Tuesday, March 27, 2007

100 km Ultra Race Report

For a change , a race report from a member of the team I just did the 100km Ultra Team Event - Thanks to gayle for writing this , I might follow up in next day or so. But I get back on the plane tomorrow to head to the UK and back to Israel

Oxfam Trailwalker is the world’s greatest team challenge. And it’s also one of the toughest. The challenge is to get your team of four across 100km of Australian bush in less than 48 hours – and, collectively, to raise at least $1,000 to help to overcome poverty and suffering around the world.
On the morning of the 23rd of March, 2007 the team known as Dragmoe 151 – compromising of Owen Evans, David Rogers, Mal James and Gayle McKellar set out to complete the 100kms in an aggressive time of 15hrs. All the training in the preceding months showed it was something we could achieve but with no time for any unforseen problems – there were no contingencies built into the schedule. The race was going to prove to be of physical and mental endurance as well as an emotional, frustration and heartbreaking conclusion for us all.

The first challenge to face all 630 teams competing on the day was the extreme weather conditions where it was predicted to be a scorching 35 degrees. History was going to be made today as the temperatures soared to 37.5 degrees, the hottest March day since 1965 and a women’s team called the Dashing Divas were the first to cross the finish line in 10hrs and 44 mins. A woman’s team had finally knocked off the reigning men’s team from Sydney – The Groin Sprains.

The event started in Jells Park Mt Waverley and completes at Wesburn Park 100km’s later. Officially 592 teams began the challenge divided into start times of 7:00am, 8:30am and 10:00am. Before the event had even begun 8 walkers had pulled out. This was to set the scene for the rest of the day. Between the start and finish are 8 mandatory checkpoints each complete team of 4 must register in and out of. The course winds through some of Victoria’s most scenic national parks and trail ways.

Friday morning 6:00am and registration for the teams began. Jells park tea-house was alive with many competitors, support crews and event organizers watching the starting clock tick down to the 7:00am start. Before we knew it the official team photo was taken, our hydration backs were filled with food and drink and as all teams huddled together at the starting point the 10 second countdown began, we were off and running.

With an overnight low of 25 degrees Dragmoe got off to a very good start. Mal was a new team member and new to the race in Melbourne. He had competed in Oxfam’s organised in Hong Kong and Sydney but never Melbourne. The first checkpoint from Jells Park to Churchill National Park is 10.5km’s of relatively flat terrain which allows for some good running. The GPS actually registers 12.5km’s and on the day we were able to complete this distance in a PB time of 1hr 29 mins compared to last years effort of 1hr 36 mins. We were all pumped with such a great result.

Checkpoint 2 is a hilly 9.5km’s into Lysterfield Lake Park which winds past the Commonwealth Games mountain bike course. The sun was now well in the sky and beating down on all the 7:00am starter teams. We joked around that today was probably going to be the hottest day on record – little did any of us know what we were going to be facing in a few hours time. Lysterfield came and went in a time of 1hr 15 mins and we were sitting around 57th place overall. Pretty much where we were same time last year. This is where Dragmoe would begin the attack on the rest of the field as we began to gain back places as we headed for the hills of the Dandenong's.

After filling our water bladders and our stomachs with some quick food we were off on a 15.5km trek from Lysterfield up through Birdsland National Park, Belgrave and onto the 1000 steps at Ferntree Gully. We had barely covered 30km’s and disaster was about to strike. By now it was over 30 degrees and Mal was starting to feel the effects of the hot weather. As we came into Belgrave, our amazing support crew of Kathryn and Andrew showered us with cold water to cool down our bodies. Mal continued suffering from nausea, stomach and legs cramps.

At Ferntree Gully we were faced with the news that they had closed the checkpoint to Olinda due to Total Fire Ban restrictions and they were not letting anyone cross the Dandenongs. This was disappointing to all teams involved but in hindsight was a saving grace due to the extreme heat everyone was enduring. No one could have survived those 1000 steps under those conditions. We were driven to Olinda Football club where we took another 1hr to allow Mal to rest and we discussed team tactics.

All seemed to be back on track as we put on clean team shirts and set out to Silvan Reservoir for checkpoint 5. Mal seemed to have found his second wind and was rearing to go and tackle 8.5km’s of undulating hills. Another PB was set as we completed the stage in 1hr 10 mins and we started to make out way up the leader board, now we were sitting in approximately 34th place and quite excited that we were going to reach our target. We surprised Andrew as we came into Silvan 10 to 20 minutes earlier than expected. I also think we surprised ourselves. Check in and out was very quick but we all took the opportunity to soak our hats in cold water to cool our bodies down.

We were now experiencing about 37 degrees and all feeling the effects. Silvan to Mt Evelyn was our next checkpoint – the shortest of them all of only 5km’s but it was a tough terrain to navigate. It took us just under an hour to complete. Our entrance into Mt Evelyn was starting to show signs of fatigue, heat exhaustion, de-hydration and body soreness on all of us. Check-in placed us in 35th position and I was getting excited about what our potential result would be. We were at the 59km mark – over half way.

The real challenge was about to begin, the dreaded 30km’s of flat straight Warburton Trail from Mt Evelyn through to Woori Yallock primary school then on to Millwarra Primary School at Millgrove. This is where our running/walking training was going to kick in and we were going to start to blitz the rest of the field. After some short jogging spurts and a quiz game to keep our minds active it was quite clear the energy levels were beginning to drop and the team was struggling to maintain the pace in the heat. Mal had another set back and the nausea and leg cramps had returned with a vengeance. This is where we finally stopped and he conceded that he could not continue. Andrew was called to pick up Mal from the course and drive him to a first aid station at Woori Yallock where he received treatment, he was in a serious way.

Owen remained with Mal as Dave and I continued along the course to arrive at checkpoint 7 some nearly 3hrs later. With 5 km’s to go Dave started to also suffer severe leg cramping and our pace slowed to nearly a crawl. I had not realised how bad Dave was until he started to vomit and he collapsed in immense pain 100 metres from checkpoint 7. His legs stopped functioning, he could no longer walk, he was experiencing sever cramping throughout both his legs. This is where the fear and anguish set in as I witnessed distressed bodies trying to deal with what they had endured during the day. We carried Dave to the check in point and stood proud as a team of four as we checked in for the last time having reached the 76km mark. We were now in 29th place.

Half an hour later we retired Dragmoe from the Oxfam event as Dave received medical attention for the next 3hrs. Woori Yallock Primary School was like a disaster zone, bodies had fallen everywhere and St John’s ambulance had to call in emergency paramedics to treat the sever cases. IV drips, oxygen and hyperthermia blankets were common place.

At checkpoint 7 we were the first team to retire to be followed by 196 other people that night. Checkpoint 8 at Millwarra was no better with 100 people suffering from the conditions of the day.

All in all 53 teams and 539 people retired from the event.
We would like to thank everyone who encouraged and supported us leading up to the event.

Our fantastic support crew of Kathryn, Lora and Andrew who dealt with our bad tempers, our unreasonable demands at each checkpoint and our utter disappointment and heartache at having to retire.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Six Hours Thirty-Four Minutes

I have a good reason for not posting for the past week, namely that after running for six hours and thirty four minutes last Saturday, I have been painting my parents house in Bathurst, a rural town three hours West of Sydney. Now for those who have run a marathon and a hard one knows that your legs are basically shot for the days and the pain of painting a house climbing up and down a ladder hurts enough without having run a marathon the day before.

The Six Foot Track marathon is truly the most amazing and beautiful marathon that I have ever run, and at the same stage the toughest race I have done to date. Even breaking it down into five-minute increments for Stuart and his battle, it was hard.

At major marathons around the world in cities like New York and Paris, there is an overwhelming sense of being at an event of magnitude. You can almost be in awe of the arrangements and logistics, not to mention the fact that you are running with world record holders.

At the start of the six-foot track marathon you milled around drinking tea and damper with golden syrup listening to the sounds of the bush waking up. There is no ramped up motivational music or stretching classes with aerobic instructors, instead you took the chance to stand around and just enjoy the moment rather than eyeing your watch every two minutes wondering whether to start fighting the crowd in get into a starting position.

Now a few words on the actual course, the one and only time you run on a sealed road is for the ten steps it takes to cross a road 39 km’s into the 45 km’s it runs. In the first km you drop off the Blue Mountain range and drop over 1000m vertical, in other words you are slipping and sliding in single file off muddy steps encased in a gully that reminds you of a scene from Jurassic Park or The Lost World. Sheers cliffs tower above and to see the sky you have to look vertically up, not recommended when running muddy steps as fast as you can down hill.

You enter the plains and find yourself on the most magical of tracks that go through low rolling hills, the smell of Eucalyptus from the Gum trees envelopes your sense of smell, At each fence on the Track is a sty over the barbed wire fence. At one point I found that I was running alone where I could see no one in front of me and no sound of footsteps behind me. All I could here were Whip O Will birds calling out there distinctive call and Kookaburras in the distance laughing, the river below raged through the bottom of the gorge and all I had to do was run in an environment like this, running was the most natural thing to do and I honestly felt the most relaxed I have ever done in a marathon or any other race at this point.

At 15 km’s the Cox River awaits and in most years this is barely a trickle, given that Australia is in its worst drought in 100 years you would expect that the river level would be so low that you could hop skip and jump without breaking stride. The week before the area had had rain for the first time in months and of course the river was now flowing,
“No worries, mate, she is only waist deep” said the Bush Fire Brigade Volunteer standing by the rope.

Then the sixty-four dollar question, do I take off my shoes and socks to wade across thus keeping them dry or do I just wade across and run with wet runners and socks.

I have trained and raced before with wet shoes and just jumped into the river, it was freezing cold and my leg muscles contracted rapidly as I stumbled through the water that upon reaching the height of my shorts caused an even greater intake of breath, I ask you when was the last time in a race that your poured ice cold water down the front of your shorts.

Coming out of the water I ran smugly past twenty or so runners who were putting there shoes and socks back on. I was feeling good but in my wet shoes all I could feel was small river pebbles and gravel cutting into my wet feet. So had to stop and try to clean my feet.

Had I made the right decision?

Well yes because in the next two km’s we had to go through three smaller rivers and thus everyone got wet shoes and socks. This year it could not be avoided.

Now I had studied the course profile and after this pleasant few km’s in the valley we would come to the first mountain climb, there are only two mountain climbs on the course, but what they do not tell “6ft virgins” is the sheer scale of these climbs, on rocky rutted tracks where every step is an effort to avoid twisting your ankle I started up the first climb.

One hour later, yes one hour later I reached the peak of Mini M Saddle, I was shot but then again everyone else was totally gutted.

To put some sense into the severity of these hills, in twenty four years history of the running of the six foot track marathon only one (that’s right “ONE”) person has ever run the complete marathon, everyone else walks some of us just walk more than others.

The track went down just as steeply as it had been on the rise for a couple of km’s then the next rise started. You could do nothing but hang your head and try to hang in as best you could, this where Stuart’s courage came to me and I would count in blocks of five. Five steps at a time I kept climbing and once again it takes nearly an hour to climb this Mountain.

When you reach the top I was shattered but then again everyone else was and time became a concern, because if you want a medal you have to finish in under seven hours, my calculations had been going ok till the two climbs and now I considered that perhaps I would not make the cut.

A pace maker caught up with me and he said stick with him and he would get me over the line at approx 6 hours 45 minutes, but man he seemed to be running fast, you know that it is mental but as you approach four hours of running in these conditions, you are not thinking straight.

Then the big mistake I took my eyes off the track, caught a rock with my toes and I did not have the leg strength to hold myself upright. Like a bad slo mo dream I was ploughing into the track. My left hand had skin ripped and was bleeding, my right arm and shoulder took the blunt of the fall and were grazed, and my right knee banged hard causing me to limp as I stood up.

The pace maker and another runner helped me up, I was sore and bloody. But I was not going to quit, I knew that if I kept running and my knee loosened up I would be ok. I thought about stopping at the next medical tent, but I figured out that it would cost me too much time and the cut off was still in my mind.

The bleeding slowed and stopped under the flapping skin, my grazes became a great source of interest and attraction for every fly in the bush. But most importantly my knee started to come good and I knew that I would make it.

By this stage everyone has the same strategy, you walk up an incline no matter how what, on the flats you tried to run if you could and downhill’s you ran.

People who have run with me know that I like to know what my splits are, whether the last km was 5 minutes 30 seconds or 6 minutes.

My watch beeped indicating that another km had been done and glancing down the readout was 5:26 , I felt this great boost of confidence that if I was putting out 5:26 mins/km then I was going very well.

Then about two minutes later looking down again to check my heart rate, the watch showed 5:28 and the seconds hand was ticking over.

I had not run a 5:26min/km. I had been running for 5 hours 26 minutes, the irony was that towards the end the same thing happened at 6:26, which says a lot for my mental status.

The last four km’s were probably the hardest, even tougher than the climbs, downhill on a very rocky and tree rooted single track barely wide enough for one person.

Your quad muscles and calves have by this stage given everything and moving them in the slightest twist causes you to cramp violently as you try to avoid falling off the side of the hill.

Down and down, cramp after cramp, moving faster felt better but it was the most technical and trickiest part of the Ultra.

The finishing line came and I did what I always do and that is dig down and try to sprint across the line, you feel the elation of finishing and at the same time the instant downer of its over.

Mum and Dad were there to great me, and then with my medal over my head I headed to the first aid tent and for the next thirty minutes had skin cut off and dirt flushed out from my cut hand, ice on my shoulder after being cleaned of fly excrement and vomit, and an ice pack on the knee.

It was my slowest time for 45 km’s but given everything that had happened in the days leading up and during the actual race, I rate this race as one of my best.

It is nice when time does not matter, as Stuart says hey another five minutes you should be happy.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Dedicated to Stuart

It is the day before the 6ft Track Ultra marathon and I find myself on the train going over the Blue Mountains blanketed in fog and mist, and down into Lithgow, where my mother will pick me up and take me onto Bathurst for the night. Before driving back into the mountains in the early morning to the start of Australia’s most famous off road Ultra Marathon, “The 6ft Track” all off road starting at the top of the Blue Mountain Range descending down to the Megalong Valley floor before a lung busting ascent up the Black Mountain Range and down to the finish at Jenolan Caves. 45km’s of torture is how it is portrayed, if you can do a marathon in four hours (which I have done) then expect to hopefully finish in six hours is how the race info puts it.

Now six hours is 360 minutes, but for my friend Stuart he would tell me that he looks it as 72 blocks of 5 minutes. Why five minute blocks?

Well I have spent the last few days with one of my oldest and closest friends Stuart. We met on the first day of High School together back even walked home together on that first day. We grew up and did everything wrong and good together that mates do as teenagers. We never had money and what money we did earn from doing paper rounds we spent together. We did our first holiday overseas together as young lads in Fiji and even when we went our own ways we never lost touch and somehow whenever we talked on the phone, it was like we had only spoken the day before. If I ever needed to hear a friendly voice of a mate it is always Stuart that I call.

Then last year Stuart, only older than me by six weeks got cancer of the bowels, he had an operation and they removed twenty cm’s (nearly a foot of his bowels). He fought and fought as hard as I have ever seen anyone fight, as a single father of a sixteen-year daughter he has too much to live for.

Then last week things went from looking positive to bad, as a side effect of the chemo he had developed a 6cm blood clot in his arm where the chemo went in, the clot had started to break and had passed thru his heart into his lungs.

The hard thing is that often friends do not tell you till to late what has happened, it is not embarrassment or fear that is behind their decision but courage and bravery. I spoke to Stuart Wednesday night after I found out he was back in hospital, he sounded awful but still positive. The next morning I walked into his room and saw what little remains of my best mate, he is fading in body but glowing in spirit and determination to beat this disease.

The good news was that the clots had been stabilized and that he was to be released that afternoon, still amazes me the ability of modern medicine to treat people and Stuart is probably at the best hospital in Australia.

We spent four hours together in the hospital, the amount of time it takes me to run a marathon. Just doing what we do best talk, laugh and plan our future lives.

When I rang him last night he was back home full of spirit and determination and when I asked what he was up to he told me

“ I only think of the next five minutes, I get through those five minutes grateful and I plan the next five minutes. Nothing more nothing less”

He added “have a great race Saturday”.

Running is in all honesty a solo sport, when it gets tough people and friends around you support you and get you thru the tough times but essentially it is you alone with two legs going left right repeat. Tomorrow will be different for me because when I feel bad or hurting, when I feel like there is nothing left and I want to stop. I will say to myself:

“ Five more minutes Mal, just five more minutes. Because if all Stuart wants from life now is five more minutes, then by god I am going to run hard for five more minutes for my best friend. Stuart tomorrow I run not for me but for you.

Friday March 9th 2007
Blue Mountains