It’s the middle of the night and I’m surrounded by dense jungle. I’m picking my way down the umpteenth steep, awkward descent into the umpteenth gully: each step a struggle to find a safe footing amid slippery rocks and roots; each other step a much-dreaded trial involving exaggerated levels of care to avoid putting too much weight onto my left leg, followed nearly every time by shooting pain up the top of my fibula and through my knee. The stout sticks in each hand – a godsend on less steep terrain – are going only a slight way to helping me keep the weight off my left side and are in themselves an impediment, both in finding stable placement for them among all this slippery single track, and in the extensive blistering they have caused and are further aggravating on both hands.
“Sometimes you just do things.” I mutter grimly under my breath, quoting Scott Jurek, one of my heroes, just before I slip for the thousandth time and am forced to correct with all my weight onto my left leg. “Fucking butt-monkeys!” I cry, for the hundredth time. An insult aimed at nothing and nobody, just the pain, the situation and my own lameness, cursed in the plural.
At least I’m still going, my inner voice reassures me. I’m making forward progress. I have fifteen hours left on the clock and less than seventy kilometres to go. I might even make it to the finish line before cutoff.
Except I wasn’t still going. It didn’t happen. The scenario described above did happen plenty of times earlier, but more of it lay ahead that was never tackled. Part of my mind is still out there, still thinking I have those fifteen hours on the clock, because I never used them. I didn’t get to manfully mutter Scott Jurek mantras to myself while tenaciously pushing on despite the snail’s pace and the pain. Not after Checkpoint Four – the finish for the 104km event. Not after I mysteriously decided I wasn’t interested in finding out how far I could get in this condition.
It’s been over a week and I’m still not a hundred percent clear on what actually happened. I mostly blame the long stretch of soul-destroying bitumen road that leads into CP4 (the primary school at Yarramalong). Although that stretch only endured for half an hour longer than I had calculated when first deciding it was going on too long and that I didn’t like it; at barely five kph, after midnight, eleven kilometres of flat, almost suburban road feels like a lifetime. My decision to wait until the checkpoint to put some more clothes on, despite the night’s cold having properly set in and the dew making my face and head damp, was also a contributor.
It also has to be said that I was expecting more from CP4. Maybe that’s what my tee-shirt should say: “I expected more from CP4 – GNW 100s 2014.” On reflection it wasn’t at all fair to expect much from the poor souls who were hanging out in the grounds of a school in the 2.30am chill of a Saturday night. There was hardly anyone there, for one thing. There was no way I should have been looking for the excited acknowledgement of a runner arriving, followed by attentive support from the volunteers sitting me down, offering to fill bottles, find my drop bag for me, figure out what food I would like brought over, but this had happened at the previous checkpoints and each time had made an enormous difference to my energy levels.
Somewhere in the next five or ten minutes I missed a trick; had a brain fade. My autopilot should have undertaken a quick checklist: Double-Espresso Cliff Shot Gel? Yes, of course, why didn’t I bang one sooner? No caffeine yet for this run! Ibuprofen 400mg? Absolutely! Holding out on pain relief until now amounts to far exceeding the parameters I had set myself, and I’m moving way too slowly to be overly worried about kidney issues from the NSAIDs. Ridiculous intake of refined sugar from all these lollies on the table, to kick off that caffeine gel high? Don’t mind if I do! Now back on the road!
Instead, I asked a nearby runner what the next section was like – was there more of that jungly stuff with the steep technical descents? Oh yes, quite a bit more, they told me – and then, very prematurely, I wandered back over to the Check In desk and informed them I was retiring. They checked me off the list, no questions or attempts to spur me on. But again, that’s not something I could expect, nor was it remotely the job they were there to do. I tottered back to my seat and munched on something. A few minutes later I thought, What am I DOING?! I have heaps of time left and it’s not that bad. I can still walk! Oh, but they’ll be annoyed if I go and Un-retire, it’ll stuff them up…and I can’t face more of those technical descents.
Rewind to twelve hours earlier, when after sixty kilometres of very conservative running interspersed with strategic walking, my knee, which had remarkably held out until then, finally blew up. This is where I made my first interesting decision. On the spot, I decided I wasn’t interested in running through it; in pushing it to the edge and beyond and taking however many months afterwards to heal, although that was my original intent. I made a snap decision to find a couple of branches and use them as walking sticks to keep the weight off as much as possible.
I decided from there I would only walk, and if that proved fast enough to get me to the finish, at one-hundred and seventy-four kilometres within the total thirty-six hours, then all the better. I felt fine about that decision, and until I was overtaken by the famous Grim Reaper, not long before hitting CP4 and more than ten hours later, my maths was telling me I might still make it.
But the Grim Reaper is so called because he is a freak of nature who walks the whole thing every year. Because he can. The cutoffs are calculated based on his times. If he catches a runner at any stage, it means that runner has slowed to such a degree that they probably can’t finish, as the likelihood of them matching his fast, constant walking pace after having destroyed themselves earlier on is low to none. Indeed, it was when I witnessed his walking pace, relative to mine, that I lost hope of making the cutoff.
But rewind further, and the day is alive with the beauty of nature and the camaraderie of the race. I hit out as conservatively as I intended, drifting to near the back of the field, where I spent some time with the legendary Andy Hewat – recently my companion for much of the Wilson’s Prom 100km – getting insights about the course ahead and about the various virtues of my pacing strategy. I loved the trail from the start, and it just kept giving. The hills were chunky, the bush was bushy, the vistas were vistacular and, before they became torturous, even those previously described highly technical single-tracks through dense ‘jungle’ were an exciting adventure, though a navigational worry, as the trail was often hard to distinguish from just other random slippery rocks and roots. I got off the trail a few times but was lucky enough to be in the vicinity of others who called me back to the path of righteousness. What an amazing course this is! I thought to myself, many times…before my inner narrative had devolved into nonsensical swearing.
Anyway, fast forward back to CP4, and I had cheered up a bit after two cups of tea and some handfuls of jelly beans. My lift to the finish line – the gear truck – arrived, and so I made myself useful by helping to pack up the checkpoint and load it all into the van. When I stepped out of the truck at Patonga Beach, I was kind of fine. When I saw a runner finishing (I think third or fourth place overall), I nearly cried, especially when I realised I still would have had all day to get myself here and just maybe earn that medal. When a runner I had met at previous ultras, Roger Hanney, who was there helping out, asked me why I had pulled out and looked at me as though I had just burnt all my money, like he couldn’t conceive of any reason someone would pull out, I felt pretty small.
By then my legs were actually feeling pretty normal. After the same Roger Hanney drove me to Woy Woy to catch the Central Coast line back to Sydney, I was actually feeling okay about things. That decision I made early on, to walk as soon as my knee went, and use the sticks to protect it, must have paid off. Although I spent the next week (of holiday on Bondi Beach) vacillating between regret and comfort with my decision, I also managed three runs in that week, along the cliffs towards Watsons Bay or Bronte. Each of these runs amounted to more than I had done in training for the last eight weeks (apart from the two longish events I had barely survived through in the lead up), and my knee held up okay!
And yes, even though I’m now pretty much reconciled with the decisions I made, part of me is still definitely out there, sitting at CP4 knowing I have over fifteen hours left on the clock. There’s a corner of my mind that remains paused in time, ready to get up from that chair and see how far those fifteen hours can take me.
But with the big event now behind me, I can finally throw off the shackles of a regime of absolute rest, designed to get maximum recovery from the bursitis, medial ligament strain and lateral fibula swelling leading into the race, and can now get back to what I believe is the only thing that will ultimately get me past the underlying dysfunction…running.
The big plus? I still have the GNW 100 Mile to look forward to, some year, and the opportunity to go into it trained up and uninjured. Can’t wait!