Alpine Challenge – 23 & 24 November 2019
The Start: It was 5:00am and here I was standing in the early morning alpine chill with about 100 other runners waiting for the starters gun for my first 100 miler. As I waited I briefly reflected on 2019 and how I had got here. After pushing myself to the limit and doing the Buffalo grand slam back in April (a series of three runs over three days totalling 130km and climbing the equivalent of Mt Everest) I was looking for the next challenge and decided to give into the baiting from Mark, my physio, and sign up for my first ‘miler’. Of course not just any miler, I had to go for the Alpine Challenge, widely considered to be one of the toughest runs in Australia with unpredictable weather, limited course markers, tough alpine terrain and an organiser, Paul, that might best be described as eccentric.
It all seemed like a good idea until my knee decided to packed it in back in June which meant I wasn’t able to run in July or August. So here I was feeling underdone and apprehensive. Underdone because my knee wouldn’t tolerate a full training schedule with the lead up to the race. Apprehensive because at 4:00am we were told that the course had been changed again – following bushfires we’d been told on Friday evening that they’d cut off the 40km Bogong loop and added a second Harrietville/ Mt Feathertop 60km loop. After some fairly ‘frank’ feedback from various runners about having to do an extra 20km and 1500m climb the organisers decided to drop off the run to Warby Corner and instead run along a section which the 36km runners would be doing later that morning. Fortunately that brought the run back to 160kms, unfortunately no one quite knew the route and seeing as that section wasn’t marked the start was delayed 30 mins while Paul tried to persuade some of the faster runners that it was fine to run off in the dark and not be quite sure where they were going! Anyway, that gave me time to quickly consult with my support crew, Anne and Magic, to sort out further changes in drop bags and meeting places, hardly the ideal start to a race of this type which really needs to be meticulously planned!
Anyway my reflections came to an abrupt end at the sound of the starters gun (Paul yelling go) and we headed off into the early morning darkness.
Start to Loch car park: After all of the twists and turns pre-start the first leg to Langford’s Gap went off without any dramas. Despite a nervous night’s sleep it was a pretty easy 11kms with flat terrain and largely fire trail so I got to the check point feeling fresh but not totally into the swing of things; did a quick top-up of supplies, calculated my time to the next check point and headed off.
Another 11kms saw me pull into the Pole333 checkpoint feeling like I was starting to get some rhythm going so after a quick number check I headed off to Loch car park, another 15kms away. This leg was a little more challenging then I’d expected, although only fairly short, the first half follows a series of poles along the ski fields with a trail less than a foot wide, so after about 3-4kms a bit of soreness in the abductors was coming through.
Fortunately this trail didn’t last long opening out as I hit the first decent descent followed by a short 400m climb and before I knew it I was at Loch car park (about the second highest point on the course) where Anne and Magic were waiting to top me up with water, sunscreen and supplies. By this time the weather was starting to heat up and one of the problems of the multiple course changes was about to hit home. Although still quite a pleasant 14C up the top of Mt Hotham, the next section down into Harrietville which was originally going to be in the cool of the evening would instead be in the heat of the day – predicted to be in the low 30s – far from ideal running conditions.
Bon Accord Spur to Harrietville: Anyway from Loch you head along some up and down trail for a couple kilometres before hitting the Bon Accord Spur. The Bon Accord trail is a classic alpine descent, steep, loose rocks I slipped and slided down about 1200m over 5kms desperately trying to avoid doing a ‘face plant’, tearing down the mountain semi-out-of-control, while passing a bunch of runners – I loved every minute! Once down Bon Accord the trail flattens off and goes along a beautiful river for about another 5kms to meet up with my crew again at Harrietville.
By this stage the heat was really getting to me and after a solid eight and a half hours I decided to break from my usual rush in and rush out approach at the checkpoint and sat down re-hydrated, checked my feet and equipment and recovered. Unfortunately I could already feel that the descent of Bon Accord had taken its toll and the all too familiar throbbing of my toes told me I’d be losing my big toe nails yet again!
Feathertop – first ascent: Anyway after taping the toes and feeling refreshed I bade farewell to Anne and Magic and headed off for Mt Feathertop – a climb of about 1250 metres in the heat of the day. Despite the heat the climb up Mt Feathertop went surprisingly well, it was a tough 3hr climb but with my poles out and a solid routine of hydrating every 10 mins and having a Nuun every hour I was climbing well, getting to Federation hut checkpoint feeling reasonably good about things – until I realised that I still had a final 250m to climb up a brutal steep narrow rocky track to get to the top! Feeling somewhat cheated and knowing that following the course change I had to do this loop twice I headed up. However, getting to the top about 25 mins later was well worth it, with panoramic views of the region and a well-earned opportunity to lie back to catch my breath and watch the world go by.
It was also a good chance to check my feet which after 80kms were now starting to feel the rigours of the alpine terrain – I was sure I had somehow picked up a pile of sand as the balls of my feet were feeling sore however little did I know that it wasn’t sand but the first signs of some nasty blister problems emerging…
Diamantina Spur to Pole333: after carefully picking my way down Feathertop I headed off along the Razorback track toward Diamantina Spur, a deceptively short section of only about 5kms with a series of descents and rises each one of which you think will be the last before you are confronted with another and then another. Then just as you are convinced that you must be in a real life version of Ground Hog day you suddenly drop 500m down loose rock and at times not much trail to the Kiewa River. By this stage it was approaching 6:00pm and with only 75kms done I could see a 24hr finish was looking pretty unlikely. The heat had also taken its toll and after running a bit I quickly went back to hiking as a bunch of 100km runners walked past me…it was about this time when I caught myself thinking how nice it would to be only doing the 100km and only have another 25kms to go. Quickly dismissing the thought I put my head down and ploughed on, missing the turnoff to Blair’s Hut as I did so and adding another couple of kilometres on the trail before I realised my mistake! After sorting out where I was, I headed up yet another climb – this time an ‘easy’ 700m to Weston’s Hut before I hit the narrow trail on the snow fields as I raced against the light to get to Pole333 before it got dark – a pretty arbitrary target but by this stage it was all about the little mind victories.
Getting into the Pole333 as the last bit of light disappeared I was relieved to see that they had managed to get some proper supplies to the checkpoint. At the briefing the previous evening we’d been warned that there was only going to be about 100 litres of water and with the changes to the course for the 100kms and miler it was going to be a case of first come first served so being told I could take as much water as I liked was a great relief. With the sun gone and the wind starting to pick up it was also time to get out the thermal top, gloves and buff before I started to feel the effects of the alpine chill.
Into the night: Heading off from Pole333 was surprisingly easy. At the briefing we were told its called ‘Mortein Corner’ because competitors drop like flies however I didn’t have any real thoughts of stopping or even converting to the 100km (a simple case of turning left toward Falls Creek instead of right into the night) by this stage it was all about the process and off I headed. At first realising that the course terrain hadn’t let me really stretch out for a while I decided to run to make up some time and maybe push for a sub 30hr. However after about 1 – 2 kms I realised that wasn’t going to work as the left knee was just not working and I was regularly stumbling so in an effort to try and preserve the body I decided the only way I was going to get through the remaining 90kms would be to save my running for the downhills. So head down, butt up I followed the trail over the top to Loch Car Park covering this leg in what I thought was reasonable time, it wasn’t until about 1 1/2 km from the car park when I came across Magic and Victor who had come out to find me that I realised my time was blowing out. Anyway the three of us got to Loch Car Park as I reached the 100km mark sitting down for the first time since leaving Mt Feathertop 8hrs ago. As I sat in the warmth of the hut with the team around me (and Magic getting changed to act as my pacer) all I could think about was the next stage and powering on. Little did I realise that the more sensible people were now calling it quits with the radio buzzing with the news of DNF’s and milers converting to the 100km.
Loch to Harrietville: Before heading off with Magic it was also time to try and figure out some finishing logistics. Originally the grand plan was simple – I would do the run in 24hrs, finish at about 4:30am, get a few hours sleep and then share the 7 ½ hour drive home with Anne. However it was now 1:00am, I still had 60kms to go and even on a best case scenario would be looking at finishing around noon. Anne meanwhile had been up for 22hrs driving on roads of variable quality to get to the checkpoints so would be in no state to drive back to Sydney if she didn’t head off and get some sleep. As it was, the drive back to the apartment was 2hrs away on winding alpine roads so it was time to make a call. Agreeing that the crew would do a drop bag at Harrietville, I stocked up on gear and said farewell to Anne, Victor and Corby while Magic and I headed out as snow flurries started to dust the car park. The trip from Loch to Harrietville was uneventful although going down the Bon Accord Spur in the dark was a case of slipping from one rock to another and with any momentum proving tough as the knee was absolutely not tolerating any real running. Pulling into Harrietville just as dawn broke, I was relieved to stop, top up my supplies from the drop bag Anne had left earlier and then before I thought too much, start again, to take on Mt Feathertop for a second time.
Harrietville to Feathertop to Diamantina: Climbing the trail to Mt Feathertop in the early morning we were getting a bit worried about the smoke which was getting thicker and thicker. Although we figured this must have been from the fires at Bogong we also wondered whether a new fire had broken out that we hadn’t heard of. However, knowing that a group were about 30 mins ahead of us we figured it must be relatively safe figuring once we saw them running back down we know we were in trouble!
Buoyed on by Magic’s reassuring words that we must be almost at the top we marched on, got to Feathertop only 20 mins slower than the first ascent in just over 3 hours and laid back to enjoy the view and the early morning scene. However, with the sun starting to beat down and temperature rising I knew I was going to regret not taking Anne’s suggestion to have a change of shirt for later in the day.
From Feathertop we headed down toward Diamantina with Magic again suggesting we were almost there only to get to the top of the crest to see there was another one to go. Eventually we did get to the last crest and slipped and slided down the spur to the Kiewa River. Again I took off my shoes looking for the sand that I was sure must have accumulated on the descent only to realise that it wasn’t not sand that made my feet feel like they’d been through a meat grinder but two giant blisters covering the balls of both feet.
Blair’s Hut to Pretty Valley: From the Kiewa River to Pole333 we trudged on, knowing that there was no point stopping at this stage despite every step becoming increasingly painful. Despite that, all I could think of was to keep on moving so instead of getting some first aid at Pole333 I told the crew I was feeling good and headed off for the short trudge across the nice and lovely soft boggy ski fields to Pretty Valley. By the time I got to Pretty Valley every step was painful so I finally sat down and asked if they had anything for blisters. Which of course being only 10kms from the end they didn’t!! Fortunately one of the volunteers had brought her knitting bag and she fished out a needle and some band-aids and we did some running repairs. Meanwhile Magic, who had been pacing and encouraging me for the last 15 hours had to head off (under the rules pacers were only allowed for two sections) so it was down to me to do the last section by myself. By this stage, finishing wasn’t a question it was just a matter of when.
Pretty Valley to finish: From Pretty Valley the last 15km was up along the road to Mt McKay and then down to the village and finish line at Falls Creek, all very uneventful until I was suddenly worried that the cut off may have been 36 hours and I’d be swept before ‘crossing’ the line. Fortunately after hurriedly sending off an SMS and confirming I had time up my sleeve I settled into the final leg feeling like every twist and turn had been put there just to annoy me! This was made even more frustrating with the total lack of signage right to the end where I managed to get lost with only about 500 metres to go! With a final steep downhill to the finish putting more pressure on my blisters and my knee (which had totally packed it in by now) I hobbled across the line at 37:29:20 the 25th out of 28 finishers from the 62 who had started with 19 DNFs and 15 ‘converts’.
The Finish: So, having run/hiked/ walked for 100 miles over nearly 38hrs how did I feel? Well, a bit like when you stop banging your head against a wall – glad to stop! Overall I felt a mixture of feelings, relieved to stop, disappointed with my time, frustrated with a course that seemed unnecessarily difficult and sooo unimpressed with the plastic ‘medal’ which probably is the worst finishers medal I have EVER seen. While I could be proud of having finished the race and, can’t be too unhappy with not doing 24 hours seeing as the winner did it in 25 hours I do feel I went in underdone and perhaps not as prepared as a miler requires. There were so many learnings to take away, and a new understanding of what ‘alpine terrain’ really means – read jagged feet mincing rocks.
Would I do it again? If you’d asked me immediately after the run the answer would be DEFINITELY NO; 24 hours on the answer was still NO WAY for that race, but maybe a nice 100 miler like Tarewera; Four weeks on and I’m starting to make plans for next November…who says I never learn!!!
Thank You: This trip wouldn’t be complete without calling out all the people that helped me along the way:
- Anne my indefatigable #1 support crew who was there all the way offering support and words of encouragement and crazily drove us home on Sunday evening back to Sydney! Love you heaps.
- Magic who crewed and then paced me for an amazing 15 hours. Although his judgement (we’re nearly there) might be dodgy, his companionship throughout that time meant I never seriously thought about stopping. You are awesome mate!
- Victor and Corby who had their own races on the Saturday but were there at 1:00am at Loch and the finish to cheer me on. Thanks for your amazing support (and patience).
- Mark from TBM my physio and coach who got me to the start line despite nursing a dodgy knee and while underdone got me fit enough to finish. An awesome coach and the best physio bar none – although I do suspect I am putting his kids through school…
- All the fantastic volunteers at the check points who’s positive attitude and willingness to help made it that much easier to keep going. You guys are awesome!
Thanks to all, there is no way I could have done this without all your support!! See you in November…