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.
I am genuinely supportive of other people achieving their goals. In fact I will be as happy for you achieving your goals as if I achieved them myself.
I am however, one of the most secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) competitive people you’ll ever meet. I won every academic award at High School and chose my profession, not because it was what I had always wanted to do, but because it simply had the highest university entry score – it was something to strive for.
Last year of law school and I was running on the treadmill at the gym with a fellow student who had already gotten a job – a student who I knew had better grades than me (which of course killed me). She didn’t know we were racing. I kept pushing up the speed on the treadmill with every turn in the conversation. She told me she had just gotten a job. When I found out where – I applied for a job too. Just to see whether I was a competitive candidate. I was.
When I started playing drums, I wanted to be the best. First I wanted to be the best female metal drummer, but there weren’t many women playing metal drums then. So I tried to take on the boys. I gaffa tapped rubber to the walls of my bedroom so I could practice my double kick all night while normal people were sleeping.
One day, I made all the drummers in the rehearsal studio run a race around the block. I have no idea why – and I can’t believe they agreed to do it. I was so pissed when a long legged dope smoking dude beat me.
So now that recovery and rehab is my game, being the best is my priority. I want to win at this. The problem with an injury as severe as this and as slow healing as this is that it’s hard to know if your progress is good or bad. Each week I make small progress, but is that enough to be the best at this game?
Last night I saw my physio for my weekly visit and I asked him frankly. Turns out, I am not the best at recovery. I am not winning this game. Initially he predicted 6-8 weeks recovery time. I’m now looking at 10-12.
Patagonia is no longer a certainty. If I can start the race, I won’t be starting as a runner. I have run out of time to be a runner. My best case scenario is that I walk and shuffle. I won’t know for sure until 4 weeks whether I will be well enough to do that.
I have been creatively visualising this race for over six months now. I envisaged myself running strong and coming into camp early. Maybe even taking an age category award. This has to change now – my best case scenario is that I will be walking which means I will be coming into camp late each day – I may be the last person to arrive. Not such a competitive outcome for a competitive person and I think I’m okay with that.
If the choice is walking, struggling, coming last, but finishing a one off opportunity to cross 250km across Patagonia – well that sounds a whole lot better than sitting in a hotel room feeling sorry for myself.
Photo of me “competing” in the 4 deserts 250km race across the Atacama Desert
It has been 28 days since I’ve done squats. I remember those paused front squats with joy in my heart. 28 days ago, at the end of the Olympic lifting class, 5 x 3 front squats with a 3 second pause at the bottom. Ah good times.
I regretted those front squats at the 13km mark of the half marathon the next day, but oh in hindsight how I’m glad I did them. Fond memories.
Each day since I have been injured I look down at my thighs in fear and worry they are getting smaller. I sit down so I can see them at their biggest. Surely they wouldn’t shrink in a day, a week, but 28 days?
I got the courage to weigh myself the other day and I’d lost 2kg. Oh the sorrow – where did that 2kg come from? My quads, my glutes????
Flash back seven years ago, pre CrossFit and pre ultramarathoning to a time when I hated my body. I had a nervous breakdown at 26 and lost 10kg from stress. I remember initially feeling upset when I tried on one of my favourite dresses and it didn’t fit because it was too big. I felt like the weight loss was the wound that the public could see – the outward sign of how I felt internally. I wasn’t trying to be thin, I was just too depressed to eat.
Then the compliments started to come in. I don’t remember a single person saying to me “what the fuck is going on with you?” Or anything to that effect. Instead I got compliments about how great I looked. I recall one close friend saying to me “You don’t want to lose any more weight but you don’t want to gain any either – you look perfect.”
My fridge contained a carton of Carona’s and a bag of carrots. My pantry contained 1L of Jack Daniels and a tub of protein powder. Oh but I had found the secret for beauty according to those around me.
Depression turned into hypermania and that was when I made a conscious choice to stay thin. That was when the self hatred began. As my weight slowly increased because of all the booze I was drinking, I loathed myself even more.
Then I got diagnosed with bipolar and put on heavy meds that made me gain around 15kg in a very short time frame. I was bloated and puffy and even when I stabilised and came off the meds, I couldn’t lose the weight.
I’d like to say there was a light bulb moment when I looked at my body and said “you’re okay sister,” but there wasn’t. I struggled for years…and then I found CrossFit.
I’d been running for a few years before I started CrossFit and whilst I think that initiated some of the changes in my thought process – it was lifting heavy shit that really made me appreciate what thick thighs could do.
I love following all the women CrossFitters on Instagram because none of them are defined by what their bodies look like but rather what their bodies can do. I watched “A day in the Life of Lauren Fisher” the other day and she says something to the effect of “I don’t worry if I gain weight, but I get upset if I lose weight.”
That’s how I feel right now as I look at my thighs and worry they are getting smaller. I worked bloody hard for those quads of steel, those strong glutes. Don’t leave me friends!
Having injured myself to the point that I had to be on crutches for two weeks, I’ve started to appreciate my body for all the things I have taken for granted – not just running and squatting. Like grocery shopping! How amazing that this body has been driving itself to the supermarket, walking the ailes and carrying a basket all these years and I haven’t thought to say thank you.
Well the time has come for me to say thank you. Thank you Body for all the wonderful things you do for me, all the things I have taken for granted all these years. I look forward to running and squatting with you again soon, but for now, I am grateful that I can buy my own groceries again, that I can check the letterbox and get myself to work (the older trams and how terrible they are for anyone with mobility issues deserves an entire blog of it’s own).
And Body , I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all those years I didn’t appreciate you. For all the hate and loathing I cast your way that was in no way justified. You are beautiful just the way you are and I love you.
Just over three weeks ago, I ran a half marathon on road. I pushed myself quite hard, but I wasn’t road running fit. I struggled to hold my pace. At the finish, I just had to sit down. I was knackered.
After the race I told my friend who had just run her first half marathon, to take it easy. Take a week off. Let your body recover.
Did I listen to my own advice? No.
The Tuesday morning following the half marathon, I was at CrossFit. I was thinking about my broken toe that I had been ignoring and realised it was quite sore after running a half marathon in minimal shoes. I was mid box jump as I was pondering over my foot and thinking about the next move – rope climbs when POP! I felt what seemed like a hot sharp knife in the back of my leg.
I had done a severe grade 2 tear to the gastrocnemius. 6-8 weeks recovery. 105 days to go to Patagonia – a 250km race carrying all my gear and food that I will need for 7 days. I was (am?) optitimistic. If I can just maintain my fitness as best as possible, that will leave me with 5 weeks to train before flying out to Argentina. Definitely possible.
It’s now been just over three weeks and I have progressed from rest, pain and crutches, to moving around the house pain free, upper body strength work, swimming with a pool buoy and assault bike work outs.
I’m trying to be patient.
Five years ago, a few weeks after running my first marathon, I got a stress fracture in my foot. I had to take eight weeks off running. I took six, then I did myself some permanent damage and had to take 3 months off running. It seemed like the end of the world at the time and years on, I felt embarrassed about that performance. I vowed to never be so pathetic and impatient again.
And yet, here I am, three weeks into an injury and feeling pathetic. I miss running like I miss my mum. Why? This down time has got me thinking. I can still do some workouts, still get my heart rate up and get some endorphins and yet it’s just not the same. So what it is about running that is so special?
At first I thought it was the fact that so much of my life revolves around running – my friendships, my routine, my wardrobe. I thought it was the gap in my social life and the isolation that I might have been bringing me down.
I also know that running is my means to get into nature – to connect with the earth. There are studies that demonstrate that human beings are not meant to be removed from nature. These concrete jungles we live in make us sick. We need to connect with the earth.
So maybe that’s why I’m so sad? I miss my friends and I miss Mother Nature?
Saturday I drove myself to the entrance of a national park and walked just far enough in to get to the first big gum tree. I hugged it and I felt my heart fill with joy. It was momentary however, when I heard terror to my ears – three horrible boys under 10 screaming and shouting. You see, if you hang around the entrance to a national park, you don’t get far enough in to escape the families with young children. I’m all for exposing kids to nature – I just don’t want them near me and I certainly don’t want to be able to hear them.
I left feeling enraged and I realised that whilst I do miss my running friends, I miss being alone more. Running for a long time in isolated locations is the only time I ever really feel alone. I don’t need to check my emails, don’t need to be available for phone calls, don’t need to talk to anyone. It’s the true meaning of “me time.”
The other day I put a call out on Facebook for some suggestions for hobbies I could take up given I can’t run and my other main hobby – music, is also out of the picture as my damaged leg is my drumming leg. I got a lot of great suggestions but reading through them, I thought “I don’t have time for any of these.”
It’s not that I have an abundance of time now that running is out of the picture. I work full time in a demanding but rewarding profession. I study part time. I read a lot and I’m still training – just not running. So I wasn’t looking to fill my time. What I was looking for was something to fill the void.
Growing up I had a lot of energy and at times that has turned into depression, aggression and a whole range of negative emotions and behaviours. When I found music, I felt for the first time that I could be still. I could just purge the emotions and get on with normal life.
When I took up trail running, I got the same feeling but I could never understand why. Running didn’t feel like a creative outlet compared to music. In fact, growing up I had hated sporty people as I didn’t think they could also be creative – you had to be one or the other in my black and white world. But now I get it. It’s the fact that when you go for a run, you can give yourself permission to think and feel and work through whatever it is you need to work through – a bit like writing a song. Work it out, purge it and then move on, get on with everyday life. Having the freedom just to feel for an hour, two or seven – however long you want to run is a total cleansing of the soul.
So that’s it. Without running, my soul feels dirty and my mind clouded. I’m frustrated and angry and not good around people right now – especially children. I know it’s dramatic and I know I will run again, soon hopefully. But the positive in this experience is that it has allowed me to truely understand why it is that I love running so much.
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.
Some of you might remember last year’s attempt at the Great Ocean Walk 100km ultra marathon. It coincided exactly one week after the Allstar Affiliates CrossFit Comp – a 2 day, 7 event CrossFit competition.
I had become bored with ultra running and had fallen in love with CrossFit. I spent the months before the competition working on my pull-ups and improving my max snatch. Running 100km was pretty much the furthest thing from my mind. I knew I could run 100km so I put a bit of trust in my body to just do it. It was the CrossFit comp that preoccupied me.
Come race day, the very second I started running, my legs were heavy. I remembered all the thrusters I had done the weekend before and that became my reason to quit. I chugged along for 32km but the entire time I told myself “you’re tired and you have every right to be.”
Now the truth, that can only be gained with the hindsight of a near perfect 2016 GOW, is that yes I was tired, but it had nothing to do with a tired body. The very nature of ultra running depends on being able to push through, to keep going when your body is falling apart and screaming at you to stop. What was my motivation to enter a two day CrossFit Comp a week before a key race anyway? It was my behaviour prior to lining up at GOW I should have been analysing when trying to determine why I DNF, not the race itself. I was bored with ultra running. I was bored when I got to the start line and I was bored when my legs started turning over. If you’re bored, you’ll never ever be able to run 100km, no matter how strong the body is.
So I took some time off. I stopped entering races because of fear of missing out. I waited for a race to excite me, a race I wanted to train for and slowly but surely, 2016 got back on track. When GOW entries opened for 2016, I knew it didn’t really fit in well with my 2016 race plan. I had told myself the DNF wasn’t a failure so I had nothing to prove. I didn’t need to enter. Yet when entries went live, I found myself tapping my details into the entry form. It was almost an outer body experience. It was the mind that had given up on me in GOW 2015, but already the body was out to prove it was stronger than the mind by overriding the decision not to enter. It was done, I was signed up and ready to go…almost. I had to contact Matty Abel, from DBA runners. Matty had coached me for my first 100 miler in 2015 (okay my only 100 miler). I knew I’d be a much better runner and avoid the dreaded ‘boredom’ with training and running in general if I had his help. He agreed and so it was set.
As GOW 2016 approached, I was determined to make this a very different experience to 2015. It started with car snacks on the drive to Apollo Bay. I felt like everything I had eaten in 2015 was cursed so I took great care to eat different snacks. Carrots and protein balls. Yes, I think these may be safe.
Last year I forgot half my mandatory gear and Andy had to help me out. Not this year, I was a picture of perfection rolling out my gear for the mandatory gear check.
Already looking up…
Then I got to my hotel. Last year I stayed in the back packers and I had a realisation as I yelled at one of the 18 year old fresh faced girls in my room to turn the fucking light off at 9pm that I was way too old and grumpy for hostels. I also realised, 8 years after graduating from uni, that I am no longer a poor student and I don’t have to live like one always. So this year I booked myself a room with a spa at the Stay Inn. The owners probably thought it a little odd that I booked a lush bed and breakfast for one lone traveller and was out by 5am with no breakfast, but how I loved the towels and the pillows and the soft sheets. Ohhhh yes, 2016 GOW was already feeling very different.
My preparation for GOW 2016 hadn’t exactly a been ideal. I had done almost everything Matty had told me to do, which gave me some confidence. However, I had also gotten the flu and Thai Belly twice all in the month preceding GOW. When I felt too weak to run, I spent time on my mind. I worked on visualisations and mantras that would help push me through. I had some tricks in the bag for my brain when it decided it wanted to quit….but it didn’t.
At 6.30 am the race started. I was very comfortable to let anyone who wanted to pass me go. I knew there was some single track after the sealed bike track and I also know that if I’m feeling a bit grumpy, this is when the grumps will come out. I can’t stand hearing people breathe behind me and feeling like I’m holding everyone up. It makes me anxious and puts me off my game. Not this year, I was running in sync with everyone around me. We were all moving as one big happy flock (I don’t know what the collective word for happy crazy people who like to run a long way is so flock will have to do).
Goal number one was to get to checkpoint one in under four hours and not feel grumpy or trashed. Somewhere along this 22km section I met Cathy and Michelle. I had so much fun getting to know them both that the checkpoint came up before I knew it. I had gotten there in three hours and felt really fresh. I hadn’t pushed myself hard. I was enjoying the scenery and the company. I was having a great day!
As I left Checkpoint 1 I focused in on my second goal which was the most important goal for me for the entire race – get to Ian Hoad who volunteers at the light house (32km) and do not beg him for a lift to the finish (as occurred in 2015). I plodded along this section reflecting on last year and running in general. I remembered having a conversation with a runner in 2015 along this same section where she said “this is simply the most scenic, beautiful course I have ever run.” I couldn’t see it. I remember thinking REALLY??? I just couldn’t see outside my own pain cave. This year, I looked around. Everything looked different. It was spectacular and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, a koala greeted us on the trail.
I spent the last hour of this section working through some deep shit in my head about perspective, emotions, why I run – all that crap, so when I got to Ian I was so happy to get out of my own head for a little bit. We hugged and he told me he’d see me again 1.5km from the finish. Okay, next goal.
From this point onward, the course was undulating, but nothing mountainous. There were amazing ocean views – I mean AMAZING. The trail wound its way up into the headlands, then onto the coast for some beach running. The sand was tough, but really who cared? I was having such a wonderful time. There is a 3km stretch of soft sand before the Johanna Beach checkpoint. I could have shuffled it but I couldn’t be arsed. I was having a lovely time and I wanted to savour it. Plus I knew all the hard part of the course was after Johanna. So I walked it. I enjoyed a Cliff Bar and I looked out to the ocean and thought to myself how fucking lucky am I?
At the Johanna Beach checkpoint, I was thankful I had packed a dry pair of socks (a few water crossings on sand meant my socks were pretty gross). Fuck me, Injinji toe socks are so bloody hard to put on when your feet are damp, you didn’t pack a towel and you’ve run 55km. I spent way too long at this checkpoint but it was full of friends and it took me so friggin long to change those socks. Eventually I was out and the fun continued.
The next section is where all the hills are – about 20km of them. I just focused on getting to 75km as the hard stuff would all be over. So I hiked up, ran where I could and ran down, repeat for 20km. Along this section I met Matt – who was awesome. We stuck together for 10km and as we ran as much as we could of this section our theme of conversation was how awesome the 100km distance is. Our positivity smashed the miles away. At 65km, Matt said he wanted to wait for his friend so I kept going. Soon the party squad caught up with me – the O’Briens and Cathy and Michelle. It was such a good party, I wanted to stay for a drink, so I tagged along. The 10km before the last checkpoint were a bit tough. It was tiring after an entire day out in the beautiful sun and the undulations were taking their toll, but I really didn’t want to leave the party so I stayed on board till we got into the last checkpoint.
At the Gables checkpoint, I put on my thermal and my head torch. Had a nice snack of water and chips and off I went. I stuck with the party squad for a little bit but this was the point when we all just had to do what we could do. They seemed to have morphed into one creature, working on each other’s strengths, moving at the same pace. At times I couldn’t keep up and at times I got a second wind. So we played cat and mouse.
3km from the finish I stopped to tend to an injured runner. George who was volunteering was already there and taking care of things but I stopped to give them my my emergency space blanket and offer up any of my additional mandatory gear. The woman who had stopped to help the injured man was getting very very cold. It was a learning experience as to how quickly things can go wrong when you’re injured or you stop to help and why we NEED to carry our mandatory gear. She had three emergency space blankets and a number of other borrowed cold weather items on that other runners had given her as they had passed by the time I got to her and she was still freezing.
As I left knowing George had things under control I thought I had to make up the time I’d stopped so I gave it everything I had. I could see the road where I knew Ian must be in the darkness, so I pushed hard to get to him. I could only see his light in the black and hoped that it was him. I called out to him. He greeted me. We turned our lights off so as not to blind one another and hugged. It was one of the greatest hugs I’ve ever had.
I ran as hard as I could to the finish line (which was probably 10min kms by that stage but it felt fast). The finish line was full of beautiful people. My people. I had made it. I was, I am, a happy crazy person who likes to run a long way again.
One final comment I will make about this run – Andy Hewat, the race director is one of the most beautiful human beings I have met. He has an energy that is inspiring and he brings that energy to his race. It must be something about Andy that attracts only wonderful human beings to his races as every single person I met out on the trail that day was incredible. Every participant and every volunteer exuded kindness and compassion. I had such a wonderful day and it was because I was not only lucky enough to spend 16 hours and 36 minutes in one of the most beautiful places in the world, but I spent it with incredible and beautiful people. If you haven’t run GOW before and you like nice people and beautiful scenery – do it!
I set my alarm for 5:00am. I was in start wave 5 – starting at 6:49. I was staying at the KCC directly across the road from the start line. That should be plenty of time to get dressed, eat a banana and make my way to the start line.
At 6:30am I was still in my room, wrestling with my hydration bladder – the bloody hose was stuck and I was having a nervous break down. Finally, it snapped into place – I grabbed my finish line drop bag (which I still needed to drop off) and sprinted to the start line.
Shit! I forgot to set up my Garmin properly. Someone asked me to take a photo for them. “I’m sorry, I just can’t right now!” I snapped as wave 4 starters were off and I still had so much to do. What a biatch!
Finish bag dropped off, Garmin ready to go, spotted Crazy Pants Kirsten for a quick hug and a quick start line photo with Kerry and then it was go time.
I started training for UTA in January. How the fcck was it go time already???
I’ll be the first to confess my training had not gone quite to plan. I first ran UTA (then TNF) in 2014. At the time, I thought never ever again. But after losing my running mojo and then finding it again on the 1000 steps in Ferntree Gully one grey cold Melbourne morning, I decided this would be my race. I was going to train harder than I’d ever trained before and smash my 2014 race time.
Then I had a bit of a nervous break down – for real this time, not the melodramatic kind that had me throwing my hydration bladder across the room on race morning. Everything was going well in my life. I had just got married, just got a promotion, just had an amazing relaxing holiday/honeymoon, but it just takes one thing to tip the ship. A bully in my life and I lost my confidence, lost my focus, lost my drive, lost my ability to get through the day without heart palpitations, night sweats and random bouts of tears.
I considered withdrawing from the race, but I didn’t want to. Ultra-running was the one thing I had over this bully. Every time she put me down, made me feel like the fool – I knew I had her, knew she couldn’t run 100 miles, couldn’t run 250km across the desert, couldn’t hike all day in the mountains. Nope, she wasn’t better than me at all and she wasn’t taking this from me.
So I decided I would do this run on my own terms – slow and steady and that’s exactly what I did.
UTA starts with a 5km road section which is pretty runnable though it is hilly. From the start, I walked the hills. My approach was to take it very conservatively until Nellies Glen (which is around the 52km mark and is when the climbing and the stairs start) then I would give the race everything I had.
This was working quite a treat. I was feeling really fresh and really enjoying myself until lunch time. At that point in the race, I realised I was really friggin hot and wasn’t wearing a hat. My face felt like it was cooking. I could have fried an egg on my face it was so hot – why wasn’t I wearing a hat???
This feeling that my face was frying continued most of the afternoon until check point 3 when I decided I would wet my buff to try and cool down. Brilliant decision, except the sun was going down and I only packed one buff and I would need it going into the night to keep warm. Great thinking hot stuff!
Checkpoint 3 to 4 felt good. I enjoyed the runnable stuff before Nellies Glen and then I enjoyed the climb. My knees were making a strange sound when I got to the stairs but there was no pain so I just turned up the tunes. If you can’t hear it, then there’s no problem (a little something I learned from years of driving a 30 year old Datsun).
When I got to checkpoint 4 I felt confused and to be honest, a little angry. I needed to sit down so I could get what I needed out of my drop bag but there were support crew everywhere – sitting on all the seats. I hate to get a bit grumpy here, but if I were support crew and I saw a disorientated tired looking runner stumble in the checkpoint and I had NOT been running for 57km, well I’m pretty sure I’d offer my seat to the person who had been running for 57km. That didn’t happen. So I sat on the floor, but my hips were spasming so I had to put my legs out and lay down as I rummaged through my drop bag for supplies.
Then a nice lady came over and said she had seen me running all day and thought I was doing really well and could she help me at all. She was someone else’s support crew but I’d been just in front of her runner all day. I said no thank you but I was really chuffed she asked. A word of kindness goes a long way at that point in the race.
I didn’t want to stay at checkpoint 4 long. Too many people – too many crew and not enough chairs. I felt weird. So I filled up my water, grabbed a few snacks and left.
The temperature had dropped so I had to start shuffling straight away to keep warm. In 2014 I had not run with a watch so I had no data to go on for beating my 2014 time. Even though I knew I hadn’t done the training, I was secretly hoping I might still be able to do it. I remembered leaving checkpoint 4 in 2014 to a sun high in the sky. The sun was starting to set today, and so I knew I was well off my goal time.
There was nothing to cry about though as this part of the course passes through numerous look out points into the Blue Mountains. Running through this point of the course under a red sky was absolutely magnificent. I thought about taking a photo, but then I remembered that they still haven’t invented a camera as powerful than the human eye and so I absorbed it. I let it fill my soul.
I started out this leg a bit messy cause I was still a bit freaked out by the chaos at checkpoint 4. Then I dropped a glove and had to retrace my steps to find it, but finally I got into a groove. There are a lot of stairs between checkpoint 4 and 5 and I told myself it was time to shine – it’s your fccking time Tash!
I knew I was carrying way too much muscle as a result of my CrossFit addiction to be a fast runner but I was a strong runner and the stairs were where I could let loose. I went as hard as I could and was so happy that I was only overtaken by one guy during this leg (and I caught him again coming into checkpoint 5). I did overtake at least 30 runners – most of them were having a hurl party. There was a lot of carnage and I was pretty happy with my decision to conserve during the hotter parts of the day.
When I got into checkpoint 5 I saw Kerry. I was so happy to see her briefly. We had done a lot of our training together leading up to UTA and become very good friends. I knew how much this race meant to her and I felt so happy to see her at this point of the race, knowing she would finish strong.
I also saw George and Jon who offered me cold vegetarian pizza which I politely declined. I hadn’t quite joined the hurl party but there was a bit of heaving going on and I didn’t think cold pizza would cure what ailed me with 22km to go to the finish.
As I left the last checkpoint, things quickly deteriorated. My knees felt like they were getting hacked by a chain saw. I regretted every piece of cake I had eaten in the lead up to UTA. Too much booty with 9km of downhill to go, the knees were SCREAMING. I put on some grind-core to silence out the grinding of my knees. I played air guitar with my trekking poles to lift my spirits. I felt okay, but I could still hear my knees grind-coring (yes my knees are so metal, they grind-core) over the blast beats. Not good.
I moved at snail’s pace and was overtaken by so many runners. I didn’t care – I wasn’t racing them. I was racing my inner demons who were telling me to pull out. I had given up on beating my 2014 time, but I knew I could still finish within 20 hours to get the buckle (only sub 20 hour finishers take home a finishing buckle).
So I made a deal with myself – go as slow as you need to go without chundering, but do NOT stop moving. I was relieved when the 9km of downhill was over and I could start climbing, but it was momentary. I was slooooowwwww! Finally, I saw the 95km sign. I had made a deal with myself when I first entered that I would run this section. I had hiked most of the way into the finish in 2014 and I knew this section was runnable until the last km of stairs so I wanted to leave everything I had out on the course and push it. I pushed as hard as I could up the stairs, almost vomming twice – almost.
When I got to the top of the stairs there were two runners slowly moving toward the finish line. I thought it was a bit dirty to overtake at this point in time, but I just wanted to be done so I ran past them both to cross the line in 19:11. I was handed my buckle and I burst into tears just as George was there to make me laugh and sort me out.
I’ve never been so emotional crossing a finish line before. Yes, this wasn’t my fastest race or my most impressive, but it was my most meaningful for a number of reasons.
I had lost my love of running and training for UTA brought it back. Racing UTA made that love all the more stronger. I really suffered out there. I acknowledged it. I embraced it. I kept moving. I did not give up.
I set myself some goals and targets that had nothing to do with my finish time – run (not hike) from 95km – 99km, climb the Golden Stairs with joy in my heart, acknowledge the sections of the course that caused me fear (not deny the fear) and continue to move steady. I did all these things.
I raced most of this race on my own – never stopping to chat to someone for more than a few minutes. I didn’t have a coach in the lead up. I didn’t have a crew during the race. I needed to relearn how to do things on my own and to embrace solitude. I did this – I craved company and support and then I found the words of strength I needed within myself.
And finally – I was reminded of just how amazing this community is. The incredible people that are ultra-runners, the unconditional love and support we offer one another. I feel so blessed to have found this community.