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, July 18, 2010

Mission accomplished

Wow, one week after Hardrock and I am back in Oz, trying to get over another dose of jetlag.
I will write a full and thorough race report but meantime the short version is: I finished.

This was my toughest one yet, despite being the fittest I have been. I was conservative the first day and was confident I could run home strong in under 40hrs (my goal) the last climb in the night (Engineer's Pass) and early the next morning I suffered terribly from the altitude. My vision went all blurry then started to funnel down on me and I was all light headed and wobbly. At first I thought this was just fatigue but it got worse the higher I went and then my lips got all tingly. I realised I was hypoxic and descended. I sat and faced the DNF for nearly an hour before trying again and taking it really slow. I made it over American-Grouse and then over Handies so just plugged away until I felt good again by late afternoon.

Time became irrelevant except for the cut-offs which I knew I could beat. I don't know what else I can do for this run. I have trained harder than ever, spent 3 weeks acclimating and I know the course now. There is no way of predicting the effects of altitude and I suffered more in the lead up this year.

But a Hardrock finish is a finish, and I will take that anyday, regardless of time.
3 from 3.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Day 18: Thursday 8th

Wow, d-day. Well 10 hours until start time. All the registration and formalities are done. All fed and hydrated. Drop bags are in. Nothing left but to get some last minute zzzzzz's. The energy in the school gym today was electric. Everybody was buzzing. A couple of runners got in at the last minute to fill the no-shows. Deb Pero missed out. She was next in line so if someone fails to show in the morning she can still get a start. Hard to imagine such a scenario.

I am as ready as I can be. I am looking forward to just getting out on the trail. I am lucky to be given this opportunity yet again and hope to do justice to my entry spot.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Day 17: Wednesday 7th

Registration opened today. I am sitting in the high school gym with my little fluoro yellow hospital bracelet on. This makes it easy to spot entered runners. Lots of nervous energy as the business end begins. Rodger and the Coury brothers have built a magnificent finishers shute lined with full size flagpoles carrying the flags of every state and country represented in the race. The aussie flag is flying proudly and we hope to do it justice starting in 37 hours time!

Day 16: Tuesday 6th

Rest day. Spud is crawling the walls. He is way ready to run.

I haven't been able to load any pics but Steve Pero has opened his picasa album for us to share his pics. They are grouped by day so easy to follow and some great shots in there:


Day 15: Monday 5th

Into taper mode now. I have a couple of underlying niggles that will benefit from a few days rest. Spud and I took trip over to Durango for last minute supplies (and lunch at the fantastic Himalayan restaurant). We went for an easy short 'run' along the first couple of miles of the course. Just climbing up the hill to the Miner's Shrine that overlooks Silverton reminded us that we should be walking even at the start of the race. It also put into perspective the pace Blake Wood set, sprinting off at the start of the 5km race despite going uphill (sub 20min 5km at 9,300ft!). John Beard also ran a blinder in the 10km being 41+ something minutes. There are some really fit and well acclimated people here.

Past the Miner's Shrine we followed the road down to the Highway where we turned sharply onto a bench that apparently used to be a railway bed. Which means it should be flat. Well by HR standards it probably is. But it does undulate through the trees and scrapes across a huge red scree slope.

We turned around at the turn-off that drops down to the Hwy. We could see the fixed line way up above the creek which was uncharacteristically low. A gentle jog back and time to kick back until Friday. About 4miles easy.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Day 14: Sun 4th

You have to see the 4th July in Silverton to believe it.

The day starts early with the local fun run: 10km, 5km and 2km. With the benefit of experience I opted to watch rather than run (in 2008 I spent the restof the day coughing up half a lung!).
Mid morning all the Hardrockers met up to to 'march' in the 4th July parade. OMG it is a huge parade. And it is a ball to be a part of it, walking behind the HR start/finish banner.

Next comes the rhubarb pie festival. For a couple of bucks you get a slab of homemade pie and icecream. Mmmm yum. We ate this while the brass band played in the gazebo in the park.

Then time for a nap, in preparation for the HUGE fireworks display that evening. And they put on a huge display that goes for half an hour. I am not a big firework fan but the amphitheatre effect of the fireworks reverberating up the canyon is unbelievable. It was a really cool evening sitting around a fire pit outside Charlie's place watching the show. And then the massive logjam as thousands and thousands of cars tried to all exit via the single road, Hwy 550.

Day 13: Saturday 3rd

No trail-marking today so I showed Spud the last part of the course.
We took an easy run/hike out past the ski hill and along the singletrack past the beaver pond. We followed the jeep road up to the crossing over Arrastra Creek before running back. An easy 6 miles with little elevation gain. An easy day.

Day 12: Friday 2

Bear Creek out of Ouray, Hwy 550 up to Engineer's Pass.
This is one of my favourite parts of the course. This year we go up. Which according to Dave Mc is the safer direction (for some reason he thinks running down this windy narrow steep trail is dangerous). And from Ouray to the pass is the longest overall climb of the whole course. We started on the 550 Hwy, the classic tourist route through the mountains. The road cuts through sheer rock forming a tunnel. The trail climbs right up over this tunnel before a series of long, steep switchbacks across beds of loose slate. Running down here sounds like running on broken china. And like Dave says, 'the ground moves under you'. And it does.

Once off the switchbacks we were in the true canyon where the trail has been literally carved into the cliff wall. It is hard to imagine the miners blasting their path up this gorge then hauling massive equipment up there. But they did, and Hardrock enjoys their legacy. Spud and I posed for some pics on some of the more treacherous bends. Bear Creek can be heard tumbling over rocks far below. Race day I will come through here in the dark so the opportunity to soak in the real beauty of this trail was not to be missed.

Passing the Grizzly mine the trail goes through a lightly wooded patch, crosses several small streams and through some open grassy meadows. It was at one of these we saw a bear during marking day 2008. None today.

We stopped at the Yellow Jacket mine for a break and everyone caught up. Back into the woods and more creek crossings and we were finally at the treeline, site for Engineer Aid Station. Someone had carted a chainsaw (it was also trail-work day and some people were working for extra tickets in next years HR lottery) so we cut a fallen tree up for firewood. Amidst all this industry the heavens opened and a hail storm rained down on us, sending us scurrying for cover.

We left some of the trail workers cutting wood and we continued up the valley, marking the faint trail with the HR flags and building rock cairns. The valley opened out into a wide grassy bowl, decorated with wildflowers. The final pitch up to the pass had us sucking in the thin air. We sat and ate marveling in the beauty before us.

Spud and I decided to run down. What had taken 6 and half hours to go up we covered in 1:15 on descent. Needless to say Dave, was right, the ground moved, real fast.

8hrs (1:15 down) 16 miles, 12,190 feet

Day 11: Thursday 1st

Virginius day: one of the must do days of the course marking. Spud opted to come out despite being his first day from sea level. We hitched a ride in the extracab part of Steve's truck to Ouray then the long bumpy ride up Camp Bird Road. We run down this in the race and it is one of the more mind numbing sections. Way worse going up last year.

We parked at the site of the Governor's Aid Station and started the hike up the jeep road. Almost no snow until we got just below the mine site. After a scramble up the steep snow banks we were at the mine site and we could see the first steep pitch. The snow was split down the middle by a huge dirt bank. We all picked our lines, some choosing the dirt. There was no easy way, compounded by loose rocks breaking free and crashing down dangerously on those below.

After the first pitch we worked cross to the short second pitch which was covered in soft snow. You had to be careful you didn't break through. Then we all faced the third and final steep pitch. The snow had melted through in parts making the climb up the middle dangerous, if not impossible. We traversed from the side, kicking steps into the icy snow. 13,100 feet. Wow.

The narrow ledge that serves as Kroger's Kitchen aid Station filled up with runners and we sat around eating lunch and soaking up the spectacular views. We checked out the lead-up from the Telluride side, steep and slippery.

After some photos we set off sliding and slipping back down the partially exposed slope. with momentum we glissaded some of the second pitch. Running across the bench I broke through some soft snow and jammed my knee onto a rock. Yeow. A bit of a graze but no real damage.

The last steep pitch was a mix of sliding and scrambling out of control. Most of that snow will be gone by race day but the dirt/rock slopes will still be tricky to descend. Then the road back to the cars. 6 miles 3.45 hrs

We all finished the day with the traditional soak at the hot springs before a feed of Mexican.

Day 10: Wednesday 30th

Rest day, Spud flew in late in the evening so given I was driving over to Durango to pick him up I decided not to join the course marking (long day from Maggie to Arrastra Gulch). Had a lay day and did some shopping before heading out to the airport.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Day 9: Tuesday 29th

Found out today several Hardrock veterans are not going to be here this year. I knew Joe Prusaitis had been forced to go home with bad altitude sickness. A reminder of how dangerous the altitude can be. But I also found out that John DeWalt wasn't coming. John is a true living legend, having finished 14 Hardrocks at age 72 (I think). A couple of other regulars missing will be missed but open spaces for those on the wait list.

Today was Handies Peak course marking. Jim Sweat and I decided to go to the top and come back the same way to avoid the 2 hour drive out from the other side. This involved recrossing American Basin and climbing the Grouse-American Pass yet again but always beats that truck ride. Anything beats that truck ride. Starting at close to 10,000ft at the site of the Grouse Gulch Aid Station (bad, bad memories from 2008-see report on side bar for more info) the trail switch-backs steeply up, up, up until we can see the pass high above us. With only a couple of short snowbanks to cross the traveling will be clear by race day. 

We stopped and regrouped at the pass, 13000 feet and had something to eat. The American Basin opened below us and I was surprised how little snow there was. Looming above that was the brooding hulk of Handies Peak, imposing and impressive all at once.

We dropped down into the basin, picking our way through rocky outcrops and streams. Then the long, long climb up Handies. The trail switchbacks continuously before a final steep crumbly ascent. We gathered below the final pitch out of the wind while the stragglers caught up. We sat in the sun and ate with the most spectacular view. You know this is a sport for older runners when the main topic of conversation was everybodies annual colonoscopy. Hmmmm. That and stories of past Hardrock disasters. Jim Sweat always wins those: 9 starts and never finished. 

Finally we were up and climbing the final pitch and on the broad summit. The 360 degree view was worth the effort. Lots of pics and signing the register in the tube and Jim and I headed back down. Marcie and John had hiked over from the other side so joined us on the return. In the short space of time the marmots had already eaten half of the flagging tape off the markers by the time we passed back. Luckily the metal reflectors are to tough for them.

On the final descent the heavens opened and we picked up the pace. 10 miles in 6:45hrs.

Day 8: Monday 28th

The course marking was going over the long Pole Creek section today. This involves a 2 hour drive on a really rough road, most likely sitting in the back of a covered 'pick-up truck'. I have done this trip, jammed in with other runners and dogs as the truck bounces and winds along treacherous jeep roads. One turn requires a 3 point turn and I remember having my face pressed up against the tailgate window as the arse of the truck hung over the cliff edge. Needless to say I skipped the marking today and went solo up the Dives-Little Giant Pass. 

The weather started out perfect and I was soaking in the crisp clear mountain air as I cruised out past the Beaver Ponds again. Once climbing Arrastra Gulch the altitude started to bite and I settled into a slow steady hike, my poles striking out the rhythm on the hard-packed rocky road. Above the tree line I again noticed the proliferation of wildflowers. The Indian Paintbrushes with their blaze of orange-red foliage were brilliant. The little pikas (think guinea pig) were out cheekily squeaking at me before retreating to their rock fortresses as I approached. A few big hairy marmots scampered across the path. How all this wildlife survives being buried in snow for 6 months of the year I have no idea. It was providing me plenty of entertainment and company today.

The final approach to the pass was now completely melted out of snow. But the clouds were closing in. I reached the pass and could see a couple of huge storm cells moving across the mountains. One was right over where the course markers would be. Boy I was glad I wasn't over there. I sat and had a couple of pop tarts, leaving plenty of crumbs over the marmot hole next to where I was sitting.

The thunder started and that was my queue to get out of there. Back down the way I came in 6 1/2 hours for 15 miles.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day 7: Sunday 27th

Today was Grant-Swamp marking day. This is one of my favourite parts of the course so it was no easy decision to not go.  Well, actually it was easy. My head still hurt. I spent most of the day sleeping. Late in the afternoon I felt better so went for an easy jog along the Nute Shute which follows the highway on a nice 'flat' trail for several miles. I didn't take a full pack and just went easy for 4 miles before returning the same way. 8 miles in just over 2 hours. Felt good.

Day 6: Saturday 26th

Trail-marking begun today. Wow, so few turned up. I can't imagine coming to HR for the first time and not taking advantage of the trail-marking days to learn the course and acclimatise to the altitude. And I can't imagine as a returning runner not doing some of the course-marking to catch up with all the regulars. 

We drove a couple of miles out of town to the Mineral Creek crossing and a couple of cars were shuttled to our end point at South Mineral Campground. The guide line across the creek was fixed and we plunged into the fast flowing water. OMG it was so cold. Fortunately this year it is really low and at worst knee deep. It will be even colder on race day when we hit it at first light. Wet feet for the next 40 odd hours. Today wet feet for just 7 1/2 hours. 

The trail disappears into thick pine forest and starts climbing straight away. The low parts are used by horse riders. And according to the scats on the ground, bears. I guess that explains the name of the creek we were following up the valley: Bear Creek. 

The mixed group spread out quickly as the elevation gain sorted out those acclimated and those not. We stopped for a snack and allowed everyone to catch-up in the warm morning sun. The mozzies moved in so we moved out. The higher we got the thinner the trees until eventually we broke the tree line and Putnam Basin opened before us. Snow-banks, rocky outcrops, cliff-faces framed the lush green growth of the early summer. The wild-flowers were out in force. A myriad of colours dotting the mountains. The spectacular columbines with their pale purple petals surrounding the creamy white inner petals were my favourite. The tiny white and yellow daisy-like flowers were in abundance. 

Crossing out of Putnam Basin we reached over 12,000 feet as we climbed the grassy saddle that led us into the next basin. We spent some time here working out where the trail was supposed to go before we climbed over 12,000 feet again giving us a view across to Kamm Traverse where the first aid station would be. 

A long descent back into trees and we were on one of those classic rolling pine-needle lined single tracks all the way to the boggy South Mineral Creek crossing. Another short climb and we were at the site of the aid station. Given we got here in good time we continued up Kamm Traverse. The directions state that exposure is an issue here. It is steep and narrow but not as bad as other parts of the course. 

Off the steep traverse we were back in pine trees and some amazing huge conglomerate boulders. Looking up I could see the cliff that they had sheared away from. It was hard to imagine the impact of their fall. The geology here is spectacular and makes me wish I had taken more notice at Uni. 

Finally we were at the next big river crossing. A massive log jam provides a tricky but dry feet crossing. The waterfall above makes for an impressive backdrop. After a nasty steep climb we left the course and followed another trail for a few miles back down to our waiting cars.

A fantastic day covering 14miles in 7 1/2 hours. But I finished with a massive altitude headache.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Day 5: Friday 25th

What a difference some sleep makes. Felt great so headed out early to climb Mt Kendall again. It is close, convenient and constant climbing from the go. The plan was to go out a couple of hours and turn around. Not far up the climb I crossed paths with a lady coming back down so stopped for a chat. She knew my name and rather bewildered I inquired and turns out she is on the Hardrock Board so pretty much knows everyone. She told me if I find Rodger asleep at the top to wake him up. He has been pressed for time to train so got up in the early hours and was now on his third repeat of the mountain. Nothing like cramming at the last minute! Not long after leaving Caroline, he came flying down with another HR veteran, Rick Hodges. Rick looked in great shape despite being only a couple of months out of major surgery. Wow it was like Bourke/Pitt Street out here. 

I switched my ipod on and started plowing up the steeper incline climbing to 12,000 feet (from 9,200 in town) in just 4 miles. Another runner came towards me. Turns out he wasn't a Hardrocker but was on for a chat nevertheless. Despite all the people out here the little ground squirrels were still flitting across the road. Everything was so green. The big-leaved skunk cabbage plants were in flower and looked somewhat like triffids with their gangly stalks.

I turned around short of the top but with 5+miles and 2 hours up I was ready to go back. I tightened my pack and cranked up the pace a notch. When the Hilltop Hoods clicked onto my shuffle I had the perfect rhythm going and a smile from ear-to-ear. 

About half-way down another runner was slogging up towards me. Marcie, my saviour at the Putnam Aid station, mile 95, last year. We had a great catch-up and then I ran into her partner, John, further down the hill, trying to catch up with her. He is in the race this year and Marcie will pace the back half. It was really cool catching up with all these familiar faces. 

I ran the last part hard and my knee held together which is promising. 11 miles in 3+hrs. Trail marking starts tomorrow. Can't wait.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Day 4: Thursday

Crap, no sleep again. I thought I had beaten the jetlag. Apparently not. Late start and very tired so I only did some 'flat' trail today. And kept it short. I followed the start of the race out of Silverton to the first big river crossing. The trail winds along on a shelf above but mostly hidden by trees from the highway. I remembered running along here last year after 40 hours with lightning breaking across the night sky. Not today. It was sunny and hot. 

The river was the lowest I have seen it. The crossing rope was not up yet but we are marking this section on Saturday so it will be in by then. I retraced my path to the township and then across to the beaver pond trail again. Even the small undulations seemed huge today. Short but sweet, only 11 miles in 3 &3/4 hours. Hopefully I'll get some sleep tonight!

Day 3 Wednesday 23rd

Finally got some decent sleep. Well rested I headed out early onto the last section of the course: Silverton to Giants-Little Dives Pass. Being a clockwise year I was going against the grain but would retrace my steps as per the race finish. The start/finish this year is at the Ski Hut on the edge of town and climbing the open ski hill above it I was feeling the altitude already. The trail then undulates through spruce forest interspersed with some grassy openings and the famous beaver ponds. Crossing several small streams I was surprised how dry the track was, managing to keep my feet dry for the entire day. Very unusual at Hardrock. After a couple of miles the trail breaks from the single track and climbs steeply first up a jeep road, then up a rough track following a water pipe. 

After crossing the main Arrastra Creek on some convenient logs, I looked up the valley to the pass high above me. No way, that doesn't look passable. It took me a few minutes to realise we don't come down that valley but wind around to the next one. The hard-packed jeep road climbed steeply for a couple of miles until I reached the lower mine site then wound back around to the higher mine site above that. The adjacent lake was usually still frozen at this time of year but it was already thawed and presented as the most brilliant azure pool. 

I climbed above it onto single track, now well above tree-line and the view to the pass clear ahead of me. There were patches of snow but only one narrow bank to cross. Finally I was scrambling across the final steep scree slope that leads to the trail onto the pass. Wow, what a view. The sky was vivid blue punctuated only by the thin white streak of icy jetstream as a plane cut through the upper atmosphere. Craggy snow-capped peaks in every direction to the horizon. 13,000ft and the air was crisp. The breeze coming up from Cunningham Gulch on the other side was almost warm. I sat in the sun and ate a snickers bar and soaked in the endless views. Totally content.

Enough rest and I was plummeting back down the trail, sliding down the scree slope, flitting over rocks, slipping on the loose gravel. Hitting the jeep road and I settled into a rhythm that found me back at the river crossing in no time. Back into the forest and my preferred single track and I was in trail nirvana.

5.5 hours for 16 miles. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Silverton: home of Hardrock

2 days in Silverton and my head still throbs from the altitude and jetlag induced insomnia. After around 30 hours of planes, trains and automobiles, literally, I arrived in Durango on Saturday. After loading up with supplies and trying to find some new model trail-runners it was a short hop across the mountains to Silverton. Driving through the windy mountain pass my first glimpse of the old-west township sent a shiver down my spine. A potent cocktail of fear and excitment washed over me at the realisation that I am about to take on the Hardrock100 yet again. I have used this description before but I can find no more apt way to describe the emotions that Hardrock elicit within me: it simultaneously scares the crap out of me and excites me like no other race has ever done. Despite finishing in both directions, I take nothing for granted. There are a thousand ways to DNF this race. There are a thousand places to die on this course. There are a thousand emotions to be experienced throughout the race. It is a challenge I respect and invite. I am lucky yet again to be given this opportunity and humble in my approach to this daunting task that I hope to fulfill one more time. 

My trusty little travel laptop has failed me so updates on my progress towards race day in 2 & 1/2 weeks will be sketchy. But I will try to translate some of the adventure that comes with course marking and familiarisation. I have been out on part of the course (last 5km only) and it looks dry, although the locals tell me there is still a lot of snow up high. I covered 20km this morning (off course) up Mt Kendall that overlooks Silverton. In true Hardrock style what took 3 hours to climb (12,000feet) only took 1 hour to descend. I look forward to sharing my journey to the Hardrock and hope it is half as much fun as the last 2 years! And maybe just a little quicker? :)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Time to go

All the training has been done. Well, as much as I could manage, anyhow. My patella is still grumbling after an injury that forced a DNF at 90km into the Mind Alpine 100 back in April. But since then I have managed a solid training block of eleven continuous weeks over 100km, peaking at 145km last week. That is not big by most standards but it is by far the highest consistent mileage I have ever maintained for the longest period. And most of it was done carrying a weighted pack. And building up to a higher intensity and pace than I would normally achieve in training. Hopefully this all bodes well for Hardrock race day, 3 weeks from today. Yes, just 21 more sleeps!

Spud will be arriving in Silverton a little later than me but I am confident that the massive amount of training he has done will stand him in good stead despite the short acclimatisation period. We paired up and ran the Teams Marathon at The North Face100 in the Blue Mountains a few weeks ago. Neither of us tapered and treated it as a solid training run. The bonus was that we won the Teams event. Nice. That was 2 weeks after I ran the low-key Prom100km, and came equal first in that one. While the time wasn't my fastest over that course, I felt strong and pretty much cruised the last 20km.

Usually when coming into this sort of form I wait for an injury or illness to unravel things. Apart from the niggling patella and a couple of run-down days due to over-training, I seem to be holding it together. Injinji have come to the party again with some more of my favourite Silver Series socks. And I will be trying out the Zensah leg sleeves, which felt great in training. I have packed my trusty old Salomon pack and a new pair of Montrails. I am really looking forward to driving through the mountain pass where I get that first glimpse of Silverton and feel the goosebumps as realisation settles upon me that I am about to take on the Hardrock100 yet again.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Hardrock training begins

Defying all logic I have been drawn in the Hardrock lottery for the fourth year in a row (didn't run after WS100 in 2007). By chance tonight I happened upon Olga's blog account of Hardrock 2009. I met Olga during course marking. She is a larger than life character and her race report is well worth the read. http://runmoretalkless.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2009-08-27T07%3A43%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=3
I have borrowed a quote from it as it really struck a chord with me. The quote are the words Joyce whispered in her ear to motivate her at Chapman Aid Station. As an aside, Joyce's husband, Joe, went on to finish outside the cut. But he went on to finish, despite knowing he wouldn't make the cut. John DeWalt did finish his 14th Hardrock aged 73. These people make Hardrock what it is. I am honoured to count myself part of the Hardrock family and humbled to be given another opportunity to test myself over the amazing San Juan Mountains come July.

There is no DNF. You can use “I finished early” word’s trick, if you want to. But you don’t. Look, Joe just left Telluride, right on cut off, and he is still going, and I’ll be waiting for him here, because he will keep going. You got almost 14 hrs to make measly 18 miles, and you’ve been to those before. Piece of cake. You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are strong as they get. Stronger then most can even imagine. If anybody, you can do it. Just think of it as a “walk in a park”. A romantic outing with your sweetie. Take your time. Look around. Don’t look at the watch, because you have so much time, you can circle the town of Silverton 10 times after you are done – and still make it. Think of Johnny DeWalt, that 73 year old man, who is still clicking it, and he WILL make it to his 14th finish. So will you. Piece of cake, dear, just piece of cake...

My Hardrock training has begun in earnest.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mind Alpine Challenge 100 miles, 20-21 March, 2010

There is something rather spiritual about spending hours alone in the mountains. It is an atmosphere perfectly suited for distilling your thoughts. After struggling up a steep, rocky trail for hours your breath can literally be stolen by the view of the endless rolling mountains that unfold before you. Painted pale purple in the heat haze of the midday sun, layer upon layer of velour like ranges extend to the horizon. The Australian Alps is truly one of the most spectacular places on the planet. The Mind Alpine Challenge winds through some of the steepest and most scenic parts of the Alps. It is a course chosen to be as tough and challenging as conceivably possible. I took on the long course, the one hundred mile solo option.

We left en masse from the starting line in Bogong Village at 4:30am. The track quickly began climbing steadily up to the Bogong High Plains. Just as quickly, the headlamps of the front-runners disappeared into the predawn darkness. The first checkpoint of Warby Corner was reached in about 3 hours. My crew, Mal, had hiked in with some supplies for the return trip when I would come back through here some 42km and 8 hours later.

From Warby Corner the trail dropped quickly below the treeline as I began the never-ending descent into Big River down the infamous Duane’s Spur. I had climbed up this trail many times in the reverse direction but was unprepared for just how long it went, down, down, down. It was almost with relief that I plunged straight into the icy waters of the fast flowing Big River, cooling my legs at the bottom of the descent. Then began the equally long and steep climb up T-Spur towards Mt Bogong. Unrelenting doesn’t seem like an adequate description. I was lugging close to 3 litres of water on top of the food and emergency gear. My shoulders ached where the pack dug in.

I had now been several hours without seeing another runner. I was lost in my thoughts and immersed in my surroundings. At one point I thought I heard someone call out and I stopped suddenly, the rustling of my pack stopping as quickly. Nothing. Then a tree groaned and squeaked and I realised the trees were talking to me. Wow, how cool. I love this bush. It is the ultimate escapism to immerse yourself in such a natural environment.

Cleve Cole Hut was full of people having morning tea. The rich aroma of camp brewed coffee smelt great inside the hut. I reluctantly turned down a brew settling to simply fill my hydration pack and water bottles before heading off towards the summit. The camp residents looked on a little bemused and bewildered at what we runners were actually doing.

The distinctive rock cairn marking Mt Bogong, the highest point in Victoria, was visible for a couple of kilometres as I worked across the high ridgeline. Approaching the summit a runner kitted out in triathlon friendly gear closed in behind me. She had a distinctive fluoro pink theme to her outfit, topped off with the hottest of hot-pink sunnies. I quickly forgot her name but she became the pink woman. She was in the 100km race and clearly making good pace on the uphills. We checked in with the volunteers, had a photo taken and headed off down the windy exposed ridge that formed Quartz Ridge.
As the pitch of the trail dropped off more steeply, the pink lady stopped suddenly in front of me. ‘What’s up?’ I asked. ‘I’m afraid of heights,’ she replied. Oh, definitely not the best place to be then, with sheer drop-offs on both sides. She overcame her fear as we picked our way down the rocky ridgeline.

The trail eventually dropped back below treeline and we found ourselves winding slalom style down a recently cleared path. A sharp right turn put us onto the long steady switchbacking descent of the Big River fire trail. This was perfect running terrain. I felt good and simply let gravity do all the work, building momentum. I lost my friend quickly but was also lost in the sublime pleasure of the rhythmic rush of the earth beneath my feet and the trees rushing past my ears.

In true poetic fashion the descent was finally punctuated by a picturesque mountain stream that cut across the trail. I waded straight in with the icy water filling my shoes and cooling my hot legs. The polished smooth river rocks were slippery. A small grassy clearing lead to another fire trail climbing up out of the Big River valley to the high plains, via Timms Spur.
I knew this was going to be about 7km of uphill so I popped on my ipod and settled into a solid hiking pace. Up, up, up, switchback after switchback. The valley unfolded to my right with great views to the horizon. Grey, naked tree branches reached skyward, remnants from the 2003 bushfires. The endless mesh of thin grey branches protruding from the thick green undergrowth reminded me of the whiskers on an old man’s unshaven face. The whole valley was unshaven.

Halfway up the climb I had a muesli bar. Those close to me know I went into this race with some badly bruised ribs from a nasty fall on a trail a week before the race. It hurt to breath deeply. In fact it hurt just to breath some of the time. Clearing my nose or coughing forced me to stop and hold my chest. Sneezing was like death. A little of the muesli bar went down the wrong way and the subsequent coughing fit sent me into spasms of contorted pain that forced tears to my eyes. Recovered I finished the climb but ate no more of the bar.
Up on the high plains I was soon back at Warby Corner. I grabbed the drink and ate the can of creamed rice and was off. A few kilometres later and I was at Langford Gap (behind Falls Creek) where Mal was waiting with fresh food and water. I discovered a massage therapist offering services to runners and jumped at the chance to have my niggling ITBs loosened. Up on her table Mal passed me hot noodles and Greg (crewing another runner, Lisa) passed me a can of pashion-punch. This was the life!

Greg asked if I would run with Lisa, as she was worried about navigating at night. Sure. We left close together and ran hard for the next 8km along the flat path beside the aqueduct. The first short climb after the flat path and my right knee seized up. Crap. It loosened as we reached the flat narrow path through the button grass of the plain but I knew I was in trouble.

Lisa is a fast walker so I put her in front to keep the pace. I couldn’t run but we were managing 10-11 minute kilometres so I was happy. We followed the snow-poles across the plain as the sun steadily inched towards the horizon. As the light started failing silhouetted brumbies appeared moving across the trail. They looked on but kept their distance. Pole 333 eventually came into view and Paul (the race director) and his assistant where huddled in the lee of their tent, avoiding the now bitter wind. This remote checkpoint was the turnoff back to the finish where we would pass again the next day. The thought that we might not be back here for another 24 hours was daunting. I doubted my knee would last that long. We put on our head torches and were off.

We were now in deep darkness with almost no moonlight. The poles were easy to follow at about 30 metre intervals. Despite this Lisa managed to wander off at a tangent into the marshy terrain before I led her back. Her lack of navigational skill made her totally dependent on me. As we descended to Cobungra River the rough trail played havoc on her recently healed ankle.

We stopped at the river and refilled our bladders from spare bottles I was carrying. I don’t trust the rivers after getting sick over the summer from creek water. Next big climb to Mt Hotham was up Swindler’s Spur. My knee wouldn’t bend on the ups. I was reduced to dragging it behind me. It was rapidly apparent that I couldn’t go on past Mt Hotham. The climb went on forever. My knee ached and the weird movement necessary to get my leg up each step was taking its toll. Mal was waiting for me at the top in the Mt Loch carpark. I knew I had to stop there, nearly 90km and 18 hours in. I had no choice. Sometimes the choice is taken from you. This was one of those times. Lisa was getting tired so it was a short leap for her to pull out as well. It was quite clear that she could not possibly navigate through the night on her own. I felt bad at indirectly forcing her out but could not avoid it. Actually, I felt bad for a number of reasons. But I was philosophical. I had had a fantastic day of doing what I love best: running mountain trails. This course was a true test of stamina, navigation ability, mental strength and pure endurance. I had come up short this time but was far richer for the experience.