My phone rang at 9:30pm, Friday night, waking me up. I sat up startled, thinking it was my alarm going off. It was Blue Dog. I’m still not sure what was said or even why he even rang except that it was the night before the Great North Walk 100s and he and I shared the mantle of the only runners to have run every year and managed to finish. Except he surpassed me: my first year was only the 100km while he had 5 straight 100mile finishes. I mumbled something still half-asleep and he realised he had woken me up so apologised and hung-up, promising to see me on the beach on Sunday. The beach. Patonga Beach. The finish-line for the 100miler. He had no idea of what we were about to do. By waking us he had inadvertently robbed us of a couple of hours of precious sleep. Sleep, the all-important currency of the long-haul ultrarunner.
What were we about to do? My partner in crime, Phil (Spud) Murphy, and I were about to run the entire GNW from Newcastle to Sydney, sandwiching the GNW100s trail race in the middle. The Great North Walk, for those unfamiliar, is a 250km walking track through the Watagan Mountains paralleling the coast between Newcastle and Sydney. The GNW100s is a 100mile and 100km race along the track from Toronto to the beach at Patonga (with the 100km race finishing at Yarramalong). The 100mile race is actually 175km. With deviations off the established route to designated checkpoints as part of the race our journey would be 272km. The race alone has around 6,000m of elevation gain and loss. Add another 97km and plenty more elevation. Held in November it was nearly always hot. So why would we even try?
Phil had run 4 straight GNW100 milers, reaching as high as second place last year (2009). I had also run 4 straight GNW100 milers scraping across the line in second last place last year. The first year of the race in 2005, Phil had paced Blue Dog in the 100 miles, while I had run the 100km. We had both been here for every year of the race. We both had a strong affinity for this race. We had been planning to run the GNW track in its entirety for some time and once Darrel Robins, Andrew Vize and Terry Coleman set a speed record time of 66 hours in June 2009 that became our target. What better opportunity than incorporate our attempt around the official race? Maybe that was our big mistake.
12:30am Friday night and the clock on the billboard read 26C degrees. The humidity was high, incredibly oppressive. Even at midnight. The waterfront in Newcastle was pumping. The nightclub on the pier was spilling patrons out onto the carpark and as they wandered by they asked if we were selling that cold pizza we were eating out of a box in the car-boot. In shorts and tshirts with camelbaks and headlamps we must have looked a little out of place.
1:00am and we trotted off along the street full of enthusiasm and not just a hint of trepidation. Under street-lights and a half moon we wound our way towards the Oblesque on the hill following the familiar GNW bollards on street corners. An unmarked police car pulled up alongside us. The burly Maori officer asked what we were doing. “Running to Sydney.” Bemused if not a little incredulous was his expression and response. “And what are they?” he asked, pointing at my collapsed trekking poles. “Walking poles”, I motioned somewhat comically how they worked. “And that thing flashing on your arm?” “That’s a GPS transponder so people can track our progress.” OK, they seemed happy that we were harmless. Maybe a little crazy, but harmless.
The GNW100s starts at 6am Saturday morning. Race briefing 5:30am. Registration before that. We allowed 4 hours to run the 25km of trail and bike paths from Newcastle to Teralba. We couldn’t afford to miss the start. The humidity was unbelievable. Sweat clung to any exposed skin, unable to evaporate. Our clothes were drenched. We ran, walked, talked and soaked in the night-time peace and quiet. Phil had recently run this part of the course to be familiar with it. This proved invaluable but we still missed one turn coming off a beach and we found ourselves off track but only lost a few minutes. Spider webs punctuated the path and caused much consternation for the lead runner, usually Phil. There was some nice fast singletrack and leg sapping soft-sand beach running. It was hard to believe we were so close to Newcastle suburbia as we ran along fully enveloped in dense bush. On one of the headlands Phil pointed up at the sky and I just caught the tail end of a huge shooting star. Finally we hit the foreshore path at Warners Bay and we were free of cobwebs, for now.
We trotted to the race start-line at 4:50. After registering we reloaded our packs and filled our camelbaks. We were not using any crew throughout the race so placed drop-bags into the checkpoint boxes. We were itching to go. Our personal stopwatch was still running. News of our plan spread steadily through the runners. There was some disbelief and some admiration but a definite hint of incredulity.
6:00am Saturday morning, finally. Race start. Phil and I settled well back in the field. I was used to being here. Spud was in a different zone, used to being up the front. We chatted and trotted amongst old friends. We left the bitumen and climbed the rolling ridges before dropping to Heaton’s Gap. We refilled our packs again at the service station. And then began the long hot, breathless climb out of the valley.
Phil had our projected splits printed out. I ignored them, trying to concentrate on drinking, eating and just getting to the next Check Point. The first section to Checkpoint 1 is undoubtedly the toughest part of the race physically. With an extra 25km in the legs and no sleep it felt a tad tougher today.
By the time we dropped into the Congewai Valley the weather gods had dealt their hand for the day: hot and humid. I had run every GNW100. This one felt the hottest and the most humid. Spud had been running just in front of me all morning, tempering his pace to match my slower pace. When we hit the road I resolved to get it over as fast as possible. We ran nearly all of it.
Congewai School was a hive of activity. I took a bit longer than planned and by the time I was ready to go Spud was a little anxious. Updates on Bill Thompson had him only 10 minutes behind us. That meant we were closer to the cut-offs than we planned. While our plan had been to run conservatively to save our energy for the third night, we didn’t want the stress and pressure of battling with the cut-offs.
We pushed up the hill with the promise of a rest at the top. This climb to the communication tower is notoriously tough, made worse by the number of false summits. Eventually we topped out and met several runners recovering. We sat down and I ate some creamed-rice. Conscious of the time we hurried off again. This ridge road is pretty runable but the humidity sapped my strength and we walked sections we should have run. There were runners all around and the conversation helped distract me from the task at hand.
Watagan Creek Valley and the afternoon sun was finally sinking lower in the sky. We wouldn’t make the basin in daylight. Not even close. The long, long climb to the unmanned water-stop had sweat dripping from my chin and stinging my eyes. Dave Byrnes was there manning the water drop but the big surprise was Blue Dog in the back of Dave’s car. He had pulled out, injury finally winning the war. I felt a mix of disappointment for him and excitement at the realisation that all I had to do now was finish and I would surpass him on top of the honour board as the only person to finish every GNW100s. We exchanged some banter but I knew he was hurting.
Night came quickly and we found ourselves in a little convoy of runners. The Basin seemed to take forever to negotiate, made more difficult by fallen trees obstructing the track. The Basin Checkpoint was a welcome sight and we tried to keep it short but get well fed. I had a couple of cups of hot soup and choked down some more creamed rice. Bill came in to rousing applause and a look of horror on many runners face. At least 6 runners jumped up and checked out, aware that Bill represented the imaginary moving cut-off.
The climb out of the Basin was way longer than I remembered. I was lathered in sweat by the time we reached the top. A cocktail of tiredness and an ambiguous corner had us second guessing ourselves and we lost some time checking out the possibilities. The maps came out and reassured we made our way onto the long descent to Cedar Brush Track Road. Knowing what was before us we settled into a steady run-walk routine. We passed a few runners. Fatigue was getting the better of me. Spud agreed to a short nap at the school.
But the Yarramalong Checkpoint took forever to come. My eyelids were so heavy. We checked in and I found a cot and lay down, Diane promising to wake me in 10 minutes. My head spun and danced with a thousands images of the day and night. Voices vibrated through my ears. “10 minutes Andy”. “Give me another 5.” Tick, tick, tick, tick. “Time Andy.” I climbed up. My head was full of fog. There was no sleep to be found with so much activity. Paul Every clearly disagreed and snored contentedly on a cot beside me. Phil and I staggered off into the night once again.
Bill was in CP4 when we left. Our buffer was gone. No more sleep stops. Up Bumblebee Hill and under the Powerlines. Climbing the hill I could see a runner’s light cutting a path through the darkness below. It was moving swiftly and smoothly across the trail. “That you Bill?” I yelled. “Yep” was the reply. Oh crap, he is going to catch us. We knew only too well that Bill walks an even pace with almost no slow-down factor. To fall behind him so early would mean a constant battle with the cut-offs all the next day. We ran more, walked less and no more talking.
The course deviation along the road gave us some respite. Running down the road I looked back to see Bill’s light bobbing along behind us. He was like the Terminator, relentlessly pursuing us. We passed Grant and then picked up Jane and she stuck with us through the early hours. We stopped for a brief refill at the unmanned water drop. Still looking over our shoulders. Jane ran ahead and we were alone again, silently plodding on the soft sandy track.
I struggled with fatigue through the wee hours. I cursed myself for losing concentration. I tried to catch up to Phil but every time I got near he would correspondingly pick up the pace. Finally I caught up and I conceded that he should go on without me. I could not fathom finishing the race, yet alone the full GNW272. I was defeated. He told me to hang in there and I would come good. My mind could not cope with the enormity of what we were trying to do. I refocussed and concentrated on just getting to the next checkpoint.
On the last big climb into Sommersby, Bill passed me. Effortlessly. He was listening to Mendelssohn’s Concerto on his ipod and moving as rhythmically as the music in his ear-buds. I caught up to Phil and as we hit the bitumen leading to the school the sun was rising. Bill was walking way up ahead on the road. We ran all the way to the Checkpoint to get back in front of him.
In and out. In such a hurry I forgot to refill my bladder. Oh, what a catastrophe that could have been. I did a little check as I shuffled down the road and realised my mistake. Back to the school and filled up. And then we were running again. Solidly. The new day brought new energy. We caught Jane and Nikolay. The four of us ran as a group.
Approaching Checkpoint 6 we were doing the maths to work out how much time we had left. If we could leave CP6 by 11:30am that would give us 6.5 hours for the last section. We could do that comfortably. If nothing went wrong. Nikolay wanted to pull out but we convinced him to hang in there and we would get him home.
In and out once again, bare necessities only. Phil was calling out time checks to get us out quickly. 11:30 and we were on our way, a ragged bunch but totally focussed on finishing.
We were walking lots and my pace was slower than the others so I would have to run to catch up. We were silent as each of us dealt with the demons in our minds and the baking sun on our backs. It was hot again. Damn hot. Every pool of water I would dunk my hat and pour water over my head. I walked into one pool to cool off my burning feet. The cold water was refreshing but the arthritis in my toes ached for ages afterwards negating any benefit. I was getting worried about the time. I knew from last year we had to pass the ‘15km to go’ sign by 2 pm to be safe. (Note: that sign is at least 5km out.) But we reached it well before 2:00 so I knew we could make the unmanned water point before the 3pm cut-off. And we did, with 10minutes to spare. But I was sure now that Bill was going to miss it and possibly not finish (remember to never underestimate Bill!).
We refilled and hustled out of there. The road and tracks seemed to go around in circles. As we crossed the sandstone plateau the heat created a pressure cooker effect. There was no escape. Phil pulled ahead but I could still see him occasionally on the next rocky outcrop. I heard Jane behind me say “Hi Bill”. I got a fright seeing Bill there. Such amazing strength and pace consistency. With less than 2 hours to go I knew that meant we needed to do some solid running. I asked Bill how we were placed. He said OK but we needed to move a bit faster. He passed us and I urged Nikolay to stick with him. I could see Nikolay was torn by his loyalty to our little group but I assured him I would look after Jane and he needed to keep Bill in sight. I knew I could still run if I had to and if it got close I would give everything to make the finish on time.
Jane was struggling. She lagged further and further behind. I encouraged her to run when she could. Her face was expressionless, a steely grey mask. I asked her if she wanted me to push her or leave her alone. She said “both”. “Typical female response,” I complained and made her run again. I knew we could finish but we needed to keep a steady pace. And she was battling to do that. I was tired and missed reading all the warning signs. She was already in trouble but I didn’t see it.
Finally the big drop down towards the rubbish-tip where we would hit the dirt road. We were getting close. Oh so close. I told Jane we could let Bill go now but we would need to run on the road to catch him again. I got ahead on the steep descent and I caught Bill at a small creek just before the road. He was wetting his hat. I jogged behind him to the track junction with the road.
I waited here a few minutes. No Jane. A few more minutes. Still no Jane. Something was wrong. Crap, I started running back up the hill, calling her name all the way. Still no Jane. Finally I was back to where I had last seen her. This is not good. Something is wrong. Really wrong. There was nowhere for her to go but down this track. I kept calling. No response. Then suddenly I heard a low groan. Then silence again. I kept calling. Nothing. I had no idea where the noise had come from but she was clearly in trouble. Finally she answered: “I can’t get out, I just want to get out.” “Keep talking to me, Jane.” I had a fix. She was in the bushes. Somewhere. I could hear the rustling. I started bashing my way towards her. It was thick. I reached her and she was upright, but only because the thicket was so dense it held her up. “Tell me you just came in here to wee?” I implored hopefully. One look into her vacant eyes and I knew she was not well. She was delirious. I dragged her back to the path where she promptly collapsed. I made sure she was breathing OK and dug out my phone. No reception. I started searching for Jane’s phone. She came around again and half helped me get her phone out.
I got Dave Byrnes on the phone, not without further drama. I relayed the predicament and told him I would get Jane down to the road if he could get a 4WD to us for evacuation. After hanging up I tried to get her onto her feet but she crumpled back onto the ground. I tried supporting her but it was hopeless. Just then Kim Cook turned up. I didn’t realise anyone was still behind us. “Boy am I glad to see you!” He was pacing Jon from the Phillipines. We slung Jane between us and half carried, half walked her down the hill. At the bottom I sent them on their way, doubtful they would beat the cut. Kim said they still would but they had to run.
Jane was regaining some composure. But she was still ashen grey and not always making sense. I looked at my watch. My race was over. But I was so glad I had gone back when I did. Off track and unconscious it would have been impossible to find her.
What seemed like an eternity but was really only another 15minutes, Dave and the doctor came roaring along in the 4WD. I explained the situation and the doctor examined Jane. He decided she was badly dehydrated and probably had heat stress and would give her IV fluids. I updated Dave on Kim and Jon’s progress. It was now 5:10pm. Dave looked at me and said he would give me a time concession for lost time helping Jane but he also thought I could still beat the clock. Damn. 6km in 50 minutes. With hills. After 194km and 40 hours. Damn. I would really like to finish inside the official cut-off. OK I would do it.
I charged up the hill. I ran, and ran, and ran. Phil’s words echoed in my ears about not wanting to have a hard race finish and be trashed for the GNW272 into Sydney. Damn, I want this finish. My legs were screaming at me. My lungs started burning. I was red-lining but wasn’t backing off. I tasted vomit in my mouth. My chest was pounding. Damn. Damn Dave. If he had just said I had no chance I would have jogged home. I should have recognised that glint in his eye.
The gravel road went on forever. A huge black snake was stretched across in front of me. Jump that and keep running, adrenaline surging through my veins. And then another hill. Finally I had to walk and catch my breath. Only to the top of this hill and then run hard again. 30 minutes to go. Another turn, more road, another turn. Run hard. I was sucking in big air. Running for all I was worth. 20 minutes to go. I could do this. Finally the last turn and Patonga Rd was in sight. Empty one water bottle to save weight. Across the bitumen. Check my watch. Oh crap this will be close. I ran the singletrack paralleling the road as hard as I could. Then the gravel road to Warrah Trig. Empty my other bottle. Another snake, small this time and easily dodged. On and on and on it went. All up-hill. My legs felt like cement but I lifted them over and over again and threw them out in front of me.
Finally the carpark, then up the stairs, only minutes to go, I wasn’t going to make it. Yes I would. Harder, faster. I plummeted down the paved trail throwing everything I had into it. Hard right turn onto the gravel road and then that soul destroying climb up to the beach access track. I ran for all I was worth, uphill. 3 minutes to go. Turn onto the singletrack and run hard again.
Too late. My watch ticked over 6pm as I was bouncing down the steep rocky track. I backed off, defeated, and trotted down the hill, flashes of the beach and the finish line so tantalisingly close. I hit the sand and the bell started ringing. And ringing and ringing and ringing, echoing along the beach. I ran all the way, savouring every step. Alone and dead last. After the cut-off but finishing nevertheless, a tear of joy welled up in my eyes. A tear of relief. A tear of pride. I ran all the way across the soft sand to the finishing post spurred on by the sound of cheers and applause. 6:04pm. My 5th hundred mile finish and my 6th GNW finish. How sweet it is.
Dog made me kiss the post. Dave hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. People congratulated me. Phil was there, fresh from a swim. I stripped down to my shorts and waded into the water.
I lay back in the cool of the Pacific Ocean. Water lapped across my cheeks and forehead as I floated on my back. So calm and tranquil. All the pain ebbed out of my tired body. I was so relaxed I nearly fell asleep right there. The tide could have carried me off in carefree oblivion.
But the big clock was still ticking. Our crew for the next phase, Kathy, was waiting to drive us to Brooklyn. After collecting our drop-bags it was a short drive across the Hawkesbury River to Brooklyn to rejoin the GNW. We parked and had a 30 minute nap in the car. 30 minutes could have been 8 hours or 5 minutes. In my head there was no longer any relevance to time. I woke feeling drugged and sluggish. My mind craved real sleep. I just wanted to stop moving and lie still.
We had trouble locating the start of the track off a small bridge but the GPS told us it had to be in there somewhere. Pushing through some bushes Phil found it. We left the houses and were running in bush again. Full blooded running. Refreshed, renewed and full of pizza, again. The trail was like a highway, wide and flat. The only obstacles were webs. Some ambitious spiders had spun their webs right across the path. The first you would know was when your face was plastered with the sticky tight-knit web.
We were running a good pace. I was full of confidence that we would finish and break the record. The trail twisted and turned a few times but we gobbled up the miles. Then before I knew what had happened I was climbing hand-over-fist down into a river valley. Then up again. Each new outcrop to negotiate tested my cognitive functions. Suddenly I was overcome with the need for sleep. “Sleepmonsters” they call it, courtesy of our third night without proper sleep. I was tripping and staggering like a drunk. The leaves on the ground became a writhing mass of baby snakes. I was hallucinating badly.
Phil waited patiently at every turn. The trail was hard to follow, often just the easiest way down a rocky cliff. The occasional GNW sign reassured us. This went on forever, repeating the same pattern of clambering, staggering and catching up. Finally we were climbing again and we could hear a train, signalling the next crew stop at Cowan train station.
I was barely shuffling now. My feet dragged across the ground. We were well into our third night and it was killing me. I felt the burden of the team effort. I had offered to let Phil go on but he wouldn’t finish without me. We refuelled at the car and headed back into the night.
Not 10 minutes from the car and drizzle settled in. I so much wanted to just turn around and go back. Once again the trail degenerated quickly into a twisted torment of rock scrambling and climbing and descending. My mind was fighting battles with all my senses. It became impossible to tell what was real and what was imaginary. I could see Phil below me and I was certain he was on a steel viewing platform. What a perfect place for a nap. When I reached him he was on a narrow trail. Further and further we descended and with that my consciousness receded further and further from reality. The leaves on the ground wriggled like more baby snakes. Boulders morphed into a building or a car. I had no peripheral awareness. My world was confined to the small dome of light cast by my headlamp.
I reached Phil again and he told me to have a sleep. My legs crumpled spontaneously and in seconds I was fast asleep where I fell. An ant crawled up my nose and I woke with a violent snorting fit. Within minutes I was asleep again, but not before I heard Phil say he would nap too.
Maybe 30 minutes later I was aware of being roused. I staggered to my feet and as if on autopilot trudged off behind Phil once more. We had lost so much time with my dawdling pace and the sleep stop. I finally told Phil there was just no way I could go on. It was becoming dangerous. I couldn’t navigate simple obstacles. He resolved to stop with me at Berowra Waters, our next crew meeting.
As the third day dawned we were treated to the tranquil setting of Berowra unfolding below us. We had covered 220km in 53 hours. We picked our way down and along the shore. Kathy came out to meet us. We sat and had some more cold pizza and a breakfast beer while contemplating what might have been. It all seemed so anticlimactic but we were drained of all emotion, except maybe disappointment. But out of failure comes strengthened resolve.
People ask why we do this sort of thing. I usually answer that if you have to ask you will probably never understand. Once again I had been tested. And I had come up short. Running the entire GNW had been a goal for a long time. Failing to complete it will simply fuel that desire. I couldn’t ask for a better companion in Phil to lead me through it and my main misgiving was letting him down. Clearly my mind had failed my body. But it was purely fatigue through lack of sleep that defeated me. Sure the weather didn’t help. Sure the extra miles to complete the race didn’t help. Sure the dramas and sprint to the race finish didn’t help. And of course my lack of training didn’t help. But pure and simple: I needed more sleep to finish this.
The GNW is a classic trail. Without doubt the GNW100s is a classic trail race. Once again I thank Dave Byrnes for creating and building this great event and blessing our speed-record attempt. Our crew, Kathy, who stepped in to fill the critical role of support was amazing. And Phil, what more could I ask for in a companion to attempt and hopefully one day complete this epic adventure. And complete we will. Next time.