Octember was really something and I would recommend to anybody that you do this:
once a year take something that you love doing, add the challenge of aiming to do it in a way that you never have before – whether by intensity, duration, volume, or venue, and use everything you know to get it done. As long as the outcome is unknowable and the challenge actually feels challenging and at the last moment possibly even scary, you’re in for an adventure and you’d better not back down.
I was going to write some thank you messages at the end but by the time you get there you will all be too knackered to read them so I am cheekily sticking them here:
Thank you to the race directors, their event teams, and the volunteers who make our good hurting possible: Andy Hewat and the Great Ocean Walk 100 crew – such a beautiful and punishing run should be on every trail runner’s Must List, Peter Fitzpatrick and Warwick Hull and the Hume and Hovell 100 crew – awesome race and certainly one that should swell in the years to come because everyone who loves a cracking trail and wants to know what they can really do on a gorgeous 100km course should do it at least once, Justin & Sharon Scholz and the Ned Kelly Chase Gang – Australia needs more proper road ultramarathons and the design of this race is uniquely fun and inclusive.
Thank you to the healers, people who every ultrarunner needs in their network if we’re going to do what we love doing in whatever way we love doing it, but especially when backing up – thank you to the exceptional Lisa Rollo, a great supporter and brilliant sports physio who made sure everything was back in the right place each week so I could go out and do it all again; thank you to my pilates instructor Kellina Stewart who has helped me put the body back into action after a giant 2012 and a 2013 that started with me downsizing from the 100 at TNF100 to the 50 because I doubted my ability to go the distance; thank you to Allan Bolton (exT1D) for being a dependable friend and reliable mentor when it comes to managing the challenges of being a type 1 on the properly long run; thank you to my mate Geoff Ward, cranio-sacral osteopath and master of the subtle adjustment; thank you to my shiatsu teacher, practitioner and dear friend Anne McDermott who put that last 90 minutes of hurt on me just before The Big One; thank you Andy Dubois for some of the practical tools I needed to keep running – even if it got slow and ugly; and a big special thank you Graham for your positive ferocity – you know that’s what you’ve got, don’t you?
Thank you to my work colleagues and friends , Trudy, Rob, and Ian at Hoka OneOne Australia for support on a bunch of levels – from putting up with runner’s brain on a Monday to making sure I’ve got the awesome gear I need on a Friday and a whole bunch of good stuff in between. When your work aligns with your passion, it’s a wonderful thing. Hoka has been growing like crazy in Australia ever since it got here. It’s a great running shoe and we’ve got great supporters, which is part of the reason why, but there’s also an awesome team behind Hoka OneOne here and without their commitment and attitude, most people reading this now wouldn’t even know what a Hoka is. Many more runners in Australia are about to find out in 2014, thanks to this tight crew.
And thank you to my closest network, family. Jess, I don’t know how runners whose lovers don’t support their dreams do it. You inspire, support, and awe me xx Julie, superstar sister-in-law, thanks for being part of the inspiration to ever run a marathon in the first place. And Mum & Dad, our idea of fun would be a lot harder to live without you guys being the best dogsitters in the world – it’s a precious responsibility and Kitty thanks you for it. For that, and the chicken, that is. If I’d been 100% certain I’d make it through GNW, it was a race I wanted to dedicate to you guys. I wasn’t, so you’ll have to be happy one day with something shorter😀
Thank you, finally, to the race director and vollies who made Octember the challenge it really became. Dave Byrnes, you threw down in the biggest possible way, with a 70% DNF rate and a 100-miler that will always be a mighty monster but might never be the same again if it does move to the less incendiary month of September. Let’s finish this story.
I don’t know what time it was,
I don’t wear a watch.
Queens of the Stone Age, My God is the Sun
Music has played a massive part of Octember in its entirety. Vitamin M blasting from tiny, sometimes sweat-damaged little headphones which occasionally got put in backwards (which really helps them sound even more like complete sh_t) has been there for me about 284km out of 474. The rule has more or less been no tunes for at least the first 30km of each run because you’re all bunched up, it’s a good time to chat before everybody disappears, and like caffeine, if you don’t wait at least a little while for it, you don’t properly appreciate its effect on your head and legs.
Queens of the Stone Age have rocked out particularly, as have Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Pendulum, Tool, Kate Bush, Macklemore, Immortal Technique, Iron Maiden, Helmet, Sepultura, Florence & the Machine, Foo Fighters, Skrillex, NIN, LMFAO (yes, trashy pop), and System of a Down to name a few.
The reason that particular lyric stands out for me is because that track, My God is the Sun
- Totally rocks and usually results in sky-flung fist pumps however crap you felt 30 seconds ago, as you suddenly feel right in the world and pick up your pace, even if only for three and a half minutes.
- Always makes me laugh because I’m usually wearing a stupidly big bl__dy watch.
- Pays homage to the very spirit of ultrarunning, simply because Queens of the Stone Age used to be sludge-metal legends, Kyuss. Jamming loud and live in desert canyons, powered by portable generators under the wild night sky, can there be any doubt that these guys had some sense of what we love about the immersion of trail ultramarathon, especially when the next lyric is
So good to be an ant who crawls,
atop a spinning rock.
Is there any question that we are just that?
And, of course, for the final instalment of the Great North Walk Race Report That Has Gone For Longer Than The Run Itself, the concept of time, although slippery to grasp, did have a special significance for me and my Superpacer, Jess.
Hitting the last manned checkpoint, Mooney Mooney at 12:10 on Sunday afternoon, everything was still on the line. With 50 minutes to go before cutoff we had made up time out of Somersby and now needed to break the course’s neck by hitting the unmanned water stop – the final threat of expulsion before the hallowed Finish Line – before 3pm. Feeling amped and hungry to be finished I played one last game of What Didn’t You Bring From The Car with legendary crew Graham. Somehow, no matter how many different kinds of gel, electrolyte, soft drink, or food Graham had ready and waiting at each checkpoint, I would manage to ask for the one thing that hadn’t been deemed worth bringing. It was a game that seemed to keep all involved pretty entertained every 3 to 6 hours or so.
I don’t even remember whether we played one final round or not. Mooney Mooney was a blur of weighing scales, chips, excited volunteers and runners leaving and arriving. Jess and I had a ridiculously serious discussion about the merits of drinking a can of Red Bull. She was in favour, but based on the gastric misadventure of the preceding day’s cola binge, I was against. For about a minute.
I slammed it down, we excitedly said goodbye to people we’d just met as though we’d known them forever as Graham called out that he’d see us on Patonga and off we flew, sort of.
A burst of excited bravado nearly killed me. As if my running legs had grown back, I sprinted down the pathway that begins the final deceptively simple 26km. What’s simple about it? You just have to get to the end. What’s deceptive about it? It’s not so simple.
The seemingly endless (we’ve already run 150km by this point, remember, leaving a ruin of dehydrated and unhappy, dazed, battered bodies in our wake) final mega-wobble of twists and turns manages to take in sunbaked sandstone ridges, irregular and cruel stairways, a subtropical rainforest, a lagoon and a waterfall and a firetrail that never ends. As if this isn’t challenge enough, some muppet feeling temporarily superhuman sprints the first 50 metres until he feels his right hamstring get played like Hendrix’s Fender – twang!
Jess caught up to me and we geared back down to the zombie shuffle.
Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.
In my head, in the lead up to GNW, I had rehearsed how I would handle the big climbs on crutches if I happened to go off a cliff mid-race and break an ankle or leg. I was going to finish at any physical cost. It just wasn’t meant to be self-inflicted or so utterly inglorious as this.
Pat Farmer joined us last year for lunch in Centennial Park as we were preparing to head to the 4 Deserts Grand Slam as Team Born to Run. One of the many great bits of advice he gave us then was that the more you hurt in training, the less you hurt on race day.
But we all turn up expecting to hurt. However much hurt we might pile on in training, I think it ultimately lets us hurt even more on race day. Maybe, though, we feel it less. Maybe the more time you spend with pain, the more it becomes a comfort. Or maybe I’d been awake for 32 hours and the little voice in my head was talking crap again.
No longer just slow, the zombie stomp had become lopsided. Lurching up the first of the last remaining nasty little climbs, all that mattered was getting to the unmanned water stop before 3:00. We had left Mooney Mooney with the advice of the checkpoint captain ringing in our ears, ’10 kays to the unmanned water stop’. 10 kays at amputee snail pace, 2 hours, in and out by 2:30, no problem.
My stupidly sprinted hammy wasn’t the only niggle. 10 kays? Wishful thinking said yes, long and lonely reality said no. It was just us against the clock. Last time I’d come through here had been GNW 2011, my first miler, and hadn’t that been a thrill. I pulled the best bit of long running I’d ever done right out of my arse and caught up to runners I’d expected would have finished long ago. They looked as surprised as I did. Each time that I passed somebody, I felt stronger and stronger. It was an incredible experience simply for its uniqueness in my brief time running. And obviously, it was the PB that I began this race thinking about. But I’d have been passed out in the car by now back then, rather than stumbling against the clock like I was now.
The thought was fleeting, thankfully. Such thoughts are weakening, unless sprinkled with a good dash of irony. How hilarious that Totally Inexperienced Roger had kicked Veteran Roger’s butt so completely. There. That’s worth at least a wry grin.
As we hit a more neatly cleared sandy path, the excitement level picked up – for me, at least, unlike for Jess who had actually revisited this part of the track recently, such is the commitment of the Superpacer.
Clearly, we were about to hit the waterfall and the last properly rude sandstone climb before evading cutoff. Psyched!
It was the false hope of a similarly rock-carved lagoon. The pre-waterfall.
Time was marching on relentlessly. Where the hell was the water stop? How could this not be 10 kays already? What was it? 6? 3? How far did we still really need to go? Surely I could zombie lurch faster?
The wishful thinker in my head was being slowly choked to death by the cold realist from maths class. The water stop would not be 10km. We would not be safely skating through at 2:30 then skipping hand in hand, carefree and bushy-tailed to Patonga.
Jess was awesome through this stage. She never verballed me to go faster. I think she knew that as sloth as I was, it was about as much as I could maintain. Every now and again though, as patient as she had been through all the plod of the night before, she would just edge slightly further ahead, holding a steady pace that I’d have to work just a bit harder to match.
With almost no discussion, we knew that we were running on the ragged edge of crisis. Between us, we still weren’t a million per cent sure how far the water stop and the salvation beyond it lay. There were things we could change, and things we couldn’t. We couldn’t stop the clock, we couldn’t make the forecast of 10kms reality, we couldn’t push the cutoff time to 3:15. All we could do was go as quick as I could possibly let us and make sure it would be enough to get through.
As much as doing this final harder-than-all-before-it run at the end of a month of ultras probably meant I could have hit the starting line a bit fresher than I did, so what? Everybody – EVERYBODY – brings unknown issues to a race. Maybe they’re ill, maybe they’re tired from long working weeks, maybe their partner is unsupportive, maybe family issues are playing with their heart. If you’re on the starting line, your money’s on the table and your cards are dealt, just like everybody else’s. You toe the line, you’re all equal. There’s no handicap, and there’s no excuses.
In short, sh_t happens.
If anything, the month that had gone before was massive motivation. Letting it all finish by getting timed out would be like shrugging my shoulders, turning my back on the challenge and saying it was too hard as I walked away scuffing my feet with my head held low.
But now Jess was with me too, and Graham was out there somewhere waiting for us, and I was going as hard as I could fuelled by their commitment and the thought of all the messages of support I’d received from people over the past month and a half. Online or face to face, if you want to say ‘good luck’, or ‘go hard’, or ‘that’s crazy, smash it!’ to someone taking on a challenge whether it’s for a cause or not, just say it. They won’t regret it, and you probably won’t either.
Is this it? Is this it? The light at the end of the tunnel arrived suddenly as we broke from the bushes into the clearing of the open firetrail. Our exhilaration was witnessed by a tall skinny volunteer and a bunch of ragged water containers. It was a quarter to three. At 162km into a 175km race, we’d avoided getting disqualified by just 15 minutes. That could have been the 15-minute nap I didn’t take at Yarramalong. That could have been the 15-minute nap I didn’t take at the top of Bumble Hill. It could have been the 15-minute shoe change I didn’t make during the whole event. It might have been the 15-minutes I didn’t spend sitting beside the trail before getting to the Basin when I was wondering how it had all gone so completely to hell.
Between all, and nothing.
But for now we were just manically happy. If we had burst into a magical grove of unicorns farting rainbows while playing Stairway to Heaven on flaming golden harps we couldn’t have been happier.
Yes. That happy.
What came next was kind of a blur. We caught up to a runner called Tay, but whenever I managed to use his name in conversation I would call him Tray, which I would also shout loudly when we later thought he had got lost again. If he hadn’t got lost in the first place, probably multiple times, we wouldn’t have run up Mt. Wondabyne with him. Dude was fast.
Jess chatted merrily, happy to have a conversation partner who could actually make conversation. My bravado returned as I put in what felt like a 3-minute kay downhill but was probably more like 3km/h, leaving them behind for just long enough to make us all wonder why I hadn’t run like that any time in the last 34 hours. But then it was a return to diesel-engine-clogged-with-sugar mode, as Beast Mode sputtered back out of existence.
What really stands out from this final stretch, once Tay had accelerated and disappeared once more on his personal nav challenge, is just how utterly soul-destroying the almost-final part of the final stretch of the GNW miler can be. Relatively speaking, moments before hitting The Neverending Firetrail we had been doing cartwheels with Bambi while God and Buddha played Breakdance Twister and all was perfect in the world. Now, I was thinking about following my GPS heading toward Patonga in a straight line, through seriously scratchy bushland, over unnecessary peaks and probably off cliffs.
For an easy-to-run road, that last bit before the final crossing and the final final stretch, just before you get to the final final final stretch with its ridiculous staircase, is AN OBNOXIOUS PUNCHLINE! It’s the final chuckle that RD Dave Byrnes has at our expense. He sends us on a 100-miler that keeps going long after Chris Turnbull has fallen asleep on an anthill because it’s 108 miles, and after even the most forest-loving runner has buckled and sent out a prayer for long, wide, non-technical packed firetrail, he gives us the frickin’ Magic Pudding of Firetrails. No matter how long you’ve been on it, no matter how many times you hit the last bend, no matter how many times you see it finally bending toward that last road crossing in the middle distance, it keeps going a bit further, bending one more time, looking like it’s almost over, then laughing at your expense. AAAARGH!
Then we make it. And like we’re fleeing a burning building we rush toward that last bit of gravelly open road.
And suddenly there’s excitement. Runners up ahead. A last competitive urge, I get some deep calming breaths in and prepare to rev the engine as we go past them. But what’s this? A pee break? Sightseeing?
Nope. With the little red man taunting them from just metres away, they look frantically in every direction but the one they’re meant to be taking.
We blast through between them, calling out ‘it’s this way, then down and right to Patonga, go, go’. Unless they’re on similar levels of caffeine, they’re probably hearing unintelligibly fast Esperanto, made harder still to comprehend by the Doppler Effect.
One last shout as an offering to the Gods of Sportsmanship and Mortal Combat:
“Over here! TRAAAAY!”
And then we’re gone. Fuelled once again by the excited energy of the baffling overtake, amused by the silliness of running once more up a hill to get to a beach, the interminably long winding section of single track before the interminably longer bounce and fly and stagger of the final uneven and twisting stair descent to the sacred sands.
My face is flapping around my ears from the sheer stupidity of my grin now, lungs and heartbeat don’t even matter here. It’s all about movement through space now. Jess feels it too, delirious thrill of the cowbell. Surely the only thing waiting on the beach for us by now will be a poorly timed birthday party for a local 5-year-old whose friends and family are going to halt their conversations and look on aghast as their pitch is invaded by sweat-monsters with deep black circles where their eyes used to be.
It’s the beautiful, beautiful Trotters and a ragtag but surprisingly large bunch of runners, crew, finishers, DNFs, vollies, and the man himself, Big Dave Byrnes and his Neon Yellow Sports Vest.
But they’re a melange right now, a mess of recognisable and unrecognised faces, smiling widely themselves and cheering as we fight against the soft sand to get to our final goal.
That little red man.
We’re racing each other. One last chance to run as hard as you can. Totally ridiculous and completely appropriate.
Feeling like kneeling in an amphitheatre, some Olympian Hall of Running, even though it’s actually the edge of a thin strip of sand across from a park and a pub somewhere on the Central Coast on a cloudy Sunday evening in the midst of an arc of cheering friends and curious passersby, I gratefully kiss that beautiful little red bastard’s exceptionally round head and feel nothing but the moment.
It’s an indescribable release.
Jess is beside me, Dave is grinning like he just ran the whole damned thing himself, and a finisher’s medal has never felt so good. Graham, too humble to take well-earned credit holds back. And then the 3 of us are hugging and laughing like we’ve just broken the sound barrier, instead of running a race so slow I nearly got us kicked off the course.
When I ran Great Ocean Walk, the thought for the day was that at the end I would throw everything on the ground and race into the sea.
Finished on top of a damned cliff.
Hume and Hovell 100, the last 50km took us along a gorgeous inland sea, it teased us in the heat of the day, always just out of reach. I promised I’d jump into its cool blue embrace at the end of the day.
Finished at the bottom of the dam wall.
Ned Kelly 100 was in Wangaratta. It was a great day out, gorgeous views, fantastic race.
Not a venue known for its water features.
But this was it, finally. An epic month, a self-set challenge with the real chance of failure, an unknowable outcome, and the sweet, sweet shoreline.
Shoes and socks straight off, into the surging ocean with barely a minute’s delay. A delirious sense of satisfaction.
And then celebrating with everyone else as more runners with more stories of their own come straggling across the sand, heralded by The Cowbell of Victory.
Cold sea rolling against my legs, crushed shells and thick sand granules individually tormenting every single nerve ending I didn’t know I had in my feet, a small cluster of happiness and first-times barely visible as a dot from space, we shone.
Congratulations on reaching the end of my 100-miler race report. You are now ready to run one yourself, based solely on the endurance you have shown in reading this far. At some time in the not too distant future, I will post some of the useful practical things I have learnt during Octember about endurance running and recovery. The articles will be hosted here at http://www.runeatsleeprun.com, http://www.hokaoneoneaustralia.com, and, if they’re type-1-relevant enough, at the other blog that I host, http://www.type1ultra.com. As one final set of figures from this outing on the GNW, here are some numbers to consider – 50km Saturday morning in 8 hours, 37km Saturday afternoon in 10 hours, 70g carbohydrate in 6 hours, 175km in 35:18, 474 race kilometres in 4 ultramarathons within 30 days in roughly 75 hours and 46 minutes. Got it done.