Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy
The Inaugural Australian Alpine 100 Mile Ultra Marathon
by Paul Ashton – April 2006

The stars twinkled overhead in the brisk predawn, it was minus 1 Celsius at 4am on 22 April 2006 and history was in the making. The inaugural running of the Australian Alpine 100mile Ultra Marathon (AAUM 100) was about to commence. As the four intrepid / mad runners donned head torches and gloves our support crew snapped a couple of commemorative photos and we jogged off into the darkness.

Over 2 years in the planning the AAUM 100 was developed to take in the most scenic and toughest terrain that Victoria has to offer. 100 miles of spectacular alpine scenery including; Mt Feathertop (Victoria’s second highest peak at 1922m), Mt Fainter (1820m), Mt Bogong (Victoria’s highest peak, 1986m), Spione Kopje (1840m), Mt Nelse (1884m) and Mt Hotham (1860m) plus some spectacular valleys in between – a total of 6 major ascents and descents totaling over 5,500m each and 2 major river crossings. The event, based on the Karrimor Mountain Marathon was not only about running it was about a shared experience where runners bonded together, stopping at a campsite, regrouping and supporting one another. This was an event designed to test the toughest of runners - and that was on a good day! In bad weather or snow, which could strike at any time, it had the potential to be awfully uncomfortable, cold, wet and windy at best, life threatening at worst.

Jan Herman and Lawrence Mead from Sydney, Tim Cochrane and Paul Ashton from Melbourne had agreed to test the run along with Seppo Kuusisto and Diane Paech who would provide the support. This was essential in order to allow the runners to not have to carry packs with full overnight gear and food for the entire length of the run which was estimated to take anything from 36 – 50 hours. The plan was to run the first 46km with light packs and then pick up our overnight gear, sleeping bags, bivvi bags, extra clothes and food for a 70km unsupported leg up and over Mt Bogong – the hardest and most exposed section of the course, before meeting up with the support crew at Langfords Gap and picking up the lighter packs and more food for the final 50kms. As we were latter to find out the support team also provided an invaluable degree of support in picking up exhausted and injured runners from different sections of the course and driving them off the mountains.

Soundlessly we ran through the sleepy hamlet of Harriteville and approached the start of the Bungalow Spur, a 1400m climb up a well maintained walking trail that wound gently up to the summit of Mt Feathertop. The guys were feeling strong and in the early pre dawn air we paced out alternatively jogging and walking up to the site of the old Feathertop hut. It was here in the shadow of the snow gums, below the twinkling stars and fading moon that we saw the hazard that had been placed in our path from the preceding days storms – snow. Turning off our head torches we joked about cold feet and pushed on up the now deeping snow, past the new Feathertop hut and on up to the summit. Our pace slowed to a walk, the increasing gradient and ice on the trail making running difficult and treacherous over the scotch paving which was all but hidden from view.

Below spread a winter wonderland, from Mt Bogong to Mt Hotham there was white everywhere it was a stunning and awe inspiring view, topped of with the sun rising over Mt Nelse casting a vivid light over all the surrounding peaks. We were awe struck and shivered in the gentle breeze with the temperature recording –4.1C. Standing on the summit we commented that it just did’nt get any better than this, we snapped off a couple of quick photos and headed down out of the wind, glad to have seen a perfect sunrise and covered 12 km in 2.5 hours.

Our next challenge was the virtually unrunable descent of Diamintina Spur a mean 3.2km drop down into the West Kiewa Vally. On a previous research trip this short leg had taken me nearly 2 hours. Today, with the snow filling the gaps between the rocks and providing a firm cover we made swift but careful progress over the upper reaches, the more we descended the more the angle of descent increased and we were forced to use our hands to hold onto rocks and grab trees to control our speed. We made it down on 1 hour, 20 minutes. The valley was glorious,  the sun was starting to poke through the treess and frost coated the grass and ferns, avoiding the icy pools of water in the road we were able to make quick progress to Batty’s Hut where we invested 20 minutes in locating the access track to Weston’s Hut and our access to the High Plains.

On this the second major ascent Tim, Jan and Lawrence pulled away from me and I was forced to use my walking poles to try and keep up as we strode through unburnt forests of Mountin Ash. Finally I caught them resting in the snow outside Weston’s Hut. From here we continued in perfect conditions through snow gums in 10cm of packed snow and brilliant sunshine to Pole 333 on the Alpine Walking Track before racing down to Tawonga Huts. On the descent we were inspired by the sight of two sets of fresh foot prints in the snow indicating that our support crew had been able to get in as well. We were greeted by calls of “stop – I want to take a picture”, “do you want a hot drink”, “how about some cake”. It was wonderful. We basked in the sun in the relative warmth of 2 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes, fixing blisters, taking on food and water, applying sun screen, and revising plans for the support team for our next meeting at Bogong Village, 15 odd km away. Whilst we were already an hour behind our planned schedule we foolishly told Diane and Seepo to have the billy on for us around 1pm for lunch. What we didn’t know was that the snow would slow us down and impede our progress, we wouldn’t arrive at Bogong Village until 3pm, three hours off schedule. In the life of a 40 hour plus run this probably was not a major issue, however I was concerned as we had to climb through the newly emerging forest that was quickly suffocating Spione Kopje fire trail. This was the regrowth that had taken hold since the 2003 bushfires and it was becoming very thick. To get caught up in this in the dark would really hinder progress.

After a big feed of noodles, pizza and beer at Bogong Village and a change of socks we hoisted on our overnite packs and headed off again – the extra weight was immediately noticeable and we fell into a fast walk along the river flats. At this stage Jan and Lawrence had disappeared behind us and I struggled to keep pace with Tim who was surging on strongly up the ridge. With my Suunto watch and altimeter I was able to track our progress and it was inspiring to call off every hundred meters of ascent, we were racing against the clock and we had to be within 200m of the summit before it got dark. We just made it. The regrowth disappeared and the climb steepened as night and the mist descended upon us. A slight breeze sprung up and the temperature dropped to minus 2.7 Celcius. We donned, overpants, Gortex jackets, hats, gloves, thermals and headlamps, downed a couple of carbo shots and continued the climb. Summiting Spoine Kopje we could see the lights of Falls Creek shimmering off in the distance otherwise everything was black with the only light being  from outr torch beams reflecting of the snow and mist. Our pace slowed as we tried to pickup the snow covered fire trail. Jan and Lawrence caught up with us and indicated that they were going to try and push on all through the night and ten disappeared into the blackness, Tim and I had discussed one more big climb for the night up Quartz Ridge to Cleve Cole Hut but the climb up Spionne Kopje had knocked the stuffing out of us. Our plan was now to head to the Helipad at Big River about 15km and 5 hours away. If we were lucky we would make it by 11pm.

Navigating in the mist and snow at night can be a frightening experience, tracks disappear, roads that should be traveling east turn west and you have no points of reference. You need to be cool calm and collected, know how to read a map and compass and use logical analysis, not so easy sometimes after 15 hours on the go. Tim and I had to make a number of navigational decisions and with the benefit of local knowledge and our map we went the right way, we could just have easily taken two wrong turns and wasted 15 minutes or more on each. We plodded on – there was no though of running at this stage we were focused on getting to our camp. Tim hit the wall, his pace slowed considerably and I worked on trying to keep him motivated, conundrums, previous ultra stories, anything to keep him going – he probably just wanted me to shut up. After about ½ an hour he took on food and surged off again – I went on, left foot, right foot, left foot on and on through the soft and deepening snow. I kept thinking I wanted to stop and sit down, but I knew if I did that it would have disastrous consequences, I forced myself forwards. The wind had picked up and the sky cleared, the heavens above were filled with the brightest array of stars, I felt humbled before nature, the overwhelming power and beauty of it all. Away from civilisation and all its trappings were just two blokes surrounded by the essence and beauty of our world, it was a truly moving and awesome moment! The increasing bite of the wind penetrating our garments forced us on and I reflected how lucky we had been with the weather, it could have been raining, it could have been white out conditions – this was a cold and hostile environment and we were out here, alone, at least 3 hours from shelter. The fragility of our existence and the potential risks hit me strongly and I wondered what we would do if the weather had turned. To stay out for two days running at the limits in bad conditions would be tempting fate too much.

Suddenly out of the gloom a snow pole loomed up from the ground and rose above us. I had no recollection of poles on this part of the trail and went to check it out – It looked new and I thought, through my fog encrusted mind, “what nice guys the rangers were, putting a pole line out to Spione Kopje”, yes there was another and another, every 30 metres, followed suddenly by a sign t Mt Nelse. We jerked to a halt – “we’ve gone the wrong way” I said to Tim – “were 180degrees off course!!”. I walked over to the pole and checked its number - 818 – we had come past about 50 poles – 1.5km off course and in the wrong direction. At least, with the help of the map we knew exactly where we were, but how easy to get off course. I checked the map and explained to Tim our options 1) turn back and walk for 3 hours to the helipad, it was now nearly 9pm and the temperature had dropped to minus 3.6 degrees, so we would arrive at midnight and then set up tent and cook some dinner or 2) continue on for ½ an hour and camp in the warmth and shelter of Edmonsons Hut.. It really was a no brainer. Both of us suddenly felt recharged as we surged down the hill wondering where Jan and Lawrence had gone. We were sure that we had been following their footsteps and assumed that they, like us had worked out that the snow on Bogong would be too deep , and so had opted to head to Langfords Gap instead.

With the light of Tim’s mega bright cycling light we came onto Edmonsons Hut feeling like a million dollars and two of the luckiest people in the world. The door was locked and after some banging we were greeted by “a wait a minute” and a bundled up body in a sleeping bag opened the door and greeted us  - “where have you guys come from you look f….d” – we actually thought we looked and felt pretty good at that stage. But what did we know we’d been on the go 17 ½ hours.

Paul, our hut host, stoked up the fire, put on the billy and we stuffed ourselves full of noodles, muslie, and chocolate whilst and we regaled him with stories of our trip – eventually working out that it had taken us 17 ½ hours to do just 60km – we were astounded at how slow our progress had been. Unpacking our sleeping bags and slipping of our windproofs we went to sleep full clothed saying that in the morning we would examine our options. In our hearts I think we both accepted that we had run our race for this year. Sleep came quickly and in spite of the mice eating holes in Tim’s pack and Paul’s snoring we slept fairly soundly till 7am. As I moved off the bunk I felt the pain in my right ITB and knew that I was done – it was Langford’s Gap and a ride out for me. Tim was happy to support me to the end but said he’d be back next year. I was thinking, will there ever be a next year. This was a bugger of a run – it was hard and we hadn’t even done half the distance.

At Langords, we called up Seepo on the mobile – where would we be without them, and he said he’d pick us up in 10 minutes, the sun warmed our bodies and we relaxed, I called up Jan and he said that  they had been worried about us. They had continued up Quartz Ridge to Bogong but got stuck in a white out with almost zero visibility and calf deep snow at 3am with the temperature around minus 2 Celsius, so they wisely decided to retrace their steps down the mountain. Then they had followed the fire trail back to Bogong Village and were expecting to get pulled out at about 11am by Diane. They had been on the move continuously for 31 hours, an amazing effort, although Jan did say that Lawrence did stop occasionally and sway – his version of sleep walking and not recommended in the snow.

So in 2006 it was Bogong 1, ultra mad runners nil. And an epic run was created!

What will 2007 bring, and what did we learn;.
  1. Subject to Parks Victoria approval and insurance coverage there will be a run in March 2007, possibly with some changes to the route and possibly with a 100km option.

  2. Support is essential on an event of this nature, without Seepo and Diane we would have struggled, especially at the end when they picked up both groups. In most runs the work of the support crews is not recognized, but in stage runs of this nature they are a most valuable resource and safety factor. Without support I would not put the run on again.

  3. Running in pairs is an essential safety factor in this environment.

  4. Stopping for proper food breaks and eating constantly ensures that the body remains fuelled and strong. With the long distances between support points proper food planning is essential

  5. The run is Hard with a capital H, the environment is hostile, weather conditions can and do change quickly and runners need to anticipate changes. It is too easy to lose body heat and get yourself into trouble

  6. The ability to read a map to ground and use a compass are mandatory skills.

  7. Carrying full safety equipment including, spare warm clothing and overnight gear is essential

  8. The run will start at 3am and with the help of daylight saving this will allow all runners to make the mandatory overnight stop Cleve Cole Hut

To Seepo and Diane, thanks for your fantastic support, without you guys they run would have been so much harder. To Tim, Jan and Lawrence. Thanks for joining me in the run and sharing my vision and the experience. See you and hopefully many others in 2007.

Paul Ashton is passionate about the outdoors, ultra running and experiencing life. He has successfully completed the Everest Marathon, Comrades Marathon, Great South Coast Run, Overland Track, Wilson’s Prom 100 and Cradle to Coast. He also has a love for Rock Climbing, XC Skiing and  Snow Shoe running. As the coordinator of Trail Running Victori, Paul organizes a number of events in Victoria including;
AAUM 100ml - March
Wilsons Prom 100km - April
Grampians Grunt 50km - November
Mt Feathertop 30 / 50km Skyrun - December
During the winter months he can be seen training on racing snow shoes in anticipation of the formation of the Australian Snow Shoe Racing Association and races which he plans to establish, when he gets fit enough.

Paul has also written, in conjunction with Nigel Aylett, an article on “Ultra running made easy – a beginners guide”.


lavinia_g said...

Where can I find the article 'Ultra running made easy - a beginners guide'? Have only run two halfs, but love the idea of a 50km run.

Superflake said...

Phil sounds like another classic ultra starting off. Must get it added to Mister G's triple crown list to make it 4x100+milers like the USA.