Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Letting Go

On Thursday, as I packed for the race, I felt a nagging, tight feeling in my belly. I told Ruth it was nerves or stress, not realising I was telling her a lie. Because, a few months earlier, I had told Coops the truth—that feeling means I am doing something that’s wrong for me. That feeling is my body saying, “Hey, Tam, let’s not do this. There lies no joy down this path.” 
I felt that same feeling on Friday as I brought Ruth up to speed on my race plan. I felt it on Saturday as I nibbled on toast and sipped at hot black coffee and completed my entire getting-ready process in half the time it used to take. I pretended it was nature calling, and convinced myself I felt better after a toilet stop.
The nagging persisted as I tried to psyche myself up with a pre-race song. I tried my best to ignore it and seemed to succeed for the first 10 km, as I pushed up towards Spion Kopje. Though I wasn’t feeling great by the time I approached Warby Corner, I was still ahead of schedule and should have been feeling comfortable.

Stunning sunrise from Spion Kopje Fire Track

But then I couldn’t ignore it any more. As I stumbled and tripped and floundered and fell down Timms Spur, as I struggled and staggered and stumbled and strove to climb up Quartz Ridge, that nagging grew more insistent. I decided it must be nerves, or another nature call—I needed a reason that would make it okay to keep pushing.

Looking into the valley from Big River Fire Track, Timms Spur

I kept eating. I kept drinking. I kept moving. I was behind schedule, but not so much as to really concern me. But it’s the way I was moving that bothered me. My hips and knees were aching. My diaphragm and intercostals were aching and I was breathing too quickly. My nose was still running, even though we were into the warm part of the day. My throat felt raw and, when I coughed, my head pounded in sync with it. But I kept moving, drinking, eating.
I snuck through the Mt Bogong checkpoint with just under ten minutes to spare. Two minutes down the track (and still in sight of the checkpoint helpers, if they were looking), I crashed, banging my knee. It seemed like I was seeing what I needed to step over, and like my body knew how to clear it, but that the two parts of me were disconnected. I knew I needed to focus, so I picked up a leaf to bring my awareness back to the present. I even tried some affirmations: “I am moving down Staircase Spur. I am running down Staircase Spur. I am running freely down Staircase Spur. I am running beautifully…I am dancing…playing…floating…

The view from the top—Quartz Ridge, Mt Bogong

In my mind, these words infused me with a lightness that sped me down the technical descent. In reality, I was moving slowly with sloppy form, hindered further by tears and blurred vision. 
And that was when the truth hit me: I wanted it too much.
After being beaten by these mountains two years in a row, I really wanted it. I trained harder than I’ve ever trained before. I prepared for all conditions—hot, cold, wet, dry. Especially cold—I trained myself to withstand it better than I’ve ever done before. I ran up more hills than ever before, carrying a heavier pack than ever before. I ate healthier than ever before. I even managed to recover from the cold I caught ten days out from race day. I did everything right and I thoroughly deserved to have a great race.
That’s why I started.
I was going to run the Alpine Challenge 100 Mile. There was no way I could have done otherwise—no way I could stay in bed, or watch others run off without me, or drop down to the shorter course.
But I wasn’t going to finish it. Whether I stopped at the bottom of this climb or continued on for another ten, fifteen hours, I wouldn’t finish this race. I couldn’t finish it, because I was still sick. Despite my wishful thinking, I had not recovered from the cold.
And as this realisation flooded me, it washed away that nagging feeling in my stomach—I had finally accepted what my body was telling me, and it could rest. Finally, I was doing the right thing for me.
There’s a commonly held belief that dropping out is the easy option, but I don’t see much evidence of it. At least, not amongst well-trained runners who have poured a year of energy into training for a specific event. Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong folks, but I tend to see more runners who are injured or not well pushing themselves to an unsatisfying finish than I see runners happy to drop out. I see runners who invest so much in their running that they have trouble letting go.
It only takes a moment to record a DNF. It might be a moment of bad luck or momentary lapse in concentration that brings my body—and my race goals—crashing to the ground. It might be an error of navigation or an error of judgement when collecting gear at a checkpoint. It might be a moment of self doubt that hits when there is no one there to urge me on.
It might be a moment when a party guest coughs without covering her mouth and infects me with a virus.
I am still torn inside—Should I quickly go and race while I’m fit? Should I give up on ultras for a while, until I get over my disappointment? Should I instead pour my energy into mountain biking for a while?
Yet this indecision is purely forward-focused. Looking back, and accepting the complete truth of why I chose to withdraw, I am left with no doubt that I made the right decision.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Updated Trail Bar Recipe

Having tested my old recipe in training runs and pacing over distances up to 70 km, I thought my bars were awesome. I made a whole batch for Ruth's first 100 miler and she didn't touch them because they were too sweet. (This was okay for me, as I got to pig out on them as her pacer.)

Ye Olde Trail Barres…

In the past few months I've also been doing most of my long runs on nuts and jelly beans (I think there's another trail bar recipe in that, but I'll get onto it later in the year.) So I modified the recipe for Alpine, to make it a bit less sweet, a bit nuttier and less oaty, a bit more concentrated so I could have smaller bars, a bit firmer so it would be easier to carry. But I still wanted it to be the sort of bar I could tuck into the top corner of my mouth and just let slowly disintegrate if I wasn't up to chewing.

I made this batch without chocolate, and bought chocolate to have on the side if I wanted it. For events where there is a very long distance between checkpoints, I prefer my food types to be as separate as possible so I can create my own combinations of what I need. For example, instead of cheese and salami sandwiches, I make cheese sandwiches and carry a salami stick. So, in this case, if I wanted chocolate with my bar, I would shove both in my mouth at the same time; if I just wanted bar, I could have that.

I try to keep them chilled as long as possible, but they held together really well from the start line in the paper and a ziplock bag in the hip pocket of my pack; I ate the second one on my way up Quartz Ridge, so I had been carrying it for about seven hours by that stage, and it hadn't crumbled.

Unfortunately, I didn't take a photo, and I gave away my leftovers, but they look mostly like a small version of the old bars.

Tam's Trail Bars

Makes about 14 biscuit-sized bars that seem to keep indefinitely in the fridge or freezer. I mean, there are no ingredients there that you wouldn't keep at home for months, right?


1/2 cup quick oats
1/2 cup Lucky Smart Snax Omega-3 Mega Nut Mix
1/2 cup Lucky Smart Snax Antioxidant Mix
1/2 cup Lucky Smart Snax Fibre Mix
1/4 cup mixed dried fruit
1/4 cup chopped dates
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup golden syrup
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 tbsp molasses
20g butter
2–3 squares NestlĂ© Plaistowe dark chocolate (optional)


1. Place oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit in a large mixing bowl.
2. In a small saucepan, mix honey, golden syrup, peanut butter, molasses and butter on low heat and slowly bring to the boil while stirring. Bubbles will first form around the edges and it's important to not let it burn or stick.
3. Remove from the heat and allow the wet mix to cool slightly to check its consistency. KIt should look like a caramel mix and the only lumps should be bits of peanut from the peanut butter.
4. Stir the wet mix through the dry mix until it's all thoroughly coated and clumping together. I use a silicone spatula to be more gentle with it, but a spoon works fine.
5. Fill a silicon mini-muffin tray to the top with mixture, then use a measuring cup (or similar) to press down and compress each bar. If any bars seem to have too much of the wet mix, add a couple of extra nuts to help hold them together.
6. Place the muffin tray in the freezer until the bars are set. Then press them out and wrap them in waxed baking paper and you're ready to go!

Notes on the ingredients

I use the Lucky Smart Snax nut mixes because they're easy and I always have them on hand as snacks anyway. You can usually get them in the baking section of the supermarket. Using their Antioxidant mix also adds cranberries, blueberries and sultanas into the mix and the almonds in this mix are not dry roasted, so it makes a nice blend. If you want it crunchier, and more of the oven roasted nuts. If you're not using this brand, just use approx 1 cup of mixed fruit and 1 cup of nuts and seeds, and adjust to taste.

I used to put a pinch of salt but I didn't need it when I added more molasses. I use organic peanut butter made from 100% peanuts, but if you prefer another brand then just keep in mind that they can have other stuff added in to make the spread smoother, which can affect how these set. Therefore you might need to add less other liquids, or more oats, or something.

The reason for the golden syrup is to increase the sucrose concentration, which is an important step as all the fructose in the honey and dried fruit can cause gastric upset when you're exerting yourself. I also think the slight bitterness of the syrup and molasses are wonderful for toning down the sweetness, but if you prefer sweet food and don't have a problem with fructose absorption then you may wish to just use honey.


I use the silicon mini-muffin trays because they're easy to press the bars out of, but you can also use a standard muffin tray lined with baking papers or cupcake wrappers, or a Tupperware T-Bar set, or small plastic containers or even just make a slab of trail bar in a tray and then cut it to size.

If you don't have a freezer the bars will still set in the fridge, but allow at least an hour for that.

If you like chocolate on your runs (which I usually do!), it can be nice to add a drizzle or a thin layer of semisweet dark chocolate after the bars have set. I melt the chocolate in the microwave, covered on medium heat, 30 seconds at a time and stirring well in between until it gets close, and then for 10 seconds at a time until it's ready to pour.

Monday, 4 March 2013

All Tangled Up

On the 19th of January I headed out on the Ship's Stern circuit at Binna Burra, with my friend Tidus. Some storms had been through, and the rainforest section was less distinct than usual, and I was stepping on a pile of bark when suddenly a small, shiny, black "stick" squirmed out from underneath.

Oh, not a stick. That's a snake I'm on top of.

I tried to stop. I tried to reverse. Tidus was there, though, so I had no option but to stay in the one spot, so I lifted up the right foot, which was on the snake, and my left foot came down…

Just next to the snake. So I jumped again and put my right foot back down and then kept dancing on the spot as the poor little snake tried desperately to get away from me, slithering over one foot and sneaking behind the other and generally doing the best he or she could to get away from the stupid woman who was "dancing" (stomping) all over the place.

I was all tangled up with a snake.

Now I'm guessing this was a juvenile green tree snake, because they are often very dark when young, and it was not a python, and it was as far from aggressive as you could imagine. (Which made me feel more terrible for scaring it. I don't think I hurt it, though, as the bark cover was quite thick and would've distributed the load nicely.)

Even when I stomped right next to its head, the snake did not attempt to strike. Red Bellied Black Snakes are timid and non-confrontational, but I think that they'd strike under those conditions. So, I'm pretty lucky.

Worst case scenario, I had a snake bite bandage, hiking poles for use as a splint, a friend to bandage me up, a mobile phone and even a rescue beacon. I had antihistamines in case of allergy, a foil blanket, food and water. If things had gone to poo, I reckon I'd be okay.

When you go wilderness running, are you prepared?

Excited…exponentially so

I've been a Brisbane-based ultra runner for a long time now, so my name is fairly well known in the running community. When I meet new people at social functions for running friends, I often get the good old, "Oh, so you're Tamyka Bell!"

It's not uncommon to get asked what races I've got coming up. For the last six months, I've been solely concentrating on the Alpine Challenge, so that's how I've answered. And other runners seem surprised that there's really just one event on my horizon, but I don't even want to think about any other races until after this one. I just want to experience every moment of it—every training run, every map investigation, every list or spreadsheet in planning, every travel booking, all of it.

I think it's pretty obvious to others, and especially other runners, that I'm excited about this race. So they ask me about it, and I tell them everything I can. And when I share that excitement about the race—here's where it gets scary—

I get even more excited about it.

I just called Bogong Village to pay the last of my accommodation charges and Glen asked me why I'd waste a beautiful weekend in the Alps by running and…next thing I knew, I was twice as excited as when I picked up the phone.

I'm not sure this level of excitement is sustainable.

But it sure is fun!