The air felt like ice with every breath I took. The fog had cleared, and the stars were lighting my way as I pushed my feet through mud, kilometre after kilometre. My head torch flickered off the frost on the ground, making everything look like a white winter wonderland. Kerry, my running mate for the past hour stopped dead.
"Can you see that? There’s something out there."
Through the fog, eyes glowed in the dark ahead of us. Suddenly two eyes became a hundred. We stopped breathing…
It was always going to be an epic weekend. How could a run of 100 miles through the Vic Alpine region be anything less than epic? The weather was looking ideal and after 6 months training the anticipation had kicked in as we packed up the car and hit the road on Friday. I was never more organised for a race, with each aid station’s bag packed for food and clothing and maps printed and laminated. We got to the Alpine village in Falls Creek about 3pm and I checked in, getting race bib 160-23 and ticked off all my mandatory gear. My pack would be between 5-7kgs for the run depending on how much water I was carrying. My mate Emma arrived, and I went through maps with my crew, instructions and then the final race briefing with the race director. My crew consisted of my husband and my best mate – It had been years since Jarrad had crewed and it was Emma’s first time. The excitement was now real and it was time for dinner and bed. Hubby cooked up a big bowl of spaghetti for us and I was in bed at 9pm with the alarm set for 3:30am.
I was out of bed at 3:30am with so much energy! Coffee and porridge down and I was wrapped in a blanket at the start line with my crew full of excitement for the day ahead. 4am on the top of a mountain on the cusp of winter had me wearing a buff over my ears, gloves, shorts, a tshirt and then a thermal long sleeve top. The start line was crowded with people - over 40 of us were there to literally conquer the mountains, running 100 miles for our various causes. Causes included the ASAR (Alpine Search and Rescue) as well as my personal charity, Impact. Looking around at my running colleagues, I couldn’t help but be struck by the different stories we all had and our different reasons for being there.
Our Race Director, Paul counted down the last 10 seconds as we took off at 4:30am and so began the first 5kms of 100 miles. The start of the course is some beautiful single track and I warmed up quickly. Another 5kms down firetrail which was a good quad burner and I hit the river. Crossing the river in the dark was fun but also VERY cold. The water was so cold it felt like a thousand needles sticking into my feet. At the bank on the other side I sloshed out of the river and started to climb up the hill. It was now a long slog uphill with some technical steep sections - I had done this before and I knew it was tough so I just put my head down and plodded up, one step at a time. I had company for some of this section and chatted away in between deep breaths with my new running mate Kerry. It wasn’t long until we were both concentrating on breathing and climbing and we slipped into silence and slowly Kerry pulled away until I could no longer see her above me.
The sun was starting to rise, and it felt colder as I climbed in elevation. I was grateful for my gloves and thermal. After what felt like hours, I hit the top and I could run across the ridge, the sun was now up, and I could see mountains for miles. I smiled at the beautiful view in front of me and ran up to Warby Corner, the 25.5km mark, where I found my crew, Emma and Jarrad, rugged up and waiting. They topped me up with food and I had a banana and cheesymite, gave them a hug and kept on going. They had hiked 7kms just to get to the aid station and I was impressed with their efforts! I was not going to see them again for 50kms and I knew I had some hard work coming up.
From Warby Cnr I went down some beautiful runnable section before I hit some very steep technical track and busted my quads again as I went down to the river. Big River was beautiful, and I stopped to take it all in before I got the feet ice cold again with another river crossing. Then it was up up and up. Very steep track that felt like you had to climb on your hands and knees, and it took your breath away. It was a hard slog but also some really beautiful bush and when I looked around me,
I broke out in a big smile. The sun was out now, and the gloves were off and I was loving the day. I got to Cleve Cole Hut and topped up some water from the rain tank and felt amazing. I was really loving the challenge. I started the climb to the summit of Mt Bogong, the tallest mountain in Vic and I constantly looked around me in awe. The day was so clear, and I could see mountains for miles and it was one of the most beautiful sites I had witnessed. I was on the top of Victoria and I was feeling great and witnessing the magic of the Alpine region.
From Bogong I had to run across the ridge line - The track was barely existent and there was plenty of rocks and bushes to sprain an ankle. I thought this section would be a lot more runnable and whilst I found the terrain really tough I also loved the sense of adventure whilst running across the ridge - knowing that you could drop off the side and fall and my heart was in my mouth the whole time. It was most definitely type A fun!
I dropped back down to Big River and topped up some water - popping some tablets in my water to kill any bugs just in case, and then it was a 12km climb back to Warby Corner. This was a fire trail and an easy walk which was much appreciated after the technical sections I had endured. About 4kms out from Warby I could even start running. The track was beautiful as I could see the top of Bogong and the ridge line that I had run across and it felt great knowing I had ticked off so much and felt so good. A few kms out from Warby I got a message from hubby telling me to get my warm gear back on. I was still in the sun going uphill so I was warm, and I laughed at the message. I looked for some food in my pack and found the choc chip cookie my crew had put there and squealed out loud with joy. I munched on my cookie as I continued up, hoping to get to the Warby Cnr aid station before it got dark. The sun and I were fighting it out and about 1km from the aid station, as the sun started to dip, the temperature dropped very quickly and I had to stop and put the gloves and buff back on.
My breath was started to puff in front of my face, my fingers were starting to go numb, and I knew staying warm was especially important in such a remote area. I turned and spotted the incredible sunset that was happening right behind me. As I got my head torch out ready for the darkness I couldn’t help smile and take a selfie with the beautiful sunset. I sent a prayer up to Dad, put my head torch on and as the sun dipped behind the mountain range I came into the aid station.
“Sorry I would have been earlier but I had to take a million photos of that sunset” I told them as I ran in smiling.
After 64.5kms I was craving bananas and the volunteers were quick to give me 3 of them! I didn’t stick around for long because the temperature was dropping quickly so I took off. My crew were 9kms away and they had warm clothing and food for me, and I was eager to get to them. I knew I needed to get warmer clothing on, and I needed some warm food in my belly before it got colder. I was also looking forward to the mental boost they would give me. This section was not hugely technical and I could run along at a great pace, which kept me warm.
I had been running now for almost 15hrs, and the group of people at the starting line had turned into sporadic flicks of light across the mountains. My footfalls filled my ears. Fog had settled in and I couldn't see very far in front of me. The stars were trying to sneak through but all I could see was my head torch lighting up my breath and I just focused on moving forward. I tried to check in with my body but I could not actually feel my legs at all. They were numb from the cold. My fingers were cold inside my gloves and I clenched my fists to try and keep the tips of the fingers warm. A few times I had to check my map because I didn’t want to miss the turn off that I knew was coming up - I was grateful to find it and I was off the fire trail and onto some single track. It was a downhill gradient, so I smiled and enjoyed the run. At the last minute I looked up and just missed a low-lying tree that would have smacked me in the forehead! I yelled out loud to myself “concentrate Jaqui”! A few minutes later my foot went into a puddle that I couldn’t even see and my foot was soaked. I swore out load and yelled to the dark “My feet just fucken dried up!” It got wetter and muddier as I went further down, and I came to the aqueduct trail that I knew I had to follow to the aid station. I was so close and yet the trail seemed to go on forever. I kept listening for the sound of the aid station or looking for the lights but thanks to the fog I could only see my breath and hear my feet in the mud. I was very cold by now and had to run to keep warm – If I slowed down I started to shake with the cold.
When I saw the lights, I broke into a big smile. Then I saw 3 headtorches coming my way - It was Emma and my running friend Sam with her daughter (who had earlier smashed the 25kms, coming 2nd in only her 2nd trail race!) Emma threw a hot water bottle into my arms and Sam threw a blanket over my shoulders and I walked the last few metres into the aid station where Jarrad had hot noodles waiting for me. I hadn’t seen my husband for about 50kms, about 10hours earlier. It was so good to see him, and I knew I was in good hands. He led me to the car and my crew went into action. Emma was charging my phone and putting new batteries in my headtorch, Jarrad was forcing me to eat noodles and Sam was stocking up my pack with more food and water. Jarrad got me into a fresh long sleeve top and a fleece, and I changed from a buff over my ears to a warm beanie and warmer waterproof gloves.
They wrapped me in a blanket with a hot water bottle whilst I ate and talked about how great my day had been. I told them my body was numb and I felt amazing. It wasn’t long before Jarrad walked me the few metres back to the track and I gave him a hug and headed out into the fog. My crew now had a 2-3hr drive to the next aid station and I was worried about them in the fog driving through the mountains, but I tried to just focus on my movement. I took off at a run on some easy trail.
After about 5kms I saw two head torches looking my way in the dark and I was sure I heard Sam’s voice. “This is like children of the corn” I said and heard her giggle. I was incredibly happy to see her and her daughter! Sam fed me a banana and they both walked me a few hundred metres to the road. I crossed the road, gave them both a hug and disappeared down some single track. I could see the black single trail in front of me and nothing else. I felt like I was disappearing into a black hole. It was flat and easy to run on and I had no choice to run it because I was shaking with cold. My face was numb, and I could not feel my legs at all. I was still only in shorts and calf sleeves. My feet were still wet and now numb. Despite my gloves my hands were numb, and I had pulled a buff around my mouth and nose because my throat was hurting from the cold air. The fog around me started to clear and I stopped and turned off my head torch. This high, the mountain was bare, and it felt like it was just me and the stars. They weren’t just above me, they seemed to surround me, and they took my breath away. I had never experienced such remoteness and such beauty. I wanted to stay there forever but my whole body was shaking. I needed to keep moving. I thought about getting my down jacket out of my pack but the thought of taking off my gloves and stopping for that long made me rethink it and I kept running. I would occasionally pull my buff off my nose to get some air but could feel the cold chilling/burning my lungs and getting into my bones. For the first time I started to be concerned about how much the cold was affecting me. The terrain around me was now covered in frost and the white glowed in the light of my head torch. The mud would catch me off guard and I would sink into it before I even saw it. Sometimes the mud would have a coating of ice over it, and I would hear the crack of my foot on the ice before my foot sunk down and I felt the cold take over my toes. Occasionally a moving light would appear on the horizon and I started to be a little worried about who or what might be out there in this remote part of the world. Being awake for over 18hrs was starting to affect me and I would think about the moving lights, wondering if it were runners in the distance, or something more sinister. Was everyone else out here ok and warm enough and safe?
I came into Pole 333 aid station expecting a hut and warmth and soup - instead it was a tent with two blokes rugged up offering frozen snickers bars. I don’t know why I expected more because I knew that the guys here had to hike out and it was very remote. I perhaps had dreamed up an illusion of what I wanted, not what I was getting. I was however happy to see Kerry whom I had met in the first 10kms on the run. We were both tired and sore - it was about 10pm, we’d been running for over 17hrs and so we decided to team up for the next section to be safer. I put my down jacket on and decided to put on my waterproof pants to warm up. I also put some heat packs down my gloves. We took off together at a reasonable pace, pushing through mud and cold. Suddenly, Kerry stopped dead as a pair of eyes glowed in the dark in front of us. Two eyes became a hundred and we both stopped breathing before the outline of horses melded through the fog. Wild brumbies took off at a gallop filling the mountains with the sound of the throb of their hooves against the frozen ground. My body had goosebumps and the stars twinkled above me like something from a magical fairytale. No matter what happened now, everything was worth it just for that moment.
After a few kms we headed down and it started to get a little warmer. We had steep down and then steep up and we were both starting to hurt. It was now after midnight and the cold had settled into my bones. Everything around me was covered in ice. My throat hurt so much that I couldn’t swallow. I realised that I had not eaten since my banana, nearly 5 hours ago. My plan had been to eat 100calories an hour and drink 300mls an hour. It was so important to eat and drink – I often tell people it is one of the most important parts of running an ultra. I struggled to get water out of my hose and realised my bladder hose had frozen. I was only getting frozen slush that was unbearably painful to drink! As I climbed up and up and up I continued to cough and cough. I would take a few steps and cough. I started to taste blood. My lungs burned. The trees around us started to look like men standing in the dark, green ducks, koalas, dogs and at one point as I changed batteries in my headtorch I was sure a large spider was trying to steal my walking pole! Trees were starting to look like dragons and lights on the summit of Mt Hotham looked like Aliens coming to abduct us. The hallucinations had started. We tried to laugh them off but it was still disconcerting.
The climb was never ending, the air got colder as we went higher, and my lungs burned more and more. My throat closed up and I struggled to get a sip of water down. I knew I was in trouble without food and water. I limped into the aid station. What I thought would take me 3 hours took me 7.5hrs. The negative mindset was already there. Jarrad tried to feed me but I just wanted to cry. Without food or drink I had no energy. I had taken in less than 1L in 7.5hrs and had not eaten in over 6hrs. My cough was raspy and shook the whole body which just hurt. I thought about what was good - The body felt good, just some tired and sore feet. That’s all I came up with. I sat for about 20mins playing it out in my head. “How far have I done”? I asked Jarrad. "107kms” he replied. “Do you think that’s enough for Impact?” I asked. The whole point of the run was to raise awareness and funds for Impact, supporting victims of family violence. I thought about how much it would hurt to fail them, how much I wanted to finish for them, how much this decision, not the body, would hurt hours later.
Jarrad reminded me that 107kms is an epic achievement and I had to make the decision I knew was right. It’s tough when it’s your call. It’s so much easier when someone else makes it for you. I thought about the runners I had met along the day who were back for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and even 5th time to try and complete this brutal course. I had 20mins to get myself right and get out of the aid station to make it through cut off times. I thought about how 99% of the day was so much fun and so awesome. I decided that it was time. 20mins was not enough time to get myself fed and hydrated and the lungs settled. I knew the next section of the course was brutal and I would be alone in the dark and cold on a technical steep downhill section when I was violently coughing already. Whether I regretted it later or not I had made the call. I knew I was done.
I knew that I would think about that moment for days, weeks and months later but I have also learned through experience that when you make that call you have to cop it. Perhaps I will be called a failure, perhaps I am not ‘tough enough’ but I have also learned that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I have to live with it, I have to recover from it and I will be the one who decides the next day when I am warm and cosy in bed that 107kms doesn’t cut and I will come back again and again until I have ticked off the 160km course.
Despite ending the run short I could not even go home to bed. My crew had not slept at all and Jarrad was not in a fit state to drive down the mountain. The 3 of us curled up under whatever we had in the car and slept for 2hours in the subzero temperatures. I coughed and cramped and cried whilst my crew slept and as the sun broke over the horizon Jarrad drove for 2hrs to get us home safe. I showered and collapsed into bed at 8am getting a few hours rest in before walking to the finish line to cheer on any runners still coming in.
With a race that has such a high DNF rate I know more runners who have not finished than have. That reminds me of how tough this challenge is and makes me want it even more. The lungs still hurt; the throat feels like razor blades but nearly a week after I ended the adventure, I actually feel very content. I think about the views, the stars, the wild brumbies, the thoughts that went through my head for 24hrs out in the remote alpine region. I think about the smiles, the laughs, the moments that were just between me and the wild. Those moments that I cannot explain to anyone, I can try and write the words, but I can never express the feeling. That’s why I’ll be back for more. That's why I have already signed up to return to this course in November and tackle the 160kms once more.
If I ever doubted peoples love and support, I was wrong. I was so worried about letting Impact down and those who had donated for my cause. The outpouring of love and support from those I love, and then from complete strangers just completely blows my mind. I may have fallen short from my distance goal, but the goal of sharing Impact - what they do, and how important it is - that exceeded my expectations and that’s what makes me feel good post run!