One of life’s biggest challenges is mother nature herself. She can be the most beautiful woman in the room and then she can be a real bitch only a moment later. Don’t respect her and it could be your demise. Don’t treat her right and she will avenge you. Early 2021, I had 3 days leave booked. My plan was to spend it frolicking in the mountains, taking photos and checking out some of the Alpine course that was part of my upcoming 100miler. At night I would drink wine and eat cheese with my girlfriend, and it would be a few blissful few days. First, my girlfriend had other plans that meant she had to cancel. I was ok – a bit of lonesome in the mountains would be good for the soul! Plus, I have no issues with wine and cheese on my own – more for me!
Mother Nature started wreaking havoc on the weekend, before I had even packed a bag. I watched the TV and was greeted with flooded cities, farms and bridges and roads underwater. Friends in NSW and Qld were evacuated from their homes, they were helping neighbours and trying to stay afloat. The east coast of Australia was hammered day after day with rain and storms and nothing was going to stop her. On Monday night, still hearing of horrible stories from the worst floods in 100 years, I drove up the mountains. I prayed the whole way that the storms continued to move east and not south over the Alpine region. I knew I would get some rain, but I wanted my frolicking in the mountains in the sun like something from a scene of ‘The Sound of Music’.
I was torn between camping and a cabin and when my friend could no longer join me, I decided to get a cabin just to be able to spread out a bit and have the luxury of a bath and a fridge. I found a cute little place in Harrietville that was so beautiful and had all the luxuries. This turned out to be a VERY wise decision. The first night it rained so much that when I was getting my gear ready, I swapped my smaller lighter raincoat for my big gortex jacket. I had all my gear laid out on the spare bed and was knackered so in bed early. I didn’t sleep well – a strange bed and the rain. At 4am I gave up, got up and packed up the car and drove 90mins to Falls Creek. This is the start and finish of the Alpine challenge I was training for. I took some time to visualise the finish and how I will run down the finish chute. I then threw on a thermal over my running top, a raincoat and beanie and zipped up. I was carrying a heavy pack, both for training but also for the mandatory gear I would need.
I have a fear of the mountains – it’s a good fear. The kind of fear that makes me carry an emergency kit that includes a bivvy bag, emergency blanket, down jacket, Epirb, whistle and light. The kind that makes me respect that things can change at any minute and rescue is not easy. I am not so scared however that I balk at the idea of running alone in the mountains. I might have been alone, but I had told two people of my course, had my GPS tracker on and off I set. The rain had set in, and it wasn’t going anywhere – within minutes my shorts and calf sleeves were soaked, and my feet were not far off. The sound of the rain on my jacket hood was soothing and I enjoyed the first few kms downhill, my feet sloshing through puddles on the trail. I smiled, thinking about people at work today and how I was in my element. I hit the river at the bottom of the valley and splashed through it, crying out aloud at the coldness that took over my toes. I knew that the next section was up, and up and up. I had the race cut off times in my head and I powered up. It was tough – by now the trail had turned muddy and I was sliding down sections as I tried to climb up. I had my poles and used them for balance. I kept looking around me, looking for the mountain range – but there was nothing. I was in the clouds and all I could see was cloud. I was lucky to be able to see a few metres in front of me. I was a little annoyed. All this effort and the clouds couldn’t part for just a few minutes for me!
The rain was relentless, coming down so heavy now that I was no longer grateful for the pitter patter on my hood. Everything felt waterlogged and heavy. As I reached the top of the climb and became exposed to the ridge line, I was hit with a strong wind that almost knocked me to my feet. I was not expecting that. My fingers went numb almost immediately and I could feel the legs following close behind. I started running along the ridge line, head down trying to stop the wind from blowing me away. Before too long I could no longer feel my legs. The wind ripped around my hood, so loud I started to feel scared. I pushed on, knowing that Warby Cnr wasn’t far. I knew this was also accessible by a 4WD so if I had to call for help the rangers could get to me. I sang to myself and thought about Grandma Gatewood who was the first women to walk the Appalachian trail – at the age of 67.I had just finished her book and found her so inspiring. I thought about her and her lack of safety gear and expensive wet weather gear and how she just pushed on. She got me to Warby Cnr where I turned right and headed down the fire trail to wards Mount Nelse.
I was still very exposed, and as I veered off the fire trail the trail narrowed. The narrow trail, coupled with the rain meant that I was sloshing through water as I ran – at times it was mid-calf level. I looked down and saw that I was bleeding from my leg, but I couldn’t work out how. I ignored it and pushed on. I stopped to check my map as I was scared of missing the turnoff that would take me back to Falls Creek. I was only stopped for a minute but started to feel the legs and fingers shake. I pulled out my waterproof gloves which I had totally forgotten were in my pack and tried to put them on. Rookie error – wet hands wont actually fit into the glove. I couldn’t get my fingers in the glove so got as much of my hand as I could and just squeezed both hands into a ball. I had folded away my poles as I was now on runnable section and I pushed on, splattering through the water and ignoring the sound of the wind and rain against my hood. The hood of my jacket makes everything sound louder and more intense, so I tried to ignore it. I thought about how I could die out here if stopped. I have not faced the fear of my own death very often, but I thought about it then. I was grateful my friend was not with me – it meant I only had to worry about my safety and not hers as well. I would not want to put my friend through this. I realised that I was catastrophising and yelled to myself out loud ‘suck it up – people go through worse shit than this’. I started to tell myself what was good. My chest and my head were dry and warm – tick. I had plenty of food and was eating well. I had no lack of water and would not suffer from dehydration – keep drinking. I wasn’t actually that far from the car – I had a car at the finish line. I was running strong, and nothing was hurting, or broken. Once I started to focus on what was good, I felt better. I thought about how good it would be to get in the car and put the heater on, how fortunate I was to have booked a cabin. I pushed on.
When I hit the road, I almost cried – a few kms up the road and I was at the car! When I arrived, I turned the car on, cranked the heater to its max, and then jumped in the boot on top of my picnic blanket. I stripped down to my undies to get the wet gear off and towelled myself dry before putting on my warm dry clothing. I noticed a supermarket up the road and headed up there looking for coffee. I smelled the pie first – the smell of a hot pie in the oven had me salivating. There was one beef and mushroom left and I went straight for it. The sheer joy! As I was hungry, I also bought out half the shop, including a bottle of wine before I was back in the car and heading home to my safe and warm little cabin. It would not take long before said bottle of wine was opened, a hot bath was poured, and the cabin was strewn about with wet gear!
Day two saw me sleep in to 6am – bliss! I wanted to do a 53km recon loop, but I was very concerned about the conditions from day one and I had definitely had a scare from Mother Nature. I was concerned about being out there in the dark in the wet and cold on my own. I have no issues with this during a race because I know that the race director is monitoring where everyone is, we have volunteers out there etc. But when running alone I have my epirb and my phone and if either don’t work, I am holed up somewhere in the mountains in a bivvy bag in the rain and wind waiting for someone to realise I have not checked in post run and send a search party. I love running alone, and I love the mountains, but I know its important to be safe. I made the call to run a shorter loop – this would still see me take in some tough parts of the course – one in particular was Bon Accord Spur. I had heard about this section and everyone told me how tough it was, particularly in wet conditions. I was worried about this section on race day, and I needed to get it done prior so that mentally I knew I could do it. Race day would see me likely doing it in the dark just to add that extra layer of a tough trail!
When I woke the rain was gone and a look at the forecast told me it was likely gone for good. I was so excited I put on a t-shirt and hat and even considered sunglasses! I packed my thermal, gloves and raincoat (the lighter one) and took off. The body felt great post yesterdays 6.5hr session and I had slept well. I was feeling awesome as I headed up Mt Feathertop; Vic’s second highest mountain. The birds were singing, I scared off some deer that crashed through the growth (ok they scared me first), I came around a corner to about 5 lyrebirds running down the track and I was loving the trail and the beauty. About 5kms in I was back in the cloud and I was annoyed that yet again I wasn’t likely to be seeing the beautiful ranges that stretch for miles when you get up on the top of the mountain. I thought about my knee operation in 2019; mainly because post operation I hiked this section as my first ‘trail experience’ back. It had been a cold but beautiful weekend and I was reminded of just how far I had come post op. I started to realise that the clouds were now enveloping me, and I couldn’t see very far up the track. It was getting cold and a little wet. I decided to put on my thermal and raincoat – I hadn’t got cold yet, but I knew it was only going to get worse as I went up. It did. By the time I hit Federation hut, about 1922m above sea level I couldn’t sea more than a few metres in front of me. The overgrown sections of the track had wet my calf sleeves and my shoes were soaked. It now started to rain heavily, and I look down to see a big fat leech hanging onto my leg. This explained the blood yesterday! I pulled him off, cursing him as blood ran down my leg and pushed on with half a vegemite sandwich in my hand - which was getting soggy.
I was going to run across the razorback trail - this took me across some very exposed sections of the mountains and is also apparently very beautiful. Considering that I couldn’t see very far in front of me meant I had no chance of being about to see the beauty of the ranges that surrounded me. I had learnt my lesson from day one and put my gloves on, hood up and ran across the trail. I ran well, despite sloshing feet and sideways wind. I felt a lot more confident after day one and the wind wasn’t as strong. I knew I was very exposed and if I broke anything rescue was a long way off, but I had confidence in my body and my fear levels were much lower than the previous day. I thought of hubby and wondered if he really knew what some of my ‘adventures’ looked like and sent him love for understanding why I do this, for never telling me I cannot do what most people wouldn’t dream of doing, for always checking I am being safe. At one stage as my hood buffeted around my face in the wind, and the rain came in sideways I yelled out to the clouds ‘Jaqui, you are one mad bitch. Some bloody adventure!’. As I hit a steep uphill section, I yelled to myself out loud ‘this is very fast becoming Type 3 fun’. I had expected Type 1 fun – I got a little of it but there was a lot more type 2 fun. Type 3 fun is when I call for someone to come and get me because its no fun at all. I had no one to call, I just had to suck it up.
Finally, I could turn to my right and start heading down the mountainside, and out of the wind. This was the dreaded spur that I was so worried about. I had heard so many stories about how tough this section was. It was very overgrown, trees down, leaf litter and very muddy but somehow in my head I had conjured up something much worse. I was so glad I had decided to come see it for myself! I jumped over fallen trees, skidded through mud and almost went down a few times. I rolled my ankles, righted myself and then SMACK – headbutted a fallen tree hanging low. My first word was “Fu*k” which I yelled at the top of my voice. Then I yelled at myself ‘Jaqui you dork! Look up!’. I knew the risk of bush like this, I had my hat on under my hood to stop the rain hitting my face and because I was too busy looking at the technical track, I forgot to look up every now and then to check for low hanging branches. My head was already throbbing, and I walked for a bit to compose myself. I started to slowly run again and made sure to keep looking up! The mud and the cold made me think of the men who were in Kokoda. I was grateful that I would finish at a warm and dry cabin and that I was not being bombed or shot at – that made the trail so much easier. I thought about my soup back in the cabin and the heater and as the never-ending trail opened to a wide road the sky also opened – The rain come down in a deluge as I ran the last few kms back to my cabin. I was dripping as I stepped onto the deck and yet I notice a beautiful yellow rose that had sprung on the rose tree near the front door. I even stopped for a minute to admire it before I stripped down to my underwear on the front deck, leaving a wet and muddle pile of shoes and clothing at the door as I ran in for a hot shower with a big cheesy grin across my face.
A hot shower, a hot mug of soup and ugg boots has never felt so good!