Racing the Miler

Nikolay Nikolaev

Had the pleasure (and some pain) of taking part of another Alpine Challenge 100 miler race over the weekend. It was exciting, pretty, hot at times and hard, but I finished it. That's the short version. The long(er) version is below, for anyone that may be interested.

After the course change last year due to snow, I was really looking forward to run the original course. But it wasn’t meant to be, as the day before the run, on the drive to the Mountains, I got the dreaded email that there were bushfires in the Mt Bogong area (probably my favourite part of any Australian mountains) and that part of the course was going to be out for the race. We were going to run from Falls Creek to Pole 333 via Langford Gap, then do two loops of Pole 333 - Mt Hotham – Harrietville – Mt Feathertop – Pole 333, then back to Falls Creek via Pretty Valley Pondage – a total of 157km and 7500D+ (at least that’s what my watch said after the race).

The start was a bit of a mad rush up the first hill, but once we got to the first single trail, most people settled into a nice pace. It was so beautiful in the mountains in the morning, especially high up above the tree line. Seeing the sun come up over the alpine peaks and high plains was elating. I took it conservatively in the beginning (I was outside the top 10 in the first 35 km), but started to gain some places before Mt Hotham (42km). Going down from Hotham to Harrietville (58km) via Bon Accord spur in the heat of the day was tough, then up Mt Feathertop (70km) when it was even hotter—tougher.

I was struggling in the heat having difficulty to eat and maintain my energy levels. But the rest of the field must have struggled even more as I found myself in 2nd back at Pole 333, (85km) some unknown large number of hours behind the leader. Kept going, but quite slow, and was not surprised when I was caught by Alex and then Matt Urbanski and Baden at the Mt Hotham checkpoint (100km). I was struggling big time here with nausea, overheating, sleepiness and low energy levels.

But I had a secret weapon – my superstar daughter and support crew Iva. After she fed me, gave me a fresh shirt and supplies for the remaining 60km of the race, she had a little pep talk to me pointing out that it’s now getting cooler and will be dark soon and that’s what I really like and am good at—that I’m THE Night Time-Cold Weather-Back Half-Ultra Specialist (don’t ask me who told her that)—and that the race leader is no more than 1:10h ahead (she lied as I later found out he was at least 1:30h ahead) and to go and get him! What a transformation—the best 25 min I’ve spent on a race checkpoint ever! I was super pumped, ready to go, run through the night, smash the remaining 60 km, and chase the leader - Matt Crehan.

I flew down Bon Accord spur in some 2:20h (during the night) and was only 60min behind Matt at Harrietville (115km). Going up Mt Feathertop for a second time was a long slog (1400D+ in 12 km straight up is a long way to go), but I did it in the same time as for my first loop during the day and feeling much better. Then, I found out at the Federation Hut control point with only 30 km to go that Matt is still 60 min ahead—oh, well—he’s still moving well, he ran strong all day and deserves the win.

On the way down from Feathertop I saw Matt U., Dan Beard with his pacer, then Alex and estimated they were some 25-30min behind. That was a good lead, but still not good enough to take off my guard and slow down. I smashed the descent down Diamantina spur, climbed strongly out of West Kiewa river and was glad to be back up at the High Plains.

Approaching Pole 333 (142km) for a third time I saw a light going away from it in the direction towards the finish, but dismissed the thought that this may be Matt C. as impossible—he had so much time on me! I was in absolute shock when the guys at 333 told me that this was, indeed, the race leader and that he left less than 10 min ago! Not sure if Matt has slowed down significantly or I was going, or maybe both, but boy, was I pumped and excited! I flew down the rough trail towards the Pretty Valley dirt road and soon caught up with Matt. He was equally shocked to see me too, thinking no one was anywhere near him (he didn’t see me on the out and back descent from Feathertop, and thought he has at least 35-40 min on me (he actually had 60min!)) and after exchanging few words and passing him, I relaxed a bit thinking it will be now just a stroll to the finish.

But it wasn’t. As soon as we hit the dirt road, Matt caught up to me and pulled ahead running incredibly fast and strong. He was definitely faster than me and I couldn’t match his pace, so I fell back to a sustainable pace knowing that there were still 12km to go with some good ups and downs till the finish. I managed to maintain a gap no bigger than 200m on him through the Pretty Valley checkpoint (148km), then on the graded dirt road after that. Then came the gradual incline towards Mt Mackay (150km), which I knew from last year that is very runable. Matt started walking there and I ran, strongly, passed him, and by the time I got to the turn off towards Mt Mackay I couldn’t see him behind anymore. I ran probably 80% of the ascent to the top of Mt Mackay (some 10-15% incline), then flew down and saw Matt walking up, the gap being at least 5 min.

He congratulated me on my effort—what a champion!—and with less than 5 km to go and mostly downhill, I knew I had it in a bag. It was special to see the sun coming up for a second time in the race and light up the beautiful mountains. The final push got me to the finish in 24:57h, Matt C. came shortly after, then Dan with his pacer (who was ecstatic to make it to the podium for yet another year—he has 7 or 8 now and few wins), then Matt U. and Alex.

Thanks to Paul Ashton and his crew for putting yet another fantastic event in challenging circumstances (last minute course changes). Thanks to all the volunteers for giving up their time so that we can have some fun racing—I appreciate that very much! Congratulations to everyone that raced to brave such brutally tough (53% DNF rate for the miler—a new record!), but also stunningly beautiful course. And finally, thanks again to my daughter Iva and my son Iavor for coming along, sharing the long drive from and to Sydney and crewing for me (Iavor ran the 36km race, so didn’t crew, but he did a fantastic job crewing in the last year’s race)—it was so uplifting to have you there guys!

Maybe next year I’ll get a chance to run the “proper” original course?

 KmTimeLeg kmLeg time
Pole 333 27 02:44  27  02:44
Mt Hotham  42  04:38  15  01:54
Harrietville  58  06:55  16  02:17
Mt Feathertop  70  09:25  12  02:30
W Kiewa River  77  10:35  7  01:10
Pole 333 #2  85  12:21  8  01:46
Mt Hotham #2 - in  99  14:35  14  02:14
Mt Hotham #2 - out  99  15:00  0  00:25
Harrietville #2  115  17:24  16  02:24
Mt Feathertop #2  128  20:05  13  02:41
W Kiewa River #2  142  21:31  7  01:26
Pole 333 #3  135  23:18  7  01:47
 Mt McKay  151  24:22  9  01:04
 Finish  157  24:57  6  00:35