The Mt Buller Skyrun -An opportunity to tick an item off the bucket list. A 45km run, in the Australian High Country over the Summits of Mt Buller, Mt Stirling and a chance to visit Craig’s Hut. It was the mere thought of this run that ignited my love of trail running.
With the family in tow, we arrived in Mansfield, checked in and I realised my first Rookie mistake. I hadn’t brought any water up and the tap water where we were staying was not great. We dumped the luggage grabbed some water from the shops and headed straight up the Mountain to register and get my emergency gear all checked off.
Driving up Mt Buller, I couldn’t help but ask myself what have I got myself in to. The road never ends and you know somewhere to your right was a single track that wound its way up the side of the mountain waiting for you. We arrived in the village, found the Arlberg hotel, said hi to a few familiar faces in Lucy and Ashley Bartholomew and Isobel Bespalov. Got my gear checked off and have a joke with Paul Ashton about getting lost. He assured me that wouldn’t happen. Then I sat down to my pre-race dinner before driving back down the mountain.
Next morning I was up at some ungodly hour didn’t feel like I had slept had a quick breakfast threw the kids in the car and headed back up the mountain. We arrived in plenty of time, said hi to a few familiar faces. Bumped into Jacqui Carter who was sweeping the course, joked that I wouldn’t be seeing her again till the end, then headed back to the family.
Quick roll call and race debrief, before we made our way to the start line. The temp was a cool 3 degrees. The air was crisp but you couldn’t have asked for a better morning. I had been over the course notes numerous times, the Suunto map was up and working, all was good. Quick countdown and we were off, as I crossed the start line my boys and my wife were there cheering me on, so quick pause kiss on the forehead for each and I was away. The serious runners were
gone in a flash, the rest of us made our way through the village streets and then we hit one of the downhill ski runs. Halfway down the slope we cut across and hit the trail.
The track was mountain bike trail, perfect for getting the body moving. The sun was just breaking through, the skyline looked amazing and the weather was perfect for running. I quickly became aware of my second rookie mistake, I have never been one to wear a hat or visor but this morning up so high it was necessary. It was like running through a strobe light with the sun flashing in your eyes between the snow gums.
Further up the trail we hit our first hill, decent enough to merit walking. It was at this point I realise I have made my third rookie mistake. Isobel is pulling her thermal top off while running. She had worn it on top of her main running top, clever. Mine was under the main top and I realised at some point I would have to strip off to get it off. Three lessons learnt, I was hoping there weren’t too many more for the day to be had.
The morning was going well, my pace was comfortable the scenery magnificent, it couldn’t get any better than this. We slowly came out of the tree line and I am glad I still had the thermal top on as the wind was very crisp, quick look back at the view and the real climb to the Summit of Mt Stirling began. Along the way I pass two runners who are done for the day both have gone over on their ankles and are slowly making their way to the Stirling checkpoint, disappointment written all over their faces.
Quick tick of my number at the Mt Stirling checkpoint and time for the final ascent. The view is worth the climb, out with the camera, few snaps of Mt Buller in the distance. A runner takes a photo for me, I do the same and off I go again. Now it’s time for Craig’s Hut.
I had heard many times the track from Stirling to Craig’s was rugged and it was. Lots of loose rocks and boulders this is real 4WD country. The course drops down a bit and its back into the tree line and the strobe lights were back. I cursed myself for not grabbing my visor when I grabbed the camera but I pushed on. Some of the front runners were coming back from Craig’s Hut and at the pace they were going how they didn’t trip or roll an ankle is beyond me. The hills were rolling through not long or steep but a good pinch.
I knew I was near Craig’s hut as more and more runners were returning. The sun/strobe lights were annoying me by this point, then the trees clear and I am in the Craig’s Hut carpark. The volunteers offer me a drink and inform me no need to go to the hut but I was not about to miss this and off I went. Yeah I knew I would drop a few places but this was what I came for. A few happy snaps, same runner as on Stirling offered to take a photo and I repay the favour again. They headed back and I keep going up to the hut for a few more snaps before I got going again. Quick thanks to the volunteers, grab my homemade version of a runners gel, its solid like ice (the errors just kept popping up). Little did I know rookie mistake 4 maybe 5, (was losing count by this point) had already occurred and another was upon me. Distracted by my homemade gel and the eyes a little tired from the natural strobe light I headed back down the road.
The road was strangely quiet and I remember thinking to myself how long was I up at the hut, how many runners turned straight back. I knew a couple were still behind me as they were checking out the view as I was leaving. I kept moving, enjoying the view, the solitude of it all. Pass through an intersection it didn’t look right but the track name was right – Clear view track, another rookie error – if it doesn’t look right check the map.
I was running great, legs felt awesome energy levels were fine and I was on top of the world. Suddenly it all changed, I rounded a corner and realised the awesome view I was looking at was, one; not the view I had earlier and two; on the wrong side of the track. The valley was still on my right when it should have been on my left on the return journey. I stop and suddenly noticed the road was smoother and wider too. Filled with dread a quick look at my watch and my worst feeling was confirmed. I had been daydreaming and somehow had made a wrong turn. My only option was turn around and head back. Maybe it was that intersection perhaps I should have gone right instead of left. The road in front of me was rising up and I wondered how far had I gone off track, how much elevation must I climb? Would the sweepers catch me? The intersection came up “Clear View Track”, that’s the one I should have been on but it wasn’t right. Where had I gone wrong? The sign also pointed to Craig’s Hut so my only option was to head up there and find the turn off that I’d missed or return to the checkpoint. Up I went I figured I would be in last place by the time this adventure was over. It was never about placing or time so I knuckled down and tried to get back on track. The road kept rising and the overnight campers were coming down off Craig’s Hut in their vehicles. Then I saw a sign, beware runners crossing, I went round the corner looking for a track only to find I was back at the top. I headed to the checkpoint table, the volunteer looks strangely at me. I admit my error and we chatted, walked back to the corner. My mistake was so simple, as I left the carpark I went left when I should have gone right. I hadn’t even seen the track, my tired eyes followed the main track and I missed the right section of Clear View Track. Knowing I was now coming last I couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed at myself and flat. That solitude I was enjoying 30 minutes earlier felt very lonely all of a sudden. How could I have been so stupid?
With lots of thinking time I realised at least some of my mistakes. First, if you know you have made a mistake and it’s easy to fix like get your cap out and put it on, do it. My eyes don’t like glare at the best of times I know it and I had done nothing about it. My eyes were tired as I came off the summit and I had just focused on the road ahead. Then there was my biggest rookie mistake of all. If you are going to plot the course on your watch – make sure you put an alert on every intersection that you can see on the map or is highlighted in the course notes. The one I missed was the only one I had not put on my watch map.
The next few kms are a blur, I just kept pushing on the legs were good, quads and gluts were taking a pounding from the hills but I was still ahead of the sweepers. As I headed back up towards the summit of Stirling I seemed to be working real hard to get air in. It was a little off putting so I tried to relax and ignore it. I put it down to the hills and the higher altitude but it was definitely there. I started to break through the tree line and decided the thermal top had to go. Cursing at all my rookie errors as I did it. Moisture wicking clothing is great but trying to get it off is not always easy, it’s even worse trying to put back on after you have worn it for a few hrs. Finally manage to sort it all out, swearing I won’t make that mistake again, then bang, two quick rolls of the ankle within minutes of each other. No serious injury thankfully, couple more kms the breathing seems to have settled and I spotted the sweepers Jacqui and Celeste, the two people I didn’t want to see while racing. We chat, they told me the Mt Stirling Checkpoint were a little concerned and would be glad to see me. The girls wished me luck and I headed off again short little climb and I am back at Stirling Checkpoint. Chat with the volunteers I admit I made a few rookie errors send a message to my wife and saw I had a few messages too. No time to read them but it was nice knowing they were there. Up to this point my nutrition plan other than my homemade gel, seemed to be working well, at least something was.
Off I went, found a good rhythm and started to enjoy the downhill River Spur Trail. There are two stories about this section of the course. I loved running it, but it was not kind to me. Running alongside and hearing the Delatite river was just magical it. This section of the course was beautiful so relaxing and reinforced why this race was one I wanted to enjoy. A seemingly gentle downhill slope, multiple log bridge river crossings I could run through here a thousand times and never be bored. At one crossing I stopped and splashed some water over my head washed my face and headed off again feeling very refreshed. My home brew gel had softened and tasted great, better than any commercial gel, in my opinion anyway.
The other story while all of this was happening is that I was well aware that I was in last place and part of me wanted to make up one spot at least. My pace was good, the legs were a little weary but I was going well. Then it started. The ankle went over again I cursed it this time, not in pain just annoyance at my dodgy ankle, why today of all days. It had niggled at the start then settled in for the long run only to roll it twice as I returned to Stirling and again now. I found a good rhythm again and kept going.
I prayed that would be the last one but it wasn’t, as I ran down the River Spur it just kept going over. The quads were tiring on the downhill which wasn’t helping. As it was happening I was thinking to myself that the only possible way I had not sprained it up to this point was a reflection of my Pilates training and core stability holding me up and preventing me dropping all my weight onto the ankle as it went over. Then came the 9th or so time and in that instant I thought that my race was over, this one hurt. I tested the ankle it was fine to walk on so I tried to run but I had no confidence in the ankle it didn’t hurt but I didn’t trust it or my core strength to protect me from doing any damage to the ankle anymore.
It was time to walk I knew at worst I was 3km from Mirrimbah, but knowing this is so frustrating too I was running well, physically I was tired but my energy levels were fine and mentally I wanted to keep running, however, the ankle had other ideas.
I reached Mirrimbah, the volunteers and I chatted. The Dr asks me a few questions I curse my ankle but tell him I am fine to walk on it. Quick sip of some Hydralyte, filled up the water bottles and off I went to face the biggest and longest climb of this race 10km and a 1000mtrs of vertical ascent. As I started my climb a guy appeared coming off the hill. Looked like he had been riding a horse for a week and could hardly move. He wished me luck, I thought to myself that’s not what I needed to see as I was about to tackle this monster. I wanted to run but this was not a runnable hill, well not for me after 35 or so km on a dodgy ankle anyway. The sun was certainly warming up and I remember thinking to myself I should get the sunscreen out, I didn’t and paid for that the next day.
I kept pushing on, heard my phone beep, figured I had reception and took the opportunity to send my wife another message. About halfway up I saw another walker in the distance. Quietly I smiled to myself perhaps I had managed to reel a runner in, who else would be crazy enough to walk up here. It took a good half hour to finally pull up behind him and we chatted. His name was Jonathan; I wasn’t interested trying to pass, just happy to chat with someone. Other than checkpoint volunteers it had been 30+km of solitude. We arrived at ‘Thank Christ’ corner very aptly named spot I might add, and from here the ascent supposedly flattened out a bit, not sure it did. Jonathan start running, I tried but decided better to be safe and watched as he moved away knowing last place was no longer shared.
I finally broke clear of the tree line to be greeted by another volunteer who points me in the direction of where to go. Straight up one of the ski slopes, nice, more hills. I could see Jonathan ahead of me maybe 100 metres at best. Another little single track some spectacular views and I was at the Summit carpark and the final ascent awaited. We had driven the kids up here the night before. If it had looked steep at night it looked worse in the daylight. I must have made good progress as I was almost at the very summit as Jonathan was heading down. He apologised for not waiting he wanted to go under 8 hrs. I told him to go I wanted a photo at the top. So I took a couple of photos and asked a family to take one for me too. Threw the pack on one last time and off I went. With a sub 8 hours still possible, I gingerly headed down the track not wanting to go over on the ankle this close to the finish. I picked where to run and where to walk but I felt I was moving well. This track seemed to go on forever winding down and around the summit. Then I saw it, a little sign saying finish line with an arrow. I rounded the corner and in the distance I saw my two little boys standing under the finishing arch. They started jumping around and clapping. Got a cheer from some of the other runners and volunteers as I came in, the clock said 7:56. I had made it under 8 hours, my first Ultra done and dusted with a few errors along the way and 5km more than I needed to run! I grabbed the first seat I saw, after 8 hours it was nice to finally sit down.
Before I knew it presentations were happening, I had finished just in time. He starts by announcing that it was the fastest field in the history of the event and I was awarded a prize for being the fastest ever last place finisher. Never made a podium in a race or won a spot prize so I guess there are some advantages in coming last. Someone had to and that person was me. I could’ve argued I did win the self-created unofficial 50km event but I was just happy to have finished.
At this point I would like to thank my wonderful wife Kate, two kids Joelan and Baden and all my DTR training partners who supported me all the way in this little adventure. I could write more but I will leave it for part two – my nutrition- pre, post and during as well as my recovery and what is next for me.