Because my crew had asked me earlier what the milestone was for my longest run ever, I took a moment coming out of Jindabyne to acknowledge that transition. From this point – 184kms – I was now in uncharted territory.
Really, though, I had been in uncharted territory from the start. This race is so different to anything I’d done before. A 240km point-to-point road run that has an elevation profile like a trail run (5,500m gain), supported by a dedicated crew leapfrogging me in a Britz camper – it was different enough to have been impossible to prepare for. I didn’t even know what shoes to wear, let alone how to train for it.
My response to the training question was to pretty much avoid it…the question AND the training! It was always going to be an injury avoidance strategy, so I never planned on logging big kilometres. Coming off the GNW100 Mile was a pretty good base anyway, and I erred on the side of sacrificing hills for some road conditioning – using Ned Kelly Chase 100km as a sharpener, which hurt like hell, but obviously crash-coursed my legs into the repetitive strain of running long on even, hard-packed surfaces, and then some longish road runs, peaking at 83kms when I went out to rendezvous with some of the Around the Bay Fatass runners on their legendary mission.
After weeks of searching for my holy grail of footwear – road shoes that would provide slightly more cushioning than my New Balance Minimus without compromising the neutral footbed and low drop – I had eventually given up and just decided to wear the freshest pair of Minimus I owned (a new pair would have been preferable, but they have been unavailable for quite some time). Unfortunately, my freshest pair had about 500kms in them and were somewhat compromised under the forefoot, but I knew it would still be more beneficial to have the quick, easy foot turnover and unbiased ground strike I knew I could rely on.
I was sorted for crew from the start, which was the second of many mind blowing experiences related to this race…being accepted into the field was the first, which felt like all my Christmases had come at once, but which was quickly supplanted by anxiety about getting a crew and being able to run the distance.
However, when I called a special meeting of the Wolfrunners (smallest sporting club in the world) over some pints of Kosciuszko Pale Ale, they all immediately volunteered before I’d said a word! I still reel when I think about it – that four people were so readily willing to use precious annual leave AND take over four days away from their families to help me on such a foolish endeavour rocked me to my core. That, along with the enthusiastic support of my wife, meant that under no circumstances was failure an option – you can’t DNF when other people have put that time and faith into you.
The weeks leading into the race were a high-cortisol whirlwind of life in all its bastardry. Not only was I accountable for implementing a two-year, $20m project into a national business of over 10,000 users at their busiest time of year, I was also busy studying for my second masters degree, trying to finalise the plans for the demolition of my house and the building of two 4-bedroom townhouses in its place, ready to go into council in December, moving my home loan over to a different bank to facilitate that build and, on top of it all, facing a huge life decision about whether to leave my job of fifteen years and accept the role I’d just been offered elsewhere, sacrificing my long service leave and the real possibility of a big redundancy payout in the near future.
Needless to say, the implementation caused numerous issues that had me and my team working evenings and weekends to try and deliver fixes, right up until the race. I scraped by with just enough uni attendance and pre-work to stay in the game. I accepted the job (life’s short, right?) and managed to clear the decks enough at my current job that when I went on leave for the race, which was also the start of five weeks planned leave to the UK, I was in a position to never return (although I still had no paperwork from the new job, and hence could not yet resign).
Amongst all that, I completely failed to develop a race plan – beyond generating some rather ambitious splits using the ‘Santa Claus C2K Splits Calculator’ – something that my fellow competitors in this race appeared to hold in high regard, but nevertheless it was with a huge sigh of relief that I jumped into the Britz van on the Wednesday night, knowing I was never returning to my job, and embarked on a fun road trip with two of my crew members – BJ (sub-23 hour WSER finisher and font of calming wisdom) and DJ (finisher of anything at all and holder of most iconic hair status in multiple endurance sports scenes).
Taking the 7-hour drive to Eden in two parts paid off as much as I had anticipated. I felt completely fresh at the start of the race, having enjoyed watching DJ in the infamous sister event – Cozzie to Coast – the afternoon before, and mingled with the ‘best of the best’ at the pre-race dinner briefing.
As is often the case with these big runs, once you’re at the start line, concerns about the race melt away, as you enter that space where, one way or the other, there’s only 30-40 hours left until it’s over. That is a manageable period of time. The difficult thing with big races are the weeks before that, where there are still weeks until it’s over, and hence any number of things that can go wrong, mainly involving commuters sneezing on you or niggles becoming injuries when you’re out for an easy taper run.
Team Vic was suprisingly strong at this event this year, and one of my great regrets is that there were actually too many of us to corale at the start line for a Team Vic photo. Nevertheless, great joy was had in seeing these characters on Boydtown Beach, along with many interstate ultra-buddies I’ve met at various races over the years. I was a bit self conscious about being the only damn foo’ with a massive pack on his back, but I had known this would be the case, and I knew perfectly well my reasons for doing it, and just had to trust that the experience and self-knowledge leading to that decision would pay off.
And then, after those years of dreaming you might one day do it, and then those years of training and racing to complete difficult qualifiers to try and get accepted into the field, and then those weeks of training and worry and (not) planning, suddenly I had dipped my toe in the sea and found myself running with nearly 50 of some of the quirkiest individuals in the country across the sand and towards the hills.
If there was anything solid about my plan it was to hit out slowly, and this I did with great aplomb. This meant, along with the unprayed-for blessing of a cool weather forecast, that I could enjoy myself for much of the morning, as I stayed in the same space with so many runners, both those I already knew and people I was just meeting. In fact, that middle part of the field didn’t really spread out much at all until the last quarter of the race. Chats were had. I finally got an opportunity to fill in George Mihalakelis about the care requirements of my daughter’s four guinea pigs (don’t mix the boys and the girls and, no, if one dies, replacing it with a new ‘hamster’ will not help), in readiness for his impending house-sitting stint.
The strategy I had in my head was to walk early and walk often. However, within 20kms I had to adapt my outlook for the race. The tightness I’d had in my groin for the last week had not, after all, magically disappeared a few days after being worked on by the myo and was instead now preventing me from walking at pace (and hurting a lot). My walking was about the speed of a ‘normal’ person, which meant that if I walked as much as I intended, I was not going to be on track for the sub-35 hour finish I’d hoped for and, more importantly, if I tried to push up the hills I would have nothing left for the REAL hills in the last third of the race, when I’d anyway be fatigued and slower.
This meant walking within my means up the hills, meaning I was losing time every time we were climbing, and to compensate, running far more consistently in the long stretches of flats and slight undulations. It was risky – it meant I was hoping my road conditioning was going to pay off incredibly well, and that the repetitive strain of all that running with less walk breaks wouldn’t bring me undone.
So, instead of taking it super-super easy for the first 100 miles, I probably gave it just that extra 3%, knowing that many of the people I would preferably have paced with would soon overtake me when we hit the real hills anyway.
Luckily for me, and in large part thanks to my shoe choice being right on the money, the efficient end of my gait was on form, and I trotted into the 100km milestone around twelve-and-a-half hours – at the famous Dead Tree – feeling like I’d not really burnt any matches at all.
The on-the-fly crewing plan was working a treat. I was sending the team 10kms ahead each time I saw them, knowing full well that, wearing my WAA pack with two 750ml bottles on the front and gels/food in the side pocket, I was more than self-sufficient enough and better able to maintain rhythm and momentum than if we met more often (the average for other teams seemed to be 5kms, with quite a lot doing much shorter 2-3km splits).
It wasn’t long after the Dead Tree that karma caught up with me. When asked the week before by intrigued colleagues about this aspect of long races, I had been bragging about my clean record of never having had to take a crap during a race, the longest to date being just over 29 hours. Well, that golden run was about to be over, in a nasty way. Skip ahead, and after a number of unpleasant roadside incidents I could only conclude that I had some kind of tummy bug, which started to move from downstairs and creep its way to Level 2: Nausea and Appetite Loss.
Despite the early onset of this, I was still able to get a reasonable dinner in after the Dead Tree – a full can of rice pudding and half a potato – which I consumed while having a little sit down in the van to rest my legs, which in the last seven kilometres had gone from perpetual motion to deep-set pain. The ten minutes of sitting actually helped a lot, though (as had my last sitting spell at the top of Big Jack), and so I pushed on from there with a little extra urgency, half driven by the near onset of hypothermia that had hit me from sitting still in the van at the top of a windy hill towards dusk, and half driven by the need to keep an eye out for a relatively secluded spot to befoul at the side of the road.
The night went pretty well, as I suspected it would. Regretfully, although I felt fairly positive and focused, this was in quite an internalised way, meaning I often waved off offers of pacing from my excellent and more than capable crew. If I had a regret from this race it would be that although I feel I technically met my goal of not whinging, I don’t feel I kept the cheerful and sociable countenance I had envisioned whenever I thought about how I wanted to run it. In other words, although we shared many amazing moments together and they say they had a good time, I wish I could have shared more with my crew.
The night passed quickly for me, as it always seems to do in races that encompass an all-nighter (lucky me!), only marred, as I say, by some horrendous and messy moments by the side of the road, and ended brilliantly, running the last 8-10kms into Jindabyne with BJ by my side. I was starting to become more chatty at the prospect of hitting Jindabyne while it was still pretty much dark – a key goal – and where my dear wife would be waiting to join the crew from then on.
There was a pre-dawn light as BJ and I overtook Pam Muston for what seemed like the millionth time – me calling out my now standard greeting of ‘Just Joe again, Pam’ – and found the bike path that runs along next to beautiful Lake Jindabyne. The stillness and the magic of dawn was both inspiring and overwhelming at the same time, as was connecting with Rachel and heading out towards Charlotte’s Pass, hand-in-hand with my wife.
Until then I had still been able to get fuel in, although sporadically, but with full daylight came the growing sense of not wanting anything new to enter my system, even gels (something I’ve never experienced before – I have always been lucky that I can always bang gels indefinitely with no issues).
I got caught between crew stops – now at 5km intervals – with my thermal still on in direct sunlight and sheltered from the wind. This quickly went from slightly uncomfortable to almost unbearable, combining with the nauseous feeling and waning energy from lack of calories.
At the next stop, I changed back into my white, long-sleeved 2XU ‘Ice’ top from the previous day (a little on the nose), and at that time also realised there was once again something in my shoe. However, shaking out the offending shoe and brushing off my sock, I discovered after putting it back on that the problem was my foot – a blister on the ball of it, to be precise.
In retrospect, I believe here is where I made a key mistake that cost me possibly upwards of an hour. I changed shoes. The Greek sage and philospher, George Mihalakelis had warned me against this, but at the time it seemed wise, as the Altra Superiors I changed into were more cushioned, with less impact on the blister and, knowing I was now walking more than running for at least the 13kms climb ahead, it all seemed to make sense.
What it amounted to, though, was that once I’d recovered from my temporary overheating and even started to get small bites of calories in, it was now much less easy to return to running, as these trail shoes are quite a different proposition to the NB Minimus in which I can always crack into a run with very little effort.
I continued to run any perceived flats or lesser inclines for a little while, with pacing largely shared between Wife Rachel and Friend Ben, but quite soon a lurking pain somewhere between my right VMO, the back of my right knee, and the top of my right calf really began to blow up. If I’d been a little more with-it, mentally, I might have made a connection between this sudden mechanical problem and my change of shoes, but I was on the plane to Doha two days later before I had this realisation!
Hence the journey to Charlotte’s Pass was long and forgettable. Some distraction was offered by the combination of the interestingly shaped boulders strewn about the alpine landscape and my hallucinatory state, which meant that everywhere I looked I was forced to wonder whether koalas, people, bears, warriors and just about anything you can imagine had been deliberately carved or were coincidental likenesses…or just hallucinations. Again, I wish I’d been slightly better fueled at this point, as I’m sure this would have resulted in a more chattier version of me sharing these observations with my pacers, but as it was, I didn’t feel I could vocalise these visions, which sometimes actually disturbed me.
The landscape became more and more dramatic, and despite becoming more and more slow, I was gradually getting more calories in, thanks to the quite forceful insistence of my crew chief, Captain Jones (BJ), who was now refusing to let me pass a crew point – now at 2km intervals! – without at least biting something. I was starting to come back to myself a bit, especially as Charlotte’s Pass started to feel like it was in reach, and with whoever was pacing me I would marvel at the scenery of the ski-runs and villages and the vistas that we were starting to speculate may or may not include Mt Kosciuszko. Ben tried to get me to run a few sections, but with limited results – my right knee/VMO/calf problem bringing me back to earth within 500 metres each time.
And then, heading up a hill and around a bend, the cluster of assorted crew vehicles told us we were approaching Charlotte’s Pass. The crew went into manic action mode, some running ahead to get our gear-checked (mandatory gear must be carried by anyone accompanying the runner to the summit and back, and we were taking all five of us up there), and some heading back to the van for food etc. Amidst all the mayhem and confusion, I found myself disbelievingly staggering towards the race officials, staring around me open-mouthed, pre-emptively breathless at finding myself at the finish line. Despite insisting I had to wait for my crew to regroup I was pushed onwards with the assurance that they would catch me. I remember suddenly clicking and saying stupidly “Oh, right. Of course, they’ll be moving faster than me, won’t they?”
I was told that Paul, the race director, wanted to have a private word with me, and so my pacer (I was so out of it I can’t remember if it was BJ, DJ, or Ben at this point) backed off as Paul put his arm around me and walked along beside me. Such an engaging, warm and implicitly spiritual man is Paul Every that I have no problem at all remembering this exchange clearly. He insisted that up there, at the summit, it was very important that I take the time for it to sink in.
“Look around,” he said. “That’s Australia below you. You have brought yourself here all the way from the ocean, under your own steam. Look back to 5.30am on Friday morning and think about all that has passed between then and now…and before that, to get into this race. You did this. This is your moment.” I was wearing sunnies, which should have protected me from the embarrassment of glassy eyes, but I believe the surface tension broke and some tears may have escaped down my cheeks, not to mention the no doubt obvious loss of control over my face and voice as I tried to thank him profusely for giving me this opportunity.
And then my team was with me and we were on a 9km hike to the summit. Towards us, we continually met other runners on their return, some, like Rohan Day, passing at an inspiring run, most barely surviving on walking poles. The vibe was brilliant as the five of us pushed on, however slowly towards the summit. Finding Andy Hewat at Rawsons Pass and knowing we were now only 1km was exciting. Crossing the short section of snow afterwards was a fun novelty (one that was made far more comfortable by the addition of the carbon poles Mick Thwaites had insisted I take with me, when he and the runner he was crewing passed us a couple of kms before).
And then we were there. And yes, I thought about what Paul had said to me at the bottom, but I thought about it quite quickly, as I was bloody freezing, having come around the last corner to the Strezlecki Monument and found myself exposed to a freezing wind (I was still just wearing my light 2Xu top). Also, there was something I really had to find out…
I told the others to catch me up, as they continued to take photos at the very top of Australia, banged a gel, headed back around the corner, and started running. And, yes, it worked. Miraculously, my body decided to give me one last, 50 minute burst of agility and strength. The others clued on, and caught me on the other side of the snow drift. And together, as one, joyous pack, we ran down the mountain. I could feel my friends all around me, my wife breathing down my neck. Their palpable elation mingling with my own, their cries of surprise soon turning to confident encouragement, as it became apparent that I may indeed be able to sustain this all the way down. I wasn’t just running, I was bouncing gleefully from rock to rock and feeling almost like I was out in the Dandenongs on a Sunday morning on fresh legs.
That 9km run will stand in my memory as the best run of my life. Not because we overtook three other runners and came in under 35 hours in 18th place, despite our expectations at the top – that it would be well over 36 hours. Not because it ended with breaking the tape in front of some of the most wonderful running characters in Australia. But because four amazing people were gathered around me, running with me, their wits and souls driving me onwards, and I wasn’t letting them down.