On Saturday the 14th of March this year, Australia’s largest 100 % off-road marathon was run for the 30th time. The race was first run in 1984, with only 7 starters, and this was the only year that 100% of the starting field has made the 45km journey from Katoomba to Jenolan caves within the 7 hour cutoff.
This year would be my 3rd time running 6 Foot, and Rich’s first. We arrived in Katoomba on a very foggy Friday afternoon. We picked up our numbers, and headed to the noodle box restaurant across the road for a quick dinner before checking into our accomodation, Katoomba Backpackers, because the YHA was sold out. I set the alarm for 4am and turned in for the night.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP! It’s Race day. First things first, I checked my Garmin. It was charged. We were already one step ahead of last year. I got dressed and started to eat breakfast, the standard apple muffin and banana, and drove to the school where we would get the bus to the start line.
We must have been on the first bus, because the start area looked very empty and eerie when we arrived at the Explorer’s Marked Tree. It was just over an hour until the start of the race, and still very dark. We took up a spot just right of the start line, the same spot as the year before, and waited for others to arrive.
My goal for this year was to have fun and enjoy the race, and secretly to run a PB. The year before, I had run a 30 minute PB on this course, but didn’t enjoy the run or the course at all. This year, I wanted a PB, but not at the expense of enjoying the race and talking to people along the way.
Bus load by bus load, the other runners started to arrive. As the sun rose, the little clearing in the bush was starting to get a bit crowded.
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. This year, I was in wave 2. Rich was in wave 1, and most of my friends were in wave 3, so I would be starting alone.
At 7am ON THE DOT The first wave of runners charged off down the steep steps through Nellie’s Glen.
It was time I made my way to the start line for Wave 2. I saw the familiar faces of Chris Hayes and Mick Reis in my wave. At 7:05 am we were away! We navigated the narrow, winding path, before everything came to a grinding halt only a few hundred metres in, as several hundred runners tried to merge into single file to descend the stairs that led down to the floor of the Megalong valley.
The course drops nearly 400m in the first 2 kilometres, and it’s slowgoing. The first kilometre took me 11:46. Once I got to the valley floor and the track opened onto dirt road, I was able to run a few good kilometres. 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. I felt like I was making good time. I could hear Cox’s river running in the distance. Running on the narrow winding path, I soon came up behind a group of 4 runners. The group soon came 6, then 10. There was nowhere to pass, an even if there was, I could not surge hard enough to pass 10 people. Some of the people in front of me probably wanted to pass the people in front of them too. I was stuck in a long conga line bound for Cox’s river. I had no choice but to stay on for the ride.
I reached the lowest point of the course, Cox’s river in 1:31:12, 2 minutes slower than last year. ” Oh well”, I thought, “there goes any chance I had of running a PB today”. Time to enjoy the race. I stopped and grabbed a drink from the aid station, and saw Mick Reis again. He soon took off up the hill, clearly much stronger on the climbs than I was.
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. Soon I was passed by Justin Brock, who must have had a stellar run down to the river, because he had started in wave 3, 10 minutes behind me. He said he was struggling up the hill, but was clearly doing much better than I was. I was doing lots of walking.
At about the 20 kilometre mark, the course heads downhill towards another little creek, Alum creek. It was nice to get some momentum back into the legs again before the long climb up Pluvi.
Pluviometer is a great big hill. I felt like I was getting passed by lots of people at this point. It was over about the 27km mark. My time at this point was still over a minute slower than the previous year. I decided that I would be happy with a finish time of 5:15:00 or less, as that should be enough to re-qualify for wave 2 next year. I was enjoying the race much more than last year, chatting to people along the way. At one point, I was running with a girl who had the same marathon PB as me, who was doing her first 6 foot. I told her she was currently on track for a sub-5 hour finish, but it’s really hard to predict your finishing time in this race, because the terrain, and your pace, varies so heavily.
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. My legs felt like jelly. I wondered how on earth I was going to run home.
Luckily, it’s all downhill from there ( Okay, maybe not ALL downhill, but don’t forget that this race is a net downhill race). I caught up to Mick Reis again, and he offered me caffeine tablets, but I was ok. We see-sawed back and forth past each other for the next few kilometres, him stronger on the climbs, while my forte seemed to be the downhills.
I safely made it through the steep downhill sections, running them as hard as I could in the hope of having some feeling returned to my legs. They were feeling OK. I had topped up on coke at a couple of the aid stations.
As I ran past Reisy again on another downhill section, I called out to him that we were coming up to the last big uphill of the race. We soon found it at kilometre 36. He powered past me. When I got to the top of the hill, he called out to me to start running again. It was the last thing I felt like doing, but I did it. When I finally caught up to him, I took him up on the offer of a caffeine tablet, and said that we only had a couple of kilometres left until we crossed Jenolan Road, and entered my favourite part of the course: the final stretch home.
We crossed the road together, and the undulating single track began. For the next couple of kilometres, the track alternated between gentle rises and falls. Then came the 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. I don’t want to think about what might happen if I make one wrong step here. Not long to go.
Before I know it, I’m running around the rocky ridgeline, which I know means the end is near. Other runners must be able to hear me thundering home, and step aside to let me pass them on the narrow path. I realize that I must be close to running a sub-5 hour time.
I pass Vlad standing in the bush, which is a nice surprise. He gives me a cheer.
I can hear the cowbells ringing from caves house in the distance. As I come over the top of the ridge and catch my first glimpse of the caves below. It is an amazing sight to see. 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. I run towards it as fast as I can, and cross with a finish time of 4:54:00, a PB by more than 3 minutes, and I enjoyed nearly every minute of it.
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, celebrating with Richard, who had finished his first 6 foot track in 4:06.
Congratulation to all of the other Night Striders and fellow Newcastle runners who ran 6 foot this year, especially the first timers. There were too many great results to mention. I hope to see you all back again next year!