Alpine Challenge 100km 2016
Alarm was set for 3.15am. This is early, even for me. Restless with a deep paranoia that I wouldn’t wake up in time for the start of the race, I slept very little. Two espressos later, adding last minute items to my running pack, I shake it with a caffeinated excitement and I hear an odd sound. I shake the pack again with curiosity only to realise a moment too late that that curious sound is the straps of my running pack tearing.
Hmmmm…..It’s now 4:00am. Race start is 4:30am and I still need to pick up a last minute item of mandatory gear from a friend at 4:15. Unusually, I don’t sweat it. I post on Facebook a last minute plea but it’s really just for amusement. It’s too late now for any real help to arrive.
I remember the gaffa tape in my car, still in the glove box from a month ago when my car got broken into and I taped it back together so I could go to Bright and run 4 Peaks. Hmmmm…..I remember the time my dad crashed his motor bike on a ride from Adelaide to Philip Island taking the scenic route along the Great Ocean Road. Unusually, he didn’t sweat it. He gaffa taped his bike back together and rode on. If it can’t be fixed with gaffa, it can’t be fixed.
I tape my bag together and am feeling confident it will last my predicted 24 hours out on the course. No one else seems convinced. Friends offer me last minute efforts of help – it seems there is an empty pack laying in almost every hotel room in Falls Creek, just waiting for me. Olivia even offers to hike a pack in for me on the course. For some reason, I can’t accept this help. I smile with sure confidence.
Time is moving quickly and before I know it, we are off. The first 5km follows Packhorse Trail. It feels like I’m just flowing down, gently, in the dark, guided by the light of my torch. I’m afraid of the cold. I run most Summer days in pants and a thermal. The weather predicted a pleasant day along the course, but the cold Falls Creek morning has me rugged up in a long sleeve, a thermal and a wind proof jacket. Over kill, even for me. At the trail junction – I take off all my layers. What the fuck was I thinking? As I stuff my layers in my pack the zip breaks. I keep this to myself. I fiddle with it enough so that I think most of my gear won’t fall out. As I’m fiddling with my pack on the side of the trail, 90 % of the field passes me. I’m not too worried but as I start to run, the padding of my additional layers removed, the pack starts to swing.
The holes in the straps mean it’s hanging too low and has no support. It’s grinding on my back and I feel chunks of skin being worn away…all in the first 10km of a 100km race. I’m getting frustrated and I know I can’t fix the pack now but I can fix my head. I have to let go what I can not control. Yes my back is going to be red raw at the end of this race but I’ll be in so much pain by the time I get to the finish line that will be the least of my worries. I think of what I’ve gone through to get to the start line. I am not going to let this pack bring me down. I develop a new strategy. The pack won’t break if I stay happy. If I get frustrated or sad, the pack will break and my race will be over. It’s time to get happy!
I take the first climb incredibly conservatively and at this point the remaining 10% of the field overtake me. I suspect I’m at the back end of the pack but I get a little shock when the sweeper catches me and tells me I’m dead last. I think about giving it in at that point. I’m a couple kms away from Warby Corner and I know I can be back at my hotel room in just over an hour. If I run back that’ll be enough of a jog to justify a pizza and a long soak in the hot tub. Then I think of what I’d say to Matty my coach. I quit the race cause I wanted pizza? Because I was coming last? Because I was slow? I don’t even like Pizza! Such BULL SHIT! They were all bullshit excuses and there was no way I could use any of them. So I strolled on into Warby Corner, the first check in point of the race. A few other runners were there with their crew. I had no crew so I sorted my nutrition out, said good bye to Barry who was sweeper for the first 25km of the course and got shuffling with the goal of not meeting the next sweeper.
Shuffling out of Warby Corner I got happy and I pretty much stayed happy until 85km into the race. I met some new friends, I drank water from the river, I climbed some mountains and ate some snacks. Oh and I didn’t meet any more sweepers! It was all pretty joyful.
Going into this race, the part I was nervous about was Quartz Ridge. It’s a rocky trail descending off Mount Bogong and is quite exposed. I get vertigo in high open spaces. I feel like the world is slipping out from under me and need to climb with my hands touching the earth. I suspected this might occur at some point during this race. I chose this race for that very reason. I wanted to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There were a few shady moments where my heart beat loud in my chest, but I was generally okay. I didn’t freak out. I moved slowly and carefully, but I was okay.
As I made my way down this trail I thought of my friend Vanessa who ran the 100 miler a few years ago. I was thinking of her standing at Langfords Gap – around the 85km mark of the race I think it was that year. She was standing beside her husband, after she had just patched up her blistered feet and was ready to tackle the night knowing she had a whole night and possibly a whole day of running ahead of her. I said to her, “you look so happy,” and she said “I am!” She looked radiant and it’s an image I never forgot. I was thinking how much her feet must have hurt at that point in the race yet she was so happy to continue. I tried to channel some of her mountain spirit and then I felt my phone vibrate. Who could that be? It was Vanessa! We spoke as I hurdled down Quartz Ridge, up and over up and over up and over the tree cemetery. My courageous friend. I knew if I could channel just 1% of her strength of character and her spirit I would finish this race happy and how could I not after her thoughtful phone call? I’ve never spoken on my phone during a race. This was a joyful first.
I was already running happy, but after Vanessa’s phone call I was running with love. I was familiar with the course and each time I thought a particular climb or particular section of lonely trail might bring me down, it didn’t.
I had another incentive to run happy. I knew my best friend had driven up to Falls Creek during the day and would be waiting for my at Langford’s Gap, the 70km point of the race this year. She’s not an ultra runner and we all know as ultra runners, ultra running isn’t much of a spectator sport. I was feeling blessed and grateful as I cruised into Langford’s. To add bliss to my bliss out, the sun was setting over the mountains, the sky was pink and there was my friend. I knew I smelt bad. The day had turned out to be quite warm and I had run through rivers and sweat out the day in a clammy damp shirt, and yet my wonderful friend hugged me. That is a true friend.
Langford’s was the first and only opportunity to change out of my wet shoes and socks that I had run in all day. The feeling of brand new dry Injinji’s brought me to pure ecstasy. I lingered a little too long at Langford’s chatting to old and new friends, having a snack, putting on warm dry clothes. Eventually it was time to leave and I knew I had 15km to Pole 333. No more mountains to climb – this should be easy. But it wasn’t. Daylight had left and the fog set in, I couldn’t see more than half a metre in front of me. The trail was easy enough to follow from here to Pole 333 but my head was playing tricks in the poor visibility. About 5km out from Pole 333 I started to get down. The trail was really wet and I was spending a lot of time rock hoping to keep my feet dry from the big pools of melted snow. It was a time consuming task and I was over it.
I got to Pole 333 and couldn’t make out the direction I needed to follow. I asked Clare from Alpine Search and Rescue the way and I was terrified she was trying to send me down the 100 miler course. I’m sorry Clare!
From Pole 333 I knew I had 15km to the finish, but my head. After Pole 333 the 100 milers go in one direction and the 100km runners in another. Most of the lights in the dark were following the 100 miler course and I felt so alone. I should have felt happy I only had 15km to go instead of 80 or whatever absurd distance they had, but I couldn’t get myself out of my slump. I had no niggles or injuries, but my feet hurt more than they’ve ever hurt before. I struggled to run and my shuffle was probably no faster than a walk. As I jogged into Pretty Valley Pondage my head torch went black – no warning. I channeled Satan and screamed “FUCKKKKKK!” to the black sky like it was 2010 and I was back singing in a metal band. Then I realised there was a volunteer standing a few hundred metres in front of me. I apologised profusely and he was such a gentleman. My hands were so cold by this stage I couldn’t manage to undo my pack and get my spare torch battery out. I had to ask for his help, something I don’t do well. He was so kind. Thank you kind volunteer man.
Then there was Mount McKay. It’s an out and back to the summit and as I “jogged” up a woman and a guy who was crewing for her were jogging back down. He said to me “Are you sure there isn’t ANYTHING I can do for you? Is there ANYTHING you need?” I realised then that I must have looked like complete shit. I said “just the finish line thanks, that’s all I need” and continued on with my shuffle.
THEN, I saw a man walking in front of me. I thought why hasn’t he got a torch and where is his running pack? He’s not a runner, he’s a creep! What’s he doing out here with no torch at midnight? Creepy creepy! Feminista of The Night, I tried to catch him and then suddenly he disappeared. He wasn’t real. Uh oh.
As I pranced about in the bush following the “green sopped poles” after Mount McKay I felt so disorientated. I had to keep checking PDF maps as I was convinced I was going backward, but then I hit the dirt road. Then the sign saying I had 2km to go to the finish. I tried to run with everything I had, which wasn’t much given I coudn’t keep any calories down from Pole 333 which seemed like an eternity ago at this point. 900m down down down. My poor feet! Finally, the finish. 22:03.
Through most of this race I thought to myself I’ll never ever run the 100 miler. That was easily the hardest 100km race I’ve ever run. It had everything that terrified me – mountains, heights, navigation, extreme weather, isolation. It also had everything that made my heart sing – mountains, heights, navigation, extreme weather, isolation. It’s the fear and the challenge that make it all worthwhile – that make running for 22 hours out in the mountains the most exciting thing I can possibly think of doing.
And so, a week has passed. My feet now fit back into shoes. The hole of gapping skin on my back from my broken running pack has mostly healed. And I feel myself wondering – what else is out there that scares the absolute shit out of me? That is worth all the sacrifice just to conquer? There’s always the 100 miler 🙂
The race was one thing but there is so much preparation that goes into a race. I was born in one of the flattest, driest, hottest suburb in Australia and mountains and the cold are not something I take for granted. I ran in the mountains for the very first time only two years ago and nearly died. A few weeks later I crewed for my friends who were running Alpine Challenge that year – so I could learn. I spent the following two years taking every opportunity to train in the mountains with my wonderful friends Kerry, Celesta and Jacqui who taught me so much.
I am no champion. I don’t win races or come close to the front of the pack, but what I do means something to me. I pick challenging races and I work through my fears. These experiences teach me to value and respect myself and teach to me to fight and survive in real life when times get tough. Most of all, they bring me love – for the planet, for its people and for myself.
I want to dedicate some of the love I earned in this race to all my friends, but some special love, respect and hope for my dear friends Vanessa and Kerry.