«CLIMBING THE SKY Coast to Kosci 2014 The first massive raindrop hit me like a mortar from behind the lines.” SPLODGE!”.There was no escaping it ...»
CLIMBING THE SKY
Coast to Kosci 2014
The first massive raindrop hit me like a mortar from behind the lines…”
SPLODGE!”…There was no escaping it now. I had watched for an hour the
storm cell off on a far range chiding me. It had started with some huge
cumulus anvils rising off the Monaro plains before forming up into solid
black walls like demonic ocean swells ready to crush my ship. I watched
the first salvos bounce off the hot tarmac, an acrid smell in the air. Ahead I could see my crew car barreling back down the hill toward me. I had asked them to stay close in case the storm came in so I could get a jacket, as I knew I would get very cold in the wet. By the time they reached me the sky was a sheet of water. The drops were so big they hurt my head when they pummeled down on me. Rain is no excuse to stop running so I continued on up the grade as the road started to flood like the Snowy River in springtime. Each step was like pushing through wet snow. I kept my sunglasses on to protect my face, pulled my cap down low & tucked my chin in…things were looking grim…then the hail started….
The race was on. We had started at the ocean & were pushing to the highest point we could get to in Australia, the summit of Mount Kosciuszko. We were literally climbing the sky… It was my first ultra event in Australia. All of my racing had been in the US, Canada, South America & Morocco to date but now I had been accepted to run the Coast to Kosci 240km (150 mile) in my own country. I had been back in Australia about a month & training up in Newcastle dragging car tyres, doing hill repeats & generally sweating all over the place in the increasing heat of the Aussie summer. I had even done some good long runs up in the Buladelah Mountains carrying a weighted pack & 6 hours of fluids & calories. On the drive down to Eden I picked up my two-man crew in Sydney; Glen Lockwood & Jimmie Owens, handed the car to them & sat in the back eating & snoozing as we rolled south. At the check-in we had a couple of beers to take the edge off & I got to meet some new peeps, crew, race staff & runners.
At 5:30am the next morning sharp we charged off the sand of Boydtown Beach & were soon under the canopy of huge forest trees heading up dirt tracks to the forest service road. The event of 50 runners was stacked with hard-core talent, blokes & chicks alike. I was pushing hard like crazy & wasn’t sure why as that wasn’t in my race plan but one side of my brain took the reins & the rest jumped on for the ride. The first long downhill I stretched out my stride & basically went as fast as I could. The little guy that sits on your shoulder was saying “geez you’re an idiot…”, the train driver was going “no prob, lets light this baby up”. I led for the first 25 miles & kept saying to my crew that I would be slowing down. They kept saying to each other “I wonder when he will be slowing down?” The heavy artillery came up behind me about this time, Andrew Tuckey & Brendan Davies.
They passed me almost to casually & strided away. I tried to keep up but finally got some commonsense about me & pulled back the throttle. The humidity was thick as pea soup & I was soaked through 5 minutes after the start. It was oppressive under the foliage with no breeze & I needed to suck back litres of fluid to keep on top of the outpouring.
I was halfway up the first major climb before I realized where I was. I asked the crew if this was indeed Big Jack & they confirmed as I went past & grabbed another bottle. I had ran up every hill so far but went back to a run/ power walk for Big Jack as it wound up at a steep grade through the bush. Coming around the last corner I spotted a runner up ahead & managed to get past Brendan just before the top. My shoes were starting to slosh from sweat so I was hoping for a little breeze out on the plains ahead to dry out a bit & get cooler. I looked down a long straight & couldn’t see Andrew anywhere in the distance. Surely he is behind a bush ahead having a pee or something I thought, wondering how he could have annihilated Big Jack so fast & took off across the landscape out of view. I put my head down & pushed hard again to try & make a gap behind me. It was still early in the race but I wanted the guns to know I was in it for the hunt. I would keep going as hard as I could for as long as I could I decided & worry about the death march later.
After Cathcart I seen an arrow on a sign pointing to the road on the right but wasn’t sure if it was a race arrow? It was a little foggy & I wandered about waiting for my crew car to come along but pacing like an anxious horse. I seen a crew car that I recognized from Eden & flagged them down. It was Andrews’s crew & I asked them if they knew the correct route. They went ahead to find the sign for Cooma in the instructions & came all the way back to let me know, which I thought was really cool of them. Finally up the road I headed off the tarmac & back onto the dirt. The breeze was a bit cooler now being out in the open & felt good but all that wetness was leading to some early chafing in the nether regions.
We were out in the back blocks now. Huge swaths of grassland danced in the breeze Random gum trees & boulders peppered the landscape & I bounced along with dust plumes off each footfall. I didn’t really want to see anyone; I was lost in the majesty of Australia & its vast space. The feeling of fatigue was coming on but I was exhilarated to be right there, right then, and making self-locomotion across an ancient land. My GPS watch buzzed off another mile but I could have been a Neanderthal chasing game across a savannah as much as I was a contemporary Homo Sapien clad in tech gear. I didn’t spot any saber tooth tigers so wound my mind forward to the present & went past the aptly named “Old Dead Tree” at the 100km mark. (Australians are very succinct in their naming & the old dead tree is just that, requiring no further description…) All of a sudden I felt very tired. It happens like that; from Raging Bull to Fragile Lamb in seconds. There was a head wind scything across the plains & I was finding it difficult to penetrate without an exertion. I was getting a chill also. My body wasn’t carrying much fat at the start but after a brutalizing over the last 9 hours it felt like I was only bones. I was having a low moment as I climbed a rise.
Somber looking gum trees flanked my path & I noticed the sky had turned a dark leaden grey. It was so low & heavy it appeared to be sitting on the earth. The surrealism added to my blue mood & I knew it was the time that all endurance athletes encounter when the mind needs working on as much as the body to continue on with any sort of strength. Fortunately after cresting I could see the crew car at the foot of the next hill where Glen & Jimmy would be waiting to provide me with the sustenance & succor I needed to continue on. I lent forward & rolled down to them, stopping at the car this time rather than continuing past as they restocked me. We were at the junction of the Snowy River Way where the tarmac begins & they ushered me onto that black river of bitumen as it flowed to the horizon. The wind was behind me now as I headed in a northwest direction & Jimmy’s words blew down to me as I left the dirt, “It’s downwind now, mate! Put up the main sail & spinnaker…!” Road running is a discipline in itself. I hear the blah blah back & forth between trail & road runners all the time about the merits of each, but you cannot discount the fact that holding a steady cadence for hour upon hour in a metronomic trance down an empty road is not an arduous task. The pounding on your body generated by hitting a hard surface can only be endured after many hours & miles of training & body conditioning to accept such a withering beat down, but even then, by the end of an ultra your entire structure from bones, tendons, ligaments & muscles will still ache. Those long downhill sections during the C2K would seem to some a godsend after the continuous uphill grind but the further you go the more tender your body gets to that pound down as each footstep is lower than the last, sending a shockwave right up through your being.
I remember towards the end that I groaned every time the road led down. All I wanted to do was go up. But we all had to follow that route leading us to the sky & so began the game of trying to turn off the pain, ignoring it, disowning it…whatever it took to keep going while our self-preservation mechanisms told us to stop. It was the age-old conundrum of the endurance athlete: the symbiosis of pleasure & pain… Things become a blur when you’re in a fatigued state & keep asking your body to go on. “What do you think about for all those hours?” people ask me all the time.
I’m never quite sure how to answer? “Anything, everything…but nothing” is about as close as I can pin it down. At times I would look into the distance & couldn’t imagine myself being at a spot miles distant, say where I could see a windmill. Then in a haze I would hear that same windmill creaking away as I passed it, not remembering how I got there or how long ago I had wondered about being there. Seriously, it’s about as close to time travel as you can get.
Through all these neuro journeys the road went on & on ahead of me, laid down like a black snake into eternity & only my footsteps would conquer it.
The vistas were so vast it was hard to determine how far I could see? The views kept reminding me of cover shots from a road atlas for Australia. After travelling extensively around the world there is no mistaking the “look” of Oz. It’s truly unique. About this time a menacing rumble started off in the distance as storm clouds packed tighter & turned to the colour of gunmetal. I could smell the moisture in the air & it felt heavy on me. I recall Jimmy saying something like “Looks like hell upside down..” & I couldn’t stop thinking about running upside down on the ceiling of the world. I weighted up my chances of skirting the storm cell but they came to naught as the skies unleashed on me soon after & I hunkered down & withdrew even further into myself. I have worked at sea for the better part of 30 years & I could have been in the middle of an ocean, it was the same feeling. My crew were occasional port calls but then I was set adrift again to ride it out alone. It brought home the fact that running an ultra is about self-reliance. There are outside factors like your crew & aid stations to help you along but at the end of the day its up to you & only you that can finish it.
It was now dark making it feel even more remote & requiring even more mental input to keep my spirits flying rather than cowering.
A pale lumen of lights glowed ahead through the downpour & I heard the rain pelting a road sign like gravel as I sloshed past: Dalgety. It was a major check point & milestone in the race. At around 90 miles in it was nice to tick off this box. It was literally a swim to the front door of the town hall check station & I squinted in the light while draining onto the hardwood floor. Race staff spotted my forlorn figure haunting the doorstep & led me child-like to the scales for weighing. In the next few minutes my crew had me changed into some dryer, warmer gear & one of the volunteers brought me a steamy cup of coffee which I felt slide right down to the bottom of my torso like warm honey. Then I was on the doorstep again with a curtain of water in front of my nose & I pushed through it into that other world like the Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe. Back to that lonely ship on a black, menacing ocean. The warm lights of town receded behind me but I didn’t turn to see them. I didn’t want to look unless looking became longing.
And so it went on. The rain would ease for a bit then flog down again. Some more hail intervened to rap a drumbeat tattoo on my head & my footfalls were a splash rather than a thump. It is about a marathon distance from Dalgety to Jindabyne, which seems like an awfully long way at this point of a race so I had started to break it down into 5-mile chunks as it was becoming difficult to see the big picture. I was curious to see what my 100 mile time split would be but had handed my Garmin watch over to the crew to put on the charger in the car. As I went past the crew at the next stop Glen called to me “That’s 100 miles right there. About 15:30. Great time on this course!…Sorry about this next hill though.” I nodded approvingly & felt the grade change almost immediately. I was on the Beloka climb & other muscles came into effect for the next 4 miles as I stared at the ground at my feet & watched the toes of my shoes come into view at each footstep. We all needed to go up to get to the end so I was glad to be making elevation. As well as the distance to cover there is no way around the up part either so I just got on with it. It didn’t seem long at all until I was over the top & started seeing the glow of Jindabyne about a half-marathon away. The rain was down to a patter but I was soaked through & my wet feet were aching, not bad enough to take my mind away from the chaffing going on in other places though.
That first hot shower after the race was going to make me scream pretty good. I lived in that bubble of light from my headlamp & kept my elbows tucked in to keep the chill off my core. The sheen off Lake Jindabyne was reflected on the cloud base ahead & drew me forward like a lighthouse on an angry coast. I had been in the denial phase for quite some time now but there was no mistaking that I was showing a few cracks from the previous +100miles of self-abuse. When at this stage I find it incredibly hard to talk, I mean literally the physical effort to activate my vocal chords seems beyond my strength. The crew had noticed me getting quieter & quieter as I got further fatigued & had mood swings but I also just wasn’t strong enough to utter anything. As experienced runners themselves they didn’t take it personally & kept up the solid state of care I needed right then.