It’s been just over a month since I failed at my lofty goal of running 330km across the mountainous region of the Aosta Valley in Italy. I have had a lot to process.
My body doesn’t feel too bad. I still have bursitis in my feet, but other than that I have recovered well.
My brain on the other hand, is a bit broken. I thought maybe it was lack of sleep, jet lag, pushing myself to my limits. I just needed time to recover. But it isn’t that. It’s processing the fact that I failed that has broken me a little.
When I tell someone I failed, I can predict the response. It makes people very uncomfortable to call a 200km run in the mountains a failure, but the fact is, I didn’t go to Italy to run 200km. I went there to run and finish a 330km race. I did not run or finish that distance. I failed.
I’ve done a lot of things badly in my life, but no one has ever called me a failure. To be able to say with honesty that I absolutely failed is a novel way of speaking.
I set myself a lofty goal of running this race and I knew, statistically, that I had a 50% chance of success. That also means I had a 50% chance of failure.
When I say I failed, I don’t mean to diminish my accomplishment, or to diminish anyone else’s accomplishments. I still ran further than I’ve ever run and I am not insinuating that if you can’t run that far, that you are a failure. This comes down to one simple fact – I did not finish the race. I did not achieve my goal therefore I failed.
Being so physically beaten up, I have had no choice but to sit and be still and think. Why did I fail? What could I have done differently? Failure does not have to be a negative word or experience. There are many great lessons to learn through failing.
Preparation and committment are key
I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been. I tried to fit all my training into 6 weeks. I have years of endurance in the legs, so I thought I could take a short cut, but short cuts never work. You set a goal that is so huge you have a 50% chance of failing, you have to give it your all, and not just your all the day before, a week before. The day you commit to the goal is the day you must commit to give it 100%.
Sometimes it’s okay to ask for help
I wasn’t prepared to accept help. I wasted so much time at checkpoints because I didn’t have a crew. All that time added up and in the end, I timed out. I didn’t do it out of pride, but I didn’t think anyone wanted to help me. It was such an absurd goal that only meant something to me, so why would I ask someone to take time out of their life to help me? Since failing, I’ve realised I had so many people in my corner willing me to succeed. I could have asked any one of these people for help and they would have done anything I asked. If you don’t ask for help you won’t get it. So be brave and accept that you don’t know everything and you can’t do everything and sometimes, you need to ask others for help.
Trust in your own experience
I didn’t trust my gut. Years of endurance have taught me a thing or two and whilst I might not have been as conditioned as I would have liked, I knew what I needed to do to have a good chance of success. At the last minute however, I doubted myself. I got scared and I made some silly decisions. I did what others were doing – others who looked more experienced or knowledgeable than me. That wasn’t the right thing for me. My self doubt was irrational, unjustified and cost me.
I’m not a professional athlete. I do these things because I want to learn something about myself, something about life that I can put into practice daily. By failing, I learned more than I anticipated. So maybe my failure was my biggest achievement.
Dare to dream big enough that failure is a real risk.
Dare to fail.
Where do I even start with a race report on a race that runs for 330km (340 or even 350 depending on whose data you’re looking at and which race profile you check) with 24,000m of elevation.
I had it in my head that 2019 was the year I wanted to do TOR. I had a plan to get there, the races I would do to feel mentally and physically prepared before contemplating the feat of TOR. But TOR is a lottery entry system and I was told to get my entry in this year if I wanted to run it next year (as each year you’re not selected doubles your chances for the following year). Well that plan backfired and so I found myself entered into a race that having never run in Europe before, I just couldn’t quite comprehend.
The husband and I already had a trip planned to Europe (the flat parts) only a few short months before TOR and so, instead of dutifully executing a perfect race plan for TOR, I just managed to maintain some running fitness in between pierogi feasts and raikia parties before getting bitten by a black widow spider. I came home to Australia with six weeks to focus on TOR, but spent the first two weeks of that dealing with jet lag and spider bite induced nausea. Not to mention the fact that the little mountains we do have to train on were covered in snow.
Fast forward to my arrival in Courmayeur Italy, the start of the race. Thanks to that spider I was my racing weight and I quickly felt myself swept up in the magic that is TOR.
The day before the race starts, all competitors must register and have their mandatory gear checked. I was keen to eat as much gelato as possible before the race having only just recently discovered how awesome that stuff is. However, race checkin was a solid four hours of standing in line. After a few hours of standing next to one another in silence, I was asked by the people next to me whether I was here on my own. I replied in a very round about way that yes I would be racing on my own and didn’t have support crew. They looked so concerned. At this point, I didn’t understand their concerns and I thought it was because I looked so vulnerable and out of place and mistook their concern for thought that I shouldn’t be there. They were very kind and the woman gave me her facebook messenger details. She explained she was supporting her friend who was racing (and didn’t speak English) but said if I needed anything to message her. I was pretty blown away by her kindness.
Photo credit: new friend May met in line up. Who let this girl that looks like she belongs at the beach into a mountain race?
Eventually I was called forward in the line and registered and was given my drop back – this is the bag that follows you throughout the race and that you can access every 50km. Hmmm…the new design meant that the bag was a hell of a lot smaller than the previous years. I wondered how I was going to fit all my food and clothes in. The race requires you to be essentially self sufficient from life base to life base so your drop bag needs to contain the food you’ll be carrying, batteries for torches/devices etc, warm and dry clothing, a change of shoes.
After four hours of standing in line plus the time it took to actually register, the day had just disappeared. We had an hour or so to get home, pack our drop bags and then rush back for the race briefing/ pasta party.
Somehow, I managed to cram everything I thought I needed into that bag and with a bit of effort, managed to zip it up. It was too late to drop the bag off now though, so Tamyka and Derek (my two Australian TOR travellers, whom I was sharing accomodation and many laughs with) and I rushed back down to the building where the pasta party was about to start. Here we met our Hong Kong friend who told us he had never run on trails, had trained for this race by smoking cigarettes and didn’t know what the toilet etiquette was during remote trail races. We had a good chuckle about his naivity on the way back to our accomodation. I think he had a good chuckle about our naivity when we met at the start line the next day and he had his UTMB calf sleeves and Hard Rock 100 patch on his pack. He totally punked us.
Anyway, back to the accomodation for a restless night’s sleep.
Whilst the race didn’t start till 12pm on the Sunday, we still had to drop our drop bags off and given the delays we experienced with race checkin the day before, we didn’t want to leave anything to the last minute so off we went quite early. So early that we got to the start line with hours to spare. The sun was out in full force so we took a seat in the gutter in the shade and this was when my Salomon soft flasks decided to start leaking. Given I was expecting some very cold nights, this was quite a shit situation. However Tamyka reminded me that every single shop in Courmayeur sold Salomon gear and I’d only need to walk a hundred meters to find and purchase replacements. This was one of the real novelties of Courmayeur – the fact that every store was either a gelato shop, a pizza place or an outdoor gear store.
New gear purchased, another hour or so in the sun and then it was go time.
The race starts in the centre of Courmayeur and we ran a few kilometres through the town and the main street before hitting the trails. The streets were lined with people all cheering and ringing bells. I felt really emotional at this point and let myself have a little cry. I couldn’t think ahead to the finish at this point, which also runs down the same street. I was just totally in the moment, appreciating the hundreds of people who had come out to show their support. It was an atmosphere I’ve never experienced and was an absolute joy.
As we exited the streets and onto the trail and the first climb, the trail became very congested and we all just had to be patient. We arranged ourselves in a very long and slow conga line and just started moving up to Col Arp (2,571m). I took this climb very conservatively as just wanted to give myself time to adjust to the altitude changes and to warm the body up after waiting at the race start for so long. This was easy to do as the crowd had to move like one giant body – for that first climb, we were a collective being joined by an ideal or goal that seemed ludicrous to the rest of the world, but perfectly normal and exciting for us.
Once we got to the top, the long descent into the first checkpoint, La Thuile, was easy and really enjoyable. I was so relieved to get into the first checkpoint with about an hour up my sleeve on the cut offs. I had a fear that I wouldn’t make the first checkpoint and that would have been an absolute embarrassment. So the first goal was ticked off.
Photo: Once mountain down, 25 to go.
This was my first experience of the food on offer at the aid stations and I smashed into some cake that seemed to be filled with Nutella. I thought it was awesome (oh how I would come to loath that cake later in the race). Tamyka and Derek were a bit ahead of me at this point and I’d seen them leave the aid station so that kept me motivated to keep my time there short and get back out onto the trail.
Leaving La Thuile, there were two more peaks at approximately 2,800m to climb before reaching the first life base. I can’t really recall much of the terrain here. I just know that I was so relieved to come into the life base Valgrisenche which was officially at the 50km mark of the race. It must have been around 4am. I gave myself three hours here. If I left at 7am, I’d be two hours ahead of the cut off.
The food at the lifebases is a lot more substantial than the checkpoints and so I had a potato here and some tomato and a lot of cheese. Whilst cheese isn’t part of my normal day to day diet, I have no idea how anyone can survive in Italy (or Europe in general) without eating cheese. I then gave myself two hours to sleep.
The beds here were like army cots, no pillows. Just a scratchy blanket that being at the back of the pack, I knew would be covered in the sweat of all those who had slept before me. The lighting in the sleeping tent was intense. It was so bright. I put on my sleeping mask and earplugs but the light was so bright and I could feel the generator in my body. I didn’t sleep but it was nice to be off my feet. After 80 minutes though I was too anxious. I got up, changed into some clean clothes. Sorted out what I needed from my drop bag – clean socks, food, batteries.
Then I went back into the food tent to grab a coffee. “Finito! Run Out!” I was told. I looked around the tent and I felt pretty low. What I saw was so different to the recounts I had been told by others who had finished TOR. I realised then that the experience of those who are at the front, or even mid of the pack is very different to those at the back of the pack. No coffee. I was going into my second day of running with 80 minutes of rest, no sleep, with no coffee. I was low.
I dropped off my bag to the volunteers and headed out onto the trail. I couldn’t decide what clothing was appropriate for the early morning. I kept putting my thermal on, taking it off, putting it on, taking it off. A couple were moving just ahead of me, not speaking English but yelling at one another in their native tongue. I couldn’t figure out if they were fighting or just very expressive. They were very loud regardless and not having coffee and wanting to just experience the sanctity of a morning in the mountains, I overtook them. Not too long after that Tamyka and Derek caught me. They had managed a bit more sleep but were much stronger on the climbs than me. Plus the lack of coffee didn’t seem to cause the same tantrum in them as it did with me. I really couldn’t get past it mentally. I was brewing on it (excuse the pun).
It wasn’t very long before we got to Riffugio Chalet De L’Epee. I’d been so pissed about the coffee that I’d been thinking about it the entire climb and so was very surprised to see the riffugio come up so quickly. I went inside and low and behold…they had coffee. Oh my heart was singing. Praise be! I had two cups and some of that Nutella cake which I was still happy about and then left feeling like a brand new person.
My memories of the second day are a bit of a blur except for the first 3000m climb – Col Entrelor (3,002m). The day had been really hot. I was expecting cold and wet conditions. I had trained in the wet and snow in Melbourne and so had been used to wearing a lot of my mandatory gear. It was hot so all my gear was in my pack. My shoulders were hurting from the heavy load. I was tired and my face felt like it was on fire. I looked up to where the trail was heading and I just felt knackered. I was sure I was in last place as I knew there were a group of guys ahead of me but couldn’t see anyone behind me and I had a good view from part way up the Col. I started to crack the shits. It all seemed too hard. I was too tired. Where was the shade? My face was too hot. I sat down on a rock wondering what to do. There was no way out of here – no option to quit as how the fuck would I get out? I had to keep going. If I was going to quit, I had to make that decision at an aid station, not half way up a friggin mountain.
Just as I sat down my phone buzzed, I checked it and I had two messages, one from my mummy-bear telling me she was so proud of me and to keep going. The other message was from my running coach, Matty Abel. I was pretty tired and couldn’t make a whole lot of sense about what his message said. It had a lot of numbers in it. But what I did managed to understand was that I wasn’t in last place, I wasn’t out of the cut offs, that I could have a sleep at the next life base and things would be okay – I was still in the race. So I smashed into some chocolate I found in my pack and then got up, feeling brand new. I pushed on and before I knew it, I was up and over the pass.
The next pass was even higher, Col Losson at 3,299m. I’d had my tantrum and I’d moved passed it though so I didn’t worry about the numbers, I just kept moving. One foot in front of the other. On this climb, I saw a lot of people napping on the side of the trail. I also saw a LOT of spiders on the side of the trail and I knew that no matter how tired I was, after surviving that black widow bite, I would not be napping on the side of the trail.
Eventually I arrived at the second life base Cogne (106km). Whilst I did have a few hallucinations during this run, it was the things I saw in real life that were even weirder. This was the life base where I saw a woman in the complete nude, go to the toilet with the door open. She then proceeded to shower with the door open. I was too tired to care, but couldn’t quite figure that one out.
I had another potato here and some tomato (the only fresh thing that seemed to be on offer beside the odd banana). I wondered where this polenta was that all my faster friends had talked of.
The best thing about Cogne was the sleeping room. I didn’t need to worry about my alarm here as volunteers would wake you up after a set period of time. The room was dark, and there were pillows! I had two glorious hours of sleep here and I awoke to a volunteer gently touching my face. Oh I felt so happy when I got up….and there was coffee! I left Cogne feeling like I’d been given new legs.
Photo credit: Valeriano. Coming into the checkpoint in Chardonney at 133km and having a ten minute nap with a mouth full of cheese and bread (multi-tasking)
That new leg, happy soul feeling lasted most of day three. This section wasn’t too difficult and I’d started to think of the race much like a multi day race except the nights of sleep were more like a 90 minute nap, but I could fool my brain into thinking I was rested. If the race really were just a multi-day race, then today was the easy day. 45km. One long climb and one long descent.
It was another hot day and I have to admit I struggled here. I should have been okay. I’m used to running in the heat. In fact, I normally love running in the heat but because I wasn’t expecting it, it got to me. I also made a crucial error here and didn’t sunscreen a tiny little patch of skin that was poking out between my leggings and my socks. When the sun eventually went down, I realised it was so burned it had blistered.
On the long descent into the Donnas (Life Base 3), I stopped in at the last riffugio to have my number checked off and it was here that I ran into my friend Jane – who I expected to be much further ahead than me. Jane had run TOR (and finished) before but her experience shows that you are never in control in the mountains and anything can happen. She was hallucinating so badly that she had to stop and rest here. She explained to me that she couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t anymore. I hugged her and told her to be safe before I left and continued on to the Donnas.
I started running through a town and thought it must be the Donnas as my watch was already many kilometers ahead of the official distance. Here, another new friend, Valeriano, met me at some ungodly hour of the early morning to take some photos and tell me that it was another half hour – maybe an hour to the Donna’s. My heart sunk.
Photo credit: Valeriano. A few kilometers from the Donnas. What’s not to smile about really?
Out of the dark, Valeriano once again appeared and told me “10 more minutes!” I was alive again and pushed on. I ran past a pizza place and thought man that would be great right now. This was the first time I really wished I had crew or support – someone who could have brought me pizza.
I got to the Donnas with much more time up my sleeve, but I knew that the next section was the hardest section. I had been warned by my new friends that I met in the line up to registration that I needed to rest and eat hard at the Donna’s before attempting the next section. I tried to eat some food before my sleep but I was so exhausted here that the chewing seemed like it required energy I didn’t have. Once again, I didn’t see or wasn’t offered any bloody polenta. The potato wasn’t working for me, it required cutting, coordination to get it on my fork and then all that chewing. I got down what I could. I’d promised myself a shower at the Donna’s if I had enough time up my sleeve but this Life Base was all a bit confusing. Thankfully Valeriano met me here and explained where everything was. The energy was quite somber here and unhelpful so I was grateful to Valeriano.
The shower….hmmm. Given I’d been dreaming about this for three days it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. It was a squat toilet, with a crate put over it to stop you falling in, and a hose with a shower head. No where to put your dry clothes, no where to hang a towel. I’d given myself exactly 10 minutes to get clean and I think given the circumstance, making this time goal was probably my biggest achievement of the race.
I then went up stairs – yes, up stairs, to the sleeping room. Fuck ME! I was blown away by the heat in the room. I’d just had a shower but instantly started sweating. My face felt like it was on fire. I was convinced I’d been severely sun burned but then looked around at those sleeping and despite it being 8 degrees outside, no one had a blanket and most people were in their underwear. The room was dark but this had come at a price. They had bordered up the windows with black plastic which had created a sauna like environment. I was so exhausted that it didn’t seem to matter. I had three hours of sleep here and it was bliss. When the alarm went off I wondered what was the point. Many people were still asleep around me and I wondered momentarily whether to go on or not. This was one of the hardest battles to deal with – making yourself get out there after a nap. Luckily I was still so tired that my brain wasn’t really capable of much thought or action. I was in auto pilot. Put your shoes back on, take out what you need from the drop bag, zip up drop bag, get out.
The drop bag was becoming a real burden to me. It was only at the Donna’s that I realised, I’d been carrying around a heavy winter jacket and additional warm clothing in my day pack that I didn’t need given it was so bloody hot. I took this stuff out and tried to jam it into my drop bag, which was a nightmare. All the worry before the race that I wouldn’t be able to take all the things I needed in that drop bag were so unfounded. I had barely touched a thing in that drop bag. Other than clean T-shirts and socks and batteries, everything else in that bag was just causing me stress. I couldn’t make any sense of it the more tired I grew.
I put my pack on and realised that my shoulders were in a very bad way from the pack. I had just ignored them up until now but three hours of napping without the pack made it unbearable to put back on. I found a few buffs in my drop bag and put them under my bra straps to pad my shoulders out. OH BLISS! Why it took me so long to figure that one out I do not know.
Eventually, out of the Donnas and onto what I’d been warned was the hardest section of the course. It was very early morning – still very dark and I started to climb. Up, up up. I’d stopped checking the course profile as the distance to aid stations was disheartening. They were never what they said they were going to be. If it said 20km to an aid station, you could bet it was at least 25km. So I was pleasantly surprised when I came into an aid station at Perloz which was where it said it was going to be. The best thing about this aid station was that it was the only one that had any variety. I was so sick of that Nutella cake by now and here I was greeted with some sugary crispy donut thing – it was so good….AND Coffee!
I had to stop here a bit longer than I’d planned as I realised my heels were coming off my feet. Not quite but that’s what it felt like. I’ve never had blisters on my heels before but I never really experience blisters at all these days yet my feet looked pretty bad here. Because it’s not a problem I have, it’s not something I was used to dealing with so I just kept changing my socks and putting paper tape and bandaids on the hot spots. I could have gone to the medic staff, but I didn’t have any free time up my belt. The line ups were long to get assistance and I didn’t have the time to wait or the time to be dealt with – that was time I could be sleeping or eating or moving. So I ignored every pain I had and just kept at it.
The sun came up eventually and it was very cloudy and foggy. As we got higher and higher, visibility decreased. Eventually we were onto the section that I expect is a nightmare in the dark. Boulders, rocky, no real trail – just searching for the marker in the fog, trying to keep balance on sharp rocks and sore feet.
It was so foggy that there was no way to see the riffugio we were heading to (Riffugio Coda at 2,224m). Once again, my watch told me we should have hit the riffugio kilometers ago, so I just looked at the altitude on my watch and knew when we got high enough, we’d be there. Suddenly, after what felt like hours of pining, it came out of the fog. I had no idea what was going on at this riffugio. It was cold – so I went inside but there wasn’t much in there. Actually there was nothing in there except a guy making soup. I went back outside – there was coffee. It was good coffee. But the food was revolting. There was one plate that had cheese, some spam looking stuff and the Nutella cake all mixed up. I’d relaxed my attitude to cheese but I didn’t want any spam with that.
I felt annoyed here – there was no communication whatsoever. I had to ask someone if they needed to record my race number. They didn’t reply. I didn’t know what was going on. I drank some more coffee and then left. The confusion for me was that some aid stations record your race number when you enter and when you leave, others just when you enter. Some didn’t seem to know what they were doing and with no common language (I don’t speak Italian), no one seemed to know what was going on.
I moved on and started the long undulating section to Riffugio della Barma. I hated this section. It was rocky at times, very uneven. Sometimes very cold, other times very humid. I couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t get a rhythm with my movements. We started descending – a descent that isn’t quite visible on the course profile and I hated it because I knew we’d have to climb back up to get to the riffugio. Once again, the aid station was so much further than was marked on the profile. I was losing a lot of time this day because I’d budget my time for 15km, but the distance would in fact be 20km. Just before the final climb to the riffugio, some locals had set up a make shift aid station and were dancing around in cut off jeans with champagne. Many of the runners – actually all of them that were within distance stopped to have a guzzle and a party. I wasn’t feeling it. I knew I was cutting into time I didn’t have. I asked for some water and they looked surprised. “No champagne??”
I started climbing and I knew I had to claw back some time. I’d left the Donna’s with time up my sleeve, but now I was only an hour ahead of cut offs. I can climb better than I can descend, so I started pushing it. It was hot and I pushed hard and I made the biggest mistake of my race – I pushed to a point that I couldn’t recover. I got to the riffugio and looked around me. I was teary eyed. I felt like I had gone deep into a place of suffering on that last climb that I didn’t know existed. I wanted this so bad and I had pushed so hard to try and keep it within reach. As I looked into the eyes of those around me, I knew they’d all been there too. We were all silent. Not a word was spoken. Bowls of pasta were handed out while we all contemplated how the fuck we were going to get to the next aid station?
I didn’t linger long. I guzzled some coke and pushed on but was called back by one of the volunteers. I had no idea what they were saying in Italian but then figured out they thought I took the wrong poles (you need to leave your hiking poles outside each riffugio). Mine were clearly labelled with my name so I pointed. They still seeemed confused but let me leave.
Things didn’t get better for me here. It was such rocky terrain and whilst I ran wherever I could, the rocky stuff slowed me down. I wasn’t making up any time, in fact I was losing it. I tried to strike up a conversation with an Italian guy that I knew spoke English, but he was too exhausted. There were a good eight runners around me at this stage but I couldn’t communicate with any of them, and I started to sink low. I wanted it to be over, but I thought of all the sacrifices I had made to get here. I thought of my mum who needed me but had selflessly supported me to be here. I thought of the hours of training and the impact they had had on my marriage. I thought of Matty, my coach, who had been messaging me throughout the race from home giving me direction, guidance and support. I couldn’t quit. I still had an hour up my sleeve. I wouldn’t quit, I couldn’t quit.
As the sun set on day four of my race, the mountains took on a new presence – they were giant shadows in the dimming light. I understood the name of the race, this really was a tour of the giants.
I could hear the cow bells as runners were coming into the aid station at Neil (officially 192km but my watch was reading 217km). It felt like a lifetime before I eventually saw it and crawled into the room, literally. I was on the floor. I couldn’t get up. I knew I just needed half hour to eat and rest and I’d come good. Everyone was bustling about me but no one seemed to take any note of me on the floor. Another runner came in and was handed some polenta. I asked for some – they all looked confused and had to find someone who spoke English. Eventually I was handed some polenta and a cup of coke and I sat there trying to calm myself, to focus. A man then came over to tell me I had to go now. That it was going to take five hours to get to the next aid station (Life Base 4: Gressoney 205km). I looked at my watch. I only had four hours. A beautiful woman said to me “If you feel it in your heart, you can go on, but you must feel it in your heart.” That was when I started to cry. Suddenly, everyone was surrounding me hugging me. Then someone asked me how old I was. I sobbed “34.” They looked confused. Vulnerability will do that for the complexion.
I said “it’s over.”
No! They wouldn’t let me quit. I lay down on the floor and the lovely lady in the photo above covered me in a blanket, but they wouldn’t let me quit. I had to wait until I timed out at that aid station before they cut my timing chip from my wrist. In the meantime, eight men came through and also said they were out as they also knew they wouldn’t make the cut off at the next aid station. No questions were asked. Timing chips removed and bowls of polenta handed out. The lovely lady in the photo above later said to me “you’re a woman, so I believed you could do it.” In a race with 900 or so entrants, only 100 or so that are women, you feel how much everyone wants you to succeed here.
Despite the love support and belief that I got from Niel, despite believing and knowing in my heart that if I just rested for half an hour I would recover and could finish, the reality was that I didn’t have half an hour. Time was not on my side and so, with pain in my heart, I knew my race was over.
When I reflect on this race, I know that the only reason I felt such pain and disappointment was because in that moment, I discovered what was really possible. Only those who risk going too far, see how far we can really go.
Whilst I didn’t get the results I wanted, I learned so much about myself. I learned that the limits we put on ourselves need to be tested to identify their truth.
A huge thank you to all my friends and family and my husband, who supported me in this dream. A goal like this has a huge impact on your non-running life so I appreciate that it wasn’t just me who made the sacrifices.
Thank you to my Australian TDG travellers Tamyka, Derek and Konrad for all the laughs. Thank you especially to Konrad for teaching me how to use my watch the night before the race!
Thank you to every volunteer, and every person during the race, especially May, Salvatore, Maria Rosa and Valeriano who showed me such kindness.
Thank you to Matty Abel, founder and head coach of DBA coaching. Your knowledge and support I will be forever grateful for.
A little while ago I was running late at night with a friend in the Dandenong Ranges. We were running together, not because either of us really wanted company, but because both of us were nervous to be out on the trails late at night alone.
Midway into that run, a fellow runner (male), ran past us in the opposite direction. He was on his own and he looked so happy. There was no nervousness about him. I was so envious of his freedom. The ability to run alone at night on the trails with no fear is not one I have, despite being a tuff-nut.
My fear is not unfounded. Many years ago, very early on in my running years, I went out for a jog. It was 40 something degrees in Adelaide and I was wearing short shorts and a tank top. I hated my body back then and only ran to lose weight so there was no ego in my outfit. It was simply a practical outfit for the conditions in which I found myself. A couple kilometres from home I was grabbed by a gang of men under the railway bridge near my house. It was obviously just for shits and giggles for them as I remember them all laughing. One of them sprayed me in something – spray paint or some shit they were probably sniffing under that bridge. I still don’t really know what it was. I got away and ran as fast as I could home. When I told my story to those I trusted I was told “Well you shouldn’t go out in those short shorts.”
Then there are all the times I have been flashed by men whilst out on an early morning run. Too many times to keep count.
I didn’t start running to be with people. I started running to get away from people and have some time to myself. I do enjoy company from time to time but for the most part, I like to be alone.
I am currently training for a race called Tor Des Geants. It is a very long run, non stop through the mountains. I will likely be running for five or six days with short 15-45 min naps thrown in for five to six days (if I manage to make the cut off points). So as you can probably imagine, running through the night is quite important for my training right now.
Tuesday night, I got home late. It was a big day at work and whilst I usually run at lunch time on my double work out days, I just ran out of time. I thought about hitting the trails but my gut instinct told me not too. The common theme on those shows like “I Survived” is always listening to your gut instinct. So I went out jogging, planning to keep to the main roads. Dull but safe, I thought.
As I jogged down Dorsett road, I was in quite a good mood. I was really enjoying how good my body felt on a night run. It had been fuelled well and my muscles were warm. I felt really good, until I saw the man about a km ahead of me who until that point I assumed was innocently walking home from Woolworths or the train station. He turned and looked back at me and then he moved into the bushes and waited for me. I could see his shoes from the bottom of the bush.
Now what I should have done was probably cross the road, or turn back and run in the opposite direction. But I didn’t. I told myself, “Tash if that man touches you or makes a move, you need to be prepared to kill him.”
I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous and irresponsible, but that was the thought I had in that moment. So I ran toward him and as I approached I glared at him in the bushes. He said “Hello.” I grunted something, slightly confused and I kept running.
Now this man could have just been a regular nut job – not intending me any harm, but he also could have been the guy that has abducted and raped a number of female joggers in the Boronia area over the last few years. How the fuck was I to know.
Fast forward to Wednesday night when I needed to do my midweek long trail run. I almost met up with a total stranger on the VUR page just to avoid running alone. But I put my big girl pants on and went out for the run I had planned. The first hour was fine, but then it got very dark as I plodded into a very remote area of the forest. With each wallaby and deer that moved, I grew more anxious.
The thing about long runs is they give you time to reflect. I started to think of that woman that was murdered in Princess Park. I was overseas when it happened and whilst I felt the rage that most of my friends felt, I was somewhat removed from the incident and the outrage at the time. Though it affected me in ways I hadn’t realised. I realised as I jogged along that I had always known a man might jump out of the bushes and try to show me something I didn’t want to see. He might grab me. He might hurt me. He might rape me. But now, I knew, that he might kill me. He might end my life. A man, an absolute shit poor excuse of a human being might be capable of not only ruining my run, causing me harm, but he could end my life.
I need to put this in perspective. Once, I was walking down Hindley Street as a 20 something year old on my way home from the pub. A guy pulled up in his car next to me and said something perverse. I went straight over to the car and through the open window punched him as hard as I could in the nose.
I am not a fearful creature, yet I fear this creature, the one who wants to cause harm to me and my people.
The thing is, this is not just causing harm to women. That man in the bushes on Friday night – he could have had a mental illness, one that wouldn’t cause him to rape or kill me and may have really needed some help, but I couldn’t risk offering it to him. He may have just been a lonely guy who just genuinely wanted to say hello, but I couldn’t risk talking to him.
I don’t know what the answer is here, I just know I’m fed up. I don’t want to run with someone all the time just to feel safe. I don’t want to not run at night on the odd chance I run into a rapist or murderer. But I don’t want to die at the hands of scum.
There are no photos to go with this blog. I questioned whether I wanted to blog at all – whether it was part of my new way (the old way). I do enjoy writing though and whilst it doesn’t really fit with the way I want to live right now, I’ve chosen to write and share regardless.
I did not take a single photo during UTA 2018, which for those who know me, is quite against my nature of recent years. I wanted to see those Blue Mountains with my eyes, feel them with my soul, not through a camera (or phone) lense. As the sun set over the Three Sisters, they’ve never looked more vivid.
I have closed my Facebook account, put Strava on private. This is all part of wanting my pre-internet heart and soul back. I used to be capable of doing great things (and terrible things) without the need for constant feedback, validation, approval, encouragement. I was rough around the edges and tough where and when it counted because I honestly and truely did not give a fuck what anyone thought of me. That was how I was raised and that is the way my heros continue to live. So in an effort to get a little bit more of myself back, I have disengaged. This blog is an exception, as is my instagram account which I am still wrestling with but won’t go into detail here as this is meant to be a race report, not an essay on why social media is making us weak and pathetic.
So to the start of the adventure that was UTA 2018. The wonderful Ross picked me up just before dawn on Thursday. We picked up the awesome Kevin and Baoping and off we headed toward Katoomba. 10 or so very funny hours later, we arrived in Katoomba. Ross dropped me off at the Hotel Gearin where I had “splurged” on a private room (in comparison to the previous years spent in various dormitories). I looked for the reception and then noted I had to check in at the front bar. An old drunk staggered toward me spilling his beer. He raised his eyebrows a few times and then greeted me with ‘hey shweet heart.’
“Have you got any other runners staying here?” I asked the guy behind the bar.
“Oh yeah, we’re completely booked out by runners.” Phew, I was with my own kind. It would be fine. I saluted old drunky and made my way to my room. A single bed, a heater and a sign warning me that on Friday and Saturday nights the hotel doubled as a live music venue but they supplied free ear plugs. Surely, given the hotel was booked out by runners, in fact the whole town was booked out by runners, this Friday might be an exception?
Fast forward to Friday night as I rechecked and packed my mandatory gear and the acoustic set began from below. That’s okay, I thought. No drums. I can handle that, I’ll just jam my ear plugs in and I’ll be fine.
Just as I got into bed ready for a full 6 hours sleep before needing to get up for the start of the race, the drums started up. The drummer had one beat and after two songs, I was ready to go and shove his drumstick somewhere unpleasant to teach him a lesson. Third song in, I was screaming internally, how could someone ride a single kick like that that with no regard? It was downright offensive. Then suddenly the alarm was going off and it was 4.30am. I must have slipped into a deep sleep midst rage.
I was wearing my VUR shirt but was in an arse of a mood until I got my double shot espresso at the start line. Apologies to anyone who may have tried to make eye contact with me and smile – I don’t make friends until caffeinated.
The lovely Celesta and Adrian were there and with hugs and laughs we wished each other well and it was time to line up in my start wave.
The first 46km of the race were really non eventful other than that I was in a delirious state of happiness where running felt effortless. Everything was pleasing me. I had chosen to listen to music on the open fire trails of the course, not because I need music, but because I had noted in training that I do tend to keep a slightly faster and more even pace when I listen to music. At 25km, Metallica’s Wherever I May Roam came on and I felt my face might crack I was smiling so hard. Even though I had put that song on my playlist it felt like such a pleasant surprise. Everything was just great.
At checkpoint three, I had decided to start practicing my “unsexy talents” which would involve eating while running rather than wasting any unnecessary time at checkpoints. I inhaled a Cliff bar as I exited the aid station and thought to myself that I must have eaten at least 500 Cliff bars over the years. I congratulated myself for being able to eat the same food day in day out over the years without being too precious about things like ‘flavour fatigue.’
This is the way of your people, I told myself.
Pop ate Polenta for 8 months straight during the war.
What’s another Cliff bar? You are so fucking tough. Good. On. YOU!
Well I think that might officially have been my last Cliff bar as I struggled with trying not to vom it up the remainder of the race. However, the fact I did not vom it up I think means I was successful at refining those “unsexy talents” required to run long races.
I’ll skip forward to the 50km point. I saw a first timer take a photo of the 50km sign and he said “so good to be on the other side of that!” I chuckled to myself as I knew well enough that that sign didn’t really mark half way. I think it merely marks the start of the real race as the first 50km really are very pleasant.
And from here, things became a struggle. As I ascended the stairs at the top of Nellies Glen I realised I was buggered. When I got to the top, I couldn’t run. My legs were completely smashed. But as ultra running goes, about ten minutes later, I was running and that fatigue was long forgotten, until it wasn’t. The roller coaster of fatigue and mania lasted all the way until the finish line. At times I would think I couldn’t possibly run another step. I hated the UTA and told myself I’d never do it again.
Fuck this race and fuck these stairs.
Then sudddenly I’d be screaming and laughing and fistpumping the air as I ran down the trail thinking
Wage War really are a great band, I don’t care that they’re 12 and the singer wears really bad shoes. This band is GREAT! These drums are great – no riding the single kick here! This run is GREAT! I fucking love this.
I had written down my time splits on my arm for easy reference and when I left checkpoint three, I was an hour ahead of my splits that would get me to a 17:50 finish. However from checkpoint three to four, I used that entire hour. From four to five, I just tried to hold my position but it was a real struggle.
Two highlights of the race both occurred around the Fairmont Resort – around the 69km mark.
I had been running for quite a while in the dark forest, when I exited onto the road that lead toward the Fairmont Resort. I was still at least a kilometre away from the resort and there were no other runners around. Out of nowhere, a guy in jeans holding a pack of cigarettes yells out to me. “Hey you! YOU! HEY! YOU!”
I looked toward him and suddenly he was running toward me. I grew up in Salisbury so I wasn’t bothered, I just thought he needed better manners. He started running along side me in his jeans and thongs and in between inhalations of his cigarette he said “I’ve run this race. The whole hungey k’s.”
“You’ve broken the ‘orses back you ‘ave. You ‘AVE!”
As crazy as he was, choofing away, I actually believed him.
Then when I got to the Fairmont, they had chips and lollies. I kind of wanted some but I knew I’d be sick if I tried to eat them. I took a handful but then didn’t know what to do with them.
“You’ve got a pocket in your hi vis vest” one of the volunteers volunteered.
“Fill your pockets!”
That was so awesome. A hi vis vest that doubles as a snack holder. A classy outfit for a classy lady.
I pushed on and came into checkpoint five on a high and I realised I could still make my time goal time if I just kept moving but it would be really tight. This checkpoint was a demonstration of my real true class – I skulled a can of coke, face planted a bag of chips, burped really loudly, thanked the volunteers – all within about two minutes.
In this section – the final 22km, my new Suunto Spartan Ultra went flat after 14 hours of use. Yes I should have changed the GPS setting, but not quite the battery life as advertised. I tried not to let it piss me off.
Why do you even care? You fucking hate Strava. You don’t need no validation. You are fucking badass. You hate technology. Run the fucking miles and who gives a fuck if your watch works?
Oh but I do give a fuck if my head torch is flat!
I pulled out my backup light and cursed myself for being cheap and buying Coles brand batteries for the back up light as now it was my only light and I knew I had at least three hours to get to the finish. I just hoped it would last.
The final 5km is quite runnable – other than those bloody stairs, but with my very average back up light to guide the way, I kept tripping and I gave myself the excuse to power walk it.
Then old mate came jogging up behind me and asked me what my time goal was. I said that I thought I’d missed it. That I was hoping for sub 18 hours but that ship had passed. I didn’t have a watch so I wasn’t really sure, but I felt pretty sure I was done on that one but that I could still aim for my goal number two which was to beat my previous personal best on the UTA course of 18:25. Old mate said “What the hell are you talking about giving in like that? You’ve got 41 minutes to do 4km!” I said “Yeah but those staiiiiiiiiiiirs!” He said something like shut up and start moving! (I don’t think he said it that bluntly but I heard his message – and I needed his light!) So I got hustling and stopped making excuses and started running.
When I got to the stairs I checked my phone. I had 26 minutes to get under 18 hours. Last time I ran this race it had taken me 30 minutes to get up the stairs.
What are you saving yourself for now Tash? Fucking MOVE girly!
I crossed the finish line at 1:01am and it took me a few moments to calculate my finish time. I’d done it – I’d got in in under 18 hours. 17:55. I burst into tears. I haven’t done that since my first half marathon, but I’d really pushed hard. I was really fucking proud of myself. I felt badass.
I dedicate this race finish to the ultimate badass, Uncle Joe (my pop’s brother who was tough as nails and loved the F bomb – and for this reason, I leave my race report unedited, F bombs and all). RIP.
The last few weeks have been stressful for all the wrong reasons. Work pressures, long hours at the desk, trying to get my brain to absorb that one extra piece of information. The only way to balance this way of life is to head to the mountains.
I left work at 3pm thinking I would get to Harrietville around 7.30pm. Melbourne traffic! Close to 9pm I arrived at Harrietville. Set up my tent, rechecked all my mandatory gear and fell into a deep sleep with the sound of the river and the light rain slowly washing away the dust storm of tax laws still trying to spin in my brain.
Alarm went off at 4:55 and I just wanted to stay where I was. It was the best sleep I’d had in around three weeks, but no time. Needed to get dressed, organised and pack the tent and car all before the 5:45am briefing – and still needed to pick up my race bib as Melbourne traffic meant I missed the check in and full briefing the night before.
Cold drip coffee in the system, gear check completed, race number attached. Ready to go.
Running Wild events are so unpretentious – almost everyone I adore in the running scene pops up at them from time to time and I was so happy to see Babi, Clare and Vanessa.
As I chatted to Babi at the start line I suspected something wasn’t right with my head torch. I had packed two extra sets of batteries so I very quickly changed them. Then the thing snapped off the headband. As the count down to the start was progressing, I fumbled and quickly managed to get it in place and we were off.
We started jogging up to the start of Bungalow Track. I have been running up this track to the summit monthly throughout Summer and my coach Matty Abel, has been challenging my own thoughts and perceptions of what is a runnable versus hikeable climb. I knew from my last run up here that I could run way more of this first ascent than I did the previous year and though the plan was to keep it easy for the first 20km, I suspected I would still make up a bit of time from the last year.
Within the first 100m up the track, I realised my head torch was completely fucked. The light was so dull that I could barely see where I was going and the bright lights from the competitors running behind me was actually making it worse. Every time I ran, I tripped as the shadows were jumping out at me and I couldn’t distinguish them from the tree roots. So I stood to the side of the trail, let everyone pass and then reminded myself that I knew this trail. I couldn’t run it with my shitty dim light but I could power hike it. My eyes adjusted once all the other competitor’s bright lights sped off in the distance and I vowed to keep the last woman within dim eyesight (the glow of her head torch helped here). And I just hiked and longed for daylight. When the sun rose, I realised I was only on the tail end of all the competitors I had let pass me. No one was more than a few hundred metres ahead of me. I was about half way up the mountain at this stage and whilst I tried to jog a few sections, I’d gotten a bit lazy and for the most part just kept the power hike up. When I got to the hut, I suspected that was my fastest time up there, but I didn’t have time to savour the moment. I had to keep going to the summit.
Now the sun was beaming in my face and I couldn’t see a bloody thing. Oh the irony.
Whilst some people may go out to pubs or nightclubs to socialise, it is on the summit that most of the socialising is done by ultra-runners. I totally forgot I was even racing as I stopped to chat to all my friends and bask in the glow of the sunrise over the mountains. There was no where else in the world I would have rather been.
Off the summit and along the Razorback to Diamantina Hut. Here is where I left all the F bombs of the day. The altitude in this section triggered my asthma and I could barely breathe. I also kept tripping over my feet. Having a very sore right side after face planting on Friday, I wasn’t keen to smash myself up again. Yet I kept tripping over and over. And then I saw a snake. He just slithered onto the trail, looked right at me, stuck his tongue out a few times and then slowly slithered away. It was quite mesmerising to just stop and watch him for a moment. I was pretty happy after that.
Stopped at the hut to fill up on water and have a laugh with more friends. Thank you James for hugging me in my sweaty disguisting state. Some more puffs of the ventolin and then off for the long descent down Bon Accord. I remembered the fear I had the year earlier running down Bon Accord as it was so overgrown and I suspected every sound was a snake. Having just seen a snake, I was ready to suspect every twig and stick of something more sinister.
My asthma was pretty out of control at this point and I did wonder if I should turn back to the hut and pull out. I’ve only DNF’d once in my life and so I wasn’t taking this decision lightly. I thought it through and considered whether this was something I could manage or whether it had the potential to be life threatening. I suspected that as I moved to lower ground and away from the grasses on the high plains that the asthma would improve and thank goodness I was right. Within the first km of descending, it went away. Maybe it was just that my brain was preoccupied with snakes at this stage and breathing became less important.
I am very scared of descending on technical trail. Mostly because I am a clutz. The fear of falling is very real – I have all the scars and scabs on my knees to prove this. That said, the instruction from my coach was to push the last half and I had to stop making excuses. So I just did my best. Eventually we got to a less scary decline and I could run properly again – though I did spot another two snakes in this section which caused my run to look more like a high knee Bambi canter.
Shortly before Washington Creek, I passed a woman I had been running just behind most of the day. I asked her how she was. She said “terrible.” I was shocked. I was so surprised that anyone could be feeling less than 100% amazing. It was getting very hot at this stage which I suspect triggers a bit of my mania and I was having the time of my life.
I ran on, through Washington Creek and finally, after years of training up here, understood why people say this is a nice runnable section to the finish. I’ve always been too buggered to enjoy this section but today – oh it was just dreamy. I was having the time of my life and I kept thinking “there is no place I’d rather be.”
Last year, I ran the Razorback in the 8 hours and 22 minutes that I left my nanna’s bedside while she was dying of pancreatic cancer. I had spent almost every moment that I could with her from the day that we suspected something wasn’t quite right. I had taken the day to go gather some strength for myself so that I could be there for her when things turned really bad. And they did. She passed away within weeks from the race.
I remembered running this section of the race last year. I was very alone on this section, being one of the last finishers, and I had allowed myself to scream and cry the whole way to the finish line.
I also remembered that when I returned to my nanna’s bedside post race, she wanted to see my photos of the mountains. She had the same spirit as me – it was nourished by nature.
The day she was diagnosed with cancer, she said she didn’t mind that she was dying but she would like to go out to a lake and go fishing before that happened, to visit the valleys one more time that had filled her soul with joy. Unfortunately she was never strong enough for that to happen.
So my message is, remember how lucky we are to do the things we do. Yes it might get hot, yes it might be a bit tiring. You might be scared by things like snakes, heights, face planting, but doing these things is such a privilege.
Thank you Paul Ashton for giving us the privilege to run in these beautiful places.
P.S – I finished the race in 7:26. 56 minutes faster than last year.
Yesterday I finished my forth Two Bays 56km trail run. My first ultra-marathon was Two Bays back in 2013 so this race has a special place in my heart. It’s also just a bloody fantastic event. The entry fee won’t send you broke, the volunteers are outstanding – you are taken care of, supported and looked after like a queen and the trails are just beautiful.
The race starts from Cape Schanck. You run 28km along the trails to Dromana, ring a big bloody bell and then run all the way back.
I got to the race start at 6am as I had to pick up my race bib. I had made a thermos of coffee but I couldn’t stomach it. I was feeling a little queasy. I wondered if it were just nerves. It had been a while since I’d entered a race like this.
The weather was cool and wet. I wasn’t impressed. I feel the cold dreadfully and whilst it certainly wasn’t freezing, by my standards it was. Part of the appeal of this race for me is the hot and dry conditions we normally race in. It didn’t feel like Two Bays.
We all miled about the start line and there was so much chatter. I was feeling very sensitive and the chatter was making me feel insane. It was coming at me from all directions in such a fast rhythm that I felt overwhelmed.
Then we were off running, I tried to go as slow as I possibly could go. I was thinking of a blog post my running coach Matty Abel had written a while back – something about challenging yourself to go slower than you normally would at the start of a race. I normally bolt out the gates at Two Bays, but this year I let everyone go ahead. I had my heart rate monitor on and I wanted to keep my heart rate fairly low for at least the first 5km.
Two guys started jogging behind me and one wouldn’t shut the fuck up. He was talking really loudly, going from one heroic story to another. I’m being a total bitch here, but there was just so much sound going on at the start of this race that I wondered why I race. It was really affecting me. I thought about running faster just to get away from this dude, but lucky his ego kicked in and he overtook me and I didn’t have to hear him for the rest of the race.
You might be thinking right now that I sounded pretty cranky. I wouldn’t say I felt cranky, but I felt hypersensitive and I just wished everyone would shut up. I wanted to hear the hum of the ocean as we traversed along the cliff tops, not the sound of people.
I wasn’t in the mood to chat to anyone so I didn’t, until suddenly I realised I was frowning. I stopped myself and my face felt lighter, my body felt lighter. I felt new.
I realised I was running very well. I felt really strong and was able to run most of the hills still keeping my heart rate in a conservative zone. I wondered whether it was worth pushing for a PB, but I had to remind myself I hadn’t had the best lead up to this race. I returned from Argentina at the end of November, started training in December and then developed acute bursitis in my heel and so couldn’t run hills or do any speed work in the weeks prior to Two Bays. I felt strong but I didn’t have much speed in the legs. So I focused on the first goal which was to get to the half way point before cut off.
I had thought the cut off was 3.30 at the 28km mark, but it was actually 3.45. Lucky as I got in at 3.28. That was the exact time I got in to the checkpoint the year I got my PB, except this year I had run as easy I possibly could (whilst still mindful of cut off times) to get here. I had so much in the tank. Still, let’s not get reckless.
So I just continued on, putting one foot in front of the other. This was when I really started to enjoy myself. I no longer had to be mindful of the cut off times – I was doing fine, so I just tried to make sure I looked up from time to time and enjoyed the scenery.
I started talking to other runners at this point to and met some awesome new people – this is the spirit of Two Bays – its exceptional volunteers and the friendships that are made on the trail.
The last 6km of Two Bays are always when the wheels fall off for me. I’ve cried myself to the finish line many times. I find every excuse to walk. This year I challenged myself to find every excuse to run. Taking the first half of the course conservatively really paid off as I had a lot of energy and I just started running as strong as I could. I was overtaking people instead of being overtaken. I was even energetic enough to yell out words of encouragement.
I came through the finish line in 7.29. Five minutes slower than my PB, but six and seven minutes faster than my previous two runs at Two Bays. I felt ecstatic. After the long year of ups and downs that was 2017, it felt good to be back, to have had a good race and to have finished strong.
At the end a lovely volunteer held out a bunch of drinks and snacks to me. I sat in a chair unable to speak and just pointed at the banana. It took me another hour before I could eat the banana. I’d done my best and I was pleased that I was too tired to speak or chew.
A summary of the day’s highlights:
– Seeing Kate at the half way mark and then again at the finish in her crazy green shoes, ringing that cow bell like no body’s business. I met Kate at Two Bays a few years ago when I was face down in the dirt and she had to step over me in order to get to the finish – “trail kill”. That’s what this race is about – repeat offenders – you come back time and time again whether it’s to race, volunteer or encourage.
– Stopping at the porta-loo which I don’t normally do (I’ll usually hold on till I get a kidney infection) and seeing that someone had left Donald Trump toilet paper behind. That was totally worth stopping for a few minutes and missing a PB.
– Ashley Bennet giving his podium prize to the woman who came in last just before the cut off. If I wasn’t so dehydrated and could afford the tears I would have cried. We all know that it’s the person who is out there the longest that has the toughest job. I don’t know Ash that well but he became a gold class human being to me after seeing him do that yesterday – he was also the nicest person in the elite field still managing a few words of encouragement and a smile to those of us who were plodding along at the back while he was tearing up the front (the front runners will pass most of the field as us plodders head into the half way checkpoint as it’s and out and back course).
– Eating the value of my entry fee in V-Fuel gels and sports drink. I don’t normally use electrolytes but I had a massive headache yesterday and battled with nausea all day. After the half way point I started drinking the V-Fuel electrolyte drink offered at the aid stations and my headache went and it did seem to help my nausea. As someone with fructose malabsorption, I don’t usually get the luxury of eating the food offered at aid stations. I hadn’t tried V-Fuel prior to the race but knew it was fructose free so I took a gamble and gave it a shot and I was really impressed. I felt like I had a really consistent energy buzz from the gels, they seemed to help my nausea rather than contribute to it and the flavours were pretty nice too.
Things I didn’t love so much:
– Having the same song, same riff stuck in my head for 7 hours and 29 minutes. I chose not to listen to music this race, but my brain got stuck on the opening riff of a song I heard a band play a few weeks ago. It just played on repeat in my brain the entire run. I now can’t stand that song.
Where do I begin?
Many of you know the lead up to Patagonia for me was quite uncertain. The week I was set to start my block of training for Patagonia, I tore my gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles). It turned out worse than anticipated and three weeks post tear I was still on crutches. I couldn’t get a straight answer from the physio as to whether this race was likely to go ahead for me or not. Six weeks post injury and I still couldn’t do a single calf raise and I was still walking with a heavy limp.
I looked into cancelling everything as it looked futile but I’d be at least $4k out of pocket. With all my medical bills following the calf tear, the credit card had already taken a beating. I was really stressed and unsure what to do.
Then I went to see Ainslie Bryce, myotherapist. She wanted to dry needle my calf. I was unsure – the physio hadn’t recommended this, but what did I have to lose? The next day, I did six calf raises. The page had been turned.
I went to see my osteopath Brendan O’Loughlin at Melbourne Osteopathy Sports and Injury Centre. I was an emotional wreck. He had a different view to my rehab than the physio and said he could take over from here if I trusted him. I did. Two weeks later, I was running. That left me with five weeks to train after roughly 10 weeks of zero running and minimal walking.
Matty Abel, founder and head couch of DBA runners took over from this point and managed to ease me back into running, avoid reinjury and have me feeling as confident as could be to tackle 250km in Patagonia.
Day zero: race check in.
I had thought my pack would weigh in at 8-9kg without water. That was what I had trained for (though seriously, two weeks of training with a pack!). 10.2kg she came in at. I then went back to my room and added my phone and emergency snacks. Add the 1.5kg of mandatory water and she was sitting at around 12kg +.
We departed the hotel having eaten so much food (last super) and as a nice little treat, had to white water raft to our first campsite.
Meetings and greetings to tent mates – the same tent mates you share your tent with all week. Thank God everyone in tent 15 was legendary.
We were off – running in the wrong direction, back on course and I realised my breathing was incredibly laboured. It could be the altitude? Could be the 12kg pack pushing and pulling on my diaphram? Could be I’m unfit?! Ah yes! Remember Tash, you haven’t run further than 22km since your 100 miler in May 😂😂😂😂 That definitely could be it.
Despite the difficulty in breathing I was having the best time. It was far hotter than I’d expected. Almost desert like with the dusty terrain. The first day was 42km with 1200m of climbing and I loved every second of it. I had no idea how I was placing, I was just there to run my own race. So I was incredibly shocked when I finished the day after 6 hours and 37 minutes of running, to discover I was the first competitor back to my tent.
I picked a comfy spot, had a wet wipe bath and started eating. I viewed the entire week as an eating competition with some running thrown in. Plus it was the only way my pack was going to get lighter.
Day 2 and 3 morph into a similar memory for me. It was hot, very runnable. A few climbs but I really enjoyed them. I hiked with purpose and as soon as the course was runnable again, I shifted gears. We were at a lower altitude and my breathing had returned to normal. I remembered the countless hours I spent on the assault bike at CrossFit Bayswater whilst I was too injured to walk. I would mimic hill training with my heart rate on the bike. It seemed to have worked as my engine was doing fine.
Day 4 was the day we had all been dreading. Into the mountains so the weather had shifted from hot and dry to wet, cold and windy. It was meant to be a 44km day with copious water crossings and incredibly steep descents. However late on the night of day 3 we got a little knock at the tent. The hot weather from the earlier days had caused the snow to melt and the rivers to rise to a level that wasn’t safe. The course would be altered to a 30km out and back- up and down the mountain. No one in the tent was sad for those lost miles.
I loved day 4. We had magnificent views the entire way, one deep river crossing which I thought was refreshing and because of the out and back format, we got to high five runners and walkers that we would have otherwise not seen. I’d heard the Koreans were running with full cabbages in their packs (no freeze dried rubbish for them) and when I passed them dancing, I seriously contemplated joining them for the long day.
After Day 4, we had a three hour bus ride to the next camp. I didn’t enjoy this. Stinking in the great outdoors is fine, but once cooped up in the bus, I got very agitated. My shoes were wet and I spent the entire bus ride freezing. The only time I wasn’t overjoyed but it had to be and I had to roll with it.
It rained all night so we all started day 5, the long march, with damp shoes. The course had been shortened to 74km for safety reasons (a flow on effect from having to alter day 4). I had a goal of finishing between 14 and 16 hours as parts of the course were technical and there was 2000m of climbing (all within a particular section of the course).
It rained all day.
When I got to the top of the mountain I started to get cold. I thought of my running friends Celesta and Kerry back home and how much they would love this. Suddenly I visualised Celesta yelling at me to put my windproof waterproof jacket on. Just in time as my teeth were chattering. I tried to run to keep warm but it was difficult with so much mud and so many water crossings.
It was around this point I met my Polish friend. We didn’t exchange words, but every water crossing he would leave one of his hiking poles at the start for me and wait at the other end with his hand outstretched for me. 14 water crossings later, we didn’t know each other’s names, but I knew he had heart.
After the water crossings, we separated.
Checkpoint 4 was the official rest/hot water point. It was cold and miserable and I was beckoned in with the lure of hot chocolate. No thank you. I didn’t even peak inside that checkpoint. I needed to keep moving, so I had my water filled up, number checked off and kept running.
I later heard some competitors spent 45 minutes plus at that checkpoint. To each their own. I know that also gave many competitors a significant morale boost but I really didn’t need it. I just needed to keep moving.
Shortly after this point the wind picked up and it started to snow. I realised that if I just kept moving, I’d make it back before sunset. I was way ahead of my goal time. So I embraced the elements and I pushed as hard as I could.
One km from the finish line, Mei, a Japanese competitor caught me. She said “We’ve seen each other a lot today. Let’s do this together.” We hadn’t run together but instead had spent the day passing one another – playing tag team with our individual strengths.
She grabbed my hand and we ran the last section together crossing the finish line hand in hand. We hugged, she cried and I said “what’s your name?”
One by one, our tent filled up – each of us with our own story of the day, all of us shivering so cold but also very aware of the walkers who were still out braving the cold without the protection of sleeping bags and tents.
Day 6 is a rest day. We slept and ate most of the day. I had learned my lesson from Atacama and had a few snacks saved to pass the time.
Day 7 – the final stretch. We woke at 4.15am for a 5.30 start. A short 7km uphill to the finish. As the sun rose and the snowy mountains appeared before us, I didn’t want to race anymore. I took my time. I wanted to savour every last moment. I didn’t want it to end.
Before heading to the race, my friend Kate had given my an angel that I had pinned to my backpack for protection. She said it was to symbolise my nanna. Kate didn’t know but my nanna always called me her angel – and now, we’ll I guess she’s my angel.
Bob Leighty, my friend and Erin’s dad hand me my finishing medal.
There we were at the Black Glacier, having pizza and beer for breakfast, wearing wet stinky clothes and feeling a million bucks.
Some after thoughts on gear, food and training.
I didn’t use electrolytes this race. 100% happy with that decision. Zero puffiness that I often get when using Tailwind.
I used the 35L Ultimate Direction pack. The pockets are ridiculous. They’re not symmetrical and so I would not recommend this pack for that reason, particularly if you like to have two drink bottles on the go.
I used Craft Glue from Spotlight to glue on my mandatory patches because I was too lazy to sew. Don’t do this. I missed my friend’s hens night the night before I flew out when the glue came undone and I had to go looking for needle and thread (sorry Beth!). The rain also seemed to have an effect on the glue which was really quite gross on day 5. I also lost the patches off my rain jacket and stressed the entire race I wouldn’t be allowed to wear it. Silk screen your waterproof jacket and sew on shirts.
Altra shoes are seriously amazing. No blisters, no black toe nails. I used Steigen and merino socks but I’ve had the same good luck in Injinji and Dry Max socks. The shoes plus any good brand of running socks seems to be a winner.
I ate the same food I’ve eaten for every multiday race and I ate the same meal day in day out. Rice, TVP and veggies. My pop had to eat polenta for 8 months straight when he was stranded in Austria trying to escape the war. We’re so soft and precious when it comes to food these days. I know people like to have variety and things to look forward to. I actually enjoyed the monotony. I felt like a tuff nut eating rice day in day out.
Get good at hiking. You have to walk before you can run. During longer endurance events like multi day races and 100 milers, hiking skills are a must. You need to be able to hike strong and transition from running to hiking to running with ease.
Strength train! Months and months of upper body weights whilst my legs weren’t working meant that 12kg pack didn’t even cause me a second thought.
Don’t get hung up on injuries. They happen and if you let it, the body will heal – but you have to give it time. I got really lucky with this race, but I have learned there are far worse things that could be happening in your life than a running injury. Be grateful for your life and if you can’t run for some reason – do something else amazing with your time and be grateful for that. The key to happiness after all is gratitude. Peace.