Duncans 100k – Value for money ultra
“Is this hill ever going to fucking end?”, intoned Belle. Not for the first time, not for the last time today. 58K into Duncans Run 100k ultra, and we feel like we’ve been climbing long slow grinding hills all day. Except this hill is going down. And our tired legs are no longer enjoying the downs. Every corner brings the expectation of a change; to go up, or an aid station, anything. But each corner brings more of the same, a winding slow descent that you know only too well will end in with an equally long grinding climb up. And no aid station. We knew there was a bit of distance from the start of loop 3 to the first aid station on this section, but now we have no idea how far away it is. And we are running out of water…
This is the story of 2 friends, sticking together for a 100 k race. My story in black, Belle’s story in red. Enjoy.
Duncan’s Run opening night. They’re bringing back the 100km!! Opening night special of $100….what a deadset bargain I think to myself, $100 to run 100km….I’m in!! Entry submitted, quite smug with myself at my bargain entry, then it dawns on me…that’s only 5 weeks after Hut2Hut you muppet! A 4,000km elevation event 5 weeks after a 5,500m elevation event….what could possibly go wrong?!!!!
It wasn’t so dire 11 hours ago. Belle had stayed over at my place and we’d got up at 3:45am to grab a quick coffee and breaky before the hour drive to Tara Bulga National Park and the start of our 100k event. 6:00am start with race brief at 5:45. We were both a bit nervous; Belle not having trained and only 5 weeks before competed in the Hut 2 Hut event in the Victorian Alps, me not really having trained and hoping that Cradle Mountain run 7 weeks prior was enough. The drive up was uneventful, the dark streets and built up area flying past as we motored up the Princess Freeway before heading south near Lou Yang power station. We chatted a bit, ruminating on the weather forecast; 31, showers with the chance of a storm. Not exactly ideal, but not much we could do. It was mild outside already at 5:00 am.
Arrived at Balook at 5:30, just in time to park the car, get changed, gear check and attend race brief. Standard race brief, follow the course markings, hydration, etc, etc. Except halfway through the brief, light fluffy snow started to fall, only for about 30 seconds. WTF? Belle and I exchange looks, what sort of omen or portent is that? Brief finished, and then the interminable wait before race start. Anxious, we are both ready to go. Everything prepped, gear, food, training (well, usually) and now it is just ‘get it done’.
6 on the dot, off we go in the dark. A line of head torches disappearing out of the visitor centre, turn left onto the trail and head south.
I had stayed the night at Les’s in Warragul, which was about 1hr 15mins from Balook where the event would be staged. 3:45am alarm wakes me from a reasonable night’s sleep, enough time to get dressed, fed & caffeinated. 4:15 and we head off to race headquarters. The fog made it very slow going on the windy roads heading into Tarra Bulga National Park, making me nervous we wouldn’t get there in time for our mandatory race briefing at 5:45. We make it just in time to check in at registration and get our mandatory gear checked. Quick race briefing, a quick sprinkling of snow (I shit you not) and it’s start time.
Loop 1, 35k Macks Creek, sweat fest early
How best to describe this loop? 14 and a half k’s down, then a 15 and a half k climb, some of it round Macks Creek was definitely difficult to clamber around, let alone run on. Very pretty, just hard.
The start in the dark was tough for me. The head torch, although quite good, just didn’t cut it against the full beam eye-watering torches of some of my fellow competitors. Chalk up item # 22 in the need to get more running gear category. (Running’s cheap, right?) So I was picking my carefully over the grassy trail, avoiding the small occasional rocks and general tripping hazards. Belle was sitting comfortably to my left and slightly ahead as we hit the main road down that descends gradually, then even more so. Just letting the legs carry us, don’t worry about the speed, it’s not too fast if it’s comfortable on a descent. 3K in and I’m already sweating under the hairline though and trickling down my back. It is pitch black, I wondered if this was going to be the limiting factor for my day (the weather, that is).
Early on, the pattern for the day for both Belle and me would be set. 4k hit a forestry plantation and I needed to urinate, badly. Told Belle, peeled off quickly up a side track and did the business. Rejoined the race, about 20 places back and slowly made my way forward to find Belle who’d run up ahead. Around the next corner, 2 guys relieving themselves right beside the track as I run past with 2 women in front of me. Good one guys, it may have been dark, but head torches (as mentioned before) are bright, very bright… Runner in front of me looked like a friend, but I’d never seen any posts about her running here. Pulled up beside her, “Hello Les” yep, it was Veronica! Bloody hell mate, kept that well under the radar. A quick catch up, she’d done no training for 12 months, signed up on a whim to reinvigorate her running, and was in the thick of it as we descended. I was in awe. A quick check on her health after she’d had a few scares in the previous year. All good. I was happy and then moved on to still find Belle who I presumed had sped off down the descent in some glorious haze of speed. About 5 minutes later, head torch stationary on the side of the track. Before I could even make out it was her, she said Hi. “How did you know it was me?”, I enquired. “Was waiting for the silhouette of your calves”. Umm, right….
By now the first faint light is on the horizon. In the near-dark I nearly barrelled off course, missing an arrow pointing left and then the corresponding ‘No way’ sign of the wrong trail. Somebody called out to Belle and I and we retraced our steps to cut through a narrow trail to hit Bulga Park Road and a long, winding and never-ending descent to the flatlands north of Yarram.
It was already humid when we started so pretty early on Les & I were both sweating bullets. Wearing a buff so I could keep my head torch on my head wasn’t helping. This first part was actually really good running…a pretty gentle downhill to get the legs ticking over. Around 9km in the sun started to rise so the headtorch got stowed and I already felt I could regulate my temperature better without the head covering! The descent seemed like it was going forever now, we were on a wider road and I was ready for a bit of a change up of terrain (be careful what you wish for Belle).
Really sweating now. Remarked to Belle, yep same here was the reply. Very soon it went from gloaming to quite light. Head torch off the head, wrap around the left wrist and continue the trek down. For the most part, hitting 5:30 pace down here. 9K into a 100k ultra that would freak me out, but on this descent, pffftt, just roll with it. 12K down and still the descent keeps going, in some place 2%, others approaching 10. But it generally is a cool 5%. Passed a few runners down here, then came up behind a group who we trailed all the way to the first checkpoint at the 14k mark. Simply a caravan parked on the side of the road, 1 table with water, a bit of fruit and lollies and not much else. Not an issue here, I still had plenty of water and food having eaten a bit, but not needed much on the descent. Hit the flats for a brief period, crossed a fence up beside a private property, then ran through what was once a minimum security prison.
We are travelling well along here, yakking away at times, other times just moving along. There are still a few runners around us, and as we climb up Hobsons Road, a few others join us. 20K in and off Hobsons and onto a path that winds left to right, up and down. There are about 10 of us here, all bantering about the day ahead, full of good spirits knowing it would all be a bit different 10 hours later! At one point we work out at that pace, we are on about 16:30 finish pace. We laugh. One of the runners hadn’t filled up with water, wasn’t even aware there was some at the last aid station. Was getting a bit desperate. Within about 10 minutes we came across another one, quick stop to refill water, then we went down steep steps to start the section alongside Macks Creek and the Conservation Area.
This section was hard to move through. Climbing, a bit of scrambling, and several tricky creek crossing made for an interesting but slow passage through this section. In one of the creek crossings, Belle got sat on her arse, hard. Slippery rocks the culprit, not her dodgy balance! Thankfully no damage is done, just a bit of embarrassment and some tender ‘areas’.
First checkpoint at 14km we go straight through, passing through a bit of farmland & disused minimum security prison. Little bit of up, little bit of down, repeat for a while, then we hit some technical trails & stairs along Macks Creek. It was slow going through here, I am known for random gravity checks and had no desire to be stacking early on! A couple of creek crossings & I knew for sure I was going to end up slipping….yep, right on queue, I slip on a wet rock, landing firmly on my butt in a very undignified manner. The lovely Aude who we’d been running in a group with helped me up. Lucky for me it was a butt cheek so no damage is done, plenty of padding there!!
We continued on. As the climb crept closer back to Balook, we started to spread out again. Our semi-permanent group of 10 whittled to 6 then 4 then just Belle and I. Walking up a climb (30k, 3:50) I realised Nicky would have started her 21k run by now. Silently wished her good luck.
Around almost the next corner, in the middle of a section of beautiful tree ferns as we were walking, cameraman sitting in a deck chair pointing a very large lens in our direction. Look at Belle, “Shit, you know what this means”.
So off we ran, all the while ruefully smiling at the cameraman. Around the corner and walk again.
We hit one of the biggest climbs of the day at around the 30km point, knowing it was mostly a climb to the aid station now. Mostly walking, we did break into a run when we saw a photographer because that’s just what you do (see, I was running!)
We are conscious of conserving energy early on. We might feel great, but still not one-quarter of the way into the race and plenty of time to crash and burn later in the afternoon/evening. 31k mark saw us hit the start of our trail 4 hours before. In order to have everyone go through the finish line, we had to be diverted to a path that loops through the back of the visitor centre. So, thinking we were 1k from start/finish line, then realising it’s an extra 2.2k was a bit underwhelming. Looked at the watch and the distance run and therefore expected for loop 1 was pretty spot on, so I just kept moving and enjoyed the scenery through here. A bit of open forest, ferns lots of white large fungi on the side of the trail. It was lovely through here, and after 4:52, we entered the start finish area at 34.4k feeling in a good way, and then to be treated like kings and queens by vollies in the transition area.
Through beautiful cool climate rainforest & ferns, we finally get back to the aid station at 34.5km & just under 5hrs after we left this morning. Inhale some ice cold watermelon, refill the water bottles, quick chat with friends who are volleying and we’re off on our second loop. We are both feeling good & ready to tackle the Mt Tassie loop.
I stopped to fill my water bottle, grab a packet of electrolyte, more food, and gels. (I had eaten reasonably well on loop 1, only a few bits of food left, but I hadn’t started on the gels). Loaded with water and food, grabbed a chocolate brownie at the aid station and a cup of coke. Offloaded head torch, won’t need that until loop 4 and grabbed my power pack to charge my watch as no way would the battery last the entire day. We headed out, yours truly with the watch plugged in and charging. Many of the 50k runners were completing the Mt. Tassie loop (their loop 1) and coming back through our area, was great to see so many familiar faces.
Loop 2, Mt. Tassie anticlockwise. The best part of the day.
Les had run this section previously so knew what was ahead so was able to give me the heads up on what to expect. We headed out of the aid station chatting & moving at an easy pace to let the food we’d scoffed at the aid station to settle a bit. No one likes a mid ultra spew!
Having run this section twice before in 2017 and 2018, I was mentally and physically prepared. I was able to give Belle a pretty good description of what lay ahead as we ran various sections. Having stopped moving at the aid station, we were slow moving out, walking, still eating (in my case, at least) and getting the body used to effort again. Coming out of the aid station, we crossed the Grand Ridge Road onto Telecom Track. Eventual winner Zach Beardsley is already returning from Mt. Tassie. We marvel at how far ahead he is (later we console ourselves that technically he wasn’t 21k ahead as he still had at least 2 k to go to the finish, so 17 it was. It’s the little things you hang on to in an ultra). 50k runners streaming back down in the opposite direction, so many people we knew. Out onto Drysdale Road (a logging track), turn right and head towards some of the choicest trails of this loop.
Zach Beardsley the eventual winner passes us on his way back to the aid station (yep, he was about 17km ahead of us, you just gotta laugh really!) We pass lots of 50k runners now who are returning after their first loop, including Julie who was tackling her first ultra. Trail runners are always a super friendly bunch & it’s always nice hearing the words of encouragement. We head into a beautiful forest full of huge tree ferns, it had rained extensively the night before so was very wet underfoot.
Cross the Traralgon-Balook road and descend on the Duff Sawmill Heritage Trail, and through a gorgeous wet forest with some huge tree ferns. The trail is muddy underfoot, always is, regardless of how dry the climate is. It twists and turns and under a thick canopy of trees, the forest floor is dark. We run the descents and most of the flats, but as soon as it climbs we stop to walk again. Not an idle walk, we are hiking at this stage. Even though the legs are starting to feel the constant up and down of the course.
Bumped into a couple of friends along here. Jayne is doing the 21 (aka the 23)k run accompanied by her friend Seema, and 2 friends of mine Chris and Matthew (the 21k sweeps). Stop for a quick chat and a few words of encouragement for Jayne, a selfie then we are off again.
The forest smelt absolutely amazing, who knows what tree species it was but I felt like bottling it. More up, down, up, down of the trail here and careful steps on the more slippery parts. About 40km in we head out of the forest onto a wider road headed towards the towers of Mt Tassie.
Belle and I have a few chats through here, mainly checking in with each other, or just passing the time as we climb up the trail. It is gentle climbing, but there are a few trip hazards and slippery bridges to cross. Occasionally, a deep, strong smell from a grove of trees would hit us, and we’d stop and take it in. Hardly a sound, bird song, the occasional noise from animals away in the forest. But it was calming and tranquil. The trail climbed a bit steeper, dropped down a bit as the forest opened out and it became easier to move on a straighter more stable surface. At about 40k we exited the Heritage Trail onto the Calignee-South Road. Mt. Tassie towers are just over the next climb, hidden behind a grove of trees. It was along this road that Belle (for reasons only known to her) looked down at her legs, and discovered leeches on them just above the sock line. “Fucking hell, bastards, get offffff”. She grabs some bark lying on the road and swipes them off. Finding several more on the other leg in the process. I’m standing there, nonplussed as a quick check reveals none, zip nada on my legs. I don’t know whether to laugh or just shut up. One look at Belle and I just shut up.
Whilst climbing this road I look down at my feet…ummm what are those black things just above my sock line?!! Erghhhh LEECHES!! First time I’d ever been latched on to by these bloodsuckers…and 5 of them got me! I believe my exact words were “Fucking hell bastards….GET OFFF!” as I proceeded to grab the nearest piece of bark to detach them (not the thing to do as I found out later) I don’t think poor Les knew how to react towards me at this point, lol!! Leech encounter dealt with, we continue on to Mt Tassie.
Once they are off, all good and we continue on. Turn off the road onto a path that leads directly to the first southern tower, through a grassy area. The whole area here on Mt. Tassie is devoid of all but the smallest trees, a nod to the strong winds that must buffet the hillside. Past the first tower, still heading roughly north to the next tower. Get to the next tower as a couple of other 100k runners catch us, and we catch up with a 21k runners who are taking their time getting photos of the outstanding view (ignoring the power station south of Traralgon). Belle and I grab a few photos, selfie each other and then head down the path towards the road and another marshal point.
Selfies on the top (but of course!) we then descend down to the road & a marshall point, the drop down a steep single track to a gravel road.
After here the trail descends steeply on a single track and then exits onto a gravel road that mainly descends for about 5k. Along here, the mid-loop curse hit us both, toilet stops. Me first, only after running nearly a k to find enough ground to get off the track and not plummet 50 metres to my death! Then Belle about a k later. She ran even further to find flatter ground, clearly she has more specific needs…
I find I am in desperate need for a loo stop….but on one side of the road there are hills covered in the forest & the other side just drops off into nowhere! I tell Les I’ll keep going ahead to find a flatter part where I’m not likely to fall to my death (men have it a bit easier not having to squat!!) Bush wees sorted, we keep going down the gravel road before hitting a climb that was covered in clay like mud. My shoes were covered and felt like a combination of bricks and ice skates on my feet!
We caught up again and ran together again for a while before we stopped and the road climbed up a very muddy section. Balook and surrounds had 30 mm of rain the night before and the road had pooled most of it here. Cloud cover had kept the temperature down all day, but it was slowly warming up and there was no cover along this road. As tired as we were running down, when we suddenly started climbing steeply, and our quads decided that the angle was just too fucking much.
2 100k runners came running down and turned in front of me to head onto the loop 3 main trail. One of them calls out to me, “Hey Les, how’s the gastro?”. Which was a bit random. Just as I was about to utter the correct reply, his mate did it for him, “Fine, and thanks for asking!”. At which point they both burst out laughing as they headed away from us. Completely fucking random, I was dumb-struck for a few moments, looked back at Belle and she could only look at me as if to say, “What the actual fuck…”
We bump into the 50km sweeps Ross & Julie stop for a quick chat (Ross had had his own leech encounter!) Climbing is tough enough without shoes that feel like they weigh 5km each!
We are now at 49 k, with about 4 or so k’s to go to get back to Balook. We don’t talk much, just one leg in front of the other, catching a few 21k runners as they climbed slowly. Having come this way 3 times before today, I knew what was in store, but it still sucked more than a little bit. Meet the 50k sweeps, Julie and Ross on their way down shadowing the last 50k runner. Ross has a dried leech bite the size of an inner-city electorate, drying on his foot! It looks ugly as. But we got the climb done. Eventually, the angle lessened and we had views back to Mt. Tassie (looking not that far away), and before we knew it, we were turning back into Telecom Track and a muddy path back to Grand Ridge Road. Cross Grand Ridge Road and then we are directed to the path that leads to the suspension bridge. This path is a beautiful scenic route for day use walkers.
Off the clay fest, we are headed back towards to the aid station, crossing over the suspension bridge, which I thought led straight to the aid station, alas, another couple of kms to go.
None on it today as we push on towards the bridge. I get a little ahead of Belle and then catch one of the other 100k runners that passed us at Mt. Tassie, Roger Chao of DTR. Finally hit the bridge, this path seems longer than it warrants on a map, and there is my lovely friend Megan taking photos. I give her a big smile and try not to go arse up on the bridge that sways massively when you run on it. She tells me Nicky has been passed, but not giving her much in the way of a smile! Climb the other side of the bridge, collect ourselves and then run into the start/finish line, 54.k, 8:14. It is party central, many 50k runners finishing, most 21ks have finished (especially those in my club, BBR) and it is them and Nicky who come to greet us.
We finally reach the aid station at 54km in a bit over 8hrs. The aid station is full of 50km runners who have already finished, & also Les’s wife who did the 21, we chat to a few of them that we know before eating more food (ultra running really is an eating competition) & refilling our water again. Spirits are still pretty high, even if the legs are starting to feel it.
Jason Rawlings comes to assist me, asks a number of questions. I must have had a case of the ol “Deer in the headlights” look, as he stopped to wait for me to answer at least one of them! I unplugged my watch from the battery pack, assuming that it was charged enough for the rest of the race. Chat with friends, Nicky, get some photos, etc and eat way too many brownies. After about 10 or so minutes, we exit the aid station and commence loop 3.
Loop 3, 29 somehow becomes 34. Where the wheels falling off took out the undercarriage. (SURPRISE GUYS!! IT’S ACTUALLY 34!)
This loop will go down in history as my new measure of how shit things are going in an ultra…ie “On a scale of 1 to Duncans Loop 3” The wheels, axels, suspension….she all fell off!!
The first issue with loop 3 was that I discovered that although I’d unplugged the battery pack and stowed the lead, the battery pack was still in my vest. Even though I was only 400 metres out, I couldn’t be stuffed going back to chuck in my gear bag. Resigned to carrying it for 29k (hahaha), we walked out, unable to run as our stomachs were full.
Back out past the marshal point on Grand Ridge Road, cross the road and head up Telecom Track and then turn left at Drysdale. This would be our exact path for loop 4. Heading back down Drysdale, in the opposite direction we’d climbed about 45 minutes ago, we noticed the clouds clearing and the sun hotting up. Bumped into a few DTRs we know, Warwick King, Oliver Mestagh and Veronica May (who I ran briefly with on loop 1). All would not finish, Warwick and Veronica pulled out, and Oliver missing a cut-off after loop3. Such is this race. In Veronica’s case, we met her climbing up a steep section finishing loop 1 as we headed down. She was completely done in but was already content with her decision to not go on. Belle and I stopped with her and the sweep (George Milhalakelis) and chatted briefly. I was bloody proud of her for having a crack. Pulled up short, but not by sitting there wondering.
Up til now, the weather had been warmish, but overcast. Now, the clouds were dissipating and the sun was getting hotter. We headed down the climbs we’d headed up earlier, and thankfully, the thick clay like mud had dried out a little. We bumped into a few of our trail mates who all, unfortunately, would not finish.
This section and a fair bit of the early stages on loop 3 were out on the open road, exposed. We ran the first few sections that descended gently, once again walking the ups. Early on I was looking at a section of trail and wondering why I didn’t remember it from last year. Running the 50, we ran this loop clockwise, not anti-clockwise. It seemed to have a long descent, which would have translated to a long ascent last year and buggered if I could remember that. Pushed the thought away as I concluded that after 59k of an ultra I was not thinking that clearly.
And one point Belle and I are running and she asks me if I have a preferred side to run on. I didn’t. So Belle recounts how a favourite trail running mate of hers is completely OCD and HAS to run on the right-hand side of here ALL the time. If she veers to the other side, he quickly admonishes her and makes her go back to the left. to protect his anonymity, I won’t mention that it is Andy Payne. Lest he gets upset about Belle calling him out! (She desperately misses running with you, Andy, really).
The trail continued, we hadn’t seen anyone since the 57k mark, but the markers were still there, every couple of hundred metres. We stopped to take photos of a nice section of the forest on a hillside, then Belle informed me that she was running low on water. I admitted mine wasn’t exactly overflowing, and we both wondered where the hell the aid station was. From my memory, there had been a longish time (read distance) between the last one and Balook last year. But running a 50 you will be somewhat faster. 65k’s+ today and the pace considerably slower, the time longer, and the heat of the day a bit of a worry.
We continued on, running the downs, walking the hills. It was getting continually hotter…which meant I was drinking more water. By about 65km I was all but out & advised Les. Surely there’d be a water stop soon? He got out his phone to check the course & we couldn’t see a water point for quite some time. My energy levels were depleting fast…I was caught between trying to pick up the pace to get to an aid station quicker or conserving energy. Les & I decided on the latter & decided to walk til we got to that aid station. My right calf was also getting a bit tight…put it down to cramping due to loss of salt! Now the mind games began…or as I like to call it the Gollem phase of an ultra. ”What the fuck were you even thinking doing this so close to Hut2Hut?” “You’re ruining Les’s race, he’d be so much further ahead without you” “Let him go ahead & complete the last loop on his own later” “WE HATES RUNNING”!!!
After a bit of chat, we decided to pull my phone out, check the map on the app. It told us we were on the right trail, but I couldn’t work out how far away from the aid station we were. A bit worried, we decided to not do any running, just walk. That way we wouldn’t sweat any more than we currently were. But, it would take us longer to get there, the lesser of two evils.
67k and the trail climbs again, gently, but relentlessly. By now Belle is flagging a bit. I’m not much better and can hike up the road quicker. This then sets the pattern of the day; faster hiking by me, get to a trail or a hill peak and I wait for Belle to catch up. On and on this trail went. It was basically a road, logging or fire trail, I’m not sure. I got ahead a bit then came round a corner to see a photographer sitting in a deck chair. He points the camera at me, I give him my best smile and thumbs up as he just told me an aid station is around 200 metres away. I could have hugged him, had his babies, whatever…
We finally got to a water point at 72km..17km since the main aid station…I reckon I must’ve looked like a cast member of The Walking Dead by now. Filled my water bottles..skulled some electrolytes to try to get some salt back in, but the damage had already been done. The next 5km to the next aid station was through beautiful rain forest which I should’ve been taking in…but all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. Thankfully they had the drink of the trail Gods here…Coke. I had a couple of cups to try & give myself some energy. It is here that Les learns from the 50km sweeps that there’d been a 3km diversion at the start of the loop…but doing maths during an ultra is hard so it didn’t compute that this added to our loop, lol!!
72.4k’s, 11:24 (5:24pm) and the aid station a checkpoint on the Grand Ridge Road was a most welcome site. A bit of coke, refill my bottle and bladder, eat a bit of orange and a few lollies as Belle comes in, looking stuffed. Roger Chao is there telling me he hoped I wouldn’t catch him! Another runner (Alex Ritchie?) is also there. He heads off, then Roger, Belle and I follow soon after. A steep short climb on the other side into another section of temperate rainforest. It is beautiful in the late afternoon, a golden hue shines on all the taller trees, and it really feels like autumn. Crest the rise and start the descent back to the Tarra Valley road. It is 5k between aid stations, almost laughable seeing the gap that was between Balook and the first! The final 2k descends steeply through a forest that is a bit muddy, the track winds around a lot and even in daylight, is hard to follow without any marker tape. I hear voices, up ahead, but I don’t think it’s the aid station. Continue on and then realise there is someone ahead of me. Belle is back about 100 metres at this point. I check back every now and then, either see her or hear her progress along the trail. She’s not giving up, just ploughing on regardless.
Just before the end, I catch Ross and the last 50k runner. Follow them to the aid station, scrubbing the mud off our shoes on the bitumen (well, Ross was in sandals, but that’s Ross!) and once again grabbed some coke. Julie ( 50k sweep is there). But this is where Ross says, “How did you like the diversion?”.
“The one at the start of the loop.”
It suddenly dawns on me that was the section I was unsure about. But even then I didn’t realise it had added over 3k to our race. I know from here it is about 6, nearly 7, most climbing for the first 5k. The light is now fading deep in the valley. As we start to climb I hope it is not too soon before dark falls. I neglected to take my head torch with me, it will be fun getting back on some of those trails near the visitors centre.
Thankfully, the climb up is lovely. We pass a trickling waterfall, both stop to wet our THIRs and take a drink of the fresh cool water. Spot a burrowing crayfish on the trail, claws open and in a defence pose as I walk up to it. We roll along. No running, the climb is more than enough. As we climb a bit more, spot Roger ahead. Belle and I think that we may play leapfrog with him the rest of the race.
We pass a sign that says ‘Visitors Centre – 6.5k’. “Bullshit”, we both call out after checking the distance on our watches. We reckon it’s about 3 at the most.
We now have what should be a 6km climb back to Balook. Due to me almost self-combusting, we had been out there longer than expected & light was starting to fade. We come to a sign that tells us 6.5km to the visitors’ centre….Les says that can’t be right, we should only have 3km to go. I was shattered but tried not to let it make me feel even worse than I already did.
Keep climbing. Lose sight of Roger, see him again, lose sight again. It becomes a bit of a game, how long can I keep him in sight. I realise that Belle is a fair way behind, so I let him go and slow down to let her catch up. The sun recedes over the horizon, now officially in the twilight. We climb a bit more, then come out to a cleared area where the road has recently been graded and widened. I know this is the trail towards the Visitor Centre. I slow down a bit more, Belle slow on the climbs. Not much chat between us now, just stoic, grim forward progress. A female runner passes us as we approach a checkpoint, 83.6k 13:38 hours. At the time I realised we’d travelled a bit further, but the advertised map showed a direct route to Balook, so not that much time. But when we got to a junction where this morning we’d detoured around the back of the visitors’ centre, I thought we should have gone straight ahead. But no, a detour it was. My heart sank. We weren’t going to finish loop 3 with much change left over from 33k, nearly a good 4k over. And, it was now dark. Twilight this time of year doesn’t last. As we turned onto the track, I followed Belle, she had her head torch. But it was difficult to see the trail at her feet. In a bit of frustration, I pulled out the phone, turned on the flashlight app and used it to illuminate the path, not very well, but effective enough for me to navigate. 2.2k of this and then we entered the start/finish area. Neither of us bothering to walk, the photo taken makes us look like we are well over this, can really be honest, both of us were. 87K, 14:28 hours and we still have at least 21k to go. Finish before midnight now starting to look well out of reach.
I had my head torch but Les didn’t…so we made do with the light of mine & Les’s phone light. I now told Les to continue on & do Loop 4 ahead of me…he said no, we agreed to do this together & we will. I zombie death marched into the aid station at 87km in the pitch black…we’d been out there for almost 14.5 hours. Watermelon, soup, refill water bottles…my beautiful friends Em & Caz tried their best to lift my spirits, feeding me hot soup & Coke. Right, let’s get this fucker done. I grab my poles as I know I’ll need them to get me through this next loop and we head out.
Before we’d reached the end of the loop, Belle had told me to head on and leave for loop 4. It had echoes of Caz and myself in Tarawera last year. And like then, my reply was that we were sticking together. We’d made a pact well before today, we would finish together, whatever was to come.
Once again, Matt was there to greet us. Megan taking photos and coming over to chat. I also remember Em Fisher and Caz Donovan, mainly because I’ve seen photos. Helen Orr got us both some pumpkin soup. Beyond that, I don’t recall anyone else, or anything else other than Belle and I ourselves out of that little bit of an oasis. That was the toughest part, leaving that. But worse was to come…
Halfway through loop 3, I’d noticed that my feet were hurting. Then I’d thought it was just time on my feet in newish shoes. Now I was sure it was from having wet feet earlier in the day. The pain wasn’t bad, but I was quite uncomfortable, the more I moved, the more I could feel it. Belle had grabbed poles, her calf was really sore and she thought she might have strained it. As we were about to leave, I hoped none of this would derail our progress.
Loop 4. Mt. Tassie clockwise. In the dark; mentally, physically and in reality.
We walk out, Belle decides to call her husband to check and to let him know about our progress. Comatose would be a good summary. I kept moving, slowly so as not to leave Belle, but enough that I wasn’t standing still. Got to the marshalling point, crossed Grand RidgeRroad and headed up Telecom Track, just as the female winner came back in the opposite direction. Certain that Belle knew where to go, I headed up Telecom for a few hundred metres and then waited as a runner came down the track towards me. It was Jason Rawlings, pacing for Annie Darcy. My friend Annie was going to podium in 2nd place, I was ecstatic, gave her a hug as she ran off.
I’m not in a good way. I decide to stop & message Paul back home a couple of km in once I get some reception to let him know I’m still a fair way off finishing. I get to the marshall point & they tell me to “head up the road”. I’m pretty sure I was delirious at this stage & started heading up the road., passing the trail I should’ve gone on. I knew we didn’t come down a road when we did this loop in reverse so why I headed up I don’t know. I really started to panic now….calling out Les’s name. After a couple of hundred metres I head back down the road… totally overwhelmed & in tears by now. I finally find Les at the start of the trail I should’ve taken. The poor bastard is beside himself with worry & blaming himself. After a few deep breaths, I calm myself enough to keep going, reassuring him it wasn’t his fault. After this little meltdown, I actually start to feel better…well except for that tight calf that is now really giving me grief.
Then I heard Belle calling my name. Called back, but she didn’t hear me. I started walking back, expecting to see her coming up around the corner. Nope. I kept going, on the edge of panic. I turn the last corner, the entrance to the track I’ve just run up ahead, the road just beyond when I hear her call out again. This time from behind me and the urgency and panic in her voice cannot be masked. I run as fast as my fatigued legs could carry me back to the marshal point and tell them a runner is missing. They immediately grab torches and we head up the road. I call out her name, and she replies. Thankfully closer as she is heading back towards us as we stand at the foot of Telecom track. She comes into view of the torches, face screwed up, in tears and trying hard not to cry. A part of me broke inside. I was supposed to be looking out for her, and I stupidly let her go off-course. At night, with over 20k to go there was a fair amount of “fuck this shit”, this wasn’t in the script of our day, and certainly not now, not at this point of the race. She assured me she was fine, and we continued on. I vowed to myself not to let that happen again.
We turn left onto Drysdale, one last time today. Now in the dark, so different to 6 hours previously. The trail has dried out even in that short amount of time, and with the cooler nighttime air, we feel better and a little more energetic. Quite possibly also having food and soup back at Balook. Pass the turn to loop 3, but keep going on our now clockwise path towards Mt. Tassie. Hit the bottom, then we know we have a 5k climb. By now, no running at all, just hiking on this section. I stride up, slowly peeling away from Belle settling into what I thought was going to be a straightforward last loop. Then, headtorch went dead. I was in total darkness with only the faint silhouette of Belle’s torch behind me. It was if I’d turned it off. Hit the switch, it turns back on, stays on and I wonder why it did it. Think no more of it. Until 30 minutes later, darkness again. Shit, what’s going on here? A kilometre later, my watch beeps low battery. Usually, this gives me a clue that within 30 minutes I will run out of battery completely. No way are we going to finish in that time. So, looks like I’ll have to get the rest on the app on my phone. A bit mentally pissed off at this point, wait for Belle to catch up, needed to just walk with her for a bit. Then almost immediately, watch beeps one final time and that’s it, all over Red Rover. 95k’s. Stop, grab the phone and start up the app to record me. And discover I’m still carrying the battery pack from loop 2. Still forgot to get shot of it at the last stop at Balook. A minute later, head torch goes out again. Spiffing, just spiffing. Fucking technology…
The poles are definitely helping me keep a better pace though. We hit the bottom of Mt Tassie and get ready for the 5km climb. Lots of hiking the shit out of here.
After a long time on that road, we reach the turn-off, and a short section of single track that leads us to the marshal point adjacent to Mt. Tassie. 96k, 10:18pm and the wind is blowing briskly up here on this exposed section where the marshal point is located. A voice calls out to me, Becky Matthews, BBR and Duncans vollie co-ordinator. She comes over to see how I’m going. Okay, is pretty much the summation. Tired, getting cold at the aid station.
At 96km we hit the marshall point, cross the road & start the climb up to the towers. Umm, where the fuck is the trail? We can’t see any markers. We decide to go up a very steep trail & hope for the best! Eventually, it links up to the trail we’re meant to be on and we reach the towers.
We head off, one of the vollies shining a torch down the road we have to cross so we can locate the path on the other side with the reflective tape. I knew where we were going but thanked him anyway. Well, I thought I knew. Got off the road, turned the corner on the trail and then completely lost sight of any markers at all. Reflective or otherwise. Belle and I stop, shine our torches around, but can’t see shit. There is a path directly in front of us, but no tape. I climb up and spy a path heading right, and directly at the top of the hill is the first tower. “This way”, I tell Belle, and we climb directly towards the tower. As we near the top, a path on the left appears and we see directional arrows. Yep, off course for about 300 metres! The wind is blowing vigorously up here. I’d stowed my thermal top in the pack for this loop, contemplated getting it out and putting on, but knew it wasn’t long up here before we would descend and get shelter. Across the top, past the second group of towers and then we were heading back towards the Calignee South Road. We were about 20 metres apart when this terrific noise of an animal crashing through the bush on our left. “What the fuck was that?”, Belle asked. “Marsupial” was my quick reply. In truth, it sounded like a fucking Bison. Not the characteristic sound of a kanga or wallaby thumping the ground.
Some beast of the night in the long grass scares the shit out me…as Les said it was probably a “marsupial” but at that point it sounded like something that was coming to eat me!
Turn onto the road, pass the point of Belle leech incident of many hours before, and head roughly east before turning off into the forest. So different through here at night. Mt. Tassie is the highest point on the course, not just this loop, and we know it is basically a straight descent towards Balook, albeit with a few climbs chucked in for good measure. My head torch goes off again, for the tenth time in the last hour. Turn it back on. 30 seconds later it goes out again. Fuck, really? Just so over this shit. Turn it on, it lasts for maybe a minute, goes off again. Next 10 minutes this pattern is repeated so much that I eventually take the shitty thing off my head and wrap it on my wrist with my thumb poised on the on/off switch so I can keep the light going. I finish the race this way. But once I get moving again, and I’m in some sort of rhythm of moving, light off, light back on again, I calm down and just immerse myself in the surroundings. As the path twists and turns and descends, the forest canopy closes in, and it really is dark, and very silent. I can see Belle’s head torch behind me, anywhere between 50 to 100 metres and I can clearly hear her footsteps and poles hitting the ground. I move on, let my mind wander for a bit, taking away the feel of the pain in my feet, which by now is quite painful.
At some point I know I have been daydreaming, or the nighttime equivalent. My mind has taken to making dumb sayings like “I run, long run” in much the vain of “James, James Bond”. Shit, at one point I even did it in Sean Connery’s voice… I must have either closed my eyes or got so distracted I suddenly came to, standing in front of a whole bunch of hazard tape that marked the approach to a wooden bridge. I was just standing there, but it was like I’d been jolted out of a dream. I realised where I was and was scared I’d left Belle again, shot around to look behind me, only to see her head torch 30 metres behind. I was a bit shaken up but moved off before she saw me and my face betrayed the fact that I was shitting bricks, just casually. Across the bridge, and the path steepens up again and I think we are not too far away from the end. I hear voices again, but thankfully not in my head. An aid station up on the Traralgon-Balook Road, music also pumping out. But, as is the case in the bush at night, those voices and music were at least 1k away. Or so it seemed.
The next few kms I don’t remember a whole lot, except that I just wanted to finish. I keep hearing voices in the forest thinking I’m losing my tiny mind….turns out they were aid station voices, the trail twisted & turned that much that we’d be in line with it then away from it. We finally get to that aid station at 103km, I remember pumping music & the guys there being awesome & trying to lift our spirits, telling us we were looking strong! LIES!!! 4km to go still and we were just near midnight.
Aid station had a fire pit, that alone was making it a struggle to leave. It is 10 minutes to midnight, we are about to clock over 18 hours. We beyond my bedtime. Belle looks done in, but as we leave to climb back up to Drysdale Road, she just gets her head down and hikes up the climb. I wait for her at the top, then we continue up the road towards Telecom Track. I didn’t know it at the time, but we are already at 104k of our 100k race, but I do know we have about 3k to go. One final trek down Telecom, my head torch on and off like a strobe light. If it wasn’t for the fact that I needed it to get home, it would have been smashed against a tree and thrown into the pack. Grand Ridge Road, marshal point and then we are heading to home via the suspension bridge.
Forward is a pace, forward is a pace was my mantra now. Back over the suspension bridge, we just walk now. Neither of us feels any need to run.
The climb back up from the bridge is in silence, we just walk and get ourselves back to the finish. Then, after 18+ hours we spot the lights of the finish area, hear the music. Just before the last corner, we decide to run it in. No more than 50 metres, but it was enough. Then, it’s over. 107.1k, 18:38 hours, and 2 stuffed and sore bodies. We stop, I pull the phone out to turn off the app, glance over at Belle who has stopped her watch and then turns and gives me a look as if to say, “What the fuck…”. The finish line video shows this little by-play.
Finally, we see the finish area lights & hear the music & run the last 50m in. 18:38hrs & 108km later we are DONE. Legend Matty V is there to present us with our finishers haul…belt buckle, finishers towel, stubby holder & buff (extra goodies for extra kms is fair right?) Duncans’ mum Helen comes & gives us a hug…I in my delirium ask if we’re last, lol! No, still 5 people out there! Helen then gets us some soup which tastes like unicorn tears. We change out of our feral stinky gear (that towel came in handy creating a little “modesty” screen!) into some warm clothes. Thank God for Matt who is driving us back to Warragul. WE ARE SPENT.
Matt is there to present us with our finishers towel and buckle (tastefully wrapped in a stubby holder), a shake of the hand from Travis (RD) and Helen Orr came and gave us both a hug. First question Belle asks is, “are we last?”. No, we aren’t, still 5 others out on course. But there has been a reasonable DNF rate, a testament to this course and the day. My feet are killing me, I’m scared to take shoes off. A: the smell, B: to see what state they are actually in. The answer to both is the same, horrible. Thankfully we have arranged for Matt to drive us home, after a long day (few days) for him, we were and are still mightly grateful that he did this.
Drive home, get back there at about 2:00 am, I don’t sleep until 3:00am, nearly a 24 hour day. And I don’t surface until 11:30.
100 is not an easy undertaking. Add in a serious bit of climbing, and the effort required increases significantly. Add in the extra unplanned and unknown distance, and the mental side takes a hammering.
Not preparing for a 100 shows up very quickly. Belle and I knew that long before race day.
We both have bucket loads of mental toughness.
18 plus hours and we are both still talking to one another. And in spite of the tough day, I’m sure both of us wouldn’t hesitate to front up again and support each other.
Belle has come up with a new term to describe the level of how shit things get in an ultra. ‘From a scale of 1 to Duncans loop 3!”
As stupidly tough as that was, in the following days we both messaged each other and said pretty much the same thing, “So considering how long we took, and the fact that we are not dead, makes a miler look not so daunting…”. We have both at various times said that if we talk about doing a miler, to slap each other. There is a reason that form of comedy is called slapstick.
A week and a half later, I can finally run again.
Reflecting on the race, it was brutal & certainly didn’t go to plan. Should I have done it so close to Hut2Hut? Probably not, but I did. And it ended up being the longest distance & time on my feet so far, which I guess is a pretty epic achievement. I couldn’t have got through it without Les and I’ll be forever grateful he stuck with me. And that tight calf? No injury, just a little old bacterial infection from the leech bites! Turns out you shouldn’t pull them off as they leave their mandible behind, causing said infection. Doc thinks poison travelled up to the lymph node behind my knee, causing my whole calf to swell. It took a week for the swelling to subside but I’m back running.
ULTRA RUNNING IS FUN GUYS!!! AHA HA HA!!
The Rest of the Year
Maybe Surf Coast Trail Marathon
Some Trail Running series
SCC 50 in a team relay
Melbourne Marathon (and probably a few road races leading up to focus on road running)
Until next time…
Original source can be found on Les Carlsons blog here