Sean Greenhill's 2001 12foot Report
"I'm not doing the City to Surf! That's just bullshit!"
Dave King probably expressed the thoughts of all those tired of the bustling crowds and road cone dodging inherent in Australia's largest fun run. For the trail nazis and adventure runners, there was something different being offered the same weekend... an out and back, double version of Australia's most popular ultra, the Six Foot Track. Done in the best fat ass minimal aid, self sufficient style, it promised 93km of tough bush and escarpment running.
Kevin Tiller (RD of the Six Foot Track) and I had nurtured the idea for a few years- separately, then we'd gotten together and mooted it in public. Martin Fryer was the guy who prodded us into setting a firm date for this lark. In the days leading up there was a lot of stuff flying around on the emails, to the point where I was at work Friday afternoon but not focussing on what I was doing- my mind was several bucketfuls of sweat away, somewhere on Pinnacle Ridge or Pluviometer or Black Range. We were all pumped up to fever pitch, and the volume of email in the week and a half leading up surely was the difference for Telstra when they cracked a big profit.
I crashed at my mum's place Friday night (30 minutes drive from the start) as did Martin; over a spicy rice and chicken dish we traded war stories and thoughts on training (the analysis of which Martin has down to a fine art) before retiring.
As it happened, twelve desperadoes fronted at the Explorers Tree, Katoomba on Saturday morning, ready to go. Most of them were regulars on the long distance, fat ass circuit... guys (all were men) whom I'd call "my unit" if we were a military outfit.
Meant to start at 7am, we didn't get moving till 7.32 with Dave's fussing over his hair, people going back for seconds and thirds from Ross' most excellent complimentary breakfast, pissfarting around with drop bags, and the fashionably late arrival of Jonathan "Young Stud" Worswick (well, that's what Outside Magazine called him).
Tiller decided to actually start from the Explorers Tree itself rather than the clearing 50m along where the Six Foot Track starts- which he called the "weenie" option. So we jogged along the bitumen for a minute or two, then hit the clearing amongst the eucalypts, and hit the few hundred metres of downhill fire trail to the top of the precipitously steep Nellies Glen staircase. I was boosted down this fire trail by Jonathan's hand planted squarely in the middle of my backpack.... and I had grand visions for a fleeting moment.... "is this a Hardrock or Bogong- Hotham winning pace?" Sadly my delusions of grandeur were cut short by the arrival of the stairs... steep, wet and slippery, I negotiated these 2km slowly. Tiller and Worswick took off and I was in the company of Lawrence Mead and Dave Flimpyhead... we ran together from the bottom of the stairs, on dirt roads and through farms for a while, climbing over stiles.... it was a clear, cool day. I had started wearing a coolmax polo shirt and tights over my shorts, knowing that it would get warm soon and the tights would come off. It was a warmer morning than expected- Katoomba in winter often descends to below zero in the early morning, but these conditions were mild by comparison.
I chatted to Lawrence about gear. Nigh on everyone doing these Fat Ass runs wears Camelbaks... very passe. I had forsaken my Camelbak Rim Runner for a Karrimor Victory pack, top of the range, all the mod cons, and my own modifications (bottle holders on the shoulder straps etc). Lawrence had a very fancy set up of a backpack that he swore only cost about 30 bucks. Max Bogenhuber, who was helping with the drop bags, is of the opinion that most of us carry too much stuff. Maybe- I had 4 800ml bottles in my pack (two on the straps, two in the body of the pack) which certainly weren't light, but as Lawrence would note later on when the perspiration had drenched my shirt and was dripping steadily to the earth, I sweat more than most people.
In not much time at all we hit the Megalong Valley Rd crossing (8km) where Gayl was waiting with drop bags, and Tiller and Worswick were standing around finishing some drinks. Jonathan declared that time for "race mode" had come, and he steamed away down the dirt road in pursuit of Kieron, Martin and Peter Goonpan. We tagged along behind accompanied by Bill Tomiczek, watching Jonathan's back vanish into the distance at speed.
Reaching one of the steep pitches of singletrack approaching Pinnacle Ridge, I remarked that, back in 1998 when running Six Foot Track for the first time (first time I'd done a race longer than 14km) I WALKED this rise, and was horrified... I'd never walked in a run before and was certain I was about to fall apart. In the end, I ran 5.44 that year. The run to Coxs River was like that. We were a sociable group, taking a steady pace, more interested in talk at this stage, negotiating the rocky section between Pinnacle Ridge and Coxs River crossing at a much more sensible pace than the frenetic efforts you see in the Six Foot Track- the reason there are a lot of falls in this section.
A mile before Coxs River crossing, Dave, Lawrence and Bill veered off to the bridge crossing, which is not part of the Six Foot Track race course. Conversation turned to savage bagging and questioning of the size of certain individuals cojones as Tiller and I soldiered on like purists over the rough stuff and crossed the river, scrambling over rocks, almost but not quite keeping our feet dry. As Kevin and I walked up the rise to the campground, the others ran in. I took a little time to remove my tights and change my socks, so the others left a minute or so ahead of me.
Looking round, I noticed a big water tank that I never noticed during the Six Foot Track, which was a theme that would occur over and over again during the day- seeing things on the course I had never seen during my previous four sojourns down the trail, while moving at a more frenetic pace.
It was getting hot now, but I set a steady pace trudging up Mini Mini Saddle in pursuit of the others. Running some of it, walking the steeper pitches, I caught the guys and kept going. Lawrence went with me and we opened a gap from the other three.
Mini Mini Saddle is actually two rises, something you can forget. After switchbacking up the escarpment you wind through a farm, drop into a small gully (carved by Alum Creek, forded again a couple of km upstream) and then embark on a long straight rise next to a gully, out in the open, before hitting the top of the rise and re entering the shelter of the trees. This open section is pretty tough when its hot... in 1999 it turned on 30 degrees and I was climbing this section passing people slumped on either side of the fire road, done in by the exposure to the sun and heat.
By the time we reached the trees we were five again. We passed a young long legged lass backpacking with a young bloke- as we descended to the Little River/ Alum Creek crossings, remarks were made that we wouldn't mind being in the bloke's place in the tent that night. We crossed Alum Creek again, then Little River twice within a minute or so. This was farmland, populated by grazing cattle who contemplated us curiously but didn't move from their spots in the fields. At the second crossing of Little River I stopped to fill all four of my bottles, mixing in Gatorade and Sustagen powders; by the time I finished, Lawrence had gone, Dave and Bill had passed, but Kevin hadn't come along.
I caught Bill and Dave on the steep climb up Pluviometer. I thought the top of this pitch was one of the areas where it was possible to get lost on the return. Contrary t popular belief of most Six Foot Track runners, the Pluviometer trail does not climb up the end of the range, and the Black Range Rd we run along is not a continuation of Pluviometer trail- Pluviometer is a side trail which drops off the side of the escarpment, while Black Range Rd keeps going on towards Cronje Mountain. I suppose this is because the aid marquee at Six Foot Track blocks the Cronje Mountain trail from view, and runners are in too much of a hurry to look at rhe scenery. The potential was there to come running down Black Range Rd, miss Pluviometer turnoff, and keep going into Kanangra Boyd National Park. So I committed the details to memory and set off down Black Range Rd, leaving Dave and Bill behind.
Black Range Rd is thought of, during Six Foot Track, as pretty boring, but jogging along here at lunchtime, there seemed a lot to recommend it. Off to the left, though the trees, was visible a mighty rock wall, quite a way in the distance but still impressive. "Is that Kanangra Walls? Yes, it's got to be." On my right, the gorge cut by Little River thousands of years ago when it wasn't... err... so little. I was jogging a bit, walking some (the trail rises around 150m overall in around 10km) and not feeling that good... but soon enough I reached the Kanangra Boyd National park sign signalling that the end of the trail wasn't far off, then I reached the pine plantations of Jenolan State Forest.
A voice called my name. I looked up to see Jonathan pedalling down towards me on a mountain bike. Turns out he was only looking for a training hit, and had run down to the Caves Rd crossing, then run back up the bitumen to Black Range Rd campground, which was only a couple of minutes distant, where he was met by girlfriend Kate. He said I was looking good (I didn't feel it) and remarked that he had had a lot of trouble catching Kieron, Martin and Peter, who were going more than twice as far! He rode with me into the campground, where I was met by Gayl and Kate, took on supplies, then set off again on the "new section" of 4WD track, dipping and rising steeply to hit Caves Rd, cross over, and follow a narrow singletrack by the road, before reaching the turnoff to Binda Cabins.
Lo, there was Max parked on the side of the road, talking to a slight, grey haired figure... Kieron Thompson. I jogged up, sank to my haunches, and bowed down in front of Kieron, who was already on the way back. "I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!" I chanted. Kieron looked like he had been out on a casual 30 minute jog around the block. He went his way, I talked briefly to Max, then kept on, within a couple of minutes Martin and Peter came running up. I repeated my "I'm not worthy" act, then exchanged high fives with both of them. Martin had a broad smile, and looked full of enough running to give Kieron some trouble, as well as seeming ultra cool behind his sunglasses. Peter looked strong and determined... a good match up, these two.
Down, down the last descent from Mt George to the Caves. Quite a few tourists and casual walkers were passed in these last few kilometres.... on Six Foot Track day there are banners, announcers, all the paraphernalia, there's no doubt what's going on, but these guys today must have wondered what was the story with all these guys running down the hill... then going back up. Thomas, Jan and Lawrence I passed a couple of minutes before reaching Caves House; they were on their way back up. More greetings and high fives were exchanged, then I descended the stairs at the end of the path, and ran down the route you'd take to hit the finish chute t Six Foot Track, in front of the tavern verandah. A clenched fist and glance at the watch- 6.25, better than two of my official Six Foot Track times!
I felt quite ill, so spent a long time in the bathroom, then bought some drinks and food, chatted to the girl at the service counter (turning on my casual machismo routine... "yeah, I came from Katoomba this morning, so I'm a little hungry") and set off after about 6.45 elapsed time. Bill came running down past me almost right away- he was only going one way- then Dave, walking down casually, and Kevin sprinting hard a couple of minutes after that. Getting congested around here!
The climb up Mt George was a real bastard, and I was still feeling sick... couldn't do anything more than a slow trudge, and suck copiously at the Mt Dew and iced coffee I'd bought at Caves House. I reached Binda Cabins after a real battle (lots of roos chewing on the grass next to the huts), refilled bottles, started jogging along the flats, and ran out of energy after 15 minutes. More or less I walked from there back to Black Range Rd campground. Just before reaching that campground, my feeling of sickness became a wrenching pain through my gut and I frantically ducked into the trees for a violent pitstop. I met Max at the campground a few minutes later feeling a little better, but not too good. Competitive instincts were surfacing; why hadn't Dave and Kevin come along, seeing as I'd gone so poorly from Binda Cabins? It had taken me two hours to get from Jenolan Caves to here! From Max came my Mag Lite torch, some food, a longsleeve top, and a pep talk. Off I went as the shadows lengthened, determined to open up a gap from Dave and Kevin who were surely close.
I covered the 10km from the campground to Pluviometer in 58 minutes, better than I did on the way out (okay, I know it's overall downhill, but still not too bad after 60km), starting my descent as twilight set in. The orange light of the setting sun on the rock faces visible from either side of the trail were dramatic stuff.
Halfway down Pluviometer (and feeling much better by now) several 4WD vehicles came thundering down the trail in the same direction as I was going. There was still, plenty of light to see the trail by, but the Mag Lite and LED headlamp were turned on anyway, just to make sure I was visible to the drivers.
Lawrence remarked later that the descent of Pluviometer (a novel experience!) felt a lot like Brindabella. He's right, the switchbacking downhill fire trails are reminiscent of the Canberra Classic. Bet money also that the downhills at both would stuff up the legs equally well.
Little River was reached just as it went fully dark, sometime after 6pm. I refilled two bottles, so I had drunk nearly six litres of Little River water in this run- as it turned out, really not healthy! Then it was time to run through the cattle grazing grounds, up winding dirt roads as I approached the top of Mini Mini Saddle from the "wrong" side. Partway up, I was walking fast with just the headlamp on (most of the time the surface was good enough that I didn't need the extra power of the Mag Lite) when there was a scraping noise and the headlamp showed up something large and white moving right in front of me. I almost shat myself I freaked out so badly. A few tentative steps closer and I realised I was looking at the white hard and shoulders of a cow that was otherwise deep brown; he was shuffling off the trail to make room for me.
At that point, it really did hit that I was in the dark, I was alone, and there wasn't anyone near me. Dave and Kevin were obviously a long way back, who knew how far ahead Jan, Lawrence and Thomas were. It might have been a harmless distraction, but my nerves were not settled at all after I had passed on.
Down the long stretch of Mini Mini Saddle, with farm on either side. No trail markings, geez this had better still be the right course- there's a network of side trails between Little River and Mini Mini Saddle and for a few minutes I wondered if I'd ended up on one of those. Far, far away, I could see lights on top of the main escarpment- either of Katoomba, or one of the smaller villages on the line such as Blackheath or Medlow Bath. Somehow it just compounded the sense of isolation. Reassurance was at hand when I reached the familiar bend in the trail before descent to Coxs River; and also a trail marker.
Down the switchbacks, and I reached Coxs River campground a few minutes after 7pm. The night was magnificent, the stars outstanding in a clear sky; the dark oppressive, the cold starting to bite. I pulled my tights on again, refilled two bottles at the tank, and watched the 4WDs that had passed me on Pluviometer head back the other way.
Now, to cross the river. I didn't know the way to the bridge in the dark, and I was going to do it pure, damn it, I'd cross the water myself. By the light of the headlamp, I worked my way across the rocks Spiderman style, aware that, if I fell, I could be in serious trouble, and came up on the other side with feet bone dry.
That was a morale booster, and I was pumped enough to start running up the hill at good speed. Thankfully this section of trail was well marked! At the junction with the bridge track I looked at the watch- this was the 80km point- and saw 7.17pm, so I'd brought up a new PB for 50 miles- 11.45- better than the 12.21 50 mile split I did at Glasshouse 100 last year. Pretty good going over such tough terrain. Keep at it Greenhill, this is good going, you might catch the other three yet.
On the climb to Pinnacle Ridge, though, the darkness might have started to get to me again... the run seemed as cold as the blue- white light beaming from my Lucido. Seemed a pretty long 7km to the top of Pinnacle Ridge and the open farmland. As I jogged down the fire road, free of the tree coverage and with the magnificent clear sky open above me again, I saw a light. On the move, switching back and forth, over towards the main range. I knew it must have been one of the others (as it turned out, it must have been Jan and Thomas) and the effect of running for over four hours in the dark without seeing any people welled up; I almost cried that I wasn't alone out here. The team was still with me.
20 minutes later I was running up the hill over the cattle grids to Megalong Valley Rd junction. A torch beam flashed on above me but I couldn't see who held it. "Keep that light on!" I bellowed to my unseen benefactor. As I approached I saw it was my mum Gayl. "You're the first person I've seen in nearly five hours!" were my first words, then I climbed into her car where she switched on the heater and produced a pizza she'd bought in Blackheath. I spent 10 or 15 minutes eating and getting my act together for the last 8km. Leaving the car and heading into the bush again was tough- another two or so hours by myself in the night, I reasoned. But, there could be no piking now, this close, especially as physically I was just fine.
Back through the farmlands we'd covered over 12 hours before. Then, the frost on the grass had glistened under sunlight; now it had just the beam of my LEDs to show it up. Across several stiles and onto the Nellies Glen trail. Straightforward enough from here I thought. Steady running on dirt road for a while, then I reached a fence, locked gate and stile. All previous stiles had Six Foot Track markers on them, but not this one. The gate had a PRIVATE PROPERTY sign. I realised I hadn't seen a marker for a while. Shit! I've taken the wrong road in the dark! I turned and walked back where I came. Now Dave and Kevin will catch me, I thought. I was pissed off. After 20 minutes walking I reached a marker. No obvious side trails had been passed- that stile must have been on the official course. I went back to it again, climbed half over, and shone my Mag Lite up the trail. A few metres further on was a trail marker. I had been on the right route all along! Now I was properly pissed off- I had lost close to 40 minutes pissfarting around for no good reason.
Nellies Glen Trail steepens as it approaches the stairs, and I was feeling a little tired by now, walking a lot, as the trail degenerated. Finally I pushed through some close pressing vegetation, scrabbled across some wet rocks and stood at rhe foot of the staircase. I was only about a mile from consummation, but it was a bastard mile.
As with so much else on this trip, I appreciated something new. When going down these stairs, you're only looking at your footfall; going up, I could stare into the heavens and admire the constellations; closer at hand were the rock formations that defined this niche in the escarpment, and some dense fern thickets by the trailside.
I got to the top in better shape than I thought, and even jogged some of the climb up to the clearing where Six Foot Track starts. My mum had driven down to meet me at the clearing, but I waved her away. "I'm going to finish at the tree," I said. "Stay here, back in a few minutes." She didn't stay, driving slowly behind em as I ran down the stretch of bitumen, and by the light of her headlamps I ran down to the tree, leaned over the fence and touched it, then raised two fists skyward in celebration. Felt pretty good after 93km and over 4000m elevation change. I had done the 93km in 15 hours 44 minutes. I walked over to Gayl's car and finished the pizza; then we drove back to her place, to which Martin had already returned. When we walked in, he was already asleep, but had left out a charming note for me. I left a note for him to read in the morning, should he rise before me, and crashed out.
I was pretty sick for the next few days from the Little River water, but the buzz of the finish stuck with me for weeks. Dave King was right- the biggest fun run in Australia would have been no contest- something for others to bear in mind next year when it's on again. Don't be surprised if there's an 18 Foot Track option then, as well.
Sean Greenhill Sydney, Australia