Clare Weatherly

I’m hobbling a little and I’m asked why as I scrub some dishes at work. “I ran a bit too far on the weekend,” I reply. “Oh yeah, where did you run?” asks the Chef aka Franko aka Boss. “Around Mt Bogong/Hotham area,” I reply. “Holy shit!” is Chef’s reply. “I hate even driving up there. So how far did you run?” “160kms,” I mumble, feeling uncomfortable as I’m just here to work.

Down goes his pot and his jaw. Everyone in the kitchen is now staring at me. There’s a lot of whats and bullshit type talk as I continue my work, feeling the attention burning into me. “How long did that take you?” “36hrs” I reply trying to deflect the conversation. But then I realise this is my first lie because realistically the answer is four years and as the swelling in my legs and the bags under my eyes attest to, it’s not quite over yet.

In hindsight, it all began with a car crash which, over a long period, taught me the inner workings of rehab - re-learning to properly walk and run. My ticket to positivity was the art of goal setting. It began with things like wiggling toes, wobbly walking, wobbly running, then the Salomon trail series. Each goal was unrealistic at the time but I wanted it enough to dedicate three hours each day to achieving it.

After the Salomon short course series I needed a new goal. While reading Aura races online I found one that was raising money for road trauma; and it was on my birthday. It seemed like it was meant to be. In the fine print were a few minor details. The challenge was about nine months away, the distance was 160 kilometres and at that stage my longest run was about eight wonky kilometres.

I did the only sensible thing, and rang the race director who I was sure would be a cautious type of bloke, (naivety is bliss). When I told him of my plan and a brief outline of my running to date, this man, Paul Ashton ‘trail pops’, suggested I run the 64 kilometre Razorback in a few months’ time. If I finished it and could run the following Thursday, then I was OK for the Alpine Challenge Miler.

Two months later I was doing the Razorback. 16 hours later I was finished, smashed to pieces and paralysed in bed in Harrietville caravan park. But by Thursday I was running. Now the Alpine Challenge Miler was my goal. My rehab saviour and three friends who’d conspired to be my support crew, were all on a mission.

After training crazily during the following months, we all made the journey with my parents and aunt and uncle, to Alpine Challenge 2012. None of us had any idea what we were doing. A million spreadsheets were used to try and put some order into the ludicrous situation. Boxes and boxes of ‘things’, that contained ‘things,’ that might provide a solution to those ‘things’ that might happen out there.

Somehow I got around to Langfords Gap feeling pretty great. Then came the night section. In short, my race finished early when I ended up in a sleeping bag at Mt Hotham with Hypothermia. Inwardly I was shattered and was mad as hell with myself. The next 12 months were spent training like a crazy woman again, pitting myself against all things mountainous, all things cold, or anything else that might come between me and that finish line.

Twelve months later we all piled into the cars again for another attempt. This time the notorious mountain weather attacked, closing the course due to horrific conditions. Thanks to my preparation I was toasty warm. But that wasn’t enough when the communication tower had been blown off Mt Bogong, and Staggs were flying out of trees.

Two failures so far. As a result of a change in the date of the event from March to November, it was 18 months later that, instead of running, I decided to volunteer with Search & Rescue.

Now comes 2015!!!! This year is mine. Come hell or high water I had this.

Training had been going perfectly with my coach, Dianna Blegg, who’d had me doing a lot of cross training which seemed to work so well for me. I’d never felt fitter. No support crew this time, which changed the dynamics a bit. Mostly, this is easier for me. Previously I’d felt so uneasy having people out waiting for me, getting cold and driving through the night while I ran. So mentally, it makes it a whole lot less complicated for me to be an unsupported runner.

So, the race. After a few sleepless nights due to work I’m checking in. I love this. Friends I haven’t seen for a long time. It’s one of the few times I love a crowd. I feel comfortable. These are my people. We are all off to do something that’s become the happiest part of me. Time running in the mountains. Nothing else to do. Nowhere else to be. It’s pure mental peace.

Gear check. Drop off drop bags, and a dinner where Pops tells his usual jokes about snakes eating people, falling off cliffs, hypothermia, Mortein Alley and cautionary tales like “girls who talk will get lost”.

Something happens overnight as I lie awake tucked up in the back of my Suzuki Swift. ‘Nervous birds’ attack and by morning I have an unfamiliar feeling of sickness at the start line, combined with heavy breathing.

The start is a 16 kilometre climb and bit by bit I leave the “sick birds” behind and find my peaceful ones again. By the time I meet the first check point I’m feeling pretty chipper. After a quick gathering of food for the next leg, I’m off to see the magic of Mt Bogong and the emerging wildflowers.

Everything’s great. I’m going faster than planned, going easier than planned and just having a day out in the mountains.

As I get to the top of Bogong I’m sure I’ve got this one. An easy descent down Quartz Ridge and a fast walk up Timms spur back to the check point at Warby’s Corner.

Then the fun begins. I feel a pain in my knee which is not muscle and it’s not getting better. By Warby’s I’m concerned. There’s around 30 kilometres till the next check point and it’s all runnable. However, run turns to shuffle, then shuffle to walk, then a hobble over the last four kilometres. Thankfully, I find a friend in Tarek, whose in the mode to walk. However he’s faster than a hobble so we part ways before Pole 333.

Pole 333 is the ultimate cross roads of the race. Go right and you’re on the 100 kilometre track with a downhill 24kms home. Go left and you’re on a 60 kilometre loop with three major descents, and three major climbs including Mt Hotham and Mt Feathertop before a drop into Harrietville. 80 kilometres into a race you can imagine how this cross roads looks.

I was feeling dejected, telling Alpine SARs people I thought I was screwed. But after being given a seat, a few more calories, a big bandage, a handful of painkillers and a few encouraging words from Matty Bell and SARs, I decided to go left and at least see how far around the course I could get. I had enough clothes to curl up in the huts and two days’ worth of food.

So now I was on a different mission. Race over, just go as far as possible. Optimistically, I hoped to get at least to Mt Hotham, where I’d dropped out four years previously.

On my way to Mt Hotham I find hope in the most magical sight. As the sun is setting against Mt Hotham, I’m on the plains about to drop into the tree line. The orange of the sunset is reflecting on the wildflowers between me and the tree line. In between lie four Brumbies. One stallion, a mare, a yearling and a baby foal.

The sight fixes my mind set and I’m happy again. I’m off to get Mt Hotham. At Mt Hotham I decide I can stomach the descent to Harrietville. Then I’ll have gone one check point further than previously. A warm night allows me to leave my wetsuit behind which I have just in case… but surprisingly my knee has not deteriorated.

Somewhere along this track dubbed Mortein Alley, where most people find they lose their shit and will, I’m finding strength. I set my sights on each little section and tackle it one bit at a time. Never do I think about finishing, just getting as far as possible.

I’m yet to have my first running hallucination and I’ve been dreaming about all the things I might be seeing. For some strange reason armadillos seem appealing. I get excited when I see a heap of fairy lights and tents at Washington Creek and need to wait for another runner to double check if I’m hallucinating. Unfortunately he sees them also. So I have to wait longer for my running trip.

Heading up Feathertop I’m falling asleep walking. It’s almost morning. Pops’ advice has been spot on so far. You do the first 80 kilometres with your body, the next 80 with your mind, he tells us. Tip 1—this gave me optimism, laughing at 80 kilometres, saying it was great as my body was shot so good to know I didn’t need it anymore. Tip 2—break it down into mini sections—this was winning. Tip 3—Beware of falling off cliffs—I grabbed for the Nodoz to ward this one off. A caffeinated buzz and I was off again for Feathertop and down to meet my SAR friends at Blairs Hut where Trevor joined me for a section.

In between is Diamantina Spur which is like a large cliff only a more gradual death. I didn’t die but Turret syndrome did develop.

I was pretty excited returning to Pole 333. I was imagining they’d be a little surprised to see me. I was now pretty confident I could get home well within the cut off. A few kilometres from Pole 333 and Graham, a legend I’m lucky to know, came out to greet me and walk me in.

Now there’s 24 kilometres between me and home. In a normal training session it seemed an easy downhill. A fast zippy gliding 24 kilometres with scenic views of the 140kms we had trodden over. But that was weeks ago. Now I was seeing some up. Suddenly there were rocks everywhere, with water and sand. It was sooo much longer than 14kms to the horse yards.

Over a few kilometres I perfected my Tarret syndrome. My absolute hero, ’Trail Pops’ turned into a sadistic son of a … After a quick laugh at myself, I loved trail pops again and found the downhill.

In my dreams I’d been belting down here about 12 kilometres an hour to the finish. I did manage my first shuffle jog since 333, with Derek Prentice coming out to help me on the last few kilometres, then Tamekya Bell ’the alpine challenge runner’. We got to a 2 kilometres to go sign, and Derek is a little confused, saying that he thought 2 kilometres was awhile ago. We laugh, saying anywhere within 50% of the actual distance, there is a distinct possibility the sign could actually be – this is Running Wild.

Through to the finish line. The closure of a journey of rehab and goals and a track that was set to test me in as many ways as it possibly could. Thinking of all those people who’d helped me get there, some who know, some who don’t, most who probably underestimate their significance. It was a pretty satisfying goal and accomplishment, both for the journey and for the event. It’s the hardest event I have done to date and also the most rewarding.

Speaking to Mum afterwards she was quite relieved too, saying it was good to get it done and now I didn’t need to do any of Trail Pops’ silly events any more. Hahaha. She’s so funny. Of course I do.

We love these runs for the places they take us, the friends we see, the challenges we face and the life they bring us. We love them because they give us this in a holistic setting. It’s not about glitz and glamour. It’s not about superficial crafingle that comes with medals, big prizes, flashy cameras and hollow B grade facebook advertising. It’s about stuff that’s real, meaningful, everlasting and unbreakable.

Thanks Pops for the gifts you give us.