Earlier this year, Steve Domonkos became the member of an exclusive club as he ran the Great North Walk 250km trail. With the GNW ultras coming up this weekend (yikes!), we thought it timely to publish Steve’s gigantic effort to cover the entire thing. And as if this wasn’t enough punishment, both Steve (along with Nick Barlow who began this attempt with Steve), will be lining up for some more in the miler come Saturday morning – good stuff!
For now, grab a coffee or tea and take in the best that GNW has to offer from Steve’s experience.
It’s Tuesday evening, I can see my ankles slowly starting to poke through, they currently resemble me having trod through a couple of mangoes with the same consistency to touch. I slept all the way through last night for the first time since Wednesday last week. It was Monday morning, approx. 2am that I sat in the bathroom calling out for Bek to go grab some Nurofen as the pain in my feet seemed to echo from my toes to the heel and back through the soles of my feet. As I sat there thinking this was just the shittiest feeling in the world I very quickly closed my eyes and recalled turning right off The Point Rd onto Valentia Street, seeing Woolwich Pier, then my two eldest girls and as I embraced them I allowed some salty water to leave my eyes.
So how did we get to this?
Going back three months, after talking to Bek, Andy DuBois from Mile27 and Nick Barlow, I made the decision to have a crack at the Great North Walk, all 250km of (math tells me it’s closer to 270km). The plan was hatched and slowly we started putting in place everything we needed to that would hopefully see Nick Barlow and myself completing the entire GNW.
For me personally the three months leading up to the 31st May could not have gone any better. Solid training with Andy saw us completing just over the 450km for the month of April at the peak of training. I called out that I would stay off the drink, something I do have a taste for, the result being 29 of the 30 days in April being alcohol free and 27 of the 31 for May. Just over 11Kg of lard was stripped off the frame and apart from a late scare with a small quad strain we were ready to go.
Nick, Bek and I drove up to Newcastle on the Wednesday night and landed in our Airbnb accommodation. A comfortable 2-bedroom space that looked to have been a converted shop front. That night we walked to the start, took some pictures and made the decision that it was just a little too far to walk (which sounds funny, 1.3km from the start, nah, we’ll drive, it’s too far to walk) in the morning. A quick call to Chris Wilder confirming he was still on to see us off and out of Newcastle, check of the GPS unit, gear, and off to bed.
31st May, Day 1
So where is the start, it was here last night? We jumped in the car and proceeded to drive to the start only to not be able to find it. With a light rail going in we were unable to “get across” and found ourselves driving down dead-end streets, unable to get to Queens Wharf. I thought to myself, here we go, we cannot even find the start, how the hell are we going to do this thing? We eventually dropped the car and walked around, across, and finally to the start where our guide and all things related to owning the 2nd quickest known time on the course was waiting for us.
As a small aside, Chris turned 30 last month and celebrated his milestone by completing GNW250 in a red hot time of 51hrs, 29 mins, tore the course apart and is the owner of the 2nd FKT (Fastest Known Time).
A quick photo with the three of us, a kiss and a good luck wish from Bek and off we trotted. Thankfully for Nick and I, Chris knew the first section of the track well and comfortably led us out of Newcastle. Neither Nick nor I had seen this first 26 odd kms of the start and also for me, say the last 20 odd kms at the end, it was nice knowing Nick & I did not have to worry about navigation.
The course took us down through Merewether along the coastline, a spectacular backdrop for us to start this run on. I was blown away by how many people were out surfing, running, exercising, there was a real buzz, a hive of activity for 6:20am on a Thursday morning. This first section was an easy start for the two of us. Chris snapping away with the phone camera and the three of us just getting into an easy groove, nothing stressful. We reached Teralba comfortably and arrived to see Bek all set up in the park near the train station. Food, supplies and replenishments for the next section ready to go.
At this point we dropped Chris, Bek taking him home so that he could then turn around to go to work again. What a legend, came off a late shift which was extended by some hours, back onto a train just after 4am to join us, and the now back to work. Thank you Chris for a perfect start to the challenges ahead.
Refueled and restocked, Nick and I were now on familiar territory. Nick having finished 4 x GNW milers and a 100km, I lucky enough to have finished one of each. We took off very conservatively, walked every hill, jogged the flats and down hills. During this section we bumped into a couple who struggled to believe what we were doing. Overall to be honest a very comfortable 2nd section to the run that saw us landing in Brunkerville, our 2nd CP at approx. the 40.40km mark.
Surprisingly the climb out from the Caltex and up Heaton Gap provided no source of concern. A slow and steady pace saw us climb to the lookout, then onto the easy 3-4km of dirt road before the “rain forest”. We simply took a sensible, conservative approach and found Bek @ the Watagan HQ camp ground. While only about 4pm it was here I found myself for the first time feel the cold. Rugged up with skins and a fleece, feed and looked after by Bek, we again took off knowing that we would say goodbye to the sun on this stage and welcome in the evening.
Common-sense should have told me that a fleece was not required for as soon as we got into a bit of a trot, the body warmed up and we were good to go. Again, a non-descript section for the both of us which became spectacular the moment we stepped off the ridgeline and onto Congewai Rd in the valley. Here we were greeted by the most spectacular, low moon rising I have ever seen. It felt like you could reach out and touch it. So with headlights off, Nick and I jog / walk / jogged our way to the next intersection where my beautiful wife would be waiting for us for the last of her 4th CP for the day.
Here Bek had set up camp on the side of the road, food was heated and warmed both of us through. Some 75.50km down, I felt, to be honest, sensational. Alert, happy with the progress and keen to get moving. We made the decision that Nick needed some shuteye so he was wrapped in his sleeping bag, that then wrapped in a tarp (block out the wind) and he had 20 mins in there. When he rose, I threw the thermals on as it was better than fresh, backpacks full of water and very heavy as this next section was going to see us out overnight for another 35km to Cedar Brush Track head. The climb out of Congewai up to the comms tower is just never pleasant, the saying I have “it is what it is”, relates to anything that comes your way and this climb is no different.
Again in the end the climb itself came and went and when we reached the ridge line I quickly figured out way I had changed into the thermal top + fleece, it was cold. Not just cold, but cut straight through you cold. It was also here I was attacked for the first time with the sleep monsters. I looked at the time, 10pm, not really late but I cannot tell you how tired I suddenly felt. Thankfully Nick had a number of no-doz and within 15-20 minutes of taking one, it was like a hit, I was back and ready to run…. We took the night section very slow, Nick had some running repairs (knife out, cutting shoes apart) to allow for more toe room and as we approached 01:45am we saw, of all things, a headlight coming towards us. 1:45am, the last thing you expect to see is well, anyone. To those that know her, this will come as no surprise but the Beautiful Kirrily Dear decided it would be a good idea to park the car up on Walkers Ridge Rd somewhere and start trekking in the opposite direction knowing she would “bump” into us at some stage. We were greeted with laughter and hollowing you could hear back in Congewai, a thermos of warm tea and a massive pick me up for Nick for the next 3.5-4.0 kms as we are heading back towards Kirrily’s car. Here we had some corn chips and a banana (athletes), Kirrily jumped into the car and Nick and I now only some 6kms from seeing our next CP.
1st June: Day 2
At approx. 04:00am as we came off the ridgeline onto Brush Creek Road, we were greeted by the most amazing roadside CP you could ever hope for! Sleeping bags rolled out, a fire providing light and heat, chairs, blankets, food all ready to go. Nick and I settled in for a feed, and it was decided that the best course of action was to catch some shut eye here. Into the sleeping bags, the tarps wrapped around us, I found myself so warm and comfortable that it felt like I instantly fell asleep. The CP master responsible for this utopia is the extremely talented, knowledgeable, and supremely organized Clare Holland who would stay with us for the majority of the day. Clare was ably assisted by arguably the best neighbour you could hope for, John Clark.
Clare called John on the way to Bek (to pick up supplies) to ask if he wanted to jump in and assist where he could, resulting in the warm welcome Nick & I needed. Clare tells me she allowed us to sleep for 25 minutes and then with some coaxing, we hit the road again. Some of you reading this will know the road from Cedar Brush to Yarramalong, nothing tricky, it just does seem to drag on for a short 10km ish stretch. We found ourselves shuffling along, playing leap frog with Clare in the car who would drive forward and then read out message of support as we shuffled past. This went on until we found ourselves land in Yarramalong. 121km down!!!!
A longer than expected stop here and again Clare offered to drive to the top of Bumble Bee Hill Rd and wait for us there in case we needed anything, Nick and I shuffled off up the track. It was here that again I was attacked for the second time by the sleep monsters. For me, when they attack I feel as though I am going to walk off the track, I feel like I am swaying, struggle to keep my eyes open and feel like the best course of action is to stop and sleep. Having just slept I fought against them and with the assistance of a second no-doz tablet I found I was good as gold within 20 minutes.
Clare saw us off @ the bottom of Cherry Lane and Nick & I stepped back into the bush for our push towards Somersby. I hope I am not stepping out of line, Nick was not having a good time of it. We struggled to get into anything that resembled a run, the pace consisted of manly walking and for Nick it was a sensational lift again to see a friend of his in the form of Wyatt Leung joining us near the equestrian paddocks. This I think took Nick’s mind off the trail as Wyatt with his infectious smile did his best to deflect Nick’s attention from the trails. As the three of us entered the last little rain forest section before the climb up to Somersby I was greet by another “random” in the form of Mark Hope, a Terrigal Trotter who a month earlier had also paced Chris Wilder in his GNW250 assault. In advising Mark that Nick was behind me with Wyatt I pressed onto Somersby, was then caught up by Mark again and the two of pushed through to Somersby shops where I did what any athlete would do mid run…..throw down a bacon and egg roll.
Here Nick had some hot chips, Clare again replenished our supplies for the next leg and the now 4 of us were off!
Somersby – Mooney Mooney. This is actually a very nice little section, a lot of it is runnable if your legs allow, zero to very little climbing and with some solid food in the belly I felt great. The walk to Mooney Mooney went well, nothing major and we reached Mooney Mooney as the sun was again about to set. Here I was lucky enough to see Bek and two of my girls which made for a very nice surprise. Clare was also here to complete the change over of gear (into Bek’s car) and it was decided to have another 25 sleep to top-up the batteries. We said goodbye to our two new friends in Wyatt and Mark but such is the spirit in this kooky running community that we then picked up Paul Bernard ( a friend of Nick’s) and also another Terrigal Trotter in the form of superstar Grant Brisbin (2nd overall in the Buffalo Stampede…Grand Slam!). During the next section I would learn just how talented Grant is and just so cool for another runner who we did not know to come out and join us.
Sooooooo, just over 100 miles down, a gnarly 25-26km section coming up, sun going / gone down, the (new) four of us headed out of Mooney Mooney, Patonga beckoned. This is a particularly slow section at any time, let alone when you have over 160km in your legs and the section did not fail to hurt us. Slowly the km’s were wilted away and come somewhere around 12:30am, Grant & I came into the Patonga with Nick and Paul coming in a couple of minutes later. Here the crewing duties were handed over to some very good friends of mine Dallas Burnes & Jake Bevan. Neither of them are runners, neither any idea of why the F@#$ they out there for other than to give Nick and I a helping hand. Dallas & Jake had set up a sensational CP in the rotunda where again hot food was the order of the night. Rice (or pasta, I genuinely can’t remember), some soup all went down an absolute treat. Nick and Paul came in and Nick, I am told ( I was in a chair and not getting up) shuffled to the GNW post and gave it the obligatory kiss).
I must be honest here, (as honesty should always be the manner of the day), I held grave concerns for Nick. Not for his health or wellbeing, but for his ability to continue. The day that passed us was a tough day for Nick and credit where credit is due, Nick pushed on through, at every stage trying to get passed that feeling, that hurt that was not allowing Nick to get into a trot. Forward momentum had slowed to a shuffle, and so it was that the Mooney Mooney – Patonga section chewed through even more of Nick’s reserves to the point where Nick made the decision that with the pace @ hand, the way he was feeling, he would come back another day to knock over the track.
Dallas & Jake packed up the CP, we bid farewell to Grant who unselfishly had stayed with us on this last section and headed home, thank you Grant.
Dallas’s car was loaded up with the gear, Nick, Paul Bernard and I jumped into Jake’s car and off we drive back to Mooney Mooney. Thanks Paul for both the hit out and also getting Nick home safely. Jake and I then drove around to Brooklyn the “final” push towards Sydney.
Jake’s mobile had a couple of text’s come through and to delight (I don’t want to use stoked again!) it was Gavin Judd, a very good mate of mine who was loitering, waiting around for the arrival time @ Brooklyn, he was in for run. Bloody sensational. 1:45am, heading into the 2nd night and not only did I have a punter to join me but one of my oldest and most trusted friends. From memory I jumped out of Jake’s car quick smart, no waiting around, bid farewell and there was Gav. Dallas was now up to Cowan to try and grab some shuteye himself and to be honest, I was pumped. We were on the south side of the Hawkesbury River, by no means finished but now, glimpses of the obelisk were coming clearer and clearer in my imagination.
I can’t tell you how good that Brooklyn – Cowan section felt. Gav and I jogged the flats, the downhills, walked the hills and in a little under 3 hours were crossing the train tracks of Cowan station, a great run.
Poor Dallas was trying to sleep, keep warm and waiting for us @ Cowan, this CP for mine, was as cold as it got. It was so so cold, we really struggled to keep warm. On arriving Dal got up and straight into heating some food, poor Gav stood around, just getting cold but in fairness once we had refuelled we were again quick to be on our way. Next stop was Crosslands and with the magic 200km mark behind us, again I was genuinely feeling pumped. Gav was still with me and we headed off back into the bush.
Unbeknown to be, another Terrigal Trotter in Bruce Litterick was making his way down from the Central Coast. He had seen Dallas post an update that we had just left Cowan, he was on the train, rang Bek, Bek rang Dallas to go back to Cowan (as Bruce had some gear he needed at the end of his run), Dal back to Cowan, Bruce arrived and then set off to catch Gav & I…..get all that! Gav & I had made it to the top of Berowra Waters when this “random” caught us, introduced himself and joined the adventure. What a cool group ultra-runners’ are, a 4:15am wake up call to join a no-body on his run, thank you Bruce.
A sensational morning running as the sun came up, Gav had family duties and peeled off @ the Berowra entry point to the GNW. Gav, hopefully you’ll see this, to have you join me for the midnight section was unreal, made for km’s to disappear that much more comfortably.
Bruce and I then dropped back into the valley and through to Crosslands where we beat Bek and the girls (who were back on crewing duty) into the camp. Dallas was knocking out zeds in the car, Bek coming into the campground a couple of minutes later.
It was here I enjoyed one of the most surreal / nonchalant comments of the run, coming from my eldest girl. It went something like, “hey dad, you look good, good job…..hey look, flying fox, see ya dad”. This resonates with me for a couple of reasons, one more so than others in that for them, seeing dad doing an ultra is now second nature, it is their new normal. Rather them out there crewing than seeing me knock back cans on lounge watching tv… just a personal moment I genuinely liked….
It was also here that someone else joined the run, someone that would stay with me until the CBD, someone that would not stop smiling, literally for the rest of the 55 odd kilometre run, one of the nicest guys I have had the pleasure of meeting in Brad Smithers. A wonderful addition to our merry group of men, Brad was infectious with his story telling, asking what and how we needed to run, in front, behind, talking, no talking and again guys, when we left Crosslands, in under 90 minutes we found ourselves @ Galston Gorge with a spring on our step that I did not think was possible. Dallas had headed home back to Wollongong for some well-earned sleep with Bek and girls again providing warm soup, supplies, lollies (I think for the girls) and again off we trotted. Next stop Thornleigh.
GG to Thornleigh
Previous to moving to the Central Coast Bek & I lived in Westleigh, the tracks around Hornsby, Fish Ponds down the gorge and Crosslands I knew very well. We travelled well in leaving the Gorge, the climb out was simple, slow and steady, we got into a trot once we reached the top, then down to the steel bridge where we took a right and traversed “the old course” to Fish Ponds. This all went well however from Fish Ponds my mental wheels fell off for really the first time in the run. For some reason, on reaching and leaving Fish Ponds every step was a chore, every step felt like a step in the wrong direction. I kicked my toes into rocks more times than I care to recall, Brad did a sensational job trying to keep things upbeat, taking the lead here as I was unfamiliar with the track south of Westleigh, but with every climb, there was another descent and I must admit, I absolutely hated this section. In realty, if the worst of the run is some 8-9 kms that gave me grief, you would take that any time so it was with a Cheshire cat like smile when we finally reached Thornleigh station and then 5 mins later the next CP.
What a massive lift in energy this CP proved to be. Beyond any expectation I had the pleasure of Bruce since Berowra Waters, Brad from Crosslands and now as we came into the CP I had to hold back a little bit of salty water as I saw, Nat Best (with son Lachi), Bek and our girls, Chris Wilder’s beautiful mum Jo had come down, her grandson in tow, another mate David, and then some salty water did leave my eyes when I saw Nick Barlow come down with Allison Lilley. I was so so happy to see Nick had come out I cannot tell you, there is the measure of the man right there. Allison Lilley….Allison needing no introduction.
I have forgotten someone here, who is it? That’s right, the owner of the FKT for GNW250, 3 time finisher, twice North to South and another South to North for good measure, all time seriously good guy and massive supporter of all things running (and GNW), Joe Ward. I was introduced to Joe when Nick and I had a run up @ Mt Solitary back in January and on that day things went pear shaped for me. I was sitting in the boot of my car when Joe ran passed, Nick said hello, quickly introduced Joe and from there I cold called Joe to pick his brains on all things GNW. Joe, from the start was so supportive, so open to sharing his knowledge and then the have Joe complete the run was a genuine mind blow.
Unbeknown to me he & Brad are great friends and with that Brad with the mentality of in for a penny, in for pound made the decision to continue through and with that, Joe, Brad and I left Thornleigh for the penultimate CP in Lane Cove. *Note: Joe not only joined as pacer/support, I went to pick up my backpack only to see Joe already wearing it, Joe would double pack from Thornleigh to Woolwich Pier allowing me to run without weight……legend.
Now running with Joe & Brad was a trip to say the least. Bad jokes from Thornleigh down to the back of Turramurra, banter between the two and on top of all this, for some reason, we were genuinely flying (at least in my mind we were). We were really travelling. I had no backpack, just a handheld, Joe spewing verbal encouragement and such a positive grasp on life that if you didn’t know him you might think it was all fake rah rah rah (Brad assures me this is all Joe), it was such a sensational way to be coming to the end of this run, I couldn’t be happier.
SO, the definition of kooky as a new meaning. About 5-10 minutes before we reached Lane Cove, Joe asked me if I smoke or ever had, which I have not. He asks the three of us to stop on a bridge, nice outlook in front of us, and proceeds to light up an imaginary cigarette! That’s right, Joe lights up the cigarette, takes a big old drag on it, passes it to me and invites me to join. I do what anyone who has been up for near on 60 hours, I drag back on the imaginary cigarette, get reprimanded by Joe for hogging the smoke, takes it off me, hands it Brad, Brad has a drag, then Joe, me again, “hold it in Steve, that’s it, now breath it out, how good is that Steve he asks”? Joe you are f$#% in the head, we need to run, Joe laughs and off we go.
Lane Cove – Penultimate CP
We ran so well that Bek is pulling into the car park as we are looking for them, I can’t recall the time but again we ran well. Gav Judd was good enough to come down and say hello again, we tried for a quick stop and then…..Woolwich Pier beckoned. Joe & Brad were keen to try and cover as many km’s as possible before sundown and I now know why. The first say 8km of this last section was fine, nothing serious in terms of climb and navigation was ok however some of the signposts started to get more and more hidden, harder to spot. Again I am so grateful that I had not one but two seasoned punters with me, with 3 x sets of eyes we found our way into Hunters Hill ok and it was funnily enough here, with sub 6kms to go that my mental wheels fell off. Now I don’t know what the history of the GNW for these 5kms is but we took more lefts and rights than Ali has thrown. I found that every time we took a turn not to get excited as there was another left, left, right and right again just up the road. This last hour so was tough, Joe and Brad were pushing to ensure we caught the 7:24pm ferry, by this stage I had allowed for the pain in my toes, feet, ankles, shins to get into my head, to allow the pain to slow me down and to at times, look and sound like a whinging little such and such. So it was with no emotion that as we jogged up The Point Road and Brad leading by 20-30 metres called out “right here), I gave it no thought.
As I approached the intersection I looked at the sign post, Woolwich Pier, I still did not allow myself to believe it was done so I rounded the intersection and there it was. I was still composed allowing the enormity of reaching the finishing line to sink when my two eldest daughters came running up the street to hug and greet. It was here I completely lost my lollies. Crying like a school child I embraced the girls, Mackinley looking up at me confused, “why are you crying dad”, Joe and Brad giving me the space to enjoy my girls before coming over and joining in with the congratulations.
So somewhere around 6:40pm we landed on Woolwich Peir, Joe and Brad had done a spectacular job in seeing me through to the end, Brad having stayed with me for the final 55km, both Joe and Brad catching the ferry to the city for the final stretch. My two eldest girls with me and another very good mate of mine Peter Wendt, also coming down to see us from Woolwich Pier to the city.
Woolwich Pier – Macquarie Park (Obilisk)
The body cools down very very quickly and the crew quickly threw thermals, a fleece, a blanket (Bek left this with the girls). It is hard to put into the words the exact feeling at this stage. For me, whether it’s a training run or a race, my typical first emotion is relief. Relief to have finished, relief that if I have run with someone I have not let them down, just relief. This time was very different. At the time and for a couple of days afterwards I could not get into my head that we had just completed #GNW250. For me I had compartmentalised each section. I could see Newcastle – Teralba, or Crosslands to Galston Gorge but not all of it. All I know as I sat with the girls was that we had finished.
As the ferry pulled into Circular Quay I can only imagine the image that faced the thousands in town for the Vivid Light Festival. We disembarked from the ferry, still wrapped in a blanket, Joe with camera in hand capturing the final couple of minutes as we approached the obelisk. Bek had commandeered the PA system on an ambulance that was parked next to the park, I remember some hollering over the PA, my sister Kati Boehmer had made the trip in to see us finish and with the smile Ann Hathaway would be proud of I finally got to stand in front of the obelisk.
6:09am Thursday – 7:52pm Saturday (61:43)
From sitting down on the wharf to as I write these words I am beyond grateful for having been given the chance to attempted #GNW250. I wish I was more of a wordsmith to better articulate what it has meant to me. Finally, after about a week the accomplishment did dawn on me. Thursday night I was sitting in the lounge when finally all the sections of the trail, all the pieces of the puzzle come together and I could finally see the #GNW250 in its entirety, the sum of all the little pieces came together and now as I finish this off I look back with a massive smile on my face, still blown away that I can count myself a member of this very small club, and think about the words Joe Ward whispered to me as we ran the final section again and again, “that this will be a life changing experience, the #GNW250 will change your life, your perspective”, and it has. Thank you.