12 Foot Track 2006
I looked at my watch again. I could still make it. I was no longer worried about who was in front or behind me. It was now all about time. I felt I could still break 12 hours despite having a really bad patch for the best part of an hour coming up from the Cox River. This was my second 12 Foot Track and it was such a contrast to last year. No crows, no cows, and no company. Well, maybe just a few cows: and there was that bull that burst out of the bushes on the island in the middle of the Cox, scaring the life out of me. Of course there was some company for the first hour and a half, before they all scampered away and left me alone. And those mischievous crows, well they were always lurking with intent……
I had been running all day and it was now dark. I was alone on the wide sandy road that glowed white under my headlamp heading towards Nellies Glen out of the Megalong Valley. I was running hard and making good time. But the road just kept going on and on and on: through a gate and then over another stile. Was there no end to it? I was ahead of all expectations but somewhere out there this had turned into a race. Not just a race against time. Somewhere up ahead of me Tim was running just as hard but if he slowed, I was poised to catch him. I looked at my watch again. It had been a long day.
Early morning and there was a nice symmetry: 12 of us lined up at the Explorer’s Tree for the start of the 12 Foot Track. Only 8 of us planned to go the full 90 km return trip to Cave’s House and back. 7:20 am start. Like a bunch of excited school-kids we had skipped down the track the short distance to the stairs before intentions were shown: Phil pushed ahead with Tim close behind and I found myself on their heels. The stairs were wet with run-off and the air was crisp in the shadows of the cliff as we wound our way carefully down, down, ever down. There is not a 12’ runner who doesn’t think about having to climb back up these steps after nearly 90kms of running. Once onto the firmer footing of the singletrack we surged further ahead. Crazy running at the start of an ultra, but infectious and hard to resist.
Through Nellies Glen the track opened onto a wide gravel road and we ran abreast telling tales. In no time we were winding our way through bush again into Megalong Valley. After crossing the creek the open fields crunched underfoot with a light dusting of frost. It was perfect running conditions, clear sky, cool air and good company. We burst onto Megalong Valley road in 45 mins. Ross and Jill had moved their pre-race breakfast stall to provide an early aid station. Sarge had our gear in his boot and we grabbed our camelbaks and stashed some supplies into the hollow of the tree for our return that evening. As we scampered off Wayne was coming into view through the trees in hot pursuit.
As we climbed Pinnacle Hill, Phil pulled ahead and I reminded Tim of our obligation to show the memorial tree to the 12 Foot virgins: Blue Dog and Horrie. We looked back and could see Blue Dog crossing the stile and climbing the hill. The sun on our backs was warm, so we removed a layer and got out some food while we waited. Dog was impressed with the view. A plaque on the tree marks the resting site of a runner’s ashes. Just as we were leaving Horrie appeared and I went back to show him the tree. The baton had been passed. Next year it would be their turn to wait and show any new runner’s the plaque.
Phil was long gone. We could now run our own pace. Or so I thought. It was clear that Tim was bent on making good time. We ran hard, pausing only to open and shut the odd gate, and reached the Cox in 1:34. A curious hiker was crawling out of his tent and gave the sort of quizzical look we usually get from the cows as we go past. The river was easy to cross with the low water, picking a path across the rocks. Over to the water tank for a top up and I decided to use the toilets. Tim said he would keep going but take it easy. I should have recognised that glint in his eye that said: catch me if you can.
As I geared up and headed up the road, Dog was crossing the river. I waved to him, signalling to catch up. I was walking the uphills so figured he would catch me soon enough. Up Mini Mini, which always seems tougher to me than Pluvi, so I give it plenty of respect. I half expected to see Tim on the downhill to Alum Creek but he was obviously not waiting around. I finally caught up and passed Ken who had taken an early start. He told me the others were about 10 minutes ahead. He looked comfortable despite a lugging a huge pack.
The sun was climbing but the cool mountain air made the running feel easy. Motorbikes punctuated the silence periodically. They at least had the courtesy to slow down as they passed. Somewhere on the way up Pluviometer, Chonky rode past heading downhill. He said the gap was still about 10 minutes. How did this become a race? I was planning a nice easy shakedown run in preparation for the Glasshouse 100 miler in just 3 weeks. I thought about waiting for Dog, but figured he would eventually catch up anyhow so pushed on.
Pluvi topped out much sooner than I expected: 3:10. In fact I wasn’t sure I was there until I found myself running freely again. And how. Released from the burden of climbing I found my legs wanting to stretch out. I wasn’t far behind my 6 Foot Track time from March. The big difference was that now I still felt fresh. I was eating and drinking regularly, aware that there was still a long way to go. The Black Range road goes on forever. There was no snow this year and no ice in the puddles. I was alone with my thoughts and the bush. I could see the footprints in the mud skirting the bigger puddles and they looked like the imprint of some serious runners. No way was I going to catch these guys.
Deviation in 4:10, and there was Mel as promised with a very professional set-up. She filled my bottle as I grabbed some food. Tim was only 8 minutes in front. Bugger, maybe I could catch him after all? Maybe I should at least try? At the crossing over Caves Road some bemused 4 wheel drivers said the others were 5 and 10 minutes ahead. OK. I would chase. Damn, this is too much like hard work. The undulations to the cabins was easy running but my left ITB was starting to niggle so instead of my usual downhill plummet to Caves House I eased down gingerly, saving my quads and my knees for the return trip. Halfway down I met Phil coming back up. He wore the expression of a fox being chased by the dogs. But like a wily old fox he had no intention of being caught. Tim was close to Cave’s House when I met him. Unlike Phil who had hot chips and coke, Tim was carrying only an air of confidence. He was chasing Phil. He hadn’t wasted time at the shop. He was chasing hard.
Me on the other hand, I needed some real food and I waited impatiently as the tourists got lattes and apple pie with cream until I could get an egg and lettuce sandwich. The lady couldn’t understand why I was tipping her. I said I didn’t want to carry all the coins and she looked at me strangely. I was getting lots of those looks today. 5:23 to Caves and then more than 10 minutes queing.
Tim was long gone. I timed 15 minutes back to where I had passed him. Blue Dog came through at about the same point so I figured I would surely see him on the return trip. Towards the top the others came through not far apart. Lawrence was with Ken, then Horrie looking determined. Then Louie and then Jan. “Photos at twenty paces” he called it as we both reached for our cameras. He was sweating profusely and as we chatted his glasses steamed up. His knees were worrying him. I was having trouble keeping warm.
That was the full field. Now it was just me and the track. My itb was starting to really bother me on the downhills. Back at Deviation Tanya was there with my night gear. It was only 3:30pm but this was the last supported checkpoint so I stocked up. Tanya refilled my bottles and I was off. I knew if I could run the Black Range well I could make good time. Tell that to my itb. In fact tell both my knees. I would run hard until the pain built up, then I would stop, stretch, massage and run hard again. This became the pattern until Pluvi. It wasn’t pretty but it seemed to work. The big downhill was a problem. I had to take this very easy while avoiding braking and burning out my quads. I was starting to look forward to the uphills and in fact ran much of the climb back up Mini Mini. I was starting to calculate splits in my head. I could follow my pace on my Garmin and could work out what was needed. I thought I could still possibly break 12 hours. That would be fantastic. Forget the knees they would come good after the Cox when there was plenty of uphill.
Back at Cox in 9:30 still daylight. Great, but I really needed to use the loo. I dropped my gear on the picnic table and availed myself of the amenities. I could hear someone walking around outside. Blue Dog? Had he finally caught up? As I emerged there was a strange guy hovering inquisitively. “Camping?” I asked, a little concerned at his interest in me. I’m not sure if it was a language breakdown but he definitely made me feel uneasy. Add to that there was no tent to be seen, not even on the other side once I had crossed. Consequently, when the bull bustled out of the brush in the middle of the river I jumped. Nothing new, me and animals have this understanding: they sneak up and I provide entertainment for them.
Time to get down to business. I felt strong (despite the knees) so I plugged in my ipod shuffle and started running hard. And then it hit me. No energy, low blood sugar. I had neglected my eating while concentrating on my knees from Pluvi to the Cox. I reached for a GU that I carry for emergency. Bugger, I had left it in my drop bag at Deviation. I was washed out and needed sugar. I scoffed some chips. They were going to take a while to kick in so I walked for a while as the light slowly faded.
The food kicked in and I started recalculating my splits. The watch was becoming the master and I the slave. If I could keep averaging 8 minutes per km I could still break 12 hours. How hard could that be? I reckon every km travelled in daylight is worth 1&1/2 in the dark. Picking a line through rocky singletrack is much harder by torchlight. Pinnacle Hill answered any question I had about catching Tim. You can see for miles and he was nowhere in sight. And there was no one behind me.
Running through a paddock two little lights shone back in my headlight. Too high for a cow’s eyes. Perhaps an owl on a post? As I approached I realised these eyes were in the middle of the road. It was a horse, again not doing my heart any favours by glaring down at me unmovingly. I skirted him then realised they were all around me. I hope Tim and Phil had been nice to them. I didn’t want any trouble.
Megalong Valley road and the supply tree at last, 10:51. How good was that coke and an orange? The bin had gone so I had to carry all my rubbish out with me. The coke was like gold. Revived, I re-evaluated. Could I still break 12 hours? Just maybe. On through the valley and onto the road; that long white sandy road. I was running hard now. Harder than any time since the first hour. I wasn’t going to finish wondering, I would leave nothing in the tank. But on and on it went. The maths no longer made any sense. I seemed to be loosing time despite running as hard as I could. Who was I kidding? I had no hope of making 12 hours. As the realisation sunk in, the remnants of energy drained out of me. I slowed to a walk, drank the last of my coke and drained my other bottle. I knew I was close to the climb out and I didn’t want to be carrying any unnecessary weight.
Then those stairs. By the time I reached the stairs I was paying the price of my big push. I was getting light headed again. I got the staggers and had to really concentrate when rock hopping across the creek. And then there were more stairs. Last year I had powered up them, pausing only to wait for Tim. Not this year, stopping to regain my breath at each landing. Don’t look up. Just put one foot in front of the other. It has to end eventually. And it did. I walked to the bitumen and broke into a run for the finish. Tim and Tanya got out of the car and applauded. Well at least I think they did. I was cursing and making my way back down to the tree. 12:23, more than 2 hours faster than last year. I had to be happy with that. But how could you not be happy after running 12 Foot. It has become one of those must-do runs that we pilgrimage to each year. Each time would be different: alone, with company, fast or slow, hard or easy. It doesn’t matter. The trail is always there and it reaches out to you as you traverse the path of the explorers all those years ago. You take just a little bit of it with you and yet you leave just a little bit of yourself out there. You know you will come back for more. I know I will.
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