I left Eurobin aid-station feeling good, not great, but good. I was a few minutes outside my 14:15 finish time with the final and toughest third of the race ahead. Arriving at Eurobin for the second time though was a lift. Sharon had the small crowd cheering and I entered to a cacophony of cow bells ringing, smiling faces from the Surf Coast running crew and volunteers. I refueled, had encouraging words from Sharon, laughing quips from Jon and Gregor and a light touch but serious check over by the medical support - and I was out again on the Buffalo Stampede.
I did comment quietly to Sharon that this next section could take longer than I hoped - I was feeling good - great had been absorbed unexpectedly on the loop at Buffalo summit - exhaustion was still a few hours away in the mud on Mystic Hill.
The 75.5km Ultra SkyMarathon, however, began beautifully. A before dawn start by 127 runners in the Victorian town of Bright and ascent up Mystic Hill were a great start. The antics down the perilously steep Mick’s track added to the occasion, I managed to stay upright all the way down - despite the encouragement from Gregor to do otherwise. The following 2km climb up Clear Spot was all that we expected: an exhilarating achievement. At the top the calming influence of the polite volunteers checking off our numbers was a wonderful, if momentary, pause as I took in the magnificent views - complete with the granite fastness of Buffalo commanding my attention.
The 6.5km descent down to the Buckland aid station, complete with ringing cowbells, was pleasant, beautiful forest and cruising along at just over 5:30 min kms. Unusually no wildlife - I think the stampede of runners had scared off the other animals. Although there was spectacular displays of toadstools and mushrooms along the track. If this seems measured it was, there was still a lot of climbing to go and this was to be my first run of more than 50kms.
Keating Ridge was ascended and descended with little noticeable fan fair. Although a pattern of me overtaking on the descents and being overtaken on the ascents, in most cases by the same fellow competitors, was now becoming noticeable, and would persist until the return ascent of Clear Spot - but that is getting ahead of the unfolding story.
The aid station at Eurobin was wondrously peopled with noisy supporters - including Sharon! I felt good, one third of the course was completed, and was looking in good form according to my unbiased fan Sharon, I was more than 10 minutes up on my back-of-the-envelope 14:15 race time. I exited Eurobin feeling confident.
The 10km climb to the Mount Buffalo Chalet, up the quaintly named “The Big Walk” was a spectacular section. Lush forest, single track and fire track then onto massive granite faces that the path criss-crossed. It was here that the frontrunners tore back down the mountain past me - impressive. The Chalet carpark was a welcoming sight, Sharon, supporters, children, dogs, noise and food. I went quickly through onto the short summit loop, I would pick up my drop-bag on the return.
I hit a wall on this 7km leg. It wasn’t the clamber through Chalwell’s Galleries, I was ready for those, tackled them on the January SkyCamp. Perhaps it was the steps, the rocks, the creek crossings……perhaps? I returned to the Chalet spent, needing to sit for the first time and contemplate the journey yet to come.
Many had pulled out at this 43km point, I wasn’t about to do that. Hell the next 10 kms were a 1126m descent - that was an opportunity to make up time and break my 50km distance achievement from the recent Australian Ultra trail championships. I ran.
In terms of pace the descent was not fast, but I took it on close to my edge - probably a little too close. My trailing left foot tried to wrest a granite block from the path. The granite won I stumbled but kept my feet and continued on. Toes blackened, nothing broken, but two toe-nails that won’t last out the week. A few hundred metres further on I took one of the many hair-pin bends way too fast. Granite, moss and water bought me crashing painfully to the ground. Nice fall, nimble reflexes saved me from serious, unnecessary, injury. Although my left leg was not at all happy. With the granite faces still to come - a fall there would be deadly - I took the rest of the descent at a more sensible pace, arriving at Eurobin buoyed by an eventful but successful 10km.
The sunlit picnic atmosphere of Eurobin was replaced by a cold wintery shower on the ascent of Keatings Ridge relenting only as I approached the Buckland aid station. There I found out that two of the young pros had run themselves to exhaustion (many hours ago) at this section. I ‘soldiered on’ demonstrating a confidence I didn’t really feel.
Twelve hours and five minutes was a personal mark for me. That was my New Zealand Iron Man finishing time from 2011 - the longest sporting event I had ever contested. I reached that point some way up the muddy, slippery, awful climb up the backside of Clear Spot. Another personal milestone reached. With the sun setting I had a spectacular view back to Buffalo, slowly disappearing behind an approaching storm cloud. The light point of this was the lovely couple still at the summit of Clear Spot. Seated in a pool of lantern light and resplendently kitted out in matching wet weather gear they quietly and diligently checked off my number and wished me a good run. I thanked them for their volunteer efforts and headed down the 2km descent of Clear Spot.
I would have expected to romp down this in 10-11 minutes, instead some 30 minutes later I reached Baker’s Gully overtaking four of the runners who had passed me on the ascent. Then came the most agonising 60 minutes of my life. The track to the top of Mystic is some damnable gradient of 41-45%, the numbers matter little, except it was a hellish ascent even on the best of days. Now it was a muddy slippery slope of clay, evil little rocks and ferns that refused to hold my weight. It was a few steps forward and catch my breath - and watch two pairs of runners armed with the latest in carbon fibre pole technology slowly pass me as I clung perilously to some life saving tree.
Half way up I was so exhausted that I was as close to giving up on a venture for the first time in my life.
Not saying reason prevailed, however giving up on to whom in the rain on a godforsaken hill at the back of Bright did not seem to contain much merit. Instead I rediscovered the primal art of hands and feet crawling, probably last used by ancestor with a prehensile tale escaping a predator up a tree on the African savannah. I completed my ascent staring at the ground a few centimetres from my face, while the rain came down and the only sounds were my harsh breathing and the pounding of heart.
The descent down Mystic Hill was treacherous and a group of us took it carefully, we had travelled far and racing was no longer the point - arriving in Bright was such a wondrous thought. I could almost taste tomorrows breakfast at Cafe Velo. The rain had stopped, a gibbous red moon was visible through the clouds and a startling red Mars gave the direction to Bright. The arrival was welcoming and joyful, cow bells ringing and Sharon shouting “it’s Kevin, it’s Kevin”, I crossed the line greeted by a smiling Dion and Kirsten from the Surf Coast Trail Runners and had my finishers medal looped over my head by the Race Director Sean Greenhill and a heartfelt “Well done”. It was good to be home.
I learnt a lot about myself on that run. I was so glad to have attended the SkyCamp in January with Brendan Davies and Hanny Allston - I don’t think I would have completed this without that. I had prepared well and put it all into practice, relying on my ingenuity when the ‘plan’ went awry. I am looking forward to the next trail challenge - the Surfcoast Century (apparently its a wee bit flatter).
Photo credits: Sharon Orrman-Rossiter, who is in all things a WonderWoman.
Thanks: Sean Greenhill and Melanie Parry for putting on and directing such an awesome race, Sharon Orrman-Rossiter for being there always, Surf Coast Trailrunners for being such a supportive and sociable group, Donna Urquhart my running buddy for helping me prepare for this event - and the next! Wayne and Susan at Bright Velo for perfect accommodation and great food and atmosphere at Cafe Velo, finally to all the runners and supporters who made this such a great inaugural event.
Technical Stuff: What I wore; Inov-8 X-Talon 190 shoes, inov-8 socks and buff, Salomon S-lab exo zip tee & exo twinskin short and Advanced skin hydro 5 set, Petzl Nao headlamp, and Garmin Forerunner 910XT. What I carried; Inov-8 Racelite 150 Stormshell, Baselite 200 LSZ, and Racepant 190. What I consumed; Hammer Perpetuem solids and Endurolytes, Torq bars, glucose tablets, fruit cake, hot cross buns, water, Hammer HEED, coca cola (on the last 10kms) and did I mention the fruit cake?