Mountain (Mis)-Adventure

My Mountain (Mis)-Adventure

Cooked to well-done on Mt Barney

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Mt Barney is big.  No matter the route, 1000mD+ is no walk in the park

Fuck. Grab something! Fuck! I’m not ready to die?! FUCK!!! I’m scared.

I am almost 6 hours into a training “run” on Mt Barney.

The Journey to Impasse

Prelude

The plan was for me to make twin summits – an out and back of the South Ridge, followed by an out and back of the South-East Ridge.

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Feeling cocky prior to adventure

Given the weather forecast of oppressive heat, I decided pack a little extra fluid. 1L is ordinarily more than enough for a 6hr run, but I packed another bottle into my vest.

I also decided to head out a little earlier than originally planned, to beat some of the heat. Unfortunately, co-sleeping with a restless toddler in a two-person tent, put paid to that. The night was almost devoid of sleep for any of us.

Instead of heading out early, our alarm failed to go off, and I left somewhat after I had originally intended. At a little after 05:00, I was suited up and on the move, with Claire’s parting words echoing in my mind:

“Just go on your fucking run!”

It had been a rough night.

Lap #1 – South Ridge

With the twin ridges in sight, I headed out along Upper Logan Road for the South-Ridge turnoff. “6hrs of hilly” was the instruction for the day, and Mt Barney was destined to deliver.

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The Twin Peaks from our campsite

The journey out to “Peasant’s” (AKA South) Ridge – named thus, according to its status as the “easy” route 1 – was relatively flat (undulating) and uneventful. Although along the way, in my bleary sleep-deprived lethargy, I did manage to go up and down Yellow Pinch lookout, without really intending to.

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♥ Tree on Yellow Pinch

Minor deviation behind me, I continued to the South-Ridge turnoff and made the ascent, cruising up to the saddle, then back down to the trailhead, at an easy comfortable pace.

In pretty good time, and good shape. So far, so good.

Vive la Différence

In researching the routes up Mt Barney, there seemed to be somewhat of a consensus that Peasants is less interesting than other routes. But I found it quite lovely – fabulously varietal terrain, spectacular views and vegetation.

Lap #2 – South-East Ridge

Ascent

After returning to the trailhead on Upper Logan Road, I made my way back to the start of the South-East ridge – generally considered the next step up from South. While it certainly is more consistently steep, it is the navigational difficulties that better differentiate it. The South Ridge is pretty well marked, with a well-defined path and triangular trail direction markers to light the way. South-East ridge, in comparison, has a fairly well-worn path most of the way up, but with many sections routing directly over large slabs of rock, the lack of markers makes descending an order of magnitude more difficult, than ascending.

We’re Having a Heat Wave ♫

The Greater Brisbane area had been experiencing extreme heat-wave conditions. For a few days it looked like we may realise some relief for the weekend, but as Friday loomed closer, the temperature predictions inexorably rose. As of Friday evening, the expectation was for maximum temperatures in the high 30s – Saturday’s reality brought us a maximum of 42°C.

Despite the pretty extreme heat, and the magnitude of the mountain before, I had made good time up and down South. Slowing considerably as I began the ascent of South-East; my progress, albeit curbed to keep my heart rate down, was reasonably consistent. What I failed to notice – or at least to sufficiently acknowledge – is that as the heat rose, I was drinking an ever-increasing amount of fluid. By the time I reached the East Peak – the top of the South-East Ridge – my body was exhausted, dehydrated and overheated. I could feel the heat radiating from my legs. Much worse; I was out of fluids.

Descent

Nevertheless, I began my descent, as delay was only going to increase my exposure to the heat. Admittedly, I was also still on a mission – two ascents/descents in “near enough to 6 hours”.

I will preface the ensuing narrative by explaining that as my body temperature rose, my decision making and navigational skills were exponentially degrading. I suspect this will also have adversely affected my recollection of events, but what follows is as best I can remember.

As I descended it became quickly apparent that the trail is much easier to distinguish going up, than going down. Particularly when broken into sections by large slabs of rock, it is necessary to reconnect with the trail, as it changes direction along the vast precipitous ridge.

My heat and dehydration-induced deteriorating mental state made it more and more difficult to spot the trail, and to notice the switchbacks. But it also caused poor decision making – continuing on downhill when it was clear 2 that I was no longer on course – and not looking frequently behind me for the same signs of trail that I saw on the ascent.

An increasing sense of urgency, in the absence of critical reasoning, saw me head down what looked like the ridgeline. A couple of butt-slides down a grassy V-shaped gully, and a looming drop into nothing should have confirmed that I was headed in the wrong direction. I hadn’t remembered climbing up anything like that, but I seemed unable to convince myself to retrace my steps.

Continuing to make my way down the ridge, I came across a smooth rock slab, angled down the mountain… and that, is where I lost traction.

Fuck. Grab something! Skating down the rocky makeshift slide, my hands scrambled around for something to halt my progress. Fuck! I’m not ready to die?! As I felt something – I can’t tell you what it was, or even which hand(s) found purchase – but my body held fast, as I stared down into an open abyss.

FUCK!!! I’m scared.

I have no idea how far down the drop plunged. I didn’t look for longer than was required to realise that I was seconds, and a handful of something, from death.

I wonder if others experience the same, when faced with a near-death experience? While I did have my life flash before me – it wasn’t my past, but my future – the life not yet lived. With lofty aspirations of lengthy longevity, I envisioned decades of unrealised experiences as a father, lover, son, friend, adventurer, musician, student.

While John Muir’s quote resonates with me, I am keen for at least a few more decade’s adventures before meeting my end:

“This time it is real — all must die, and where could mountaineer find a more glorious death!”

― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra

Continuing to climb across the slab, and down alongside the ridge, I came upon a small flattish spot, wedged myself against a tree, and caught my breath. Exhausted, broken, and scared to (the brink of) death.

Stuck

There I sat, for the better part of an hour, trying to regain some energy and bring my body temperature back down enough to climb back out. As time ticked by, I began to give up. I was completely exhausted; almost certainly suffering heat-stroke; and becoming rapidly more dehydrated.

Google.Maps.Stuck

Courtesy of Google Maps and my saved GPS waypoint, the marker shows where I got stuck in relation to the East Peak and the South-East ridge descent

I have no recollection of ambient noise. It seems odd now, in the luxury of an air-conditioned room, where every sound is amplified. I wonder, in retrospect, how much of the silence that I perceived is attributable to obliviousness, amnesia or some form of temporary psychosis?

With nothing but the thump of my palpitating heart for company, I called the SES. Explaining my predicament, the operator conferenced in a police officer. I relayed that I had ascended the South-East Ridge to East Peak, and was on the descent when I deviated East of the trail.

“Did I have sufficient water?” No, none. “Phone battery?” 1%. Shortly after answering which, my phone died.

In the aftermath of the weekend, I learned that my momentary lapse of reason had become nationwide, headlining news. This brought on a deluge of inevitable public shaming, as all and sundry piled on the grubby hippie with no sense of responsibility – personal, social or otherwise.

I have relatively thick skin. So all of that bothers me very little. Having been about 2 months into a social media hiatus also meant that I was hearing of it, only 2nd-hand.

But the phenomena of “instantly and globally connected” public shaming did affect my decision making processes. I sat on that ledge for far longer than I would have without the spectre of “trial by Internet”, before making the call for help.

Ultimately; I am OK. I am relatively young. Quite fit. Ridiculously stubborn. But in more dire circumstances, for a person less capable, such a delay could have been fatal.

Have a think about that, the next time you feel the need to don your superhero cape to verbally assault the victim of an emergency situation. Mistakes happen. Hopefully, lessons are learned.

No-one ever wants to make that call. To be “that person”. But let’s not shame someone into seeing death as the easy option.

While talking to emergency services, I was also typing a txt message to Claire with my current GPS coordinates, copied from my watch. The phone died just before I was able to hit ‘Send’.

99 - so close, but no cigar.png

Close, but no cigar

Alone again, I sat. Waiting again for the better part of another hour, I tried to convince myself to move. I didn’t have any idea how much I had successfully relayed to emergency services. I didn’t know what they planned.

Would I be stuck there for hours? Days? What will Claire be thinking? Does she know? Is she OK? Is she still pissed off? I want to see her. The kids. Our monster-toddler, that ensured I’d had next to no sleep. I want an ice-bucket for my feet. Yoghurt and berries.

Strange that I could be fantasising about food, given that I’d long lost interest in any of what I’d brought with me. Another symptom of dehydration, is a lack of saliva. Reduced saliva production makes it harder to chew, swallow and digest food. But I also noticed that things didn’t taste as good – didn’t even have as much taste – as usual. My chicken and avocado wrap – usually the star attraction of my long run nutrition – barely tasted like anything at all.

Speaking of taste: have you ever drunk your own urine? Well, I have. Now. At least, I tried. You see; as you dehydrate, your urine becomes darker, indicating higher concentrations of waste products – urea, bilirubin, ammonia, ketones et al. As it darkens, your urine becomes commensurately less palatable. At this stage, mine had turned a toasty brown, and it was foul. It was, in fact, by far the worst thing I have ever tasted – by a long, long way; and I’ve tried pineapple on pizza. Trust me when I say, that severe dehydration is not when you want to get in touch with your inner Bear Grylls.

Severe dehydration also makes it more difficult for your body to sweat. Which in turn, makes it more difficult for your body to cool down. Stuck on a mountainside, trapped in my body’s endless struggle between heat and (lack of) hydration.

Self-Rescue

I’m not exactly sure how or why I got moving again. My body temperature hadn’t come back down at all. My energy levels were as low as when I first perched myself on that ledge. But some happy mix of longing for everything that awaited me back at camp; and uncertainty over what, if anything, the outside world was planning to do to help me; had me back on my feet.

Having been stuck for almost a couple hours, I put my vest back on (the highly recommended UD AK 3.0 that I barely felt all day) and psyched myself up, to climb back out.

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Who wouldn’t rush home to this little cutie?

I have only very vague recollections of the remainder of my adventure. I do know that I did quite a bit of climbing – to which, the DOMS in my lats for the next couple of days, would testify – and that after climbing back up and rejoining the trail, I lost my way twice more, drifting off-course on the way down.

But after numerous interleaved periods of descending, pausing, regathering, climbing, and bush bashing, I made my way back down the ridge to the South-East trailhead.

From there, it was a pretty sad jog/hike to the Cronan 10 campsite, where I came upon some campers. They had me sit down, and gave me an ice-cold bottle of Gatorade, for which I was exceptionally grateful.

As I prepared to continue on, somewhat buoyed by the rest and fluids, two bushwalkers came down the trail towards my benefactors’ campsite. After a short exchange, they happily chaperoned me back to the Yellow Pinch carpark.

A short drive back to Mt Barney lodge – thank you, mysterious strangers whose names I have forgotten – and I was back at our campsite.

Recovery

Claire and the kids were up at the camp dining area, preparing to eat dinner. Their surprise, and relief at seeing me amble towards them, starkly written on their faces. A few quick cuddles later, Claire went to let the police know that I’d walked myself back out, and I trudged up to the amenities block for a cold shower. Covered in cuts, grazes, and bruises, every drop hurt, but a shower never felt so good.

Without having to say a word, Claire had already bought two bags of ice, and filled a large storage container with ice water. Legs submerged, I started guzzling bottles of ice water, as Claire draped an ice-water soaked towel over my shoulders.

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I’m half-English, so a cuppa tea fixes everything

By the time the paramedics arrived to check me over, my core temperature had returned to normal and all my vital signs were good to go. No hospital for me! YAY!

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Waterhole, near our campsite provided relief from the heat

Lessons Learned

Adventuring is Not the Same as Training

Hydration

I regularly train for up to 4 hours or more, with NO hydration at all. At comfortable pace or lesser, I simply don’t require fuelling or fluid.

Given that this was a “race practise” long training run, I took food and fluid. For an anticipated 6 hours, I packed a total of 1.35L – two 500mL bottles up front, and one 350mL bottle in the back of the vest.

Given that:

  1. It was hot as fuck
  2. I didn’t have an accurate idea of how long the twin ascents/descents were going to take me
  3. I’d never been up Mt Barney before

I really should have packed WAY more fluid and have had a plan to refill as necessary. To mitigate potential mishap, cater for the heat, and acknowledge the adventurous nature of the outing.

Mandatory Gear vs Safety Gear

On such “race practise” runs, I carry all of the mandatory gear for the target race. But despite having done this numerous times, and carried much the same in races, I have never given any real thought to its purpose.

I could have used several pieces of that mandatory race gear when things started to go wrong. But because my brain had melted to mush, I never once gave thought to it being there, much less tried to use it.

  1. Space blanket – mirrored surface could be used to attract attention of rescue chopper
  2. Space blanket + poles – erect sun shelter
  3. Rain hi-vis jacket – attract attention of rescue chopper

Future “adventure” training sessions will see me carrying a bare minimum of safety gear – not just mandatory race gear.

We will also be utilising “play” sessions where-in we will contrive emergency scenarios, and devise potential solutions using the aforementioned safety gear. The intention will be to make this process second-nature, so that if one’s mental state degrades, the muscle memory can take over.

Footnotes

  1. There is no “easy” way to ascend a 1,300+m mountain.
  2. To be fair, not much was clear at this point.
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Buffalo Stampede Grand Slam 2017 – An Epic Adventure

Prelude

Buffalo Stampede Grand Slam, done and dusted.

It was, as advertised, brutally beautiful; and in the aftermath, the hardest thing I’ve ever done (*childish giggle). As rough as it was at times, I wouldn’t change a single thing; and I’m grateful for every second.

Buffalo Stampede UltraSky 2017

We arrived in Bright two days before the first race, to give us time to settle in and relax. As we drove along the Great Alpine Road, I caught my first glimpse of Mt Buffalo. “Wow! Now, that is big!”. “You’ll be climbing that”. And so, it was.

Mt Buffalo

Mt Buffalo

Goals:

  1. 20km – Sub 04:00:00
  2. 75km – Sub 14:00:00
  3. 42km – Survive

Plan:

  • Work sustainably hard, hiking mindfully and with purpose for every step
  • Comfortable on the flats and down, but don’t dawdle

Theme and Variations

SkyRace – 20km

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Bright (see what I did there?) and bushy-tailed on day #1

Friday began with a relatively late start of 08:00, lined up and ready to go in Howitt Park. We’d had a lovely day, relaxing in beautiful Bright. Having happened upon a unit, right next door to the start/finish precinct, we were ridiculously conveniently placed. But then, nothing is very far away in Bright.

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Discussing race tactics with support team

The plan for the 20km was to take it easy. Comfortable pace all the way. That… did not happen. As much as I tried to settle the fuck down, my heart rate would not come to the party. So, I ditched the HR monitor, and relied on RPE (rate of perceived exertion). Having tapered quite hard, and with the adrenaline surge of pre-race excitement, there was no way that my HR could be a useful gauge. My coach and I had seen a similar phenomena during a practise taper, three weeks prior, so it was expected. “Only 20km”, this was just a warm up – it just happened to be over the toughest 20km on the course.

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And… we’re off!

Starting with an easy runnable 3km, the race travels along a creek heading out of Bright into the hills. At that 3km mark, we start the first climb up to Mystic – a paragliding launch spot. Consisting of a combination of downhill mountain bike tracks, and assorted single track, this section is lovely. Mostly fairly loamy underfoot, with myriad twists and turns, it was a fabulous way to start the climbing.

Once at the top of Mystic, the view opens up into a massive vista over the top of the valley below. A big green artificial grass launch pad greeted us, across which the path to our next adventure awaited – Mick’s track. Mick’s has quite the reputation; it seems, highly warranted. There was slipping and sliding galore, which allowed me and my downhill-happy FiveFinger shod feet to pass a lot of people, as they measured every footstep. Once again, the plan was to stay comfortable on the downhills, protecting the quads for the days ahead. Comfortable I was, but continuing to use RPE, rather than the now useless HR. I don’t think I went under about 145bpm the whole race – comfortable should be around 135bpm – and while I haven’t looked at the race on Strava yet, I’m pretty sure I spent a large part of it up in the 150s and more than I should have in the 160s.

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You’re going to run the Grand Slam in THOSE?!?!

The bottom of Mystic takes us along a couple of switchback trails down to a creek crossing, which is where we saw the lead runner coming back down the next climb – the one that we were yet to start!

The climb up to Clearspot is special – I think it really is the jewel in Buffalo Stampede’s crown. A long, steep climb straight up the mountain. It is one of those awesome ascents that is just steep enough to keep you working hard the whole time, but not steep enough to require all-fours climbing. Enormous rise after enormous rise is conquered only to meet another – wide tracts of fire trail that are eventually met with a pair of signs – 500m to the summit.

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Through the checkpoint at the Clearspot summit

Again, the view from Clearspot’s summit is stunning, and it was here that I was met for the first time by Claire, Tallis and Claire’s Mum. In good time, and in good spirits; it is a big boost to see your beloved family after such a massive effort.

But no time to muck around. Quick kiss and a cuddle, and off back down the way I came. Apparently, I was rather cute prancing down the mountain, with my skirt flapping in the breeze!

Once again, passing body after body as they carefully picked their way down, I stuck to the plan, with high cadence and soft footfall, preserving the body.

At the bottom of Clearspot, and back up Mick’s Track. This really was a bit of fun to climb. Loose and slippery all the way, it had people searching for traction from bottom to top.

Reaching the Mystic launch site, the real fun began. Bombing down the single track – I mean sticking to the plan, and preserving my quads, coach. All the way down, until the tangled maze met the flattened few kms to the finish.

One day down, and despite the errant HR, I was feeling fantastic! Home in 03:40:37 – almost 20 minutes under my admittedly vague goal of 4 hours.

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Day #1 done – still got swagger

A particularly good sign at this stage of the game, was my very strong desire to visit the Bright Brewery next door. A very tasty pint of their serendipitously named Amber Ale, Hellfire, was my reward – Hellfire Pass is the name of a local climb on which I regularly trained for this event.

hellfire-amber-ale-600x600

Bright Brewery’s very fine ‘Hellfire’ amber ale

Our visit to the Brewery followed a brief, and invigoratingly chilly dip in the Ovens River.

SkyUltra – 75km

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Fuelled on fat – this is my nutrition for the Ultra, very little of which I actually consumed

The Ultra on Saturday started, once again, from Howitt Park.

This would see me settling down much better than Friday’s frenzied heart-beat had indicated. As mentioned, we had seen similar behaviour in my practise taper, but it was good to see early indications that all was heading in the right direction for “the big one”.

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With an 06:00 start, the Ultra began with headlamps adorned

A lovely, easy pace out of town towards the bottom of Mystic saw me in dead-last place – woo-hoo!! – by about the 1km mark. According to plan however, the climb up Mystic soon had me reeling people in – working sustainably hard, hiking with purpose, relentless forward progress.

Everything from here up to the Clearspot summit, was much the same as the day before, except that I was doing it all at a MUCH lower heart-rate. Running and descending at an easy mid-130bpm and climbing in the low to mid 140s. All that, and I still managed to reach the summit only about 10 mins slower than in the 20km race! What a difference a day makes – which is, interestingly enough, exactly what I said on the second day after my practise taper.

This time, instead of heading back down the way we came, we got our first look at the back of Clearspot. Down the rolling hills towards Warner’s Walls – and that, is where the next cacophony of carnage began.

The Walls are a series of about three (fuzzy memory) ridiculously steep, loose-shale covered slopes, that had people fighting for grip at every step. I’m repeatedly amazed at the number of people that look at my shoes – Vibram Spyridon MRs – with incredulity, asking “how do you find the grip?” or “how are you running this in those?” while they scrape and scramble in the wake of my feathery footsteps. Is it not obvious how they’re holding up?

Fun! The early stages of the Ultra were accompanied by a light drizzle of rain, so I suppose this had an adverse effect on traction. But for me, it just helped keep things comfortable.

Unfortunately, most every race has an undesirable element for pretty much everyone; especially an Ultra. To follow, was my least favourite section, through the Buckland Valley – a long, flattish dirt road, leading to a short-ish section of paved road, and some more dirt road that eventually lead to the climb over Keating Ridge through the Mt Buffalo National Park.

I must say, however, that despite the fact that this section contained a fair bit of flatter running, my coach’s genius had me well prepared, allowing me to run most of it while keeping my HR and RPE at an even keel.

The climb up Keating Ridge is much more shallow than most of the race. It is entirely runnable for elite runners, but for me it was another call to stay focussed on keeping up effort while hiking with purpose. Back down the other side, was similarly graded until we hit Mt Buffalo Road and the short paved section to the Eurobin Creek checkpoint. This is where I saw Claire and Tallis for the first time in the Ultra – again not for long, as I swapped out prepared bottles for the continuing journey… up the Big Walk.

Aptly named, the Big Walk is a relatively consistently graded climb of over 1,000m along an 11km track. Including gorgeous rainforest-ensconced single-track, wider sclerophyll forest fire-trails, the occasional linking road crossing, and the iconic rock slab crossing switchbacks at Mackey’s Lookout, it provides a relatively comfortable climb to the Mt Buffalo summit.

My first look at the Big Walk also gave me a chance to realise one of the many benefits of ultra-endurance participation as a man – peeing on the run. While the addition of a shirt and skirt to my generally preferred running attire made it a little more cumbersome, I was still able to pull the layers aside and whip my gear out to relieve myself on the move. This was to prove useful a few times throughout the Saturday and Sunday.

Once again, I found that at a sustainably hard pace, without overly exerting myself I could consistently reel in other runners whose pace far exceeded mine on the flatter sections. All indeed, with the exception of Mark Emr, whose giant stride and powerful hiking left me fairly swiftly in his wake. We crossed paths many times throughout the first two days, with my tiny frame and twinkle-toes more suited to quicker downhill pace without causing damage to myself in the process.

The only downer – curious turn of phrase for an ascent? – on the Big Walk came only 15 mins or so into the climb. My first hiking pole malfunction.

I chose, with coach’s encouragement to use hiking poles throughout the weekend. Given the tight cut-offs and the unpredictability of my body’s response to the multiple days of racing, we agreed that it was wise to use every little bit of help I could get. It was, in retrospect, a good decision. The poles not only gave me more power on the climbs – the load for the drive upwards is partly distributed into the upper body – but also provided additional stability on the steep downhills and helped keep me upright on the really steep climbs. I saw so many people bent in half while climbing, which is simply not necessary with practised pole usage.

But that only helps if they are in working order. This first issue was thankfully only minor – the wrist strap came loose, requiring me to attempt a repair on the move so that I didn’t lose too much time. Realising that I was expending too much effort, I ended up pausing for a couple of minutes to finish the job properly – clasp one end, thread the other end through the loops, clasp the other end, ensure it is all snug. With the wrist straps, I had no further issue.

At the top, another checkpoint awaits, where this time, I beat my support team, as Claire was contending with a parking catastrophe in the shape of parallel parked cars in the angle parking zone.

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Cute boy in melancholy mode

The checkpoint at the Mt Buffalo Chalet leads to another iconic section – the Chalwell Galleries loop. Starting with a staircase descent to the Haunted Gorge, we were treated to a very special view – the mist and wispy clouds across the side of the mountain into the gorge gave the it, and its name, a particular poignancy. Spooky beautiful at its best.

From the gorge, more stairs lead down to the Underground River track, before heading back up yet more stairs to some rocky outcroppings. The latter divides a fairly indistinct, but easily navigable path towards some short meandering trails that head to the Lakeside Track.

Lake Catani was my next big surprise. I had no idea that a body of water of that size sat atop the mountain. Mt Buffalo is, at the Chalet, approximately the same height as Mt Barney, but in stark contrast to Barney’s relatively ragged, jagged, narrow peaks; Mt Buffalo is adorned with an enormous plateau. Although dammed and man-made, it is a natural wonder and rather took my breath away – for the second time in quick succession after meeting Haunted Gorge.

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Lake Catani

Lake Catani - Ice Skating

On the Monday following, I learned from a Ranger that people used to ice-skate on the Lake.  It no longer gets cold enough to completely freeze over

Lakeside Track heads toward the entrance to the Chalwell Galleries loop. A short single track, lined with cute little tufts of grass, precedes a rocky climb up into the enormous granite boulders. Before long, we’d climbed up to the tight squeeze that brings the Galleries fame.

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Lovely single-track leading to Chalwell Galleries

Just in front of me, a runner whose lack of navigational certainty already had her on edge, inadvertently climbed up over the first boulder – in opposition to the clearly marked downward triangle marker. She got a bit stuck, so I gave her shoe a boost to get her sitting atop the rock, from which she glimpsed the 5m drop down the other side. Understandably freaked out, she took a moment to compose herself before returning back down the way she came, with assistance as required.

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Cool breeze, tight squeeze…

The Galleries are relatively quick and easy to navigate if you pay attention. Squeezing down through the initial opening leads to three yellow ladder steps, then to several rocky stepped ledges ever downward to the exit. A few more short trails through the rocks, and another rocky ledge negotiation and you exit to the other side, where a series of single trails lead back out to the dirt road.

Then begins, the return leg.

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Coming back into the Chalet checkpoint

By the time I reached the Chalet again, Claire and Tallis were awaiting me. Again, swapping out bottles and grabbing a bit of watermelon were my only time impediments before I was back on course.

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Helping daddy find his drop bag

The return back down the Big Walk was uneventful. Sticking to the game plan of being comfortable, but mindful, I could pick off a few more runners back down to Eurobin Creek; where our little cherub came running up the chute to meet me, in possibly the cutest reunion ever.

buffalo-bubba

Cue the heart-wrenching reunion music

Another bottle swap and I was back off up the road to the entrance of the Mt Buffalo National Park and the climb back over Keating Ridge.

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Into Eurobin checkpoint, and not yet completely wrecked

That climb is where Mark caught me again, just as I had my second equipment failure. This time, the other pole, as it gave way at the upper z-joint. Seeing it give way, Mark thought it had snapped – but instead, the inner silver sleeve had come away from the cord that links it all together. So, the z-joint no longer held fast. Impossible to repair on the fly, I folded it away and went on with a single pole.

Keating Ridge provided no additional excitement, but the descent on the other side allowed me to regain some ground and lift my spirits.

The long sections of road that followed however, were a good bit less fun. Similarly boring as the way out, this time they very gradually climbed. So I alternated running and hard hiking as necessary, to cover the ground as quickly as possible while staying comfortable.

By this time, the rain had long dried up and the sun was beating down. This meant the long hot run/hike to the Warner’s would be followed by climbing those giant walls with the sun upon our backs.

It was carnage yet again, with bodies dropping, resting, grinding their way up as they were able, and one poor soul hobbling back down to the bottom on a calf, torn in the pursuit.

As would be the case throughout the weekend, my “relentless forward progress” climbing method – with short and as sustainably high as possible cadence – allowed me to continue climbing while others regularly rested.

Walls finally behind me, the ascent continues over what were seemingly innocuous rolling hills on the way down. A lot steeper on the way up, the heat and humidity combined with the hills to sap everyone’s energy – mine included.

But Clearspot finally attained, the end was almost in sight. A quick skip and a jump down to Bakers Gully – OK maybe not that quick – lead to the final climb of the day. Back up Mick’s track to Mystic. Albeit energy-depleted, climbing mode having been engaged saw the top reached without pause.

Back at the Mystic launch spot, only the 2km descent to Bright and the 3km trails back to Howitt Park remained.

Without incident, I made it most of the way home, before having to don the headlamp for the last couple of kms. I wasn’t really keen on making it most of the way, before crashing to the ground in poor light.

Almost completely knackered, but happy to see the finish, I was home again in 13:54:17 – under my “A” goal of 14 hours. So far, so completely exceeding my wildest expectations.

Ultra Aftermath

Saturday evening, in the aftermath of the Ultra, I was completely spent. Although happy with my effort and the incredibly pleasing result, I could barely move; think; eat; drink; or keep my eyes open.

While in the shower that evening, Claire headed next door to find my drop bags. By the time she returned, at least 30 minutes later, the shower was still running with my motionless body propped up against the wall. It felt heavenly, but I still barely move.

I’m not sure what happened next, nor in what order. I know Claire encouraged me to drink some broth as, prior to the event, I’d promised I would after the Ultra. I couldn’t eat food, but I did drink some more water.

At some stage I had an epsom salts bath, which was another excuse to lay motionless in water. Again; heavenly but it was really just a temporary delay before much needed sleep.

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A tiny bit worn out

SkyMarathon – 42km

Sleep came easily, particularly for my usually insomniac ways. Although that said, I had managed to nap on the Thursday before the first race, and on Friday after the first race – extraordinary!

I have no idea what time I drifted off Saturday evening, but I slept pretty solidly through the night, until I could sleep no longer in the wee hours of Sunday morning. After drinking some water, I went rifling through the fridge, and pulled out some blackberries (*). Hungry? Not a bad sign!

(*) These were the blackberries that Claire offered me at the Eurobin checkpoint earlier in the day. Before discovering that they’d left them in the fridge at home. Oh well… nice idea?

I know I ate the blackberries. I know I ate a little stew that Claire handed me. I know I drank some coffee. I have very little memory of anything else, other than preparing myself with Claire’s assistance to get my arse onto the bus to the Marathon start-line – this time, from the cricket pitch up near the Mt Buffalo Chalet. The Marathon is a nett descent from the Chalet back down to Bright.

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Recovery breaky.  I have no memory of having eaten this, but there we are… pictorial evidence

I admit I had very little enthusiasm for Sunday’s race. I may even have fantasised about missing the bus. Although devastating if it had have happened, it seemed preferable to another 42km at the time.

But make it we did.

Claire used her usual resourcefulness to “MacGyver” my broken pole back together. It was no longer foldable, but at least I was back in action with two fixed hiking poles. So onto the bus I climbed, geared up and ready to go.

The bus took us right to the start precinct, where I tried to keep warm, warm up, wake up and psych myself up; in no particular order.

Due to expected congestion in Chalwell Galleries, the Marathon had three starting waves. I had originally registered myself for the 2nd wave – got some game, but not at the pointy end, and expect to pass through the Galleries quickly. But given my energy levels, I decided to drop back to the 3rd wave.

The 1st wave having started 10 mins late, our wave didn’t start until 30 mins after the hour. No big issue, other than that it would push the latter stages of the race just that little bit further into the heat.

As the race started, I settled into a very comfortable – OK, sedate – pace. A combination of shuffle-running and hiking got me up the initial road section from the cricket ground to the Chalet feeling weary, but in relatively good spirits.

Congestion just as the path wound down to the Underground River track took the pressure off a bit, but had me wondering if I should have started in wave 2 as planned, or given a bit more effort off the start. Regardless, the queue soon opened up, as pretty much everyone moved in a run/hike/climb as the terrain required, at a pace that suited me. Sweet!

No dramas out to the Galleries, but my arrival there had me questioning again, my decision to change waves. We were met by a lengthy, barely-moving queue to the entrance. Not having any issues with maneuvering rapidly through such terrain, I was a bit – OK, quite a lot – frustrated by the lack of progress; but I can understand how it might challenge a lot of people.

Fortunately, fate and good fortune stepped in to hasten my journey. A couple of fellow participants – thank you so much, to my mysterious advocates – saw my Grand Slam race bib, and convinced me, upon a second asking, to move ahead of them. They then asked everyone ahead of them, to do the same. So, there I was, at the entrance in pretty good time.

Would I take them up if asked again? Hell, yes! Only this time it wouldn’t take a second asking.

It was plain sailing through the Galleries this time, and the same almost all the way back to the Chalet. Until my dodgy hiking pole had a repeat failure. Claire’s repair had held until almost the top of the stairs to the Chalet, before giving way again.

There were no drop bags for the Marathon, so no bottle swaps and therefore, no mucking around. Quick pause for a piece of watermelon and off down the Big Walk, with dodgy pole tucked into my hydration vest.

The run down the Big Walk went pretty much to plan. Making my way down comfortably allowed me once again to pick off a few runners. Most mid-pack athletes are way too unsteady on their feet to move downhill on technical terrain with a reasonable degree of confidence.

Although running consistently, I was unable to keep my HR up on this third day. It was almost entirely down around the mid-120s and I didn’t feel comfortable forcing it to rise. No real issue, as I was moving quickly enough. It is easy, in hindsight, to wonder how much I could have improved my time by pushing the pace; but of course, it could also have gone entirely pear-shaped. Race pacing is complicated – even more-so over multiple days.

Once I reached Eurobin, I was met yet again by Claire and Tallis.

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Tallis and Mickey demonstrating that support at Buffalo Stampede really is a picnic

My energy levels were still down, but I was able to keep moving, albeit with the same diminished HR. So I set off with my single pole, determined to continue, one checkpoint at a time; until I could continue no longer.

The hike up and over Keating Ridge, and the run back down the other side were much the same as the day before, but with slackened pace and yet diminished HR. The journey through Buckland Valley was similarly sedate, but it was all just a warm up for the climb back up Warner’s Walls.

The Walls and the steep rolling hills that follow them had victims during the Ultra, but for the Marathon it was complete carnage. One runner after another fell victim to some combination of heat, humidity, gradient, and long sustained climbing. Dehydration, exhaustion, and cramp were amongst the litany of complaints, as the off-road paramedics and event volunteers were kept busy.

As was the case all weekend, my “one foot continuously in front of the other” stubbornness dragged me up the hill and past my fallen comrades to the Clearspot summit. Here again, I met with Claire for the final time. She refilled my bottles with water to reduce the concentration of the existing hydration formula, and sent me off on my way down to Bakers Gully.

One final climb, and I was done. For some reason, despite the exhaustion, but as so often happens with the end in sight, that final ascent of Mick’s track passed by quite quickly. Not, perhaps, in elapsed time; but in spirit.

The final descent into Bright was also without incident. I was tempted to up the pace and see how far under the cut-off I could get. But to be honest, I was pretty fucking stoked with what I had done, so “comfortable” was more than enough to keep me happy. At least now, I was able to maintain a HR in the 130s, and even pushed it up into the 140s for the final few kms to the finish.

Over the finish line in 8:18:01. A ridiculously slow marathon, my slowest (*), and indeed slower than any 50km that I’ve ever done. But I could not be happier.

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No idea what was going on here, but it is funny as fuck

(*) I’ve only ever done one other marathon distance race, and it was a disaster.

Recovery

I have been amazed by the strength and resilience of my body.

47

Enjoying a post-race chinwag in the river with a couple of fellow Grand-Slammers

I felt the odd bit of tightness in the quads every now and then, on the descents, but could quickly reel it in by being more mindful of my gait and cadence. My calves had some early tightness on the first day, and yelled at me a bit, on some of the climbs My feet were a little sore after the 2nd and 3rd day’s running.

But I got through three intensely tough days of mountain running without a single bit of significant complaint from my body’s infrastructure. In the aftermath, I have continued to be able to move as normal, with no restrictions in mobility and no obviously diminished strength.

It is a testament to my coaching programme, that I was so well prepared. But I know that my attention to strength, mobility, balance training, and choice of footwear – Vibrams for running and barefoot for 99.999% of everything else – have also heavily contributed to how I feel.

All that, and my feet are as smooth, baby soft, and blemish-free as a newborn baby’s.

Stats

All up, the Buffalo Stampede Grand Slam saw me:

  • move my body over 137km of running/hiking/climbing/whatever it took;
  • including ~8600mD+ of elevation gain;
  • taking 25 hrs, 52 mins, 56 secs to complete

I allocated 21 weeks of committed training comprising:

  • 829km
  • 40558mD+ of elevation gain
  • 6 days, 1 hr, 34 mins, 9 secs, equivalent to around 145 hrs

Strava Activities

SkyRun 20km

SkyUltra 75km

SkyMarathon 42km

Coaching

A quick word about coaching.

I resisted the idea of taking on a coach for a long time. Some of my trail running friends had done so, but I had concerns that it was just not for me. Why do I need it? I’m not an athlete; I just like frolicking in the forest. I don’t like being told what to do. Can I make it work with family life? Can I justify the cost?

But with the spectre of this year’s adventures ahead, I decided to give it a go. I spoke with Matt (*) about my concerns, and what I hoped to achieve, and we decided to allocate a trial training block of 12 weeks in the lead up to WECH50 – the Wild Earth Coastal High 50 – a race for which Matt is a race/event director.

(*) Matt Judd of Judd Adventures – http://www.juddadventures.com.au/running-coaching/.

12 weeks was never going to be enough for me to realise enormous gains, but it did allow me to see if:

  • Coach and athlete were a good fit
  • I like being told what to do
  • We could devise a schedule that worked with family life

It turns out that all my boxes were ticked.

So, with WECH50 behind me, and an 8hr enduro event a couple of weeks later that I squeezed in just because it is awesome – the inaugural Mt Cooroora Endurance Challenge (*) – I took a break from training and requested that we give me 21 weeks to prepare.

(*) http://www.mtcoorooraendurancechallenge.com/

As indicated above, I started working with Matt because I had legitimate doubts about my ability to realise my goals. The cut-offs for Buffalo Stampede – at least for the Marathon and the Ultra – are really tight in comparison with similar events.

But I have not only completed each of the events under the cut-offs, but was able to eclipse my “A” goals for both of the first two races.

Family life? Has never been a problem. I have allowed, on average, only every second day for training; so that Claire can use every other day for whatever she wishes. The specific requirements of BSGS meant that I sometimes had to do back-to-back sessions, but we re-allocated the week accordingly.

Good fit? This was never likely to be an issue. My prospective coach and I already knew each other well enough to easily negotiate scheduling, race specific training requirements, athlete engagement, etc. But really, provided they know what they are doing on a technical level, all you need from a coach is someone that listens to you. What YOU need to do, is listen to them. Really listen.

Like being told what to do? Actually, yes! This was my biggest fear, but I kinda love it. “Rest periods” from coaching are great because I can explore and frolic and adventure at will. But I also love the process of committedly working, in an intelligently structured way, towards a goal.

Cost? Running is free, but equipment isn’t. You’ll have to decide if you can justify the cost within your budgetary constraints.

Programming is hard. It is even harder to do for yourself. Removing yourself from the process and just “doing the work” allows you the freedom to invest fully in the process, without having to constantly worry about whether you are on track. A good coach will be monitoring your progress, tinkering as required, and ensuring that you balance volume, effort and race-specific technical requirements to maximise your performance.

I’ve done a lot in the past few months that I probably wouldn’t have, without my coach’s insistence:

  • Lots of flat running to remind my body how to run
  • Lots of sandwich sessions that helped my body remember how to run while fatigued
  • Undulating periodisation of a sophistication that I don’t have the time or skill/experience to plan
  • Practise taper
  • Heavy race taper
  • Very specific speed/strength sessions
  • Hard hiking sessions

Every single aspect of this training helped me:

  • Gain the physical and mental fitness I required;
  • Learn that I can run for a fucking long time, even after working really fucking hard;
  • Realise the race-day game plan

So to Matt, my coach, I send my Matt heartfelt thanks for his invaluable contributions. Your wisdom, skills and experience, guidance and ability to listen are a large part of the reason that I ended days #1 and #2 so deeply satisfied. Day #3, I’m claiming for myself, because that was largely a war of stubborn.

Thus far, my primary aspiration for the coaching process, has been to improve my chances of completing highly challenging events. So far, so good. But maybe at some stage, I’ll be shooting higher.

Wow, that wasn’t all that “quick” a word about coaching, was it?

Learning Outcomes

Hiking poles are awesome

My coach and I agreed that with the difficulty and multi-day uncertainty of the Grand Slam that I should use every bit of help I can get. So I trained with, and used hiking poles.

There is no doubt that I can climb harder with less effort using skilled and practised pole technique. I was astonished at the number of people on the course that either a) didn’t know how to use the poles properly or b) had poles in their vest, but never used them.

Many seem reticent to use hiking poles, due to some combination of:

  1. Ego, or a perception of unfair advantage.
    Ridiculous. What about hydration vests/shoes/compression shorts/etc? When I see a naked runner on course, I will believe their commitment to minimalism. Runners will do all manner of things to improve their performance, and to do otherwise, is frankly not particularly bright.
  2. Removal/return to vest.
    With a good vest, such as my UD AK 3.0 with front pole holders; and a set of z-poles; this is a non-issue. With practise, one can easily retrieve or stow poles in seconds, while running with minimal effort.
  3. Technique.
    Yes, you have to practise with them. Yes, you must learn proper technique. But that is no different to climbing without poles.
  4. Science.
    Do they really help? The “science” is unproven, but so what? Most top vertical km athletes, including the current world record holder, Urban Zemmer, use them when permitted. Unless “proven” otherwise, I’ll take real life experience, every time.

Never Rely on Equipment

My thrice-experienced pole failure taught me never to rely on any piece of equipment. If it is legal and it helps you, use it. Train with it, and use it.

But if it fails, you must be prepared to go without.

For the MUT Runner, Hiking is a Skill Above All Others

I’m not quick. Most of the time, I sit squarely in the middle of the pack somewhere. But I consistently owned people out there, by hiking sustainably hard with a relatively quick, controlled cadence.

Most of those I passed, were putting in way too much effort, then regularly pausing to catch their breath, or rest their quivering muscles.

Practise hiking; a lot. Figure out how hard you can go, without pause. A couple of tips:

  • You can sustainably push harder than you think
  • Sore calves doesn’t mean that you need to stop. It means you have sore calves
  • You should be upright. If you’re bent over, you are not engaging your glutes. AKA get your arse into gear

At Some Point, Fuelling is Key

I haven’t quite nailed this one. My system failure part-way through the Ultra were almost certainly largely attributable to fuelling issues.

I was trying to balance my effort levels, to minimise the requirement for eating; at comfortable pace I can go for days without eating anything. But the hard hiking pushed me consistently into glycolysis.

I’m confident that I can significantly move the balance point, but there remains much work to be done. I have a vague mud-map of where I want to go with this, but I haven’t yet determined the exact route. Luckily, I have decades left to practise.

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Monday’s post-event lunch platter.  All the fat fuelled delicacies.

Adversity Breeds Triumph in the Face of Adversity

During Sunday’s marathon, I had – as is always the case in endurance pursuits – a LOT of time alone with my thoughts. Although my body’s scaffolding held true throughout the weekend, my internal system was struggling to maintain energy levels. Partway through the Ultra and all the way through the Marathon, I was running on pure unleaded stubborn.

Among the scattered thoughts that peppered my under-fuelled brain, were my previously experienced moments of adventure-induced hardship.

  • My recent Mt Barney mis-adventure. It turned out all for the best, but there were moments that I feared every kind of worst, including staring death, starkly in the face.If I could go through that, and still keep going; why stop now?
  • The Lamington Eco-Challenge, my only other race at marathon distance. Quite the coincidence given that it was the only other race where my system shutdown to a similar extent. Contributing heavily to that day’s struggle, was a race that was predominantly, and unexpectedly run along the road. Road-dominated “eco-challenge”? Fuck you, marketing moguls!But again – if I could go through that, and still keep going; why stop now?

Both of these moments – and others like the 2014 Kokoda Challenge where our mix-n-match team staggered down the long walk from army land, micro-sleeping as we marched – served to remind me that no matter how completely exhausted, tired, sore you are, you can keep moving your body.

Even my only DNF to date – my Everesting attempt on the weekend of last year’s Valentine’s Day – served as positive motivation. I didn’t reach my goal that day, but 85km and 6,000mD+ on a broken foot was a reasonable effort. So, if I could go through that – albeit deciding not to keep going – why stop now?

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Farewell, Victorian Alpine region.  Till next, we meet.

Pages Pinnacle

Becoming rightly more popular as a trail running destination, Pages Pinnacle was previously largely the target of climbers and hikers.

Involving plenty of scrambling and a little bit of genuine, albeit fairly pedestrian climbing, it provides a relatively gentle introduction to pursuits outside the domain of (too) many trail runners.

How to Get There

Pages.Pinnacle.png

How to get there

See Strava for details: https://www.strava.com/activities/771809224

The “short cut” entrance to the single trail leading to Pages Pinnacle is easily spotted from the Polly’s fire-trail.  Marked by cairns on both sides of the trail, you can no longer miss it.

It is most readily accessible from Polly’s backside, with parking available near the gate on Pine Creek Road [approx. -28.107970, 153.250964].  The turnoff is about 2.1-2.2km from the gate.

There is another single trail entrance, about 1.5-1.6km from the backside gate, which travels down beneath the ridge before wrapping back around the end (Pinnacle) and looping back to the start of the climb across the ridge.

Although much longer, allow some time to complete this loop at some stage.  As the trail skirts along the bottom of the ridge, there are massive sheer rock walls that are crying out to be bouldered.  This could be a very safe, unintimidating introduction to climbing on real rock!

Of course, both single trail entrances to Pages Pinnacle can be accessed from Polly’s front face, but you will have to hike up and over to get there.

Frolicking is Fun

Some of my favourite times in the bush have involved “trail less travelled”, “not quite a trail”, and sometimes entirely off-trail adventures.  I highly encourage other runners to do the same.