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2005 12FT

12 FOOT TRACK,  (or  A Crow Stole My Rock Cake!) AUGUST 13, 2005  by Andrew Hewat

When people ask me why I run ultras, I now have an answer: the 12 Foot Track. They still won’t make any sense of that but nothing you say can ever adequately explain why we run these distances. But for me, the 12 Foot Track Fat Ass Run truly epitomises all things that make trail ultras so great.  

The 6 Foot Track Marathon is run annually in March from the Explorer’s Tree in Katoomba to the Jenolan Caves, retracing the path across the Blue Mountains followed by Wentworth, Blaxland and Lawson in the early 1800’s. Many hundreds turn out each year to complete the testing 45km trail run. It seemed inevitable given how ultra runners think (and that’s not always rational!), eventually someone would want to turn around at the caves and just run back. And yet, up until this year there were only 15 finishers of the 90km round trip ultramarathon, testament to the toughness and cult nature of the run. 

So, I’ve got two versions: the short and the long. The short: I had a ball. There was a good mix of hard hills, technical trail, wide open fire-trail, single-track, river crossings, wildlife, spectacular views, water points, toilet stops, shops at the half way and long enough to require some night running. It was tough, not bludgeoning tough, but tough enough that you had a significant sense of achievement on completion. And we had snow. How magic was that? And then there’s the long…

I have never run the 6 Foot Track Marathon. I have a slight aversion to crowds and the proximity to the AURA Maroondah Dam 50 in previous years gave me an excuse not to make the pilgrimage. But I still wanted to see what the attraction was. If I was going to go all the way up there for a run it might as well be a decent one. My preparation for the Glasshouse 100 miler required a solid trail run in August. The deal was done; I would do the 12 Foot Track.

Logistics suggested it would be easier with a car so my wife, Wendy, came with me and we stayed way out west with a friend. We did a reconnaissance run up to Katoomba on the Friday to check the start location and despite the blue sky, the wind was bitter and cut right through us. Next morning, after a 4 am rise and the regular pre-race rituals, we drove the 1:20 hrs to the top of the Blue Mountains. Wendy dropped me off in the early predawn light and picked me up 14 and a half hours later. As she was driving up to the Explorer’s Tree at 10 o’clock that night she warned her friend that I would be “wired and ravenous”. She was right on both counts. 

Wow, what a day! We were first to the car park at around 6:20am and soon the cars were rolling in. It was cold. Bone chilling cold. There had been heavy snowfalls through the week and the cold air still hung heavily over the mountains. One of the mountain bikers mistakenly thought my feet had frostbite but it was just my flesh coloured toe socks in my sandals. Similarly, Ken Smith’s tan coloured tights gave the appearance that he had some exotic skin disorder. After the traditional pre run breakfast laid out by Ross and Jill, layers were tentatively shed and runners emerged for the ceremonial Explorer’s Tree photos. You could feel the expectation in the air. 

I didn’t see the mountain bikers leave. Strangely, I never saw them all day. If it wasn’t for their tyre tracks they might never have been out there. Similarly, a mysterious woman who had turned up to run, disappeared with an early start and I never saw her again. While we waited for Sean Greenhill to arrive, she asked to start on time at 7 am, trying to minimise the likely time she would be out in the dark. After reassuring Kevin Tiller (the run organiser) that she had completed a sub 24 hour 100 miler on the track, she slipped away unobtrusively.

That left seven of us intent on going the distance. We loaded our packs into Scott Holz’s boot to be dropped at Megalong Valley and the rest of our supplies into Sean’s mum, Gayle’s car, for the Black Range Camping Ground drop. We were off at 7:30 am, quickly settling into two groups: Phil Murphy, Sean Greenhill and Jan Hermann out in front; Kevin Tiller, Ken Smith, Tim Turner and myself cruising behind. Being the only one in the group to be new to the track I was more than happy to settle with the pack. I had no expectations for the day. This was primarily to be a training run. Ken was looking to better his last year’s effort of 19 hours. Tim and I decided a sub 14 based on 6 hours out and 8 hours back would be good. Kev seemed to be happy to be out there and I think any kind of finish was foremost in his mind. We dodged a bobcat doing trail maintenance then descended the steep stairs single-file. My first thoughts were that we were going to have to get back up them in the dark that night after 89 km! This was going to be a long day. We were buoyed by the crisp mountain air, the clear blue sky, the jovial company and the fact that we were out in the bush doing what we love best: running trail ultras. 

The trail follows the creek along some picturesque single-track. It was breathlessly cold down in the valley but we were warming up. We passed through Nellies Glen and the track opened onto a broad fire-trail. Here we ran abreast chatting away the kms. It’s amazing how easy things flow early in a run when you’re in good company. This euphoria and absence of attention to landmarks served to produce uncertainty when we were running the reverse in the dark that night. 

Kevin and Ken gradually fell back and Tim and I fell into pace, as was the pattern for the day. In what seemed like no time we burst from the trees onto Megalong Valley Road. Ross and Jill had set up an aid table and Scott was there with all our gear. Such service on a Fat Ass run. Kev and Ken caught up and Kev showed us the famous hollow in the tree where we all stashed food for the return trip. How cool was this? Loaded up and refuelled we headed off, joined by Ross, who was coming for a run. How could he resist?

Before long we were climbing styes over fences and crossing frost covered pastures. The little red symbols of a bushwalker on a post were frequent and reassuring. Cresting a hill Kev detoured off track to show us a memorial plaque on a tree. (A past 6 Foot runner, his name escapes me after the long day, no disrespect intended, the plaque marking the site of his ashes.) Without even knowing the bloke I respected this choice of resting site high over the valley. Back on the trail we soon strung out and settled into our own pace, Tim and I again pulling away from the others. The running was good. The sun was warming us despite the puddles still being frozen. I was soaking it all up. After some rough single-track we found ourselves descending into the Cox River Valley. 

I’m not one for keeping splits but after picking our way across the river we spotted Sean refilling at the water tank. We must be doing OK. Sean took off, looking over his shoulder. I removed my thermal top and gloves. We refilled our bottles from the water tank. Kev joined us again, mixed some brews, and we started the climb up out of the valley. The rolling hills that formed Mini Mini Saddle had us climbing and before I knew it we were on the real climb up the Pluviometer. After all the horror stories I was surprised at how quickly we topped out. There was endless blue sky and rolling views over the Blue Mountains in all directions. We were making good progress. 

Along the Black Range Road the running was easy. We started seeing snow sprinkled in the shade. Ice was thick in the puddles, fractured here and there by bike tracks. The further we went the thicker the snow coverage. We were getting hungry and looking forward to our drop bags. The trail opened up and we were at the camping ground. There were no cars, just a bag hanging from the sign. “Where’s our stuff?” Tim spotted a crow pecking at something. It was his rock cake! “Hey, he’s eating my rock cake!” He started chasing the crow, which proceeded to hop away. As Tim lunged, the crow hopped, rock cake in its beak. Laugh? I cacked myself. Across the road, the crow flapped, weighed down by its bounty. Tim was relentless, cursing and swearing. The crow coughed up and Tim brushed off his prize and started on what was left! I was bent over double in stitches. He was muttering about crow diseases while I wiped the tears from my eyes. We worked out that the rest of our supplies must be still in Gayle’s car. We found out soon after that she had gone ahead to order hot chips at Caves. I still laugh when I see a crow. 

We refilled from the tank and were off. After crossing Caves Road the track undulates parallel to the road through the bush. The kangaroos showed no fear as we passed. We met Spud and stopped to chat. Such is the camaraderie on these runs. He told us the mystery woman was just in front of us and that the car with all our stuff was at Caves. I pulled away from Tim on the plummeting run down into Caves. “Want me to get you anything?”  I yelled back. “Just sort the beer,” I thought he said. “You want a beer?” “No, sort the GEAR!” Oh. What a bone jarring, quad-quivering descent. I flew past Sean before I knew it but stopped near the bottom when I met Jan. He told me the car had left but they would leave our gear at the Black Range campground. Still no mystery woman.

I hit the car park at Jenolan Caves at 6:01 for the half way split. There were tourists everywhere. It felt a little weird. I went straight to the toilet and when I came out Tim was sorting through his camelback. I bought a sandwich and coke and then followed him up the hill, regurgitating the coke. It is here that the work begins. Half down, half to go. Power walking up the steep path out of the Caves we threaded past more tourists. Tim was sucking in the big ones but couldn’t show it as a small boy paced him up the hill. Eventually, we were back in the bush. Ken appeared on his out bound leg. He told us Kev had planted his torch at Pluvi to guarantee his return. When we finally saw Kev coming towards us he wasn’t moving all that well, but his spirits were high. Tim questioned his intent but he still seemed upbeat. After we left I thought I should have offered my spare torch as by now he had little hope of getting back to Pluvi in the light. We also ran into the mystery woman’s partner at Caves Road. She was now behind us and still going!

We were pleased to see Tim’s wife, Tanya back at the campground. She had all our gear and we feasted and loaded up. The crows looked on with envy! It was getting cold again. We pushed solidly along the Black Range with the odd walk break. I was really enjoying this. Pluvi came up out of no-where and I went with gravity, pulling ahead. I was thinking that the Cox was at the bottom and I would stop there and add layers and don headlamp. I forgot about the hills of Mini Mini Saddle. I waited for Tim and we climbed yet again. It’s amazing how details escape you but I remember pausing to soak up the vista of the distant escarpment bathed in the fading light. Some roos were grazing nearby and I said to Tim: “how good is this?”

Lights on and we were soon separated by gravity again as we descended towards the Cox. Stretching out down a hill I nearly ran straight into a cow. Talk about freak me out! But I think I freaked it out more so it decided to chase Tim down the hill in revenge. At the Cox River some campers watched on as I refuelled and added thermals. Tim caught up again sans cow and we headed across the river, laughing at how Kev had one year ended up back on the same side as he had started from. And then we were somewhere out in the middle disoriented and not sure which way was forward! Eventually across, despite Tim’s best effort to fall in (with suitable encouragement from me) and we headed up the wrong track. We backtracked and were soon climbing out of the valley. Out of the darkness the mystery woman’s partner came walking towards us without a torch! He was planning to wait for her at the Cox crossing. We were bewildered as to how he had come so far in the dark. 

We continued to mix walking and running until in no time we were back at Megalong Valley Road. We raided the supply tree. An orange had never tasted so good. We plunged back onto the trail, boosted by the fact we only had 8 km to go. My ITB had been niggling for some time and I was genuinely looking forward to starting the climb to ease the pain. Several times I questioned Tim as to which road we should be on. My doubt infected him until we resolved to just follow the main road. This worked well and the fire-trail tapered back into single-track and we were at Nellies Glen. We climbed to the base of the stairs and up we went. I felt good and chugged ahead, Tim working a little harder. Water dripped off the cliff and our breath caused clouds of steam in our torchlights. We ran the short section back to the car park and stopped our watches at 10:27 hrs, euphoric in our achievement. Wendy had arrived 5 minutes earlier and timed the pick-up to perfection. Wow, what a run, made all the more memorable for having been able to share it with a kindred spirit.
Phil Murphy     11:26                     Andrew Hewat       14:27        
Sean Greenhill  12:15                     Ken Smith              19:02
Jan Hermann     13:35                     Kevin Tiller           approx 77km Last seen in tights at
Tim Turner        14:27                                                   Lithgow Pub at midnight!
Mystery Woman ?????