Gayle Cowling

My fifth “The Prom” run and I was particularly excited about this one because I was going to be running it with my Larapinta mates Nikki and Mat. They had just returned from hiking in Nepal and I was on my last long run before I take on Comrades in South Africa in June. On registration at 5:30am, Paul Ashton (Race Director) took glee in scaring all of us with the weather forecast for the day: we were going to be hit with everything, including 110kms winds, heavy rain and hail, with snow at 1000 metres, but that is The Prom for you—expect anything and everything.

I found Mat and Nikki in the group of runners and we exchanged hugs and kisses and agreed we were going to stick together and have an easy day out with lots of fun and photos. We then gathered around the war memorial as Paul started his race and safety briefing but this time it was delivered with the thoughts of a friend, running comrade and overall great person. We all stood silently in memory of Derek Josephs (The Pirate) who was killed in a cycling accident on Thursday morning. Derek was a wonderful advocate of the ultra-running community and we had raced together in so many key runs around Victoria. It was always his white afro hair and smiley face that stood out for me, along with his utmost perseverance to complete 100km events no matter how tough they were. I shed some tears on the start line.

Paul did a very quick count down to the start as we ran out of the Tidal River camp ground heading along the road and the turn off to Telegraph Road.

Awaiting us was a steep climb up to Mt Oberon carpark but Nikki, Mat and I had already settled into a talk about Nepal and my new job.

It was not long before Nick drove past us for some encouragement knowing we would see him at the top then not until we crossed the finish line about nine hours later.

Once through the carpark we were now on single trail traversing through the dark with lights from only our headlamps to guide us hoping the sun would emerge soon. It meant that each step was tentative because you did not want to trip and fall over tree roots, rocks or even your own feet. I remembered two years earlier falling in this section and dislocating my ankle so it was a topic of conversation, even pointing out to Mat the rock that took me down. The boardwalk coming into Sealers Cove was slippery and wet but we moved across them quite quickly and just as we came to the end of them I went down like a sack of potatoes, arms and legs outstretched and an outburst of “Damn it”. We literally had 300 metres before we emerged on a sun-drenched beach at Sealers Cove.

Mat and Nikki both commented that in Larapinta that is quite literally how I met them – by falling face down and bum up. I am so glad we can laugh about these experiences as it has led to a wonderful trail running friendship.

The sun was up and the forecast of rain and hail was nowhere to be seen and the beach running was stunning. We made our way to the end of Sealers Cove and was faced with a waist deep river crossing, cold but strangely refreshing at the same time. Mat ploughed in ahead of us so he could grab a photo of Nikki and I wading through on our tippy toes.

We had now completed about 13kms of the course and began our climb out and around to the headlands of Horn Point. The views back to Sealers Cove were stunning with no hint of the weather turning bad. Little did we know…

The conversation with Nikki and Mat continued to flow and before we knew it we were welcomed by the crystal blue/green waters of Refuge Cove.

The next 2.3kms was the long steady climb up to Kersop Peak. It was also a chance to look back down towards Refuge Cove and see just how truly beautiful it is. At this stage, we saw the lead runners of the 44kms come running past us at a decent pace. Once we had reached Kersop Peak and navigated our legs through the rocky technical track, we had a great running section descending into the magnificent North Waterloo and Little Waterloo bays. With the sun still shining we came out onto our next beach crossing of North Waterloo bay before climbing back out along the coastal trail then into the white soft sands of Little Waterloo Bay.

Our next destination was a nice descent into North Waterloo and Little Waterloo Bay. I love this area of The Prom—the scenery is stunning regardless of the weather she throws at you. I can always be guaranteed that it will take my breath away and I could just stand there and look at it for hours, along with taking as many photos as I can to try and capture the colours.

At the end of Little Waterloo Bay is another river crossing, again the tide was up so it was a bit deeper than expected. It just meant another soaking of the feet before they got covered in white soft sand again. What I was looking forward too was being immersed in the solitude of Waterloo Bay. It is an untouched gem of the Prom where you feel you have found something special no one else has ever seen, and I got to share it with my two running buddies. The freedom you feel running along a deserted beach with the waves spilling over your feet is something words cannot truly describe. This is exactly what ultra-trail running is all about.

We had completed close to 30kms by this stage and were all still feeling good. The next section was a big steady climb up to the lighthouse, and the sign at the end of beach told us it was about 8.5kms away. Mat had been a bit quiet through this section and Nikki had prompted him to see if everything was ok. He was having a tough day in the office and was finding the climbing a bit harder than normal but we kept pushing forward looking to catch our first glimpse of the lighthouse. The 800 metre climb to the lighthouse is steep and it was on this section that we saw a few runners were making their return trip to the Roaring Meg turnoff.

It was like a picnic gathering as a group of us took the time to take a well-deserved break, stock up on water and food before we tackled the next 22kms of the course. This was also where Mat, Nikki and I took part in a ten-shot action photo shoot of us jumping around in front of the lighthouse. It was heaps of fun but I am sure strange for the other runners just watching us. Check out my mobile phone to the left of my shoulder before it hits the ground.

No sooner were we ready to head off when Dan Beard headed into the lighthouse. Dan was leading the 100km event with Chris and Nicole just over a kilometre behind him. We high fived each other also making a bet to see who could get back to Tidal River first. Loser shouts a drink. Nikki, Mat and I then headed back to the Roaring Meg junction knowing we were going to be faced with a climb over the saddle before arriving at the Camp Ground. The wind had now started to pick up and the prediction of bad weather arriving at 1 o’clock was now starting to look real. It was not far out from the Lighthouse that Karina came bounding towards us, she was taking on the 100km course and was looking very strong. The lighthouse would be the halfway mark for her. We exchanged words of encouragement as we passed each other on the track.

There were now about five of us running together, all pushing ourselves up the last significant climb of Telegraph Track. It was here that my stomach became very unsettled and I began to cramp – I needed to get to a bathroom as soon as I could. We had completed 44kms of the course and I knew the toughest part was now done. I took off ahead of Mat and Nikki without much warning focusing on getting to Halfway Hut and a drop toilet.

Along the plateau of Telegraph Track I saw the backend of the 100km field which was encouraging. At the end of Telegraph Track you come out onto the fire track road which gives you a nice winding down hill run for about 3kms but I had only one purpose. A quick stop at the Halfway Hut campsite with no Mat or Nikki in sight, I reached the intersection and the one and only checkpoint, where I was joining the runners on 44km course. I was greeted by a couple of volunteers and runners taking a quick breather. Had my number recorded and a good feed of chocolate before I was sent on my way. The weather had now blown in dark grey clouds and the rain was falling, the temperature had now plummeted and the wind was very strong but I was less than 11kms from the finish line.

The next 3.5kms was heading back out to the coast and Oberon Bay over soft sand dunes, making the running awkward and heavy under the feet but I pushed on knowing I was very close to home. I had also set myself the target of wanting to beat my time of last year which was 9hrs and 1 min. If I could maintain a steady consistent running pace for the rest of the way, then I would do it.

Emerging onto Oberon Bay the wind was torrential, it was pushing me backways along with the sand and rain battering the body and I forced myself to keep moving forwards. The photo does not quite do it justice but the expression on my face probably says it all. I also knew I still had three more beach crossings to get through in this weather with less than 8.5kms to the finish line. It was now in question if I would better my time from last year.

The Prom never ceases to amaze me regardless of the weather. The end of Oberon Bay was my final creek crossing of Tidal River—one last soaking of the shoes and socks but it had all been worth it. The climb up and around to Little Oberon Bay was wet and slippery over the boulders but I pushed on taking in the breathtaking views of aqua green water and dark grey clouds as the rain soaked through to my body. The descent into and climb out of Little Oberon Bay was tough as the sand was deep and soft.

I was glad to see the end of the beach and sand as I headed up along the cliff tops to Norman Point. I knew it was not far now—less than four kilometres to the finish and the clock was ticking by quickly. I stopped to take a few photos of Little Oberon conscious of the clock still ticking. A few more 44km runners spurred me to push a bit harder as I hit the final beach run of Norman Bay.

I descended onto the beach at Norman Bay, to be faced with another lashing of strong head winds but I had a goal insight. The sand was hard and very runnable and I was determined not to be deterred by the rain and wind as I took one last look at my Garmin to see how much time remained. 15 mins to break the 9 hours and I was about 1km from the finish line. Pushing harder I looked for the running wild flag indicating the exit from the beach. I navigated the last 500 metres through the camp site with the claps and cheers from some hard-core supporters weathering the wind and rain.

As the clock turned over 8hrs 49 mins I ran up the gantry and into the finish – I had done it, 11 mins faster than last year. I was greeted by the smiles of Nick and fellow runners, a huge hug from Jacqui Hansen, congrats from Paul Ashton and Rob Bryce and a well-earned Caramello Bear placed into my hands.

I now had the impatient wait for Mat and Nikki to come across the finish line. I knew they would be about 15 minutes behind me but seeing them run up into the finish had me beaming with pride with a huge smile on my face. A group hug and smiles all round because we had conquered a day out in Wilsons Prom.