Mick Thwaites – The trials and tribulations of the 6 day Emu Ultra

Mick Thwaites

Just over a week or so ago, Mick Thwaites lined up for his debut 6 day ultra. Not only did he win the damn thing, he went and ran just a shade under 837kms in the process. An average of nearly 140kms a day. I’ve got a lot of time for Mick, he’s a true gent of our sport, extremely humble and a proud Dad who’s one of the nicest guys you could meet. There’s no heirs or graces, just a solid bloke who works hard and gets great results in whatever walk of life he chooses. He gives so much and never asks for anything in return. I was hoping Mick would pen some thoughts on his race and we’ve been blessed with a huge amount of detail, which Mick has kindly let me republish here on Ultra168. It’s a long read, but if you’re in awe of a guy who can smash out nearly 850kms in just under a week, then have a read, it’s fascinating. 

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When I laced up my shoes for my first half marathon and marathon back in 2012, I must admit that running for 24hrs, let alone 6 days was the furthest thing on my mind. Yet, a six day race has been on the agenda since completing my first 48hr race in 2016. But to tackle such a beast, I needed to build on the skills, fitness, and mindset required to really do well. To me, a six day race was the entry into a ‘pure’ ultra running experience. Reading back in history to the pedestrian races in the 19th century, this was a consuming spectator sport as well as hugely competitive races. While the pace of the race may not be up there with the sprinters, it is a true test of physical, mental and awareness powers that we possess.

To say I was a bit apprehensive is an understatement, the thought of running for nearly a week on minimal sleep in a foreign place was tough to mentally prepare for. But I had prepared to the best of my ability with the tools I’ve acquired over the past few years. One of the defining factors of this journey was that I had the backing and support of my now great friend and mentor, Martin Fryer. It seems like we have been destined to undertake this journey from the first time I engaged his coaching services three years ago. The relationship has grown from a coach/client perspective into one of the most fulfilling comradeships that I could have possibly dreamt for. As you will know, Martin has graced 6 day and 10 day races internationally over the past decade with some great victories. Along with the ladies, Annabel Hepworth, Sarah Barnett, and Marie Boyd to name a few, we have had some form of Aussie representation in these events worldwide.

Mick Thwaites
Mick with coach, legend, friend and mentor, Martin Fryer

After finishing last year off with a great run at C2K, I took a few weeks off to recover, enjoy some family time and prepare the mind for the upcoming challenge. The whole focus from mid January onwards was getting to the start line in Hungary strong and healthy. I adapted my training program to what I thought would be the best preparation and apart from a few niggles early in the program, the sessions went well.

We arrived at the race site Baltonfured Camping on the Tuesday afternoon, with the race starting at 12 noon on the Thursday. I walked the course with Martin looking at all the turns, rises and falls. It was a 926m loop snaked around the campsite with six right hand turns and two left hand turns. There was a slight hill in the middle and a couple of straights that had minimal fall and rise. The surface was a hard bitumen, more like concrete and had a slight camber for water run off. I would have said as my first impressions, it was a pretty good setup for a six day race. This impression probably changed a 100 times during the event though!!

The day before the race was a hive of activity, with runners and crew arriving from all over the world. There were 92 participants and the beauty about this sport, whether it is a 50km race or a 6 day race is it attracts all kinds of characters and abilities with a common goal. I have come to learn that especially in a 6 day race, we all play a part in helping each other achieve those goals or contribute someway towards them. We also had another representative from Australia, Sarah Barnett in our cabin. Sarah’s credentials speak for themselves with some great multi day performances as well as her defining moment at the Sri Chinmoy 3100 mile race. Sarah is a such a free spirit and adjusted her breaks and sleeping arrangements to help fit in with our plans for which I am truly grateful. Her race may have not gone exactly to plan, but it was good to see her pick up and evolve throughout the week.

The Race – Day 1

At midday, Into the unknown I went with some anticipation as to what would unfold in the coming days. I had a generic race plan mapped out for the race, but it was highly adaptable for any situation that would arise. The only non – negotiable in the plan was that I had wanted to run around 195km for Day 1. The temperature was high during the afternoon hours and did not really dissipate until the sun disappeared behind the trees around 7pm. I ran within myself and felt most comfortable moving into the early hours of the morning. There were a few guys out in front putting down some solid km’s in that first 24hrs. Bob Hearn from the USA and Odani from Japan were moving very well, and their pedigree would have them up there for contending for the win. There were also a few quality European runners with great 6 day performances behind them.

The first 24hrs passed without incident and I had clocked up about 196km, which was spot on as to where I wanted to be at Day 1 end. Odani’s 24hr talent had shone through and I think he was out in front with close to 220km. As a comparatively young Japanese ultra-runner he looked so smooth in both his form and effort, it was a joy to watch him run. Bob was up there too with a well practised run/walk strategy which he was executing perfectly.

Day 2

As we moved into the second day, you could tell that it was going to be warmer than the last. We decided that it was going to be best to dial it back in these warmer hours and push on through the cooler temps of the night. I think that I had my first sleep that afternoon, which was around 25 mins inside a 40 min break. I felt pretty refreshed from the sleep and came out to walk for 30 mins or so until the temps dropped. Our plan was a few km’s behind the scheduled distance, but with the temperature the way it was and only Day 2 it was a smart move to take it easy.

Coming through the second night, I moved up into the lead with Bob Hearn not too far behind me. Unfortunately, Odani had paid a bit for his large Day 1 total and seemed to be suffering from leg complaint. All the runners had different plans as to sleep breaks and running segments and you could start to see some of these patterns emerging and runners on the track in different stages of consciousness. I took my first ‘Big’ break on Day 2 around midnight/1am. Bob had gone in an hour or so before me and I had extended my lead by a few km’s. We had planned an approximately 2hr break with 90 mins of sleep. I think I managed about 40 mins in total. When I laid down to sleep, my body was burning up badly. And once Martin had used the cattle prod to get me out of bed (!) I had my first experience of WTF!! It wasn’t the stiffness setting in or the tiredness, just the realisation that this was going to continue for another 4 days!! I emerged from the cabin to begin the next block of running with a bit of nervousness into how this would play out.

Day 3

I plugged on into Day 3 after clocking up mid 300kms for the first 48hrs. Things were going well, the food was staying down, and the blocks of running were ticking by. As I approached the 400km mark and into unknown territory for me as far as time and distance ran, I could see that Bob Hearn had started to struggle with a leg ailment. He was getting treatment and keeping himself moving the best he could, but I was managing to keep if not extend my lead. I was still focused on my targets and output, rather than position in the race. There were many quality runners behind me that could easily overtake me in the coming days. Yet again the day time temps were hot and starting to reach into the 30’s. Someone told me that the concrete temperature on the track was around 50 degrees on Day 3 or 4.

The planned breaks and nutrition seemed to be working well. Martin excelled in his role as a crew person, not that you would expect anything less from a consummate professional. From daily shopping for ice, fresh food and new found treats he was tirelessly attending to the chores of keeping the cabin in a fit state for us all. We had found a system and rhythm that we could work with and our communication was going great. We even had the opportunity for some friendly banter. I was still running happy 😊 As I passed the furthest distance I have ever ran, I felt a sense of accomplishment and assurance that I belonged in such surroundings. The support both on and off the course was great. There were two main straights that had all the runner’s accommodation on and in the service area, there was always something happening or some music playing. I could not recollect one lap out of all I ran, where someone did not offer a word of encouragement. That was mind boggling.

At some stage on Day 3, Bob succumbed to his injury and took the tough decision to go in for a long rest and recovery, from which he was not able to return. This was a shame as it was good to see his consistent pacing out on the course and it kept reminding me that I had to be on top of mine also.

Day 4

I found myself out in the lead by approximately 50km moving into Day 4, with the guys behind me moving well. In particular was Ivo ‘Walker’ Majetic who yes, was walking!! This guy could walk and proves that if you have the right skills and stay out there anything can achieved. Also, along with Ivo, was Didier Sessegolo a solid Frenchman with a great multi day resume behind him. Over the next few days myself and Didier became great comrades and enjoyed each other’s company on the course despite the language barrier. Ivo and Didier were trading places constantly as they stepped off the course for their breaks at different times, whilst keeping me honest with my lead. The French team had a strong contingent and another great guy Pascal was in the mix too. It was somewhat distracting and entertaining to watch the tactical battle unfold behind me as they all maintained the desire to push through to the end whilst watching each other’s breaks and moves on the course. I was well aware that there was still nearly 3 days to go and anything could happen.

Day 4 was where the pain gods decided it was time to give me a lesson and reassure me that this is a battle where you need to take off the armour and fight for your right to be there. I went down for my long break around midnight, we had planned for around 1.45-2hrs of sleep. I managed a quick 20mins before my body started screaming at me and awoke in a pool of sweat aching from everywhere below the waist. I moved into about 250 different positions to get comfortable, but none would take the aches and pains away. My knees felt like they were going to explode, and my quads were getting pounded by Thor’s hammer!! I shouted at the wall a few times and managed to get myself in an upside down position contorted in a doona. This gave me some small relief and I managed to drop of for the last 15 mins of my allocated timeslot. Once Martin had tapped on the door, I rose like someone who had been struck with a taser but in slow motion. The shocks of pain going through my glutes and arse were unbelievable, my shoulders were aching, and my legs were shot. I’m sure Martin was quietly laughing as I had been nearly bulletproof up until this point and he was wondering when or if the multi day steam train would hit. It sure did, I think I got both the 1215 from Hurtsville and the 1220 from Welcometomultidaytown at the same time 😉 This was a test and believe me it freaked me out a little. After a few minutes of self massage and structural abuse, I pulled myself together. Martin’s words were encouraging, and I took off out the door with a purpose to get the body firing again. I don’t know if it was the bad singing to the Aussie rock classics in my earphones or the fact I wanted to run the pains away, but I started knocking out some fast laps and loving life for an hour or two. You have to make hay when the sun is or is not shining in a multi day and take the good with the bad, but make the good….good.

Later on in the day, it was time for another battle. I developed a pain in the left ankle on the front of my leg just above the foot. I don’t know the technical name for it yet, but I’m sure I’ll find out in the coming days. It seemed like I was getting what a lot of the runners had already been dealing with or were going to in the final days. The continual pounding on a hot pavement with camber, combined with half a dozen of sharp right turns had paid its toll and left me with an issue to deal with for the last 48hrs. We tried every trick in the bag, from changing shoes to strapping. Running/walking with a different gait, heat and ice. Nothing really worked to take the pain away and it was getting no better. I had to dig deep and dissociate from the pain. How painful was it? What could I compare it against? It was nothing in the scale of life. I had carried the memory of my good mate Westy who passed away suddenly not so long ago into this race. He would have given anything to be in the pain I was in to spend another day with his family. It was a pin prick in comparison. I looked up to the sky and talked to Westy and my old man. Tears came to my eyes, not of deep sadness but of joy that they were with me and I was living through them. There was no way I was going to stop unless taken away by a medical team. I could not walk anymore as the pain of the heel striking was excruciating, so I had to trot along in a kind of run. I ran and took rest breaks when the pain became too much to handle. A short pit stop and regroup kept me ticking along. It was good that I had the buffer of around a 50km lead so I could manage the last few days. We were still tracking well for a huge distance close to 900km, but we decided to stay as conservative as we could until the last 10/12hrs. There was still so much of the race left and if I ended up in the cabin immobilised for 12hrs my race was over.

Day 5

Apart from the constant pain management and frustrating issue that was hampering me, Day 5 turned out to be one of the most influential days I have had since starting this running adventure. Also taking part in the race and moving along quite steadily despite a shoulder problem was Wolfgang Schwerk. Now here was a living legend still gracing the multi day circuit and keeping all the youngsters honest. His record in multi days is second to none and he still sits just behind Yannis Kouros in the 24hr rankings and 6 day race. He has held the world record for the 3100 mile race and amassed over 100 distant records in his life to date. In the first few days I was in awe to be sharing the track with him and slowly began to give a small wave of acknowledgement when I did pass him on the course. Martin is good friends with Wolfgang and they have had a few battles on the multiday circuit before, so it had been great to listen to the stories of their meetings in the past and the respect they had for each other. At one stage when I passed Wolfgang on Day 5 and said G’day, he called out to me and accelerated to catch up. Not that I was moving like a steam train, but he must have been walking 😉 The next 10mins or so (it felt like an hour) I was engaged in a warm conversation with both advice and humour, mostly coming from Wolfgang. I was like a kid in a candy shop, but had to show a calm demeanour. I listened and soaked it all up, it was priceless. Seriously, this made my race. To have Martin Fryer on my side and crewing me, and running around the course in deep conversation with Wolfgang Schwerk, I was the luckiest multi day runner alive. I’m still pinching myself, but I believe you do make your own luck. If my leg gave in now, I still had won. Also, Day 5 was turning into an entertaining day on the leaderboard in the women’s race as well as the men’s. These ladies were going hard up the front and had been swapping places continually. Between Kristina, Lena and Sumie there were only a few km’s between them and the next few hours would potentially cement the positions. Kristina had been really smart with resting through the hot hours of the day. This would eventually pay dividends with the win.

Day 6

Thankfully I was physically able to control both my output and the pain and started into Day 6 with pretty much the same margin I had held for the last day or so. I know it might have looked a bit closer at home for those who had been following the race online, but we were controlling it the best we could. On that note, I am absolutely in awe about the support we had whilst over there. I did not go online at all during the race, but managed to speak to the girls a couple of times when I could sneak it in. This gave me a boost and them the reassurance that I was going ok.

That last day was a bit of a blur as I went through the motions to reach daylight. Once the sun rose, I still had 6 hrs to get to the finish. We were assured of the first spot and had kept the damage to the leg at a minimum. It was time to enjoy the experience and soak it all up. The support from trackside during the whole event from both the crews and race support staff was infectious and I didn’t want it to end. (Maybe I was hoping it was a 10 day 😉) The last hour was an hour to be remembered, the runners, crews and staff were bouncing. The pain and utter tiredness of the 6 days were forgotten, and it was like a Mardi Gras on a Saturday night. Smiles beamed limps were gone, even if only for a brief moment. I’ll will never forget the support received from everyone on the course. The supporter of the week though had to go to one of the Polish crew. The great man was out for at least 20hrs a day giving all the athletes support. ‘BRAVO!!’ was the main war cry. I carried my Aussie floppy hat that I bought whilst traveling and gave it to him in thanks. He was instrumental in my mental situation on each lap and I missed him when he slept.

Suddenly, I had 10mins to go until the 144 hour bell was going to chime. WTF!!! This is it. It was like a victory lap without the victory. I carried the flag and Bazza along the course just beaming and celebrating the moment. Any though of placing and distance had gone from my mind and the true appreciation of where I was and who I was with sunk in. We planned to finish just in front of our cabin so I could sit down and wait for the official measurer to come through( more like Martin had beers in the esky) With a few minutes to go Martin was following me round with the camera and told me we had to push it to make the cabin in time. I gave a final push and managed to put my marker down guarded by Bazza the mascot right in front of our cabin before the horn went off 😊

Mission accomplished. I had survived my first 6 day race and managed to take out the win. I turned to Martin and we bonded, yet again but this time it was surreal. After working together for the last few years, traveling prior to the race and planning both our lives this was different. What a team, I could not have done this without him. We had travelled to Europe and won the Emu 6 day race. I am fortunate to have a few great friends that I can make a team with and this is paramount to the success in these ultramarathons. I will be indebted to him forever, but I hope I will take these lessons forward with me into the future and he can live through them vicariously. I am forever in debt to my family who endure both my professional workload along with my running life.

Images: Mick Thwaites Facebook

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Dan
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

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