Our weekend started well with a lunch time trip with my husband Brett down to the Blue Mountains. On arrival at Katoomba I went straight to the race check-in before the crowds arrived, we then spent a pleasant afternoon sitting in the sun at a coffee shop next door to our motel. We drank good coffee, shared a pot of peppermint tea and giggled to each other about some interesting locals. Dinner was delicious pasta with some training partners from home, Marcos, Anthony, Ingrid and Doug, where the boys motivated themselves by talking of estimated race times and goals, while Ingrid and I reassured ourselves by saying “we just want to have a fun day!”
As usual pre-race, I was unable to do much more than doze for an hour or so at a time, and my restless sleep was not helped by the fact that the fog and mist that had descended upon Katoomba had developed into a storm that seemed to be never-ending. I did my best to reassure myself that it didn’t matter if it was a wet race, and that the Cox’s River was not going to wash tiny Ingrid away. Midnight, 2am, 3am, 4am, and finally it was 5.30am and time to get up.
7am and I donned my emergency poncho to keep me warm and went outside to meet the group. Brett and Doug set off for a training run before their drive over to Jenolan Caves to “crew” for us, and we set off in good spirits for the walk down to the Skyway to catch the shuttle buses to the start at The Explorer’s Tree.
The countdown began and I started my watch with 2 seconds to go, then we were off, over the edge and down into Nellie's Glen. With dismay I watched Tim’s Coolrunning cap disappear into the distance and clung to the edge of the track, trying to watch my footing while my eyes began to water furiously as they often do when I start running (not because I run fast, it’s just a weird thing they do). Before long I found myself right at the back of the group and we came to a standstill as the single file section of steps began.
The descent down Nellie's Glen
Out onto the fire trail into the Megalong Valley and my legs were feeling really shaky from the steep descent, having dropped over 400m in altitude in under 6kms. I tried to get into a rhythm and make up some ground to see if I could see Tim ahead. I passed quite a few people who were running in pairs and small groups chatting happily. Suddenly I began to loose all my confidence, I figured that these people I was passing probably knew something I didn’t and I should just forget about catching Tim and run my own race.
Across Megalong Road at the 8km mark I knew I was on pace at 50 minutes. I grabbed some gels at an aid station and continued to reassure myself that I was doing ok and the next section was a familiar part of the course from a training run the previous month. Through the fields and deeper into the valley onto the narrow single track towards the river I was feeling a little better and got into a nice pace, occasionally passing people, and pulling aside to let the first fast runners of Wave 4 through. The turn-off to the suspension bridge passed on my right and suddenly from behind I heard a familiar voice calling me, I jumped to the side of the track and let Marcos through, he was flying along and we exchanged declarations of love as he left me in his wake.
Crossing Cox's River
The river crossing was uneventful and Tim’s earlier advice to lift my feet up worked because my shoes stayed free of river sand. I was over the timing mat in 1:41, one minute ahead of my planned 1:42 for this section. However my nemesis was ahead of me and I told myself to forget about times and splits for a while and just do my best up the climbs. I’m not a strong hill runner, let alone fast hill walker, and walking these hills at the speeds people do in this race is something that has to be seen to be believed. I put my head down and focused on the ground ahead of me. Up and up and up, I did my best to shuffle along when it wasn’t too steep, and tired not to get discouraged at the number of people gliding past me. I marveled at some “more experienced” women as they passed me running while I was trudging and swore to learn to run hills like that. My nose was running and I was getting really cold as the hill climbed higher and higher towards the Pluviometer. A few times I needed to pop my ears as the altitude increased.
About a kilometer from the "Pluvi" I heard another familiar voice, my friend Allison, one of Australia's most accomplished female ultra runners, was behind me, striding her way to the top. I looked at my watch, knowing Allison had started 15 minutes behind me in Wave 4, and discovered that I was now 13 minutes behind my schedule for a 5:30 hour finish. I wasn’t surprised by this as I knew the hill was to be my big weakness, and I just focused on getting the legs running again as best they could now that the steepest part of the climb was over. At the aid station a volunteer with a fabulous sense of the ridiculous was dressed up in a tropical themed bikini, hula skirt and blond wig. Complete with grin from ear to ear and sizable beer-belly he was thoroughly enjoying his duty handing out drinks to tired runners and bringing a smile to their faces. I requested a Pina Colada but made do with coke and water.
19kms to go and the ugliest part of the race began. It was heads down for everyone as the path appears to flatten out but rudely continues to beat runner’s legs into submission with seemingly endless rolling hills. I was starting to feel really cold and this wasn’t helping my legs. I forced myself to keep shuffling and started to think of some of my favorite song lyrics, singing them to myself in my head and trying not to look at my watch.
At the highest point of the course, about 1200m altitude I was nearing the Deviation and starting to feel pretty good. I looked at my watch and saw that I was actually back on target pace for this section, I started to feel really relieved and quite emotional, I was going to make it ok, but knew I couldn’t make up the 13 minutes I’d lost to the Pluviometer.
Through Deviation, and suddenly ahead on the trail I recognize Marcos leaning against a tree with cramps, he turned to limp off again as I approached and I squeezed his arm and told him to jog with me, which he did. Luckily another fellow running head heard me talking to Marcos and offered his cramp spray. The spray was too late for Marcos unfortunately, but he was able to continue on as best he could and not let the cramps beat him. I debated staying with Marcos, but figured he wouldn’t want me to lose time on account of him.
4.6kms to go at the next check point and time was beginning to come to a standstill for me. My left calf is cramping and my quads are shaking like never before. Again I am feeling really emotional, from the thrill of being only 4kms from the finish, but also from wanting it to be over already and from the pain in my quads and calves. Despite the pain I am in, I am happy that I am feeling really coherent and quite fresh energy-wise, but am beginning to loose my temper with my legs which will no longer do what I tell them to!
A spectator tells me it’s 2kms to go and time slows even more as I descend onto the most notorious part of the trail, the descent into Jenolan Caves. At times I feel like screaming because I can’t even run downhill anymore and there are rocks under my feet the size of tennis balls and even the size of my feet. To the right is a steep drop off and I think if I fall now I might roll down there and never be found! So I hug the left hand side of the track, stopping to let faster runners though and trying to ignore the agony of my quads. I listen hard for any sound of the finish line and begin to catch glimpses of Caves House down in the valley below.
Finally the handrail and cobblestone pathway appears and I say to my legs, “move, move, move, this is it!” A big ball of emotion clogs up my chest and throat and I struggle to breath for a few seconds, then I see the stairs in front of me and Brett, Doug and Ingrid are calling out to me! I fly down the stairs and around the corner to the finish line, high-fives along the way to hands reaching out to me and into the finish chute. A volunteer places my medal around my neck but I can’t move for a few seconds because my legs have started to shake so badly. I am finished.