Updated: Mar 22
Racing has changed so much for me since COVID-19 hit our Australian shores. I used to take it for granted that I could spend my weekends in the mountains racing ultra-marathons – until I couldn’t. Now I realise how grateful I am when I have the opportunity to get out into the bush for a race.
I am training to run 100miles in the Alpine region in April and I love to include some races as part of my training plan. This keeps me engaged, means I can run with friends and throws in some fun weekends along the way. It was for this reason that I signed up for The Archie 50km held at Mt Buller. Last year I did the 100kms Oscar’s run over 3 days with my friend and just loved this course so much. The beauty of the mountains, the technicality, and the river crossings – and the added incentive that this race raises money for Autism support and awareness all speak to my why when it comes to running. I was excited to sign up and started counting down the days!
2 weeks out from the race I spent a weekend at Wilson’s Prom; one of my favourite places in the world. I had two days on my own running and car camping, and then 2 days with a fabulous group of ladies hiking and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. On the Saturday afternoon some nasty bug decided to make camp in my stomach, and I spent the next few days no more than a few metres from the toilet bowl. It was horrible and I was exhausted, but I was glad to be recovered with 10 days to go until race day. 3 days out from race day and the bug came back bigger and better. For 2 days I stayed in bed, only getting up to go to the toilet and only sitting up to dial into a work zoom meeting, otherwise my laptop and I curled up in bed together. Hubby knew I was bad when I didn’t have coffee, wine, or dairy for a few days. After a 16hr sleep on the Wednesday night I knew that if I could not run Thursday and keep food down, Archie’s 50km was not going to happen. Melbourne has also been put into a 5 day snap lockdown and we had no idea if the race was going to go ahead. I was torn between really wanting to run, and having the decision taken away from me which meant my stomach and body could recover from this nasty parasite! We got the news on Wednesday late afternoon that the race was going ahead! I shuffled 5km on Thurs morning, had breakfast and crossed my fingers. By Thursday night I had kept everything down, I was getting the fluids in and I was slowly coming back to normal and I made the decision to run. I would just take it super easy.
Friday night I arrived on Mt Buller, later than I had hoped but I had to work on the Friday, so it was a mad dash to make it by 715pm for the briefing. I made it just in time and ate some dinner whilst we listened to the safety briefing and then I was straight for bed exhausted. My plan was to car camp – something I regularly do. My bed fits perfectly in the boot of my outlander by laying it on an angle and I am always cozy in there, safe from the elements and I snuggle down with a book before sleep. I had planned to drive back down the mountain but it was a hot night, and it would be cooler to sleep up the mountain so I just pulled into an overflow carpark and jumped into bed. I knew I was tired, so I expected to sleep easily. I was in a dark spot of the carpark with no one around me and thus shouldn’t be disturbed at all. From where I lay I could see the stars through the back window and it was so still and beautiful.
Sleep eluded me however, and I started to imagine creepy men trying to break into my car and even killer kangaroos scratching at the tyres. I have no idea where this came from – I am a regular solo hiker, camper and always run alone in the bush; and yet suddenly every noise made me jump. I fell asleep and had a nightmare of a man trying to get into the car and woke up sweating. I could hear cars in the distance coming up and down the mountain and every one of them made me nervous. I have no idea where this feeling came from and I could only speculate it was from recent media reports on similar scenarios. I fought it all night – eventually getting about 4hrs sleep in total.
Saturday morning I woke tired, grumpy and annoyed with myself for psyching myself out with fear. As always, I am super organised before a run and I have everything in my pack ready to go, and everything that I will wear, or need to apply (ie suncream) in one bag on the front seat. This means I will not forget any mandatory gear, forget to put suncream on or I run around trying to find the right undies. I don’t have to think – just dress, eat and be at the start line.
There is always a magical feeling at the start line of a run. The excitement, the anticipation, the nerves – it’s a great feeling. It was already a warm morning and a lot were nervous about the heat. We were reminded of the Race Directors comments about his son – everyday he would go to school with Autism and it was really hard for him. When it got tough out on the run, he told us to remember that his son had to get out of his comfort zone every day– we just need to get through the one run. It’s great motivation to keep you going.
The start of the run is at the Village in Mt Buller at the top of the mountain. We headed off in waves of 20 so we were COVID-19 safe and had to wear our masks at the start line and all the aid stations. My friend and I started in the second wave because we wanted to be at the front of the pack when we hit the 4-mile section. This section is technical, and we were both good on the technical and didn’t want to get stuck not being allowed to overtake people. The race starts up Athletes walk which is very steep and then heads out onto the trails to the carpark of the mountain summit. My foot came off the road and hit the trails and I turned to look back, witnessing the most magical sunrise behind me. It made me smile and I was incredibly grateful to be in the mountains, doing what I love. I felt at peace, I felt joy and I felt happy.
We passed under the summit and I was reminded that I would have to go up there at the end of the race with tired legs later; for now, it was an easy run down to 4mile. This section is my favourite part of the course. For 15km you descend 1586m. It’s not a nice downhill track that you can speed down either – it involves climbing over trees, jumping over rocks, sometimes swinging from tree branches like a monkey in the jungle and scrambling over the ridge. A slight movement to the left or right and you’re down the side of the mountain. It’s scary, exciting, and pure joy! I had a grin from ear to ear the whole section. When you get through the ridge you get some runnable section downhill and my quads were shaking by the time I got to the valley floor and the river greeted me. It was already getting very hot and I was soaked in sweat from the humidity, so I splashed straight into the river, washing my hat and wetting the buff around my neck to keep me cool. I was concerned about dehydration on this race because of my prior gastro and was really making sure I was drinking well early. I was on track and feeling good as I came into the first aid station.
I filled up my bottles with water and was straight out of there, overtaking about 10 people who were milling around. I learned a long time ago that you don’t spend time in the aid stations – not only does it eat away at your time, but also you tend to seize up if you stop for too long and you leave the aid station feeling horrible. I prefer to keep moving. I was about 2hrs ahead of cut off time and I was feeling strong, and happy. I was literally smiling the whole time! I pushed on to the next aid station which was only about 6km and enjoyed the views of the river. There is a short section on a 4WD track before you hit the aid station and there were a few vehicles that came past, stirring up a lot of dust from the dry road. This went straight into my lungs and eyes and I started to really feel congested. I started to notice some campgrounds and knew that I was getting close to the aid station and I came in with a smile still beaming across my face. More water and I shoved down a banana and some orange. I had pushed out 17kms already and only had half a bar of food because the heat was making eating difficult. I had liquid nutrition and was relying heavily on that to keep me going.
I had 10.5kms and only 392m of ascent for the next section and it’s all sweeping single-track with 13 river crossings. It’s a beautiful section with beautiful views and the river crossings were very appreciated in the heat. I don’t take my shoes off for the crossings – it takes too long and its also nice to have cool and wet feet for a while when its hot. The shoes dry quickly. I am not sure if it was the food in my belly, or the fact that I was now pretty much 100% in direct sunlight, but I was starting to crash big time. I felt heavy in the legs and my body didn’t want to run. I tried to hike fast instead and then shuffle and it became a game of short shuffle, power walk, short shuffle, power walk. I focussed on just moving and making sure I was getting the fluids in with short sips often. Everytime I felt like I was struggling I forced myself to smile and find something beautiful, whether it was the winding river below me, or a wildflower or the coolness of splashing through the river. I felt like I wanted to vomit, and I felt very hot. I made a deal with myself – when you make it to the next aid station you can have some orange, and some electrolytes and you can stay longer in this station and catch your breath. It was a battle between mind and body, but the mind won and I came running into the aid station at Pikes Flat smiling. I have a rule that I will always smile coming into an aid station – it comes from having my hubby crew for me in big races. If I come in smiling there is not only less chance that any medic will pull me from the race because I am cooked, but it also shows hubby I am grateful to have him there. I was grateful to have made it to Pikes Flat.
I had banana and orange again and filled up my bottles with electrolytes. I also knew that the next section was the toughest yet so filled up my bladder with water. I was carrying 3L which added 3kgs to my back and boy did I feel it! The next section is 13.8km and has 1085m of elevation. A lot of this is steep climbing and I expanded my poles that so far had been collapsed on my belt. You start this section by splashing through the river and then its up, up and up. A lot of runners were sitting in the river to cool down before they tackled the hill. I had a quick sip of Coca Cola for some caffeine and sugar and started the climb. I am not sure whether I was soaked from the river or sweat. It was all direct sunlight and we were now in the middle of the day and the heat was really affecting people. I have no idea what came over me, but I started to feel amazing. I felt strong, confident, and focussed. I thought I would really struggle in this section but instead I was powering up the hills, running the runnable sections and feeling great. I was thinking about the year before when I did this section with my friend Jutta and she pushed me hard up the hills so I knew I could do it! People were dropping like flies around me; I would pass blokes who were lying in the shade cramping and I would offer some electrolyte tablets to help them out. Some were just taking a seat on a rock to try and cool down and have a break. The beautiful thing of trail running is that you always check in with these runners, making sure they are ok and seeing if they need anything. You don’t hesitate to give them a salt tablet or some food - we are all in it together.
When I hit the top of the mountain and was just around the corner from the aid station at Howqua Gap Hut, I was feeling pumped. I had just smashed the toughest section of the course; I was feeling awesome and I was WAY ahead of cut off times. I started to think about the finish line and an ice-cold drink that would cool me down from the inside out. Coming into Howqua Gap Hut I laughed at the amazing volunteers who were all dressed in superhero costumes. I was in and out quickly grabbing a bag of lollies and some more water and kept pushing on. As I left the aid station my stomach started to grumble at me, and I wasn’t sure if I was hungry or full of gas. I find when I go uphill, I suck in a lot of air which can bloat me and make me very uncomfortable. As I started the run back into the Mt Buller Village, I felt the oxygen being sucked from the atmosphere around me and I heard the thunder start overhead. At one point the thunder was so loud I jumped and almost fell over. I realised I was carrying 2 aluminum poles in my hand that were great electrical conductors, so I very quickly folded my poles away and put them back on my belt. I pushed on, really struggling to get oxygen in but at least running better than I had earlier in the day. I now had the extra benefit of a bit of tail wind as the gas in my stomach tried to escape. I felt sorry for any runner behind me as I basically farted my way into the next aid station. The next aid station is a stone throw from the finish line, although you still must summit Mt Buller before you get to cross that line. This aid station was pumping with about 30 people crammed in and I realised that the race was being stopped because of lightning. Lightning protocol means that the race must be stopped until safe to continue. We all had to throw our poles into the grass and get under cover and wait. About 20 runners crammed under cover not only smelt fabulous but was a great way to catch up with all your friends! We all chatted about the race, and how we were going and shared stories of chafing and dehydration. We tried to remember where we had dropped our poles because about 90% of us had the same brand. We all crossed fingers that we would be allowed to summit the mountain and not be forced to just finish altogether. As our bodies started to seize up and cramping started to set in the RD told us we could go to the summit. Excited we all started to grab our poles and we were then told – ‘no Poles, they stay here’. I was bummed because I had basically carried my poles all day to help me up the summit! I was lucky enough to have a friend in the station who had finished her run so she took my poles for me so I didn’t have to come back after the race and try and find them. I headed off, trying to get the legs to shift back into gear after having stopped for so long. The first section is up the steep ski run, under the chair lift. As you drag yourself up the steep hill you look up and see the chairlift and wish you were sitting on the chair instead. The beauty of going higher was it started to get cooler – the breeze felt amazing and I plodded on making it to the summit and taking a quick selfie. At the summit you must rip a page out of novel as your evidence that you
made it. I laughed at the book title ‘Marching with the Devil’, grabbed a page and took a few moments to spin around and take in the view around me.
What’s the point in climbing to the summit if you don’t look around. It was breathtaking and I was in awe of the beauty of the mountains.
Coming down the summit was fun – My body felt fresh again and the breeze had cooled me down. I was grinning from ear to ear and ran the rest of the way home into the village and over the finish line. I was surprised just how great I was feeling compared to earlier in the day. Crossing the line was exhilarating; the crowd cheered, and I was given my medal. This year it was a branded keep
cup which I loved. My medals normally go in a draw, but this is something I will use. I had an iced coffee at the finish line, courtesy of the volunteers and relished the cold drink on my dry and dusty throat. I was already coughing a lot which I knew came from all the dust. I spent some time debriefing with friends before it was time to get organised and go home. I wanted to drive home after the race and sleep in my own bed because I had a game of cricket to play the following day. This wasn’t an A race for me which meant there was not going to be a recovery week post-race; I was going to keep training the week after the race, doing speed work and hill work and Pilates. It was thrown into a big week so that I could test my endurance, test my fatigue management, and push my body hard. I am going to have to go harder and longer in 7 weeks for 100miles so I have to train for it.
I changed my shirt and shorts and gave myself a bath by wet wipes, got some water into me and headed off. 3.5hrs of driving had me home, with a short stop for a cheeseburger and thick-shake at McDonalds (not recommended recovery food) and I was happy to shower and jump into bed with a job well done. Sleep eluded me once again because the body had finally got to rest and decided to cramp up and ache for me. I was a zombie on Sunday as I fronted up for a cricket game but surprisingly had a great game. I was the wicketkeeper for 10 overs so my poor glutes and quads were happy when I finally got home and curled up the couch. Hubby poured me a champagne and I toasted my amazing body and another weekend of adventure! I was in awe of the amazing crew of volunteers that made this race happen in such a short time span - the dedication and the commitment and the big smiles of encouragement were just amazing.
After a 10hr sleep it was time to plan the next one. I reminded myself of the RD’s comments – “Think about those who struggle every day when you take yourself out of your comfort zone for a race”.
Professional photos courtesy of The Eventurers.