Roy Willetts

It’s 03.45 on Sunday morning and I can’t work out which way to go. I’m ignoring my map and following the red flags as instructed at the race briefing for this section. I think that’s what they said, but can’t remember correctly now after 23 hours on the trail. They dead-end at a tree on the riverbank. There is a track heading up the hill and my map says to follow the track, however there are no red flags on it. I go up the track for a 100 m or so. No red flags. I descend back to the river and look again upstream for red flags. None-seen and I retrace my steps over, down the river and back to where I had descended off the mountain. I take a few deep breaths as I can tell I am getting distressed and anxious. I seem to have been stuck in the middle of nowhere for 45 minutes not able to make a decision. After 110 km of tough terrain in the Victorian Alps and with only two hours sleep the night before the race start, I’m not thinking straight and I know it. No other runners had shown up either that may help me make a decision. Where is everyone? So after one last walk up the riverbed to double-check I didn’t miss something, I make the decision to follow the track by the tree and to hell with it all. I will run into oblivion and never be found again, or at least pop out on the wrong road in the wrong place and have to DNF. I know I’m sulking about loosing so much time but I can’t help feeling sorry for myself. At least I have plenty of water in my bottles after so long in the River, that’s a plus I tell myself.

 

It all started six months earlier when the Alpine Challenge Trail Race that takes place in late November every year in the Victorian Alps announced that this year’s 100-mile option would be a qualifying race for the prestigious and difficult to get in “Hardrock 100” in Colorado. I had entered Hardrock the previous two years on the back of my 2014 UTMF finish around Mt Fuji in Japan. Now I needed another race to enter for the next two years and this was it. It was In Australia and is one of around 20 or so races around the world that is allowed as a qualifier. I had never been in the Victorian Alps area before; so doing a race there all seemed pretty perfect. New terrain and a qualifying race to boot. Goal set, now make a plan and get training. As a bonus my brother in law, Chris MacLean, had done the race the previous year and was repeating it again this time around. He was up to speed with all the logistics of things, accommodation, getting there, checkpoint locations and course knowledge. I had six months to train for it and hit the hills pretty hard. All went well and I flew down from Cairns to Sydney three days before the race and we drove down to Falls Creek the next day to settle in and get out bearings. The rest of our little band of racers trickled in over the next 24 hours, Tom Moschitz, Julie Sager, Tony and Sharon Weir making up six for the miler and Kal Newcomb doing the 100km version. We all had partners or friends doing crewing duties with Leigh Sorenson putting his hand up to crew for me. With only five checkpoints it seemed the easy gig. But with big mountains for us to go over it was some long driving on windy roads at all hours of the day and night for them. As well as one checkpoint being a six km walk in, it was no easy feat for the crew.

Paul, the race director and all round funny guy, counts us down at 04.30 on Saturday morning at the base of the Falls Creek Ski resort, and were off. There were 62 people starting the miler and 45 more in the 100km. It’s a small sea of head torches bobbing up and down for 300 m along the road before we drop into the single-track to not see any bitumen again for 100 miles. As we were about to find out, this was a true mountain race with trails cut a long time ago by people who just wanted the quickest way in, out and over the high country. Not many easy switchback tracks here to make it an easy grade for modern day hikers. It was almost all straight up and down or diagonal across or directly following the ridgeline, regardless of the pitch. Quickest route no matter what seemed to be the order of the day.

Out of the gate it’s a 24km jaunt to Warby corner. A track junction in the high country opposite the Falls Creek Ski Resort. We descend a 10 km trail followed by the first of many river crossings and climb slowly up to Spione Kopje. Then an easy enough straight run to the junction. I have started with my friend Tom Moschitz, who is doing his first 100 miler. He is a faster runner then me but is cleverly dialing himself back to feel it all out and not blow up. Julie a tad behind us with Chris right at the back of the pack, in no rush at all. Tony and Sharon running together somewhere in-between us all.

It’s good to see our crew at the corner even though it’s only been 3.45 hours. They cheer us, feed us and switch out our buff headbands for hats and were off again within five minutes or so. We don’t see crew again till the 70 km mark after this big 46 km loop we are about to embark on. We dive down to the first of two crossings of Big River. I leave my shoes on as I do in Cairns and run with wet feet. This turns out to be an issue later on that really slaps me in the face. No matter now though, I’m saving few minutes at each crossing so that’s good right? Tom takes his shoes off, much smarter as its turns out.

After the steep climb out of Big River, we are getting some water at Cleave Cole Hut when Julie catches us. The three of us head of to climb slowly to the top of Mt Bogong, the highest peak in Victoria at around 2000 m. We take happy snaps at the top and continue on our way around this big high loop. We start to pick our way across to the rocky decent down to Big river again. Slowing up for a couple of kms to scramble over and under hundreds of trees that have fallen across the track. It becomes an obstacle course race for while and I loose the trail at one point. Julie passes by above me and wants to know what I’m doing bush bashing. Glad to see her, I bash my way back up to the course. Its only 10 m away but takes me at least five minutes of solid effort in the dense undergrowth. Over the river again and then a relaxed pitch up the fire trail for an hour or so finds us following Timms Spur back onto the high plains. We weave our way along the top and back through Warby Corner again. (No crew this time) Finally arriving at the Langfords Gap Checkpoint, the 70 km mark, at around 6.00 pm in the late afternoon. Tom and I arrive there after 13 and a half hours with Julie 10 minutes behind. I’m feeling good, still moving well, relaxed, on pace, and happy with things in general. Leigh feeds me, sorts me out, changes a couple things for me and kicks me out of there. Tom is already waiting and we’re off again. Won’t see crew now till the 98 km checkpoint at Mt Hotham.

Some easy terrain along the Aqueduct for five kms finds us heading across long sections of high country following big, numbered poles that act as navigation markers in the winter months when snow buries everything around. Swampy puddles, grass tufts and a bit of a goat track for 10 km gets us to Pole 333. This is a key spot in the race as it’s where the 100 km racers turn right and have only 15 km to get to the finish and we turn left for a brutal 60 km loop that brings us back to Pole 333. This is a section called “Mortein Alley” because they say, Runners drop like flies. The left turn proves too much for eight 100-mile racers and they go to the right and switch to the 100 km race. Julie had caught Tom and I up 10 km ago at the start of the poles and the three of us just get our numbers ticked off and don’t stop at all in case we succumb to the pull to the right. It’s like an evil Star Wars Force or something, Go to the right Luke!

Darkness now falls and we are on a high trail weaving its way for another 15 km to the Mt Hotham ski area. It’s been an awesome day. Good weather, with views as far as the eye can see, a great day to be up in the mountains. The night is just as good and the stars are out in full force but temperatures have dropped to zero and below. We are climbing a steep pitch when an unearthly, gluteal, sound rips through the night. A cross between a duck honking and a roar from a mythical monster and really load. I keep moving. Hear it again and catch Tom who is motionless, Julie brings up the rear.

“It’s right there somewhere,” says Tom pointing only a few meters into the bush. “I don’t know what it is but I think we should pass it as a group just incase, what do you think?”

“Sure” I say, “you go first though, you woke it up!”

Disappointedly, nothing happens and we have to keep moving. It seems being attacked by monsters will have to happen another time. We also never find out what it may have been? A distressed runner maybe?

We descend the Hotham ski area and hit a warming hut at the base of the resort that’s the checkpoint. It’s a basic hut but suddenly seems like the Hilton Hotel. Leigh is there to help me and Googs, (Adrianne), Tom’s wife to help him. It’s luxury, running water, hot noodles and a toilet, which I am unaware I need till I see it. Then I need it right away! Were living high and wide now.

It’s a longer stop then the previous two as it’s now really cold outside. Also there is a 1400 m-elevation drop over the next 15 km or so and we both feel like we need to be ready for it as it’s just turned midnight. Tom is not only doing this as his first 100 miler but also as the last race in his series to get enough points to enter next year’s premium race in Europe, the UTMB, Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in Chamonix. Another hard race to get into as you must do multiple events in a short period just to be able to put an entry into the lottery. He is now feeling like he will get through this event though and makes the call that he is going to open it up a little. This leaves me falling behind and after a long and cold descent finds me alone and confessed in the Washington River with my red flag dilemma. After giving up the ghost and climbing out of the river and into oblivion, low and behold there’s a red flag 400 m along the track. I’m going the right way after all. Now, after a calm and controlled race, I’m annoyed and frustrated with my self. I arrive at the Checkpoint in Harrietville just after dawn in a frenzy to make up almost an hour of lost time.

I complain bitterly about what an idiot I am to anyone who will listen, which are just Leigh and Googs. They nod dutifully and start switching out things for me to go through the day section. Before I know it they have fed me, got me into a fresh pair of shoes and socks, a new shirt, a hat and I’m away. What just happened? Googs is walking with me to the turn 100 m down the road to make sure I don’t miss it, (I have a history) waves me good luck and vanishes into thin air. After another couple hundred meters, Harrietville is gone also. It seems like Brigadoon suddenly and I’m heading for the highlands for what may be another 100 years.

This section is really the last leg, 46 km to the finish, 38 km of it remote and inaccessible by crew or with no real easy rescue option. Once you commit to this leg, it’s do or die really. Finish the race or create a big problem for everyone. Turns out, it’s just the extra commitment I need as I fade quickly on the next climb.

It’s a steady and classic style of track up to Federation hut, 10 km away, and then two more kms to Mt Feathertop. Almost 1500 m of vertical in all. By the half waypoint to the hut though I realize that the souls of my feet that had been a bit tender in the last leg were now a big issue. It was as though I was stepping onto razor blades or hot pokers. The shoe change I had looked forward to seemed like a mistake. Blisters and soft spots were now causing me issues that I had not been through before. Crossing all the rivers like a hero in wet shoes had come back to bite me. I now know that all the rivers I cross in training and running with wet feet mean nothing when you’re only out for 4 or 5 hours. 24 hours plus of wet feet and not taking care of them is another ball game. I think back to all the long races I had done before over the last 15 years and become aware that I had managed to keep my feet dry in all of them. It looks like I’m still learning after 37 years of trail running. I realize that my previous running motto in all those years had been—Live and don’t learn!

I hit the hut, find a log and lay on my back with my feet in the air up on the log. A minor relief that I will do about 10 times in the next 8 hours before I realize that it’s not doing me any good in reliving the pain in my feet, just makes me tired and dopey. After a struggle up the last rocky section of Mt Feathertop and back down again, another laydown is on the cards, boy these feel good. Then it’s off down Razorback track to take the left turn onto Diamantina Spur. Awesome, only 4 kms down to the river! Sweet! That would be 4 km straight down with no turns. Who the hell cuts these tracks? It’s an insane descent. Steep, rocky, slow and with freshly cut bushes in the last 1 km that are lying on the ground. It’s like skating on ball bearings. In high elation to hit the bottom and finally stop descending, I look at my Suunto watch at the bottom and go left instead of right. Not sure how that happened?

After 10 minutes of relaxed downhill I come to an easy access section to the river and stop. I’m super low on water and take my pack off to fill my bottles and bladder. Clamber back up to my pack to find I put it on and ants nest! Grab everything, find a clear spot on the fire trail, rip every item out of my pack and begin a hurried wiping down of all items to get rid of the ants that have infiltrated all nocks and crannies. I’m throwing things everywhere in my cleaning frenzy, it’s amazing I can find it all again. This is the fastest I’ve moved in 30 hours! I get it all sorted and put it back together again and take a look at the map. Whoops, turned out I should have gone right, not left. Chris and his pacer, his wife Geordie were not far behind and had been catching me so I needed to motivate to get back up the track to hook up with them. I wanted company at the moment, as I clearly couldn’t be trusted on my own. Chris had run a textbook race. Start at the back, don’t panic, take it easy and be consistent. He was working his way up through the field and going well. I start to jog but take only a few steps and stop. Yes there it is again, and again. Shit the ants have crawled up into my shorts and are biting my delicate parts. I rip my shorts down and start to pick them off with caution. I’m on a fire trail in the wilderness, pants around my ankles, squealing like baby pig and clawing at myself like a madman. All I need now is to hear banjos playing in the distance and the nightmare is complete.

I sort my bits out and just catch Chris and Geordie as they finish topping up their hydration. They are cooling off in the creek, as the temps in the valley are now at 30 degrees. We head off together to find the track up to Weston’s Hut, which of course is another straight up trail for an hour or more. The country changes back into that the now familiar stunted trees and grass tufts of the high plains. As an extra bonus, we know that the pole line we are about to follow, takes us all the way back to Pole 333. It kicks things up a small notch for us and we pick up a bit of pace. When we arrive back at the fabled Pole 333, I work out that the 60 km back loop has taken about 18 hours or more, 4 hours longer then I had planned on. Not only had getting lost and having sore feet not helped, but also I had felt slow and beaten down by this section. I was aware that I was more sluggish then normal and loosing time by just being over tired. It seems to be the race that finally doesn’t go quite as well as I had hoped. It had been dark times over Mt Feathertop but it seemed that I was getting a bit of pep back. I could see If I picked it up a bit in the last 15 kms I could try for a sub 40 hour time, so that became my focus. 35–36 hours was out so just re-adjust and keep going was my new catch cry.

At 154 km I pop out on the dirt road to a final crew stop with Leigh. I don’t want for much here but I’m desperate to get back into my original Hoka Challenger shoes that I had on from the start. I take off the stiff Hoka Stinsons that had helped do me in for the last 38 km. It feels good, really good. Change of shirt, dump the hat, new Buff and away up Mt Mackay. A final high Pole section across the mandatory awkward grass tufts and I am in the Falls Creek Ski area. It’s an easy dirt road through the upper reaches and I drift into a solid shuffle before dropping into a ski run for the last 900 m of the course. Downhill is still tough for me and my pace slows dramatically for the final effort.

It’s still daylight which pleases me but as my Suunto watch had died 15 km earlier I was unsure of the time so didn’t rush the last section more then I had to. I cross the line at around 7.30 on Sunday evening to a small group of friends cheering like they’re at the MCG. 39 hours and 2 minutes. Someone puts a Corona beer in my hand, damn that tastes good. Chris is there and had crossed in 38:09, a great last leg for him saving a bunch of time. Tom is also there and crossed in 34:39, making up over 4 hours since we separated. He looks good and is happy with his first miler. Sharon makes up some good ground to come in next with 39:49. Julie brings up the rear of our little group in 40:14. Excellent work considering she had finished the XPD World Champs only 10 days earlier. Her team had won the Masters Division after seven days of straight effort. An awesome performance for her to gut this one out on such a short turn around. Tony has had problems all day, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and more. He finally withdrew after starting to head up Mt Feathertop for a couple of kms before realizing that it may not be a good idea. He turns and heads back down to Harrietville to make the call. We all feel for him after such a long day. Kal knocks over the 100 km race in 21:57, another great effort.

First over the line in the 100 miler was Dan Beard. A local runner and four time runner up who everyone was happy to see take it out in 24:20. In first place for the women was American gun, Amber Weibel, making the trek over from her Californian home, in a time of 29:47

A couple hours later after showers and clean clothes, it’s all Pizza, beer and Gin and Tonics back at the lodge. The war stories are flowing thick and fast and that’s just from the crew! No one is talking of the next race yet, too painful at the moment. However within just days, Ultra Amnesia is setting in and the talk of possible next event options starts up. For me, the Hardrock 100 draw was only a week later and no surprise, I didn’t get in again. This gives me 12 months to recover before the next draw in December 2017. At this rate I might be 70 years old before I get a ticket?

I’m now relaxing on the couch and my blisters are gone. My memory of things is fading as I poke at my black toenails and nurse my sore knee again. My regime is to ice it, take anti-inflammation tablets, rub ointment for horses joints on it, strap it up, put compression on it and face Mecca whilst doing it all. I figure one of those things has to help me recover and get back out there. And would I recommend the Alpine Challenge as a race? Hell yeah folks! Go get some, It’s a ripper. Just be ready for monsters in all their forms.—