Yes, this post is three months late. I suppose work got the better of me right after the race, and that just led to procrastination. Still, this is a race I want to remember, so finish the post I did, and here it is for anyone else who might want to have a bit of a read of the day’s events from my perspective.
For those of you that want to skip the rambling, here is the executive summary:
- I had a blast!
- I finished in 9h 11m, which was 19min under my goal time
- I somehow managed to end up in 10th place (out of 19)
- The race is awesome, you should totally give it a crack!
August 13, 2016: Prelude
I’m not sure if it was excitement, nervousness or just the strange environment, but I snapped awake at 0415am and try as I might I just could not get back to sleep. So much for my grand plans to get more sleep by spending an extra $100 for a motel room near the start line. After tossing and turning for another hour or so, I ended up just sitting in bed eating my pre-race brekkie of sanitarium biscuits while watching the women’s trampoline event at the olympics on TV. It was a nippy 3 degrees outside, and I was in no rush to get to the start line earlier than necessary.
I had spent the night at the Blackwood Hotel, the local pub, which actually does have accomodation as well. My reason for being there? The 2016 edition of Berry Long Run. The brainchild of Joe Lewis, himself a seasoned ultrarunner, put together to raise funds for Berry Street (see this post for more info). It is quite meticulously organised, boasts a gorgeous 70km course through the Lerderderg State Park.
This was a somewhat different sort of race for me for several reasons. The nature of the event itself was different – this was a small scale event, with a field cap of 40 participants across the 40km and 70km events. The smallest events I have participated in to date had fields of at least several hundred. This would no doubt have an impact of on the race dynamics – for one, there would be far less crowd energy to draw from, particularly in the early stages of the race. Also, with such a small field and without the mass marketing and reputation that other events enjoy, it was likely that the average quality of the entrants would also be relatively high, which meant that for back-of-the-pack runners like myself, it was likely to be a lonely day out in the park.
There was one personal factor that was going to make the biggest difference in this race however. This would be the first ultra where I was actually going to push myself. Sure, I’ve had time goals for all my past events, but I have typically set comfortable goals with relatively wide margins for error – my primary goal being just to finish.
When I signed up for BLR 70 my mindset was initially no different, and I set myself a comfortable target of 11 hours (race cutoff was 12). That was a time that I knew would be a cruise. However, after coming off some solid training and being relatively injury free, something piqued my curiosity. How fast could I actually do this if I tried? Eventually, three weeks out from race day, I had made up my mind that I was going to race the clock, and find out for myself. With that, just to give myself a bit of a push, I revised my time goal by an hour and a half down to 9:30 – a time which I felt was possible, but not likely. It would take a big stretch and perfect conditions to make, but if I wanted to see how fast I could go, then that was the sort of goal I needed to set.
Next began the strategising – poring over the course profile, picking the sections to push and the ones to hold back on. My main strength has always been descending, and so to pull this off, I needed to arrive at the start of each descent with plenty of spring in my legs to cane it all the way down. On the flats and the gentler uphills, I would hold a steady jog.
I spent some time fine tuning my gear as well. I calculated things down to the exact number of gels I was going to eat, and packed these together with rubber bands so that I could quickly grab the correct quantity out of my drop bag at each checkpoint. I worked out how much water I was going to drink per hour, and thus which checkpoints to top up at to minimise the amount I would have to carry up the major climbs, and also to cut out unecessary downtime at the checkpoints. Weight was shaved down to the absolute minimum. Other than my camera (my one weakness!), there was not a gram on my pack that I didn’t absolutely need to carry on the day. With this detailed strategy formed, the stage was set for my first actual attempt to really race the clock.
After a quick hot shower and last minute gear check, I was out the door. The dew on my windshield had frozen over, and so I had to wait another five minutes for the car’s heater to kick in before the wipers could take care of things. Thankfully, it was just a quick two-minute drive down to the Blackwood Mineral Springs, the staging area for our day’s adventure out into the woods.
The starting area was already a hive of activity, with runners, spectators and crew chilling (literally) near the start line. Thanks to the small numbers, the pre-race registration and gear check was a painless process, and it was a nice and interesting touch to note that the race director knew most of the participants by name. After an informal and humorous pre-race briefing, we bunched up around the start line and waited for the countdown. In a near repeat of my 2015 TNF100 start, I was busy messing with Instagram and trying to take the following selfie when the countdown started, and by the time I got through the gantry, I was pretty much in last place amongst the 70k runners. So much for taking this particular race seriously!
Leg 1 – Blackwood – Party CP
Out the starting gate, it was across the creek and up a short flight of stairs, before picking up a narrow, twisty bit of singletrack. The path was essentially a raised bit of dirt about two feet wide, with a sheer drop on the right down to the creek, and a ditch on the left. Throw in the odd root system here and there, and a couple of holes due to erosion, and we pretty much had a warmup obstacle course to kick off the race.
The gentleman in front of me was struggling a bit with the technicality of the trail, and soon, a bit of a gap opened up between him and the next runner. Passing during this first section was pretty much impossible, so I just stuck behind him and took the chance to save my legs. Thankfully, another couple of hundred metres down, the path widened momentarily and he stepped to the side to let us through.
Just as our legs were about warmed up, the trail dropped back down and spat us out onto a rough bit of road and back across the creek to join Golden Point road, which climbed for about a kilometer. The gradient was not too extreme, but in keeping with my plan, I dialed things back a touch. I could still see the main bunch about a hundred metres or so ahead, and there was a slight urge to close the gap, but I stuck to my strategy and slowed down. At this point, most of the few people that were still with me surged on ahead, putting me pretty much dead last (or so I thought).
Almost unexpectedly, I was cued to exit the road by a big red arrow, marking the start of Byers Back Track. Still sticking to my plan, I picked up the pace slightly and settled into a steady jog, holding around 6:15/km. To my slight dismay, the gap between myself and the bunch in front continued to widen. The windy switchbacks snaking round the hillside meant that before long, I had lost sight of the people in front of me, and not long after even their voices faded to nothing.
I recognised that the only way I had any hope of meeting my stretch goal was to run the best race I could, and that meant sticking to my strategy. Stepping on the gas now could mean blowing up my legs, and if I was still to make my sub 9:30 time, I needed them to go the distance.
Being on my own at the back of the field did have its advantages. I could run at my own pace, with no pressure from the back, and no one holding me up in the front. Byers Back track was very a very runnable, beautiful bit of singletrack, and other than the odd dip here and there, it was essentially flat. As it wound its way through the tall gumtrees, and with no one around, I was able to enjoy the sounds of the forest as the calls of cockatoos echoed round the hills. A faint morning mist hung about the forest floor, contrasting nicely against the tall dark tree trunks rising straight up towards the sky.
So immersed was I in the environment that it started to feel like a regular training run, and I unconsciously began to drop the pace off. By pure chance, I just happened to glance back at the switchback I had just come round, just as someone in a bright red windshell come running round the corner about 50 metres back. I was not last after all! I glanced at the watch and to my horror I had dropped the pace down to 6:45/km, which was a big waste of such a runnable part of the course. I promptly picked up the pace again. I couldn’t tell whether my tail was a 40k or 70k runner, but it was a timely reminder that I was here to race, and it was time to get back on with it.
A little further up the track, I came across an elderly gentleman in blue who was fumbling with his pack with a puzzled look on his face. I stopped briefly to check if he was ok. He had lost the cap to his hydration hose, and water was leaking all over his clothes. He said he was fine and waved me on. The trail was muddy, and I didn’t fancy his chances of locating a small black piece of plastic in a hurry. If this had been any other event, I probably would have taken a couple of minutes to see if I could help, but given he was in no physical danger, I decided that that was the limit of my charity on this occasion, and moved on.
The easy running soon came to an abrupt halt as another bright red arrow marked a sharp right on to Kangaroo Track, which began with a steep, lung busting climb – the first fifty metres or so was so steep that I had to lean forward to avoid falling back down the hill, and just walking up was sending my heart rate through the roof. Thankfully, the gradient eased off slightly, but other than a couple of negligible flat bits, the track continued to climb, rising 150m or so over about 1.5km. There was a short descent after this, but the climbing soon continued, gaining another 50m or so.
Brutal gradient aside, Kangaroo track itself was actually quite pleasant. The air was thick with cockatoo screeching, answered regularly by the cackling laughter of the local kookaburras. By now, the sun was well and truly up, and as we approached the top of the hill, there were some glimpses of scenery through the thinning trees, which also allowed a cooling breeze to filter through the canopy.
As I continued to trudge up the hill, I began to hear the sound of poles and heavy breathing coming up from behind. The gentleman whom I had passed earlier had caught back up, and was certainly gunning it up the hill, perhaps in an attempt to make up for lost time. Not wanting to mess up my rhythm on such a big climb, I let him pass. He had miraculously managed to find the cap for his hose, and was obviously pretty chuffed at that, but I could also tell from his very laboured breathing that he had expended some serious energy in order to make up the time.
After what felt like an eternity I finally arrived at O’Brien’s Road. I was now back on familiar territory, having come past here on a recce trip six weeks earlier. Stashing my poles, I picked up the pace and headed West towards Greendale-Trentham Road just a couple hundred metres away, passing the gentleman once again, and this time for good.
Arriving at the junction a friendly marshal ushered us across the bitumen and on to a bit of trail that ran along the far side of the road. I glanced at my watch and noted that, so far, I had an average pace of around 7.04min/km, well below the 8:14min/km pace I needed to clear my 9:30 time goal. The usual me would have taken that as a sign to dial things back, but given I was feeling good, and that this was a test of my abilities, I took things up another notch, keeping a relatively steady pace of around 6:00/km. The trail along the main road had some small undulations, but for all intents it was essentially flat, and that enabled me to get some good momentum going.
Somewhere along this stretch, I glanced back just to check if there was anyone coming up behind me, and spotted one of the 40km runners emerging from a trail about 50 metres back. She had taken a wrong turn and was in a slightly distressed and rather confused state. After pointing out the correct route, I yelled out some brief directions just in case we got split up for whatever reason, and continued on my merry way.
Given that the section of the course we were on was relatively straightforward, I guessed that she had not read the course notes and was relying purely on the trail markers – if so, that was not a wise decision, given we were all explicitly warned that only key junctions and selected tracks would be marked. I have to say that, in conjunction with the course notes, the markings were more than adequate, and for a small scale event with such limited resources, I was actually quite impressed at how well marked the course was. Most, if not all of the potential confusion spots were clearly marked, and as long as you knew which general direction to head in, it was unlikely that you were going to get into any serious trouble.
Other than a couple of muddy sections, the trail was very runnable. I skipped along the soft dirt, and started having so much fun that before knew it, I found myself at the turnoff. Once again, I was marshalled across the tarmac and this time on to the unsealed Mt Blackwood road. There were no major climbs along this stretch, although some of the undulations were big enough to warrant walk breaks. I knew that things would get a lot more gnarly in the middle portion of the course, and so this was once again a time to hold the pace up, in order to make up for the time I would undoubtedly lose between the 18 and 45km checkpoints.
Not far down Mt Blackwood Road, whilst walking up one of the small climbs, I was caught by the runner who had gotten lost earlier. She courteously took a bit of a walk break with me, and we had a brief chat, which ended with her quipping “Well, I’d better not run with you all the way or I might end up doing the whole 70km course by mistake!”. With that, she pulled off ahead, hoping to chase down her fellow 40k runners. Eventually, she disappeared out of sight, round one of the bends.
A quick glance behind me revealed that I was once again on my own, at least in terms of other runners. There was the odd bunch of 4wd enthusiasts sharing the road, and at one point, even a group on horseback gently cantering along one of the trails just to the side of the road.
Mt Blackwood Rd was unsealed, but firm, and with slightly more downs than ups it was a good chance to bank some faster kms while my legs were still fresh. The tall trees on either side of of the road provided partial relief from the sun, and so I clung to the shoulders, alternating sides every now and then to avoid putting excessive strain on either of my knees. Looking back at the splits now, this was the quickest 5km stretch of the day, on average, and a good thing too, as I would certainly lose some time on the hilly middle section of the course.
Due to the chilly morning, I had elected to start the race in long sleeves, but with the sun now higher in the sky things were starting to get a bit warm. While the temperature was still quite bearable, with the long sleeves I was definitely starting to get a bit sweaty, and was now very much looking forward to the drop bag waiting for me at the 18km checkpoint – dubbed affectionately by the race director as the “Party Checkpoint”. Aside from the fresh clothing, I was also looking forward to some solid food. Some hours had now passed since my very early breakfast, and my stomach was starting to growl a little. The hunger pangs were the perfect motivation, and I picked up the pace for a very brisk power-hike up the last climb of leg two.
I arrived at the Party CP just in time to overhear a conversation between the person manning the checkpoint, and another runner in black who was just on his way out. Something about taking more magnesium. As I watched him jog gingerly out of the checkpoint, I put two and two together and figured he must have had a bit of cramping going on. If I minimised my time at the aid station, just I might be able to pass him. I glanced at my watch – I had arrived a couple of minutes under 2 hours, which was well before the 2h 10min I had planned for.
I didn’t waste a second – I started unclipping my pack even before I had entered the checkpoint, and unceremoniously dumped all my gear on the ground in a heap next to my drop bag. It was then a quick switch to a nice, fresh dry top, followed by cramming a couple of pieces of banana into my mouth to silence the hunger pangs. After topping up my gel supply, I was back on my way in pursuit of the runner that had left just a couple of minutes before.
Leg 2 – Party CP to Swans Road
Mt Blackwood Road continued to climb a short distance out of the checkpoint, before dipping slightly and then rising again. Shortly after this, the road surface changed from unsealed to sealed. Deciding to choose efficiency over comfort, I elected to run on the harder bitument surface, which enabled me to pick up a bit of speed. Up ahead, I could see the other runner. He was clearly struggling – alternating between running and walking. I picked up the pace, and slowly but surely began gaining on him. As we progressed further down Mt Blackwood Road, we traded the forest environment for grassy, rolling farmland, and not long after this came the turnoff to Tower Track, signaling the start of the first ascent of Mt Blackwood for the day.
Tower Track was essentially a long straight road going nearly straight up the hill. Although it didn’t quite crest at the summit of Mt Blackwood, it was still a long, straight and relatively steep climb, which meant that my quarry was well in my view. I continued to gain on him initially, but just as I passed a large dead tree along the way, I happened to glance to the side. Now that we were out in cleared farmland, the trees that had lined the sides of the route so far were gone, and there were lovely views all around. The black peaks of the hills to my left, and a vast open plain behind me. I couldn’t resist snapping a few pictures with the go pro, and by the time I turned my attention back to the trail, the man in black had disappeared over the crest.
He must have had a miraculous recovery of some sort, because when I got to the crest not long after, he was nowhere to be seen. This took me by surprise, as the descent down the other side of the hill was very steep, and quite challenging even for someone without any cramping issues. Furthermore, given the elevation, there was quite a good view of the track for at least a couple hundred metres from the base of the hill, but he seemed to have vanished into thin air.
I scampered down the near vertical slope as quick as I could, but took my time crossing the stile at the bottom of the hill – it was still slightly damp from some rain the night before, and it’s algae covered steps were slick as ice.
The next km or so followed a grassy corridor between some pasture on the right and the dense forest of the state park on the left. There was not alot of elevation change, but the ground was saturated with water, and it was like running on a wet sponge. Adding the fact that the sun was now shining brightly in a cloudless sky, this made that section of the course the most humid by far. Just to add to the discomfort, since it was traversing the side of a hill, there was a vicious camber down towards my left, and with each step I could feel a heavy strain on the ligaments in my knees and ankles.
Naturally, I was relieved to finally reach the junction at Loh’s Lane, and upon exiting tower track through an old rusty gate, I was greeted by a pair of cattle who were nonchalantly grazing in the middle of the trail. The massive beasts made no effort to show any courtesy, so I gingerly circled around them and headed for the start of Foxy Gully track.
I was now on familiar ground, having come through this part of the course on that fastpacking trip just over a month and a half prior. I had been looking forward to this section for a while now – a long, flowing, gradual descent down a nice wide track. The last time I had been here, I had Langdon as company, it was pouring rain, the trail was blanketed in fog and it was a long and exhausting climb. This time, I was headed in the opposite direction, alone and running through the golden streaks cast by the late morning sun through the canopy of the forest, on a long and thrilling descent.
I made a quick time check as I floated down the hillside churning out a 5:50/km pace. To my delight, I was now 22km in at just under 2h 40min, and my legs still felt relatively fresh. In planning, I figured that if I made it to the 31km turnaround in under 4 hours, I had a decent shot at my 9:30 goal. With 9kms to go to the turnaround, I was making decent time, but I knew I had at least one big climb, and a couple of smaller testers up ahead, so now was certainly not the time to ease off. I continued rolling down the hill, keeping the pace under 6min/km, determined to make the most of the long descent.
Eventually the barren, rock strewn dirt track replaced its tanned, dusty coating for a thick covering of lush green grass. I had reached the bottom of the gully, and the fallen tree which Langdon and I had had to cross six weeks ago was still there, although someone had broken off a few branches and carved a bit of a makeshift path over the shattered pieces of trunk. I put on a short burst of speed across the base of the gully, slowing to a jog as I arrived at the base of the climb out the other side. After popping a gel, I pulled out my poles and began my steady march up towards Blackwood Ridge Track.
Ever since losing sight of the guy with the cramps, I had not seen a single soul, and given I was now in second last place at best, I half expected at any moment to hear footsteps up ahead, and to see the race leader come bounding down the trail in the opposite direction. On I climbed, but all I heard was the wind and the sound of my own breathing, and all I saw was the empty trail ahead of me, rising mercilessly without ceasing.
I was surprised at this stage to find that I still had some spring left in my legs, and was able to jog up some of the gentler bits of the climb. I did so with caution however, taking care to push hard but not to the point that I would regret it another thirty kilometers down the track.
The climb took a mere 17 minutes, but it felt like an eternity, and I was very grateful to finally reach the sharp right onto Blackwood Ridge track. As I rounded the bend and turned out onto the top of the ridgeline, I was greeted by a strong and refreshing breeze on my back, which took the sting out of the sun’s scorching rays. Just six weeks ago, the chilly breeze was a big hypothermia risk. Today, it was a saving grace. I bounded along the ridgeline track, almost literally carried by the wind.
The trail was a rolling series of undulations, rising and falling gently as it traced the hilltop silhouette. There were maybe 2 or 3 steepish climbs, but on the whole, the couple of kilometers to the turnaround point was very civil and runnable. Puzzlingly, my heart was racing, although the rest of me felt like the going was relatively effortless. Perhaps it was the excitement of getting to the turnaround.
Eventually, it had to happen. I saw the first place runner charging back up the trail. I had thought I was feeling good, but this guy looked like he was just getting started. His strides were long and strong, and he had a very relaxed grin on his face – he might have just as well have been on a Sunday afternoon tempo run. Another glance at my watch showed that I had been going for 3h 10 min. I estimated that he was around 45 minutes ahead of me. The next runner was nearly ten minutes behind him – an impressive lead.
A little further down the trail, the brush opened up slightly, giving me a sweeping view over the neighbouring mountain range, and allowing in more of the fresh, cooling mountain breeze that I had come to appreciate over the last few kms. When I had last passed this point, we had been shrouded in fog, and somewhat missed out on a nice view. This time, the green layered ridges were revealed in all their glory against a bright blue sky patched with sheets of grey cloud.
As I neared the turnaround point, I crossed paths with more and more of the field going the other way. I noticed that a few of those that were slightly further back in the chain were starting to show a bit of fatigue. There was no more than a slight grimmace on their faces, easily mistaken for an enthusiastic grin. However, the glistening sweat, telltale foot draging and low cadence gave things away. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a strange thought entered my mind. Given how small the field was (around 20 or so), this was possibly my best shot ever at getting a top 10 finish. It was a long shot – I was nearly in last place, and the next runner had roughly 15-20 minutes on me. I had lost count of how many people were ahead, but I was still feeling relatively fresh, and I figured that maybe if I could reel in maybe 6 or 7 of them I might just scrape in.
I felt strange even as the fleeting thought crossed my mind. For years I had participated in these events, with no other objective other than crossing the finish line under a cut-off time. This time, my goals for this event had evolved, turning it slowly from an endurance challenge, to a time trial, and now to a real race. For the first time in a very long time, I was paying attention to how others were doing. From some unknown place in the depths of my warped mind, a lurking competitive streak had somehow come to the surface.
Hurtling down the steep descent to the Swans Rd turnaround point, I noticed with delight that my quads still felt relatively fresh. I rolled into the checkpoint, slightly confused by its layout at the side of the gate. The reception at the checkpoint was warm and friendly, and I was helpfully offered help with topping up my hydration pack – I declined though. With the cool weather I was confident that my water stores would last all the way to the 45km checkpoint.
Leg 3 – Swans Rd back to Party CP
With my new objective, I needed to minimise my down time as well. I knocked back a cup of water, ate a couple of chips and grabbed a handful of gummies to chew on the go. Whilst doing this, there was some chatter amongst the aid station volunteers around how many people they were expecting. There was a bit of a debate as to whether it was one or two – I was fairly confident that there was just the gentleman with the poles behind me, and so I relayed this information on before turning around and hiking up the big steep hill I had just come down.
Just as I crested the top of the climb, I ran into a lady whom I had not seen before – realising that I had given some misleading information to the crew, I briefly asked her to relay the correct information back to the aid station. I needn’t have worried really, as round the next bend was the gentleman with the poles looking sweaty and tired, but with a determined smile on his face as we passed each other for the last time that day.
It was an undulating climb back along the ridge to Foxy Gully Track, and I was now running into the wind. While that undoubtedly made the going harder, the increase in effort was more than offset by the cooling effect of the breeze, which gave me some much needed relief from the heat of the midday sun. Instead of trying to settle into a rhythm as I would normally do, I started trying to test my legs on varying ascents, and was surprised to find that I was able to run up a fair portion of the gentler ascents without too much of a spike in the heart rate. I began to read the trail by feel – my legs adjusting their pace according to the gradient of the trail almost as an afterthought.
It took me around 48 minutes to get back up across the ridge – only 8 minutes more than it had taken me to cover the same track downhill. I was making good progress, and hit the halfway mark at around 4h 15min. As I approached the top of the hill marking the start of Foxy Gully track, I saw a flash of yellow disappearing round the corner to the left. Spurred by the sight, I dug into the last climb of the Blackwood Ridge track, and then scurried down Foxy Gully track.
There was no one in sight for about a minute or so, and disappointment hung around like a bit of a cloud as I picked up my pace on the downhill track. Perhaps that runner had just taken it easy on the climb and was now descending at some breakneck pace. Just as I was resigned to settling back in third last place for a while to come, I came across my quarry, walking down the hill and fumbling with his pack.
It turned out he was struggling with cramps, and I could immediately sympathise with his plight, the agony of Two Bays still relatively fresh in my mind. I pulled up alongside to check that he was alright, and offered him some of the salt pills that I’d been religiously consuming on an hourly basis. He cheerfully declined and motioned me to carry on.
I floated down the trail back into Foxy Gully, and hiked back up the other side towards Mt Blackwood at a furious pace. I saw no one else over this entire section, but at this stage I was spurred on more by the fact that I was making good time. Overtaking my first fellow runner in hours had certainly fueled a small but slowly growing competitive spark, but my goal of finishing in 9:30 still remained front and centre. Given I had crossed the halfway mark well under my target of 4:30, I knew was running far better than I had expected in spite of holding back along the entire first half of the course, and this was motivation aplenty. Before long, I began to catch glimpses of the communications tower atop Mt Blackwood through the trees, and shortly after, I was back at the junction of Tower Track and Loh’s Lane.
My arrival back at Loh’s Lane also meant the end of the thick gumtree canopy that had been sheltering me from the sun, whose rays now blazed unfiltered down onto the top of my head. It was almost like coming out of a fridge into a sauna, the waterlogged ground almost visibly steaming, and the thick, humid air causing me much discomfort as it passed down my airway and filled my lungs.
As I made my way round the lumbering cattle who had somehow managed to squeeze through the tiny little pedestrian gate, I noticed a small blue speck struggling up the grassy slopes ahead. For a brief few minutes, I picked up the pace, determined to try and close the gap, but the soggy wet ground, the heat and the uncomfortable camber of the trail made for difficult progress.
As I crested the hill just before the stile at the base of the Mt Blackmore climb, I was hit by a very pleasant breeze. Looking up the hill, I could see the gentleman in blue struggling up the near vertical wall, about 2/3 of the way up and clearly struggling. I knew I would not fare any better – at this stage we had over 40km in the legs, and while the weather was still a cool 15 degrees or so, the direct sun overhead made it feel far warmer, particularly whenever we were out of the reach of the cooling touch of the wind.
However, I did have a slight edge – my trusty poles. I was one of only three people to carry poles, and incidentally up to the Swans Road checkpoint, the three of us had occupied the last three spots in the 70km field. We were certainly giving trekking poles a bad name, and I was pretty keen to change that. Digging in with the poles, I began the arduous crawl up the soft dirt path. What had been a ridiculously fun descent in the first half of the race was now a calf burning slog as I dragged my feet steadily up the trail.
The going was ridiculously tough, reminiscent of the final stair climb at TNF/UTA100. The steep slope meant that all my weight was on forward on my toes, and my calves screamed with each step, the burn of lactic acid flushing over them as I plodded upwards. As if the gradient was not sufficient hindrance, much of the trail was coated in a surface of loose dirt which meant that any slight attempt at speed resulted in slipping feet and wasted energy. The best way up was slow and steady.
About halfway up, I passed a large tree. The person in front of me had stopped at this very spot to catch a breather. The temptation to lean on the large trunk and pause in the shade of its leafy branches was huge, but determined to gain some ground, I pushed on through. As fatigue increased, my steps became smaller, but I kept on moving.
After what felt like an eternity, I finally planted my feet on the level surface of Tower Track. After a quick glance around to ensure no one was watching, I treated myself to a victory shout complete with dual dust pumps and poles in the sky. I felt the fatigue melt away, and started the delightful descent down tower track. Glancing down, I could see the chap in blue ahead, just turning on to Mt Blackwood road at the bottom of the hill, and it was time to try and close the gap.
Cresting the hill gave me access to the much craved breeze that was blowing steadily across the rolling countryside. The views were just as, if not more, stunning as I cantered merrily down the dusty surface of Tower track. Ahead of me there was grassy knolls of farmland stretching to the horizon. To my right was the twisting ridge lines of the Dividing Range. A lone, dead tree by the side of the road completed the perfect postcard snap.
Except I wasn’t here to make postcards. Down I went, with a lightness in my step that even I was surprised to find, and this continued all the way to back the Party CP where there was a bit of a gathering going on. The chap in blue was there with one other runner chatting with the crew, and a third runner was just on his way out.
Determined to make up some time, I restocked my bag and topped up my water and ate some solid food, lamenting that my favourite maple-bacon flavoured V-fuel was all out of stock. Comes with being a back of the pack runner, I suppose. I was there only for around four minutes, during which time the other runners had all moved on ahead. I was at most maybe a minute or two behind the last one, but I knew that Whiskey Track just up ahead played to my strengths, providing plenty of opportunity to reel them in.
Leg 4 – Party CP to O’Brien’s crossing
On the way out of the checkpoint, I passed by the same waterhole that Langdon and I had camped next to on our fastpack trip. It was still filled the same chalky brown suspension, and at the sight of it, memories of my sleepless night in the rain began seeping out into amongst my thoughts. I pushed them aside and turned my attention back to the trail – I certainly did not need any more reasons to feel tired at this stage. At least the weather was a whole lot more pleasant this time!
The first 1.5km or so of Whisky Track was essentially a long, smooth downhill stretch with a couple of speedbumps along the way. The loose rocks on the surface went barrelling off to the side as I skip-shuffled my way down the relatively well-formed track, thoroughly enjoying the easy downward cruise. Some clouds had now gathered overhead, and between that, the trees and a very slight breeze, the temperature was actually quite pleasant.
I passed the gentleman in blue first – his legs were clearly fatigued as gingerly but steadily picked his way own the track. “Wow, you’re flying!” he quipped as I scuttled past. I replied, “Actually, it’s a bit more like falling, and after I get to the creek, that will soon change to crawling!”.
The next gentleman had a bit of an awkward gait, and I pulled up alongside him for a bit. Turned out he had eaten a bit too much at the last checkpoint, and he was trying very hard to keep the contents of his stomach from reversing their downward course. I indicated that while he might be regretting having a decent meal now, if he could successfully keep it down, then he might well be glad he did in an hour’s time or so – a point he wholeheartedly agreed with. With that I wished him well, and on I went, leaving him to focus on managing his gastronomic crisis.
Eventually the track came to a false end. The last time I was here, we had spent a few confused seconds wondering where to go before noticing the slightly concealed sharp right-hand turn. Down the rough, makeshift staircase I went, fast as I could. The descent was quite technical, and so I relied a lot on my poles for stability and to mininise the shock on my tired legs. Eventually, the narrow path tracked down a mini spur dotted with gleaming white rock coated with green and black moss – almost as if I was running through an enchanted forest.
The couple of dry days prior meant that the creek at the bottom was a mere trickle, and I pretty much just trudged through it without any water coming in to my shoes. The fun was over, and now I faced a near vertical ascent up the other side of the gorge.
I could feel the burn of lactic swirling in my calves and glutes as they lifted the 80 or so kilos of me plus gear up the rough stairway that barely wound its way up the huge incline.
My head was down, eyes either focused on the next few steps or glancing down the gorge on the lookout for pursuers, so I was a bit surprised when the sound of heavy breathing and footsteps floated down from up ahead. A couple of metres above me was a lady in a hot pink top. She looked weary but determined, hands on her knees and her flushed face almost the same colour as the shirt she was wearing.
As I passed by, we exchanged greetings and knowing grins, but said very little. The brutal climb was demanding all our energy and there was precious little to spend on conversation.
The mechanical advantage from my poles let me open up a small gap, but this quickly evaporated as the gradient eased, and a few minutes later she came charging past before settling into a steady pace about 50 metres ahead. Clearly her batteries had recharged a lot quicker than mine.
I suppressed the itch to surge again and close the gap right away. There was still a good 20 or so kilometres to go, so I still had to think long term. There was still plenty of terrain ahead that played to my strengths. For the time being, I trundled along, soaking in the serenity of the forest. The trail continued to rise and fall gently and and with each short downhill I gained a couple of metres on my quarry. Finally on one long, gentle descent, I cruised past, and by the time I reached level ground, and once again, I had the forest to myself.
The trail continued to twist its undulating way through the trees. Tall towering trunks reached skyward, disappearing into a sea of foilage, which sparkled and glittered as bits of daylight filtered in through the heavy canopy. The forest was silent, except for the breeze blowing in the leaves, and the slight crunch of my feet treading on the soft, moist dirt. This was surely trail running at its best!
Eventually, the sound of distant traffic began filtering through the trees. Minutes later, a familiar steel gate came in to view, and I found myself at the trailhead. I took a quick look at the trail behind me. Empty. Slightly chuffed, I turned my attention to the six kilometer descent down the wide open unsealed surface of O’brien’s road.
The first two kilometers of O’Brien’s road was rather mundane. I plodded along, feet crunching along the dusty surface. It was an overall descent, but peppered with little climbs here and there, and with fatigue building up in the legs, it was hard to tell. The sky was overcast, keeping the temperature comfortable, and as I continued my lonely shuffle down the road, I slipped into a bit of a daze. My pace unconsciously began to fall off, and the buffer I had built over my target time began to creep back down.
ThankfullyI was rescued by the lady I had passed earlier when, during a chance glance over my shoulder, I spotted her cresting one of the little undulations I had just cleared, barely 300m behind. It was a sharp wakeup call – I picked up the pace again. Trying to claw back my lost time (and avoid getting chicked!), I cut back on my uphill walking strategy and began running up the first and last thirds of each uphill section, taking a short walking break during the middle third.
I made up some of the time I had lost, but my determined pursuer clung on, and I felt like a fish on a hook as the gap began to close. Finally, the break I had been waiting for arrived, and I launched down the final approach to O’brien’s crossing. Turning off the brakes, I tipped forward and let gravity pull me down the 3km long descent to the gorge floor. My tired feet scurried frantically to keep up as I accelerated to 5:30/km or so, but it was to no avail. The hot pink silhouette grew larger and larger as I rounded each bend.
In the last 500m or so to the crossing, I passed a gentleman in white whose quads had clearly decided they’d had enough. In other events, I would usually have offered some sort of encouragement, but being so desperate to stay ahead of the lady in pink, I think all I managed to do was mutter “hi” as I trundled past. A little further on, a car came up the road, and I pulled over to the right – and a good thing too, because as I did, I got a stunning view of the Lerderderg river rushing through the gorge below. It was a bit of a moment. I realised I had got caught up in where I was going to place, and as a result, I was missing out on the smells, sounds and sights of the bush – the very things that fuel my drive for being out on the trails.
As the roar of the river grew, numerous cars parked by the side of the road formed a telltale signal that our descent into the gorge was nearing its end. Seconds later, I pulled up to the O’brien’s Road checkpoint, about 7 hours and 40 minutes in to the race. That left me almost 2 hours to clear my 9:30 goal. As I browed the selection of gels and snacks on offer, the pair of pursuers who had been hot my my tail rolled up at the checkpoint together. Taking that as my signal to leave, I grabbed a gel from the nearest box and hot-footed out of the checkpoint.
Final leg: O’brien’s Crossing – Blackwood
The couple of hundred metres round the side of the river was a slightly technical and involved a wee bit of scrambling in parts, but to my delight the brief pause at the checkpoint seemed to have restored some spriteliness in my feet. Scuttling round the riverbank, I quickly came up to the final major climb of the race, another near vertical combination of steps and ridiculously steep footpath that tracked up the gorge wall and over a spur.
Out came the trusty poles, and my arms and legs hauled in tandem as fast as my screaming lungs would allow, determined to make the most of the mechanical advantage I had over my pole-less competitors. As I reached the top, I paused to enjoy a last glance down at the river flowing gently through the crossing. As I did, I could and hear the other competitors bashing their way through the riverside trail below. I estimated I’d made up about five minutes on them, a lead I was determined to keep. Stashing my poles for the last time during the race, I started back up Byers Back Track for the final 10kms of the race.
Byers Back Track is hands down the nicest finishing touch to any race I’ve been in. Technically it was all uphill, but gaining a mere 20 or so metres over a very generous 9km, it was essentially flat and totally runnable. The trail wound sexily round the spurs jutting out of the hillside, cutting through rocky outcrops and offering generous glimpses of the view into the gorge below.
I settled into a comfy 7:30-7:45/km pace, and found myself rolling along comfortably with no real urge to take a walk break. I was doing well, having started out on Byers Back Track at around 7h 50min, giving me a generous 1h 40min to get through the last 10km and come in under 9:30. At this rate I had it in the bag, and was all set to just cruise to the finish line. However, as I rounded one of the spurs, I caught sight of a runner in green just disappearing round the bend on the other side of the gully, maybe 2-300m in front. Adrenaline kicked in, and suddenly I had switched from hunted to hunter. I had to restrain myself to avoid blowing out this late in the race, but I steadily picked up the pace and pushed as hard as I could, bearing in mind that I had to last another six kilometers or so.
It worked initially, and bit by bit I began gaining on the bobbing green top, until he finally noticed me on his way out across a long gully. This unfortunately had the same effect on him that the lady in pink had on me back at O’Brien’s Rd. He kicked up a gear and opened the gap right back up. This cat and mouse game continued for the next couple of kilometers, until finally he went round one of the bends and disappeared for good. I gave up the chase – unless I suddenly developed some serious ninja skills, there was no way I was going to pass this guy, let alone hold a lead on him.
The beautiful stretch of trail continued to snake its way round the hillside, and I really should have just settled in to a steady trot and just enjoyed the near perfect surroundings. However, as the remaining kilometers ticked by, I started feeling impatient. I had a small buffer over my 9h30m goal, and a part of me really wanted to just get to the end so I could hit stop on the watch and see the final result.
When the trail finally spat me back into civilisation in the town of Blackwood, I could hardly contain my excitement – I darted across the road, almost getting run over by a learner driver who looked just as startled as I was. I scampered down the tarmac, giving an apologetic wave as he drove past. The instructor in the passenger seat didn’t look pleased!
In no time at all, I found myself back at the creek crossing, facing the last steep “climb” of the day – a wee little flight of stairs rising 3m or so up to the top of the embankment, where I retraced my steps back along the precarious twisty single track that we had opened the day with. To my delight, I still had enough in the legs to hop over the couple of gaps in the trail. In due course, the sound of voices began floating through the trees below. I heard the sound of applause and celebration in the distance as someone up ahead (the runner in green, I assumed) crossed the finish line.
With that, I kicked it up another notch, and scurried across the last km and a bit of the trail. One of the race organisers spotted me from across the river, and yelled “Great job mate!”. I dropped down the final flight of stairs, and attempted to bolt across the concrete to the bridge – only to discover that the dark concrete was covered in wet moss when my feet simply gave out from under me. Thankfully, I managed to grab on to the siderails, and saved myself from smacking my shoulder into the concrete.
Somewhat shaken, I made the final dash across the creek bridge, and crossed the line to a warm welcome by Joe, the race director, and the rest of the crew at the finish line. I glanced down at my watch: 9:10:57. Pure elation! My gun time turned out to be a touch over 9:11, but I was more than pleased nevertheless.
I hung around at the finish area for a few minutes to cheer some of the remaining runners. The gentleman I had passed heading in to O’brien’s crossing showed up about about 15 minutes later, with the lady in pink hot on his heels. She turned out to be the first female in the 70km event.
To my surprise, the chap in green whom I had given up chasing in the last leg of the race, rocked up after them! Turns out he had taken a wrong turn shortly after that bend, hence why I never saw him again. Poor chap had to run an extra couple of ks! In so doing, he had incidentally pushed me into 10th place, giving me my first top 10 finish ever (sure, there were only 19 participants, but I’ll take it anyway!).
After a very substantial dinner at the local pub, I drove home that evening feeling very satisified and a little surprised at how well the run had gone. If there are any Victorians out there, I totally recommend this gem of a local race. It’s well organised by a passionate race director and crew, and the course is nothing short of stunning. I don’t normally repeat events, but this is one I might seriously consider making an annual affair!
A special thanks goes out to all the friends, colleagues who contributed to Berry Street on my everyday hero page. We raised a whopping $1890.17, which means we’ll have funded five foster kids and their families for a memorable week of fun and friendship. Thank you all so much for your generosity!