I could see the mist from my breath passing through the light of my head torch. My left leg lifting, then my right, but barely clearing the mossy knee-high log that sat across the trail. The darkness hugged the trail and my head torch created a lone circle of light. I swayed awkwardly to miss a vine, a palm leaf hung limply and brushed across my face. Not long to go now, not far, just another few small rises in the track, before I returned to civilisation. Midnight had come and gone. My mind focused on each step, then wandered around in thought as thick as jelly, then quickly focused again. Thoughts about the day that was – the excitement and uncertainty had now faded away. Hands pressing down against the top of my thighs, helping to push each step forward as the track headed upwards, yet again.
The journey was nearly over. The mission was almost complete and soon, so very soon, a beautiful stillness would return. The beauty of being able to sit down, to lay, to bask in a brilliant tiredness. The beauty of being able to afford the luxury of saying I dared to try, and now its over.
And so it begins
It all started just after daybreak the previous day. Almost one hundred of us toed the line. Nervous smiles, some people already pondering the day ahead, I tried to distract myself with small talk with runners from a local trail running club, the NUTRs.
The bell rings and the day begins. A gentle jog, more talking, some more distractions. Never let your mind think too far ahead – small goals – small steps during these first exciting and nervous moments.
A humid, fog-covered morning greeted us as we made our way atop the Blackall Range towards Kondalilla Falls. I talked with a woman from WA, we declare our desired finishing times, then it’s back to the present moment. Keep moving, save energy, use gravity, drink.
These warm tropical forests we were about to enter grow on a volcanic landscape dating back some 25 million years. It’s the land of the Jinibara People, the traditional owners of everything I can see. Today however, this ancient landscape was setting the scene for many epic personal battles.
The small track we are now on winds its way downwards through buttressed roots – steeply at times. I know full well the track ahead has a balance. If you go down, you’ll come back up again.
The mood is light, we talk when we can. I listen in on conversations as we ascend. A woman ahead talks about her previous races, she’s 55, battle worn from years of ultra marathons, but she has the energy to talk as if we were all sitting down sipping a morning coffee in the shade. A younger woman talks about her training – her injuries – I listen, I’m thinking of the climb, but not thinking too far ahead.
Hands pressed against thighs, I move upwards, climbing stairs, a photographer snaps an image – perhaps a smile will do. I’m soaked with sweat, I’ve got energy for now and that’s all that counts. My phone rings, I shuffle through my vest’s pockets, it’s my parents. “We’re thinking of you”, they say. A spectator walks in the opposite direction, “keep going”, she says, “just 88 km to go”. She laughs. The reality sets in, this is going to be a long day.
Back on a road now, it’s steep, but we walk, run, then walk again. Before long I’m running on gravel, then a narrow walking track, going down through dry eucalypts, letting gravity help me, then falling down more into rainforest, running and swerving before coming to a temporary halt on a suspension bridge across Baxter creek.
Back up again, palms dominate the canopy above, the leaves on the track are wet from the humidity. Forward motion is all that counts.
Someone, dressed as the grim reaper stands at a gate as we exit the national park. It’s not exactly the person I was hoping to see today.
Running along the earth-coloured concrete path I’m back to where all this started. Time to fill up some water at the first major checkpoint, some sunscreen then out the door of the hall. The sun has appeared and it’s already hot. I let my mind wander just a bit. Hurry up and get back into the forests, into the shade.
Greeting other runners coming in the opposite direction, we smile, say g’day – I guess we silently know this is going to be a tough day, but still we smile and greet each other. We thank volunteers as if each thank you gives us just a bit more energy.
What can distance teach us?
Events like these were part of my early life. Long events. Nothing this long, but long, nonetheless. These are events that force you to learn. You learn about yourself and others too. They teach you lessons of persistence and patience – sometimes just pure grit and determination and always lessons about bravery and how bravery often comes from the most unsuspecting people. The 55 year-old woman ahead of me on the last climb was brave – she looked it and spoke it. I think ultra runners are different from other athletes. Walk past them in the street and you could never guess the depths of their personalities, their strength or their sheer determination. That small, finely built person you just walked past might not be able to beat most people in a 5 km park run, but they sure as hell will keep running, walking and shuffling all day, all night if they have to — long after most people have given up, gone home and started to watch their first Saturday-night movie.
As Gary Cantrell, race director and creator of the Barkley 100, said in a film on the insanely difficult race, it’s only when there is a very real chance of failure, is success so joyful. This is not like the mindset required to complete a 10 km run, nor a marathon, not even a full distance ironman triathlon where the question for most, is time. Today, for most of us, time is secondary. The most important question is yet to be answered – can I actually finish?
Into the cauldron
Running and moving fast down the hill I pass other runners coming back up. They’re doing the 50 km event, and its nice to hear encouragement – it’s nice to see their faces – I shout encouragement back at them. I’m on my way down into the valley of Gheerulla Falls. The descent is steep in places and the sun is nearing its full height – there will be no hiding now. I make ground on other runners. I know this circuit as much as I want to know it. It’s hard and in the middle of the day the sun beats down and bounces back up off the rocks. Adding to this, the creeks are empty – its not quite the wet season. “Gosh I need a swim”, I think to myself. Now it’s all I can think of – swimming in the cold waters that were here only 4 weeks ago.
Running and walking and stumbling over rocks – it’s a case of finding the shade and moving on towards the next checkpoint and not too much thinking about the climb that lays ahead. I sit down for the first time, the volunteers at the checkpoint fill my bottles. They’re so helpful it’s as if they read my mind. If they can, they’ll know I’m tired. I leave their friendly smiles and walk past a group of people in fancy dress. Like a tiny Australian-bush version of the Tour de France without the bikes, we have our own appropriately small but colourful group of fans lining one of the toughest climbs. Allez allez, I think to myself in a vain attempt to conjure up visions of nice, cold European climbs. I approach the steepness – it comes soon enough, but so does the heat. It’s hot but each time I feel exhausted I look towards a slowly emerging scenery around me. It’s stunning, I’m hot, the track keeps going up – there’s no option but to keep moving along. I know the heat is getting to me when I attempt to swat a fly and nearly lose my footing. A grass tree’s needles poke me in the eye and I swear out loud. No, this is not time for anger! This is a time to keep smiling and get to the top.
I’m finally finding the track is less vertical but the heat remains so I’m now reduced to more walking then before. In fact I know there is a tap ahead near a bush toilet building. I start to obsess about its potential cold water. I dream of how its going to feel. I remember mention about an un-manned water station ahead. There it is. I stare ahead at the bottles. “Are they empty or full?” They’re full but fill my bottles painfully slow. I move across to the tap, lay under it and let the water drench me. “That feels so much better!”
A pass the photographer again, I mention something about I’m glad I’m running and not walking. Before long a tiny sign on a tree tells me I’m half way. Half way? I’m spent. This is the longest I’ve run since 1990. I’ve only been running again for a little over 6 months and I’m realising my body is at its limit. Now is the time to remember that survival mode I learnt as an 18 year old in my first Hawaiian Ironman. One step in front of the next. Think happy thoughts, think happy thoughts. Then another climb starts. It wasn’t hard when I did this section in training but now its mocking me.
I cross a gravel road and continue downhill. Downhills are quickly becoming equivalent to uphills. Both bring their share of difficulty at the best at times. Now, well now its becoming clear I’m not physically ready for an event of this size. Now I’m aware that the real test begins – the mental one.
I pass a couple who are doing the 50 km event. They tell me they’ve just had wine and cheese. “How bloody civilised,” I think to myself. Wait. What did they say? Too tired to chat much they tell me I’m looking good. Glorious liars!
I’m climbing again and I’ve resigned myself to the fact that running is no longer an option. I climb as fast as I can and come across a few more of the 50km people. They look tired — we’re all tired.
No question of quitting
Before checkpoint 4 I see another runner sitting on a log beside the track. He tells me he has a sore back and isn’t sure if he can make it to the checkpoint. “Its only a few hundred metres,” I say. Little did I know but in the next half hour we would team up and help each other more than we could have expected.
I reach the checkpoint. Tent, people, food, smiling faces. There goes Andy, a local Noosa runner, leaving the checkpoint and on his way to the finish. He’s no doubt had his own struggles, but what an inspirational race he’s had! He must be highly placed.
Finally there is my family. My wife Lyndal, my sisters-in-law, Jo and Donna, my mother-in-law, Joan. I keep repeating to myself silently, “its ok to stop, no ego, you have done enough for today. Come back next year with more miles in your legs”.
I sit in the chair. I try to say a few words but they come out all jumbled. Lyndal just silently fills my drink bottles. I know what she is saying, without even saying it. You’re not quitting.
The guy I’d met earlier sitting beside the track comes up to me. “If you’re going to keep going I will too,” he says. That’s it, I can’t quit – I feel obliged. Lyndal’s actions, my family being here in support and now another runner – and to top it off a volunteer at the aid station almost begs me not to quit – she even says it with a smile. Oh boy, now I have a sense of duty to finish this – 40 km to go.
I slide my head torch on so I’m ready for the darkness. “I’m Mark”, says the other runner. “Greg”, I reply, “its nice to meet you”. We move down the gravel road as it drags us lower and lower towards the dry creek crossing. Scrambling up rocky tracks the trail leads us towards another checkpoint. We talk, we talk about lots of things.
Mark needs my spare head torch as his is nestled in a bag at the next checkpoint and darkness is going to win this race. We need to stick together. The miles slip away and suddenly it feels like the lights have been turned off. It’s dark, pitch black, except for our head torches that paint circles of light on the track. Cane toads move jerkingly across our path, a black and white coloured Bandy Bandy snake harmlessly slides past. The next checkpoint brings a well lit relief – even soup – oh god – what great soup. In a kind of blur we complete a lap of the lake, chatting with one another and distracting ourselves from our predicament and before long and we are back at the checkpoint again – time for more soup, more friendly faces of the volunteers.
It’s now a matter of ‘all roads lead to home’. No more heading away from the finish now as every step we take brings us one step closer to home. Cruel and hidden hills block our path though. Hidden by darkness but the moonlight breaks through the trees just enough to provide glimpses of evidence that the climb ahead will still be a climb for some time to come. It doesn’t matter, my legs have reached a point of pain saturation. How much more can they hurt anyway? Hills, flats, downhills – they are all the same now. It’s beyond physical – its a mind game.
The final checkpoint is quiet now. Lyndal lifts her head up, she’s been sleeping but jumps up to prepare a cold drink. I sit and stare into the night. It’s strange how road trips, air travel, in fact any kind of constant movement all feels the same in the end. And when you stop, when the motion comes to a stand still – its so beautiful and peaceful.
I feel good now as I’ve finally achieved that tired but lovely trance-like state. Time to keep moving though. Back into the forests. Nothing can stop us now.
In those final few kilometres the excitement returns. I turn to Mark, “we did it mate”. We both manage a weary smile as we shuffle through the last few hundred metres.
We’re once again back at the place where all this started and when I see my wife, even one of the race directors, Alun is standing there, a rough wave of emotion washes over me. For a tiny millisecond I thought,” bloody hell I’m going to cry” – but I think tiredness quickly quashed that feeling. Instead I remember my promise to my wife when I said to her before the race. “Don’t worry, I promise I’ll finish healthy. What’s more I’ll have a great big smile”. Well the smile arrived and as she wrapped her arms around me I realised it was over. It’s time to ring that finish bell and be still for a while.
Comment about the event
Most caring group of organisers and volunteers I’ve ever come across in any event I’ve done. The course itself ? Well you just have to do it to find out just how beautiful and challenging it is.
Post race thoughts
Time to start training for next year so I can finish before the local tavern closes.