run into the darkness

SixInchTrailMarathon

2017 Six Inch Trail Marathon

Marathon #19

Sunday, 17 December 2017

People had been speculating about the weather for a couple of weeks before this edition of the 6 Inch Trail Marathon. Normally, it’s hot and dry at this time of year but the BOM had been forecasting showers then rain and storms later in the day, and significantly cooler temperatures than normal. Despite these professional forecasts, other prognosticators saw possibilities from cool and completely dry, through to biblical flooding. All I knew was that it was going to be colder on the day than I wanted as I had been doing lots of running in the middle of the day to heat-acclimatise; I was hoping that it would be hot so I could beat some of the others who weren’t going to be as adept at running in the heat. We have to play the cards we’re dealt, c’est la vie.

I’ve been carrying a hamstring injury through most of the year; physiotherapy had little effect but a series of platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections directly into the injury site were working, but I was not completely injury-free. I had managed just a few trail runs and a few “speed” sessions in the lead-up to race day, but as I have spent nearly the whole year doing slow, steady paced runs on flat paths I felt really under-prepared for the (circa) 900m of ascent and 800m of descent on trails which could be slippery if wet.

The Plan

Prior to the 2016 edition of this event, I had done enough specific training to have a crack at finishing in under five hours, a plan which came unstuck at 17km when I fell, dislocating my knee and breaking a finger. I eventually finished in 5h18m having spent 5 minutes picking myself up off the track and 13 minutes in the care of paramedics before reaching Aid1. This year, I wanted to have another crack at the 5 hour mark, but thought this was reaching given my limited strength, hills and trail training.

The 2017 plan was to allow 30 minutes for the first three kilometres of climbing from the start, up Goldmine Hill (I can do it in about 22 minutes, so I’d bank any leftover time) and then set a 6:00/km pace; I’d reassess my progress at Aid1 (22km). If I was still feeling ok, I’d try to maintain the pace and do another assessment at Aid2 (36km); it was the final 11km to the finish where going too fast earlier was likely to catch up with me, so I knew I had to be brutally realistic about my ability to get from Aid2 to the finish. If I was ahead of schedule at Aid2, I planned to slow down and just do the final leg at the pace required to finish in 5 hours, hopefully delaying the inevitable going-too-hard-too-soon crash for as long as possible. In my head, it all sounded reasonable, but maybe a little over-ambitious!?

I had planned my run, all there was left to do was run the plan.

Staging

I had a good sleep on Friday night, which was lucky because my Saturday sleep was awful, I was visualising the run over and over in my head. I had done just about all of my preparation before going to bed; my feet were already taped, everything was packed and already in the car or positioned at the front door. I did manage to get a couple hours of sleep before being awoken by my alarm. I was giving Anthony Un a ride to the start, so made a coffee and porridge whilst waiting. We headed out into the gloomy pre-dawn en route North Dandalup. The weather was clear for the entire 50 minute drive, it only began raining as we turned from the highway into the parking area adjacent the town hall. A couple of vollies wearing wet-weather gear, hi-vis and christmas lights directed us to our parking spot. We sat in the car for a moment, watching people scurrying through the rain from their cars to the hall; we pondered how much effort we were willing to expend getting to the hall dry versus just accepting that we were going to get wet at some point today. Just as we got out of the car the rain paused for a moment and we made it into the hall relatively dry.

Inside, the hall was packed already with runners and their crews making final preparations. The mood was festive and much more buoyant than 2016. There were still a few apprehensive faces in the crowd; if you were a noob, why wouldn’t you be nervous about heading out into the dark and wet to run your first trail ultra-marathon? I completed the check-in process with no fuss and then dumped my Aid1 pack into the tub provided. Just at that point I realised that I came into the hall with my car key in my hand and now I didn’t have it! I must have dropped it somewhere in the hall, or left it on the registration table; nope. I started ferreting through the Aid1 tub of bags, bottles and potions to see if I had dropped it in. I looked for a second time. On the third time looking, I started looking inside the bags which were in the tub and voila! My stress level immediately dropped. I was hating the imagination of running the entire course knowing that when I eventually finished and got back to North Dandalup that I’d have no way to get into the car or get home! Not the best start to the morning.

I met up with friends, chatted about expectations of the day and then got onto the bus to be taken to the start area. It was just drizzling when I embarked, but shortly after arriving at the start, the rain got heavier. We sheltered under some trees, some smarter people made tarpaulins from space blankets to provide a little more protection from the rain. I thought it was lucky there was no lightning.

Goldmine Hill

The next couple of busses arrived, and with all the runners now accounted for, we could start. It was a lot darker than previous years due to the thick cloud cover blocking the pre-dawn light. It wasn’t dark enough to mandate the use of torches or headlights, but you had to be just a little more careful about where you put your feet on the smooth gravel road. The contenders flew from the start; some jogged, the rest walked.

I made the mistake of starting too far back of the self-seeded throng. There were a lot of people in front of me who were climbing a lot slower than I wanted to be moving, and with nearly three hundred runners on the narrow road, getting past was sometimes harder than it should have been. I kept thinking to myself the Race Director should develop a keep-left policy on the ascent to allow faster runners space to overtake, but then I argued (with myself) there would be no-one to police the rule and good runners will allow others to pass anyway. I promised myself that next time, I’m going to get better organised at the start to be closer to the front instead of two-thirds of the way to the back.

As I hadn’t done much hills or strength training for the event, I didn’t think I’d be able to ascend as well as I did. I had done some power-hiking training on the flat paths which seemed to have paid some dividends; doing more hiking training on hills might have made my progress even better. “Next time,” I thought to myself.

I reached my timing point at three kilometres from the start in about 22 minutes (the same time as last year when I had been doing hills training) so had about eight minutes to bank as I reset my watch and started aiming for 6:00/km for the next 19km to arrive at Aid1 before 2h24m had elapsed.

Just after Whittakers Mill
Just after Whittakers Mill
Photo: Focused Ninja Photography
Source: Facebook

Aid1

I was doing my Ben Harris inspired “casino count” each 1km lap on my watch. After 2016 WTF 50miler, I changed the way I counted the pace; my target pace was 6:00/km, so if the pace displayed on my watch for the 1km auto-lap was within 5 seconds of the target pace i.e. 5:55 – 6:05 then I’d not add or subtract a count, but if the pace was faster than 5:55 I’d add one to the count, and subtract one from the count if the pace was slower than 6:05. If my count got to five, I was going too fast and should slow down to avoid blowing up; if the count got to -5 then I was moving too slowly and needed to pull my finger out! My count went 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in the first five kilometres after Goldmine Hill. I was feeling good, my legs were feeling good on the gradual climb after Whittaker’s Mill. I was with Anna Bamber and a couple of others, including Chris Satherly whom I seen at many other running events. Although we’d never formally met, he recalled he knew me from 2016 Lark Hill when he heard me vomiting from a considerable distance! The mood was light and everyone was moving easily. On the first “downhill” section, I could afford to go a little easier and the count went 6, 7, then 8 as we ran along Torrens Road.

After Torrens Road, there is a climb then descent, climb then descent; so I call them “The Boobies.” In the past, I had walked up both the Boobies, but this year I ran the first and took my first walking break going up the second Boob. Because I was concentrating on the climb (maybe a little too much) I failed to notice some of the lap alerts, so my count was off. Even though I had exceeded my self-imposed limit of +5 to slow down, I was justifying to myself that I’d be slowing to walk up the Boobies so it was ok to keep going at the pace, but I’d certainly not thought that I’d be running the Boobies and gaining even more time. [Post-run analysis shows my actual count was +10 at the summit of the second rise (16km from the start, 13km from Goldmine Hill)]

After the Boobies climbs there is about 2km of descending, including the stretch where I had fallen and injured myself in 2016. In hindsight, I may have been a little over-cautious on this descent but I was also under-prepared for running downhill and the additional stresses it places on your legs, especially the quads. I certainly didn’t get through this section as fast as I would have liked, but I kept adding to my counter which was (to me) climbing towards +10. There’s a bit less than 4km of ascending after this dip in the course, so I justified to myself that I’d be giving some of my count back and started to take it easy.

There were enough warnings that I wasn’t slowing down though; I had run ahead of Chris and Anna, I was still passing people, my watch was still showing 1km splits way faster than my allowance. I thought I was slowing to target pace, but my count was still increasing: +11, 12 and I thought I was at +13 when I arrived at Aid1. I looked at my watch, 2h11m! I was 13minutes ahead of schedule. I had banked 8minutes from Goldmine, which meant I had run the 19km section from the Hill at around 15seconds per kilometre faster than planned. And yet, I felt fantastic. [The actual count on arrival at Aid1 was +14]

Ben and Shirley Treasure are great supporters of running and were the captains of Aid1 again this year. They take great pride in providing a station for the runners which not only services their need for hydration and nutrition, but also their mental need for fun and frivolity. Last year, Aid1 was an “asylum” where the craziest “doctors and nurses” attended the even-crazier runners; this year their station was an old-persons home! As I ran into the aid station, Frank Chaveneau was standing in his zimmer frame, waving a walking cane around his head, shouting at the runners as they came through, “Get off my lawn!” Shirley was wigged, wearing a dressing gown and soliciting “nanna-hugs”. Cassie Hughes was also wigged, but still somehow managed to get her trademark giraffe ears on too. “Aunty” Ben Treasure scared me! LOL.

2017 Aid1
2017 Aid1
Source: Facebook

I had visualised exactly how I would get through the aid station during my restless sleep the night before:

  • Empty any rubbish from the pockets before the station.
  • Take the backpack off as you enter the station in preparation for refilling.
  • Throw the rubbish in the bin.
  • Grab the refill bottle of hydration and bag of nutrition and move away from the table to allow others clear access to their goodies.
  • Be careful when crouching to refill the bladder to avoid 1) cramp and 2) dropping the hydration mouthpiece in the dirt.
  • Leave the the bladder in the pack and simply open the top and refill from the bottle.
  • Remember to suck all the air out of the bladder to avoid “sloshing.”
  • Take any leftover nutrition from the front pockets and stuff them in the back of the pack.
  • Stuff the new nutrition into the front pockets.
  • Thank the vollies, and then get running.

The plan was sound, my execution was not! I grabbed my bottle and moved away from the table to a quiet spot. I crouched down too fast and twinged my quads, at the same time dragging the mouthpiece in the dirt. I refilled my hydration and after sucking out most but not all of the air from the bladder (from the dusty, gritty mouthpiece) I grabbed my little bag of goodies from the table and headed out for the next leg to Aid2. I was running out of Aid1 trying to get the new bag of nutrition into the front pocket which still had the leftovers in it, so it didn’t fit. My hydration bladder was sloshing. Whilst on the move, I removed the pack and had a second go at getting all the air out of the bladder after giving the mouthpiece a bit of a clean. Stupidly, I stuffed the new bag of nutrition instead of the leftovers into the back of the pack (later, I’d have to take the pack off again to get more food and stow the leftovers properly.)

Aid2

Anyway, with the Aid1 fiasco behind me, I could turn my attention to getting to Aid2. I had reset my counter to zero and promised myself to keep the counter at or below +5. I still believed the sub-5 hour finish to be a real possibility, but there were still a couple of decent climbs ahead: Conveyor Belt and ascending The Escalator before Aid2 and descending The Escalator and Tim’s Hill after Aid2. My uphill running and hiking was pretty good so far, but my downhill needed some more work.

My run/hike up the Conveyor Belt hill to the highest point on the course was probably better than any time I’d been here before, racing or training. I was quite happy with myself as I passed the phone tower at the summit, and did my usual, “It’s all downhill from here!” to whomever was nearby and listening.

On the descent, Anna came back to me and ran alongside for a short while before her downhill prowess exceeded mine and she disappeared ahead. I was running at the back of a small group of “long” course runners and we’d moving past the tail end of the “short” course runners who started their event just before the Conveyor Belt climb. It was dark as the cloud cover thickened and there were small patches of quite heavy rain. My count increased in pretty quick succession, +1, 2, 3, 4 and then 5. My hydration and nutrition plan had been working well, so with the count at its limit, I could easily afford a short wee-break. I stopped at the side of the trail to “ease springs” and as sometimes happens, the delivery of #1 encouraged the (urgent) need for #2. I moved deeper into the bush and did what needed to be done. I reached into my pack to get my stash of toilet paper, but with wet hands this was not as easy it should have been! I was making my way back onto the course when I stepped around a tree stump and started to feel the first twinges of cramp, simultaneously in my hamstrings and quads. As I started running again, I sculled down a bottle of pickle juice and the cramp disappeared in just seconds.

To get to The Escalator and Aid2, we turned off the main track onto a side trail. This is the only part of the course when runners are heading towards each other as they venture out to Aid2 and then back again to this point. There were a good number of runners coming back down the first hill as I made way up, but unfortunately for me, the front runners had already been through and I was seeing the middle of the pack of both the long and short course runners. There were plenty of familiar faces and lots of hi-5s as we crossed, words of encouragement may not have been completely understandable but it’s the thought that counts.

I got to the foot of The Escalator and looked up to see if the way I wanted to ascend was clear of runners coming back down the hill; it was mostly clear, so I started up. I passed quite a few people (mainly half-marathoners) on the climb and got to the top in pretty good shape and time. I got running again as soon as I could at the top of the steepest part and headed towards Aid2. After the Aid1 performance, I was happy that I hadn’t actually planned on stopping at Aid2 as I picked up enough of everything at Aid1 to get to the finish. I ran into Aid2, dumped a fistful of rubbish into the bin, sculled two cups of coke, thanked the vollies and headed out again, almost without actually stopping.

Home Stretch

As I left Aid2 I looked at my watch to see that I was still 11 minutes ahead of schedule, and feeling fantastic except for a few small twinges of cramp in both legs and a bit of a fuzzy brain. I thought it was in 2016 that Ben Oxwell did a fantastic time of 4h46m (it was actually 4h48m in 2015, but as I said my brain was a little fuzzy). I was feeling good and asked myself, “Who’s up for some secret racing?” I computed that with 11.5km to the finish and just over an hour to get there, I could possibly beat Ben’s time if I ran well on the remaining hills. I set my effort level and reset my counting for the final push to the finish.

My descent of The Escalator was safe but not fast. I saw Simon Johnson and Michelle Brown just as they were starting their climb, Michelle gave me a big hug as I passed. The climb immediately following the descent was pretty good. I knew I was ahead of people whom I normally finish behind; I knew a couple of runners ahead were starting to look a little ragged when we had crossed paths which gave me incentive to keep pressing on harder than I’d normally have run. Head down and bum up, I was powering past half-marathoners and the occasional long course runner too. Some of the faster runners who had rolled and ankle or twisted a knee stood to the side of the trail and gave encouragement as I passed; I reciprocated with the standard, “Not far to go now. You can do it!” to a runner who can barely walk, knowing all-too-well that 10 kilometres hobbling is not at all enjoyable. I flew up Tim’s Hill and down the powerline section on the other side, then turned into Marrinup Maze for the final section to the finish.

Race Director, Dave Kennedy, sent an email update before the start about a minor change to the course after the Marrinup camping ground. “For those who have run the course before you will notice that the Munda Biddi now goes straight ahead at Marrinup onto single trail rather than turning right down the road and then hard left onto the trail 20m later.” As I was concentrating hard on maintaining my pace and measured effort to secret-race Ben and catch up to Alex Pattison ahead, I hadn’t fully appreciated this course change and instead of going straight ahead after the camp ground and then immediately following the arrow to indicate the right turn, I went straight ahead after the camp ground and then straight ahead again, missing the sign-posted right turn. After about 500m or so, I began thinking something was wrong; the direction of the trail was not heading towards Dwellingup, and I hadn’t seen any flagging tape for a while. I must have gone another 100m or so when I see a group of five or six runners coming from ahead; we’d all gone the same wrong way! We back-tracked and rejoined the proper course again.

I was filthy with myself. I knew I had lost a lot of time by taking a wrong turn. I didn’t have an accurate measurement of how far off course I went and so didn’t have an accurate measurement of how far it was to the finish. I looked up and saw Chris Satherly ahead of me, I had dropped him hours ago and now he was in front of me. I knew if he had passed me during my excursion that a lot of the other runners whom I was going to be so happy to finally beat across a finish line must have got through as well.

My effort level from Aid2 had been very measured to get me to the line in the required time, with zero allowance for error. As I had made an error, I was starting to fade very quickly with just a few kilometres remaining. Chris said there was just over 2 kilometres to the finish when my legs said to me that they’d had enough for today and (as Ben Harris says) “started walking without permission”. I tried to give some more, even knowing it wasn’t going to have any affect before the finish I chugged down another energy-gel and a couple of sweets, hoping the sugar rush will help (it didn’t). I watch Chris and the other runners head off into the distance, my spirits took a deep dive. It got very dark.

Finally, after some more spontaneous walking, I could see the “light at the end of the tunnel” and gave everything I had left to the final few hundred metres to the finish. I should have been happy to look up and see the finish time under five hours, but I was still sulking over the navigation error. On the other side of the finish chute I could see those runners who I wanted to finally beat, and it still was not registering that I achieved my sub-five hour finish goal.

I was lost in a world of what could have been and what should have been, until finally, eventually, in the real world of what was, it dawned on me that I got a sub-five hour finish and a 14 minute course PB! And, I didn’t trip, fall, break anything or need to go to the hospital!

The finish area was full of stories of conquest over the course, and stories similar to mine, of what could have been. It was cold in the breeze, so I got changed into warm, dry, less-stinky clothes and watched as other runners came across the line to complete their challenges. I had an esky at the finish containing beers and ciders, but drank coke instead; not because I was still dark, but because I needed the caffeine and sugar. When Anthony and Dave Ong both had recuperated enough (or got cold enough) we piled into Dave’s car for a lift back to North Dandalup for Anthony and I to change vehicles and head home. On the way, I told the story of the lost car key; we hardly discussed our respective races but instead told of plans for future events. Later that day, Dave came over to my house and we celebrated with a few beers with feet up and the cricket on the telly.

Aftermath

With ADU100km just over a month away, I cannot afford to have a long recovery from Six Inch. I had massage on Monday which was brutal but left me feeling a lot better; I should have gone for a light recovery run too but the weather was awful so skipped it completely. On Tuesday, my quads were feeling tight and sore, but after a 5km 3/1 run/walk in the morning they felt better. I did another 5km 3/1 run/walk before darkrun that night and then nearly another 8km of 3/1 run/walk with Anna during darkrun itself. I guess if I can run/walk 18km two days after a PB at Six Inch that I’m ok.

4:53:49
(including nearly eight minutes of detour!)

Beer and bling
Beer and bling