Ultrarunner fighting Atrial Fibrilation (AF)

This blog has pretty much always been about running ultras, mostly Hardrock. It still is but now it is also about running after AFib. I was forced to miss Hardrock in 2011 due to the onset of AF but my long term goal was to get back to running milers. And hopefully help any other runners with AF who stumble upon this site. I never made it into Hardrock in 2012, or 2013, or 2014. I didn't have a qualifier for 2015. I ran Fatdog in Canada instead. That was tough. I finished my 4th Hardrock in 2016 and now I'm back to try for the magical number 5.

If you want the history of my AF the heart problems all started back on May 25 2011: http://howmanysleeps.blogspot.com/2011/05/out-of-hardrock.html

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Great Ocean Walk100s

My Hardrock race report sits unfinished in a file while life goes on. Meanwhile I was heavily involved in organising the inaugural GOW100s on the south-west coast of Victoria in October. As a consequence, I was unable to run it but did manage a fairly epic 12hour sweeping stint over the last 60km of the long course. Here is a wrap up of the weekend:

GREAT OCEAN WALK 100S October 10-11th 2009

Thirty-eight hours and it came down to the last 5 minutes. With just minutes to spare before the cut-off expired, Jane Trumper emerged around the headland and dropped onto the Apollo Bay foreshore running strong with no hint of the two days and 195km of perpetual motion that had carried her to this climatic finish. A small crowd waited nervously around the big white boat anchor that served as the start/finish line. The crowd was small in number but big on emotion. The anticipation was palpable. Running faster than she had at any other time in the race, Jane was cheered across the line in 37:55hrs, cementing her place in history as the first woman to complete the Great Ocean Walk 100 mile trail ultra.

The Great Ocean Walk is an established hiking trail stretching close to 100km from Apollo Bay to the 12 Apostles. Traversing coastal heath lands, beaches, dense rainforests and wide open pasture the track passes largely through the Otway National Park and finishes in the Port Campbell National Park. Runners were treated to an endless unravelling of panoramic vistas as they wound their way around headland after headland until, if they were fast enough, they were finally greeted by the sun setting behind the spectacular rock formations known as the 12 Apostles. This constituted the 100km race. The return journey reaching around 195km completed the 100-mile event. Given the extensive use of Parks land a partnership was struck with Parks Victoria through local ranger in charge, Peter Burns, making the whole thing possible.

Hours before Jane’s dramatic finish, Wayne ‘Blue Dog’ Gregory confirmed his place in the records as the inaugural winner by reaching the anchor in 31:06 hrs. The Dog looked strong, undoubtedly fuelled by the euphoria of running over such a tough but spectacular course to first place. All through Saturday Wayne had stuck to his race plan and let the speedster, Tim Cochrane run himself ragged. Tim held a blistering pace, indication that with fresh legs he could really give this course a shake. But by the turnaround at the 12 Apostles, Wayne was well in front and Tim was a spent man, and withdrew.

Darrel Robins paced himself to perfection and by the second sunrise started nipping at the Dog’s heels. With the help of a strong support crew, Darrel managed the distance with clinical precision and finished second in 31:28. Third was Kevin Heaton in 34:16. Kevin revelled in the constantly undulating terrain but took several wrong turns adding distance to what is already a well over-distance 100miler. Michael Lovric was the tail-ender at the turn-around but enjoyed a little nap at the Johanna Beach checkpoint at dawn and revived, proceeded to reel in Jane and Rodney Ladyman, who spent much of the night together keeping each other on track. Michael finished in 37:06 with Rodney not far behind in 37:43. Of course Jane scooped the prizes finishing first female and last outright, securing her both a generous Athlete’s Foot voucher for a pair of runners (same for Wayne) and the perpetual trophy for the slowest runner: a rusty old boat anchor. (Which she even managed to get checked on to her return flight!)

Besides struggling with the persistent undulations and soft sand, a few runners had to contend with a territorial koala. At one point, Ladyman was found running the wrong way down the track. Asked what he was doing, he turned and pointed to the advancing, growling koala, in the middle of the path! Of course by the end of the weekend the koala was as big as a grizzly with the teeth and claws to match. And he can’t even blame hallucinations, this occurred on the first morning!

Only six of the ten 100mile runners finished, testimony to the toughness of this course. That leaves just 4 runners still eligible for the Australian Grand Slam of Ultrarunning: Glasshouse100, GOW100, Great North Walk100 and Coast to Kosciusko.

In the 100km race the large field of 26 runners quickly spread across the course. Phil ‘Spud’ Murphy was planning an easy race post Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (165km) in France but soon found himself in the lead with debutante Mike Tong. Tong had the home course advantage having trained on the course with his secondary school students but not the experience to match Murphy who settled into a solid pace, pulling away from the field with apparent ease, indicating he is well recovered and ready to step back up to his regular long course distance. In a display of class, Phil cruised to a 13:07 finish and a great 2XU Performance Clothing prize.

Tong paid the price for the early pace and faded allowing Gareth Parker and Dan Bleakman to surge through to a solid second (14:22) and third (14:28) place, respectively.

Amongst the women, Kate Sanderson ran a steady and controlled race to be the first woman in the 100km (17:00). Second and third were filled by Michelle Donnelly (18:00) and Kathy Garnett (18:47), making her 100km debut.

Runners were impressed with the level of organisation for a first up race and there was unanimous consent that this is probably the most scenic and spectacular course on offer. Gregory’s off-the-cuff comment at the 12 Apostles turnaround sums it up pretty succinctly: “You kicked a goal with this course!” With the original allotment of 30 runners filling within hours of entries opening online this year, organisers Paul Monks, Brett Saxon and yours truly hope to expand the field to accommodate the expected growth in interest next year. With an extensive website at www.gow100.com runners are encouraged to join the mailing list to ensure they don’t miss out next year. We set out to build a race for people to test themselves over the distance, to experience a truly remarkable piece of this planet and to allow them to live the dream that we ultrarunners love to dream: endless single-track with endless views.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Wow, that was unbelievably tough. I will write a race report once I can get my head around it. Much harder in that direction. Much harder than I expected. Much, much harder. Andy Jones-Wilkins (who finished 5th, just 2 weeks after Western States!) described the Hardrock course as a series of ramps and walls. In the clockwise direction we climb up the walls and run down the ramps. In the counter clockwise direction, like this year, we walk up the ramps and run down the walls. Which I thought would suit me since I can run OK on steep downs. It just didn't work in theory, the long, long climbs killed me. I was lucky to have the help of Beth who was crewing/pacing Larry for a few checkpoints and Jim Sweat did a great job helping out everyone while waiting for his runner. But even with this help and well stocked aid stations I couldn't get enough food in and suffered badly because of that. But I hung on and finished in 40:50:28. They say you're not a real Hardrocker until you've gone both ways (which means you have to come back John!) so I told Dale Garland, race director, at the finish: that's it I'm done. While I've already worked out ways to save a ton of time if I ever came back, right now that's the last thing on my mind!

A truly amazing race. A truly humbling experience. One very proud finisher.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Only 3 more sleeps

Tuesday 7th July.

Only 3 more sleeps. Went out for a very easy 5 miles to the river crossing today. Still need to make a final call on which shoes to start in but will be sending a back-up pair to Ouray just in case. Registration is tomorrow. The 'Hardrock' has been moved to the start-finish line outside the gym.

I feel good. A little nervous. I have had a very solid build-up, putting together my most consistent training mileage ever. I have been out on the course and put in many hours and miles on the actual trail. I am not thinking too much about a time goal. My primary objective is just to finish. And I would like to get to Grouse before it gets dark. If I do that I should be in good shape for the night. Then the race really begins in earnest when the sun comes up on the second day.

My mantra has been to respect the course, respect the distance and respect the altitude. If I do that I feel I stand a good chance of completing the counter clockwise course and being a true Hardrocker!

Rest day

Day 16, Monday 6th July.
I drove over to Durango, about an hour across 2 mountain passes to do some shopping for any last minute race supplies I might need.

I worked on my drop bags. Six drop bags which could be up to 6-8 hours apart and spread across two night sections. It makes for very taxing planning to ensure I have most contingencies and paces covered.

There is much talk of the wait list: who is in and who isn't. And pacers, who has one (or three) and who doesn't. I don't plan to but I will keep an open mind on that one.

Last day of trailmarking

Day 15, Sunday 5th July
Governor's Basin to Virginius Pass (aka Kroger's Canteen)
This is traditionally the last main day of trailmarking. There is time to finish any unmarked sections and do the in-and-out of town parts during the week.

Several 4WDs trucked us all up to Governor's Basin, up the long, long road section out of Ouray. I am dreading that part. At least it will be at night and there won't be any traffic. Those quad bikes really kick up the dust. From the Governor's Aid station the road deteriorates and there are little washouts and some residual snow banks higher up. Far less snow than last year and traversing on the soft snow was easy. It could get tricky at night when everything freezes up, though.

We all spread out, talking race strategies or just catching up. From the mine site the course turns to trail. Well, we use that term loosely round these parts. Straight up the first of three main pitches to the pass. All snow, heavy going as you stomped your foot into the print made by the person in front of you and concentrated on not slipping back onto all those behind you. Reaching the top of the first pitch we could now see the spectacular Virginius Pass. It is little more than a break in a fortress-like saw-tooth ridge. Across the snowbanks of the basin and up the next steep pitch. Not as long as the first but the elevation was starting to take it's toll. All around massive cliffs with scree slopes or snowfields, framed our world. Such spectacular geological formations.

Finally we were at the base of the final climb. It is steep so we angled across from the side in a neat traverse. Each person digging a deeper footprint to make it easier for the next. Much of this snow could be melted by race day and then it becomes a two-steps-forward-one step-back approach in the slippery footing. If not it could also be treacherously icy.

The pass needs to be seen to believed. Even photos don't do it justice, although they give you some idea of the tiny space wedged between two very steep drop-offs. To think a crew packs in a tarp and food for us is unbelievable. We all took photos and had something to eat before launching, literally, off the edge and sliding or 'glissading' on our bums, back down the snow chute. Points were awarded for style, speed and control. And there was a wide variety of all three, (with not much of the latter) making for some great entertainment.

This was repeated down the last (first) pitch where there was some tricky manoeuvring required around some rocks. The blue skies had clouded over and out of nowhere it started hailing so we took off down the road. I backed off, sparing my quads this close to the race. Before reaching the cars the sun was out again, testimony to the variability of the alpine weather we faced.

In true Hardrock tradition most of went into Ouray to soak in the hot springs before all meeting for a Mexican feast.

Governor's Basin to Kroger's Kitchen and return, 5.8 miles in 2:45 (2:01 up and 44mins down)

I have now done 10 of the 13 passes/peaks we cross and seen a fair part of the course. Time to taper.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

4th July mania

Day 14 Saturday 4th July.
Independence day is always a rest day from marking. There is a 10km fun run in the morning if you are so inclined. After coughing up half a lung for 2 days after last years 10km I abstained this year and went along to watch instead. It was won this year by Nick Coury who finished 5th at Hardrock last year and will pace his brother Jamil this year after missing out in the lottery.

July 4th has to be seen to be believed in Silverton. The regular population of around 500 swells to over 25,000! Being one not totally enamoured with crowds it does get a bit overwhelming. Part of Hardrock tradition includes being part of the parade. This involves 'marching' behind the Hardrock finishers banner, waving Hardrock flags and throwing 'candy' to the millions of kids that line the streets. I use the term 'marching' loosely. In fact we 'run' short intervals, including simulated switchbacks in and out of the other floats, as we make total idiots of ourselves. If people didn't think we were crazy for running Hardrock before the parade, they had no doubt after it.

That evening many runners gathered outside Charlie's house to watch the fireworks. Now I'm not a big fan of fireworks but the 1/2 hour display was pretty impressive, being widely renowned and the main draw card for the huge crowd. The natural amphitheatre created by the surrounding mountains amplifies and echoes the effects. The explosions were so loud my ears hurt and car alarms were going off with the reverberations.

And if that show didn't entertain you, the view from my motel balcony afterwards showed most of the 25,000 trying to leave town by the one and only exit road. Headlights were nearly motionless all the way up the nearby mountain pass for hours.

Much needed rest day, despite all the fuss.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Bear Creek trail nirvana on the edge!

Day 13, Friday 3rd July.
Hwy 550 to Engineers Pass and return.
is a feature all on its own. The road hugs the mountain side as it climbs over Red Mountain pass then winds through the steep glacial valley down to picturesque Today's course marking worked in reverse to the race direction. The 45 min drive over to OurayOuray. Imagine Great Ocean Road windy. Then picture sheer drop-offs on one side and crumbling rock walls on the other side. And just to add to the anxiety, there are NO guard rails and often NO shoulders on the side. Cars crawl along with nervous flatland tourist drivers gripping the wheel. I drove this road during winter back in 1989 before Hardrock was even born. The road was covered in snow but passable. Approaching the tunnel where we would start today's marking there was a motor-home parked right in the middle of the road with his hazard lights flashing. The driver was paralyzed by fear and couldn't proceed. Such is the nature of this road, one wrong turn is certainly fatal. On the trail, one wrong step could also be fatal.

The Bear Creek trail down from Engineer Basin is spectacular but treacherous. Literally carved out of the cliff walls, the trail was blasted through the canyon in the 1890s to gain access to gold and silver deposits in previously inaccessible places. Starting at Hwy 550 where it passes through a short tunnel a couple of miles out of Ouray, we climbed up the path over the tunnel and began the steep series of long switch-backs into the Bear Creek canyon. Here the trail is raked out of piles of slate winding between the fir trees. The loose chunks of slate litter the trail and literally 'tinkle' as you pass over them. The footing can be a tad tricky.

I was at the back of the pack with James and Jennifer. The others soon disappeared up ahead. Jennifer and her husband write guide books on Colorado's mountains so was a font of knowledge. I knew James might have a problem with acrophobia so hung with him. Despite climbing constantly we were still low, Ouray being the lowest point on the course at 7,680ft.

The switchbacking slate-trail emerged into the canyon, high above the raging Bear Creek. The trail narrowed and clung to the face of the cliff, tracing the contours perfectly. We were now on the infamous section of the Hardrock course that brings a chill to the uninitiated. We continued at our slow but steady pace, Jennifer occasionally kicking a loose rock or pinecone off the edge. My eyes would be drawn irresistibly to follow the course of the falling object hundreds of feet below. It was quite unnerving.

We stopped periodically for photos and James was always conscious of not stopping too long. We caught up to and passed a couple of groups doing trail maintenance, a means of gaining extra tickets in next years lottery. I managed to coax James out onto an open cut-away for a classic pic. The footing was generally good with only a few wash-aways and a couple of chutes we had to climb across.

Leaving the steep-sided cliff trail, we entered pine forest again, still climbing, and still within the canyon walls. We came upon the remnants of Grizzly Bear Mine. How they managed to get such massive, heavy equipment up here defies comprehension. We left Jennifer with Sue who had caught up while we snacked, and I decided to pour on the pace to catch the main group. We power-hiked up the trail, through spruce trees and lush grass with the occasional clearing. We caught up just as they reached the Yellowjacket mine site. Derelict buildings and massive rusting machinery marked the site of this old mine.

After a couple of stream crossings we broke the tree-line. This is where the 'packed in' Engineers aid station will be. This was the start of my low patch during last years race when I couldn't find suitable food. This year I will be much better prepared and self sufficient. The canyon was now a wide open basin, lined with alpine grasses and a veritable kaleidoscope of colourful wildflowers. The trail was indistinct but you could now see the saddle just to the left of Oh Point! where we would hit the road across Engineer Pass. We worked our way up the left flank before traversing and crossing a stream and climbing straight up. It was a steep tussocky slope that had me sucking air as I worked my poles on the poor footing. Oh Point-Engineer Mountain Pass 12,910ft, pass number 8 on the course.

Sandwiches and muesli bars came out before we started the long descent, straight back down in the direction we will travel during the race. I tightened my pack straps and launched into free-fall down the basin. The course markers whizzed by as I angled back towards the tree-line. Picking up the trail through trees was easy but I will be here at night so made mental notes of the landmarks as I went. I waited for James a couple of times before picking up the pace again. Just before reaching the cliff-trail I kicked a rock and flew out-of-control into the long grass beside the trail before recovering my footing. A sobering reminder to back-off when the trail reached the steep walled canyon.

It is hard to hold back when you have a steady down-hill grade but I did back off a little once I hit the narrow path. But I had to run it. It screamed at me to run it. Banking around the corners, easing down the straight-aways. This is what I came here for: to run trails. I passed the trail workers and looking back had lost all sight of James. The creek raged below and my senses were on high alert, every foot placement critical. I pressed on, finally peeling away from the canyon and onto the slate floored switch-backs. I opened up again and fairly tinkled my way down, down, down, back and forth, loosing hundreds of feet, my ears popping as I could hear the highway approaching. I lost count of the switchbacks at 13 before I was crossing the tunnel again and dropping down to the roadside. Wow, what a hoot.

This is clearly not a sport for the faint hearted. Sometimes we tread a fine line between enjoying the adrenaline rush of pushing our limits and taking unnecessary risks. Running down Bear Creek trail blurs those lines but if we worry about all the risks in life then we wouldn't leave the security of our lounge room. This is what I love doing: running trail, and there are few more exciting trails to run than this one.

Hwy 550 to Engineers Pass and return, 13.4 miles in 5:35, 4:25 up and 1:10 down. max elevation 12,910ft.

Time for a rest

Day 12 Thursday 2nd July.
With a long drive over to Telluride necessary to get to todays course marking I decided to take a rest day. Late afternoon a massive storm came down the valley, reminding me of the potential for bad weather during the race. I started sorting my drop bags and mixed some home-brew gu.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

3 passes and hold your nerve at the top

Day 11 Wednesday 1st. Arrastra Gulch to Maggies Gulch.
I rejoined the trailmarking team today. Wow, what a big day. We were dropped at the mouth of the Arrastra Gulch which winds up to the first climb of the race. We hiked up the jeep road to where the Hardrock course crosses the fast flowing Arrastra Creek. Below this, the course is on the western (opposite) slope which I had followed the first few days on my own.

Now on the course proper, we continued to follow the road, climbing rapidly switchbacking amongst the trees. The conversation dwindled as the air thinned. This will be the first section of the race. The sun will still be below the surrounding mountains and runners will be trying to find their pace and reign in the excitement and adrenaline of finally racing. I plan to hang well back.

Passing the abandoned mines we left the road and picked our way up the vague goat track. Sometimes the path was clear. Sometimes undetectable. Always rough. Regardless, looking up you could see where we were headed. The low point between high peaks and ridges at the head of the valley. Way, way up there. The faint trail could be seen traversing across the steep grassy slope, punctuated by a couple of snow banks.

It hard to believe they used to haul mining equipment up over this narrow pass behind mules. They also winched a bulldozer up the other side of the mountain in pieces then dragged it through the mountain via a mine shaft to service this side. Hardrrock is all about honouring the efforts of the miners in building the trails and roads that we use in the race.

On the final pitch Jim Ballard was doing trail maintenance on the loose scree slope and got the many hands to help roll some huge rocks to form a huge cairn marking the new trail switchback. I christened it Ballard's Bollard but he wasn't too impressed.

We scrambled up the final loose scree section before reaching the open pass. We all gravitated to the far cliff to view the next valley. Wow, massive, sheer, craggy cliffs plunging hundreds of metres. Way down below we could see the road where Cunningham Gulch aid station would be. Working our way across the ridge it narrowed severely before angling across to a steep snowbank that hung over a sheer cliff. This is the snowbank that stopped me back on day 4. It had melted out significantly but it was still poor icy footing. This is Dives-Little Giant pass number one, 13,000ft.

Larry planted himself halfway across the ledge and dug out the ice/snow to reveal some of the covered path. One by one we edged our way across. I hung back, knowing there were a couple of people a bit twitchy about crossing. We put a confident lead person in front and I followed them as Larry directed them across. All good. Lots of adrenaline. One year, going in the other direction, a runner had refused to cross this ledge at mile 95 and went back down to DNF. It is really that exposed. Hardrock forces you to face your fears. You must respect the environment through which we pass and grow stronger for the lessons it teaches us. This is no place for arrogance. Humility is a safer option.

We picked up the vague trail winding down the steep upper reaches of Dives Basin. This led to a series of steep switchbacks clinging to the sheer slope. Across the creek at the bottom and we were at the site of Cunningham aid station. We all lay about in the baking sun while we waited for Charlie and the rest of the crew to catch up.

The climb out of the valley is on one of the sheerest cliff faces for the entire course. Last year I had come down here in fading light, ignoring the dangers in a bid to get down in daylight. Now it was pure sweat and grind. The course description states: 'For the next half mile the trail climbs between two bands of cliffs on a narrow shelf. Exposure, acrophobia. At one point on this shelf you have a nearly straight down view into the Cunningham Aid Station (about 600 vertical feet)'. Heart in your throat stuff.

Thunder clapped and a few spots of rain had us reaching for our jackets. By the time we reached the first pitch the weather had already passed over us. Just a warning of what could come. The trail leveled out following a creek up the drainage. We crossed and climbed again. Ever up. The race director likes to tell us at the briefing: 'if you see a mountain you go up it, if you see a river you cross it'. The race creators had a sadistic streak. As awesome as this country is, they designed a course to be unrelentingly punishing. We continued climbing up the open alpine meadow over rough tussocks of dirt and grass, punctuated by wildflowers. The footing was terrible.

Green Mountain-Stony Pass ridge at last. 12,989 ft, pass number 2. We could see all the way across to the next climb. We dropped into a wide basin, crossed a jeep road and surprise, surprise, we were climbing again. Buffalo Boy ridge, 13,214ft, climb 3. Magnificent views all around, including down to Maggie Gulch. We wound our way down through rocky outcrops and slippery snowbanks, then traversed cross country before dropping to the road where the aid station will be.

Long, slow, demanding day but priceless trail miles.

Arrastra to Maggies 13.25 miles in 9:31hrs, max elevation 12,980 and 13,214ft.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sublime trail running

Day 10 Tuesday 30th South Mineral Creek campground to Putnam-Lime Creek Pass.
I asked the team back home what run I should do today: go with the trailmarking crew involving a 2 hour really rough 4WD ride back from Sherman after marking from Maggie's Gulch or do my own thing. Tim said do the team thing but clearly he had never gone across Cinnamon Pass in the back of Charlie's ute with your face squished up against the back window. Turns out they didn't get back to town until 8pm at night after a 7am start. So I definitely made the right choice by opting out.

Instead I chose to sleep in but was woken at 6:30 by Larry who had arrived in town late last night and was planning on hiking over Handies with a friend. Did I want to come? Ah, no. Not two days in a row. Soon after his wife Beth also arrived to say hello. She had run Western States on the weekend and her toes were a mess of dried bloody pulp. It will be tough for her to recover in time to pace Larry through the nights at Hardrock.

I drove out to South Mineral Creek campground where we had ended our run a few days before. The monster 'RVs' or motorhomes were filling the place up in anticipation of the July 4 long weekend and celebrations this weekend. The plan was to hike up the trail from Kamm Traverse aid station to where I had turned around on top of Putnam-Lime Creek saddle the other day and then run back. Only 4 miles there on paper but I didn't allow for the hike up to the trail-head from the campground, over 2 miles.

I wandered round the campground trying to find the road up the valley. I'm not sure why they call it camping: these Winnebagos are bigger than a regular bus. Some of them tow a full sized 4wd behind them. Their floorspace would rival many apartments and I'm sure the fittings definitely would. Finally I found the road, back where I had started! Oh dear, says a lot for my navigational skills. The road climbed solidly up to the site of KT aid station. This jeep road was ablaze with bright yellow butterflies, flitting about. The many wildflowers were making the most of the clear blue sky and warm morning sun.

I found the trail marked with the characteristic Hardrock flag. I was surprised how far it was up the road and down to the creek crossing. Coming the other way during the race last year I would have sworn the aid station was right there. Through the icy knee deep water. The rocks were slippery but the water was crystal clear. Through the boggy drainage feeding into the creek and I picked up the trail where it disappeared into the pine trees. I felt slow and sluggish. Not helped by the steep grade. Up, up, up. Constant switchbacks. I dug my poles in to haul myself up. A few trees were down across the track and at one point I got off track, despite the markers. I want to be through here in daylight. 90 miles and two days are going to make this climb incredibly tough.

Eventually I broke clear of the dense forest and was confronted by a wall of rocks. An active rock glacier. The huge tongue of rocks extended down from high above. The course skirted the edge of the rocks before diving back into forest. More swampy trail that resembled a stream more than a track. I was climbing again. I did not remember this stretch being so long. Or this steep.

Finally the trail dropped to cross Porcupine Creek and I was in alpine meadow with a view of the climb up ahead. Traversing the steep hill I switched back and forth on rough goat track following the markers until I was scrambling hand over fist up a rocky outcrop. Above was Porcupine-Cataract Saddle wide open at 12,230ft and pass number 12 on the course.

From here I could see all the way across Cataract Basin. The patches of snow were sparse and the melt made the trail boggy. I followed the markers with little semblance of any real trail. Approaching the next climb up to the ridge I could see a runner moving at speed up high. As I started the last climb he descended glissading skillfully down a snowbank. It was Bruce from Canada who ran a great Hardrock last year. After catching up he peeled off through a narrow chute down the steep cliff towards Little Molas Lake where he was camped.

I struggled up to the ridge. I pictured doing this during the race. This is really going to hurt. The air was thin and the footing was poor. I stopped to suck in more air. The race directions mention acrophobia risk here but I was too busy concentrating on getting to the top to care. When I reached the ridge I angled across until I had a clear view of Putnam Basin on the other side. I sat in the warm high altitude sun and had some food. Putnam-Lime Creek saddle, 12,600ft, pass number 13 and the last on the course.

Then the fun part: the long descent. Back across Cataract Basin and I started to find some running legs. Climbing back up to Porcupine-Cataract Saddle I slowed but once over I wound up the pace. Dropping back through the rocky outcrops I was unfettered in the alpine meadow and strode out along the narrow singletrack. Hitting the bog before the creek I sunk ankle deep in mud and nearly left my shoe behind. Through the creek and I was back in the forest running on the most magical singletrack, winding through the fir trees, pine-needle soft footing, switchbacks, rocks to dodge, logs to hurdle, streams to splash through. I was immersed in the trail and nothing else existed. Sometimes you just need to get out alone on the trail to be at one with nature. I can't think of a more perfect trail anywhere. Trailrunner's nirvana.

The jog back down to the car made it 12.5 miles in 6:37, 4:27 up and 2:10 down. Max elevation 12,600ft plus 12,230ft pass. So much for my 'easy' day!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

14,000ft but who's counting

Day9 Monday 29th. I headed back out for the trailmarking today. A bit ginger after my 'altitude migraine' of a couple of nights ago. The plan was to leave a few cars (4WDs) at Grouse Gulch and drive the long rough mountain track to Burrow Park near the Sherman aid station. After experiencing the Cinnamon Pass road in the back of Charlie's truck last year (picture 6 or 7 adults in the back of a ute with a fiberglass canopy on the roughest, steepest mountain road you have ever seen!) I swore never again. So I stopped at Grouse with Marcia and John who planned to go up over Handies Peak in the opposite direction, then come back. This saved another hour and a half of shuttling as well.

We (well John and Marcia) carried a heap of marking flags up to American-Grouse Saddle for the others to use on their way across, but we didn't do any actual marking. I was pleased to get away from Grouse Gulch, site of my near DNF last year. Starting at 10,800ft we climbed up a narrow, but open valley under clear blue skies. There were lots of marmots out, standing their ground territorially. They are cute furry little critters, not unlike a cross between a ferret and a cat. Lots of chipmunks scurried across our path as well. Much cuter than those cartoon versions.

High up the valley the trail hit a few snowbanks before we topped out on a broad grassy saddle with the imposing Handies Peak bearing down on us across the American Basin. We stopped here on Grouse-American saddle to have something to eat. 13,020ft and what will be 'summit' number 7 during the race. In typical sadistic Hardrock fashion we then descended into American Basin at 12,400ft before the real ascent of the highpoint of the course: Handies Peak, summit number 6. We had to pick our way through boggy creek drainages, rocky outcrops and big snowbanks before the climbing got serious. You could feel the air getting thinner as you sucked in the big ones. Several long switchbacks later and we were on the steep lead up to the summit. I was using my poles to help pull me up. The conversation faded as we got higher and the grade got steeper. Then without warning the world opened before us and we were on the summit. Wow, what a breathtaking view. Literally. We dropped our packs and had a snack and tried to spot the trailmarking team coming up the other side.

They had split into two groups: markers with Charlie and those who wanted to go on ahead. We decided to drop down to meet the others coming up fromGrizzly Gulch while we could still only just make out the following group far below in the valley. We crossed paths on the steep, slippery, shaley slope below the false summit. John and Marcia went on (they are not racing this year but organising Putnam Aid Station so had no concern about how far they went) but I decided to turn around at the first big, steep snowbank. As it was I had dropped a few hundred feet and had to really work hard to get back to the summit.

I stopped on top to chat in the now warm sunshine to Roland and Jim, who had followed us up from Grouse, before setting off to catch the lead group. There were families hiking and picnicking along the trail, having come up the short route from the Handies carpark. I caught the others at the bottom of the basin. We picked our way across and up onto American-Grouse Saddle (again for me) where we stopped for another snack. Then the fun part: the long, long descent down narrow singletrack to Grouse. I stopped only to retie my shoes and take some pictures. Otherwise making good use of gravity and toughening up the quads a bit more. I experienced a bit of altitude headache again at the start of the descent but by the bottom felt fine.

After waiting for the rest of the advance party to arrive we piled into the back of one of the trucks for a dusty, bouncy ride back into town.

Grouse Gulch over American-Grouse Saddle 13,020ft, across American Basin, up Handies Peak 14,048ft down the other side then back again 10.5miles in 7 hours.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Trailmarking Begins

Day 7 Saturday 27th, Chapman-Kamm Traverse.
Well that was the plan, anyhow. After a long car shuttle to leave some cars near the end-point at South Mineral Creek campground, we had a long walk down the rough jeep road from Ophir Pass to where the Chapman aid station will be. At least the slow shuttle allowed me to spend an hour sitting at 11,800ft while waiting!

From Chapman's we crossed the creek then began the long slow climb up through the dense pine forest. It was slow going with a group of 13 of varying fitness and acclimation. Plus Charlie gives an entertaining and educational narrative along the way. In fact one of his sobering monologues had many of the newbies questioning their motives with stories of how people met their demise out here (none during the actual race). And just to add to the credibility of these stories, after crossing the Grant-Swamp Pass at 12,900ft, Fred decided to take a tumble on a steep snow bank. He pulled up once he hit gravel but missed a nasty rock by only inches. The only casualty besides his ego was a few nasty grazes. Very lucky, very sobering.

The climb to the pass was really tough. It was soft snow and hands and knees type scrambling. My fingers were burning with cold through my wet gloves. Last year we had skated down here on loose scree in the other direction. There is a good chance this snow will all be gone and we will be crawling up the loose scree. This after 85 miles! The view at the top was ever spectacular with Island Lake being partially frozen creating a mosaic of turquoise and icy-blue patches. We could see for miles in all directions with snow capped peaks extending to the horizon.

Dropping down into the South Mineral Creek valley we followed a faint trail, winding between rocky outcrops and snowbanks before hitting the well formed Ice Lake Trail. This we only followed for a short distance before a vague trail led off to the right. We all looked in disbelief. Coming fast down that well worn trail you were almost guaranteed to miss this turn. In fact a couple of guys who had gone ahead did just that. In traditional Charlie style he put one flag at the corner and moved on. We looked at each other and asked if we could put a few more out. By the time we finished you would have to be blind to miss it with flags and tape strung all over the trees.

Feeling satisfied we continued down to the creek crossing. With all the rain the waterfall was roaring. The tangled web of logs looked intimidating but definitely doable. Thunder roared overhead as large drops of rain started falling. Charlie made the call and decided we would go back up to the main trail and down to the cars, missing the Kamm Traverse.

Back on open trail a few of us decided to run to the finish. Like school kids it became a bit of a race down the narrow switchbacks, jumping logs, streams, rocks and roots. By the time we reached the campground I was breathless.

After another long wait we drove back to Silverton. Today had been scheduled with the crossing of Mineral Creek where I had had fun a couple of days ago but the river had risen dangerously high so the swap was made.

Ophir Pass-South Mineral campground 10miles in 6:14, max elev 12,920ft

Postscript: developed a blinding headache soon after getting home. Possibly due to altitude, dehydration and a bit of sunstroke (discovered my neck was sunburnt despite a bandana) but was totally disabling. So Sunday, Day 8 became an enforced rest day.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Rain, rain and more rain.

Day 6, Friday June 26, Kendall Mtn. After raining all night it was still drizzling this morning. With trail marking starting tomorrow I opted to just head up Kendall Mountain to get some quality altitude. The road starts climbing as soon as it leaves town. I layered up for the cold and wet. After only a couple of kms I had to stop and put my light jacket on. Zipped up tight I was already soaked through. I was wishing I had bought my heavy jacket with me. Looking back across Silverton low misty cloud wrapped around the nearby slopes. Mineral Creek ran red with dirt runoff. The tourist train blew its whistle feebly under the blanket of steady rain. Not many tourists today.

This was nuts. I was getting colder. As I rounded the mountain the wind hit me and it was an easy decision to turn around and go home. I ran hard but still didn't warm up. Not until I hit the shower.

Silverton-Kendall Mtn part way. 6miles in 1:28, max elev 10,100ft.

Bear Creek

Thursday Day 5: There are 3 Bear Creeks that are crossed or followed on the Hardrock course. Today I chose to follow what we call 'Silverton Bear Creek'. The trail across from Kamm Traverse checkpoint forms the last leg of the counter clockwise course. I trapsed up the hill out of town past the Miner's Shrine and out along Nutes Shute that parallels Hwy 550. I crossed the highway and slid down the embankment to Mineral Creek where a rope is stretched across the river for race day. Only the rope hadn't been strung out yet. And the creek looked rather fast and furious. Oh, come on, I thought. It's not as bad as last year when I crossed it one afternoon chest deep clutching the rope for dear life. But then I remembered how some guy last year tried to cross without the rope and got washed a mile down stream. Crap. If I don't cross then I have to go back over the same ground as yesterday and I'll spend the whole day feeling woosy. If I do go and make it I'll spend the whole day worrying that the afternoon snow melt will swell it even higher and I'll be trapped. Double crap. I knew I had to do it.

In I went. Instantaneously the current pulled at my legs. The waves swashed high up my thighs. I inched sideways slowly, trying to find footing on the slippery rocks and maintain balance. Deeper and further out towards the middle. Then it got too much. It was getting deeper and I couldn't hold onto my poles. My feet kept slipping. The current was pushing at me. I backed up and dragged myself back up the bank.

Crap. I sat on the side of the highway and watched the water for a while, defeated. A bus zoomed by on the wrong side of the road. Oh no, I was on the wrong side. Bloody left-hand drives. I realised I was in more danger sitting and watching than doing. Fear is a funny thing. You don't like to admit that it gets to you but it does. That is what I love about Hardrock: it constantly challenges you. You often need to look deep and question yourself. And that is what I did. I had to cross that creek.

Back across the swampy bank and into the icy torrent. I braced against the waves and shuffled my feet firmly through the rocks. The turbulence rocked me but I just dug in and pushed on. Deeper and stronger until there was no turning back. And then I was clinging to the other side and climbing the steep bank. I looked back, adrenaline pumping, and wondered what all the fuss was about.

The trail disappeared into a thick pine forest. I took a couple of wrong turns, following well beaten horse tracks. There was a trail riding place downstream. Finally I was climbing. Even still the trail was cut up by horse hooves. As I rounded a bend a horse jolted sideways in fright. The lady explained he thought I was a bear. Not quite but nice reminder. I let them pass.

Spruce trees opened into a grassy clearing with lots of knocked down old trees tangled on both sides of the trail. Strangely they were tilted uphill, unlike typical avalanche debris that gets pushed down hill. I looked across the valley and there carved deep into the side of the brooding basaltic monolith that is Sultan Mtn, was a huge avalanche shute. These dead trees around me were 'blowbacks' from the impact of avalanches across the other side of the valley. I could not fathom the scale of nature out here. This place is at once intimidating and inspiring.

The trail continued climbing up the valley interspersed with more clearings from past avalanches and rock falls. The horse hoof holes stopped once the trail hit a big rock slide. I was out in the open now with spectacular views up and down the valley. Above the treeline snow banks appeared and it was getting cold as the clouds closed in. I stopped to put my jacket on as the rain came down. I could see the saddle marking the highpoint of the trail. I was getting edgy as thunder could be heard in the distance. I crested the ridge: false summit, I wasn't there yet. More thunder. More rain. More climbing. Then the earth opened before me. 12,450 ft, Putnam-Lime Creek pass. I turned and ran hard over the alpine grass, sliding down the snowbanks, across the boggy patches and back down into the valley. I hoped to have half this speed on race day.

And then the creek. All way down I was thinking how the rain would be feeding the creek. I got to the bank and burst out laughing: the rope had been strung.

Silverton-Putnam-Lime Creek Pass and return 15.07miles in 6:02, 4:03 up and 1:58 down, max elevation 12,450ft

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thunder downunder

Wednesday day 4: Jetlag is killing me. The altitude seems fine but the timezone is wrecking me. So it was a late start today, getting out after 9am. I knew this was folly as the afternoons have been characterised by summer storms and yesterdays deluge was rather impressive. I decided to follow the first sector of the race, Silverton-Cunningham Gulch, despite having already done parts of it and knowing it well. In fact knowing it well makes it more attractive until the rest of the course is marked.

I switched to my old Camelbak to compare with the Salomon I have been using. It was weighed down with 3.5 litres of water but it moulded into my back with a comforting familiarity. I was tired so walked lots on the way out to Arrastra Creek. The heavy rain had swollen the river and there was no chance of crossing the logs without getting wet. I thought of Brett and his garbage bag routine and chuckled as I plunged into the icy water. This is Hardrock, get used to wet feet.

The jeep road up the valley climbed incessantly, winding through the thick fur trees. By the time I broke treeline the clouds had rolled in. The Big Giant mine site looked ominous under the grey sky. Nature was doing its best to reclaim the land and the scattered structures were little more than splintered wood strewn about the site. The upper lake was an inviting opaque turquoise but not frozen over like it had been last year.

Leaving the road onto the goat track I noticed hoof prints in the mud patches. Mountain goat? Whatever it was, it followed the same vague path all the way to the pass, as the fresh imprints led the way. Vague indeed. There were a few small rock cairns but the path was patchy. High above I could see the more defined line cutting across the steep mountain face. This was where I was heading and the hollow between the peaks marked the true pass. The trail grew steep and I struck my first snowbank. Nothing too serious. Last year there had been massive snowbanks here. Looking up the rockslides cut vertical shutes into the cliff face, looking like pinstripes on a dark suit. Not much grew up here, just low grass clinging precariously to patches of moist dirt. Eventually I had to scale one of the gravel shutes, steep and slippery. I looked down and gained an appreciation for the danger of this trail. This is where I had slid on my hands and heels coming down last year in the wee hours of the morning after 95miles. Good thing it had been so dark. My heart was pounding under the effort. I could hear it going a hundred miles an hour in my ears.

Across the last narrow pitch and I was on the pass, 12,900ft. Thunder clapped and reverberated around the cliff walls. Crap. I remembered the words of the weatherman on TV last night saying lightning is one of the biggest killers in Colorado. I scuttled across the open pass, sheer vertical drops on both sides. No sign of the mountain goat. He wasn't that silly. On the Dives exit side of the pass a huge snowbank protruded across the path. Bugger. No way was I tackling that. More thunder. Crap. My meagre Yaktrax (strap-on shoe fittings for traction on ice) were no match for this baby. I spent a few minutes digging into the snow with my poles to help the melting process. I partially slipped and looked back at the void behind me. I realised this was not such a good idea. Another clap of thunder and I was convinced. I was out of there. Back across the pass. Scoot down the first pitch, controlled slide over the talus patch and full tilt down the goat track. The heavens opened and it started pouring. Thunder peeled off and I braced against the reverberations. The shelter of the treeline became my focus. I had planned to descend easily to spare my quads but all that went out the window.

Down, down I went, huge drops of rain pelting me, the wind now icy on my wet torso. The rocky path rising up to meet me. Until finally the trees closed in all around me and I settled into a steady pace over the rock strewn road.

The creek crossing was a blessing as the icy water cooled my aching shins and knees. I paused to let the water work its healing effect on my battered legs. Then the easy dirt singletrack all the way back into town. I crossed the bridge on the edge of town and there was no way I was stopping to soak my legs again. Cold rain was running down my back and the tourists already looked at me strangely, out running in the pouring rain, without also standing in the middle of the icy river.

I should sleep well tonight.

Day 4 15miles Silverton to Dives-Little Giant Pass and return in 5:25. Max elevation 12,980ft 3:45 up and 1:39 down

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hardrock countdown

Downtown Silverton is starting to buzz as runners begin to arrive in preparation for Hardrock100 2009. I arrived on Sunday afternoon after overnighting in nearby Durango. The 30 hours of planes, trains and automobiles left me jetlagged and frayed. I succumbed to a massive headache the first night and was uncertain if it was jetlag or altitude induced. Probably a combination of both. I suffered the same fate last year and likewise massive fluids and more sleep cured it. I spent the morning shopping for supplies in Durango. I must have been an amusing sight wandering around the supermarket in a fog trying to convert weights, prices and labels into an aussie equivalent. I struggle in a foreign supermarket at home but put me in a different continent and time zone and it is not pretty. Amazingly I ran into a guy from the outdoor store (where I had bought some new montrails earlier) and he recognised me and wanted to know my name so they could track me on race day. The pressure builds!

Driving through the mountains, dropping from the 10,000ft pass, my first view of Silverton caused a flutter in my chest. I tried to hoot but my altitude fried vocal chords only managed a feebled squeak. I was back.

After an emotional reunion with my motel owner and unpacking I went for my first easy run to loosen the legs. I headed out along the first few miles of the counter clockwise course over my favourite local trail towards Arrastra Gulch. I was impressed with my new Montrail Wildwoods that gripped like nothing else. Past the beaver dams and through the spruce lined trail it felt good to be back. I could feel the thinness of the air but I took it easy and finished with a comfortable 5miles without much elevation gain.

Day 1 5.5 miles in 1:27. Silverton-near Arrastra Creek (white cabin) and return. Max elevation 9,400ft.

Monday dawned clear with a thick frost. There is a minor heatwave sweeping the country and Western States this weekend looks like being hot. This heat is melting the snow on the Hardrock course but there are reports of some thick snow/ice banks still up high. I headed out in early morning sunshine and there was even a warm southerly breeze. Aiming to stay low again, I went past the start line at the school gym and up past the miner's shrine and along Nute's Shute to the river crossing at Hwy 550. I contemplated crossing and following the trail up Bear Creek but decided I needed another day at 9,000ft so back through town and out towards Arrastra Gulch proper this time. I missed the unmarked trail where it picks up the water pipes and ended up bushwacking a fair bit before backtracking and finding the right path. All the way up to the creek crossing I was sucking in the big ones as I fought for oxygen. But it felt good to be working at last. Back down the hill I let loose and really tested the new shoes, leaping logs and rock hopping and really soaking up the pure trail singletrack. I remembered coming through here last year late on the second night of the race. Teresa and I were just plodding along on trail I was now flying over. This year I would run this fresh at the race start.

Day 2 Monday 12.9 miles in 3:43 Silverton-Hwy550-Silverton-Arrastra Gulch and return. max elevation 9,600ft.

Tuesday started clear again but by mid afternoon the monsoonal rain came down with lightning and thunder. I got out early to beat the weather. I decided to head up Mt Kendal for some climbing. After an hour or so of steady climbing I had my garmin still on metric and when I flicked to imperial I was surprised to see I was already above 12,000ft. Wow, cool. The jeep road wound around the mountain and snow capped craggy peaks appeared around each bend. Little furry critters scampered off the road as I approached. Some looked like a cross between a cat and a fox. Others could have been cheeky guinea pigs. So cute. And plenty of ground chipmunks, chirping at me. Above the tree line snow patches appeared and the wind became chill. I thought of turning back but the peak beckoned so I kept climbing. Crossing a couple of snowbanks and scrambling the final gravel pitch, I topped out at 13,000ft. The view was worth the effort. Wow!

After a quad busting descent I stopped at the river to soak my legs. I don't care how good an ice bath is for recovery, I couldn't stand the pain!

Day 3 13.9 miles in 4:42 (3:04 up & 1:17 down, change=soaking and talking) Mt Kendal summit and return. Max elevation 13,000ft

Monday, June 08, 2009

The North Face 100, 2009

Halfway up Nellies Glenn and a jet roared unseen across the sky high above me. Steps and more steps, ever upwards. Then another jet? No, that was the wind roaring through the trees on the ridges high above the valley. The hot sweat dripping off my nose will soon chill me once I am exposed back up on the ridge to Katoomba. What a day of contrasts. That is the North Face 100 trail race. Highs and lows. Climbing and descending. Running fast and walking slow. Smooth, wide-open fire trail and narrow, gnarly singletrack. Soft, leaf-lined soil paths and brutally hard steel steps. Warm sun and bitter cold wind. This race has it all.

The early morning start saw the 300 plus runners stream out of the Fairmont Resort in Leura and wind our way around iconic Blue Mountain landmarks like the Three Sisters, Leura Falls and under the Scenic Skyway on smooth rolling trail. A conga line of runners kept the pace in check but allowed glances across the valley at the early morning light dancing over the escarpment. I was frustrated by the slow pace on the very runnable trail but sat back and enjoyed the view. After a steep climb up the Golden Stairs, I was at Checkpoint 1. I waited for Tim to come in. He was still getting over a bad cold and in hindsight probably shouldn't have been there. He could see I was biting at the bit, and he was clearly in for a bad day. He sent me on my way, alone.

I knew the Tarros Ladder was in the next sector so I ran hard hoping to beat the queue. Mile after mile of firetrail rolled out as I climbed the Narrow Neck. Around every bend more runners to chase. Spectacular views unfolded on both sides as the world fell away to the forested valleys far below. The wind whipped across us as misty rain sprung from the low set cloud. After leaving the road, a short rock scramble led to the top of the infamous Tarros Ladder. Oh crap, around 20 runners were huddled in the biting wind, each waiting their turn to climb down the jury-rigged aluminium ladders, encased in a cobweb like rope net. 20 minutes seemed like an eternity but my turn eventually came. Down one step at a time, slow going. Releasing the bottom rung I cut loose and ran hard to warm up again, greeted by tight singletrack and steep, slippery gravel where I slid out of control and bounced off the trees like a pinball. After breaking from the trees more firetrail led down to the welcoming CP 2.

Shortly after leaving the comfort of the aid station the course climbed the Ironpot Ridge. Hand over hand scrambling. You could hear the deep breaths of runners gasping for air. At the top we were directed along the ridge on a technical out-and-back section. Runners kept coming towards me, punctuating the rocky landscape. The exposed outcrop marking the turnaround provided great views. Back down weaving through the trees and oncoming runners. Then a steep drop off the ridge, free falling through the forest. My feet clawed at the ground but slid forward inside my shoes, the soles burning as I slipped and slid down to the creek. Then the track wound through farmland before emerging into the upper reaches of the Megalong Valley road. Horse country. My nostrils filled with the strong aroma of horses and horse manure, a total contrast to the crisp forest air just minutes before. I was feeling strong so ran the road hard to CP3.

Mandatory gear check was the first priority. Done. Refill and refuel. Done. And on my way onto the Six Foot Track headed towards Katoomba. A couple of kms down the track I realised I hadn’t refilled both my bottles and suddenly felt very thirsty. I slowed to conserve what water I was carrying. Runners were few and far between. I passed a few. A few passed me. The climb up Nellies Glenn bunched us all up in a kind of communal effort. As we broached the top of the stairs we moved into yet another weather zone and suddenly the warm afternoon sun was but a distant memory as the icy wind tore at any exposed flesh. Sensing the next aid station and more fluids I ran hard through the fringes of Katoomba to the oval and CP4. I collapsed on the damp grass and guzzled the softdrink my crew provided. Elixir of life. I donned my light jacket and headlamp in preparation for the approaching night and headed off.

Echo Point was buzzing with tourists and they looked on with perplexed amusement. I passed a little posse of runners before realising one of them was Dean Karnaze, the man himself. Cool. How many sports do you get to compete against international sporting celebrities? A guy dressed in civies and carrying a huge camera was running along ahead of Karno snapping pics. Then came the quad-busting Giant Staircase. Down, down, down. I thought it would never end. Relief came on the mossy forest trail at the bottom as the fading light struggled to reach the valley floor. I ran hard to use the last light before reaching the open firetrail that descended further down Sublime Point Ridge. It was dark now as I wound down, down until my quads thought they would explode on the hard packed road. The reflective ribbons marked the course, reassuringly. I splashed through the shallow Jamison Creek before starting the long climb to Kedumba Pass and then the old Queen Vic hospital site. Head down and grind it out.

CP5 was a welcome site in the now cold, lonely night. Crew huddled around a blazing fire, the warmth beckoning me. Tim Cochrane offered me some pizza and he didn’t have to ask twice. I knew he had finished second to Mark Lee, and here he was back out helping other runners. Great effort on both counts. I had been resisting trying to chase the 14 hour silver buckle cut-off but weakened now. I wondered how much time I needed. I asked him what would be a slow split for the last sector. He said he couldn’t remember his time. I said a slow split! Never mind, I would just go as hard as I could.

Out on the road a young runner caught up and passed me. He asked how far we had to go and if he could make 14 hours. I said no-way but he took off anyhow. I passed him about 3km later dragging his feet. A valiant but futile attempt. The trail dropped back into the valley and I thought it would never end. Then the new Lillian’s Bridge and I started climbing for the last time. The trail popped out onto mowed grass and I knew I was close. Glow sticks marked the way. I could see banners flapping in the wind. Across the lawns of the resort the finish chute was in sight. I dug deep. People were clapping. It was cold, dark and late but the support warmed my heart as the emotions of a day of honest toil washed over me. I ran hard to the line to stop the clock at 14:30. Tired but happy. A very solid hit-out before Hardrock and a faster time than last year without any taper.

Monday, March 16, 2009

No-one to hold my hand; unauthorized 12 foot track. 13 March 2009

Imagine running the 6 Foot Track in March and not seeing another person. Better still, run from the Explorer’s Tree in Katoomba to Jenolan Caves, then turn around and run back and not see one runner. Sometimes you just want to go for a run on a trail. And after a crap run at 6 Foot last year I decided I would get the best of both worlds: I would fly to Sydney to watch the 6 Foot Track Marathon but arrive a day earlier and run an unofficial 12ft Track, solo. Some runs you will always remember. Even without anyone to share my 12ft experience, this was one of those runs: one I will always remember.

Tim dropped me at the Tree as the first light was breaking through the low, thickset mountain cloud cover. I had my ceremonial picture taken in the gloomy shadow of the tree then walked off into the bush at 6:40 am. I was not the least bit concerned about pace. For once I would be just running for the sake of it. No race. Just me and the track.

The steps down Nellies Glenn were slippery and I took my time. Despite walking most of the way, or perhaps because I was walking, I still managed to slip and land fair on my backside. Ouch. Ego hurt more than my rear.

The bird-life was rousing with the breaking light and the whip birds pierced the stillness. Along the sandy white road I managed to ease into a trot but it was clear I was not going to break any speed records today. Care not.

Into the paddocks of Megalong Valley and the dew on the grass was thick. I remembered crunching through frost here on previous authorized 12ft runs in winter. Not today. The humidity was high but the clouds were blocking out the sun. Kangaroos watched me inquisitively before loping off. They cleared the fence effortlessly. I used the stile. I went to hide some coke in the traditional hiding spot in the hollow of the tree at the road crossing but opted for the bushes instead. I had visions of people swarming all over in the evening as they set up for 6ft.

Climbing Pinnacle Hill the sweat started to bead on my nose. The day was warming. The humidity made my damp clothes cling to me. Flocks of Gang Gang parrots swooped past with their staccato cries. The bird life was amazing. I deviated off the track to visit the memorial plaque on a tree on top of the hill: “Robert John Webb 1949-1992 His spirit runs free.” I looked up the valley at the view and reflected on how lucky I was to be out here.

The single track down into the Cox River valley is always a great run. The only impediment: the cobwebs across the track and the occasional gate to open and close behind me. Yellow tail black cockatoos screeched their long wailing calls all around me. Truly magnificent birds. A solitary wallaby took fright and plummeted through the bush to escape. The rumblings of the river could be heard echoing up the valley. I was at one with the trail.

The river was low but I thought I would chance the rocks. They were treacherously slippery and I ended up shimmying across on my bum. Dry feet though. No campers. Empty. The slow drizzle had settled into rain. I sat under the shelter and ate some creamed rice. I checked the tank for water for the return trip and headed off into the hills.

I stashed another coke here. I contemplated 850 runners ploughing through the river then drudging up this hill. The climbing was hot work. The sweat not only dripped from my nose now but also mixed with the rain and dripped from the brim of my cap. The rain eventually stopped but the hill kept going.

Down into Alum Creek valley and my feet got wet at the small river crossings. Kangaroos were out grazing in the dull light. The clouds hung low over the surrounding peaks. I was moving freely now running the downs and flats. The climb up Pluvi was long but not taxing. The track was in great condition. Big spots of rain fell intermittently and I took off my cap to let the cool water splash on my bald pate.

The Black Range road seemed ominously empty. But the wildlife made up for it. Small wallabies occasionally thumped away. A lyrebird scurried from side to side before finding an escape route. Another took off as if it was flying on the run. More black cockatoos serenaded from above. Their huge graceful wing strokes weaving through the treetops as their ‘creaking-door’ like cries rang out. They seemed oblivious to my presence. It was just me and my footprints.

Deviation campground was empty. I refilled my bottles from the tank. Across the Caves Road and the final stretch into Jenolan Caves. Not even any tourists out on the paved trail. I had gone the entire way seeing only one farmer in his ute.

I ordered some lunch and by chance ran into Dog, Bernie, Sarge and Seris so sat and ate in company. A 45-minute break and I had to then carry my overfull stomach back up the steep climb. At the top I met an RFS ute checking the track and I directed them to the only tree across the path. The undulations back to the road crossing eased me into my stride. I decided to put my ipod on and up the pace a little.

More lyrebirds on the Black Range Rd. Or maybe the same ones back again. The rain started coming down. This time real rain. Heavy, soaking rain. Rivulets down my neck. The wide road was awash, turned into a stream with the puddles forming billabongs. The music pumped my legs and the pace kept me warm.

Down Pluvi, picking a path as the trail rushed up to meet me. The small creeks before Mini Mini blended with the wet track. The rain eased and the low clouds hung like halos around the peaks. The climb up Mini was the toughest for the day. The late afternoon light was fading. The distant escarpment was shrouded in white mist. I was cocooned in my own little world amongst the enormity of the landscape. I stopped on the hill where Tim and I had paused on my first run here in 2005. His prophetic words in his race report: “if Whippet were a girl I would have held his hand” as we watched the sunset glow on the escarpment, echoed in my ears. Not this time. I was alone. And the orange glow was replaced with wispy white cloud. But I could not be more at peace.

After the long downhill the coke was a treat. When I entered the Cox River camping area the place was abuzz with RFS people setting up for the race next morning. I wandered through and filled my bottles from the tank. No-one seemed to notice me, almost like I was cloaked. I waded the river and began the long climb back to Megalong Road.

There were no cobwebs and the rain had stopped. I was running hard now. Running up the hills. Well within my comfort zone. Singletrack with just enough technical to make it challenging. The stimulating blend of rock music and coke fuelled me. The fading light added incentive.

The cows in the open paddocks of Pinnacle Hill were not impressed at my intrusion. One decided to follow me. The next turn and a huge bull eyeballed me. His unbroken stare followed my nervous path before him. I scampered across the next stile, relieved. I rang Tim to organise a pick-up. He had a special relationship with these cows and I blamed him for their scary tactics.

It was dark as I reached the road and my last bottle of coke. I resisted my headlight, opting to run in the dim light, feeling the trail with my feet. Once on the long white sandy road towards Nellies Glenn I relented and pulled out my light. I was still running strong, despite the continual climbing. I looked at my watch and realised I was making good time on return. I ran almost to the sign at Nellies then pushed solidly up to the steps. I focused on each step. Each step brought me closer to the top. They went on forever but my stride was unbroken.

Finally the sandstone rocks of the final stretch. I imagined how in but a few hours hundreds would fly down here elbow to elbow. Not me. I had it all to myself. As I jogged the final steps to the tree headlights pulled off the highway and Tim arrived right on que. 9:05. Another photo. Cold, wet, but elated. 849 runners would run the 6ft Track the next day. They would experience a truly great race. I got to experience a truly great trail.