Just like the miler itself, this race report is taking longer than expected. During this burst of energy our intrepid runner and crew make it to the final checkpoint, Mooney Mooney…
When we last spoke, Super Pacer Jess and I were on our way out of the 103km checkpoint at Yarramalong, headed into the deep Tolkien on the way to Somersby. Oblivious to the fact that we only made it out of the school grounds a half hour before cutoff, I had only managed to bribe myself to get there with the promise of a 15-minute blanket nap. The lights, the excitement of seeing Graham again and now especially Jess had banished the sleep zigzags and rational thought long enough to get us out of there without the wimp stop. This would prove significant later, and leave me with the lasting impression that it’s okay to lie to yourself in an Ultramarathon, if that’s all it takes to keep moving forward.
Necessary background: my fiancée Jess is a running machine. She knocked out 9:29 for an evenly paced 100km at the Ned Kelly Chase just two weeks prior to GNW. It’s the first race she’s done on bitumen in the two years since I’ve known her and was always framed as a taste test for Coast2Kosci. She placed 8th overall and the only woman to outrun her was Shannon-Leigh Litt, New Zealand National 100km Champion. Good going!
More specifically, she and rock star Meredith Quinlan own the Great North Walk, with dominating times on the miler and the outright record for the 250+ km from Newcastle to Sydney. In 2012, with over 11,000m total ascent on harshly tricky, rocky, twisting, turning, pitching and diving trail, and only 40 minutes sleep, these two endurance badasses knocked over 10 hours off the old record, hit the Sydney CBD in just under 55 hours, and no boy has even got close since. I didn’t so much pace as keep them company over the last 50km then, and couldn’t have asked for a better suffer buddy over the 71km of suck-it-up that still lay ahead.
But the start of our run into the night can’t have been too encouraging. Still spooked by the long and near-fatal nausea of the preceding day, I was keeping well below any kind of red line. Walking anything resembling any kind of gentle rise – exactly the way that I hate – I couldn’t even mirror Jess’ sunny disposition. In fact, we were barely a hundred metres along the dirt track beside the road that starts the heartbreaking Bumble Hill and I was already thinking life was not meant to be like this, stumbling along a stupidly up and down trail of rocks, rubble, and cast off beer cans when there was a perfectly good road just metres away leading to exactly the same destination. Damn it.
As bend led to climb led to bend led to climb led to mud led to bend I definitely felt any zest from checkpoint 4 leave the building.
‘Are you kidding? Was this here before? What the eff?’ It’s amazing how many additional geological features Dave Byrnes and his team of Trotters add to the nighttime leg of this race each year, only to remove again before we ever get the chance to train on them in daylight.
Finally out of the muddy twists and into the ridiculous field of power lines. It’s ridiculous because it feels flat until you see the light of the runner a couple of hundred metres ahead of you, like a satellite going slowly North in a high orbit. That is not flat. Next thing you’re halfway up a short uneven staircase, head hanging down, hand on a rock, looking for the juice to keep moving. The will is good, but the meatsack that houses it just wants to go to bed. We hit the road finally after climbing for hours, or maybe minutes.
We turn right, just like you’re meant to. A car cruises by and slows, stopping metres ahead of us. As we go by, the driver’s window comes down.
“I’m concerned that you’re going the wrong way.”
Wow. How many things were wrong with that comment? ‘Concerned’ and ‘wrong’ just aren’t words to share with a navigationally non-challenged ultrarunner at the one hundred and something kay mark of a long run that has left the landscape looking like a war zone, littered with bodies and still ravaged by Cutoff Monsters.
Was it coming from a good place? Absolutely.
Had the comment likely come from somebody who had been awake all day crewing a challenged runner of their own? Almost certainly.
Was it appreciated in the context of the aforementioned? F___ no!
It certainly shocked me awake for about half a minute as I cursed and swore my way forward, now cast in the headlights as hallucinations loomed at the periphery of my vision.
Jess of course never swears or gets angry and if she ever did it would only be out of empathy I am sure.
Left turn – the right m____f_____ing way! I might add – and on to the long dirt road where sleep was suddenly at its most appealing. Jess kept me almost engaged in talk and then I drifted into the zigzag, halfway across the road and back, until I was just standing there with my eyes closed. I opened my eyes just enough to see that she had gone on ahead of me and power-tramped faster to catch up to her and discuss an idea for a chinrest with four legs and a wheeled base, so sleeping on the run would be easier.
Then we were heading down Wombat Alley.
‘What the F___?’ I swore a lot less in the first part of this race report because I was on my own and my thoughts are pure.
‘That can’t be sunrise already? What?’
Yep, 5:30. Just like a good ultra cliche, I’d had my darkest bit just before the dawn, and I was about to spring renewed into life and run like a gazelle.
That had been shot.
In the arse.
With a cannon full of rock salt.
Even as we whipped into a slightly faster hobble, my memory flashed back to my first and only other time running the GNW miler. By this time, pacer Natalie Watson and I had been on our ways to Mooney Mooney, some 25 or 30km further along the way than this year’s strugglefest. Pretty sure I apologised once more to Jess for being so slow.
This was getting hectic. Surely the cutoffs were in hot pursuit.
What a completely shit ending that would be to this brutal run and the Octember adventure, getting timed out. Almost timed to perfection? Nope, just ran like Richard III.
No way could it all end like this. Getting through this rugged up, down, back and forth, twisted and cruel section to Somersby would be to break the back of the GNW. But to break its neck, we would still have to get through the unmanned water stop that roughly marks the midpoint of the final leg of the day. Until that moment, likely another 8 hours from now, all bets were off, and everything – everything – was still up for grabs.
If Jess was thinking the situation was desperate, she wasn’t letting on at all. She just cooed support whenever we got a roll on that lasted more than a hundred metres and suggested ‘little run then?’ whenever I kept us at shopping mall granny pace for more than a minute.
Nearly 30km, this section of the race – stagger – is devastating not for its length but for its dramatic temper and refusal to show any kind of enduring mercy whatsoever. Up a lot, down a bit, too turn-filled to fly down, too sustained to run up. And let’s face it, by this point in the game, you’re only pausing to tap your heels together and mumble ‘there’s no place like Patonga’ 3 times quickly under your breath, just out of your pacer’s ear shot.
The nice, smooth, flat, open, fast road bit came and went so suddenly it almost wasn’t missed as we plunged back into the shadows of the slanted forest. Steep, relentless, climbing, climbing, climbing. It’s not really that bad. It’s entirely subjective actually. If you can remember the first time you finished a marathon, stopped running, and tried to step up the gutter, it’s just like that. But it’s stacked 800 metres high.
And the cruelest thing about this almost-final massive climb is that there is one more very big b_st_rd right after it.
Almost on cue (but really only as a function of shite phone reception) a message of support hit my phone just as we topped the rise and prepared to head into the Valley Of About To Climb a Slope That Might Make You Cry. I think the fact that it wasn’t just from good friends but also their very awesome kids made me choke up, wake up, and post the first FB from this particular social media pig in many hours.
’49km to go. We’re gonna get there!’ More or less.
Jess was ahead of me and already on the descent, a constant and steady moving target, saving my ass one minute at a time. I put it away (my phone, that is) and followed her down toward the climb that I’d always known would be a defining moment of misery if we didn’t hit it with acceptance.
But then commotion above. A runner who looked like he was about twelve years old came storming through from the ridge to our backs, chased by an older guy in a yellow vest.
His crew? Nope.
Fortunately the over-enthusiastic sweep was about an hour ahead of where he should be but had been keeping himself on mission by chasing the baby faced ultrarunner who’d just bolted through us declaring that he wasn’t going to miss cutoff.
We were alarmed. He’d even dropped his pacer in the chase. Reinforcing the initial impression of youth gone wild, she turned out to be his mum.
That is still a bloody cool family moment, certainly one to recall at Christmas dinners for years to come.
Jess struck up a chat with the sweep who’d now dropped in behind me. We just had to get up the hill to the paddock fence and we’d be well on the road to Checkpoint 5 and the fast track to what? 45km running with a sweep? Forget that! Even if he is one of the many lovely volunteers helping Dave Byrnes break us down into smashed atoms, this is our mission and we’re not taking any passengers – even if they’re deputised.
Hard, sharp climbing turned to switchback single track turned to farmland and we hit the road running downhill, then to posts and trees. Jess recalled our August adventure when we ran-hiked from Bendigo to Ballarat. We deployed the same strategy, but running to the edge of the third shadow is a risky strategy – inefficient when the shadow drifts toward you, painful when it blows away. Yep, clouds don’t make reliable course markers.
The run into Somersby from here was hurried, and the ambition of a new day was definitely in the air. Blood would be shed and bones broken before this mission could go any further south, metaphorically speaking – especially given that all we could do now was go south, ASAP.
Elvis welcomed us to the checkpoint – you’re gold, Kevin Andrews, literally – saying he’d wondered where I’d been. Yep, him and Jess both I reckon. On the verandah, people had been making accidentally awful tea with electrolyte water, Graham had been meditating and dishing out massages while he waited, and now he put me in the corner and went to work with Jess getting me sorted out for the penultimate leg to Mooney Mooney.
Since the Basin, Graham had been jumping in with really effective bodywork, relaxing the calves and hamstrings. Now it was a matter of opening the sacro-iliac gently while I sat and got souped up and addressing a ping I was expecting in my right hammy.
The funny thing that happens on race day is that a bunch of people who have trained to run go longer than they normally do, spending so many hours on their feet in a variety of conditions that they end up walking for probably several hours, but they haven’t really practised walking for that long, and their muscles get confused. Niggles arise, not always from the running that we do but from the running that we don’t do, I think.
Sweeps were milling about on the verandah, talking about various runners that they had paced. With an apocalyptic DNF rate, I guess the event was now overstuffed with fluorescent reapers and they were looking for their trail running fix to complete their weekend. Good on ’em! But they would have to tase me to keep us from the beach. Adam Connor was in his casual camper gear, looking a bit glum but book-ended by his people. We had seen him on and off throughout the previous 24 hours but he was pulling. He didn’t look broken, just resigned to a premature cessation of hurt. Graham and Jess had apparently talked him into continuing from Yarramalong, so, in a way, everything since then had been gravy.
I love Graham’s bluntness. It’s an ideal accompaniment for ultra. Apparently Adam had given an excellently supported and detailed explanation of why he was ok with DNfing at the 103km mark. Graham of course replied that the demonstrated ability to argue so clearly was proof of his capacity to continue.
Suited up again, away we went in a flurry of unexpectedly goingrightnowness. So quick were we to move, I sent my phone back to Graham for a charging with Bill Thompson’s lovely wife as we hit the gate. No time for a backward step now!
So much daylight, so little time, we trawled along the road and Jess played with our running goals.
‘To the post,’ she’d call it.
‘I’m digesting,’ I’d stall.
‘To the third tree,’ she’d urge.
‘The second one,’ I’d negotiate.
‘To the foot of the hill,’ she’d cajole.
‘That’s the horizon! Are you kidding? Whatever, let’s go,’ I’d cave.
And so it went, nice juicy pace started to feel more attainable as more open trails and downhill led the way before us. But it was always a moment to moment affair, framed by the intermediate goals my partner would set. With the geographic targets she’d lined up, we were targeting about 6km/hr and it’s entirely possible we went quicker than this. Quicker than 6kph really means nothing under most circumstances. It’s the pace an inbred chicken with one eye missing should be able to cruise at for most of a day. But on this particular day, with those particular circumstances, hitting Jess’ very conservative goals from hour to hour felt like landing an Olympic berth.
The scenery, the dam I’d forgotten was there, the blather of predictable comments about how I’d forgotten there was a dam there, but very little about time and pace – certainly not the kind of stupefyingly dull runner chat that might be all about numbers but usually does nothing more than slow the participants down as they work out how quick they might be able to go.
This kind of scene always calls to mind Gattaca, the movie featuring a genetically engineered perfect unit who knows his exact abilities and performs to, but never beyond, them. Meanwhile, his non-engineered brother performs beyond expectation, writing his own script inked in human will with limits defined by his desire and not his pre-determined shortcomings.
Digression? Yes. It’s certainly possible when houseboats and spectators keep turning back into giant boulders and forested riverbanks. Bleary? Maybe…
The sound of traffic was suddenly exciting, a siren call to run towards. I waved at Graham as he power hiked up the gravel road toward us.
‘Are there runners behind you,’ he asked, without his Sarth Efrikken accent.
‘We don’t know,’ Jess answered sensibly as we ran on.
That wasn’t Graham.
Hitting a fence line, I called the next target, ‘to the lion.’ Jess worked with me, only breaking stride when I did, in time for me to realize that the weathered sandstone lion statue was actually just a rock. This was getting mental.
Soon enough Actual Graham appeared on the bridge ahead. Excitement! Not quite enough to run the whole way up a 3% gradient but almost.
We hit the checkpoint with the burst of energy that happens only at Mooney Mooney. It’s the last real stop, it’s the one where almost nobody ever pulls out – especially by choice, it’s the drinks table from which you feel you can almost reach out and touch the finish line. Everybody milling around is focused on the runners. We have all done something epic by this point. So have our pacers, especially if we picked them up at Yarramalong and held them to cruising patiently and attentively at half their usual comfortable pace.
Checkpoint time was ticking away, a volunteer clarified that it was 10km to the unmanned water stop and that 3pm would be the cutoff. This would plague us later…
– To be concluded in the thrilling final chapter ‘Where’s the f*&%ing unmanned water stop?!?!’