It’s only been three weeks into 2016 and already here I am, sitting on my couch with a major case of post-race flu. Two Bays has been a race that’s been sitting on my radar pretty much from the time I first contemplated the thought of ultrarunning, somewhere back in late 2012, and with my next planned 100k event not due to happen till October this year, it seemed like the perfect time to give this local gem of a race a crack.
As far as the races I’ve been in go, this was one of those where I felt much better prepared. I was coming off around three months of solid training, averaging around 60-70km/week, including a decent 90km week just prior to my two week taper, which incidentally was in the hot and humid conditions usually present in my hometown of Singapore.
In spite of all this, I was still pretty nervous. This was going to be my very first summer race, and those of you who have been through an Australian summer and have experienced its scorching days will understand my concerns. The earth is around five million kilometres closer to the sun in January than it is in July, and on a southern hemisphere summer’s day the full ferocity of the sun can give one a toasty sunburn in as little as 15 minutes. Compound that with the hot desert wind that blows in from the north quite regularly, and temperatures can easily jump by 20C in a matter of hours.
For a fortnight prior to race day, I would check the long-term weather forecast on an hourly basis. Two weeks out, the weather looked promising – a warm but not unbearable maximum of 26C. One week out, this estimate had moved up to 27C. Still manageable, but not ideal. Three days out, the estimate rose again to 29C, and I was already starting to sweat just thinking about it. Finally, the day before, the forecast rose to 31C, much to my dismay.
I took some small comfort from knowing I had done some training in the heat in Singapore, but sitting somewhere in the back of my mind was the knowledge that the arid Australian heat was a different beast. On top of this, I had only done one run in the past year, in Singapore of course, where the temperature was anywhere close to 30C, and that was a measly little 11km run on essentially flat terrain – a far cry from the 1400m and 56km of undulating track that was the Two Bays ultra course. Suddenly, all my preparation seemed to be somewhat inadequate.
On race day, after a cheery goodbye to J&E who kindly dropped me off at the Cape Schank at 6:30 in the morning, I wandered around the start line. to pass the time, looking at some of the merchandise and heading out to the cliffside viewing area to check out the famous lighthouse. The most interesting sight of the morning (which for some reason did not cross my mind to grab a photo of!), was that the queue for the gents toilet was a good 20 strong, and there wasn’t a single person in line for the ladies. Of course, this may have had something to do with the actual sign-up ratios, but it made for some interesting banter nonetheless.
At 7:10 sharp, a blast of the starting horn sent the race leaders bolting off the front of the pack, while the rest of us mortals began slowly funnelling through the starting chute straight into the burning glow of the morning sun.
The temperature was still comfortably cool as two hundred or so runners passed through the twisty singletrack like a never-ending stream of lemmings on their summer migration. The undulating, narrow trail was a perfect regulator and with each rise and fall, the field would sort itself and spread out just that little bit more. Before long, I had found my place in the field, and was happily floating along at my own comfortable rhythm. At around this time, the trail began to open up a little, revealing stunning views of the coastal cliffs, and then rolling hills of pasture.
The end of that segment was marked by the first big-ish climb of the day, a winding stretch of singletrack that twisted through the forest, climbing steadily up the side of the hill. Thankfully, the upward slog did not last long, and we soon arrived at Boneo Rd aid station where the cheery and enthusiastic crew was handing out smiles, cheers and gels. I grabbed a shot of the “cool citrus” flavour, which tasted of lemon cheesecake and went down smoother than a slice of fluffy pavlova.
Coming out of the aid station, the trail soon opened up into a broad fire road, and by this time, the sun was well up in the sky, its warm light lending a golden shimmer to the flanking fields of grasses and ferns parched brown by an exceptionally dry spring and summer. I had already started to become familiar with the runners around me. In particular, there was a tall lanky and dark skinned gentleman with a peculiar gait and two Chinese runners conversing in mandarin with a strong mainland accent.
The next aid station was a mere 3 kilometers down, so I wasn’t really in the need for any further supplies. However, at this point they had thoughtfully prepared a special treat: icy poles! With the sun higher in the sky, the temperatures were still bearable, but knowing how warm things were going to get later on, I was keen to stay as cool as possible. Besides, who ever said no to an icy pole in the summer? I gratefully picked a bright yellow tube of the sweet, frozen slush and started unceremoniously slurping it down, drawing a few odd looks from my fellow runners in the process.
Another kilometer or so down the track and the pleasant grassy trail was replaced by a bed of foot-swallowing sand – the first real obstacle of the day. The soft, powdery surface, which would have been perfect had we been sitting at the beach for a picnic, gave beneath my feet and I could feel half my energy being wasted as my feet kicked up clouds of sand with each push-off. I had to slow down – smaller steps, less kicking, more efficiency. Or at least that was the intention as I trudged along with each energy sapping stride. The sand was so fine that it filled my shoes through the mesh, and by the time I got to the end of the sandy mess, I could feel it swirling around and conforming to the shape of my toes and foot arch. Relief came in the form of the volunteers manning the Greens Bush junction, armed with yet more encouragement and smiles.
I decided to take my first stop and dump the cupful of sand that had ended up in each of my shoes. Several people passed during the two minutes or so I was fiddling with my laces, and by the time I got back on the move there was no one in sight, not behind or ahead. Up next was a long and enjoyable descent down to Browns Road, where I caught up with the bunch I was with just prior to my stop. Net result, no time lost but now with sand-free shoes – I’d call that a good decision!
The reception we received at the Browns Rd aid station was phenomenal. More morale boosting cheers, and even some good rock music to boot. The volunteers on this event certainly went out of their way to make us feel invincible. Grabbing another gel (Choc brownie this time I believe…) I skipped through the station and down a sharp descent, only to face the second big climb of the day, another small appetiser to prep the legs for what we all knew lay just ahead. After a sharp climb and drop, we left the trail briefly and weaved through a couple of small residential streets interspersed with some boardwalk through a small forest reserve. One of the volunteers at the end of the last street was standing with a hose in hand, giving those that asked for it a generous blast of cool water. As things were already getting warm, I just couldn’t resist!
Not long after rejoining the trail, I arrived at McLaren’s Dam. I scuttled across the embankment, immersed in the serene view of the water’s surface rippling in the wind, completely unprepared for what I would see when I turned my eyes back to the trail. Round the corner was a near vertical wall of dirt and gravel, dotted all the way up with runners in various states of agony.
Poles in hand, I started my steady march up the track, which was so steep in parts that I could almost touch it by just reaching my hand forward. Around me were my fellow participants, all breathing heavily with their mouths contorted in a wide variety of grimaces, but all with the same eyes of resolve as they firmly planted one foot in front of the other. the insane gradient eased off slightly after a couple hundred metres, but the climb continued aggressively and we slowly ascended up towards the high point of the trail near Arthur’s Seat.
Around half-way up, who else would we see, but the eventual winner Dion Finnochiaro bounding down the hill, followed minutes later by second and third placegetters Francesco Ciancio and Brendan Davies, in that order. They were running well and looking strong, something made all the more impressive considering they had just come up a 300m, 3km, hill. Just inspiring!
The top of the hill could not have come soon enough, and before long I was enjoying the long and fast descent down to Dromana. Determined to make up some time, I turned off the brakes and scampered down the hill. Other than the occasional flight of steps, the trail down from Arthur’s seat was very runnable and heaps of fun. By this time, the faster end of the pack was now coming back up the hill from the turnaround point, and every now and then I would have to break my rhythm in order to let them through, but I took this as a welcome opportunity to regain my sense of balance, before tipping forward and continuing my somewhat controlled hurtle down the hillside. Eventually, the trail came to an end and we were on the road (literally!) to Dromana with a further 1.5km of tarmac coated descent in to the turnaround.
Waiting at the halfway point, just peeking out from the side of the inflatable archway, was a familiar pair of chubby cheeks in a hat. I stooped down for a hug, but E insisted I ring the halfway bell first, probably keen to dodge a sweaty, salty hug from his daddy. I took a few moments to rest my legs and munch on a banana, and then it was goodbye to my dear family and back up the big bad hill I had just come down.
I had made the halfway turnaround point in just under 3h 15min, so that left me a seemingly generous 4h 45min to cover the 28km back to the finish line. However, I knew that things were about to get a lot more difficult, and so I did my best to keep a solid power walk up the steeper sections, and a slow jog on the gentler bits of the hill. By this time, the sun was out and the mercury was climibing. The surface of the road seemed to shift as a mirage swirled just above it, and I could feel the heat starting to sap my strength.
Coming off the road and back on to the trail, I bumped into a familiar face who greeted me by name (our names were printed in large font on our race bibs). I returned the favour, and his name, Langdon, rang a bell. I glanced at him again, and so did his face, but I could not for the life of me place where I’d seen him before. It was not till after the race that I realised he was the boss of Life in Motion, a company that had done our wedding video years ago. We were very impressed by the results, and have since recommended them to anyone asking.
The trail continued to climb with no relief from either the gradient or the heat – the little rocks and stairs that had made for some rather enjoyable hopping on the descent, now became rather annoying obstacles that I had to haul my not-so-light frame up and over. Eventually, even my arms began to tire as I dug my poles into the ground, trying my best to relieve the workload of my tortured legs. The only positive about this whole thing was that, since I was going so slowly, I was now able to enjoy some of the views I’d missed on the way down, given that back then, my eyes were glued to the trail to avoid a nasty tumble.
As the temperature continued to rise, I soon began to feel a hotspot developing on my left toe, in the very same place back at TNF100. Not wanting to deal with any more pain than I had to, decided to take the few minutes to stick a band aid on it. Heat and fatigue were suffering enough – I certainly didn’t want to be hobbling for the last 25 kilometres with a blister on my toe. At least six people passed me as I sat by the side of the trail, and without fail each stopped to check that I was alright. I don’t know what it is about the tarmac, but in my four years of running, I have to say that that never happens in road races.
Reaching the top of the Arthur’s Seat climb did not bring the wave of relief I had hoped. The trail back down to McLaren’s dam was essentially open and unsheltered, and what energy I had left after the climb up Arthur’s seat was slowly sapped out of me as I made my way down. Heat exhaustion was starting to set in – the body’s natural defence against overheating. My brain was signalling my body to shut down in order to avoid cooking my brain – no doubt an important survival mechanism under normal circumstances, but in this case, it was another obstacle to overcome. The challenge would be to keep my legs moving while tiptoeing the line between heat exhaustion and its far more serious cousin – heatstroke.
I was essentially alone now and worryingly, my right hamstring was starting to spasm occasionally, and my enthusiasm down Arthur’s seat in the first half of the race was now starting to cost me as my quads began to protest any form of control I tried to exert as I plodded down the steep trail. The aid station at Mclaren’s Dam was all but packed up by the time I got through. The lone volunteer left there was still giving some encouragement, but his enthusiasm was obviously waning in the heat as well I have since been corrected by the race director, there is no aid station at Mclarens Dam – it was a supporter of one of the running teams armed with an eski of ice and a generous heart! I did a quick time check. I was 4h 20 minutes in to the race with roughly a half-marathon to go. Although there were still a couple of decent climbs to go, with most of the elevation gain behind me, I still figured it was plenty of time – it was all a matter of how well I handled the heat.
The volunteer with the hose was still there at waterfall gully road, and I gratefully took a five second break to allow her to fully drench me from head to toe, all the while expressing my utmost gratitude. Slightly further up the road, a gentleman was waiting with a tub full of iced water, some of which he poured over my head. I savoured the sensation of the chilly cooling water spreading over my crown and running down my neck. In addition to this, he helped stuff a generous chunk of ice into my hydration pack, and sent me on my way to face the rest of the track.
The relief from the heat brought by the cool shower and the mini ice bath was sensational but fleeting, and unfortunately, the side effect of this was that the water had washed off some of the generous coating of sunscreen I had applied prior to the race. I could now feel a couple of spots on my arm start to cook, and without any additional sunscreen on hand, my only desperate solution was to smear some of the sunscreen that had collected in the creases of my elbows and try to spread that out best as I could over the gaps.
The day dragged on as I retraced my steps from earlier in the day, heading back towards Browns road. The volunteers scattered over this stretch were all still there braving the heat. The exciting (i.e. faster) part of the field was well and truly gone, and it was now a waiting game for them as stragglers like myself hobbled past every five to ten minutes or so. Yet, there they were, patiently waiting and every bit as enthusiastic as when we first came through in the morning. I am always very grateful for those who volunteer their time and weekends to make these events possible, but in this particular race, I firmly believe that for alot of participants, myself included, the volunteers were critical. Without them, I doubt I would have made it to the end.
The heat continued to mess with my head as I trudged through the undulating section prior to Browns Road. The elation I usually feel out on the trails was well and truly fading, and the predominant thoughts occupying my mind were how hot it was, and how sapped my legs felt. By this time, the field was so spread out that between Goolgowie bushland reserve and the Browns Road, I only saw one other pair of runners, and so there wasn’t exactly any pack energy to tap for inspiration either.
At Browns Road, without much thought, I topped up my spare water flask and kept moving. I was keen to make up some time that I had lost on the more undulating sections I had just past, and I knew that there were some good runnable sections heading back up the unsealed Hysops Road towards Greens Bush. It was not to be. About a third of the way down Hysops road, my right hamstring locked up properly into a full on cramp, jolting me back down to a walk. I quickly popped another salt cap and tried to stretch it out, but to my horror, any attempt to stretch the hamstring resulted in my hip flexor going into a cramp. My only comfort from the pain was to keep shuffling awkwardly down the road, not giving either antagonist muscle a chance to lock itself up.
Thankfully, after essentially walking the rest of Hysops Road, my right leg muscles’ incessant urge to lock themselves up seemed to ease, and I was able to break into a slow jog as I passed the trail junction leading in to Greens Bush, just as another couple of runners were entering the trail. Once again, the ever-reliable volunteers were there, saying all the right things about us – how strong we looked and how well we were going. I knew of course that I probably looked like a trainwreck rolling down a sandbank, but I have to hand it to them – being a volunteer at this end of the race requires being a good liar, and I was able to put the reality of things to the back of my mind, and toy with the illusion that hey, maybe things weren’t going so badly after all.
I was now around 5h 20min in to the race time, and thanks to my ongoing battle with the temperature, I still had 16km to go. My aims had by now shifted from a 7 hr finish to just being able to come in under the 8hr race cutoff, and while 2h 40min may seem like a generous amount of time for 16km, I knew that in my condition, I was already cutting it close.
As best I could, I kept my pace up, steadily marching up all the climbs, except by this time my definition of a “climb” had now expanded to anything that looked like it was even slightly inclined, even if it was just a stretch of five metres. I was still able to pull out a jog on the downhills, and on the flats, with some assistance from my walking poles, I was able to keep up a steady canter.
The trail through Greens bush was beautiful and serene, but the heat was robbing me of my enjoyment of the experience. I did my best to stay focused, and fell back to the old trick of tree-spotting, breaking the journey down into twenty metre chunks. “Run to that tree, and you can take another ten second walk,” I told myself over and over again, as trail wound through the seemingly endless forest. The inaccessibility of the Greens Bush section meant that there were no volunteers for pretty much the entire stretch, and now that I was so far back in the pack, I was essentially alone for the better part of that segment.
About half-way through Green’s Bush, things took a turn for the worse when the cramping in my right leg returned in full force, and I was forced to walk out two very long but gentle descents, which would have been perfect to run down. I was now clean out of salt caps, and was fully regretting not bringing another five or six out with me. I stopped again to try to stretch it out, but was faced with the same issue of my hip flexors going into rebellion with each attempt. Just as I was going to vocalise my frustration, a runner came up from behind, and seeing my predicament, generously offered me some of his salt caps. He pretty much saved my race – without him, I am almost sure I would have pulled out at the Boneo Road aid station, a mere five kms from the end, and that DNF would have been a very bitter first for me.
With the salt boost, the cramping eased up slightly – still returning intermittently but now for no more than five minutes at a time, allowing me decent blocks of around 10 minutes at a time of cramp-free slow jogging. The heat was still growing by the minute, however, and at the rate I was drinking, the inevitable happened. I reached for my hydration straw and sucked – nothing. I pulled out my reserve bottle and managed to coax a couple of drops out, but that was it. My hydration stores were bone dry. Cursing my decision to not fully top up my pack back at Browns Road, I did a quick estimate – thankfully, Boneo Road, and the next aid station, was just under 2km away. I gritted my teeth and plodded on.
A little further down the trail, as I was plodding up a small climb, eyes down on the trail, when I heard the unmistakable click of a camera. One of the course photographers was there, perched on the side of the trail. After taking a couple more photos of me shuffling up the trail, he asked sympathetically “How’re you feeling?” “Not great,” I responded, to which he replied “and rightly so – keep going mate, Boneo Road’s just a K or so ahead!”. Throat parched and dry from the heat, the thought of something cool to drink was just the movitation I needed. I picked up the pace (slightly!) and pressed on forwards.
The atmosphere at the Boneo Road aid station was electric. It was as if a party was going on – the stereo was on full blast and the volunteers were all smiles and in high spirits. A boy dumped a chunk of ice down the back of my shirt, and another gentleman helped me top up my hydration bladder and water bottle, all whilst I took my time enjoying an icy pole and a nice cold cup of coke. A few of my fellow runners had congregated there, and I too found myself lingering a little more than I should have – after coming through the lonesome Greens Bush stretch in the vicious heat, it was no surprise that nobody was in a hurry to leave.
That is, until I looked at my watch. I was bang on 7 hours, leaving me exactly an hour to cutoff with around 6km to go – just slightly quicker than walking speed. With that, I grabbed a handful of pretzels for the salt, crammed them in my mouth and marched off towards the finish line.
I can now tell you that stuffing your mouth with pretzels when you are in a rather severe state of dehydration is really not a good idea. The dry, flaky crumbs instantly absorbed what little moisture I had left in my mouth, and I almost gagged as my tongue turned to cardboard. I fumbled for my bite-valve and took a large mouthful of water in to wash down the offending substance. I needed the salt, so I couldn’t afford to spit it out.
The short rest, lift in spirits and the cooldown I got at Boneo Road allowed me to make some good time, covering roughly half the distance to the finish line in the first twenty minutes or so. Granted it was mostly downhill, and as I arrived the very bottom, just after crossing the small creek, my onward progress was brought to a grinding halt by a daunting flight of stairs going up the other side of the gully.
My poles were already out – I had now reached the point where I was using them to descend as well – so I dug in and started hauling. It took every ounce of strength from all four limbs to move my overweight (for an ultrarunner anyway) frame up each step. Ahead of me, just a little higher up on this agonising stairway of pain, another one of my fellow runners quipped “How much for the sticks?”. “I’d give you a smartass reply,” I responded, “but my brain is too fried to think of one”.
Getting to the top of the stairs put me back in a world of hurt, and to make matters worse, from there, it was an undulating climb for another mile or so. About halfway up this climb, to my horror, both my legs now started threatening to cramp, and I began shuffling awkwardly along the trail. To make matters worse, the tree cover disappeared shortly after, and once again I was bathed in generous amounts of solar radiation. I could almost feel my brain slowly stewing in my skull, the raw energy of the sun blazing down on the top of my exposed head. Perhaps having an open visor was not such a good idea after all.
Through all this, the one thing I hung on to was a common phrase I had first heard when training on the trails of Lysterfield from a fellow ultrarunner – a stranger whom I happened to pass by. I have since heard this phrase spoken by some random participant on every ultra trail race I have signed up for to date (just 3 – still getting my feet wet!). “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other”. And so I did – for another thirty agonising minutes in the boiling sun, with legs threatening to cramp the whole time, I kept moving forward at a steady pace.
Eventually, the trail began to get slightly more crowded – not with other participants, but with tourists and visitors, a telltale sign that my destination was close. Then, I caught a glimpse of the lighthouse – it could not have been more than a couple hundred metres away. Spurred by the sight, I summoned up the what reserves I had left, ignored the legs that were threatening to cramp, and ran as best I could down the last descent. I rounded the corner to see the finishing chute just fifty metres away.
I looked at my watch – I had twelve minutes to spare. Elation and exhaustion flooded over me all at once. With nothing left in the tank, I was reduced to a walk up the final incline towards the chute, when my favourite pair of chubby cheeks came trotting up towards me from the finish, yelling “Hi Daddy!!!” at the top of his little voice. We walked together up to the finishing chute, and ran the last ten metres or so across the finish line hand in hand, a mere ten minutes under the cutoff time.
In spite of the horrendous conditions, there is plenty to be thankful for. Thanks to God for keeping me safe along the way. Also, a big shout out to the volunteers, crew and other participants, for the support, encouragement, icy poles, hose showers, salt tablets and a whole host of other things without which I would not have made the finish line. I severely underestimated the challenge the heat would pose, and have many valuable lessons to take away, but I can confidently say that without all the support and help I received throughout the event, I would have started 2016 off with my very first DNF.
Last but not least, a big thanks to my dearest family, J & E, for just being awesome and supportive. Without the support from you each and every day of the year, I wouldn’t even be out on the trails, let alone get to a finish line.
And thus ends the tale of my first race for 2016. What next? I’ve got a few things in mind, but for now, I’m just looking forward to getting back on the trails again, once I get rid of this dastardly cold!