anyone leaving after that time would have had to carry a fleece top in addition to the gear we already carrying, and given this next leg had a reputation for being the hardest section of the course, I was keen not to carry anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Besides the weather had been a fair bit warmer than expected. I changed out my wet socks and slapped a bit of KT tape over my left peroneal tendon, just as a precaution, all while stuffing my face with chips and bananas. I also swapped out my visor and sunnies for my headlight. Although there was still an hour to sunset, the course was going to send us back down the cliffside into the canyons, and I certainly didn’t want to be caught fumbling in the dark.
I left the checkpoint a comfortable 3 minutes before the 4:30 deadline, grabbing a banana on the spur of the moment. On the way out, a bunch of kids spotted my name on my bib, and promptly started having a field day with it. “You have your own fan club now!” another runner mentioned as we struck up a bit of a conversation. She happened to from my home country of Singapore, which was rather well represented at this event.
After a combination of sidewalk and grassy footworn trails within the town, the course led us along the edge of the majestic cliffs bordering the town. The sun was on the horizon by now, and things were getting dim, but we could still make out the cable car and Scenic World on the opposite cliffs. The sound of cheers echoed across the valley as the pointy end of the field made their way across the finish line. Envious, I steeled myself for what lay ahead – my own journey was only a little over half way through.
The cliffside trails were still rather packed with tourist traffic, particularly near the lookouts. As I arrived at the Three Sisters lookout and visitor centre, E, J and the rest of my family were there to give me some welcome moral support. E was totally in to the moment, and tried to grab one of my walking poles to join me. Poor J had to spend the next few minutes persuading him that I really couldn’t afford to share them with him for the moment!
At this point, with around 60 km in the legs, I noted that I still felt relatively good, but reminded myself that I had to hold back just for this next leg, take it easy, and leave enough in reserve for the big descent in the final leg. I was still around 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and in strategising for this race, I had planned to walk most if not all of the next leg, giving myself over 4 hours to cover the 21 odd kilometers. With that in mind, I turned off the sidewalk and proceeded to descend down the Giant Stairs, glad to leave the hard concrete surface, but at the same time uncertain about what exactly lay ahead.
The descent down the Giant Stairs was long and uneven, and despite there being minimal to no rain over the course of the day, many of the steps were waterlogged and muddy. By this time, the sun was long gone below the horizon, and the tree canopy filtered the minimal twilight that was left. The twin LED lamps on my headlight cast a strong and comforting cone of light ahead of me, and in the distance, through the trees, I could see the bright silvery strips on the safety vests of some runners ahead of me.
Most of this section of the trail was wet and muddy, and man, were there a lot of steps. It was steps up, steps down, there were even single steps sticking up in the middle of the path that didn’t seem to be there for any purpose other than potentially for us to trip over. This made the going painfully slow, even on descents, as I knew better than to try pounding down stairs on my fatigued muscles. I made full use of my walking poles to transfer some of the work and shock through my arms, doing my utmost to reduce the amount of punishment on my lower body. Whenever a runnable stretch came along, I happily broke into a jog, but these hardly ever lasted more than ten seconds before they would reveal another stretch of stairs.
I was clearly playing it quite conservative, as over this stretch I was passed by numerous other runners, and soon got used to pulling to the side to let them through. On one occasion, I heard footsteps coming up behind me, and almost by reflex, I pulled aside at the next widening of the path and waved the person through. This time however, a rather shaky and upset voice said that her headlight wasn’t working very well, and that she’d prefer to run behind and tap off my light source.
Her race number was 722, and it turned out that she had bought some generic headlamp, albeit from a well known outdoor supply shop. Judging from its light output, I suspected she may have picked up a reading light rather than one that was suitable for outdoor use, and clearly hadn’t taken it out for a test run on the trails in the dark. My backup light wasn’t much of an improvement over hers, so there was no point in giving that to her. It wasn’t far to 66km water point, so I did what any other person in the race would have, and accompanied her for the next 3km or so to the water point, lowering my headlamp to shine at the area near my feet, and also making sure to turn back and illuminate any tricky rocky or rooty sections of the trail. She was really nice about it, insisting that I shouldn’t wait or let her slow me down, and I do confess that I was mildly annoyed that I couldn’t really go at my own pace, but at the same time, I knew I would have been so grateful had I been the one caught in the dark, so I brushed aside any frustration and just focused on moving forward.
This section of the course passed a couple of waterfalls, which looked eerily beautiful in the light of our headlamps. However, with all the stairs, the slow progress and the general inconvenience to both of us, we were both glad to finally arrive at Gordon Falls Reserve where I found my dad faithfully waiting for me – the others had gone to dinner and to put the kids to bed. I then had an idea – I had given my dad a Petzl Myo to use for the night section so he wouldn’t be rumaging through my kit in the dark – it had a decent light output, and would certainly have been an upgrade for my running companion. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, my dad had left it on the dining table at our accommodation. In fact, when I got back later on, I found that all the handheld flashlights which I had brought for them, were also sitting on the table exactly where I had left them. So much for planning and preparation.
Without the spare headlight, 722 opted to continue on behind me. I was now slightly behind schedule, but I didn’t see any other realistic option, so off we went. The next bit of track was just as gnarly as the one we had come up from. More stairs, roots, rocks ditches and the like. I was now also starting to get a stitch in my side from constantly turning back to shine the light on the path for my passenger, and had to keep reminding myself to alternate directions when I turned back.
Not too far down the track, we joined up with a group of around three other runners, and moved as a group. The friendly banter shifted from how tough the course was, to what sort of crew we had, family and so forth, and helped the time go by a little quicker. I’m sure it also did 722 some good, as she had started to get both visibly and audibly upset at her predicament, possibly also feeling some guilt for having to rely on others to get through the rather gnarly course.
Somewhere along the way, I ended up at the front of the pack, just as we hit a slightly technical zig zagging descent. I trotted off down, turning back as usual to shine my light on the rougher parts of the track. There was a smooth, flat bit of trail at the bottom, and relieved to be able to do a bit of running, I plodded off down the track, enjoying the little moment of speed. When I spotted a bit of a rock in the path, I turned back as usual to cast some light on it for 722, but lo and behold, I was alone. I stopped in my tracks, and called back along the trail loudly but got no response, and started contemplating my next action. Should I retrace my steps? I had no clue how far back she was, and I really wasn’t keen to head back up that gnarly trail I’d just come down. Also, she was with the rest of the group, so chances were that she’d be alright. Still, the only way to know for sure was to head back and check. As I stood there pondering my dilema, another runner came by and explained that someone had stopped to give 722 their backup light. Relieved, both for her and also for myself, I pressed on.
The flat section of trail went on for a bit before turning left and ascending up a steep, narrow, rough trail covered with loose shale. Not wanting to risk a rolled ankle, I picked my way carefully up the trail, which eventually led me to up a paved road where I indulged in a bit of running. Along this stretch, I caught up with the runner ahead of me, and we chatted for a short stretch before I decided to pick up the pace again. He indicated he’d prefer to keep at a walk for the time being, and we wished each other well.
Round a couple of corners, I found my dad waiting for me on the side of the street. It was now rather late in the evening and he still had not had his dinner! He had gone back to the house to grab the spare headlamp, and was waiting to see if we still needed it. I explained to him the situation, and he said he’d wait a while to see if 722 still wanted to borrow my light. My dad walked with me for a couple of minutes until he reached his car, where he intended to wait, and I bade him goodbye until the next checkpoint.
The course took me through a couple more streets and round the back of a resort, where I came across the gentleman in the red fedora fiddling with his pack. I said a quick hello, and checked that he was ok, then headed off down the fire trail behind the resort.
I’m not quite sure what happened over the next few minutes, but I found myself staring at the hotspot of my headlamp at my feet. When I looked up, all I could see was grass, and some buildings that looked like storage or maintenance – possibly part of the resort I had just passed. Also, I knew there were supposed to be some runners a hundred metres or so ahead of me, but they had vanished, and there were none of the pink tape flags marking the course to be seen. I slowed to a halt and looked back just in time to see someone run down a different path. I ran back to the turning I’d missed, and saw that there were obvious tape flags marking the correct path I should have taken, which I couldn’t have missed had I had my head up. Annoyed that I’d added a couple hundred metres to my already long journey, it took me a while to refocus on the task at hand.
The next few kilometers of the course were possibly the worst in my memory. I felt like I went up and down more stairs than I had in my lifetime, and many of the tracks were coated in a layer of slick, puddly mud. Along the way, I met a gentleman whose name I missed (it sounded like Ian), and we had a bit of a chat as we started ascending yet another really long set of stairs. He hailed from Western Australia and was running the event for the sixth time. This time, he was there to show the ropes to two of his friends/family. He also had some rather encouraging words for me – he reckoned that given how I was going at this stage, I had the 20hr buckle in the bag. All I had to do was keep this up, and run a few of the flats. Whether that was true or not, it certainly was something I needed to hear at the time.
Eventually, the trail broke out into the open, and for hundreds of metres in the distance, I could see the tiny glow of headlights snaking around and up the hillside like a procession of little fireflies. Just as I was enjoying the sight of this, the trail dropped down a flight of stairs to reveal a set of stone blocks running across the rapidly flowing waterway of Wentworth Falls. Playing stepping stones over the blocks was most certainly the highlight of this otherwise mentally grinding section.
I followed the trail round and up the hill, along the same lines I’d seen the headlights ascend earlier, and, after a myriad of twisting and turning, the trail broke out onto a wide and relatively flat 4wd track. Relieved to have seen the last of the dreaded stairs and gnarly track for the time being, I set about trying to make up some of the time I’d lost and broke into a steady jog. By now, a layer of cloud had returned, and I could feel a very faint drizzle, almost a fine mist, spitting down on me as I plodded along, grateful for the cooling effect.
I eventually turned off the 4wd track onto paved road, signalling the last 3 or so kilometers of this arduous leg. As if on cue, my stomach began to rumble, and I thought longingly of the warm cup of instant noodles that was waiting for me at CP5. I linked up with a group of other runners who were quite chatty, but I wasn’t quite in the headspace to make conversation, so I just tagged along and laughed at their jokes as we made our way down the seemingly endless stretch of bitumen.
The occupants of the occasional passing car on the other side of the road would sometimes wind down their windows give us a few words of encouragement and admiration. I can only imagine that the others who did not might have thought we were crazy to be spending our Saturday evening in this manner, and to tell the truth, I was certainly leaning towards that opinion myself.
The good thing though, was that I was feeling fresh. When I say fresh, I mean relatively fresh. I was still able to summon up a jog, and my legs were feeling pretty solid despite having over 75km in them up to this point. Upon realising this, my confidence went up another notch, and just at this moment, a set of bright floodlights appeared just above the treeline in the distance. The sound of drums and cowbells started floating through the night air, and before we knew it, we were running through the chute into CP5 to the cheers of the spectators, always a massive morale boost at the end of a leg.
Food and drink was the theme of the checkpoint. Although technically far easier than the staircase horror house I’d just been though, the next leg was the longest by distance, and keeping my energy and hydration up for this last stretch was critical. I had my hydration pack and bottle topped up to full, before heading into the food tent. There, I ate a couple of gummies while queuing for my cup of instant noodles and I grabbed as much banana and potato chips as I could carry.
Dad and J were waiting for me at the spectator stand with my gear. As I guzzled my mini haul of goodies, I also changed out most of my clothing. New socks, shoes, tights, and top. As it was now around 10pm, I also had to pack that fleece jacket which I managed to dodge at CP4 (the cutoff at CP5 was 7:30pm). The weather was warm and I didn’t envisage needing it, but rules are rules, and had I crossed the finish line knowing I had cut those sort of corners, it just wouldn’t have given me any satisfaction whatsoever. The last thing I did was to eat that deliciously warm cup of instant noodles. After that, it was packs on, and on the road to face the final leg of the race.
Leg 6, Old Queen Victoria Hospital to Katoomba Scenic World, 22km
The next 8 kilometres were key to my sub 20-hr strategy. It was pretty straightforward – run the entire 8km, 700m descent down to Jamison Creek. If I cleared the distance within an hour, that would leave me a good 4 hours to walk the remaining 10 kilometres back up to Katoomba, something I was confident of doing even if my legs were turning to jelly. If I still had some juice left, I could also attempt to run down the two other 1km descents, one going in to Leura Falls Creek, and another at the beginning of the Federal Pass.
The road away from the abandoned hospital was relatively crowded. The middle of the road was filled with silent but determined faces who knew that this was the stage at which to lay it all down and bring it home. The side of the road, on the other hand was lined with poor kneeling souls whose nutrition strategies hadn’t quite worked out, and were busy emptying their stomachs in the ditch. It was quite a sobering sight, and I was grateful that, thus far, my stomach hadn’t decided to reject anything I had sent its way.
The descent over the initial couple of kilometers was gradual, and after close to four hours of walking over the previous leg, and a twenty minute break at CP5, my legs needed some time to get back in to gear, so the tame gradient was most welcome. As we approached Kedumba Valley Pass, the gradient steepened significantly. By this time, my quads had warmed back up and were able to soak up most of the hammering. I tried to minimise the damage by keeping my steps as quick, small and gentle as I possibly could, but with over 80km in the legs by this stage, I could feel my knees sharing some of the load. Along the way, I passed countless people who were playing it safe and gingerly walking down the massive descent. I recognised some of them and knew that many were very strong climbers, ahead of me in the first place because they had run many of the uphills where I was reduced to a walk. Different strategy, same goal. My strength was in downhill running, and this was my last major chance to make up some good ground, so on I went.
The steep descent snaked down the cliffside, and in spite of the slightly chilly evening weather, I slowly began to overheat. I realised that, for some reason, I had decided to continue wearing my hi vis vest, which wasn’t exactly made of the most breathable material. I took a 30 second walk break to strip the vest off and stuff it in one of my quick access pockets. The cool feeling of the trapped sweat evaporating from my top was rejuvenating, and with that, I picked up the pace on my downhill trot. I knew that, somewhere out there in the black of the night was a gorgeous view, but at the same time I was glad for the dark of night, which meant that I could stay focused on my goal, and the all important ten feet in front of me.
The harsh downward gradient eased up for a km or so after a sharp right-hand turnoff towards Sublime Point Ridge, and there were a couple of brief uphill sections, no more than 30-50 metres each, but I was glad for the excuse to take a bit of a walk break and relieve my now fatiguing quads. The forest was pitch black except for the cone of light from my headlamps, and the occasional sparkle of a hi-vis vest whenever the beams crossed someone in the distance. Traffic was sparse at this point, and I was on my own for most of the stretch, except for a small trio of runners I came across just as the trail gradient began to drop away significantly again, signifying our approach to Jamison Creek.
I let gravity do the work and allowed it to pull me down the hill as fast as my now rather sore quads would allow. Going faster relieved some of the stress on the quads, but at the same time, given the poor depth perception I had from my head mounted lights, I needed to keep things in check – one wrong step could easily result in a fall or twisted ankle, and that would have been a disaster from which there was no recovery. As I continued to descend, the sound of a rushing water began to reach my ears, faint at first, but growing every stronger with each passing minute, until finally I arrived at the creek crossing, 1 hour and five minutes since my departure from the old hospital – pretty much right on schedule.
I was grateful for a series of concrete blocks that had been placed across the creek, which made for an easy crossing and dry shoes on the other side. Cold, soggy shoes would have been just one more mental battle to fight in the final home stretch. Poles in hand, I trudged up the steep climb on the other side of the creek.
I hadn’t been going long when I heard some footsteps approaching from the rear. A gentleman caught up with me and stayed for a bit of a chat – a good thing as it would get both our minds off the arduous climb. This was his first ultra, but he was quite an experienced endurance athlete with several triathlons and ironmans under his belt. We chatted about our past endeavours, and what lay ahead, and our slightly differing strategies for the rest of the course. He stated he would be happy to finish this last 14km stretch in 2 hours, a time I had no intention of making. Eventually we arrived at the crest of the hill, and I erroneously told him that the subsequent descent would take us down to Leura Falls creek. On hearing this, he wished me good luck, and as I returned the favour he sped off down the hill like a young goat.
Drawing some inspiration from this, I sped up to a steady jog down the hill, and reached the bottom in minutes. There was no creek. I had forgotten that the true top of this climb was yet to come, and up ahead lay another nasty 1km 10% climb. I could still see the other runner up ahead, and my stomach curled at the thought of the misinformation I’d fed him, but he was too far in front for an apology, and I certainly wasn’t going to blow my legs out trying to catch him up, so I swallowed my guilt and trudged on upwards.
That climb and subsequent descent went rather similar to the last – I met another runner, had a bit of a chat, crested the hill and then trotted down the second-last significant descent to Leura Falls creek crossing. This time though, I made it a point to thoroughly enjoy the quick descending downhill run, as I knew it would be the last one for some time to come. On the other side of Leura falls creek lay the big climb up to the old Katoomba sewage treatment works site. Rising 400m over 4km with almost no respite in the upward gradient, mentally, this climb would be the make or break section of the race for me. If I could get through this at a decent march with no hiccups, then my goal would pretty much be in the bag.
I have to say, without my trekking poles, none of this would have been pretty. I am one of those poorly built runners with relatively wimpy glutes. Had I had to rely on my legs on all these climbs, even walking up would have drained me flat, trashing my quads and calves in the process. However, being able to use the poles to leverage my arms took a tremendous portion of the strain off my legs, and also keep my posture upright, which enabled me to better utilise the fatigue resistant glutes, which otherwise wouldn’t have been pulling their fair share of the weight. Physically, I felt great (well, great for someone who had been on their feet for 16 hours and 90km), and was able to keep up quite a decent power hike, pulling around 12-14 minute kms.
Other than a brief stop at the 91km aid station to top up my water bottle and take a leak (the irony!), I managed to maintain my steady onward progress up the relentless hill. The never-ending climb, however, was starting to play games with my head. Every time I turned a corner, a small part of me was hoping to see some sign of the end or at least some respite from the nasty gradient. There was none to be had – every turn would reveal yet another long and steep uphill stretch, and as I looked up, I could see the headlamps of those ahead of me zig zagging their way up the hillside. High above me, through the trees and in the black darkness, they looked like lost twinkling stars struggling to find their way back into the night sky.
The fifty minutes it took me to reach the top felt longer than the entire day. The road finally levelled out slightly and then began to undulate, signalling the approach to the sewage treatment plant. I had made it in very good time, but the numbing climb had taken its toll on my mind, and as I pulled into the grassy patch that was the old sewage works site, a wave of fatigue flooded over me, and I felt as though my body was just about to throw in the towel.
As I wobbled over the timing mat, I gave amused glance at the volunteer who was swaddled up and half asleep in his deck chair. I had utmost gratitude for these people who had freely given up their time, weekends and comfy beds just so that we could safely inflict such gratuitous punishment on ourselves. If you were one of those people and are reading this, thank you very very much!
From the sewage plant, the trail entered into thick, closed brush and began to climb sharply. I caught up with an elderly gentleman who was huffing and puffing along. He kindly offered to wave me through, but I declined, knowing well that in my current state, with my legs in rebellion, I would have difficulty keeping up with him, let alone staying ahead. The trail was slick and waterlogged, and in some points the six inch deep mud would grab on to my feet like the tentacles of an octopus. It was almost as if the trail itself was resisting, putting up a final fight to prevent me from reaching my destination. As we painfully made our way up, we passed a young lady squatting by the side of the trail. We quickly asked if she was ok, but she waved us on without a verbal response, and then proceeded to throw up into the bushes.
The trail continued to climb, crossing a small creek where my legs nearly gave out, and then turning sharply up to the left via a couple of footholds up a land bank, each step almost waist high. I grabbed a couple of handy tree branches and hauled myself onto the track above, feeling my quads protest at the sheer effort. The narrow track continued to climb, and my once confident stride now resembled the uncontrolled swagger of someone who had had one beer too many. I had been up this path before – I remembered it being a short little stretch of less than 100m, but on this night, the end of it never seemed to come.
Almost without warning, I broke into a small clearing at a junction, where a course marshal was seated on a rocky ledge just above the trail. He pointed me in the right direction towards Federal Pass and said the magic words: “Well done mate, you’re on the home stretch now!”. Life flowed back into my legs, and the imaginary leaden weights that had attached themselves to my ankles seemed to fall away. I said a quick word of thanks, and skipped off down the 1.2km descent. There’s no denying my legs were anything but fresh, but this new lease of life allowed me to have a rather enjoyable patter through what was a really fun and twisty bit of singletrack. It was also the last significant descent of the course, and my last chance to gain some time on my goal, which was now pretty much in the bag.
I maintained a steady, slow run for most of the way down, switching to a walk wherever the trail got significantly rocky or slick. Along the way down, I passed numerous other people hobbling down the path – many whom had passed me earlier on during the climb and who certainly would not have recognised or believed that this was the same person they saw struggling up the hillside in a death crawl.
The final downhill of the course came to a relatively quick end, and the narrow trail began to climb back up. By this time, however, I knew exactly what lay ahead. A short 700m uphill bit, around 2km of flat and, and then the final obstacle – the Furber Steps. A quick look at my watch showed that I had been on the move for 18 hours. I had two long hours to clear the last 3km. I could just about feel the cold metal of that bronze buckle in my fingers as I made a steady push up the path. The time for risk taking was now over – it was all a matter of getting safely to the base of the stairs with ample time to drag myself up to the finish line.
I steadily made my way up to the top of that climb and across the final 2km of Federal Pass. My legs were clearly tired now, and while I was able to keep up a brisk walk and even put on a granny-jog on some of the flats, I was now fully reliant on my poles to haul myself up and lower myself down the numerous small flights of steps that were scattered along the way. As I drew near to the end, the sound of Katoomba Falls beckoned, growing louder with each step. Just as I rounded the last corner before the waterfall, I heard a familiar cough, and turned to see the Malaysian in the black bandana that I hadn’t seen since the climb up Six Foot Track stairs earlier in the day. We congratulated each other in advance, and I let him pass ahead. As far as my plans went, the time for any speed was now well and truly past. All that was left was a mental battle of survival and attrition.
I heard clearly the signature beep of the timing mats up ahead as my Malaysian friend crossed the base of the Furber Steps. Within seconds, I found myself walking along the final stretch of boardwalk to a friendly marshal who waved her scanner at my timing tag and waved me through with a “well done, only 900m to go!”.
Of course, the main complication here was that that 900m included over 900 steps and 200m in elevation gain. The positive thing was that, over the last 18 hours and 42 minutes, nearly everything had gone either exactly to plan or better, and that had resulted in me having a whopping 1 hour and 18 minutes to climb this final, brutal part of the course. That was a very generous five seconds or so per stair, and if I so chose, I probably could have crawled up the steps and made it. All I had to do now, was not quit.
I stuck to my plan, discarding any thoughts of heroics, and focused on ascending each flight of steps, five stairs at a time. My exhausted legs screamed in protest, and it took every ounce of strength from all my limbs and core to pull me upwards. Where a flight of stairs had railings, I didn’t hesitate to step to the side and stash my poles to free my hands and make full use of them, even if I could clearly see that I would need to grab the poles back out for the next flight of stairs. Four people passed me on the way up, but that didn’t waver me one bit. My entire thoughts were just focused on reaching the finish line. If I had to take a minute’s rest between each flight of stairs, that was fine – I had plenty of time – as long as I didn’t quit entirely.
My hands went numb from grasping the wet and freezing stair rails, and more than once, I nearly fell backwards as my exhausted lower legs had lost their proprioception. Despite all this, my heart was pounding with a weird sort of calm excitement. I was under no pressure at all to go any faster, and the stairs felt almost like a ceremonial victory lap. Onward and upward I went, five steps at a time until, almost by surprise, I lifted my feet over the final step.
There is a strange phenomenon to which I’m sure many of my fellow runners can relate. No matter how exhausted, drained, demoralised and trashed you are, there is always that tiny little bit of energy kept in reserve – that shot of adrenaline like a nitrous boost that kicks in and lets you make that final dash to the finish line. All the day’s fatigue, all the pain and soreness in the legs, all of that gave way to a building sense of thrill and excitement as I made my way up the final boardwalk, at first at a brisk walk. As I turned the corner, this turned into a fast jog, and I was greeted by the sound of cowbells and a pair of marshals, who were doing a fantastic job of enthusiastically congratulating me (bear in mind, it was 2 in the morning by this time!). As I came into full view of the finish chute, I broke into a full run, raising my poles in victory with a huge and stupid grin on my face.
As I crossed the finish line, I glanced at my watch – 19:13:57 – I had totally smashed my target time, and I was flooded simultaneously by waves of relief, achievement and gratitude. One of the course officials came up to me, shook my hand and handed me a little black pouch that contained the bronze buckle that I had had in my sights for the past a year and a half. My 18 month long journey, hiccups, injuries and all, was finally over. A steaming cup of chicken soup in hand, I wandered out of the finish area and found a quiet spot to celebrate.
J and my dad were nowhere to be seen. A quick call established that they had had a bit of a sleep in, but since our accommodation was close by, they were by my side in no time. I spied the black bandana-clad Malaysian in the distance, and caught his eye. No words were spoken, but we gave each other a heartfelt wave that said volumes. The finishing area was filled with other runners in varying physical states. Some, like me, were hobbling around as all the muscles in their lower bodies froze up from the sheer punishment they had been through. Others were walking around as if they had just got out of the house after a good night’s sleep. Either way, everyone had that unmistakable glow in their eyes, and all around, we strangers gave each other the heartiest congratulations in all sorts of accents and languages.
As I sat in the car on the drive back, reflecting on the day just passed, I realised once again that it wasn’t really all about the buckle, or the success of meeting a goal in a timed event. Sure, those things gave me a sense of pride and achievement, and I was really happy to have met my target. In the end however, it was something that I had first experienced in my first ultra back in 2013 that really drew me to this event. It’s something you won’t likely find in a road marathon, or your local 5k fun run.
It was that same thing that kept me going through the entire day, and made a gruelling physical effort something to smile at. It carried me through the crazy climbs, and made the awesome descents even more of a gas. It was the selfless camaraderie and that indescribable bond shared amongst the ultra-running community. Each person’s success or failure, pain or joy is felt by all those around them, and that very spirit turns an individual foot race into a team event, where it is everyone against the course and mother nature. For 100 long kilometers, over 1000 strangers from all over the world became family, shared each others burdens and willed each other to the finish line. We shared the crushing disappointment of race ending injuries, and celebrated together at the top of every hill.
In all my years of various sports and games, I have found nothing that comes close, even in team sports. And so as long as my legs will allow me, and as long as my body is healthy, I will be back for more.
Click here for Strava file. Not sure why it shows 104km – there’s no way I did an extra 4km over the course. Could be inaccuracies due to ultratrac mode on my Garmin.