On Saturday the 8th of March this year, Australia’s largest 100 % off-road marathon celebrated its 30th birthday, and I was not going to miss the party.
I arrived in Katoomba on a rainy Friday afternoon. After picking up race numbers for all of the Night Striders, I met up with #1 supporter Rich, and we went for an easy jog up to Echo Point, to check out the sights and shake out the legs a little. We returned to Katoomba YHA for an athlete’s dinner of eggplant agnolotti followed by the secret weapon, popping candy Marvellous Creations chocolate. I caught up with Helen, Kellie and Darlene, the other Night Striders doing the race, put the Garmin on charge, and turned in for an early night.
At 4.15am, the alarm sounded. Race day. It didn’t begin as planned. As I went to put my Garmin on, I discovered it was flat. I must not have connected it properly when I put it on to charge the night before. DAMN! I would have to rely on my endomondo phone app to track me, which would be carried in my back pocket, and not easily viewable. I continued to get dressed.
Breakfast consisted of pikelets with strawberry jam, a banana and a powerbar. I caught up with the other girls, and just after 5.30, we set off for the shuttle bus that would take us to the explorer’s marked tree, where the race would commence. It was over an hour until the race started when we arrived, and it was still dark. Richard asked me if I thought I might break the 5 hour mark. “NO WAY!”, I replied. My time in 2013 had been 5 hours 26 minutes. “I hope you see me before 12:30pm”, I said. That would be a PB. I would be happy to finish the race in under 5 hours, 25 minutes.
The 6 Foot Track marathon is started in 5 waves, with preference given to the faster and the more experienced runners. Between 200-300 runners start in each wave. Last year, I started in wave 4. This year, I was in wave 2.
at 7am ON THE DOT (seriously, it was to the second) the race was started by the man wearing number 1, Max Bogenhuber, a legend of the race, who has ran it every year since it’s inception in 1984. His muscular, sinewy legs look like they still had another 30 in them. The first wave of runners charged off down the steep steps through Nellie’s Glen.
Helen, who was in wave 3, had decided to start with me in wave 2. This was great news, as our road marathon times are the same, and she also had a Garmin. My fellow Striders Kellie, Darlene and Anne would be starting in later waves.
At 7:05 am we were away! We navigated the narrow, winding path that led down to the stairs that led down to the floor of the Megalong valley. 1st kilometre complete is 9 minutes 49 seconds. 2nd kilometre complete in 7 minutes 48 seconds. It was slow-going at the start, single file down the stairs, and by the time we reached the bottom, I had already lost Helen.
The track opened out to a dirt road, and kilometres 4 through to 7 were run at sub-5 minute pace. Then we hit the grass fields, fence crossings and single track, and the pace slowed a little. I was bounding and bouncing down the rocky path, navigating the turns, tree roots and other runners. A couple of times my shoes slipped and my ankles rolled, and the runners behind me gasped and said ‘Be careful!’ But it didn’t hurt, I must have good proprioreception in my ankles. All the time spent in yoga class balancing on one foot was paying off. I could hear Cox’s river running from a few kilometres away, as we ran down towards it. I reached the river in 1 hour 29 minutes, 20 minutes ahead of last year (I did not realize this at the time, only after the race, when I compared my times) I was placed 335th overall at this point. I crossed the river, which was thigh-deep. It was not running as fast as last year, so I did not pick up too much gravel in my shoes. I stepped out of the river and took sports drink from the aid station. Cox’s river is the the lowest point of the course (400m), and I was on a high. I was feeling awesome. Not for long.
As you emerge from the creek, you begin the climb up mini-mini, which is a terrible name, because there is not really anything ‘mini’ about a 5km-long hill. It felt like twice that.
Kilometre 17: 9:19
Kilometre 18: 9:11
Kilometre 19: 9:01
I took my cues from the other runners around me. I walked when everyone else was walking, and, when everyone was running, I tried to run too.
20km in, 2 hrs 13 minutes had elapsed, and I got a nice little downhill run for a couple of kilometres to Alum creek, another little creek crossing, only ankle deep. It was good to get some momentum back in the legs.
Then came the Pluviometer, or ‘Pluvi’, as it is affectionately known. Not a rain gauge, there were no weather stations or meteorologists in sight. This Pluviometer is a great big hill. I ran (ok, walked) my slowest kilometre of the race, in 11 minutes. The next few were not much better. I felt like I was doing this section of the race slower than last year, and that lots of other runners were passing me. I was getting sharp, intermittent cramps through my right ITB, where I had bruised it a few days before. I had another gel, some salt tablets, gritted my teeth and kept going.
Pluvi was over at about the 27km mark. I was still placed 335th overall at this point, so I must not have been doing as badly as I thought I was. I decided not to stop and change socks. (I had been carrying a spare pair in a ziplock bag, to change into if too much gravel from the creek crossings entered my shoes). The next few km after Pluvi was a gentle rise along the ridge line towards the Black Range campsite. I tried to get some momentum back into the legs by running, but it was more of a jog-walk. I was spent. I had reached Black Range, the highest point of the course (1200m elevation), but I was running low. If I had the option of pulling out at this point, I probably would have taken it.
Luckily, it’s all downhill from there ( Okay, maybe not ALL downhill, but don’t forget that this race is a net downhill race).
At the 30km mark, 3 hours 29 minutes had elapsed. I realized after the race was over that at this point, I was 21 minutes ahead of last year’s time. Time to bring it home.
I safely made it through the steep downhill sections that caused me to fall last year. Legs were feeling OK. I had topped up on coke at a couple of the aid stations. The trails were not too technical here, just dirt roads. I banked a few ‘good’ kilometres, in 5:46, then 5.32. I was coming home.
At the 35km mark, my clock read 11:06am. I wanted to finish by 12:30. I had given myself 1 hour and 24 minutes to run 10km. If I could do that, I would PB. But, I knew what was coming. It is also really hard to predict your finishing time in this race, because the terrain, and your pace, varies so heavily.
I met the steepest hill of the day at kilometre 36, the one that caught me off-guard last year, when I thought all the hills were done. But this year, I was expecting it. I walked up it with the other competitors, and knowing that the works of it was finally over, tried to get running again as quickly as I could. Finally, the dirt track crossed Jenolan Road, the undulating single track began, and I knew the end was near.
Up ahead, I caught sight of a blue singlet, worn by a girl who I had leap-frogged with for part of the first 15km. She had quickly shown me who was boss when we reached the big hills, and disappeared out of sight. As I ran up beside her, she looked over, exclaimed “not you again!” And surged ahead. I let her go. I met a short incline, the last of the day, which I chose to walk up, knowing what was coming next. Glancing at my watch, I know that I have been making good time for the last few kilometres.
Downhill. STEEP downhill. Uneven ground, and big loose stones the size of your fist scattered all over the narrow, rocky road. Instinctively, you want to slow down and be sure of where you are putting your feet, because one wrong foot placement could send you toppling over the edge. The girl in the blue singlet may be better on the uphill, but It seems that I am less hesitant on the downhill. I come up behind her, but it is hard to overtake, because the road is so narrow. when I finally get the opportunity to, I accelerate, not wanting to be passed again if the road evens out. Before I know it, I’m running around the rocky ridgeline, which I know means the end is near. I’m excited, because I think I am about to run a 10-minute PB.
I can hear the cowbells ringing from caves house in the distance. The sound must be carrying a long way, because my watch reads that the time is 12:00 midday. Then, I came over the top of the ridge and catch my first glimpse of the caves below. It is an amazing sight to see. OH. MY. GOD! I am within minutes of running a sub 5 hour time. If only I can somehow get to the bottom in the next 5 minutes…. But it seems so far away! I realize I’m going to miss out on a sub-5 hour time by mere seconds as I begin my final descent, down the long sets of stairs that zig-zag back and forth from the top of the ridge line to the caves far below. My legs are moving as fast as they can, and my arms are outstretched, ready to grab onto the hand rail, just in case. I made the final turn onto the road, and catch sight of the finish line. My eyes are searching the crowd for Richard, hoping to see him, but aware that I’m about half an hour ahead of schedule, and he might not be here yet. But I find him, jumping around, and completely miss his hand that is outstretched for a high 5 as I run past him to the finish line. I don’t stop for water, just my finisher’s medal, then run off into the crowd to find him. And when I do, I think he is even more excited that I am! Neither of us can believe it. 4:57:24. I broke 5 hours! Overall 258th. That’s 77 overall positions made up in the last section of the race. 29 minutes faster than last year. I finished hard, and was very happy with my result.
The finish line has such a great atmosphere, despite the odour of 850 sweaty ultra marathon runners converging on one small area. I wandered around, waiting for the other night striders to cross the line, and celebrated with them.
When it was all over, it was time to catch the shuttle bus back to the car. Helen, Kellie, Darls, Rich and I walked up to the waiting area, and was met with one very loooooooooooooooooong line. We saw only one small minibus being used to shuttle runners up the narrow, winding road. We were in for a long wait, and were not really in the mood for it. The ever-resourceful Richard managed to hitch a ride on the back of a ute shared with 2 kelpies, and made it back to our car, while we sat in the shade and enjoyed a large bag of Smith’s chips. He was back in no time, and we were headed home, pleased not to have to sit on a bus full of stinky, sweaty runners. Thankyou to my fellow Striders for their support, and to Richard, I really could not have done it without you.
I look forward to running 6 foot again next year, although next time I am intent on slowing down and enjoying the scenery.
Darlene’s Race Report:
Really 6FT Track I simply must have the last say.
Last year I walked gingerly away from you with my head held high thinking I stomped all over your arse. This year you took your revenge and taught me a very valuable lesson. Never underestimate you.
On a perfect running weather day you took one look at me and sniggered at my excitement and jokes at the starting line. Lulling me into a false sense of security that I could finish this run unscathed and not be swept away.
You knew you had the Black Ranges up your sleeve if I got passed the Pluvi. If that didn’t kill me you still had the “Final Assult” as it is often referred to at 36kms and this would be your nail in my coffin. I definitely felt you hammering that nail and feel the full pain of it today 2 days later. Somehow I managed to stagger passed and finish, and for that you sent me straight to the ambulance.
I will let you have this year, BUT for next year I’m warning you. I’m not scared of your scary decent anymore and I will be back to have my happy sub 6 ending. I dearly would like to fall in love with you again, and I know the hatred I feel for you now is a process I need to work through. The perfect feeling to help get me up so early in the morning to come back next year and reacquaint ourselves.
Until next year I hope you enjoy your cold winter… No I really do and my promise for next year is I will never utter the words “I told you so”.
Adam Clarke 4:08:15
Phil Tweed 4:26:12
Chris Hayes 4:40:29
kirby Clarke 4:57:24
Terry Punch 5:12:58
Helen Cornwell 5:48:44
Kellie Smith 6:04:08
Darlene Reis 6:34:31
Anne Harcombe 6:43:32
Rich Munro #1 Supporter