Just over a month ago, Chris Wilder took on the GNW250km and when he approached me about suppling his report, I was naturally very interested. What follows is an abridged version of Chris’ effort and what a fine one it was, leading him to the second fastest time recorded for traversing the entire thing.
An idea seeded a few years back that stuck with me. Big and bold, it would linger between synapses, whispering for me to wonder, persistent like I would need to be. The idea? I wanted to run the Great North Walk, all ~276km of it, in a single push.
The Great North Walk was revealed to the world in 1988, the same year that I was. Thirty years on we’re both a little well worn, have weathered a few storms, we’ve both seen ups and downs.
The start line
I planned for a midday start on the 28th of April, 2018. As goes the saying, the best made plans….. We were late getting out the door and then hit some unexpected traffic for the local ‘mattress drop-off’ (I had no idea this was a thing). Got a spot near Queen’s Wharf (12:15), strolled up with the support crew in tow, checked my watch (12:24), kissed the kid and the wife, hugged the supporting mate, mind racing, nervous shaking hands, slow by breathing, hit the go button and I was away (12:25), 276km to go.
Queen’s Wharf to Brunkerville Caltex
It was a pretty surreal experience, running through the streets of Newcastle then down onto Merewether beachfront. There are people everywhere enjoying the sand and sun and I’m facing a few hundred kilometres of trail ahead of me.
In other ultras, 100km and even 100m, I’ve been able to have a clear breakdown in my mind and envision each leg and then ultimately the finish line. But this thing is too bloody big. I couldn’t fathom it. It was overwhelming to try to comprehend the distance and what my body was going to do.
Headphones in. Churning legs. The big climb over Sugarloaf. A few phone calls to check in with the support crew. I was going too fast. I hit Brunkerville 15 minutes ahead of my crew. I attempted to clear the mind. Deep breaths and the rest. Poor planning, but the Grill’d burger was totally worth the wait.
Brunkerville to Congewai
I took it reasonably easy through this leg, the jungle section is gnarly at the best of times, but I do like it better at night. Each GNW sign winks at you through the trees as you skip and slip over rocks and roots.
Mark (my pacer) and I descend into the valley and plod along the road, I’m opting for some gentle walk, run, walk then run along the road. I switch my headlight off, it’s just after 11:00pm but the moon is bright and the cows are vocal. In my mind I’m starting to comprehend the scale of this thing, ‘two marathons down’ is ticking over in my head. Four and a half to go…
Congewai to Yarramalong
The comms tower climb felt good and we settled into a good flow along the next stretch of fire trail. I’d hike the hills with my poles then dump them on Steve (my next pacer) as we trotted the flats and downhills.
I forgot about the some of the climbing in this leg. Particularly the sting as we made our way up from the Basin T intersection. And it was just after this that I sunk into my first proper low patch. We were coming up on 4:00am and a tired wave came crashing down. It was a very slow finish to this third marathon. My legs felt a little heavy but my mind felt like a bag of bricks! Steve kept me moving well but there was a fair whack of walking along this stretch, ‘run to this next pole’, ‘come on mate, one more!’, ‘doing great mate, run two poles this time’.
We made it to the Yarramalong shops sometime around 6:30am. Food, clothes, feet check for some new socks, amenities, and into the back of the car for sleep. Yep, time for sleep… Come on brain, sleep… what the f?!?! All that fading on the trail, drooping eyelids and dozing on the run then I hit the pillow and the No-Doz kicks in. Or maybe it was adrenaline. Either way, I lay there for 30 minutes until my planned wake-up alarm and didn’t sleep a wink. Damn.
Yarramalong to Somersby
We ran into a hiker heading North, he was on day 8 and planning for about 15 days. We stopped to chat and exchange some stories but my drive to be moving forwards was too strong. I wondered if I should be embracing the spirit of this thing a little more, meet the people and hear the stories etc. But not now. Within seconds of stopping I had heard enough and although I kept smiling I knew I had to go.
Somersby to Patonga
Tim Fryirs was my PE teacher in high school and one of the characters who played a big role in shaping me through those years. This was the only subject I really enjoyed and thankfully it was the one that dragged my UAI up to a level that got me a spot in my Exercise Science degree. That path through uni and onto work as an Exercise Physiologist pointed me towards medical school and now a ‘Dr’ in front of my name.
The leg to Mooney Mooney is the ‘easiest’ one of the whole lot. 17km, mostly downhill, should be good for running but my slow legs prevailed. It was so hard to know at this stage how my legs should be feeling given I was coming up on 160km and still had over a 100 to go. Do I push? Do I save that push? What if I could push now but not later?
From Mooney Mooney to Patonga, I didn’t run more than a few steps in this whole leg. I knew I was way ahead of my projected schedule but I felt good and I was moving well. I was thinking about the finish line, somewhere in these hours I realised I could actually finish this thing.
Brooklyn to Cowan
Joe Ward has finished the GNW250 three times. Twice going from North to South and once heading South to North. He holds the current FKT (Fastest Known Time) at 49 hours and 5 minutes. My projected times had me arriving at Brooklyn sometime Monday morning but I was way ahead of schedule and it was around 11pm Sunday night that we pulled up at Brooklyn station to find Joe beaming at us in the dark.
The weather projections over the past fortnight talked about storms and I was so looking forward to this. My wife Carly stared blankly at me in one chat when I told her that I was hoping that it would rain through the whole thing. ‘That would be so cool! Imagine how much tougher that would make it.’ As Joe and I waved goodbye the sky above us split and my wish came true. Relentlessly the rain came down, it was bloody awesome.
Cowan to Thornleigh
I grew up in this bush. The trails through Berowra are littered with memories for me. Bike jumps here, water holes there. It’s a happy one for me and I felt good as we pushed up the climb to Berowra. I know the trail well but Gav Markey (my next pacer) took that understanding to another level, breaking down the hills into palatable chunks and drip-feeding them to me seamlessly.
Gav gave a subtle nudge that tapped into curiosity rather than force. ‘Come on, lets pick up a little run’, and so I did. Once, then once more, and before long Gav had me plodding slowly on the short flat sections. Only 10 or 20 meters at a time but it was profound in my mind.
We soon reached Galston Gorge and I piled into the car for my third and final nap. Upon waking, I had more caffeine, re-applied of the body glide, attempted some more tape on sore feet but they were so waterlogged it would matter little. Off we went again and I felt good, I was climbing and descending a little slower but still consistently, we continued to jog the short flat sections and discussed all manner of things.
Thornleigh to Woolwich
I knew I could make it by now. And I knew I was way ahead of time, but my feet felt cold and stiff and sore, very sore. That’s the bulk of what I remember through this leg. I told Nat what was going on and copped the friendliest ‘I don’t care’ possible. She gave some tough love in the softest of ways, ‘Cut them off, ignore the feet, they’re not there just keep moving.’
The Ferry and the Finish
This was surreal. Looking back at photos I was clearly shattered. I sat waiting for the ferry, my final fight along that road stretch actually pulled us 20 minutes ahead of Nat’s estimate so we had time to wait and soak it up before boarding. Commuters were on their way home from work, they stared awkwardly, attempting to hide their wonder, or maybe it was concern. In my mind it wasn’t over yet but it was close.
Off the ferry and I ran, and just like all the kilometres that got me here I wasn’t alone. The crew ran with me and I’ll never forget these moments. There was no pain, just satisfaction, I could feel the obelisk pulling me closer and then it was there in front of me. I lent over the fence and touched it, I was done.
I was the fifteenth GNW250 finisher in the second fastest time. In the days and then weeks that would follow the importance of this adventure would grow. It would swell within me each day, pride is not quite the feeling, it would be more about comfort and perspective. Real world problems would soon seem smaller, the daily grind a little smoother. I wanted time with my wife and son.