PROM 100 April 28, 2007
Saturday, April 28. My father's birthday. Well it would have been had he not died 16 years ago. He introduced me to Wilsons Promontory when I was eleven years old. We hiked the trails over several days, camping at places like Refuge Cove and Little Waterloo Bay. We came back the following year in the middle of winter and got washed away in typical Prom weather. Those same trails we now run as part of the Prom 100. For me, a trip to the Prom is always special. This one especially so.
The Prom is like a lightning rod for bad weather. The weather can be horrendous at the Prom. Today would be no different. Rain. Rain like you wouldn't believe. Blinding rain. Coming in horizontal, under the brim of my cap and stinging my eyes. As we started the long trudge up the bitumen to Mt Oberon car park, the wind and rain conspired to force us back down to the start at Tidal River. But the weather shapes the Prom. Not just geographically but metaphysically. You haven't really experienced the Prom if you haven't heard the wind roaring through the trees, if you haven't run the paths as they turn into streams, if you haven't seen the might of the southern ocean crash onto Southpoint, if you haven't been soaked to the skin.
I 'slept' the previous night curled up in the back of my car. My tent kept threatening to blow away in the gale force winds. I had anchored it between the fence and my 4WD but it was still bowing in the wind. To add to the impressive weather display the heavens opened shortly before we lined up to start at 6 am. There were 9 of us in the 100km. A few had nominated the 80 and 60 km and a handful more planned to run the 44 km loop. All up there were 18 of us. I walked most of the hill to the Mt Oberon car park with Brendan. I tried to use his big frame for shelter, to little avail. We couldn't talk, the rain and wind drowned us out. We didn't pause at the car park, passing straight through. We hit the singletrack that leads to Sealer's Cove. Once over the appropriately named Windy Saddle, the trail winds gently downhill eventually turning into duck-boarding on the low-lying swamp flats. Shelter from the wind at last. This made for some great running in the dim predawn light. I left Brendan and picked up the pace.
I passed a couple of runners in this stretch but four of the 100km field were still ahead of me. I knew Tim Cochrane would go out hard seeking redemption for a wrong turn last year that possibly robbed him of first place and a crack at the course record. I didn't expect to see him again. Judging by the footprints in the sand when I finally hit the beach, there were at least 5 or 6 runners ahead of me. The wind was whipping the surf into a frenzy. I was surprised that the normally sheltered east coast was so wild. The usually tranquil bay was awash with foam and waves. I ploughed straight through the shallow creek at the end of the beach. My feet were already soaked. I refilled one handheld bottle and charged off, on the wrong path. Bugger. I know this course well but still took a wrong path. I skipped back through the campground and started the climb across to Refuge Cove. Looking back there was a runner not far behind me, crossing the beach. I didn't know if he was running 44, 60, 80 or 100 km. Either way he was pressing me to keep the pace up. What was I doing? I was supposed to be using this as a solid training run in preparation for Western States. I was not supposed to be racing.
There are some great views as you cross the headlands all down the east coast. Broaching large granite boulders exposes clear vistas up and down the coast. It also meant no shelter from the driving wind and rain. I would pull my thermal balaclava down from under my cap when the wind hit. Then roll it back up once in the shelter of the trees. I was wearing a heavy thermal top, a light polartec skivvy, a bike shirt and a technical running jacket, tights and shorts, the balaclava and a cap to keep the rain out of my eyes. I was carrying emergency overpants, gloves and a heavy gortex jacket. My pack was at least 5 kg with food and gear. This was no stroll in the park. Running the Prom is a serious business. And weather like this is a reminder that mother-nature dictates the terms around here.
Refuge Cove looked nothing like it should, defying it's name. The easterly gale was blasting unabated onto the beach. The waves crashed high up against the trees at the top of the beach. Chilliman was just in front of me and he headed up the first steps towards the toilet block. With no other option, I sloshed on through the swirling surf, filling my shoes with coarse sand and salt water. I trudged through the empty campsite stopping only to refill my bottle. Chilli caught up. He had been looking for some high ground to bypass the beach. Not today. I remember fishing off this beach as a child. Sitting on the granite rocks casting a handline into the azure crystal waters seemed unimaginable today. Just a distant memory. This place was full of memories for me.
As I started the long climb towards Kersops Peak I could see the runner still behind me, clearing the beach. I was feeling good so pushed the climb and ran hard down to Little Waterloo Bay. There was no-one on the long open beach but there were plenty of footprints, mostly runners. Another bottle refill here. A short hop along some timber treads in the sand dunes and the path turned sharply west onto the bisecting trail that leads back to Telegraph Track. I remember my description of this to Brendan: good track, slightly uphill but very runnable, less so the second time around. And run it I did. Sloshing through puddles, the wind at my back. On reaching the saddle I looked back: no-one in sight. Turns out my pursuer was Mal (Maggot) doing the 60km circuit so he had continued down the east coast. But what a view! This place is a treasure of sensory delights.
The familiar granite monoliths sulked on the hillsides as I continued westward. The burnt trees were starkly grey against the green of the lush regenerating bush. The sentinel like black spears of the grasstrees marched off into the distance. Their green skirts contrasting against the charred black stumps at their base. The low cloud and misty rain gave the whole scene a surreal feeling. I was alone. I was alone with the Prom. There was nowhere I would rather be.
Telegraph Track Junction the first time around. Hanging from the sign was a map case with a list of runners so we could record our passing for safety reasons. This runner register was soaked, little more than paper mache and there was no way of telling who had been through. I tried to fish it out of its cover but just laughed at the soggy mess. I stashed a bottle of coke for the return trip and headed off to Halfway Hut, just a couple of hundred metres to the south. Filled both bottles from the tank at the hut, not wanting to refill at Roaring Meg. Then began the long, long climb up the main fire-trail towards the lighthouse. I love running down the other way, as you do in the 60km and as I had done 5 weeks before on a training run with Dave (UCB). He was somewhere behind me today, also doing the 100km. The singletrack turnoff to Roaring Meg was a welcome sight and the gentle downhill grade made for a timely relief. Approaching the campground the thick undergrowth crowded the path and clawed at your clothes, like sharp, wet tentacles. You couldn't see the ground. Just keep pushing forward along the line of least resistance.
Roaring Meg. I ran straight through the campsite and headed down to Southpoint. The track was rough but pretty much all downhill. About halfway, I met Chris and PBig coming back up. Figured they must be at least 45 minutes ahead of me. Soon after I ran into Spoonman (Paul M). I took note of the time and on return figured he was close to 1/2 an hour ahead. Not to worry. I was running my own race and not overly concerned with catching them. I always find touching the wooden plaque marking the southern most tip of the mainland rather emotional. It is like the turning point in some kind of symbolic journey that is my Prom pilgrimage. It was cold and windy. Thoroughly inhospitable but equally spectacular. No photos today. I simply patted the plaque, caste a look around at the seething ocean and headed for cover.
Nearing the top of the climb back to Roaring Meg I crossed paths with Kelvin and Brendan close behind. Back through the campground, on the long bushy climb out, I finally met up with Mal going the opposite direction in the 60. He said I was close to the others. I think his perception was a little generous as I was sure they were well out of my reach. And I was still climbing. We chatted briefly before I scurried off now with vague thoughts of catching someone. After fighting through endless regrowth it was a great relief when I reached open trail that had been recently brush cut. Free space to run, rather than feeling like you were in a car wash.
As I rounded each corner, the lighthouse appeared in the distance. Bleak and isolated it was like some beacon drawing me to it. The trail undulated and seemed to go on forever until finally I was at the track that leads down and then savagely up to the light and the residences. I crossed paths with Spoonie again and he commented that I had lost time. Funny, I thought I was closer now. Perhaps he had underestimated the gap at Southpoint? The long trudge up the cement ramp at the end really stretched the calf muscles out. Two ladies wandered over to tell me I was in fourth place. I said I should be fifth and that they must have missed Tim who would have been well ahead. I refilled both bottles, availed myself of the toilet and headed back. Halfway in just over 7 1/4 hours. If I held pace I could possibly break 15 hrs.
Or so I thought until I began the long climb back up the east coast to the highest point on the course. The cleared path ran out and it was back to blindly forcing your way through brush, now well over head height. And ever climbing. Gradually but endlessly. Always climbing. I watched time haemorrhaging out of my Garmin as my pace slowed. Forget catching anyone. Think just about finishing. Crossing the clearing that marked the summit of this climb I dug deep to regain some momentum. The long, long downhill to Waterloo Bay clawed back some hope that I could still finish this in good time. I started pushing hard downhill. My legs turning over rapidly on the long descent.
There was no-one on the beach at Waterloo. Except a flock of gulls. I ran through them and they scattered with squawks. When I left the beach a couple of hundred metres further north, there was still no-one in sight. I won't see anyone now, I thought. Just finish the 80km in daylight and the last 20k will take care of itself. The rain was back. The wind was behind me. I was back on the crossover track through the middle of the Prom. Cresting the saddle for the second time I could see sunlight piercing the clouds. The late afternoon sun lit up the sand dunes to the west, where I was headed. My shorts were soaking wet and kept sliding down. I stripped them off and ran just in my tights. I was running strongly now. I reached the Telegraph Track Junction and found my coke. It was still cold. No surprise. The bag it was in had been ruffled and I wondered about that until finding out later that some of the other runners had stashed food only to have it pilfered by the native fauna.
I also remember telling Brendan that the next section of track is the longest 3 km of the day. Every time I run it I can't believe how long it takes. But pretty much spot on: just a nudge over 3 km and I was in the Oberon Bay campground. Straight through and onto the beach. I laughed out loud. The tide was way, way out. Dave had been obsessing about crossing the creek to get off this beach in the dark at high water. It had been deep, cold and fast when we passed through here 5 weeks before. The thought of being washed out to sea had been playing on his mind ever since. Today it was ankle deep. I chuckled again. As I ran up the firm flat sand I could see someone moving slowly up the headland track ahead. A runner maybe?
Climbing the headland my knee started to hurt. Mildly at first. It was a foreign pain, which is always a worry. I was close to getting back to camp at 80km and would reassess things there. Meantime I set out to catch this runner. I walked hard up the hill. Day-trippers were starting to appear. I was getting close to Tidal River again. I caught the runner: it was a very slow moving Peter Gray, still going on the 44km loop. Once around the headland it was down onto Little Oberon Bay with its eroded sandstone canyons serving as a beach. After clambering up the loose sand around the big granite boulder at the northern end of the beach there was more uphill around the last headland.
The light was fading fast but I was running again and should make it back in daylight. Norman Beach came into view and the long raking downhill to the beach allowed me to pick up pace. My knee kept twinging, restricting my stride. I hit the soft sand of the beach and slogged along to the exits: Ramp 5, then 4, and finally up Ramp 3. I ran right past the base camp announcing my arrival and over to my car. 11:05. Chilli and Paul A followed me over and offered to help. I planned to stop and have a good feed and freshen up with a change into night gear. That was until they said I was now in third place (Tim only doing 44km after a fall and Chris stopping after 80) and the other two had left only 12 minutes ago. Oh crap. I had to chase them. I grabbed an orange, filled my bottles, donned my light and ran out of there. 6 minutes total stop. Plus12 minutes? I could do that.
Finding the right path onto the footbridge over Tidal River is always tricky (worse in the dark). I headed for the river and ran along it until I hit the bridge. Adrenaline was pushing me along at an unsustainable pace. I hit the Lily Pilly carpark and veered right to start the nature walk loop. A couple of hundred metres in and I encountered a family finishing their walk on the loop in twilight. I asked them if they had seen a couple of runners and they said no. I was perplexed before realising the others must have gone up Mt Bishop first. Bugger, they were on the rougher trail in light, albeit fading. I picked up my pace. I had to make the most of what little daylight was left on this runnable trail. The loop undulates and the hills I would normally walk after 80+kms I was running. And running hard. As the loop doubles back it climbs slightly before dividing and heading up Mt Bishop. Still no sign of them. It was getting really dark now. Lights on.
I started the climb, still trying to run when I could. What seemed like a fair way in I encountered Spoonie coming down. We exchanged pleasantries but I was calculating that I must be close to being in front already. But I was still climbing and he was on the downhill. Further up I crossed PBig looking rather ordinary. I knew then I had his measure. What was I doing? This was supposed to be a training run. It seemed like forever before I started clambering over the rocks signalling I was close to the lookout. It sneaks up, being very low-key and clearly not designed for night access. I didn't linger as I have done in the past.
The descent was fuelled with the thought of getting in front of the others. As the track opened up so did my stride. I was flying along recklessly when my knee locked up. I kicked a rock and catapulted forward skidding on my front and eating dirt. I lay there for some time checking moving parts. Everything seemed to be still attached. I got up. I started off gingerly, but was soon striding out again down the track. I wasn't done with yet. I hit the track junction and swung hard right, heading for the Lily Pilly carpark again. It seemed to take forever. Would I beat them back to the carpark?
Finally I burst out of the bush onto the bitumen, my PT Apex lighting up the open space. At that very moment another light popped out of the bush at the other end of the carpark. Without a thought I switched my light off and simultaneously the other light flicked off. Duelling headlamps at 100 metres! Race on! I was closer to the exit, and knew it. It was all uphill on bitumen but I broke into a sprint (well at least it felt like it). I didn't look back but knew Spoonie would be on my tail. At least I hoped it was Spoonie and not PBig as that would mean I was still chasing Spoonie.
It's 2.8 km from the carpark to Picnic Point carpark. I ran nearly all of it despite the hills. I looked back when I was a fair way down the road. Nothing. But I knew he was there somewhere. I was not giving up my position without a fight. Past the Squeaky Beach turnoff. Then down into Picnic Point carpark. Through the carpark and onto the track to the beach. I switched my light on for the tricky dark sections. No footprints on the sand. Surely I must be in front. On the open beach it was lights out and run hard. At the end of the beach I had to switch my light on to find the exit. I looked back; still no sign. But if his light was out he could still be close.
I tried running up the headland track without light. It was impossible to see where I was going in places. I switched on my small spare light. And held it low. Cresting the headland there was still no-one in sight on the beach. Down onto Squeaky Beach. I was running out of steam. I had been pushing hard and it was taking its toll. Lights out on the beach again until I had to find the track off at the end. Up over the last headland. Once in the dense bush I flicked my big light on. My knee was aching. I was running on empty. But I was so close to home. Hard right onto the out-and-back track to Pillar Point. This is only a short section but it seemed to never end. Finally the boulders that signal the end is near. I remember how sudden and dangerous this unmarked end to the track is. I struggle over the rocks. I stop at the last big boulder. Scary how my bright headlamp beam disappears into the inky blackness of the nothingness of the night sky. I climb down from the rocks. I can't bend my knee. It locks up. I stop and rub it. I turn and head back. On the soft dirt of the trail I run as hard as I can. I expect to see Spoonie at every turn. I pass the junction. Still clear. Home stretch.
The downhill to the footbridge is long and painful. I am draining every last bit out of the tank. Lights are appearing in the distance. Tidal River. I can hear voices and see the footbridge. I pass Brendan crossing the bridge on his way out. I ask him if anyone has finished ahead of me? No. That's it, I am going to win this one. I think of the finish and dig deep. I break into full pace. I am gasping for air, my knee is on fire, my heart is pounding in my throat. I weave through the campsites, tears welling up as I think of my trips to the Prom as a child with my father. I realise that on this, what would have been his birthday, I have given everything and will cross the line first. I round the last bend and cross the finish line. 13:56. Totally spent.