Monday, 1 February 2016

Race report: Alpine Challenge 2015

The thing about suffering is that you don’t really need to train to suffer. You just do it. — Alex Honnold, Sufferfest 2.

He may have been on the big screen at the Radical Reels World Tour, but Alex Honnold was surely speaking directly to me.

This year really didn’t work out how I expected it to, and I’m talking about the whole year, not just the Alpine Challenge. The race was the same race as last year; I was not the same runner.

But I’d committed way back on 4 December 2014—back when I’d just successfully finished the 100 mile event for the second time ever, over five hours faster than in 2010, and followed it with 90 km of the Coast to Kosciuszko course while crewing for Chris Knowles the following weekend. With a whole extra year of solid training in my legs, I was sure to have a dream run.

(Unless the environment decided to mess with me, which is always a possibility at Alpine. But the conditions were perfect this year.)

But that year of solid training didn’t happen, so neither would the dream run. I understood this—it had been made painfully clear when I tried to cram for the race with a 50 km training run a few weeks out—and I decided to start the 100 mile event anyway. I never expected to finish, but then I never expect that at Alpine. I just wanted to see how far I could get.

Alpine Challenge 'training'

I finally got to meet Catie Ecc on Friday evening. I’d chatted to her on Facebook for several months, and she was even bubblier in person…and less organised—she was still trying to pack her drop-bags. She saved my butt, though, by buying me a lighter (and getting to me before Chrissy, who had also bought me a lighter and would’ve earned the butt-saver title if she’d seen me first). Yep, I’d driven through Mt Beauty, bought all my supplies (except the lighter), and powered up to Bogong Village before I realised I’d forgotten that one item of mandatory gear.

My pre-race routine went surprisingly well, aided by some easy-to-get-along-with housemates, Donal Watters and Tarek Heiland. I went to bed early and slept well despite an upset tummy, which was almost certainly a bad case of nerves. When I woke up I trimmed any peeling parts of the Rocktape I’d put on my feet before bed. I even remembered to switch on my GPS before the start—that never happens! After a few start-line photos and very little ceremony we were off and running through the village at 4.30 am.

On Magazine Cable Track I stopped to strip off a layer—I refuse to be cold on the start line, as I never get warm again—and everyone ran past me. I expected to stay at the back for the rest of the day, but I’d caught a few by the time we got to the river crossing, so I had some company for the climb up Spion Kopje Fire Track.

I was surprised to feel stronger than I’d expected. Don’t get me wrong: I still felt like death. It was just a lesser form of death. My big toe was aching in the same spot I’d seen a podiatrist for a few weeks back; it was unbalancing my gait and, as she’d predicted, my left shin was sore, but it seemed manageable. And my tummy had settled; I was eating well.

As we passed the track to Howman’s Gap I breathed a silent thank-you that we get to defer that track for another year. (It’s so steep. So, so steep. And next year we’ll be coming up it.) I pushed on, stopping only to take some photos across to Falls Creek. My phone played up a bit but I waited, knowing I wanted the shot. Then I climbed again. After forever, I arrived at Warby Corner.

Falls Creek from Spion Kopje Fire Track at Little Spion Kopje

It was a struggle to fit all my food into my pack and pockets, and when I left the checkpoint I was barely holding my slow pace, aiming for a 44-hour finish—and I knew the highly technical section ahead would slow me down even further. Chrissy posted photos last week of all the trees down and I wasn’t sure I’d make the summit cut-off.

I raced out and head north along the Australian Alps Walking Track for a few hundred metres…and I realised I’d left my course notes at the checkpoint. I ran back up to look, but couldn’t find them, so I checked my drop-bag. No luck, so I checked my pockets again, and found it in the wrong one. Arrrrgh! The last thing I could afford to do was waste time.

Chrissy Lando near Roper Hut

I pushed on and passed Chrissy Lando near Roper Hut, up the top of Duane Spur. She’d been in the loo, and I went a little further along to one of my favourite spots and got my phone out, ready to take a picture when she caught up. Chrissy bolted passed me a few minutes later, all smiles and waves, and then disappeared into the distance. Duane Spur is quite a narrow track with soft edges and loose rocks. In 2011 I sprained my ankle badly on Duane Spur, so I’m particularly nervous about it—add the lack of training, and it seemed prudent to take it easy instead. I could hear Chrissy and some others down at the river as I got close, but she was long gone by the time I arrived.

Big River crossing

Natalie Wallace was there, though, filling up bottles. She’d run 100 metres or so ahead of her teammate, Scott Black, who was struggling with an iliotibial band injury (ITB). I sat down in the water to cool off as they finished up and headed out. I stayed as Bo Xing came and left, and I took off just as Kristy arrived. I was pleased to see she hadn’t taken the soft option up at Warby Corner, and disappointed to learn later that she’d pulled out on Mt Bogong.

Big River crossing

I spent the next few hours playing the slowest ever game of tag, first up T Spur with Bo, and then from Cleve Cole Hut to the summit with Natalie and Scott, watching Chrissy disappear into the distance. The storm damage wasn’t as bad as I had feared; it slowed me down, but not as much as my excessive photography (coupled with an occasionally obstinate phone-not-camera, which required multiple wake-up calls to actually get the camera working). I was delighted that it wasn’t so cold on the summit as previous years, and I didn’t need to get a jacket out when I sat at the summit to eat my Rafferty’s Garden Italian Lasagne (because I couldn’t find any apricot chicken)—delicious! I’d beaten Natalie and Scott to the summit but they pushed on straight away so I didn’t catch them until we were almost at the tree-line on Quartz Ridge.

T Spur

Chasing Natalie and Scott

Once below the tree-line, I hit one of the prettiest sections of trail (in my opinion). It has all these little grassy glades and the track is less distinct than Duane Spur—but it’s a bit treacherous, because the rocks aren’t as loose as elsewhere on the course and they’re hard to see and easy to land on. Real ankle-breakers, but not today.

Quartz Ridge track

I made it safely down to the Big River Fire Track and filled my bottles at the little culvert. Most runners fill up at the river crossing itself, but I prefer the water in the culvert. It’s clear and cool and fresh, and it pours out as neatly like water from a faucet. It doesn’t get the horses and the four-wheel drives like the river itself, and the extra weight isn’t an issue as it’s only a short distance and all downhill.

Bo at Big River Crossing

I took my time down at the river to get saturated again, and Bo snapped a photo that ended up on the race website. I was expecting the arduous climb to be hot in the afternoon sun, but it wasn’t as bad as previous years—probably because it was later in the day. It’s not a pretty section of track until you hit the top again, and I struggled to keep motivated. My back and intercostal muscles were aching and it was hard to breathe, even when I loosened the chest straps on my race pack.

And, for the first time during a race, I had a nose-bleed without other symptoms. (I had a severe allergic reaction once during the Razorback Run, but I was also puffed up all over with watery eyes, unable to breathe properly.) It may have been allergies or dry air, but it certainly made me nervous. Despite that, my legs still felt strong and I thought I’d make it to Warby Corner before the 6.30 pm cut-off. But then I got distracted, and frustrated with my pace, and frustrated with the hairpin turns that led me onto another long section of track (there’s always one more), and frustrated with myself for not training, and eventually I farted around with my phone sending some texts to my boyfriend when I should’ve been running.

Big River Fire Track, Timms Spur

By the time I realised how far I still had to go, it was too late. I mean, I should’ve known—the climb up Big River Fire Track is always longer than I think it is, and I try to factor that in, but I stuffed up. I missed the cut by a few minutes, and had a sneaking suspicion the Alpine Search and Rescue (SAR) guys would be negotiable, but I also knew there was no way I’d get out of the checkpoint in under fifteen minutes—I had to deal with the enormous task of getting all my night gear into my tiny pack—and then I’d be well behind the cut-off time for the 100 mile, and fast approaching the 7.00 pm cut-off for the 100 km.

At times like this, I always wish I was one of those runners who doesn’t feel the cold, but I do feel the cold, and I knew I’d need my layers on the Bogong High Plains. This year I was prepared, with a waterproof bag in drop-bag that was easy to attach to the bungee cord on my pack (and hopefully less fragile than the zip-lock bag I used last year). At times like this, I also wish for my old 20L Salomon Raid Revo backpack I took around the course way back in 2010. It was the perfect pack, comfortable and spacious with accessible hip pockets, and would be even better with a few bottle holders on the front. Ah, those were the good old days.

Catie was running out of the checkpoint as I arrived, and when she heard me question whether I had to drop, she asked the same question. She said she’d be OK with that. But the volunteers waved her on and encouraged her to continue, reassuring her she had cleared the checkpoint in time to stay on the 100 mile course. (She ended up dropping to the 100 km at Pole 333.) I got the impression she was considering waiting for me, but I’m glad she didn’t. I took too long to re-pack my gear and I was moving too slowly. Also, knowing she was ahead gave me an incentive to keep going and chase her down for some company overnight—once I’d eaten my tin of spaghetti.

The sweepers came in and lamented how slowly the remaining runners were moving. I couldn’t tell if they were annoyed or disappointed, but I felt a guilty pang when they mentioned a runner stopping to take photos.

Natalie and Scott came in and decided not to continue—Scott because he couldn’t, and Natalie because she didn’t want to trudge through the night again. ‘I did that last year,’ she told me. So they waited for a car to take them out to Langfords Gap.

I had left Warby Corner just before 7.00 pm, with four and a half hours to cover the 22 km to Pole 333. Easy, right? Except…

Then I needed a toilet break, but didn’t want to stop where they could see me from Warby Corner. So I kept stopping and checking if they could see me—I was no longer capable of running while looking back over my shoulder without risking a fall (am I ever?)—and spent a good few minutes finding somewhere suitable. I took my gloves off and tucked them in a pocket, answered nature’s call. Another minute or two gone, but then I was ready to go, and still able to beat the next cut-off. Except…

Approaching Watchbed Creek

Then I needed to take my next energy gel—doesn’t time fly? I stopped, pulled an empty Twisties packet from a pocket, and spat my gum into it. I inspected the first gel I grabbed and then chose a better flavour and downed it with a big guzzle of water. And once I’d taken it, I realised my hands were cold and went to put my gloves back on. They weren’t there. I patted down all my pockets, my pack, and even checked my shoes in case they’d somehow gotten caught in the laces or something. Nope. I’d dropped them. I spun around on the spot, but I saw nothing.

I had spares, but I wanted my Flux Zeros, so I ran back a few hundred metres to find them. It was almost dark and they were nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t afford to waste more time, so I gave up and turned back on course towards Watchbed Creek. After a few hundred metres I stopped a metre short of my gloves so I wouldn’t step on them, but they were already dirty—I’d been standing on them when I first dropped them, getting the gel out. More time wasted. I was on track, though, so I pushed on, thinking I should still be able to make the cut-off at Pole 333. Except…

Then I wanted to take some sunset photos, so I stopped to do that. Around this point I realised that my phone misbehaved most often when it got cold, and considered putting it in a different pocket, and then thought I better just run instead.

Sunset over Rocky Valley Storage

Then I needed another thermal shirt because I was getting too cold, so I stopped to unload one from my pack and get dressed.

Then my extra bottle was digging infuriatingly into my ribcage, so I stopped to adjust it.

Then I was too hot, so I stopped to fiddle with that extra thermal I’d just put on, and tried to let some air through.

Then last light looked so pretty that I took some more photos, trying to capture the colours. I had to apologise to the sweepers for being one of those annoying runners, stopping to take photos. They asked how I was doing.

Last light

‘Just enjoying the peace and quiet.’

‘Sorry—we’ll back off.’

I didn’t mean to sound so rude, but I do love my alone-time up on the high plains.

Then I arrived at Langfords Gap moments before the volunteers dropped Natalie and Scott at their crew car, but I only beat them because they didn’t have the Watchbed Creek gate key the first time around and had to go back for it. I knew I could go with them; I knew I should probably ask. I didn’t. I paused just long enough to drive the thought from my mind, and headed out along the aqueduct, followed by the new sweepers. If I could just make it to Cope Hut in an hour, I could make it to Pole 333 on time. I knew I could. Except…

Then I headed out along the aqueduct and I was very, very slow. I’d eaten heaps and my energy levels were great. My massage therapist’s efforts to ease my sacroiliac joints hadn’t been undone yet. My feet were sore but not as bad as I’d expected—the shin niggle had died down and, even though my left achilles tendon wasn’t playing, my legs felt strong. But my back—oh! It was so tight and aching from the weight of the pack, as were my intercostals, and it hurt to breathe. It was breaking my rhythm; I just couldn’t speed up.

When I got to Cope Hut later than expected, I knew I wouldn’t make it to Pole 333 on time, so I bailed out and told the sweepers, Gary and Jane, that I wanted to hide in the hut while I waited for Race Director Paul to collect me.  At first they tried to encourage me to continue but I stood my ground. I knew continuing was a bad idea—Paul wouldn’t want a fatigued, slow person on the exposed, windy high plains at night. It would be foolish.

So Gary radioed to get me a pick-up. They offered to wait with me as Paul wouldn’t arrive for 45 minutes to an hour. But I knew I’d be OK in the hut. I reassured them it was only a few hundred metres up to the road—it was the first time I’d pulled the map out all day! (I don’t recommend that for newbies, and I still looked at my trail notes very regularly.)

As I sat in the hut and put on every layer of clothing I’d packed (including a down jacket), I finally acknowledged that I’d been farting around and delaying because I didn’t want to run through the night and I wanted the decision taken out of my hands. I didn’t want to push myself that far when I knew I wasn’t fit. I’d rather save the risk-taking for when I’m doing really well in a race, like when I pushed through severe shin pain and bruising at the Adelaide 6-Day last year.

Paul showed up right on time. We went via Pretty Valley in case anyone else needed a lift out, as Paul was headed back to Bogong Village to sleep. I heard him tell the Pole 333 team that runners were right to continue through if they were doing OK and just missed the cut by ten minutes or so. I wondered if I could’ve made that 11.40 pm cut-off. I wondered if they would’ve stopped me there anyway, as I probably looked terrible. I second-guessed everything, but ultimately knew I wasn’t up to it.

I wasn’t exhausted—despite what Paul ‘remembered’ later—I was just tired. I missed the cut because i was unmotivated and untrained (not to be confused with undertrained), and because, while I was stupid enough to start, I was smart enough to recognise that continuing would mean putting myself at risk. Yes, if I’d pushed and not taken photos and farted around I’d have made Pole 333 and maybe been allowed to continue. But I didn’t really want to.

I messaged a few loved ones to let them know I was OK and had dropped out. My worries weren’t over, though. I thought about my housemates and wondered if 100 km runner Donal had made it back yet and whether he would’ve thought to put the key back in the key safe once he’d let himself in. Fortunately for me, he was on the finish line when I got there, so we headed back together. It was more fortunate for him, though, as he’d forgotten about the key safe and needed my help to get in! Donal seemed disappointed with his time and not reassured by my reminder of our discussions the night before. This really is a tough race, people! He told me that Tarek had looked awful at Pole 333 and he wasn’t sure he’d make it.

Donal had to be off by about 5.00 am so he was gone by the time I woke up to voices in the next room. It was Tarek—on the phone, explaining the outcome. He’d dropped at Mt Loch, feeling awful. His nutrition hadn’t worked out for him this time, even though he ate all the same things he usually did. I suspect this is common at Alpine, unless you train on the course. I was disappointed for him but some days things just don’t work out. I was delighted to discover he’d thought to collect my drop-bags from both Mt Loch carpark and Harrietville, though. What a champion; I’d only have to collect my Warby Corner one. (Then he headed up to chat on the finish line, and brought back that drop-bag for me, too. Best housemate ever. Sorry, Donal.)

After the race came the concerned question from all other runners and crews: ‘What happened?’ I was surprised and amused. It’s not like I have a particularly solid track record of finishing this race. A DNF is the norm for me!

A positive outcome was that I got some GREAT photos. One of my photos of Chrissy is even on the official race webpage. This is why, even when my phone was playing up, I stopped and persisted—so I could bring you these amazing photos. Please enjoy!