Friday, November 14, 2008
GLASSHOUSE 100 13-14 September, 2008
As we approached Avalon Airport it was getting really rough in the plane. I mean really rough, dropping suddenly, long free-falls, and then pitching side to side. Bucking, up and down. Little kids were throwing their arms up and yelling woo-hoo, like they were on a rollercoaster. People were turning green and reaching for the little paper bags in the seat pockets. We flew across the bay, banking steeply and I could see the water chopped up severely. White caps were being whipped into a frenzy. As we made our approach to the runway we passed over the highway. I could see the faces of the drivers in their cars below. We were still pitching and yawing. As we closed on the tarmac we dropped suddenly, frighteningly close to the ground. We were mere feet off the ground and the plane tipped nearly 45* with a wind gust. I waited for the impact. We wobbled and you could hear the engines roar as the pilot accelerated out of there. Deafening roar of the engines. We were pinned back into our seats with the thrust. The plane groaned under the strain. Aborted landing. Suddenly there was near silence. What had just happened? The flight attendant came on and said not to worry. It was routine if the pilot was not happy with the approach to go around and try again. Not happy? That was more than not happy.
Big circle. I could see the dust storms across the paddocks far below. The pilot came on and said we would go down the coast and wait for the weather to settle. Nice view of the beaches. An ominously black storm front was moving across the coast. We could see the tumultuous weather brewing all around us. It all seemed surreal and calm. Back around we came. The bay looked a little calmer. Or was that just hope? Then we dropped again. A long sustained free-fall. My stomach was in my mouth. The flight attendant suggested people get out their sick bags. People were throwing up all over the place. The old lady behind me was digging her nails into the seat. I could hear people praying. Others were sobbing. We approached at a steep angle, apparently to dissipate speed. We wobbled severely and again I could see the drivers in their car as we passed close over the highway. They looked so safe. I felt so vulnerable. I was trying to relax but I gripped the armrests. I could feel the touch down but it was only one wheel and we were still very steep and tilted. As soon as we touched the ground a huge gust lifted our exposed belly and flipped us sideways bringing the wing tip within inches of the ground. We seemed to hang there forever. Roar, zoom, shudder. The plane trembled under the strain. Shaking violently. The engines roared louder, and louder and we hovered above the ground before finding air. This time deathly silence. Nothing said, except for some guy shouting ‘Jesus!’ and the occasional retching. I thought I was OK until I tried to let go of the armrests and realized I was clenched tight and a little clammy. We climbed to clear air but could see the black clouds all around us and dust storms all across the plains below. Finally the pilot came on and said he was going to try to land in Melbourne.
Within minutes we were circling high above Tullamarine Airport. We went into another approach but hit the turbulence again as soon as we descended and we pulled up well before we even got close. Shit. We must be getting low on fuel by now. Everybody was air sick and petrified. Babies were screaming. People were crying. At the last attempt I really thought I was going to die so I was fairly resigned by now. I felt quite calm and detached. Next approach we wobbled perilously again but the pilot held his nerve and we landed. We skewed all over the runway. Tyres squeeled and the plane shook noisily and ground to an anti-climactic halt. Spontaneous applause. Then the pilot said he would check with the company to see if we would refuel and fly back to Avalon. I think not. Waves of relief were palpable through the plane. We couldn't unload, as the wind was too strong for the ladder to be wheeled out. Our plane was shaking and rocking even as we sat on the tarmac. A lot of people won't fly for a long time. Ever seen 200 people kiss the ground?
Funnily enough the events of the weekend at the Glasshouse Mountains paled into insignificance. I had had a great run but my flight home had put it all into perspective. It’s funny the things in an ultra that stick with you. Often it is not the stuff you expect. It might not be the big hard run to the finish line. It might not be setting a PB by over an hour. More often it is the little things. Like winding through the dark pine forest at night and at every turn looking back over my shoulder. There, relentlessly, were the dual lights of Roger Guard. He wore a headlamp and carried a hand torch, his signature glow, tracking me through the night.
The checkpoints punctuate the hours of trail. Like little oases they provide respite, food, water and a chance to see your crew. I made an effort to spend less time at checkpoints this year. Lis kept passing me full bottles, speeding my transitions. It worked but it meant I was really tired by the end. Sometimes I like to have a little sit down. Just a little rest. Maybe I have spent too much time with Tim? I had started out conservatively, chatting with the Bunny and then Brick on the first loop. I had already lost my planned pacer in Tim, him having stopped momentarily at the school.
I passed a few people on the descent of Mt Beerburum, including Hermie who usually repasses me soon after. Not today. I didn’t see him again until the next day. I kept my pace easy but consistent. I grabbed a sandwich from Lis at checkpoint 4 but discovered she had given me two pieces of dry bread. Classic. Sometimes this would cause me some concern but today I was happy just to be out there. I was cruising, no expectations, no splits. I carried handheld bottles but switched to a light pack with bottle holsters later once my arms got tired.
The extra loop at the start meant we arrived at the Powerlines a little later in the day. It was warming up. I passed Dave and Lady Jove with their camera gear on the first big descent. I wasn’t stopping for pleasantries. I love this section and ran it hard passing several 100km runners. And then to my surprise I caught Roger. I have run with Roger many times at GH over 50 and 100 miles but never beaten him. I was a little worried to be passing him so early but I felt good and he clearly doesn’t like the rough stuff. I do.
Checkpoint 8 and my first chance to count some heads. It always helps to have someone to chase to keep you moving. Besides being chased, of course. I kept waiting for Roger to repass me. The first loop 8A I crossed paths with Tugger finishing his loop. Amazing. I ran the loop alone. It was getting hot.
There were people everywhere when I got back to 8. Tim was in a chair. What are you doing here, I asked? He pointed to the ice pack strapped to his ankle. He told me Dog was just in front of me. I passed Innes while he was refueling. I wasn’t worried about Dog. If he faltered I would have him. If not, so be it. I was running my own race. As I rounded the back of loop 8B Dog came into sight. He was struggling but a forced pit stop saw me repassed by Innes and Roger. Back into 11th place. I can live with that.
Back at CP8 I grabbed my ipod. Tim asked if I was injured or bored, knowing I use the music as a distraction. I just needed some motivation. As I left checkpoint 8 for the third and last time after a quick refill, Blue Dog jumped out of his chair and ran up beside me. We chatted for a bit. We made small talk but I soon realised the pace was picking up. Dog doesn’t like to chat. He likes to race. I let him go. I had no intention of match racing him for another 90km. I stopped to walk, letting him disappear up the long gravel road.
This section to 7 seems to go on forever. I was alone in the bush. I got in front of Roger and Innes again going through the short loop at 7. Up into 9th place.
From 7 to 6 I could see the sun getting low and really wanted to get through the rough track at Beerwah before it got dark. I pushed hard. Coming out of 6 and cresting a hill I was presented with 2 runners walking with their heads down. Dog and Nigel. I ran past and asked Dog how he was going? Like you care, he responded. Well, yeah, I said, I do. We’re all in this together. Like I said, Dog doesn’t like small talk on a run. I pushed on, not looking back. And there, walking up the next hill, was Milov. I ran hard to get up alongside him. We chatted. He told me his terribly famous Hambush joke. That should be just terrible. He looked back and saw Dog had stuck with me and was lingering 100 metres back, with gritted teeth. As we topped the hill, I turned and waved him up. If we were running the same pace it might as well be together.
We turned off the road into the rough goat track of the Beerwah loop. This was my terrain and I pulled ahead of the rest of them. Suddenly I was in 6th place. At CP5 I had to grab my light and a jacket. It was getting cool and would be dark before I reached the school. Milov was sitting down and I goaded him out of his chair. We ran out together but his pace on the open road was too hot for me and I stopped to walk. I couldn’t believe how long this section back to the school was. I came out where the old CP1A used to be and headed around to the bush track. I was startled by a small snake on the path. A little sign stuck to a tree read 3km to CP2. What? I thought for sure it was much closer. There were lights in the bush behind me. Roger? Turns out it was the dogged Dog.
The school was a welcome sight. I restocked and visited the loo. Tim told me Milov and Dog were down at the canteen. If I wanted to gap them I needed to get going. So I did. I ran hard to 9. I came up behind a runner I didn’t recognize: Lisa. I figured she was the second placed female. Turns out Rachel had dropped at 7. I thought I was now in 5th place. Then Roger caught me again, his flat line strength too much for me. Bugger. I got a shock when I arrived at checkpoint 9 the first time after running hard from the school, thinking I had finally got ahead of Milov. There, on the back of the chair, was Milov’s cap. But, how? While I was gasping like some goldfish out of water he came up behind me with his characteristic grin. He had snuck out of the school unnoticed and was well ahead of me the whole time. He was clearly proud of his subterfuge. 6th it was then. Up and down Wild Horse Mountain right behind Roger. I crossed with Tugger again, now on his way home. I also crossed with Innes and Lisa on my way back down. Ohhh, no way can I hold them all out.
The loops at 10 were cold dark and lonely. I heard voices and saw lights in the bush but they weren’t runners. There was lots of walking. Lots of navel gazing. I was tired and just wanted to finish. Finally I rounded a bend and Roger was walking just in front of me. That’s it. I dug deep and ran past him and just kept going. I ran into 10 and Tim said what do you want? I didn’t know. He thrust a bottle into my hand and pushed me back into the night. So I just ran back to 9. The race was on now. I was in 5th place and wasn’t letting go of that for anything.
Through 9, up and down Wild Horse. Roger, Lisa and Innes all right behind me. Through 9 again. Into the forest. Still those lights right behind me. Relentless. I finally punched out of the forest and onto the open road. I didn’t want to see those lights again so I ran hard. As hard as you can after 150km. Once across Steve Irwin Way and onto the bike path I knew I was home. One last look back. Darkness. I crossed with Jan and stopped to say hello. It took a bit to get my momentum back so when I crossed with Cookie I didn’t slow down.
The lights of the school broke through the trees. Rounding the last corner I knew this would be my best time so I lifted again. Through the gates, across the line and finally stopped. Spent. 5th place, 21:35. Elated. But totally drained.
Little of this came to mind as I sat in that plane, thinking I was about to die. It just highlighted to me how tenuous life is. One thing it did do was strengthen my resolve to get out and run as many trails as I can. This is a resolution I can live with.