The air frizzed and hissed and for a moment I was forced to a stop as the air vanished in a flash bulb pulse of white light. Stopped in lashing rain straight out of God’s freezer as the accompanying crack and boom erupted around me and my eyes readjusted to the light. Not that there was much of that, my headlamp not seeming to make much of an impression through the wall of water I had fancied I could run through. The flashing sky that had rolled up and over the Bullen Range as the late evening folded into night had warned me of what might come, but as the storm smashed over me I had the briefest moment of wonder – should I really have committed to this bush track? I was convinced I was going to run this section in the dark. After all, my time down to Kambah Pool has been extraordinary in my view and I was feeling very good. Very very good. But it wasn’t long before I had fallen. Once, twice, then a third time. And then in one of those white out flashes I plunged into a hole in the track I couldn’t see, and hyper extended my left knee. Damn. But in the interests of making sure I was good for the whole race, and loath to have to call on other team members to cover me because of injury I resigned myself to walking the next eight kilometres. Just as fast as I could.
I had started out on this 24km section of the run with a small amount of trepidation and it took me a good twenty minutes to find my rhythm. I had no doubt this race would be no mental challenge for me, even though there is no question this sort of event is more of a mental exercise than a physical one. My concern lay elsewhere. In a 14km practice run two weeks earlier I had been disconcerted at how poorly my knees had handled the most gentle of down-hill slopes, and how it had taken a week for the tenderness to leave them. So to better the odds I had taken a gamble and decided I would leave off the training a whole two weeks prior to the race. As I waited for Alex (“Booze”) to finish his section I was increasingly worried that the strategy may not have paid off, that my knees would be found wanting, or that my lack of training in the previous two weeks would prove a mistake.
I had watched Hamish launch off on the same section at the beginning of the race. He had looked very relaxed, an impression reinforced by the small snippets of video that started to filter through and which kept the rest of the team amused and entertained as he channeled “Forest Gump” to us all. We had our runners and the support team set up on Facebook Messenger, a brilliant way to communicate in real time across the whole group. With a team of five runners and a support crew of ten it would have been impossible to keep everyone instantaneously up to date without that application. But those snippets had conveyed an impressive pace which he set and we were a little startled when Hamish broadcast his arrival at Kambah Pool. Chris was taking on the next 28km section and was soon bundled up by crew and taken to the next checkpoint. I was under no illusion my pace would not be as quick as that but dang, that was very quick. It fed my niggle about fitness, and teased my worry about not letting down the team.
All that was forgotten as I got into a very comfortable pace and quickly found myself on Kambah Pool Road. In fact I nearly over ran it and despite rarely being geographically challenged decided to double check my map. It had come up more quickly than I thought and that threw me for a moment or two as I back tracked and double checked. Nope, there it was. Very happily I turned right and settled back into my stride, dreaming up new scenarios for the short videos I had been sending out to the group. Mind you, a distraction cuts both ways. Creating video vignettes took my mind off the pain. But the beeping and chirping alerts that flooded in to the phone as my colleagues responded with their own humour and cheek slowed me up. It wasn’t long before I was starting to ignore the phone altogether in the interests of keeping up a settled pace.
Besides it was getting dark and phone cameras are not so good at handling poor light. But other light was catching my eye. It was hard to tell which way the storm was tracking but the flickering over the range was increasingly spectacular. But by now the sky was dark, and with no wind yet I could only guess at whether I was going to get lashed or not. By the time I got to Kambah Pool the first spots of rain were dropping. I stopped to chat to a crew member of two other runners who were about ten minutes in front of me. He had a farmer’s foreboding of the sky and wondered that I should head out on the track with the closing weather. We chatted for a while but I was feeling good and despite his misgivings happily got off the road and into the bush.
We entered this race as complete novices and arrived at Stromlo very conscious that we were a bunch of trekkers and climbers, not runners in any way shape or form. But I think we were more conscious of that than the bemused ultra runners we spent the week with. Some of them were a little mystified at our team and our lack of experience but that did not stop any of them freely volunteering advice and encouragement, just as that support team member did at Kambah Pool, even though we had never previously met. Perhaps they fancied we had no chance, but to assume that would be uncharitable, for as the week progressed the trackside chats and encouragement continued. Sure, everyone was focused on their race and once we had been sent on our way there was little frivolity. But 450km is a long way and in the end it was that distance against which we were competing, not the other teams or runners. That distinction underscored the willingness by so many to give us hints and tips, and even explanations about what we were experiencing. That was offered with a strong dose of amusement as I finished the second section.
That section of the race was 28km long and I started in fine mettle. The sun was out and the lashing, beating wind and rain of the first section was now just a distant though exciting memory. Each steel bridge I crossed during the night, or steel gate I grasped as I stepped through was a moment of focus as I wondered when and where the lightning would strike next. Hopefully not on any of the metal across those bare ridges as I was handling them I hoped! After a hot shower and a few hours sleep I was back on the track, taking over once again from Booze who had pulled up with some dodgy knees and walked the Kambah Pool section from early morning into and through the dawn. Lake Tuggeranong sparkled and the morning was warm, so much so I worried about over heating. Through yellow and orange and red Canberra autumn, up past the burned out car many of our fellow runners made reference to and on towards Isaacs Ridge. A little bit of heated excitement along Long Gully Road as a blue heeler decided I was some sort of bogey to be ripped up. The tirade delivered to his owner, who clearly did not have him under control was enough to strip paint and she quickly clipped up the dog and made off. Visions of puncture wounds slowing me up floated through my imagination until I realised that had that dog got hold of me it would have ended my race.
From the top of the ridge I could see the whole circuit and the start and finish line, a surreal view when I considered how far away tiny Stromlo appeared in the hazy distance. But by now the sky had closed in and my glittering day was now smokey grey and accompanied by a grumbling sound track. I eased my knees down the ridge but to my concern discovered the legs were not so keen to be running, despite the contour run along a drainage ditch. Easy running, but only if the legs were not hurting. No mind, I was soon distracted by cold drops of water that started out light enough but were soon pelting me in a frigid shower. Skins, shorts and a running t-shirt was all I was wearing, and I started to regret leaving the jacket behind. Three kilometres later and I was soaked through. A photo from Goulburn from some of our support crew underlined how cold I was feeling – snow on the side of the road only half an hour away. I quipped that you know you are soaked through when the family jewels are cupped in ice water. The breeze was up too and the chill factor was starting to play havoc with me. As I moved through the suburb of Red Hill I kept half an eye on the verandas. Truly, if there had been an umbrella I would have taken it (and returned it later) but the only brolly I saw belonged to a frail, elderly bird in a red cardigan who looked like she might topple over in the wind at any moment. I left her alone.
I plugged through a check point and past a concerned volunteer who asked after my cold weather gear. My cheeky answer – that I was born and raised in worse than this – was all he needed to hear before he scampered back to the warmth of his car but it belied how cold I felt. It wasn’t a constant chill but I knew if I stopped moving, without access to any dry clothes or warmth I was in serious trouble. Stopping just was not an option. Past a second checkpoint volunteer who kindly held her brolly over me as I crossed Mugga Way. Pointless effect given I was so wet, but the gesture was sweet and I reveled in the three seconds of attention she gave me. I arrived at a checkpoint that was threatening to lift off the ground under the gale blowing across the lake out of the north. Tagged Hamish who headed off into foul weather with a grin, while I was walked back to the car. Pain elicits laughter and I was laughing. And shaking, unable to stop the jerking and convulsing as I climbed into a down jacket and sat out of the wind, grateful for the reprieve and glad I had made it. Exultant even, as the car fogged up and we sat and waited for the windows to clear. I caught Kavitha’s eye and could see she was wondering at the fish flopping about in the passenger seat. I couldn’t stop shaking. More than twenty near-hypothermia cases were reported and mine was not far off. I fancy that our mountaineering experience cut in here – I have a good feel for what I can tolerate in the cold and knew I was still ‘within spec’. But that last section of the run was done at a walk. I could not get those legs to cooperate in any way. Later I was chatting to two ultra veterans who gently advised I should not be so surprised, given those legs had been whipped so cold. “Ain’t nothing going to tender them up if you haven’t covered them up” quipped one. No, I guess not.
By now we were well into the rhythm of the race and, to our surprise, held the lead, in part perhaps because of our perverse willingness to plug through that weather. But a contributing factor was the support crew who were right behind the team. We had set them up in a tent which did not survive the first shower, or the first firm gust of wind but the jury-rigged substitute held out for the rest of the week and the was the centre of our team’s activity. Nicknamed FOB Morale it was the base for our planning and team management although we did also have access to a house in Canberra in which we indulged hot showers and comfortable beds. Mind you, the beds at FOB Morale were first rate though the nap after the 28km leg was going to happen regardless of where I lay down. But FOB Morale was not immune to sabotage from elements other than the weather. Drifting off in my -50 degree sleeping bag (it needs its own Blackhawk helicopter to transport it!) I could hear something scrabbling around the tent. Kavitha’s investigation turned up a very cocksure fox who was not going to be chased off. But his eyes were too big for his stomach and the 1.5kg of sausages he stole were found regurgitated 25m away the next morning by magpies who appreciated the gift. Undeterred, the thief dragged a Tupperware container 400m away hoping to get into the banana bread while out of sight and sound. Tupperware 1. Fox 0.
While we were snoozing and feeding and being distracted by the wildlife the team was cracking out the sections, more quickly than we expected in some senses (sleep was never long enough) and more slowly than we hoped. Injury was undoing us very quickly and knees and ankles were forcing even our fittest to drop the run to a walk. We lost track of our lead as we focused on just getting the sections completed, checked out times against the plan (we had mapped the plan out on a board for us all to keep an eye on – it helped each runner see where they were running next, and helped the support crew plan drop offs and pick ups), and made sure no one was doing anything daft with their health.
All too soon the next section needed to be done, a short 8km distance which I was to start about 11pm and complete when I could. My legs were still locked up and the cold rain was still falling so a change of tactics. I figured I would stretch these 8km out in the fastest walk I could muster and see if that meant my final 16km could be run uninterrupted. I dug out some goretex overpants, put on thermal leggings, dropped on a thermal top and covered it all with a white goretex overcoat. The overcoat was a tight fit given it actually fitted Kavitha but between all that gear I was warm and dry. Add those gloves I picked up in Kabul (courtesy of the American military) and my trusty trekking boots which I happened to have in the truck and I was a much more comfortable competitor as I stepped out into the Canberra night.
The 8km section took us around the lake and on to Black Mountain Peninsular. It is familiar ground. Back in the 1980s I used to run the 5km ‘bridge to bridge’ as a regular lunch time gig with colleagues from JIO (later DIO). But in the sluicing rain in the early hours of the morning there was no one else save me on the track, despite my imagination trying to tell me otherwise. In some cases I thought I saw people sitting on park benches but they soon morphed back into the shadows they always were. A fox skittered away from me as I skirted around the ANU, while the rabbits unusually foraged in the wet. They tend not to like the rain. Tame to a fault they barely if ever moved out of my way. Finally a smiling crew member holding out a brolly and Hamish standing in the rain getting ready to start the next section. Off he strode into the darkness at 0400 while I went back to bed.
The 8km leg stretch paid off. I started out the 16km section thinking I would probably end up walking some of the down hill sections. But as I wound up and into the cork wood forest (something out of The Lord of the Rings) I found myself feeling very relaxed, the legs pain free and the knees ungrumbling. So without pushing the body too much I just kept running, up the hill at the Arboretum, down the handful of slopes behind the Arboretum and across the creek behind the Defence College where, much to my surprise I found all the aches vanish and the experience be a pain free, quick trot. Weird. Maybe I was hallucinating again. Up through the new estates into a setting sun which dropped just a bit quicker than I wanted. With the sun down I stopped behind some acacia, quickly pulled out the head torch and reflective jacket and got running again, only to discover I was just around the corner from a volunteer. Would they have been bothered if I had appeared without that safety gear? I have no idea but I am glad I didn’t take the chance, even though the light was still pretty good. With only half a kilometer or so to go I was convinced there was nothing left in the tank but surprised myself with a ‘fast’ finish though the only audience was the crowd in my own mind and another competitor who chirped ‘well done’ as I bolted for the line. I was in earlier than my support crew expected and they all had their feet up at FOB Morale. Hamish was sorting photos and took a few moments to throw his gear together and head out on his last section. I had not bothered to alert them to my progress (a couple of hours quicker than they expected) since I assumed they would be watching me via Find Friends, the app we had been using to track where our team members were at any given time. None were watching, though to be fair to them I had warned I was expecting to walk any parts that gave my knees trouble.
It was enormously satisfying to jump (yes, there was a jump) over that line and to trigger the last sections to be run by the rest of the team. My cumulative 75km contribution to the total of 450km that Chris, Ella, Booze and Hamish helped achieve was done. It was satisfying, not just from the sense of achievement but from the group dynamic that pervaded the whole event. Our support crew were critical to the success of our race and meant we were able to run the time that we did. More importantly there was nothing accidental or incidental in what the team or crew did. After putting in some preliminary thinking about the event while I was in Afghanistan in 2014 we got the team together in January and roughed out a training strategy as well as an event strategy. Those plans went through a number of iterations but once we arrived at Stromlo we had a plan to run and that is exactly what we did, tracking results against it and otherwise making sure everyone knew what was coming next. Having an aggressive plan and sticking to it meant that, much to our delight and surprise we won the 450km team race. It’s the first time I have ever won anything for an athletic activity! In truth though, my initial thought on receiving that news was “thank goodness” – for the Race Director’s sake. He had allowed us to run even though we had no experience doing this sort of thing. I was relieved his confidence in our fitness had played out as well as it did. So much so I could be talked into doing something like this again. Really!
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