I knew I wasn’t ready – physically, and maybe not even mentally.
But I knew I wanted to do something…something challenging.
So, it was between the Buffalo Stampede 42km or the Alpine Challenge 60km.
My coach – knowing I was questioning my form – told me to choose the course I preferred rather than the race itself. The Alpine Challenge 60km it was then – up and over the Alpine High Plains.
But could I actually run 60km?
Only one way to find out…
I woke just before 5am, before my alarm. Nerves or excitement – or maybe a combination of both.
The race started at 8.30am in Falls Creek and I wanted to make sure I had time to do… everything, to check and re-check, to re-read the map and instructions of the race, and to make sure I ate enough.
I’d pre-cooked my race potatoes and breakfast eggs and sat down to have the usual coffee, beetroot, sweet potato and pre boiled eggs while looking at the map of the race. The first 10km was a descent – steep in places, followed by a 10km ascent to get to the high plains. The remaining 40km was undulating.
Golly, it seemed like a long way.
I mobilised my body until I thought I was overstretching all my limb, and then journaled about how I was feeling until I couldn’t write anymore without causing muscle fatigue in my arm J
I also knew that once I got home everything would be hurting – whether it was my heart or my body. So, I prepared my firepit, ready to be lit, and prepped some dinner and snacks for after the race.
And put some Prosecco in the fridge, of course.
During the drive over to Falls Creek I stopped at Sullivan’s Lookout – a favourite lookout of mine over Mount Beauty. I took a moment, a few breaths.
Just run Jess, do what you love.
I arrived to blue skies and other runners, all looking as excited and nervous as me.
Gear checks, more potatoes, both ankles strapped, and I was at the start line.
We counted down together and we were off, running down the road towards Packhorse, a 5km mountain bike trail. Single trail.
I’d been advised to get ahead before we hit the trail as it would bottleneck, so I let my legs carry me forward and down.
As we entered Packhorse I joined a pack of guys, aiming to keep up with them, or at least keep them in my sight.
This was fast.
We jumped and weaved over and around rocks and obstacles, until I eventually lost them, and I was alone.
The trail was beautiful and quite technical, and I wondered how mountain bikers actually biked up it.
I did a body check – legs felt good, lungs felt good. My brain felt slightly overwhelmed by what was to come, especially as my watch vibrated: 1km down. 59km more to go….
Eventually, I exited out of Packhorse and crossed the road, passing a volunteer who directed me towards a fire trail ahead.
“Crikey you did that fast.”
Initially distracted by the fact that I’d found another human being that used the word crikey, I looked at my watch: 5km in 29 minutes. Fast for trail, and perhaps for the start of a 60km race.
I nodded at him.
But it was bloody fun though.
The next 5km of trail was a rough descent – rocky and scree-ey(?) and incredibly steep in parts.
Much slower than the first 5km.
I heard someone behind me panting, before he passed me.
“Who needs toenails anyway.” He commented.
But I do like mine.
We continued almost together, slowing on the steeper sections until we got to the bottom, to crossroads.
My first map reading, and also a check on the written instructions.
He nodded in agreement and we turned, then hit a small ascent and I left him with his toenails…or lack of.
A few hundred metres later I hit a river…. I mean, maybe it was a creek, but it was pretty wide and pretty deep.
I stopped and looked, and looked again.
No clear crossing.
Straight through then.
Thigh deep. I wondered whether there was a bridge I hadn’t seen, but the water was refreshing anyhow.
I took a gel and a salt tablet – it wasn’t the best idea to take the beautifully sweet gel first, then the bitter salt tablet after. The taste remained in my mouth until I took the next gel. Hmmm.
Now the ascent.
On the elevation map I’d looked at it had shown this as a steep ascent – my favourite.
But no no.
It zig zagged upwards. Not steep, just that awkward amount of gradient that you’re not quite sure whether to run or lunge.
10km of it.
And so I began. Running at first, then lunging.
I’d actually read (at least a million) articles on the pros and cons of ascending on gradient of less than 26%. It all came down to personal preference of whether you would rather sacrifice energy expenditure and run, or sacrifice muscle expenditure and lunge. The recommendations generally leant towards doing a combo.
So, the dancing began, and I swapped every few minutes between lunging and running.
I came to a guy who I’d lost on Packhorse, then another, and passed them as they walked and shuffled – they weren’t overly happy with life at that moment.
I could feel myself getting higher and higher – surely near the top. And frost appeared on the ground, definitely near the top.
I passed a runner with poles and we chatted.
“This is my second ever trail run. I didn’t realise it would be so hard.”
I stayed with him for a while, until we hit what looked like the lead up to a flatter ridge line across the Alpine Plains. I wished him luck – the hard part was done.
The views took my breath away and I must’ve taken a million photos right there of the contrasting green grass, the frost, the blue skies and the mountains.
Oh, the mountains.
I felt like I was home.
But also in a race, Jess.
I continued on – single track along a ridge line, surrounding by beauty and mountains.
And also, potato time.
Literally all my favourite things in one place (minus the prosecco…).
22km in and my legs felt good.
I knew there was a check point in a few kms up the small ascent ahead of me, where I could stock up on electrolytes and some more carbs. I’d only managed to fit three bags of potatoes in my pack with all the mandatory gear.
I saw someone running towards me and my adrenaline kicked in – something had happened? I couldn’t have been going the wrong way, surely? And I couldn’t be hallucinating yet…
Then I realised. “Simon!”
I knew him – volunteering for the race this weekend because he was unable to run due to injury, but out on his own run.
He reached me and turned and ran next to me, slowing to my pace. It was so good to talk to someone after almost three hours of running mostly solo.
“You’re first female, and fifth overall.”
Eek. I knew there were no females ahead of me, but not that I was fifth overall.
Come on legs.
We reached the check point full of beautifully cheery people – one of my favourite things about ultra runs: the people.
I had actually planned on getting to the check point at around 3 hours 30mins, but had reached it at 3 hours almost on the dot.
I filled up on electrolytes and bananas, allowing myself a few minutes to recharge before I set off, continuing along the ridge line.
It was too beautiful.
So, I video called my twin sister in Hong Kong because she would love this, because one day when were allowed to fly, I would bring her here to do this again. Together.
We chatted and laughed before she told me to focus on the race.
I ran, alone along the single track, along a few dusty 4WD tracks. Thinking, singing (it happened), planning. There were tough sections – shrubbery where you couldn’t quite see the trail you were running on, and single track that was so narrow you had to literally put one foot in front of the other. Both instances forced me to slow down.
I checked my map and the instructions when I wasn’t sure, as we were told the course wasn’t marked overly well in places.
Another body check – my hips were feeling tender but that had always happened at anything over 25km. My ankles were fine, which I was grateful for.
My pace drifted between 5.35min/km and 6.00min/km which I was happy about.
An ascent through some beautiful but rocky single track took me to 30km – halfway. Three and a half hours in.
I did a combination of the jig and the robot dance (sometimes it’s actually a bonus of ultra runs that there are rarely people around you….)
I looked at my time – could I do seven hours? I wondered.
The next check point came along, and I filled my water and ate a packet of chips – which I hadn’t planned on but just happened. And felt good.
“That way?” I pointed right.
“Erm no, that’s a car park. You go that way.” She pointed left.
Good one, Jess.
I set off onto more single track before hitting a crossroad.
I checked the map, and the instructions. Not overly clear until I saw a single track across from me and continued.
Then the pain started.
And not in any of my usual places (i.e. all over).
In my heel – it suddenly felt like I was running with a nail in my heel.
Not overly pleasant.
I continued on, hoping it would go away. But the single track had been covered in a plastic cover to make it more walkable, I guess? Compounding the pain in my heel on every strike.
Could I do this for another 23km?
I reasoned with myself that I’d run 50km on a broken foot before (not recommended)… surely, I could do this, and maybe it would ease.
So, I tried to ignore it and adjusted my foot placement to the point where it must’ve looked like I was running with a swagger.
Rocking it, I’m sure.
It was a lot though.
My mind battled with itself, should I take painkillers? We’ve always been told to err on the side of caution using painkillers in ultra-running – placing too much stress on your already overworked kidneys.
1km later I stopped.
I would take the risk.
Painkillers and a gel and some salt. A beautiful concoction of…everything I needed right then.
I continued on with my swagger, waiting for them all to kick in.
I kept my mind busy, focussing on the views and the mountains, aware that my pace had dropped but still shuffling through. I couldn’t afford to go to a dark place right now.
Mountains mountains mountains.
“Only 18km to go.” I told myself in an overly cheery voice. Almost to my own annoyance.
I hit a crossroads next to a red roofed hut with five different options to go down. I could see one pink flag across a bridge on the aqueduct. Surely it had to be that way – but then was it left, or right?
I looked at the instructions which warned that this was where runners usually got lost.
I studied the map, which looked to go right, towards Cape Hut. Follow the poles – there were poles.
So I crossed the bridge over the aqueduct and went right with the poles, along the aqueduct – a 4WD track.
Flatter, less pain in the heel.
After a few minutes I stopped.
There was something in my gut.
Something not right.
I must’ve gone 800m, maybe 1km.
This wasn’t right.
I looked for Cape Hut, checked the map again.
I was heading the wrong way, away from Cape Hut.
Panic and disbelief.
I turned, looked back at where I had come from.
I picked up the pace and ran back.
Sh*t sh*t sh*t.
A couple of minutes later I was back at the red roof hut, so confused. I couldn’t see any other runners, couldn’t see any routes. I read the map again and re-read the instructions:
Cross the aqueduct and follow the numbered pole line to Pole 333 (check your map—many runners go the wrong way here). Watch out for brumbies in this area
Something else occurred to me: I didn’t know what a brumbie was. Was I about to be attacked by one? I looked around, not overly sure what I was looking for.
I felt beaten.
I called Paul, the Race Director, and explained where I was.
“Follow the poles, not the ones along the aqueduct. Not along a road.”
I could only see roads. He could sense my frustration.
“Stand in front of the hut door and directly in front of you is a trail, follow those poles into the grass, you’re aiming for Pole 333.”
At that moment the sun seemed to suddenly shine on an impossible-to-see single track across the road in front of me, the start of it obscured by overgrown grass. And there were poles.
I thanked Paul and ended the call.
I felt so stupid, so disappointed in myself.
There was at least one sob before I started running again into the single track, and if I could’ve lifted my foot high enough, I would definitely have stamped it in annoyance.
How much time had I lost? Not just from going wrong but the time spent looking for the right way and on the phone to Paul. 20 minutes? 30 maybe?
How many people had passed me in that time?
Had I given away the lead?
I was in the middle of a pity party for one.
I needed to find strength again, so I called Imogen who was out on her own run.
“I got lost.”
I explained what had happened and I could hear my voice going more and more high pitched. She could sense my frustration, could probably hear that I was almost in tears.
“It’s fine Jess, it doesn’t matter. You’re on the right track now, just keep on running. This is your race.”
There was so much positivity in her words.
“Remember where you are.”
And then I did.
I was lucky enough to be in the middle of the most beautiful mountains, able to run over and around them.
Nothing else mattered.
Bring present in the mountains mattered.
I thanked her and left her to her run.
Then I realised something else – my heel had stopped hurting.
Whether the painkillers had kicked in or whether the forced ‘rest’ had helped.
I laughed, finally. Happy again. Almost annoyed that I’d let myself become so caught up in getting lost.
I focussed on the course – marshy and rocky so a little tricky, but a nice change to the plastic or road.
I looked at the poles and realised they were all numbered and counting down towards pole 333 – where the next aid station was at 47.5km.
No brumbies in sight either – although I wouldn’t have known if there were.
The pole numbers were getting lower and I could suddenly see the check point. I checked my watch which was on 49km. So, I’d maybe gone 2km off course?
Then I remembered it didn’t matter.
There were two guys at the check point with the biggest smiles I’d ever seen. Legends.
I refuelled with electrolytes and chips and we chatted for a few minutes about the race, the mountains, the day, getting lost.
But I refused to ask them what a brumbie was.
They did confirm that I was maybe the seventh or eighth 60km runner to come through the station – and the first girl so far. So, a couple of the guys had passed me when I went off course.
Was that a relief? Did that change things?
I didn’t think so.
I was pain free, on the right track and a few km away from completing the longest race I’d ever run.
I was happy, and I was so grateful.
“So, this way?” I pointed to a single track.
“Erm, no it’s this way.” One of the guys pointed to the pink flags that lined the course.
We laughed and I set off.
More marsh and rock but a descent this time, and without the pain in my heel the ninja tap dancing came back as I picked up the pace.
I also realised I had ignored my nutrition during the panic of getting lost and took a gel and a salt tablet. Still the wrong way round.
The course turned right onto a 4WD track that looked familiar – similar to when I’d camped at Pretty Valley Pondage and run around the trails there.
A gradual ascent and I caught up with one of the guys that must’ve passed me when I went off track.
He did a double take.
“I got lost.”
Yeah, but I didn’t get eaten by brumbies so I’m winning.
More 4WD track, more views.
I continued on and watched as my watch ticked over to 54km – officially the longest I’d ever run for.
I checked my body and sure it hurt all over, but there was nothing outstandingly painful anymore.
I hit the Pretty Valley check point just behind another guy and filled up on water in my plastic cup. I knew the bladder in my pack was empty but didn’t think I had the mental or physical skills, or patience, to stop a refill it. Which was a bit silly really.
The guy manning the check point pointed to a mountain in the distance.
“That’s where you’re headed. Out and back up and down.”
I actually didn’t believe him, thought he must’ve had it wrong. Who would put a mountain in a race in the last 5km of a 60km? I checked the instructions.
Another gel, with caffeine, as I started back running ahead of the other guy who I think continued to stare at Mt McKay in disbelief for a little while longer.
I thought about what finishing the race would feel like, how it would feel to stop running. I was almost seven hours in now – I couldn’t even remember what not running felt like anymore.
I continued, and suddenly I was at the bottom of Mt McKay with a 4WD road going pretty steeply up it. I was actually grateful for the change in stride and pace as I started to lunge up it.
And then for the first time I thought about how near the second-place female might be, whether I had done enough to maintain a decent lead, or whether she would appear on this out and back. I looked back at the trail we had come from and could see no one but the guy I’d passed at the check point.
Would this be my first ultra-trail win? I decided not to get ahead of myself – a lot could still happen between now and the finish line.
Almost anything in fact.
The climb felt so good, I almost wanted to just stay in the lunge positions a little longer each time, and maybe just enjoy the view a little too.
I was also aware that I needed water and didn’t have any.
Maybe there was some at the top.
A small single track off the road took us to the hut at the top where I met a guy taking a photo of it.
“Do we need photo evidence?” I asked.
“Nah, just letting my wife know where I am.”
I wondered how many more stupid questions I had left in me.
I took a photo anyway and touched the door. No water in sight.
The descent was…fast. I caught up and passed the guy, staying low and taking my little tap-dancing steps.
At the bottom I pulled out my instructions, confused.
Follow the flags through the scrub…
I wondered whether scrubs had anything to do with brumbies.
I turned to the guy behind me and pointed down the road.
He shook his head and laughed and pointed straight across the road, where the tiny pick flags led through what I could imagine is a scrub.
One more stupid question then Jess.
We entered the scrub together, ascending through shrubbery and rocks, but nice enough single trail.
“Paul likes to throw in a hill for the last few kms.” The guy said.
He also just threw in a mountain.
We held a steady pace together until we hit the 4WD track again, the start of the mountain bike trails, and I pulled away slightly.
There was a small sign by the side of the road.
2km to go.
2km until no more running.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, or how my body would feel.
I was just over seven and a half hours with maybe only 20 minutes maximum of human interaction. The rest had been spent in my head. Planning, thinking, life administrating, good memories, bad memories, more good memories.
So many questions. What would I have done differently? Could I have gone faster?
At 1km we were directed off the 4WD track and down into grass that cut straight down through the mountain bike trails.
There wasn’t a trail as such, only squashed grass from the runners that had already finished, and it was lumpy and hard to see where to put my feet.
A guy appeared.
I knew I must be near the finish.
We chatted as I ran past, and I could hear the cow bells and people at the finish line.
And then it came into view, the finish line I’d left over seven and a half hours ago.
I sped up towards it, so happy.
I’d made it.
60km (Ahem, 63km).
I took off my pack, took off my shoes.
Unsure what to do with myself.
People started talking to me about the race – other runners, volunteers, and we exchanged stories.
I tried to stretch my legs, but every muscle was on the border of cramping – even my shoulders.
Beer instead then – which tasted so good after seven hours of potatoes, bananas gels and salt tablets.
I found out that the presentations were going to be held on the Sunday when I wasn’t around.
My last two ultra-races I had come third and second, with no presentations allowed due to COVID-19. And now I was going to miss this one.
I put any pride aside and jumped (erm, literally had to be lifted) onto the empty podium alone, with my horseshoe trophy. Happy.
Race learnings? So many, but here goes:
- People are amazing and can pull you out of dark dark places. Seek out those people and drag them along for the journey.
- Learn as much about the race as possible: the terrain, the course, everything. (I now know what brumbies and scrubs are…).
- Always take a moment, or multiple moments, to appreciate what you are doing and where you are doing it. Because it is awesome.
The big one will be the Surf Coast Century 100km in September.
But next up is the Wandi Cross – 3,000m elevation in 21km…