Unchartered Territory

Luke Barrett

The week leading up to a race is always a dichotomy of activity. Deep into a taper, one is meant to rest, recoup, and feel refreshed and primed for the race. When in reality one simultaneously stresses over minute details, final preparations and anything else that will waste some extra nervous energy. I typically don't do so poorly with the stressing, but running a miler was uncharted territory for me, let alone the terrain of the Alpine National Park. This, coupled with a persistently sore leg that wasn't improving with rest, left me packed and on the road slightly anxious about the weekend ahead.

Arriving to a 20cm of snow in the village on Thursday afternoon was the perfect distraction from the usual nervy pre-race vibes, adding instead a whole new set of complications and questions. These however didn't stress me out. The weather was uncontrollable so I deemed stressing about it to be misspent energy. Course changes were implemented the evening prior, and we were gifted a start time in the godly hours of the day.

The morning was cool but not cold, and more importantly it was dry. Ignorant excitement and nervous curiosity overwhelmed my senses as we endured the weeklong minutes before the start. 8am sharp we were set free and quickly organised ourselves up the first steep climb out of Falls Creek.

I settled into a comfortable group that contained a number of guys I knew, or at least I felt like I knew. The extensive pre race Strava stalking I'd done to try and set some expectations for the race made me feel close to these guys, but in reality I was little more than another competitor, barely an acquaintance. Majell, Pat, Chris, Simon and others were all there, plodding along happily making steady but tentative progress, while I lurked around keeping mostly quiet. The ground was still quite snowy making it slow going in places, often picking lines through the shrubs next to the track that was shin deep snow in parts. This early on though, most of the snow was still frozen my feet were staying surprisingly dry.

My experience in racing up until now was that races thin out really quick, much quicker than you'd expect. The hustle and bustle of the start line making way for a day of solitude within the first hour of racing. Alpine Challenge was different though. Perhaps the culture of Victorian trail running is different, or maybe its the added distance of a miler and the fear of whats to come, but I ran the majority of the first lap with at least 4-5 other guys, at one point even joining in on singing happy birthday to a guy (happy 40th Stevo). Whatever it was, it made for some good distractions and completing the first 35km lap with little discomfort.

Back at Falls Creek now and things finally started to feel like a race. Different crews, different tactics and different checkpoint efficiencies meant that our fun-loving cohesive bunch that ran into falls was splintered, the 'no man left behind' feel of the first lap clearly not welcome from here on in. In hindsight I rushed this checkpoint, so much so I failed to remember that lap 2 was run in reverse, so Langfords Gap was now around three and a half hours away, instead of just over an hour. Lucky for me it was not yet too hot, so I could ration my water to last the distance and my food would get me there, albeit with nothing to spare. I resolved to be calmer and to communicate better at the checkpoints from here on in, so as to avoid a potentially race-ending error.

Hiking back up to Mt McKay, Maj and a few others pressed on ahead of me. The run-ability of the course was now evident. It sounds silly to say, but this running race would require a lot of running. So much so I decided to walk sections sooner than I would normally (and I walk a lot) to try and preserve my legs as much as possible. To my surprise, Mat caught me about halfway up the road. Surprising not because he'd managed to catch me, but because I was sure he was still out in front. It was nice to share some of the race with a mate, a race we'd spent so many hours training for together at home. The trails were still covered with knee deep snow in places, but as we trudged across The Desert Track and up to the Mt McKay summit, we could see the front of the race was only 5-10 minutes ahead of us. I can't remember our exact position, but I'm pretty sure we were top 10.

The 35 and 70km runners were starting to cross paths with us now, and before too long we came across Lisa and Chris, more familiar faces! It's easy to get in a pretty dark mental space in a race this long, and while I was't particularly struggling right here, it's amazing the difference simply seeing friends and training parters can make. We exchanged some shakkas, and I think Mat even hugged Lisa (she was lined up to pace him later that night after her race - a mammoth effort I must say).

Somewhere down towards Pretty Valley Hut, Mat ran off and I was passed by one or two others. I still wasn't sure whether I was feeling good or not, so took it easy, carefully picking my way across the high plains towards Cope Hut. The fire trail was covered in snow here, but it was beginning to melt which made for a big slushy mess. The relentless tufts of grass adjacent to the road was prime ankle roll territory, but I made it through unscathed and started to feel good. I reeled in and passed Nikolay who had passed me earlier, and arrived at Langfords Gap at the same time as Mat. My checkpoints were now dialled, confident in the timings of the sections and the necessary food and water supplies I needed to get me to the next stop. The weather was starting to warm up now too, but maintained its classic erratic alpine character; warm, still and hot one minute, cold, windy and overcast the next. I took my gloves off for a little bit, but ended up with them back on fairly quickly.

Mat and I left Langfords together, holing hands momentarily, (which he proceeded to tell me was his snot glove - not cool Mat) and headed off to finish our second loop. I knew it was still a long way to go, but started thinking about how nice it would be to finish together. Mat said legs felt rubbish at Heathy Spur though, and with Nikolay breathing down our neck, I got a move on across the single track and finished the lap strong.

The start of lap three was filled with confusion and uncertainty. Nikolay called out to me heading out of Slalom Plaza, telling me I'd missed the aqueduct trail we needed to be on. Nearly 8 hours into our race I hesitated in my confidence and started running back down to him. I knew I hadn't missed it though, so called out to him, turned back around and continued in the direction I was heading. I was then met by a frazzled 100km runner coming back down towards Falls, frantically asking what lap I was on, direction I had come from and where we needed to be headed. We sorted ourselves out, onIy for me to miss the turn to run down the dam wall. Luckily, another miler finishing his 2nd lap saw me and alerted me to my error. It cost me less than a minute in total, but ruffled my feathers none the less. Now back on track, I could settle in, find a rhythm and grind out a lonely lap.

Our checkpoints had become like a F1 pit crew now. I would roll in and bark my order, something along the lines of "3 food, 2 water and lube". I've never been much of a dictator, but I could get used to this. It was an odd place for me mentally at Langfords on the third lap, closing in quick on the furthest distance I'd ever run (102km), and now only just over halfway of the total race distance (83km), the finish seemed no closer than it had at the start. Deb and Col were there waiting for Mat too, but told me he wasn't feeling great and started struggling after I'd left him on the previous lap. Knowing I would be picking up my pacer Sarah at the end of the lap was my saving grace here, a real mental game changer. Something I'm certain would have made this part of the race tougher had it not been the case.

At Cope Hut, I asked the volunteers what the weather report was looking like. "-3 at night, but no rain". It had however been persistently misting/drizzling lightly since the start of the 3rd lap and so immediately after Cope Hut (where I was told it wasn't raining), I put on my rain jacket. I was intent on not DNF'ing because I hadn't dressed appropriately. So much can go wrong in a race like this, most of which is really hard to control. So while I can't control the weather, I can control putting a jacket on.

The old legs were getting really tired now, my quads were smashed from so much running but I hustled to finish the 3rd lap in daylight (lucky, I was under strict instruction from Sarah that she was to either run into the sunset or sunrise. If I'd missed sunset it would have been a long wait to finish her leg to get her a sunrise). For me, this clockwise direction of course felt better. The ascent for the lap accumulated slowly, leaving frequent opportunities to mix up all the running with some hiking. The counterclockwise direction seemed to get all the climbing in within the first 5km, then burdening us with a really runnable rest of the lap.

Sure enough as I ran into Falls, I was met by Dad, Simon and their now familiar checkpoint picnic set-up, this time with Sarah dressed in her cool-climate activewear, pacing back and forth expending nervous energy. I changed jackets, took on some supplies and we set off up towards Mt McKay for one last time, Sarah Insta-storying every step. I'm pretty sure I was fairly quiet, but it was a nice distraction to have some company. We were treated to some pretty magical scenes once we popped out of the trees. A kaleidoscope of sunlight, cloud and mist which countless times struck that postcard perfect balance across the valley, scenes that won't easily be forgotten.

As we came off The Desert track towards the final ascent of Mt McKay, Maj and his pacer were just coming back down, with Lou and her pacer were no more than 200m behind. It was so cool to see the front of the race unfolding at regular intervals along the course, as well as having feedback on your own standing in the field. We passed Simon and Nikolay heading down on our way up. Maths is never a good idea for me, let alone 12 hours into a race, but I was now certain I was holding down 5th place, and still within 2km of the leader.

At the top of Mt McKay it was headlamps on as the sun and all its light had finally disappeared for the day. We started to pass a lot more 100mile runners finishing their 3rd lap, offering up encouragement that more often than not was reciprocated. We came up on a runner who almost startled us at first. He was standing over his bag, searching for something in complete darkness. Without wanting to blind anyone with a direct blast of Ayup beam to the face, it wasn't until we were almost on top of each other that we realised it was Mat! The joyous re-uniting of old friends quickly turned to a mild sorrow when we realised he wasn't having a good time. We stopped, Sarah helped him find his light and offered help in any way she knew how. I'll leave Mat to tell the story of his race, but for me it was hard to see a friend having a less than ideal day. I know first hand the preparation and effort that went into this race, plus I genuinely want to see my friends do well. Anyway, I started to get cold real quick, so forged on ahead, while Sarah hung back and made sure Mat was ok to keep going. She was back in no time though, my tired and weary self clearly no match for her youthfully fresh legs.

The next stretch to Langfords provided an alternating mix of shuffle and speed hike with which we were able to pass Simon Neale and sneak into 4th overall. Spirits were high as we ran into Langfords for the last time, a small restock of food and water and we pressed on into the night. Seeming to hold my position, I was in slight disbelief and ensured we ran the rest of the lap with sore necks as we searched for headlamps encroaching on the gap we had created. There continued to exist a pleasant culture of exchanging niceties when passing others on the course, all of whom were now exclusively milers heading out on their third lap. This seemed to provide enough motivation to keep spirits high as now the end of the race was in sight.

Nikolay passed us right at the end of Heathy Spur running unfathomably strong with no pacer in sight, followed closely by Maj and then Lou with their respective pacers. In every sense 100 mile trail races have to be a pathetic spectator sport, however I couldn't help but get excited imagining the nail-biting finish that could be unfolding, the battle for line honours between the raging pre-race favourite and an unknown lone ranger. As we sorted ourselves back at Falls Creek and headed out for our last final 16km leg, it was exciting knowing that we'd be treated to one final glimpse of the top contenders and how they were holding up over the final kilometres of the race.

My quiet apprehension turned into comfortable relief as we ran past the dam wall and onto Heathy Spur, still without any sight of 5th place. It had already been a long grind of a day and I wasn't certain I had the energy to muster a fight for my position if it were to be challenged. I was now confident that I could consolidate my position and receive a podium finish, albeit on a technicality (Lou, who crossed the line 3rd, was technically in the womens race, but certainly beat me fair and square).

Heathy Spur hardly seemed the gentle pitch carpeted in snow that we effortlessly bounded up on the first lap 18 hours earlier, instead now a narrow and winding technical climb that left me feeling increasingly clumsy and slow with every step. Sarah did a great job maintaining her monologue and keeping me entertained as I put the blinkers on and poured all my concentration into forward motion and sure footing. The full moon was out which was a lovely sight, although the temperature plummeted accordingly. After the turn around, things got real cold, real fast. Fingers froze and even the ever-chatty Sarah seemed silenced by the temperature which was now most definitely in the negatives, even before wind chill. It would have been nice to be wearing some more clothes at this point, although I deemed that stopping to mess around with thermals would do more harm than good. So long as we kept moving, I figured I'd be warm enough.

With the dam wall and it's final pinch now behind us, we passed the sign reading "2km to go : )" for the 3rd and final time, this time for reals. We broke into our last shuffle for the evening and it started to sink in, we'd made it! One last quad bashing down into falls and we were home. I'd naively hoped we'd be met by cheering crowds and a bustling slalom plaza, but my faithful and tireless crew, plus one poor volunteer taking times were the only ones about. None the less, I executed my pre-meditated slide down the bannister and over the finish line and embraced all who came into my path.

156km - 19:12:54 - 4th place

After stumbling over to the checkpoint room, I sat down, ate some things and drank a bit while Dad and Sarah took my shoes and socks off. This part of the night is, and will probably remain a bit hazy. The room was full of people, most consumed with their own things. I exchanged a few vacant stares with some other runners and crews, but I remember it being a fairly sombre mood. Everyone's exhausted, it had been a big big day and it was time to go home, have a shower, and painfully toss and turn in bed for a few hours before breakfast.

The eternal question of the ultra runner is "why?" Most people seem to have really profound and meaningful reasons, but I find myself driven only by the curiosity of possibility. Perhaps my answer is as simple as "why not", although I suspect that won't suffice. Deep down I guess I am competitive and love the unquestionable rank that competition produces. My odds of crumbling in a race, where it all goes pear shaped is ever increasing, but I feel like trail running is generally pretty fair. Put the work in, and you get the results. Not everything in life has such a direct and linear relationship and so there is something deeply satisfying about it for me. At least for now my curiosity has not been quenched and so I find myself thirsting for whats next. First though, some rest. Training for this race was relentlessly sacrificial for a good few months and while I loved every bit of it, I know it's not sustainable for me, my family, business or life. So it's time to chill out for a bit, still run, but enjoy a little more balance.

A big thanks to my Dad, who realised his life calling as an ultra running support crew. His organised, meticulously detailed, unwaveringly concentrated and loving paternal characteristics culminated in a flawless crewing debut. Thanks dad, I'm glad you were there. Sarah, who uprooted her family for a weeklong 'holiday' so she could run around in the wilderness with me for a night, I'm not sure you realise the amount you helped my mental game in the race. Simon, I feel like dad took the reigns with the crewing on the day, but a jolly Englishman is always an uplifting addition to a checkpoint. Thanks for being available. There aren't too many people who so quickly put their hand up to help, and while your detailed planning for the original course was in vain because of the changes, it was definitely noticed and appreciated. And thanks to anyone and everyone else who might have had an impact on the day. My tirelessly supportive and understanding wife (perhaps its more of a begrudging tolerance?), training partners, friends and fellow competitors. It's a lonely and selfish sport, but at the same time I couldn't and wouldn't do this without you all, so genuine and heartfelt thank you.