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Alpine Challenge 2022 Race Report

The foot screamed at me with every misstep. Nerve pain shot through the foot every time I landed on a rock. I would suck in my breath, remind myself of my determination and look around me for the joy. The joy in the sunrise; my second sunrise for this run, the joy in Sam walking ahead of me reminding me why I am here. The joy in the beauty around me, the lushness of the bush, and the tall trees that soared to the sky. The sound of the river below me and the chirping of the birds just waking up for their day ahead.

I have been awake for about 27hours at this point and I can feel the fatigue setting in. Every step I take I feel like I am in a brain fog; or I have drunk way too much wine. I slip my hand and my pole almost goes down the side of the mountain. I cry out and Sam turns around quickly to check on me. She has been the ultimate pacer so far; laughing at jokes with me, being silent when I need to be in my own head, and always a beacon ahead of me. Plodding along a few steps ahead, guiding me the right way, making sure that I am eating and drinking, and just being company on the long cold night. “I am scared I am going to fall down the mountain’ I tell her, almost in tears. “I’ll stick a bit closer” she replies to me and off we go. I look down the mountain and tell myself to just focus ahead. If I fall down, I am sure Sam will get me back up somehow. I need to watch my feet to focus on every step. The track is so technical that I cannot look away, fearing I will misstep and end up falling. I know I need some food and some caffeine, but I tell myself to wait until I get to the bottom of the never-ending downhill because I cannot bear to take my concentration off my foot placement. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; I should have stopped to eat and take in caffeine. Maybe it would have made the difference, but maybe it wouldn’t have.

17kms of steep downhill took me into Harrietville. I had completed 120kms and I had 40kms left to go. I needed to finish before 10:30 pm and I started doing the math in my head. The pain in my foot had made me a lot slower than I had planned and I knew I was only going to get slower going up Mt Feathertop, the second-highest mountain in Vic. I had some technical and steep climbing to do after Harrietville. I knew a few km's out from the aid station that I was done. I kept telling myself that I would tape the foot, have something to eat, and keep going but something in the back of my mind was telling me; you won’t make the cut-offs, and it's better to stop now than not make cuttoff at 150kms instead. My mind went between looking at how far you have come today, and how can you fail again. Two years in a row that you will DNF (did not finish). This race is too much for you. You can’t do it. You have failed again. 6kms out from Harrietville, we stopped at the river and I sat on a log and started crying. I have no idea where the emotion was coming from. I have never cried like that on a run before. Sam knew the rules; she wasn’t allowed to touch me during the race. I knew from experience that when everything hurts, I don’t want anyone touching me. Instead of hugging me, like she told me that she wanted to, she hovered her hand over my shoulder. Surprisingly this gave me a lot of comfort. I tried to meditate, I tried to bring about moments of joy. I was in a very beautiful section of the Bon Accord Track and it was stunning. Instead, I just cried.

I spent the next 6kms switching from feeling like a failure to being realistic about finishing, to being determined to keep going and perhaps break whilst out there. Sam refused to give me an out; instead, it had to be my decision and mine alone. We have a rule that you cannot quit until the aid station closes so I knew that I would have to sit in the aid station for an hour and make my decision. “Why is this race beyond me” I kept asking myself.

Why. Because it’s a brutal beast.

160km through the Vic Alpine region; 7,600m of elevation (to give you perspective – Mt Everest is 8,849m high). There are 6 major climbs including the highest two mountains in Vic. There are 5 river crossings which means wet feet all day. You have 42hours to do it and the DNF rate is one of the highest. Last year I had stopped at 102km after coughing up blood and having lungs so shattered from the cold that it took me 6weeks to stop coughing post-race. I was devastated last year and so I had come back for more. This time I had a new coach, one that was teaching me about the mindset of running, teaching me meditation, and teaching me that it's about the journey and not the destination. Rob has completely changed my mindset for life, let alone just running.

I went into this run very calmly. I wasn’t excited, or nervous but just calm and looking forward to the adventure. I didn’t stress about cutoffs, or about pace but instead relished being in the mountains. The first 25kms was up and I took my time, keen to not go out too hard. A quick water top-up and I was off again, this time down the steep single track to Big River where I giggled at all the runners who had stopped to take their shoes off and instead I splashed through the river; shoes and all. The icy water felt good on my hot feet before I had to climb the steep uphill on the other side, on my way to the top of Victoria, Mt Bogong. This climb is tough, it’s steep and never-ending and I often had to stop and catch my breath. I cursed Covid for screwing up my lungs and taking away my hill fitness, but I would then look around me at the lushness of the bush and the million shades of green and I would smile at where I was. It was beautiful, it was tough, and it was relentless. I was so happy to come into Cleve Cole Hut before the Bogong summit and for the first time since my 4:30 am start my body started to feel like it was ready to run. It had "warmed up" and was ready to go! I had a quick bite to eat at the hut and kept on moving to the summit. I was feeling great. I love the summit of Mt Bogong, the air was crisp and the cloud had cleared. All I could see were mountains for miles. It took my breath away, as it always does, and reminded me of just how small and insignificant we are in this big world. The mountains always do that to me – they remind me just how small we are.

I snapped a quick photo at the summit with a cookie in my mouth and shot it off to my pacer and good friend Sam, Hubby, and the coach. I didn’t have time for words, just a smile and a cookie before I put the poles away and started running down the other side. This is one of my favourite parts of the course as you run down the side of the mountain and across the ridgeline. It's technical, it's dangerous, and it’s super exciting! The mind and body were aligned and I took on the downhill with ease, splashing noisily through the river at the bottom and being called a ‘duck’ by two fellow runners cautiously making their way across. It was all uphill now back to Warby Cnr and I put my head down, pulled out the poles from the belt around my waist, and started trekking up. I want to get to Warby Cnr Aid Station before it got dark and get my warm clothing on before the temperature started to drop. I was running well when I hit the top and ran comfortably into Warby as the sun was starting to drop. 53kms done and I had a quick stop to get my warm gear on. I had learned my lesson from last year; get warm before it gets cold. Head torch on and I was off in minutes heading to Langfords Gap where my first drop bag was.

The excitement of a drop bag is hilarious. The idea of fresh clothing, fresh batteries in your torch and fresh food can have you giddy with excitement and I was just that for the next 9kms. I was in very high spirits coming into the aid station and I knew I was only 14kms away from meeting Sam at Pole 333 where she would join me for the night. I didn’t stay long, throwing on some warm and dry clothing and filling up my water and walking out whilst chewing down a banana and some chips. I had skipped a ‘decent’ meal because I wanted to keep moving. I ran along at a decent shuffle, feeling great knowing that I was up in the mountains and had some fun left to have. I was feeling comfortable when I hit what has since been named ‘the swamp’. Suddenly my feet were being sucked into the mud and I was squelching through puddles of water that I didn’t see until it was too late. I cursed at the mud because I had only just put on dry socks and had dry feet for the first time all day! If I tried to step off the track onto the bush, I just sank even deeper into the waterlogged bushes and my ankles would scream at me. It slowed me down big time and I frustratingly pushed on, knowing I was getting close to my mate.

Sam was meant to have run the 60km race but wanted to watch her daughter run the 25km and decided it would be far more fun to run 60kms with me through the night instead. She had already hiked 6kms to get to Pole 333 to meet me at the aid station and I was worried she would be getting cold waiting for me. The aid station was lit up like a disco and I smiled when I saw the lights; knowing this party was likely a sole search and rescue volunteer and Sam. As I got closer, I called out ‘let’s get this party started’ and Sam squealed with delight. I took a seat, had a blanket thrown over me and tried to get some food down whilst Sam rugged up ready to join me. It’s the most remote aid station and that’s because it is freezing so we were quick to get moving again. It was pure joy seeing Sam and for the next few kms as we made our way down to the river we chatted about our day. I was feeding off her positive energy and it was so good to have some company.

We stopped at the river for a quick pit stop and tried not to wake the campers with our giggling before we started the big climb up to Hotham. I remembered this section; this is where the wheels fell off last year. It was steep and never-ending; with large steps that remind your joints that you have done about 100kms on them. The trees started to thin out as we neared the top and the fatigue set in with me seeing a bicycle on the side of the trail, which turned out to just be a branch. I saw a little alien sitting on top of a bush and the lights in the distance, which was actually the top of Mt Hotham, seemed like an alien spaceship on the horizon. When I moaned and groaned about the steps, Sam would point out the moon and the stars above me. As we reached the top I finally looked up and saw the brightest slither of the moon above me, the shadow of the mountains in the distance and the white cloud sitting below us. We were literally above the cloud with clear skies full of twinkling stars. This was incredible. I was so grateful to have Sam to point it out for me rather than think about my tiring body. I tried to remember that beautiful sky as we hit the road to the aid station. This is not a road; this is a wide section of big arse rocks that make it impossible to walk properly. Instead, you are hopping over rocks and trying to avoid the little ones that feel like torture under your tired feet. “I hate this road” I screamed into the night. Sam started to talk dirty to me – she talked about food. She started telling me about the noodles that she was going to make for me when I got to the aid station. No one has ever made two-minute noodles sound so damn good. All I could think about was noodles as I made the last push to the top and into the warm cabin sitting atop Mt Hotham.

We burst into that aid station like a couple of gals hitting a nightclub at 3 am on a Saturday night. We were happy to be there; I was happy to get those two-minute noodles. The cabin was warm and had a REAL toilet for us to use. There were a few runners sitting forlorn either having made the decision to stop or still considering it. I didn’t let their energy affect me. It was giggles all around as I changed my socks and Sam sent a photo of my disgusting feet to my hubby so that he could wake up on Sunday morning to the lovely picture. Sam giggled at the heated flooring as she warmed her butt. I downed noodles and coffee and enjoyed the first real break I had had all run. I relished that we had allowed 30mins to just sit and warm-up and have a feed. We chatted away with the incredible volunteers and finally headed out into the freezing night. Ice had started to frost over the ground, and we were keen to start dropping down the side of the mountain and get warm. We knew we had a tough section coming up. 17kms of straight down the side of the mountain range into Harrietville and I was feeling confident we would smash it. I love technical downhill. What I didn’t account for was technical downhill on legs that had already run 102kms and a foot that was getting worse with every km.

The pain that started in the foot was ignored at first. Then I found I kept stopping to breath through it. Then I found I was so slow. Then I found I felt like I was drunk. Slowly the wheels started to fall off and what should have taken a few hours dragged to almost 6hours. I struggled to find the joy, I struggled to see the beauty. I pushed on, reminding myself that its good to feel uncomfortable. We go through life with so much comfort – its nice to be reminded what uncomfortable feels like.

When I finally made the decision to stop and spoke it aloud I knew that it was going to hurt for a while. Sam told me that I was not allowed to beat myself up about it. I told her I would allow myself to feel it for the afternoon but by the time we popped a champagne bottle later I would accept the run, make peace with it, and also recognise the achievement. Not many people can run 120kms in the most extreme conditions, see two sunrises, stay awake for over 30hrs and put their body through so much. But I didn’t care what others could or couldn’t do. A month prior I was going to drop my race entry to the 100km instead of the 160kms. If I had actually run the 100kms I would have got a medal around my neck – but it would have been easy.

I didn’t want easy – even if it meant a finishers medal. I wanted something that would challenge my body, but more importantly, my mind, in every way. I wanted to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to see how far my mind and body could go. I would rather ‘dnf’ on something that challenges me in every way possible than choose an easier option just so I could share a finishers photo on social media and feed my inner ‘achiever’. I am no longer seeking achievement. I am seeking fulfillment.

I found it on the mountain.

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Angela Esnouf
Angela Esnouf
May 13, 2022

I'm so glad you found it on the mountain. But I have to say, that smile says it all. But those feet!

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