Zen and the art of the Alpine Challenge miler

Tim Woods

At the outset, it is important to know that I am a novice runner. I took up running in June 2016 after participating in an Oxfam Trailwalker 100 km event in April 2016. When I decided to attempt the 2017Alpine Challenge, I had been in six events, none longer than a half marathon.

My goals of;

  • improving my health, I had dropped about 15 kilograms in nine months and
  • being a more active and capable parent, whose efforts could be something of a role model for my children, needed their own challenge. I deliberately sought out something that seemed at the boundaries of possibility, but that was demonstrably achievable, at least by others.

I was greeted by scepticism from some, derision by a few, but a sufficient level of support to go beyond the 'what if' and into a year-long assault on the 2017 edition of the Alpine Challenge. I had a perfect build up from late 2016 into November 2017, both in terms of fitness and event preparation.

But there is nothing like the event itself to be your true test.

Despite warnings of snow, raging rivers, crashing rains and freezing cold, the morning of the Alpine Challenge – my first miler and only my second race over 100 km – loomed as short sleeves and skins weather. Very good news! Runners assembled in the starting chute and I gravitated instantly to the rear, with other realistic 'back of packers'. Calm descended.

As planned, I was running near last and hadn't shot off like some of the crazies, many of whom were to drop later. My top-to-bottom body check was all systems go, and the tech maps from the Running Wild team were performing precisely.

Immediately the first river crossing was completed (about 9.5 km in), the long climb up Spion Kopje to Warby Corner commenced. I cruised, but reeled in a few people. I got to Warby Corner about 20 minutes ahead of plan, a gain held for another 10 to 11 hours and a total of about 75 km.

If there is a better feeling than seeing your crew at a checkpoint, I don't know what it is. Seeing Dean, Martin and Dirk at Warby Corner reminded me no matter what you do for yourself, there are others who have bought into the whole thing and have committed time and effort. You owe your best, to them, as much as yourself.

The bomb down to Big River was fun and I could have sat forever watching people demonstrate they had no river crossing strategy. It was an object lesson, that complete preparation is not a matter of merely packing a bag, or running a lot.

The valleys were warm and many people seemed spent as they reached Cleve Cole Hut, about 40km in. There was human wreckage all around at that point, including illnesses, so I moved on quickly - like an un-afflicted pilgrim rushing through a leper camp.

The Alpine Search & Rescue crew were busy there. Respect to them all, for their expertise and volunteer efforts.

After summiting Bogong, I was feeling great as I headed down the Quartz Ridge to Big River and through to Warby Corner again.

I ran into Langfords Gap and my first opportunity to sit in 15 hours. I had committed to myself I would run into every crewed checkpoint, to encourage my incredible crew. At Langfords, Jo and Jacquie, got me fed, changed and reloaded. They looked after my legs and feet without telling me how horrible they were. I noticed emerging blisters or raw spots on my feet, but nothing a fresh pair of socks and shoes and dry feet would not fix.

Heading off across the High Plains a storm came in. I sheltered at Cope Hut and met up with another runner, together we trekked over the sodden High Plains - it reminded me of a January trip across the same path, in much worse conditions. It was dark, and at some point, maybe 3 km from Pole 333, I turned to say something to Michael, but his headlamp was a few hundred metres back.

I ploughed on, arriving at Pole 333 checkpoint full of good cheer. Unbelievably, Martin and Dean had hiked Dirk in, (after doing Warby Corner at the start of the day), so he could pace me to Mt Hotham. Because of the rain and just generally slowing, I was an hour late.

We headed past the race sign that says essentially 'This is Mortein Alley and you will probably fail on this 60 km stretch'. I nearly kicked it over, but kept going. There's the trick, I guess.

As we pulled into Loch carpark, I was upbeat, especially to meet my partner Kathleen. I was never more conscious how shared the journey had been. This marked just my second time beyond 100 km, and the much awaited 'unknown territory'.

In addition to popping and bandaging blisters (so much fun) I got 20 minutes sleep! Kathleen and Jacquie were a little hilarious and found nothing, not even the blisters - too gross. No hug from Kathleen has even been so good!

Dirk had decided to do the dance down Bon Accord Spur with me, to Harrietville. Essentially, I would have a pacer for the entirety of the night – a serious blessing. A very good friend, and as attentive and calm a pacer as you could possibly imagine. My race was his race and Dirk's maybe 80 km in 24 hours is a very decent ultra in its own right.

Part way down the Bon Accord Spur into Washington Creek, dawn broke, heralding the beginning of a serious stomach upset.

Looking slightly to the North we could see headlamps coming down a slope in the distance. The only spots it could have been, 24 hours into the race - was Feathertop itself.

We reached Harrietville around 7am (I think) and again, I was able to run into sight, no matter how much it was hurting. It was great to see everyone, especially the kids. I was positive, but my stomach was troubling and food was an issue. I decided not to change my shoes and socks - they were dry and blisters were bandaged already.

Dirk joined me for the start of the climb up to Federation Hut and Mt Feathertop. I was feeling very poorly about 30 or 45 minutes in, and when I turned to Dirk and said "This is it, I have to go now", I knew it was difficult for him to 'let me go' and for my part, I felt as bereft and lonely, as never before.

I was physically ill, but made it to Federation Hut, having been passed by one person coming up from Harrietville.

As I clambered to summit Mt Feathertop - after midday (32 hours in) and 5 hours down on my plan - I was unsure if I should proceed. I thought of my father, who was terminally ill and whose condition I monitored closely the week before the race, uncertain whether to even toe the start line until I received his instruction to race. If he could be stronger, than I sure as hell would be.

But there was no denying I was ill and becoming dehydrated. Keeping water in was a challenge. I could not knowingly put others at risk, so I decided to test my stomach. Finally, water and food stayed in!

That was around 1pm or 32.5 hours in. The race cut-off is 42 hours, with a marathon and 1,800 metres of ascent and descent left to do ... and I was a little weary.

After fighting my way down Diamantina Spur, I went through the West Kiewa River valley and on to Blair's and Weston's Huts. It was steep, with plenty of switchbacks. It was here I met Chris, whom I had seen at Mt Feathertop. He is a better runner than me, but had been struggling. He was asleep on a log. "Whatcha doing mate?" "Sleeping." "You ok?" "Nup" he says. And with that he got up and moved ahead of me again. One more person passed me on this climb, with a pacer and going well. She also finished ahead of me.

From Pole 333 (80 km), only these two people passed me. Both finished. At Mt Hotham and Harrietville, large numbers dropped. It is lonely going out there, once the race has strung out, amidst the fatigue, pain and doubt. Mortein Alley indeed!

After Weston's Hut, I checked my pace constantly and worked hard to stay alert and efficient. The rise along the ridge, with the High Plains horizon in front comes about 10 or 15 minutes out of Weston's Hut. As I saw it, I knew, really knew, that I would be a finisher.

From Pole 333 it was time to hustle, so I broke into a proper run for the first time since trotting into Harrietville about 11 hours earlier.

I ran into the Pretty Valley Pondage - 9 km to go - where Jo and Martin met me and helped me make good decisions, but not before Dirk jogged out 250 m to bring me in and see what I needed. Still on his feet, still supporting me! Gratitude is insufficient.

After trudging up Mt McKay it seemed appropriate to yell at the top of my voice, into a wilderness that felt just a little more tame than it had a day before.

Finishing is winning.

I charged down the Last Hoot to my personal victory and the opportunity to see my life's inspiration (Jake, Nate and Kathleen), and a crew of fabulous friends whose efforts and support, and belief made finishing possible. Conversation with Race Director Paul Ashton and the second place getter, the genuine and warm star runner, Dan Beard was a great moment, because I felt that as much as finishing, I had arrived into a small community that is bonded by shared experience.

And it also dawned on me that I was at a new personal place after something shy of 41 hours 'out there'.

At the race briefing two days earlier, Paul had said to crew in attendance that they would not receive back the same person they sent out.

It rang true at the briefing, and I now know it to be so. Never entirely lacking in confidence, I am calmer in the face of those challenges we all face that seemingly have no end (all things must come to an end after all) and I am able to see both the start and the end of larger things, at the same time and more clearly. If someone can do it, I know that I also can do it, especially if it involves enduring.

My family talk fondly about my madness, but like me, they know too that there are only those limits we place upon ourselves. I don't know they ever did, but my boys certainly will not be found saying 'I cannot do that'. For all of those reasons, that is why I will be back.