Sean Greenhill's 2002 12foot Report

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"You're going back to Katoomba? TONIGHT???" - Camper at Coxs River campground, 6pm August 10

"If someone said I could only do one race a year, this would be the one." - Kevin Tiller

The Six Foot Track is the premier event in NSW ultrarunning; at 46.6km, it attracts over 600 competitors. Doing an out'n'back of this classic run throws up a different set of challenges entirely, especially when done essentially self supported, as seven desperadoes set out to do on Saturday August 10- the second Twelve Foot Track.

It really is a mystery as to how Six Foot Track can attract so many competitors, and you can get 1200 people doing 100km at Trailwalker (and at least 200- 300 of those are running) but there are so few runners moving up to the longer trail ultras. 40 at Cradle Mountain, and 12- 15 at the 100 and 50 mile events at Glasshouse, and more or less that's it. The group at the start- Explorer's Tree, Katoomba- was a regular gathering of hardcore distance men. Jonathan Worswick, Kieron Thompson, Kevin Tiller, Jan Herrmann, Lawrence Mead, Peter Armistead of Melbourne, and myself. My mum Gayl, Peter's mate Ross Shilston (2.26 marathon!) and fatasser Ross Yates would provide some support. We also had the company of several mountain bikers, who were going to ride out to the Caves, then down the Kanangra Boyd Rd to Moorara Boss and then back up to the Six Foot Track and back to Katoomba.

A hurried breakfast courtesy of Ross Yates, zillions of start-line photos, and we were off, down the steep grade and stairs that drops down Nellies Glen to the floor of the Megalong Valley. Most of us had dumped our backpacks in Gayl's car for collection at the Megalong Valley Rd crossing 8km away. I was wearing shorts, thermal longsleeve, a coolmax polo shirt, cap and spray jacket, a water bottle in my hand. I was with Lawrence, taking it easy in the chill of early morning, and the MTBers soon passed us.

It was a clear, bright winter's day. Magnificent views of Narrowneck could be gained from the trail, but I was being distracted by the chill affecting my hands. As Lawrence and I ran through grassy paddocks they were deeply encrusted in frost and my bare hands were turning red raw and numb. Lawrence was taking bearings so, that night when running back through the paddocks, we knew which direction to head. We crossed the last stile and emerged at Megalong Valley Rd after 50 minutes or so. Kev was there, was Ross Yates, who was running to the Coxs and back as a training run. I dumped my jacket in the back of Gayl's car (for the night) and retrieved my backpack, but my fingers were so numb and painful from the chill I couldn't buckle up the waist and chest straps. Lawrence produced from his backpack a pair of gloves which I gratefully donned, and then we waved Gayl farewell until that evening.

We had been joined by Peter, who has something of a legendary status south of the Murray. He ran Western States in 1990 and has done the Colac Six Day Race. As a trio, we ran past Kev and Ross, up Pinnacle Ridge and down the technical trail towards the Coxs River. I was feeling fairly good by this point, but we kept the pace easy. Lawrence and I discussed the finer points of the planned Katoomba- Mittagong run, and asked a few questions of Peter about WS, which I hope to run in 2003. He said of our K-M and Glasshouse plans, "yeah.... after 100km, the athlete becomes a bit of an idiot" which was one of the great lines. Lawrence and I glanced at each other and concluded we were pretty idiotic! By the time we reached the Coxs River crossing, I had warmed up enough to return Lawrence's gloves.

Peter elected to cross the Coxs on the swing bridge, but Lawrence and I stuck to the "Official" Six Foot course and crossed over the rocks. We had arrived in about 1.45. I kept my feet dry, but Lawrence got one foot wet and produced a colourful string of expletives in response. We walked up towards the campground's big water tank for our first refill.

The tank was bone dry. The current drought's effects were really taking hold. I moved over to the bathroom taps, but these were also dry. Last year a few of us had drunk from Little River and gotten sick, so the next source of fresh water would be at the Black Range campground, after 35km of running. Good thing we had both taken three full bottles along.

Lawrence and I were talking about doing 6 hours for the first half split, so walked most of the climb up Mini Mini Saddle. Peter had different ideas, ran up behind us, and kept running, something I might do in the original Six Foot Track race, but not in a 93km run. On the other hand, Peter probably had more ultra experience than any of us and presumably knew his limitations.

Lawrence and I always run together. We have similar strengths and a similar level of fitness, so we run at the same pace over differing terrain, and we'll be discussing climbing, books, politics, or our ambitions in running. We ran all the way together at the Thin Blue Line Fatass in May, and we plan to run together at the epic K-M and the big one, Glasshouse in September.

I wasn't quite up to Lawrence's level today, however- at least consistently. I'd lost most of July to injury, so on the previous two weekends had done some crash training by running the Cities and Mudgee Marathons. It had worked, but there was still residual fatigue and this showed on the uphills, and in my uneasy stomach. I never felt like eating during this event, and usually the uphills are my strength- while lacking legspeed on flats and downhills, when fresh I can run the ups with some of the top guys. Today, even walking these hills was tiring me out and had my heart rate racing- definitely signs I was unrecovered.

It took forever to top out on Mini Mini Saddle, the steepest (but not longest) climb on the course. I paused to remove my thermal shirt and Lawrence decided this was worth taking a photo of. We jogged down to Little River and I glanced at my watch. 2 hours 50 had passed. With a grin, I informed Lawrence that back in March I'd reached the top of Pluviometer by this point- 5km and 400 odd metres of gain ahead. I was earbashing Lawrence about my Western States plans during all of this section, and he admitted he was now interested in the event, particularly as he's probably going to the US anyway next (southern) winter. Assuming we qualify at Glasshouse, Greg Soderlund can expect more than one application from Down Under for 2003.

Going up Pluviometer, as with last year's Twelve Foot, we could appreciate the surroundings much better than when we were charging up the slope in the Six Foot event. Lawrence took a string of photos and made a note to take more when returning and the cliffs would be bathed in late afternoon light. The climb becomes ponderous when the Black Range, where this climb tops out, is running away to the right, filling your vision and ominously climbing higher still. In the 9km between Pluviometer and the campground, Black Range Rd firetrail climbs another 220m, but the total gain is more than this. A few years back in a Six Foot run I had gotten partway out along Black Range with a triathlete from the Hunter Valley, and he complained that "this race has no damn downhill". The top of Pluviometer is really, only where the hard work starts.

I was feeling quite nauseous at the top of Pluvi, and was gradually wheezing to a stop all along that 9km. We ticked off the landmarks... "that's the Moora Boss firetrail, that's Kanangra Walls out through the trees, this is the entry to Kanangra Boyd, there's another significant uphill before we hit the state forest..." and I ran out of fluids on this stretch. Lawrence loaned some, but he was running out also and was empty not long after me. We weren't drinking heavily, it was still a cool day and up on the Range the wind was blowing to further keep the temperature under control.

When we reached Black Range campground, the water tanks were full and we rehydrated enthusiastically. Lawrence mentioned he had a container of tinned spaghetti... did I want to try and eat that? I'd only bought chocolate bars and similar, so his offer sounded pretty good. I got that down and my energy levels revived and stomach calmed down a bit- I was able to get a few pieces of my own food down, and we ran fairly strongly from there to Jenolan.

The thread of conversation was "how soon will we see Jonathan coming back?" If it wasn't before Binda Cabins at 41km, well, that was just not acceptable for a future winner of Hardrock! We'd bag him out if we passed Binda without seeing him.

Lo, it wasn't Jonathan we saw running down from Binda, but Kieron Thompson. "Jonathan's just behind me," he told us; the halfway split had been in the 4.40s. We encouraged him to go on and nail the finish, but with a smile he said "Jonathan's just going to take me at will!" and took off, as we thought up a few more lines we could use on Mr Worswick.

We never saw him! Turned out later he'd taken a wrong turn running back into Binda Cabins, so we missed him. But, we didn't know that and so were truly mystified when we saw Peter climbing towards us and he insisted Jonathan was in front of him. We jogged down into Jenolan after 6.15, as Jan was filling himself with food (Peter told us Jan had sampled the bar's stock of James Boag... "I felt like joining him!") and chatting to Ross Shilston, who'd riven down to the Caves with some food and drink for tired runners. Thanks Ross!

A few words with Jan and he was off up the steep climb up the Mt George trail. I bought an egg sandwich, several bottles of chocolate milk (which vanished very fast) and two Mountain Dews which went into one of my bottles. Lawrence splurged and purchased a big creamy iced chocolate. More photos were taken of this decadent feast.

All good things come to an end, so we had waved Ross farewell after 15 minutes and were hiking up the trail. I was moved to recall Kev's words from last year, "this is the shittiest hill in the world apart from Everest and K2!" He'd also said this about Mt Solitary. Just after I'd gotten Lawrence chuckling with that phrase of Kev's, Tiller came charging down the hill with headphones on and walkman blasting. Must have been Led Zeppelin at the pace he was moving- looking to reach halfway in about 6.45 or so.

The climb was a shocker, but we got some running going at the top, through Binda Cabins (bottle refill, some food and spotting a few kangaroos grazing on the grass) and onto the singletrack up to Caves Rd crossing. I was feeling pretty good by now- I felt good right through until Coxs River and Lawrence and I were able to run stride for stride all this time.

Back at the Black Range campground, a wombat was grazing on the grass as we jogged in and refilled once more. It was getting a bit chill now, though the sun was still out of course, so I pulled on my thermal again. Lawrence did also, but 10 minutes down the trail he had to take it off again. I must have been feeling the cold easier than he. The run back was easier, of course, being overall downhill, so we made good time to Pluviometer once again, where Lawrence got his planned photos. It says something about what all these Fat Ass runs are doing to us when our best running is at the 65K point. Takes that long to warm up.

Jogging down this long stretch, I could feel hot spots developing on my right foot. I'd coated my feet in hydropel at the start, and at the Little River crossing pulled off my sock and lathered on some more. As there weren't regular aid stations to stop at, opportunities to stop and attend to foot care were infrequent. After a few minutes running, the hot spots had eased. Lawrence produced some white chocolate biscuits (he must have had a smorgasbord of food in that backpack) which went down well, as my stomach was starting to give trouble again and couldn't take stuff that was too sweet (ie pretty much all the food I had). We trudged up through the cattle yards to the crest of Mini Mini Saddle in deepening grey twilight. Then down, down, down...

We had hoped to catch Jan on the return trip- after all he was only a few minutes in front- so when we saw someone moving very slowly ahead of us partway down Mini Mini Saddle we assumed it to be the Herrmannator. But, it was Peter, moving very slowly with, it seemed, ankle trouble. We gave him some food and Lawrence said he'd give out some more food at the bottom of the hill. But when we reached the Coxs once again, just after 6pm, Peter had dropped well back.

Lights were turned on, and there were at least two campfires burning here. We walked over to the closest one and spoke to the campers, that a friend from Melbourne was coming through shortly, and would these folks be good enough to mind some food and pass it on to him? They agreed, and as Lawrence and I thanked them and began to move on, one woman said "you're going back to Katoomba? TONIGHT???" they couldn't believe it.

We needed to be back at the Explorers Tree by 9.15pm to break 14 hours. As the cutoff for Six Foot Track is 7 hours, a good time for Twelve Foot would involve running there, and back, in less than twice the cutoff. Based on our good progress down Black Range and down the hills, it seemed we were looking at a 13.40 or so finish.

We recrossed the Coxs (this time I got a foot wet and Lawrence's feet stayed dry) and promptly hit a shocking patch climbing up the technical stuff on the trail to Pinnacle Ridge. Neither of us wanted to eat, I was light headed and blood sugar was low. We alternated taking turns at the front, but I think Lawrence was stronger. The trail just kept going and going and going, and we felt more and more buggered as we went. "We should take notes now," said Lawrence, "for Glasshouse. We've been running twelve hours, and we do NOT feel like eating the food we have." I felt like eating a big pack of potato chips, something bland but with a big hit of salt and fat. I knew Gayl would wait for us at Megalong Valley Rd with hot food- I'd asked for a pizza but couldn't remember if she was bringing it to the crossing or the finish. But the thought of that hot, greasy food kept Lawrence and I going.

The final section to the top of Pinnacle Ridge was a shocker, up flights of twisting wooden steps, but then it was (thank god!) easy jogging to the crossing. I'd said we'd be there by 7pm, but it was more like 7.45 when we saw torches above us. "Who's coming?" drifted down to us. "Sean and Lawrence!" I bawled back, and we trotted up to the crossing, where Gayl, the two Ross' and Ross Yates' mate Martin were waiting.

I was so tired by now that I couldn't stand up, just leaned against the car with hands on knees, reaching over occasionally to eat some of the big parcel of hot chips Gayl had unwrapped on the car bonnet. Lawrence was talking, walking around; I was monosyllabic and unmoving. Ross Yates mentioned he had some orange juice, and Lawrence and I drank almost the whole bottle, the sugar hit perking us up almost instantly. We got ready to leave, I took my jacket out of the car and donned some gloves of Gayl's, after making a few pointed remarks about how they looked too effeminate for me. Jan had come through about 15 minutes before and apparently looked buggered. Perhaps we still had a chance to catch him!

We moved quite quickly- it was all the chips and juice, over stiles, farm paddocks, we even got a fair bit of running on the uphills leading to Nellies Glen, curving up, steeper and steeper. We passed through several walls of mysteriously warm air, which Jan and Kev also felt. Odd, for it was a chilly night. We both removed jackets after a while, however, once we'd warmed up once more. Mixing running and walking, we crossed the technical rock-and-water section at the foot of the stairs and knew we had 20 minutes to go. I was in back, fatigue had taken all my reserves of strength away, and I'd climb a flight of steps and stop, hands on knees, gasping for air, before resuming. I couldn't get enough oxygen and I was dripping in sweat- the thought occurred that this was what high altitude climbers must feel like. The barriers at the top of the staircase could not come soon enough, but then it was a long, long climb up the firetrail to the top.

How short it seemed that morning... I was surprised I was doing it so tough as last year I had moved quite easily through the last few kms, but this year I was an hour and a half faster, less fit, and unrecovered. Lawrence cheered when we reached the clearing at the top of the hill, and we jogged down the bitumen towards the tree. Lights appeared on our right- cars. I could hear Gayl's voice, then Jan's voice came out of the darkness as we jogged arm in arm down to the Tree and touched the fence 14.25 after starting. That was it, over.

A lot of photos were taken, and then the fatigue set in again. As at Megalong, I was too tired to stand up anymore, and fairly shortly Gayl had piled me into the car and we were gone, before Lawrence had a chance to get his share of the pizza!

I recovered quite fast- no quad soreness and I ran okay on Monday night with NRG, resumed leg weights late in the week. I owe a big thanks to the support people, and especially to Lawrence, who dragged me through 93km of mountains in a respectable time I was in no shape to accomplish. Now for K-M and Glasshouse!

Sean Greenhill Sydney, Australia