On Saturday the 12th of March this year, Australia’s largest 100 % off-road marathon was run for the 31st 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 4th time running 6 Foot, and Darlene’s 4th too, along with a lot of first timers. In fact this year boasted the highest percentage of first timers since 1985. (In 1984, they were all first timers!)
Driving to 6 Foot Track…
Kelly Healey and I arrived in Katoomba on Friday evening. We picked up our numbers, and I had anticipated picking up some gels too, as there is usually quite a good little expo from Fastgear at this race. I had no gels at home, so had planned in picking some up here. Unfortunately, it seemed that tailwind had the monopoly this year, as it was the only stand at the pick up point. I know a few people who swear by tailwind, but I don’t like it, so I was quite disappointed, as my nutrition plan had just gone out the window. Next we headed to the supermarket to get some supplies for dinner, and a few dodgy supermarket gels.
Cooking up a storm…
We checked into our accomodation, Katoomba YHA, and headed to the kitchen to cook our dinner: Ravioli for me, and Salmon for Kel. We enjoyed a glass of wine, got our gear ready for the morning, and set the alarm for 4am.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP! It’s Race day. Kel and I got up and started getting ready, eating breakfast while we dressed. Once ready, we headed to wait out the front of the Hostel for one of the first buses to the start line.
As usual, 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.
I had no idea how I would go this year. I had been back from our Canadian honeymoon for only a few days, and had not run a lot in recent weeks. For the last few months, I had heavily cut back on the running in favour of an intense strength-building bootcamp 4 days a week. I had only done 3 trail runs in the last 3 months, but one of them was a recreational run of the entire 6 foot track a few weeks before, which was about to prove to be my saving grace.
I think that 6 foot track is a race for strong runners, not necessarily for fast runners, so hopefully my new found leg strength from spending the last 15 weeks hanging out at the gorilla pit squatting more than my own body weight would help me. The plan was to get to the river faster than last year, survive the middle leg up the hills, and run home as fast as I could.
The first wave started, and as soon as they were gone wave 2 swiftly moved into place. I had missed my chance to get a good spot on the start line, which was critical in order to not get held up on the descent. I squeezed myself into the middle, just behind Justin Brock. At 7.05am, wave 2 started. Caught up in the rush of runners around me, I tried to keep up, navigating the narrow, winding path until 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.
I like to divide the course up in to 3 legs: The first 15.5km down to Cox’s river, the next 10.5km up to the top of Pluvi, and the final 19km along the Black Range and down to the finish. I think that if you are running consistently, your time for the first 15.5km and your time for the second 10.5km should be approximately equal.
The course drops nearly 400m in the first 2 km, and it is slowgoing. At a stream crossing, my foot slipped on a rock and went plunging straight into the water. Great, wet socks already. Soon after, my feel slipped out from underneath me and I ended up on my butt on the ground. Not off to a great start!
Soon the valley floor opened up onto a dirt road, then I hit the grass fields, fence crossings and single track. I was feeling good, and doing OK for time, but it was still to early to really tell. I navigated down the rocky path, twisting and turning down towards the river. Soon, I could hear it rushing in the distance, but it seemed to take forever to come. I constantly looked at my watch, hoping to beat last year’s time to the river, which was 1:31:12. This year, the level of the creek was quite low, coming up not far over my knees. It was a surprise, given the volume of rain we’d had recently. I made it in 1:27:03. For a comparison, the winners usually make it to this point in around an hour.
Now for the hard bit.
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. I was doing a lot of walking.
I was a few minutes ahead of last year, and my plan was just to survive this part of the course. The day was already heating up, and it was starting to feel quite warm.
At about the 20 kilometre mark, the course heads downhill towards another little creek Alum creek. It was nice to get some momentum back in the legs again before the long climb up Pluvi.
Pluviometer is a great big hill. Every year, I feel like a lot of people pass me on this leg, and this year was no exception. Hills are not my strong point. I made it from the river to the top of Pluvi in 1:29:44, beating my ‘King of the mountain’ split from last year by a minute and a half. At this stage, I had been running for just under 3 hours. My total race time so far was 2:56:48, compared to 3:02:26 the year before. Of course, at that point of the race, I did not know my exact times from this year or the previous year, but I estimated I was about 5 minutes ahead.
Because the terrain, and your pace varies so much in this race, it is very hard to predict your finish time, so I constantly compare my times to that of previous years, to try to get an idea of how I am going. At this point, I knew I was on track for a PB.
The next few kilometres after Pluvi consist of a gentle rise along the ridge line towards the Black Range campsite. As usual, my legs felt like jelly, and I was doing more of a shuffle than a run. It was impossible to imagine running again for the rest of the race. But soon enough, the feeling returned, thanks to the momentum gained on the downhill sections. I concentrated on running those bits as hard as I could.
I had been surviving on dodgy supermarket gels up until this point. But now, I felt it was time for my only GU, a maple bacon flavoured one that I had recently picked up in Canada. It tasted more like facon than bacon… those little fake bacon chips you used to get at the sizzler salad bar. I won’t be disappointed if the maple bacon GU’s don’t make it to our shores. But it did the job, I started to feel good again, and began to concentrate on catching and passing the next person in front of me.
Soon I passed Chris Hayes, and then Justin Brock. Both were not having good days. Chris was still recovering from a recent stress fracture, and Justin had gone out too hard again. It was only a couple of kilometres before the caves road crossing. This was the first year that they’d had timing mats at this point of the race. My time so far was 4:11:34. It was time for my favourite part of the course: The final stretch home.
I concentrated on running this leg as hard as I could. The end was not far now. For the next few kilometres, the track undulated between gentle rises and falls. Then came the downhill. STEEP downhill. The ground was uneven, and big, loose stones were scattered all over the narrow, rocky path. One wrong foot placement could send you toppling over the edge. I didn’t have time for that.
Many people were moving slowly, cautiously. I felt like I past a lot of people in these last couple of kilometres, including at least 3 girls.
As the path wound around the rocky ridgeline, the heat rising up was almost overwhelming. I wan up behind one guy, who said I snuck up on him and scared him. “Get out of my way, buddy” I think to myself. I don’t have time for niceties. I can sniff a PB coming on.
I can hear the cow bells ringing as I come over the top of the ridge. I can see Caves house below, but it looks so far away. As I begin the final descent, I check my watch and realise that I’m a chance of going under 4:50 so I give it all that I’ve got and go absolutely hell for leather, zig-zagging down the long sets of the stairs, grabbing the hand rails and swinging myself around each corner. As I make the final turn onto the road, I can see the finish line. I run towards it as fast as I can, finishing in a time of 4:49:31, a 4 and a half minute PB.
Despite the odour of hundreds of sweaty ultramarathon runners converging on one small area, the finish line has a great atmosphere. I sat around with the other finishers, waiting for other friends to cross the line.
It was a long bus ride home to Katoomba, and I didn’t feel very well. I was sick as we got off the bus, and a few more times on the way home. My apologies go out to Kelly who had to do most of the driving, because I was so ill. Perhaps I put myself into a bigger hole than I thought I did. I was obviously quite dehydrated.
A post-race review of the results revealed that I now hold the 4th fastest female time in recorded history for the section of the course from the Caves Road crossing to the finish line. (Just don’t mention to anyone that they only started recording this history in 2016, as no other years have had a timing mat at the road crossing.) Only 17 Seconds behind the girl who won the race! Now the downhill is nailed, I just have to learn to run UP the hills!