GNW100 8-9 November 2008
My phone alarm went off. I groped around in the dark and instinctively hit the snooze button. I snuggled down again. Damn. I have to get up. I sat up and looked around blearily. I really have to stop doing this. These 100 milers are wearing me out. I was sitting in the middle of the Great North Walk Trail next to the unmanned water drop between checkpoints 4 and 5. I reached up and switched on my headlamp. I dragged myself up and stumbled off down the trail towards Somersby and the new day. I had managed 10 minutes of sleep. Just enough to stop me staggering all over the trail and tripping on every shadow. I still felt devoid of energy but at least now I could focus enough to get to the next aid station. The finish still seemed like a lifetime away. There was never a thought of quitting. It was more a matter of how long and in what shape I would make it.
Looking at the race splits for the sector from 4 to 5 I suffered terribly from low energy and lost a lot of time. It hadn’t all been like that. It had been an interesting day. Every ultra is a new adventure. This one had been more about the people around me than about myself. Sometimes you have to take a step back from your race to help others along the way. Saturday had been one of those days. Sunday would be different. With the rising sun I would find a new energy that would reward me with some magical trail running. But first I had to get through the night.
I had planned to run this years GNW with Tim again as we make a good team on this testing course. We both had injury plagued preparations so had no expectations. Tim was forced to pull out pre-race so I was on my own. With a field of close to 80 runners across the 100 miles and kilometres I was seldom alone for the first half. During the first two stages I found myself with Hermie on and off. I would pull ahead on the downs and he would catch me on the climbs. We have spent many a mile together in the past and so it would be again today. Coasting along the ridge of the Sugarloaf Range, before Heaton’s Gap, we encountered Brick sitting by the trail with his shoe off, wrestling with his foot. I stopped and helped bandage a badly blistered toe. This was worrying only 10km in. We rejoined a long train of runners before they let me pass on the descent. I enjoyed the long downhill into Heaton’s Gap. I stopped to fill my bottles at the service station. The climb up to Heaton tower was a real grind. Runners surrounded me. I was surprised how many people were within sight. I remembered climbing up here the first year of the race with Tim and we were all alone. This race is really growing. It was already warm and threatened to really heat up. Fortunately the cloud cover kept the temperature down and the heat never eventuated.
Past Heaton Lookout and we dropped down into the thick rainforest. There was a small group of us winding our way through the dense cover. I had to concentrate on the trail. The thick leaf litter made it indiscernible as you weaved in and out of trees and up and down creek beds. I stopped several times to flick leeches off my gaiters. They were everywhere. And stubborn. Climbing out of the forest back onto the gravel road I stopped at the loo at Hunter Lookout. Many people passed me. Coming into checkpoint 1, I found myself walking and chatting with Dr Lach who had taken a detour and added several kms already. Not for the only time either.
Checkpoint 1 was a welcome sight, I was getting hungry. I didn’t spend long, just grabbing some food and heading out, walking for the next km to eat. Hermie was with me and when asked by a group just in front of us about where to go he offered: “Just follow the road then turn off it.” Sage advice I thought. Hope they had their maps. This section follows the ridgeline for quite some distance. The road made for easy running. I caught a few people who had passed me earlier. Brick and Terry were just in front and I kept pace with Hermie comfortably. The field was spreading out now. Past Barraba Campsite and we started the long descent into the valley. I love this section and really opened up pulling away. Once off the road there is long raking singletrack. I passed a couple of runners and crossing the field at the bottom could see a couple more just in front. The familiar old bathtubs were still at the bottom of the hill. Strange the things we remember. I was determined to run as much of the road as I could but the Congewai valley is like an energy vacuum and every time I get there I struggle. This time was no different. I kept looking back for Hermie, knowing that when he caught me it would help keep me going. I was starting to feel nauseous and it became a real effort to get to the school. The breeze was almost cool. I couldn’t blame the heat. I just felt sick. I asked Hermie why we do this. I suggested it was time for me to find another sport. Not for the last time I had this thought.
Checkpoint 2. I knew I had to eat but every mouthful I took threatened to come back up. Kathy was helping me out and looked worried at my pitiful state. I knew I just had to get some food in and keep moving. So that is what I did. The short out-and-back section here allows you to see the state of others and who is close to you. Hermie caught up again and took my mind off my malaise. But as soon as we started the climb to the communication tower he pulled away easily.
Well up the steep pitch I encountered Tom coming back down. He looked terrible. Apparently he felt even worse. His kidneys were painful and he was short of breath. He hadn’t been weeing. And he had been vomiting. I got him to sit on a log. He wanted me to go on but there was no chance of that. I assured him I was in no hurry and wasn’t leaving until I knew he was safe. Runners kept stopping to offer help but I sent them on. Brick stopped and he looked terrible, absolutely drenched in sweat. He had been sick himself but kept going. I filled an empty bottle I had with plain water from my Camelbak for Tom. He only had Gatorade and he needed some water. He wanted to sleep but I wouldn’t let him. I was really worried about him. He rang Les, the wireless radio communication co-ordinator to pass on his withdrawal so that checkpoint 2 would know he was coming back. We sat for some time just chatting and sipping water. Once he felt up to it I took his pack and we ambled back down the hill. After a while he turned and told me he couldn’t take me any further and assured me he would be OK. Reluctantly I agreed and left him to it. He made it back safely.
I pushed hard back up the hill. The time spent resting with Tom had freshened me up and I was keen to get going. I dug my poles in and pulled myself up the steep trail. Approaching the top I rounded a corner and there was Brick and another guy, Joel, both doubled over and looking like death. Brick had been suffering for some time and was clearly distressed. Joel explained that he also felt terrible and his feeble urine was the colour of Brick’s pack. I looked at Brick’s pack: coffee coloured. Not good. Seriously, not good. I suggested doing as Tom had done and head back to CP2. They both couldn’t face that option so they decided to get to the top and reassess. I resigned to stay with them. It was slow going with enforced rest stops every few metres but eventually the communication tower came into sight. We stopped at the road and Brick curled up on the ground. Joel paced around uncomfortably.
Déjà vu. This was the exact same spot that Tim had collapsed with heat stress two years ago. I couldn’t believe the contrast today. The rain was coming in and the wind had whipped up. I was shivering and dug out my emergency jacket. I could see Brick curled up in the foetal position, getting goose bumps. I made him get up to put his jacket on. I presented their options: go back to CP2; try and get down to the road where the unmanned water stop was; try and get to CP3, still a long way off. Brick wanted to try to get someone up onto this fire road. He was in a really bad way. He was thinking of his family and clearly worried. I rang RD, Dave Byrnes and got his answering machine. I left a message. Some other runners came past. Graham Wye had the emergency number so rang the wireless communication co-ordinator. I spoke to Les and asked about getting the pair picked up from somewhere. He radioed through to Dave and rang me back with the options. He said someone could retrieve them from the water drop but it could be hours and hours. Their best bet was to go back to CP2. We had been there for about 1/2 an hour by now and Brick was back on his feet. I relayed the choices to them and before I had finished, Brick had turned and marched off towards CP3. There was no way he was going back down that hill. I rang Les again and told him they were pushing on and that I would hang with them to keep an eye on things.
Brick has a really strong walking pace and Joel just fell in behind, head down. I spent some time educating Joel on the perils of kidney failure and the dangers of painkillers in his current state. His quads were shredded but he just put his head down and followed Brick’s lead. We caught and repassed Rob Boyce who was struggling with cramps. Finally, we hit the long downhill to the farm and I cut loose and enjoyed some tight singletrack. Half way down the switchbacks I heard someone yelling from above. I waited for the others but it wasn’t them. There, way off track, was Graham again. We guided him back to the track and he joined us to the farm and eventually all the way to CP3.
Crossing the paddocks I could see a car parked on the road. I told Joel he should consider getting a lift out. The driver was waiting to see his mate run through but expected to be there for another 1 & 1/2 hours. Neither of the casualties wanted to quit. Their choice. We refilled our water bottles and started the long climb out of the valley. The sun was getting low in the sky. The shadows were lengthening and the forest began to take on a new life as the night approached. We discussed making the Basin in daylight. I doubted it. Brick started to jog periodically. He still set a solid walking pace. I told him that if he had a rest at CP3, refuelled and rehydrated, he could probably go on. I warned Joel that his already shredded quads would suffer on the big downhill and then the bitumen on the next leg into CP4 and further clog his kidneys. I warned him to stop here. I saw later in the results he went on to finish the 100km.
We dropped into the Basin in the last of the fading light. Shafts of setting sunlight pierced the forest canopy and lit up the creek below us. The golden glow contrasted the dark shadows of the dense rainforest. It was like a scene from ‘The Enchanted Forest’. The fast fading light forced me to hasten my pace. We passed the stairs leading out of the basin and started to see runners coming back towards us. A constant procession of headlamps bobbing through the trees on the narrow twisty trail. I marched into checkpoint 3 to be greeted by Tim who had come out to help crew me through the night. He passed my bladder off to be refilled and plied me with pasta and soup and hustled me back out of there. So fast that I left my trekking poles leaning on the table. I asked Rob Boyce as he limped past if he could get Tim to bring them CP4. I felt naked without my poles.
Unfettered without my ailing companions and fuelled by the warm food I picked up the pace. Climbing out of the Basin I had to pull my map out a couple of times to reassure myself. I was alone in the night and it is easy to miss a turn, as many had done. I had to concentrate, checking every intersection. Once off the road and on the track down to Cedar Brush I really wound things up. Fast downhill running at night really gets the adrenaline flowing. I let gravity pull me ever down, down, down. The fireflies flickered in my headlamp beam and night animals scurried off at the thudding of my footfalls. It doesn’t get much better than this. I was really having fun. This is why I run these trails, for these moments when I become one with the bush, moving at speed through the forest at night.
As I climbed the stile out of the paddock onto the road I scoffed down an espresso gel with a double caffeine shot. This sparked some serious road running. I flicked my light out, switching it back on at the first sight of a car or another runner. Pounding down the road in the moonlight allowed me to switch to autopilot. I had another caffeine gel. I started passing runners. One, then another. Each one fuelling me to run a little harder. As I came into Yarramalong I passed whole groups of runners. I rushed into the checkpoint gushing adrenaline. I had recaught Hermie and Tamsyn who were reclining in their chairs. They got up and hurried out just ahead of me. I asked what food was on offer: the only hot food was off the barbeque or chicken soup. No good to me. I had a cold hard-boiled egg and grabbed a flask of gu and a refilled bladder and rushed back out again. Big mistake, I needed more food. I should have taken more time here. By the time I started walking up Bumble Hill Road I was feeling drained. After the hard run down the road I was now crashing. And fast.
I was only 30 metres behind Bunny, Meredith and their pacer but it could have been a mile. I couldn’t catch them. They sounded like excited teenagers. How could they be having so much fun and have so much energy when I felt so bad? They climbed the guardrail off the road onto the trail. I followed. I could see them slowly pulling away. It was almost like I was going backwards. I realised I was running out of energy. I choked down some potato chips. I couldn’t eat. Nothing I had appealed. I had to concentrate really hard to keep going. The night seemed so heavy all of a sudden. It was pressing down on me. Every step was a battle. The trail through here was messy: up, down, over puddles, through mud. I went for hours without seeing anyone. It was like I was sleep walking. Maybe I was. Finally a light came up behind me. As I climbed off the trail onto the road, Darrel came by. I was fumbling with my maps. He asked how far to the water drop? 6km. He was gone before I looked up. I must have dropped my map here. I never noticed. That 6km took forever. I promised my self I would rest there. I had no choice. When finally the familiar barrels came into sight, I refilled my bottle, set my alarm and curled up. Even the loud buzzing of a swarm of mozzies that settled over me couldn’t keep me awake. I went out like a light.
I was making a habit of this trail napping caper. But that ten minutes probably saved me 30 more I would have lost stumbling around in the dark. Climbing the trail out to Somersby, another set of lights closed in on me. I was surprised more hadn’t. This time it was Brick with his pacer. He had risen from the ashes and was now making good time. He told me to stick with them. I would if I could. I managed for 100 metres before falling back again. Climbing out of the forest onto the road was symbolic of me climbing out of my funk. The sun broke through the haze of the night as we hit the bitumen road signifying Somersby and soon checkpoint 5. I gritted my teeth and ran. Past the chook farm with the noise of a thousand chickens waking up. Onto Wisemans Ferry Road. I could see Brick still up ahead. He appeared doubled over. He was vomiting again. This race is unrelenting.
Checkpoint 5 and I was resolved to having some decent food. Two slices of toast with jam. A cup of coffee. There was some debate over whether there was chicken in the soup but there was a vegetable option so I got one to go. I met Les, the radio guy, who I had promised to say hello to after all his help the day before. What a great job the volunteers do. Tim was going to pace me from here to checkpoint 6. I welcomed the company to help get me moving again. Brick was long gone by the time we left, with a fresh pacer in Rod.
Renewed by the solid food my strength gradually returned. I remembered this section well from the last year when I pushed the group I was leading hard to stay inside the cut-off. I knew it was a short leg but you could still make up time here. Once off the bitumen Tim urged me to run some. And run we did. We built up good momentum weaving through the thickets. Once onto the downhill sections we caught Brick and Rod and went past them. Brick’s feet were worrying him. Tim assured him he was over the worst of the rough stuff. I remembered differently but was pleased to discover the trail was easy, smooth and largely downhill. Across the river we really poured on the pace. It was hard to believe I was the same runner of a few hours before. In no time we were crossing under the Pacific Freeway and climbing onto the old highway bridge. I was feeling strong and eager to get to the finish.
Kathy had organised a fried egg in toast for me at checkpoint 6. I had my bottles filled with coke, grabbed a cup of soup and headed back onto the trail. After a phone call home, Tim decided to continue on to the finish with me. As we headed along the river Brick and Rod were crossing the bridge. That was the last we saw of them. He would go on to finish an hour behind me. A spectacular red-bellied black snake was curled up in the early morning sun by the track. We stopped to admire him from a distance. We were running well. My feet were a little sore but my legs felt great. We crossed the swing bridge and climbed the rocky trail up, out of the valley. The sun was beating down threatening a hot afternoon. I pushed in front of Tim to set the pace for a while. We really wound it up. On some of the long technical downhills I really let loose. I would stop at the bottom looking back to see an expression of mild panic on Tim’s face. I wasn’t sure if it was fear of falling at this pace or fear of suffering the humiliation of being dropped while pacing. Either way it amused me greatly and made me run the next downhill even harder. Rounding a corner Tamsyn and her pacer were right in front of me. I apologised for having my second wind and we went right by. She ended up finishing an hour and a half behind me, testimony to how much time can be lost over this last section.
The unmanned water drop was a contrast to last year. Here bodies had been strewn all over the ground. Today it was all business. A splash and dash. The heat was building and high up on the moonscape of the sandstone plateau it was tough going. I felt for those still to come through there in the afternoon sun. The rock surface felt like concrete. We were counting down the kilometres now. The long open firetrails and constant climbs sapped our speed but we could smell the finish line. Finally we crossed Patonga Drive and picked up the pace along the singletrack. The road up to the Warrah Lookout seemed way longer than I remembered but finally we were onto the walking track. One last climb and then we could see through the trees to the beach. My heart warmed at that sight. Finally I could enjoy my finish. We had an eye on the time, mindful of getting in under the hour. Down, down, down we went. Still running hard. Finally those final few steps onto the sand. I paused to savour the moment. It is truly one of the most spectacular finishes of any ultras. This was my third time onto the beach but it was no less dramatic. No less emotional. We ran the sand. I still had running legs. I felt great. The waves lapped at the shore. The sun was shining. People were clapping. I grabbed Tim’s hand to thank him for his help. I was glad he got to share my finish. He peeled off to allow me to finish on my own. I ran every last step and collapsed to my knees at the finishing pole to give it a big hug. 31:50.