Thank you Andy Hewat, we were battling together even if separated. Thank you Hailey Lauren, without your unwavering get-it-done attitude I think I would have broken. Thank you Dad, more than any other this one was for you.
When people unfamiliar with trail ultramarathon ask what you do and you reply, “I run ultra”, I’m sure they picture a legitimate sport conducted by top end athletes. Maybe they imagine someone that looks a bit like Brendan Davies, Jo Brischetto, Lucy Bartholomew, Ben Duffus or any of the top level badasses we know and admire, tearing effortlessly across impossible terrain, whittling obscene distances down until nothing remains but the finish chute and arms held high in a slow motion solo victory parade.
But that’s not what I’m saying, not at all. When I say “I run ultra” I mean that I walk, hike, shuffle, limp, stagger, and occasionally run (but never jog) stupid distances for silly amounts of time at paces that mathematically seem absurdly easy with a heavy pack on my back, full of food and fluid and preparation for any outcome. I mean that on any given race day our sport will take me into at least the sunrise of a new day, probably through multiple climate zones, and may feature any combination of blisters, vomiting, sleep deprivation, or other bodily failures that just blend into the variable terrain that exists between start and hopefully finish lines.
Early in my latest idiotic endeavor around the principality of Andorra I had some middle of the night epiphany. I realized that the best way to explain ultra would be to describe it as a pursuit where you need to control what you can, manage what you can’t, and adapt to everything that remains. In this way, it becomes a neat simile for life. I felt smugly content with this elucidation.
Then the world fell apart.
Walking through the silence,
Already made it through the night.
There will be a new day,
Whenever the sun rises.
Lyric from Lowlands by GOJIRA.
Ronda Del Cims.
Andorra is a principality in northern Spain, close to the French border. The population is extremely friendly. The countryside is as steep as it is spectacular. I came to Andorra early in July of 2017 to take on Ronda Dels Cims, a 170km loop of the territory with a total ascent of 13,500 metres. Ultra All-Star and Great Ocean Walk RD Andy Hewat also got sucked into this madness, having previously considered this mountain monster some years ago but butchered his feet before a starting line was even in sight. Once we got talking about this race some months before, he’d launched his entry process before coolly letting me know there was a spare bed at his Andorran accommodation if I needed one. The man has a special style.
The pathway to this race had not been easy. Training mileage had averaged about 50-60km per week, typically with about 3,000 metres of vert. Even a conservative goal would have been for roughly twice that kind of load. Talking with coach Andy Dubois, the guidance was to take it very easy over the first 60km as the body would be deciding how things felt based on expectations shaped by 35km long runs. At the start of the training block I had an aspiration to hit 46 hours, the same time as UTMB with flu. I figured an extra 3,500m of vert and some pretty free range technical terrain would balance the absence of a headful of snot.
By the end of the block my goal was just to be among the 50% of starters expected to finish the course within the 62-hour cutoff.
Race morning was not tense, it was exciting. We’d spent 4 hours the day before registering, organizing and leaving our 2 dropbags for Margineda at 73km and Pas De La Casa at 130km, and getting briefed on the course. Now we just wanted to go. And finally we did. The town’s giant statue King and Queen danced to tribal drumming beside us, fireworks and confetti exploded, the crowd roared, and away we went.
Perfect cool but mild conditions gave us no assurances of a clear weekend, with the one predictable element of alpine being the unpredictable elements. As the few kilometres of level road at the start of the course ran out, there was only the certainty of sore legs and self-doubt ahead.
The way I’d approached this race was to break it down into its key components – 15 peaks and passes, each with an average climb of about 900 metres, highlights including an 880m climb over 3km at the marathon mark, and a 380 metre climb within 1km at the 138km mark, everything’s downhill from the 153km point so you only have to make it that far to get to the finish, sort of. But this also means the average gradient for the first 90 per cent of the course is effectively 18 per cent.
As long as you can accept 3km/h forward motion as progress, you should be fine.
The first marathon passed by in a bit over ten hours. It made Running Wild’s Mt Solitary Ultra seem like a tempo run. I’d had a torrid time at that race though. My father had been ill with age and heart-related issues for some time and he was once again in hospital when I ran in the Blue Mountains as part of my very patchy preparation for Andorra. Every time I descended into a valley and lost phone reception I was dreading what text message or phone call I might receive when I again climbed into range.
I ran then remembering the experience of a good friend, Jane Trumper, who had been notified of the loss of her brother during an earlier incarnation of Ultra-Trail Australia. I tried to imagine the strength and state of Zen it must have taken Jane to finish her race that day. I remember her telling me how she had come out of thick forest crying her eyes out. When a race marshall asked what had happened, she told him that her brother had died. There was confusion before it was established that no, he wasn’t another runner somewhere back on the course.
These thoughts and fears were with me again as I started the legendary climb out of Comapedrosa. Surround yourself with steepsided slopes where every direction that isn’t down a waterfall is up a sheer pile of rocks and you can start to picture this route. Andorran ponies are beautiful gigantic animals. With their gigantic muscled bodies and proud prancing movement, entirely functional as it helps them cross nasty rocky terrain, they look like they carried knights into battle. These proud animals dotted the route ahead, largely ignoring the synthetically dressed humans sweating and straining through their national park home, hiking poles clicking all over the valley.
That’s the green first stage of the climb. The second stage is loose rock stacked about 70 metres wide and 500 metres high, inviting broken or strained ankles while offering stunning long valley vistas behind and the first bleeding colours of dusk along the rim of the vertical horizon above. Whatever kind of rocks these are, they are all over Andorra and they clatter together with a melodic distinction similar to the jangling of empty milk bottles.
Finally finding a compacted pathway I made for what I thought was the last lip of the climb, only to find another false summit. An even more daunting and devastated boulder field spread out before me. Bagpipes hauntingly echoed in the distance as dusk quickly faded to dark and I made for the high pass pushing loose dirt and rock down the slope even as I refused to put my torch on until I was up and out.
My blood sugars had been sitting high for over an hour despite standard injections. I’d delayed taking the slow-acting insulin that keeps me level throughout the day as the climb was an unknown and a high sugar was preferable to the crippling shakes and weakness of a low. But now I was sitting at 4 times my functional level and needed to prevent symptoms like dehydration, nausea and apathy. Under torchlight I put 2 units of insulin straight into my bloodstream and moved on, sure that levels would rapidly normalize.
The climb continued, with a full moon now rising above the final stage. A steep and occasionally precarious zigzag just kept going before sudden high 5s with volunteers playing drums atop a ridgeline, a sharp switchback and the kind of technical descent that just doesn’t happen in Australia anywhere outside of the Victorian Alps.
These were moments of beauty, isolation, and mild fatigue of the kind that ultimately leads to deep exhaustion and the astounding feats and unimaginable failures which accompany it. This was immersion in a remote landscape where the only solution ultimately involves your feet.
The kilometres ticked over but I was counting ascent. By the time 50km had ticked over I’d already climbed and descended more vert than a runner completing the UTA100 course. This was one game I had going – measuring vert against other races, with Great Ocean Walk vert achieved in just over 30km, Coast2Kosci likely around 60km, then GNW miler sometime after that and the 10,000 metres ascent of UTMB likely to be done by about 130km.
At the 50km aid station I was tucking into a bowl I’d filled with soup, cheese, meats, pasta and crackers when Andy Hewat arrived, right on cue. He’d predicted he’d catch me about 50km and his slow-but-steady war of attrition from the back of the field was shaping up as expected. It was getting toward midnight, we faced a 9am cutoff at the 73km mark and we both knew the maths would punish inattention. Andy headed back out as I took care of a few things then followed. Anxious that cutoff was creeping up and determined not to fail, I cranked the iPod.
Music got my blood going and after a withering climb I hit a good ridgeline and finally got running again. With rhythm lines sounding like a helicopter squadron battling a tank battalion and extraordinary lyrics resulting from a combination of French native speakers writing in English and the two brothers in the band losing their mother during their last album, GOJIRA was the band playing loudly now. They had been for some months now, throughout my preparation for this race.
Soon I was past Andy after a brief conversation. He was humming along on his single speed, I was surging and slowing so we figured we would see each other again soon. We knew that there would be no free rides over the next 40 or so hours.
Run Lab coach Hailey Lauren was crewing for us. Originally the hope had been that she might drop by with ginger beer a couple of times out on course in between extended trips into the surrounding Pyrenees with her camera. But instead she was an absolute crewing hero and supportive force of nature, sending updates about conditions at aid stations and times and distances between checkpoints, as well as getting to the road accessible aid stations every 5 or 6 hours or so with extra supplies. Receiving a message from her now added extra motivation and I pushed on through the night while the body felt good and made up close to an hour getting into Botella at 63km, shortly after 3am.
And then everything really meant something else.
I ran UTMB last year for my Dad, undeclared. In the end I was so sick from the very start of that race that I had to run it to see if I could even make it to the end. You don’t want to announce that you are running for somebody and then fail. Then when he was in hospital again late in the year, in December, I ran Coast2Kosci thinking about him, dedicating it to him. But it’s Coast2Kosci. It’s a seriously tough race surrounded by about a hundred friends. You can only bring a finite degree of somberness to such an occasion, where even a terrible time is still a pretty great time.
But Andorra was something else. I’d told Dad that he’d be in my thoughts every step. He’d told me to go and do my race, saying that he’d be there when I got back. We both knew nothing was that certain, but it was a beautiful white lie to share.
I’d spoken on the phone to Mum just a few kilometres out from Botella. Loving his Welsh roots and remembering those times we’d watched ZULU together, I’d said he might like to hear Men of Harlech played on a stereo in his hospital room. She told me how he’d tried to get up at 4am to do exercises but the nurse sent him back to bed and told her to go home. I told her I was using his mantra, “not too bad” in occasional conversations with myself to answer the question “how are you going?/ how are the legs?/ how much does it hurt?”. This had been his answer every time when faced with debilitating physical pain if we asked how he was going. Even with a tired thin voice and evidence of pain written in his skin, he would always answer “not too bad”.
I’d been in the aid station at 63km in the dark of the Pyrenees maybe 10 minutes when I received the text message that Dad was likely in his last 24-48 hours.
And then I received the message that he had passed peacefully in his sleep.
If we hadn’t cleared all the air between us over the past couple of years, if we hadn’t known this was a real chance of happening soon, if we hadn’t made the time to really tell each other that we loved each other, I couldn’t have gone on.
Everything was suddenly meaningless. The man who’d been my best friend since the second I was born was suddenly gone from the planet. Hailey was there with me, Andy arrived soon after. There was nothing other than my friends here for me, and on the other side of the planet my family would each be in deep raw grief of their own and on their own. My incredible mother, married 62 years – happily, really beautifully and supportively together, now saying an inescapable goodbye. It was like everything being an ok kind of normal one second and then realizing in the next that your ribcage had been bloodlessly pulled from your body. The only way to go on was to go.
A howling mess of tears and heavy metal, I went into the night and the unknown wanting something to hurt me physically so that it would be a pain that would make sense, that would serve a purpose, that would heal. Rain was a welcome but all-too-light texture now. Until the descent to Margineda I could sob and stagger and tuck myself away off the trail with my headtorch switched off, eyes cast out across the strange lit-up cities below or into the useless night sky looking for an answer.
Then I got the pain I’d wanted. The descent would put me on my face, bloodying a forearm, then knock me on my ass. Steep and sharp loose rocks covered by soft fine dirt threw me on the ground one way and then the other, landing on my poles with my tailbone and bending one. It was like trying to run across marbles covered in washing powder.
Picturing the rest of the descent to be exactly more of this I was shattered and sorry for myself and wanted to just quit, all the while as nimble Europeans who know these complex surfaces skipped past me. And then there were chains in sheer rock faces, one-handed handholds to edge yourself around to the next disastrously precarious position, and the next, and the next. And then it was just 2 hours of a downhill too steep and loose to run and almost too painful to simply walk. I took a photo of the first sunrise to take place over a planet without my Dad on it. The physical pain didn’t go away now, but it just meant nothing.
While I was on the verge of giving up at Margineda, Hailey was a wall of positivity and got me to change shoes and shirt, load up on food and fluid, and shuffle my sorry ass back into battle with less than an hour to cutoff. I’d find out later that Andy had come in also despondent for his own reasons and been on the verge of ending it before she also steered him back into the fray.
By nightfall I was emotionally vacant. The moonrise was spectacular, a gigantic shiny metal disc peeking out between summits like a flying saucer crashed hard into Earth. There had been a temporary stoppage earlier because of extreme winds and hail. But as alpine adventures go, these conditions made more sense than the heat of the preceding day. We ran along snowfalls from the previous week, and followed reflectors and beacons in the night until they no longer made sense, literally.
In the deep dark of the second night, after about 42 hours on my feet, I lost all rational sense of what we were doing. Why were we following these little yellow lights, to the next one, and then the next one, each subsequent marker only becoming visible just as you were about to reach the one before it? We just needed to get to Pas De La Casa, the 130km aid station, and we needed to do it by not much after dawn – now maybe 5 hours away.
But I was in the middle of nowhere with only the occasional passerby at the top of some gigantic valley in the dark without any idea what I was doing or how to get where I needed to be. After contouring and staggering along steep grassy contours immersed in inky blackness I was mentally spent.
High up the slope ahead of me, I could see 2 headtorches hanging out with each other. I called up to them, “Are you going to Pasa De La Casa?”. They ignored me, maybe I’d pronounced it wrong. “Do you know the way to El Pas De La Casa?” I called out again. This time the one on the left just drifted away, embarrassed by my Spanish. And his friend started to slip behind a wall, as if to also hide.
“Hey?” I called up again, then figured there was only one way to get this done. Using my poles like pick axes I went straight up the sheer slope, some kind of righteous indignation fueling my legs and arms to work in unison and more strongly than they had all day. I think it was also the adrenaline of fear, expecting to be left in the wild and never find the course again.
“Hey, Place De La Casa?” I called out as I got closer to the remaining headtorch, then shut up dumbfounded by my own obvious exhaustion. It wasn’t a guy with a headtorch following the markers I was looking for.
It was the marker I was looking for.
Though I never felt a need to stop for sleep, I focused intently for the next few hours as the run took me up and down steep terrain, a mix of loose rock and slippery long grasses. Time was ticking, thoughts of the previous 24 hours swirled around me, and nothing but stubborn refusal to quit was going to get this done. If the next major aid station had been the finish line, then the 8km we had to negotiate to reach it could have simply been called The Final Insult. Disorientation meant I did need to sleep. But I also swore to myself that nothing was going to stop me finishing this for Dad, even if it meant no sleep and no sanity.
Line of sight suggested a short straight route through the dark to an illuminated Metropolis in the middle distance, but the course took us on jagged left and right turns, plunging down hard amongst giant boulders strewn across a debris-packed stone valley. Andy would remark almost identically, “what the ____ was that??” on reaching our next opportunity for food, fluid and warmth. Again, Hailey sorted everything out for me about a dozen times faster than I would have at that point. A 20-minute sleep on a camp bed was hardly refreshing but had me thinking much more clearly before hitting the final morning and crucial last day.
The route now cruelly descended into a river valley, thick with reeds and sucking mud. It was flat but no place to make up time. Needing to cover the next 13km in just over 4 hours after barely averaging that pace for the race until now, there was an awareness that everything could be futile if commitment wasn’t total. Then it was more climbing, some descending, and a climb whose steepness was by now merely hilarious rather than unbearable. Another aid station, another cut avoided.
The last climbs were monsters. They took us into what felt like it might have once been a gigantic volcanic mouth or crater. We were going deeper and further along but everything screamed for us to get up and out. Above us, storm clouds boiled at the edge of the mountains ringing us in what looked like a scene from the very creation of the world. And still time stalked us like a rabid dog.
With a nauseous angst that we had missed a turn, that we were just following the wrong race flags back to a previously visited aid station, I could feel everything that still mattered slipping away. Certain that everything now must be done with a do-or-die level of determination, I took the sharpest ascents I could. Nothing was going to stop this run. Finally out of the craterous mountain bowl and heading into the last 17km I got my animal on and caught up with Andy once more. He was doing it tough. We moved like very non-identical twins.
The Andorrans are so friendly, one runner had told us, that even if you get to the 9pm cutoff at 11pm, they’ll give you a finish. But we shunned that. You can’t have a 64-hour finish in a race with a 62-hour cutoff. We had to push hard. It didn’t help Andy’s motivation that he had hallucinated the next aid station being a lot closer than it ultimately was. Then he got motivated really quickly.
A final touch base with Hailey refocused us on the time and distance challenges ahead and then the hard panic of closing kilometres. Andy’s GPS battery was flat by now, so I had us chasing about 10km with 80 minutes to go. It was all downhill from here. And I’d thought it was going to now be open dirt road, as opposed to semi-technical trail. We had to run every downhill, we had to keep running the flat, we cursed the time-sapping uphills, then welcomed the relief of walking.
As the route zigzagged in through residences close to town then switched us back on to farm trails we could feel that we were close to straying beyond the edge of desperation. After 61 hours on our feet, with just 28 minutes left to knock over the final 4km, a couple of locals informed us that it was just 2km to go. Suddenly everything was Sound of Music. With a feeling like we were going to definitely make it we could relax enough to recall the horror descent to Margifuckingneda. Yes, we still had to keep pushing in case of any diversion, but we could do this. The cheers from passing cars told us so.
Everything hit me again now – everything he taught us, everything he’d endured over his final months, the kind of discomfort that a proud and stoic man would laughingly rate an 11 out of 10 – next to which the brief and voluntary discomfort of beaten feet and sore legs paled into less than nothing. There was the beginning of understanding, knowing that a hole that could never again be filled had opened in my reality, and that getting back to Australia would feel a unique kind of hollow. I’d run the hardest race of my life, the toughest physically and emotionally that I could have ever imagined, and he wouldn’t even be there to tell about it. He might never even know I’d finished. In his last moments of awareness, though, if his son would always be somewhere in big mountains taking on a ridiculous challenge and thinking of him every step, maybe that was enough.