On Chasing Pointless Dreams

It’s 5:00 am, Sunday morning. There’s a pinkish tinge in the sky, light enough that my headlamp isn’t doing much, but not light enough to distinguish the small variations in vegetation that differentiate trail from not-trail at tree-line. I’m standing on a steep hillside, feet wedged into muddy gaps between the roots of knee-high grass bushes of some sort, where the map says there’s a track. I’m sobbing without any actual tears, and yelling loudly. At no one in particular, since I figure the guy ahead of me is a mile or so gone by now and hope the one behind isn’t any closer. I’m so blinded by frustration that I don’t make the simple decision to backtrack 100m to the hut I just passed and look again for the trail. Instead, I just keep stumbling and swearing my way through the bushes towards the ridgeline, where I can see the pole line I’m meant to pick up at the top. Each time I check the map, I notice that I’ve advanced very slowly towards Pole 333, while time, specifically the time I felt I needed to be at Pole 333 in order to have a shot at the course record, is advancing quite rapidly against me.

I eventually reach the pole line, take in the bright pink sky and note that it really is truly magnificent, but I don’t currently have time or energy for magnificence. My every thought is focused on the ground in front of me. I want to run, my legs want to run, but on the other side of the disappearing night, I had bolted down a steep and rocky ridgeline to outrun a thunderstorm and rolled my ankle in the process. (Note: I had actually sprained it, but I’ve never sprained an ankle before, so I didn’t know this at the time) So each step has to be carefully planned- planting it perfectly flat is okay, but there’s not too much perfectly flat ground to be found. Mostly it’s rocks, either loose or deeply embedded, waiting to snag toes. The toe-snaggers hurt worst of all. So I pick my way across, in fits of jogging and walking, moving up an agonizingly long but gentle climb. I crest a ridge and see the green tent marking the penultimate aid station in the distance, and it’s 5:45. I’d wanted to be there at 5:15 am.

I think about the 25 hours and 89 miles behind me. I think about the months of Keira repeats and physio and foam rolling and planning. And I decide I probably won’t make it to the finish in time to beat the course record. I also decide I owe it to myself, and to the 30 young girls who will ask about the race on Monday, to fight for it anyways, until the very minute I cross the line.

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The Course

Alpine Challenge is billed the “toughest 100-miler in Australia,” and with the exception of the newly-created piggybacking GSER100, I have to imagine it is. It was hard for me to imagine an Australian race matching up to the bigger elevations available in America, but I have to say, this course makes Cascade Crest look…. easy.

The course is essentially a large 60 km loop with two side loops (40km and 60km) attached. The main loop (and 60km race course) starts with a beautiful descent and steady climb in the first 25 km before rolling along in the high plains (read: open grasslands and ridgelines with views all around) for most of its remaining length.  The 100-mile course turns off after the first big climb to summit Mt. Bogong in a 40 km loop with two large climbs and two steep, technical descents. Then you get 20 km or so of theoretically-pleasant flat or rolling running, before taking off on the 2nd side loop, which is 60 km of soul-destroying descents and steady climbs. More than half of the elevation change for the whole course is in this loop, mostly packed into 50 brutal km. Then you finish with more rolling up and downs, tagging Mt. McKay before heading across alpine grassland (read: least stable surface ever) and down a ski run.

There’s 1 mile of pavement in the entire course, and maybe 15 miles of fire track (half of it is loose, uneven, rock-filled track of 4WD dreams, not smooth gravel like you might expect). The remaining single track is sometimes beautifully smooth, other times barely distinguishable from surrounding bush. The track had been mostly cleared of downed trees which would have made it significantly more unpleasant to run.

The Prep

I’ve been focused on this race since March. Originally, I wanted a Hardrock ticket for 2018 and 2019 lotteries, but then as I learned more about the race my goal evolved into testing myself against what looked to be a very hard course.

I changed a few things in my training for 2017 that I think served me well. They are both obvious.

First, I increased my weekly mileage by increasing the frequency and consistency of my running. I averaged 44 miles per week over the year (vs. 35 in 2016), and 68 MPW in the six weeks before taper. I was battling hamstring and glute issues most of the year, but I was able to manage them (although not fully resolve them) while still increasing mileage. Because of this, I did fewer long back-to-back sessions, which I was anxious about. In retrospect, it was smart not to unnecessarily fatigue my legs.

Second, I did interval work- tempos of 5-20 minutes once or twice a week. I wasn’t sure if this was working, but based on the cardiovascular strength I felt all day, I must have done something right.

I planned the race well. Initially, I thought 26 hours, since it’s the same elevation gain as Orcas, but I hadn’t actually looked at finishing times, and when I saw only a few guys had ever finished under 26 hours, I adjusted my expectations to 30 hours, maybe 28 hours on a great day. (Having done the course now, breaking 26 hours is totally do-able, and I think without an injury, I could have gotten close)

I broke the race into four arbitrary sections, based entirely on approach: (1) Start – Warby Corner 2, (2) Warby Corner 2 – Pole 333 1,   (3) Pole 333 1 – Pole 333 2  and (4) Pole 333 2- Finish. My plan was conserve energy in section 1, run in section 2, employ every bit of mental strength to stay positive in section 3, and just get it done in section 4. For the most part, this is exactly how the race played out.

The Race

My goals were A) finish the race and get the lottery qualifier, B) run under 30 hours, and C) place as well as possible.

Section 1- Start to Warby Corner 2 (64 km)

I started the day feeling relaxed and ready for a long day of suffering. I was worried about the tightness I’d been having in my hip flexor and lower back, and sure enough, I started to feel it at about mile 2. I stayed calm and positive, knowing I had the mental drive to finish no matter how long it took. I enjoyed the easy descent before settling into a cruise up the first climb chatting with a few others. I was surprised to be more than hour ahead of my predicted split at Warby Corner, but I was feeling great mentally, not taxing my heart at all, and enjoying the day, so I kept going. The descent to Big River was slow but John, the guy I’d come up to Warby with, caught up with me on the climb towards Mt. Bogong and we chatted and hiked up to the checkpoint. Summits in the Australian alps are never that exciting, and Mt. Bogong was beautiful but I wasn’t keen to hang around. We took off down the spur, picking our way across a rocky ridgeline. I was running with a few guys at this point, and it was all sunshine and smiles and chatter. I felt amazing- focused, excited, and strong. I was still sticking to my plan to not push anything, and settled in to an easy pace as we climbed back up towards Warby Corner. The final mile or so was an easy flattish fire trail run across the plains, and I jogged this most of the way. The clouds had burnt off by now, so I was feeling the heat and trying to regulate my pace accordingly.  

Section 2- Warby Corner 2 – Pole 333 1 (64- 85 km)

At Warby Corner for the second time (64 km), I refueled on chips and watermelon (trying to stay electrolyted) then took off on the high plains section. I had planned to run as much as possible between 64 and 88 km, given that it was mostly long flat stretches or gentle climbs. I stuck to this plan, and despite the blazing sun, kept moving forward at roughly 12-min miles. I reached Langford gap a few seconds behind another woman, whom I assumed to be the leader of the 100 miler. I quickly grabbed food and dry socks from my drop bag, as the heat combined with wet socks from river crossings was starting to stir up some gnarly blisters. I said thank to volunteers and took off just ahead of the other woman. We traded places a few times between Langford and Cleve Cole Hut, before I stopped for a few minutes to fix my blisters. (I never caught her name but realised after the race that it was Nicole Paton, the women’s 100km winner). 

I reached Pole 333 (85ish km) feeling a bit low- the heat of the day had sapped some of my earlier enthusiasm for the endlessly rolling high plains, and the uneven terrain of the pole line was getting frustrating. I headed down into the morbidly labelled  “Mortein Alley” – the 60 km section where “runners drop like flies”. I felt smug when I saw the sign, but I had no idea what was ahead.

Section 3- Pole 333 1 – Pole 333 2 (86 km – 145 km)

First, there was a brief descent to Cobungra Gap, then a steep climb up Swindler’s spur. I was extremely hot despite it nearing 6 pm, and realised I might have been falling behind on hydration after baking in the sun all day. I focused on climbing at a sustainable effort (something I’d deliberately practiced in training) and eating and drinking. I made it up to the Loch Car Park aid station (102 km)  just after 7:30 pm.  The volunteers were extremely kind and helpful, and I heard chatter of thunderstorm warnings (“with potentially damaging hail”) on the radio. I knew they would hold me at the aid station if they thought thunderstorms were coming, so I got out quickly before they could change their minds. I was in a rush, having realised how close I was to 26 hour pace and not wanting to waste any time, let alone get held at the aid station, eager to get going again. So, of course, in my haste I left the aid station without my poles and spare headlamp batteries. Luckily I hit a hill in a few hundred meters, turned back and only lost 5 minutes or so in the mistake. I was annoyed at myself, but I got on with it.   I took off towards the summit of Mt. Hotham, then descended to the road to pick up Bon Accord Spur.

I’d heard things about Bon Accord Spur. I’d heard it was hard. It drops 3800 feet in 3.7 miles, but a mile of that in the middle is a rolling plateau, so it really drops 3800 ft in 2.7 miles. In fact, the final mile and half loses 2100 feet. This is not easy running if there is a good trail for footing. If said trail is narrow, overgrown, and full of loose potato-sized rocks and sticks, it’s basically a death trap.  

But let’s start the top of the spur, which involves a small climb along a ridgeline before beginning the brutal descent. It was past sunset, 8:30, nearly dark, and it was moody. I could see rain all around, and was thankful there was none on me. Until there was rain on me 20 seconds later, and then it was hail, and as I scambled to get on my rain jacket, a crack of lightning off to the North. It was far enough away, but given how fast the rain moved, I didn’t want to wait around. Lightning struck again, this time to the West, and again, South. I reached the turn off for Bon Accord spur and could see the treeline a few hundred metres below. I ran, fast, recklessly, fueled entirely by visions of getting fried by a freak lightning strike. I was below the treeline in 5 minutes, and the worst of the storm passed quickly, but the adrenaline took a while to wear off. As soon as it did, I noticed that my ankle was really really sore. Any uneven step made me wince in pain, but cautious about developing a compensatory stride and hurting myself worse, I just focused on moving slowly. At the time, it was the toughest descent I’d ever encountered, although it would become the second toughest in a few hours. I reached the Washington Creek crossing 45 minutes later than expected, despite my burst of speed at the top. I was disheartened, upset, and only became more so when I realised the rest of the “downhill” to Harrietville started with a few hundred feet of climbing.

Eventually I reached Harrietville, where I initially confused a loud karaoke party for the aid station. Once I located the correct tent, I loaded up on water and prepared for a long climb. It was 10:45 and I hoped I could make the 12 km, 4400′ ascent to the top of Mt. Feathertop in 3 hours. I set off, helped to the trail head by a random guy decked out in fluro and pink who was just out being moral support for runners. Seeing as I’d been alone for 6 hours or so, and would be for the rest of the night, it was great to have the tiny extra bit of human interaction.

I climbed in the dark, putting on music for the first time. I tried to stay positive, but noticed my hiking pace was slowing, particularly on anything uneven. I hit a low on my way to Federation Hut, when 100 m felt more like 1000 m and I was whiny BEFORE making the final steep 1km ascent of to Mt. Feathertop. To my surprise, I’d caught up to Viv and his pacer at the start of the grunt but they quickly outpaced me, and I didn’t see them again until after sunrise.

It was blow-you-sideways windy, 1:30 in the morning, and I was scared of more thunderstorms blowing in, as the trail angel from before said there were a few around. I hit my second worst low of the entire race- I was uncomfortable, scared, and tired.

There was no view as a reward, no tag to grab or bib to punch- nothing for your efforts except knowing you’d done the right thing. I headed back down, alternating between trying to run and being forced to walk by pain in my ankle. It took me almost as long to descend Feathertop as it had to ascend it.  I started to worry about Diamantina Spur, which drops 2300 ft in 1.8 miles (not counting the 6 or so small rises and falls along the way).

I soon reached a signed turn off to the river, only 3.5 km away. What followed was almost an hour and a half of cursing, bumbling, and slowly, slowly inching my way down a “trail.” My ankle was, obviously, in pain, but I’d lost a fair bit of my sense of balance as well, and just staying upright took 100% focus. I was so grateful to have poles for this section, and don’t think I would have been able to get down in one piece without them.

I finally reached the river, and set out on a nice section of logging road towards Blair’s hut. I relied a little too heavily on the Avenza map and let myself pass the very obviously signed turn off, wasting about 10 minutes and an extra km or so in the process. When I finally crossed the river, I struggled but eventually picked up the correct trail. One last climb to go.

I had focused a lot of concern in my planning on the Feathertop ascent, and ignored this final long climb, which at 750 m or so, wasn’t small. It also seemed to be the steepest of all the climbs. After climbing for much longer than anticipated, I reached Weston’s Hut, so close to the top of the climb, and soon after found myself entirely off trail and sobbing in frustration.

I knew there was meant to be trail, but I was too tired to find it, too tired to make a better decision, and so I just bashed my way to the poles. It wasn’t smart, it wasn’t efficient, but I did get there. I reached Pole 333 (91 miles) at 5:55, more than half an hour after I’d anticipated getting there. The preceding 16 miles had taken me almost 7 hours- the slowest I’ve ever moved in a race. I thought there was essentially no chance of getting the final 9 miles done in just 2 hours given how I felt, but I committed to running as much as I possibly could.

Section 4- Pole 333 2 – Finish (145 – 160 km)

I took off along a pole line, shuffling, and eventually reached a fire road, along with a few hundred foot climb I was not expecting. I tried not to think about how the unanticipated climb would affect my pacing, and alternated jogging and walking until I reached the top. A long, and painful descent to Pretty Valley Pondage followed. The aid station volunteers let me know that I had plenty of dirt road ahead (yay! But also, only half true!) and that the final peak, Mt. McKay, was not quite as far away as it looked. I quickly grabbed some blueberries, water, and set out up a gently sloping road, just ahead of Viv, who was in a low point. I felt great climbing Mt. McKay- the smooth dirt road meant no serious ankle pain, and the gradient was soft enough to run most of it. I reached the top in 45 minutes, giving me 45 minutes to make it back down from the peak and to the base of the ski lifts.

The initial descent on the dirt road felt great, but then, cruelly, we were sent across “the desert” which was just a pole line with no beaten track. The clumped grass underfoot was wildly uneven and as much as I wanted to and needed to run, my body wouldn’t let me. I hobbled across, assuming Viv would fly past me at any minute. After a km of torture, the pole line finally let out on a dirt access road. 3 km to go, 23 minutes to make it before 8 am. The dirt road went quickly, and the final descent towards the finish, on a ski run called Last Hoot, was steep, grassy, and not nearly as fun as it might have been uninjured. Running hurt, but walking was not an option.

I rounded the corner to see the finish chute, and I was greeted by Justin, a few volunteeers, and Viv’s crew. It was an unceremonious finish, but I was overjoyed. The clock read 7:58. I’d managed to do the last 15 km in 2 hours, despite the climbs and shitty surfaces. It was good enough for 15 minutes under the course record. I did a little victory whoop, and then went to sit down. In that moment, I was more proud than I’ve ever been in my life. It was, in the scheme of things, a pointless thing I’d accomplished. But the value of these silly goals is not the achievement of them; it’s the experience of chasing them: finding things within yourself you didn’t know existed, and feeling the satisfaction of giving your absolute best effort to something you love. 

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Crusing along the high plains early in the afternoon.

The Aftermath

Despite running on it for 50 km and walking around a bit on Sunday, by Monday there was no doubt that I’d sprained my ankle. A quick trip to the doctor and an xray confirmed a sprain but luckily no stress fracture. A week later, it’s still tender at the joint but the mobility is coming back and I can get out for walks.

The post-event depression stayed away for a few days, but now with the inability to run and the lack of success in the Hardrock lottery, it’s starting to hit hard.

The Takeways

Experience is so beneficial in 100s. Knowing what to expect mentally helped me move more quickly out of low points.

Smart volume makes a difference. My legs and lungs felt strong even at 90 miles, despite shorter long runs in training. I don’t know anything else that this could be other than higher mileage overall.

Eating is key. Anytime I felt crappy, if I ate, I was better in 20 minutes.

It isn’t over until it’s over. Finding that final bit of strength and courage to battle for something I really wanted made me so proud.

The Gear

Ultimate Direction AdventureVesta (the best pack ever)

Outdoor Research Helium II jacket

Black Diamond Z Poles

Salomon SpeedCross 4

Trusty Red RaceReady shorts

Team 7 Hills Pearl Izumi singlet

Black Diamond Polar Ion headlamp

Ultimate Direction cap

Stance socks

Smartwool PhD hiking socks

Nutrition

This is what I remember eating. I averaged 150 cal/hr most of the day, maybe a bit less at night. No stomach issues all day.

5 Stroopwafels

80 Natural Confectionary Dinosaurs

3x ziplocs Potato Chips

5x Salted Caramel GU

1x Snickers bar

2x Granola bars

Watermelon

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