Long version [go straight to photos below ]
Trailwalker is a 100-km run/walk that is organized by Oxfam and raises money for their charity work abroad. Unlike most running events, it is a team affair - four people have to go the whole way together - 100 km through the bush trails of Sydney - much of it the Great North Walk. I would say that overall it has less impact on the body than a hard road marathon, but it seems to bring out different strengths and weaknesses.
My race calendar these days seems to have subconsciously been pared down to a very small number of events: Six-Foot Track, Trailwalker, the SMH Half Marathon and a random Striders 10 km race at some point in the year. This year, I even missed Six-Foot for some reason that escapes me at the moment, although I kind of substituted with a Fat-Ass run – the 115-km Opera-House-to-Katoomba event. Actually, I even finished first in that (I won’t say “won” – that seems a bit too competitive for the spirit of these events – note how I haven’t called it a “race” either…), which was the first time that had happened to me. Anyway, I digress.
So, a good few months before TW this year, I started my usual sniffing around for prospective team members so that I could have a sixth tilt at the race. Last year, that sniffing had picked up Lance White, Martin Matthews and Craig Dunn, all from Sydney Striders (not that I am suggesting that Striders have a peculiar odour about them), and we had a great race. We trained together and had a good build-up (except for Craig’s sprained ankle), then had a good time on race day. We completely surprised ourselves by finishing second in 15:25 or so, aided partly by the absence of some of the killer teams that had entered in previous years. A team from the Berowra Bushrunners had finished 10 min in front of us, but we were so stoked at finishing second, given that it was the first time Martin, Lance or Craig had run more than 45 km, that we didn’t agonize at all over the relatively small margin between us and the winners.
OK – so I digress again – we can think of it as setting the scene for this year. When I sent an email out to Striders (saying “Who wants to do TW in ~15 h – you will need to have run Six-Foot in ~4:30), Shaun Atchison put his hand up pretty smartly – although he didn’t seem to be thinking that it was very smart at all and he wasn’t altogether sure why he had replied. His main concern seemed to be that if he did this, he would be starting to cross the line from the mildly crazy people that punish themselves by running road marathons to what he perceived at the real fruit-loops that do ultras, run through the Sahara , cross Australia etc. I think that even after TW, he still likes to consider himself to not be in the ultra-nut category and I can’t bring myself to break it to him, so best to let sleeping dogs lie…
We needed two more. I tried in vain to convince Suzanne Kelly to join us – I had seen her (mostly from behind) run very strongly in Stars with substantial tracts of bush in them, and she had of course run a blistering (not literally) Six-Foot Track – but she wasn’t having any of it (next year, Suzanne?). I did convince Dawn Tiller though, and she said that Phil Hugill (who *had* recently run across the Sahara – but I didn’t tell Shaun that for a while) was running well too, and was interested. So, we had our four, and I thought we were in with a pretty good chance of running the 15 h that I was looking for given everyone’s histories.
Unfortunately, before I even got a chance to go for a training run with her, Dawn pulled out with a chest infection, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to be fit enough with the disruption to her training. She kindly found us a replacement though, in the form of Paul Every, who will be familiar to many of you as having done things like run across Australia (at this stage, I am still hiding these things from Shaun). A fine replacement, you would have to say – at least I wasn’t going to have to be worried about him making the distance.
So, we went for a few long training runs on the course – Fuller’s Bridge to Berowra, Berowra to Roseville Bridge etc and things were coming together. Well, except for the fact that Phil’s longstanding dodgy foot was starting to give him some gyp. His concerns grew as the race closed in, and eventually even his chiro couldn’t wrench the foot back into a suitable shape to allow Phil to make 100 km, so the search was on for a replacement again. This is actually a common situation in Trailwalker – to organize a four-member team of runners six months in advance and have them all stay fit for the next six months is a bit of a tall order. Anyway, it turned out that Chris Graham – a dual Strider and Berowra Bushie who had been in the winning team in 2004 – had a team of his own that was down to two members through injury. With a couple of weeks to go, he decided he wasn’t going to get replacements and joined our team (turned out to be a good call – his one remaining team member did an Achilles the following day!).
OK – we were back to a full complement. After sorting out some organizational details by email (who was going to act as our support crew etc), we all got together to discuss our race plan. The only drawback was that this was at 6 am on Fri 25 th August – with the start time an hour away. Still, we were in slightly better shape in that regard than the Striders team containing Alison Lilley, Robin Cameron and Mary Stringer, who had to call in Stephen Jackson as a replacement less than 24 h before the start (and they won the Oldies category in the end).
Anyway, we were off at 7 am sharp. During the buildup, Shaun and I had run all of the legs at various times, and we put these together to estimate a total finishing time of ~14 h 30 min. One of the issues in this race is deciding how long to stop at each of the 7 checkpoints – the places that you meet up with your support crew and restock on food, water etc, as well as carrying out whatever running repairs you need. In the past, my teams have probably tended to spend too long at checkpoints – even a change from 10-min stops to 5-min stops can save you over half an hour on your total time. There was one famous checkpoint stop in Berowra a few years ago where Gary Leahey foolishly decided to *lie* down – it was at least 15 minutes before we could wake him up and convince him to get up again and continue in the race. Paul Every introduced us to his ultra motto (probably one of many) – “Beware the chair” – and I took this on board with the decision to spend 5 min or less at each checkpoint (including stops of 1 min at checkpoints 1 and 2). Shaun was appalled when he saw this, arguing that there wasn’t going to be any time to get a long black with warm milk on the side with 1-min stops. Despite this, he took it on the chin and we set off on the trail.
We had eyed up the competition in the days before the race (on the Trailwalker web site) and on race morning, and had a fair idea that winning was out of the question. Not only was there a crack team from Hong Kong (called the Cosmo Boys – which all sounded a bit metrosexual to us) and another from NZ (picked by Oxfam NZ to promote the 2006 Trailwalker NZ event), but there was a scary team from the ACT comprising Trevor Jacobs, Jonathan Blake (recently 12 th in the World 100-km championships) and a couple of other reprobates from down that way (the rogainer Dave Baldwin and another chap called Tim Sawkins). A quick calculation revealed that since Trevor would beat me by ~40 min in Six-Foot (over a 3:30-4 h period), he may well be in front of me by 2-3 h at the end of this event. This seemed about right actually – we were aiming for 14:30 and they looked like a 12-h team to us. There was also a strong mixed team of people we didn’t know and a team of highly bearded young guys – we were going to have to be careful that Paul didn’t strike up some sort of affinity with them.
Well, things went along just fine for the first 35 km or so. At checkpoint 1 we were probably 7 th or so. We passed a couple of other teams, and by checkpoint 3 ( Ginger Meggs Park in Hornsby) we were running fifth – a pleasant surprise –about 15 min behind the leading ACT team. The Cosmo Boys had just run past us at high speed – they are well known for being conservative starters and at the pace they were going it seemed like they would catch the ACT boys fairly quickly. By the time we got to 50 km – Crosslands – our strategy of short checkpoint stops was paying off. We came in after the 4 th place team and left before them – good stuff. We were getting fabulous support from Jacqui (my partner) and Michelle (Chris’ wife), as well as a slew of Berowra Bushrunners who would take turns to run with us carrying water etc and generally being cheerful (including Strider Richard Green who did a particularly sterling job on the last leg). This was a key element of the race I think, and one of the reasons we did as well as we did.
I had been trying to keep an eye on how everyone was going, and by this point I got the impression that Chris was starting to do it a bit tough. He wasn’t slowing down at all, but he seemed to be a bit uncomfortable. He told me he was getting a bit nauseous, but not to worry because he was used to it in races. Paul was also toughing it out a bit I thought. Seemed that he wasn’t having any trouble running along, but he was just happier keeping a conservative pace. There was no problem though, because we were gaining time on our estimates for every leg. By Crosslands we were about 1 h ahead of our estimate and completely flabbergasted. I had thought that the times I had estimated were quite realistic, so I was concerned that we might be going a bit hard. Well, we would see…
Two checkpoints later we arrived at Warimoo a minute or so behind the Kiwis, and our whirlwind checkpoint strategy again saw us pick up a place here – we left a minute or so before them. Third place now – we *really* couldn’t believe it! We slowly pulled away from the Kiwis over the next few km and started to head down the creek towards Roseville Bridge . It was around here we had to finally turn our headtorches on – meaning we only had ~14 km to run in the dark – a far cry from early Trailwalkers where I have finished at 4 in the morning. A combination of a shorter course, an earlier start, and going a bit faster. With a few km to go before Roseville Bridge , two of the Kiwis caught up with us and greeted us with “Whn dd th ither two gys go pst youse?” After convincing them that we hadn’t seen them and weren’t pulling their legs, they got going on the expletives. The others had apparently gone ahead (carrying all of the head torches) and turned the wrong way at the Cascades, about 4 km back. We took sympathy on them and they followed in our light for a while. Fortunately they eventually heard a distant cry (in a recognizable accent), indicating that their teammates had corrected their error, so we left them on the track to wait and pushed on to Roseville Bridge.
OK – one leg to go now – less than 10 km and the big question was “Could we hold onto third?” We had a 1-min checkpoint to help us on our way and off we went. We spent the entire leg (well, I did anyway) looking back for headtorches, but didn’t see any. At the top of the final climb up to Ararat Reserve (400 m to go), we could look back down the hill and see that there was no one going to catch us. The relief was palpable – in fact made significantly more palpable by Chris choosing this spot to show us his lunch again on the side of the track. The nausea finally had gotten the better of him – but not until he knew we were safe – what a trooper!
We trotted the last 400 m to finish a glorious third – much rejoicing by us and our support crew! Chris ended up being carted off to hospital on oxygen and a drip, but was fine the next day – apparently he makes a habit of this at the end of Trailwalker… Amazingly, we were only 40 min behind the ACT team and about 20 behind the Cosmo Boys – much closer margins than we were expecting. All of us were amazed and delighted with our performance, which *far* exceeded any of our expectations – it was a great effort by everyone and really underscored the team aspect of the event – we always supported the person who was struggling the most and kept together the whole way.