Toughing it out at Alpine

Nicole Paton

Alpine Challenge was to be my last big race for 2017 rounding my goal of six 100kms races for the year. It’s one of my favourite races on the calendar. I love the Alps and spend a lot of time in this part of the world snowboarding during winter, so I was really excited about heading up to Falls Creek for a weekend away.

In the lead up to the race, I was still feeling tired and experiencing low energy levels following GOW100 and SCC. Against my better judgement, I used a fast and flat 50kms run at Halloween Howler as my last long training run just three weeks out from Alpine Challenge. I then had a mini freak out about the fact I hadn’t done enough hill training, so I decided to put in last minute hills with three repeats of Lyrebird track on the Sunday prior to the race. That was a mistake, and my quads weren’t happy with me at all the next few days.

I planned my race for Alpine Challenge meticulously, prepared my drop bags and all my food and was feeling reasonably positive by the time I arrived in Falls Creek on Friday, November 24. After a terrible two-hour sleep, I dragged myself up at 3.40am and got myself to the start line. I chatted with the other runners and was extremely pleased to hear Paul tell us that the severe storm warning had been lifted.

Suddenly, we were off, and I tried to keep the pace somewhat restrained for the first 10kms downhill so as to not smash my already fragile quads before the long day ahead. The plan seemed to work well and I was feeling good by the time I reached the bottom and collected my poles for the first big climb. There were 15 to 20 men in front of me across the 100-mile and 100kms races and no women in sight, which was a relief.

Starting into the climb, I found myself chatting with Nick who was running his first 100-miler. As the climb went on and on, it got steeper and steeper, and I got slower and slower; in my opinion it was the hardest climb in the 100kms race. However, once we reached the top I tried to find my running legs again and thankfully was able to, although I did have spew. A few checks over the shoulder along Spion Kopje, and I saw some other runners not too far behind including some women. I didn’t want to start slacking off here.

Running into Warby Corner the first time I felt strong although I was aware that I was behind my arrival time at this checkpoint from last year. I met my awesome crew and quickly changed my front bottles, grabbed gels and a sandwich and I was out of there. I think I gained a couple of places overall. Running down from Warby Corner, I was feeling really good. A few quick map checks to ensure I was on the right track past Ropers Hut and I was on my way down the spur. I tried to move quickly over the steep, technical terrain again without smashing my quads.

When I reached the chain at Big River, I filled my front bottles in the middle of the river and was on my way out of there in seconds. The climb out was tough, but I kept on pushing, watching the elevation ticking upwards on my watch. I ate a sandwich or two, and leap frogged and chatted with a speedy downhill runner. As we neared the top of the climb, we overtook a couple other runners which was a nice feeling after a big tough climb.

Approaching Cleve Cole Hut there were some hikers on the trail and I was depressed to discover I wasn’t moving a lot faster than them. Coming into Cleve Cole hut I was debating if I needed to use the toilet (the only one for the next 45kms), but decided against it and kept moving, heading for the summit of Mt Bogong. I didn’t remember it being so far from Cleve Cole though, and it dragged on.

I soon found myself on the ridge line and it was here the sun came out for the first time. The hards of rock looked amazing, so I actually stopped to take photos because it was too nice to not capture it all. Moving down Mt Bogong I found myself overtaking another runner who had stopped on the trail to get into their pack. I felt this section was faster as they had cleared all the fallen trees we had to climb over in 2016, so I thought I was making up some time here and I felt pretty good.

When I reached the fire trail before Big River I couldn’t remember if it was left or right and my map wasn’t helping. Thankfully there were some trail riders with their horses tied up in and I was told to go left. As I approached the river crossing I could see a lot of other runners. It looked somewhat like a trail runner convention in the river, with people changing socks, standing in the water and filling their bottles. I quickly filled my own bottles, and made may way across the river saying hi to Simon Neale, who was also just leaving the river to make his way up the third big climb.

We set off up the climb. I knew this one was not a steep gradient and I needed to keep my walking pace up and eat along the way. I tried to keep up with Simon, but he was too fast for me and soon he was mostly out of sight. Approaching Warby Corner another runner, Martin, overtook me and was extreme cheerful which was helpful at this point. I knew I was well behind my time from 2016 and I kept checking over my shoulder in the open stretch but I couldn’t see any other runners.

When I got to Warby Corner the second time my crew wasn’t there as had been planned. I wasn’t happy about this—I badly needed sunglasses and sunscreen, but it was only 9kms to Langford, so I headed off. I caught Simon again on the downhill road and proceeded with him onto the Australian Alpine walking trail.

Coming into Langford Gap, I spotted my parents and Ross Burborough running the 60kms, and I prepared for my one big pit stop. I ditched my poles, got my mum to put sunscreen on me while I drank my protein shake and got a stone out of my shoe. Simon’s wife came to ask if we had any tape and scissors as his feet were in a bad way. So I gave her mine then realised I needed to fix some of the tape on my foot too after the stone removal. Oh well, bandaid it was as I had those in my pack.

While this was going on I saw another female runner, Jordan Maki-Richards, at the aid station. She looked fit and fresh as a daisy (in a far better way than me!), and then I saw she had a 100-mile bib on and thanked my lucky stars! I was well behind my goal time by this stage, so I was really just hoping to hang onto the 100kms female win. I asked my crew to find out how much of a lead I had on the next female runners. I set off with my banana shortly after Jordan although she had forgotten her chips so she had to turn back. We leapfrogged for a while after this and I told her she was looking very fresh. She said she was just taking it easy. Meanwhile I was totally exhausted by this point. Impressive!

By the time I reached Cope Hut and crossed the Bogong High Plains Road, I was exhausted and just wanted to get to the finish line. I got a text that I had roughly an 8kms lead on the next female 100kms runner which was a huge relief. If I just kept moving forwards I had this.

And that’s exactly what I did. I kept moving forwards and counting down the poles until I reached Pole 333. I didn’t stop at the Pole 333 aid station because I had enough water and nutrition, and I was meeting my parents again at Pretty Valley anyway so I just wanted to keep moving.

After making a wrong turn to Pretty Valley, I quickly realised the mistake and got myself back on track running with some crew runners. I recognised Belinda Ralph from SCC. We chatted most of the way to Pretty Valley which was great as it took my mind of the exhaustion.

At Pretty Valley I did my usual aid station detail and set off towards Mt McKay. I was finally on the home stretch. I tried to run as much of this as possible, but it was really a walk/waddle by this point in time, still I was feeling stronger than I did by this stage the year before.

As I approached Mt McKay I realised it could actually be possible for me to go under my time from 2016 if I tried really hard. After summiting, I found my speedy running legs again and forced them to turn. I flew down Mt McKay, and hopped my way across the uneven terrain to the main Pretty Valley Road. Once on the road I forced myself to run as fast as possible after 96 or so brutal kms. I astounded myself with the energy I somehow found and while watching the clock ticking closely I near sprinted, left onto Last Hoot and flew down the steep, uneven grassy Last Hoot ski run.

I was cursing how long it seemed to be, “I swear this is so much shorter on my snowboard!” but eventually I turned onto Wombats Ramble and I knew I had done it. I was going to just beat my 2016 time. I ran for the finish line, all smiles, very pleased that I had managed such a strong finish and that my time was enough for the female win.