The Great Southern Endurance Run took place a few weeks ago (my body is still recovering!), and Roy Willetts, a competitor on the day has very kindly allowed us to publish his views on the race from the mid of the pack. While we tend to hear a lot from the lead runners, the reality is most of us are just guys and gals like Roy, so take it away Roy…
It’s about 02.30am on Sunday morning. The second night out on the trail and my third sunrise is only three hours away. I suddenly have to stop and lay down on the trail, saying to Ann-Marre, my pacer, Wake me up in 15 minutes if I fall asleep. I had never slept in a 100 miler before, but this race had turned into a longtime out in the mountains, longer than hoped for. I had already tried to sleep twice, but each time after five minutes of laying there I could tell it was not to be. I had simply gotten back up and kept moving rather than stressing about sleep. This third time I had waited till I was sleep walking off the trail and had another go. Laying face down, I take three deep breaths and on the third breath am suddenly aware that I was really cold. I look up and wonder allowed, was I asleep? 10 minutes at least! says Ann-Marre. I get up and take stock. I feel awake, feel good, feel alive again and ready to get the last 20 km of the last leg of the mind-boggling GSER 100 miler done.
It had started six months earlier when fellow ultra runner, my brother-in-law, Chris Mclean, had said the two things that would dial me into the race whether I liked it or not. They’re saying it will be the hardest miler in Australia. 181 km with more than 10,000m of uphill and over 11,000 of downhill. Plus, you get a belt buckle! Darn it, I was hooked. How could I not sign up for the most suffering available and a belt buckle that almost no one in the country understands?
On Friday November 17th 2017, in the dark at 05,00am, Chris and I toe the line feeling strangely calm, relaxed and ready to go. I’m from Cairns in North Queensland so was keenly aware of the lower temperature in the Victorian Alps. There were about 140 hardy soles fronting up for the miler that bounced across 17 peaks all the way to Bright. With another 25 or 30 in the 50-miler, it’s a solid group that turns at the peak to start the 1300m descent down to the first checkpoint at 11km, Gardiners Hut. (Didn’t see a hut?)
We are about 20 people from the back of the whole pack and in no rush. Without realizing, I find myself at the turn off to Four Mile Spur, ahead of Chris and moving well. I have slotted into a train of about 20 people and we stay like that most of the way down the spur, stumbling and falling left and right as the course gives us a taste of what was to come. Rough, rocky and bush covered. Later in the race I was to hear the term single-no-track, which made me laugh because it sure described a lot of the trail to a tee.
After crossing the river at the Gardiner’s checkpoint we head for a couple kms along a beautiful section of trail that sits 100m or so above the river. We slowly peel away from awesome drop to our left and start up the first section of the Bluff. I am running with John Kilkelly who is also from Cairns and a woman from the Blue Mountains. Good chat flows and it gets us over the top of the first long uphill section of Eight Mile Spur. We are a bit taken aback as we crest this false top and see the huge wall in front of us that is the steep top section. As the trail starts to really step up a notch it starts to drizzle, then rain and eventually hail at the top. I have decided to wait till the top to get my rain jacket out which was a mistake. As I crest the last of what is now a waterfall style cliff track, it feels like 100km winds hit me in the face. By the time I have a fleece, rain jacket, gloves and a beanie on, I’m super cold and wet. Shivering and shaking my way across the top for the next hour, I slowly warm up. This isn’t Cairns anymore Toto.
After filling up with water at the Bluff Hut, it’s a fast 14km fire road descent into the Upper Howqua checkpoint at 45km and I see my crew, Googs and her partner and my pacer Tom Mostizch. Tom tries to hide the chair from me, (beware the chair) but I find it and sit down. Finally feeling warm again, I skull a ginger beer, restock and refuel. Then, still moving well, Tom and I leave at around 14.15pm, 8.15 hours into the race. We bounce along the river for a few kms, enjoying the pretty valley, taking our time tip toeing and pussy footing over all the river crossings before starting up the long, steep slog to Mt Howitt. Somewhere on the hill we have found our way onto the AAWT, Australian Alps Walking Track. After another rain shower we top out and are rewarded with lovely weather and drop dead views out along the ridgeline to the Cross-cut Saw, Mt Buggery, Horrible Gap and beyond. The course names are making me feel as if I’m in a cross between a British Oxbridge school and a Harry Potter book.
Tom takes the opportunity to take a couple of happy snappy photo’s and we move off and into numerous schoolgirls and Girl Guide groups camped out on the lower part of the ridgeline, which is all a bit surreal and unexpected. I see a sign hanging in a tree at a campsite, saying Wolf Pack, so I give them a big shout of GOOD AFTERNOON WOLF PACK! And get a huge response of howls, shouts and cheers which makes us both laugh and gees us up a fair bit as we start the short descent into the Speculation checkpoint at almost 63km.
We arrive at 19.30, 14 and a half hours into the race and leaving at 19.48, only 12 minutes before the cut off, we see five or six people doing the miler come in and switch to the 50 miler. I get it, after storms, rain, hail and never-ending long, steep hills, it’s very tempting to turn left and be done sooner and in bed a few hours later. However, not knowing what’s in front of us, we turn right and into the toughest part of the course as nightfall’s and clouds build up yet again.
A couple of kms later, as darkness sets in and rain kicks off, we start-up the hill to Mt Despair. This turns out to be the toughest section of the race for me. We only go around 13 km in six hours. The famous single-no-track kicks in and out some more. We slowly slug it out along the ridge, track finding up the Viking, over small peaks, up a rock chute with ropes and ladders and with a few 5.7 climbing moves thrown in here and there. Steep muddy downhill slides and fallen tree hurdles slow everyone. We pass a number of runners slowing down and have grouped up with John Kilkelly again and his pacer, Rob Martin, plus two or three other random racers stick with us. Track finding becomes Tom’s gift to us all as he leads us out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. The fire road at Barry’s Saddle.
We pick up the pace along the fire road and make up some lost time, arriving at East Buffalo road checkpoint, 81km, in the pre dawn. From here it’s on to Selywn Creek Road checkpoint at 108 km, through a mix of fire road and non-distinct AAWT again. Another checkpoint done and away we go. I have almost stopped eating on the trail now and am going to great effort to make sure I eat at the checkpoints. Seems that no matter how many of these things I do, I still can’t get my nutrition sorted out? I don’t know why I keep thinking stuff like Cliff bars and Bounce balls will appeal after 24 hours? They don’t even appeal after six!
Tom is keeping my spirits up as I descend in and out of gloom about how hard it all is, what abuse I’m doing too myself and why I should pull out. It’s about getting out of the checkpoint whilst I feel ok and just shooting for the checkpoint after that. I can feel sorry for myself in-between, right! And so it goes through the Selywn Creek Road check and onto the Mt Saint Bernard Check. More cold rain along the Mt Murray track to The Twins finds us slipping and sliding up and down steep indistinct tracks that are destroying my big toes. Upon arrival at Mt Saint Bernard checkpoint, 125 km, at just after 16.00pm, 35 hours into the race, my feet need some serious attention.
I thank Tom profusely for doing some tremendous work for me over the last 80 kms and 26 hours. It’s only four weeks after he put in a sterling effort, finishing the Grand Raid 100 miler in Reunion Islands, and he has done a bang up job for me.
I feel like a million dollars, the rain has stopped, the sun is out and it’s a glorious afternoon. It’s all Rainbows and Unicorns as I head up the road with my new pacer, Ann-Marre Catanzariti. I feel great and we chat at Olympic pace. I am so engrossed and feeling so pumped up that we miss the turn off the road onto the Bon Accord Spur Trail. We are about 400m or so up the hill and about to turn the corner and head in the opposite direction when two people see us in our Fluro vests and are calling to us like crazy. It takes 20 or 30 seconds before we click that the people going the other way in the distance are telling us we have gone wrong. I kick myself and we run back down the road to the turn off. (This turns out to be that last time I run).
Back on track, refocused and with my toes not killing me, we descend the long beautiful trail down to the Washington River. It’s dark when we get there and after a bit of fudging around we find the planks at the end of the washed out bridge that cross the creek. From there it’s a lovely track along the river and eventually down into Harrietville for the final Checkpoint at 147 km.
I decide to try a quick nap at the sleep station there but it didn’t take. I get up after a few minutes and go to find Googs to load up one more time before the final 34 km. I really drag this checkpoint out for some reason; I eat a bit extra, have a cup of tea, stare into the dark a bit longer and contemplate that I have another big hill to climb and another night to plow through.
We push up and over the last big peak, I take my dirt nap and we keep moving. I had expected a tough leg as it’s called Wet Gully Track, but it turns out to be a half decent fire road. Even so, I’m not running, walking pretty well, but not running. Later I think that I could have saved about an hour by jogging the easy downhills, but at the time it all feels to hard really. I am a back of the pack sort of guy, mid pack if the planets are aligned and I’m having blinder of a race, which this doesn’t feel like at this point. However, it seems that I’m going to make it, and this is something I had not thought possible when in my low, woe is me, periods 24 hours earlier. Ann-Marre and I turn off our head torches and stand still looking at the early hints of first light along the mountaintops, a really great time of day that I love. A third sunrise is not far away as we push over the last hill climb before starting the slow descent into Bright. The sun comes up, new energy abounds and we head along a trail through the back blocks and into Bright.
51 hours and 5 minutes after it all began, I head into the 50m long finish chute and I tear up a bit. I give Tom, Googs and Ann-Marre all big hugs and thank them for their awesome help and then cross the finish line. Whilst I was calm and relaxed at the start, I had become tense and pretty overwhelmed during the race. So actually finishing, had made me relieved, happy and emotional. There seem to be a number of people cheering and Sean greets me with a smile and heartfelt greeting. He also has a buckle in his hand that’s for me. It’s suddenly a great day.
Chris finishes in 52 hours and 22 minutes after chasing cut offs for two days. At Mt Saint Bernard by less than a minute. John has a strong second half of the race and finishes in 48 hours and 55 minutes. With a final DNF rate in the 60% + range, the race has taken a heavy toll through, lots of vertical, wild and tough tracks, mountain storms, tight cut off times and lack of sleep.
Later, once I have had my regular dose of ultra amnesia, I may even decide to come back next year to do the race in the reverse direction, the uphill version!