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Cradle Mountain Run Report 2001
Article by: Sean Greenhill
Six Foot Track is not the only hiking trail in Australia that has an ultra running its length. The Overland Track in Tasmania's Cradle Mountain- Lake St Clair National Park is traversed each February by 50 runners competing in the Cradle Mountain Ultra, subject to the unpredictable weather of Tasmainia's central highlands.
I was competing in the event as part of a week and a half long holiday on the Apple Isle, flying from Sydney to Launceston on the morning of Thursday February 1, then driving out to Cradle Valley directly.
I'd never been in Tasmania before, so of course had not seen the trail; however I was under the impression most of it was open alpine running with some forested, technical sections, and rocks, and I knew the final 18km from the north end of Lake St Clair ro the south end via the coastal trail were tough and technical. There is no aid in this event- there are two checkpoints with cutoffs staffed by volunteers who had hiked into the National Park before the race- but more or less no aid. Runners have to carry their food supply, poweders etc, along with a deal of alpine safety gear, and rely on stream crossings etc to obtain water along the way. Normally the trail is wet and muddy and water is not an issue, but Tasmania has been experiencing drought conditions recently and as a result the trail would be considerably drier than normal.
After a 6am start, runners must reach Pelion Hut (approx 35km) by 12 noon or be cut; they have until 5pm to reach Narcissus Hut on the north end of Lake St Clair, approx 69km in. Runners missing this cut then catch a ferry to the Visitor Centre where the finish is- normally 2- 3 runners each year fail to finish, a testament to the vigorous qualifying standards.
Driving to Cradle Valley on Thursday afternoon, the sky was dark and overcast; turning a corner on the road I caught my first glimpse of Cradle Mountain itself, an impressive 1545m blade of glacier eroded dolomite. The clouds hung around the summit ridge, seemingly foretelling a cool days running two days hence.
The next morning I drove to Waldheim, a wooden chalet established by the Valley's original inhabitant, Gustav Weindorfer, in around 1912. The race would start at the back of the chalet; I loaded up my running pack (a Camelbak HAWG, for those curious), strapped some bottles to the chest straps, and ran out to Kitchen Hut, at the foot of Cradle Mountain itself. Probably not a smart move the day before the event, but I wanted to get a good look at the trail. The round trip took two hours and it got hot enough that I had to remove my shirt and run with the HAWG riding on my bare back; definitely not like the weather of the day before.
That night the Cradle Mountain Tavern hosted the runners pre race briefing, registration and equipment check; I greeted a few familiar faces. Fellow Sydney Striders Keith White and Gary Leahey had flown in that afternoon; Gary has done all the crazy tough stuff, including this same event a few years ago, the Three Peaks event, Sydney Trailwalker 100K, and the Forster Ironman. Keith, another Trailwalker veteran, had trained hard for this event, and certainly looked fit, but confessed to nervousness. Melburnians John Lindsay and Paul Ashton had also arrived to try their hand; Paul has done this run several times; John reached 115km approx in last Octobers Glasshouse Trail 100 Mile, so the distance wouldn't faze him. I was confident I still had the base fitness to cover the distance, but the previous two months training had been a disaster- I resumed training right after Glasshouse and by December 9's Blue Labyrinth event I was a fatigued and overtrained, so took a few weeks off, with some casual running; my comeback "serious" training run at Bogong- Hotham in early January resulted in a knee injury and two weeks immobilisation of the right leg; I was able to do two weeks of tentative jogging before this current event, and thus lacking that elusive quality known as "sharpness" or "race fitness". I knew I could cover the distance, but thought that I could test that Narcissus cutoff if things didn't go my way. The forecast was 23 degrees maximum, not bad running conditions, and I fancied my chances if the forecast was accurate.
In the pre dawn gloom next morning, 52 runners gathered at Waldheim ready for 87km duelling with the elements, armed just with what they could carry on their backs. We assembled on the trailhead looking across a moorland that rose sharply towards Cradle Plateau; Cradle Mountain and its sibling Barn Bluff were hidden behind this ridge. In single file, we were sent on our way along trail that was wooden duckboard at first; then after a few minutes plunged into rainforest and started climbing steeply, emerging briefly onto a gravel strewn trail that flirted with the shore of Crater Lake, at that time of morning a black mirror of seemingly unlimited depth. Another steep climb, some rock scrambling, some employment of the hands to haul ourselves upward when the going got too rough and steep, and we reached Marions Lookout, exposed and blasted by gusting winds. To our right, we looked straight down on Crater Lake; behind us was Lake Dove, immortalised in the foreground of most photos of Cradle Mountain. To our right, we had our first view that day of Cradle Mountain itself. The day was clear and bright and the wind was sharp; in those circumstances every sense is acute and the proximity of this spectacular formation of stone, hewn into columns like organ pipes, sent the nerves tingling in every runner. Running along the ridge, head tilted back, arms held out and palms upturned, I felt electrified. What a fantastic event, what a superb setting.
I was near the back at that moment; around 47th place. John Lindsay was not too far behind me, Keith just in front, and Paul came charging past me, running aggressively and shouting YAAAHHOOO at the top of his lungs; clearly he too was inspired by the conditions, though I joked to him that he was trying to lead from the front, given his position as AURA President.
From Marions Lookout to Kitchen Hut the trail was good; a mixture of earth and duckboard; I refilled my bottles at a stream just before the hut and mixed up some powder into my drinks. After passing the small, wooden structure, 51 minutes in, the trail skirted right round the base of Cradle Mountain and degenerated into rough rocks weaving in and out of larger rocks and grey alpine scrub. By now Barn Bluff was in sight; another dolomite formation, weathered into an intimidating; conical cylinder. We seemed to be running straight at it for a while, then the trail diverged south along more duckboard and I set a solid pace. By now no other runners were in sight apart from a Hobart based medico turned programmer named Steve; the two of us would stay together for hours to come. We started talking about running and races; also computers and tech stuff. As we passed Barn Bluff we could see where the trail dipped into Waterfall Valley; it was not quite 8am and the valley was still lined with mist that the sun had not yet burned away. "Fantastic!" I shouted, pointing; I was sorry I had left the camera behind; I wished I was a tourist with days to spare on this trail, so I could savour every distraction and nuance.
But I was racing; a competitor, so the pair of us ran hard down the rough dirt path to Waterfall Valley, which was spliced with several duckboard based switchbacks. We passed Waterfall Valley Hut and began to climb out; the valley itself was quite dry; but I remembered the pre race literature and anticipated I'd find somewhere else to refill my bottles soon.
The wide open moorlands of the next several kilometres, provided the first real evidence as to how hot it was going to be. Sweat was running freely off me; I considered stripping my shirt off again but the sunburn risk wasn't worth it. The moorland rolled through brown and yellow grasses, and passed by several lakes. The soil was quite sandy here, and I joked to Steve that, given the lakes, sand and heat, all I needed was a pair of board shorts and I could be a very oddly located beach bum.
The water here, however, was dark and stagnant, not fit for drinking, so I ran dry, accepting the offer of a bottle of Powerade off Steve. I sweat more than Patrick Rafter, so the need to refill my bottles was urgent. We climbed a couple of low ridges and descended quickly along dirt path towards a large lake; I was about to pause and refill here when Steve pointed out three hikers advancing up the trail towards us. I asked them where the next free running stream was, and they replied that a hut with rain water tank was five minutes up the trail. Off we wwent and arrived at Windermere Hut; right away I was glad I hadn't refilled at the lake, this one was Lake Windermere, which had, a few years before, been contaminated with giardia; safest to assume it still might be dodgy.
Time for a refuel. I had been popping mars bars as I went; now I drank greedily, sucked some condensed milk, and walked off down the trail munching on some English muffins spread with peanut butter. Amazing what you can squash into a small pack if you don't worry about how presentable the food looks when it comes out.
Steve had run out just ahead of me, but I soon caught him up as we climbed accross Pine Forest Moor- all good duckboarding and we went hard and fast here. Slightly to our right was another spectacular rock monolith, carved from "organ pipe" dolomite like all the other distinctive Tasmianian peaks east of Mt King William. This massive flat slab of black rock rearing up not far from the trail was Mount Pelion West; again, I couldn't take the opportunity to explore like I could- a day climbing the mountain would be enjoyable. I made a mental note to come back some time and enjoy the National Park at my leisure, then we plunged into the first real section of technical forest path. Trees hunkered low and I ducked in and out of them as my feet made their own way over a track composed of gnarled tree roots; it was slow, rough going, although we finally dropped into clear, crossed a creek, refilled and set off again into the next forest section. After a while we arrived at the lowest point on the course, Frog Flats, normally a swamp that lives up to its name, but now a dry patch of vegetation baking in the heat. We followed more duckboard across as the trail snaked around to the eastand started to climb again. I was in front here and looked down to see a moving back form on the wooden boards- I recogised it right away as a black tiger snake (potentially lethal, especially in this isolated terrain) and froze dead in my tracks as the reptile crossed the boards a few feet ahead of my shoes. Steve almost charged into the back of me, looked over my shoulder, and laughed quietly. "I wondered what would make you stop so suddenly!" he chuckled. Now he had the proof.
Soon enough the duckboard gave way to more tangles of tree roots; progress was slow and difficult but Steve was faring little better. At another creek crossing we met a party of hikers out to do the Overland Track in six days; they couldn't believe it was possible to accomplish the same feat in one. "Couldn't get the time available for six days," I said with a smile, "so one day it had to be!" Then we slogged on upwards. I was looking at my watch, getting more and more worried; it was approaching 11am and still no sign of Pelion Hut. I asked Steve, who was running this race for the fourth time, if we were in danger of being cut. "It's not far," he mused, "and we haven't been been dawdling. We should be right."
Just after that, we emerged into the open again, at Pelion Plains. Now we weren't sheltered from the sun by the forest anymore, the heat became opprssive. It was already past 30 degrees and would peak that afternoon at 37.8 degrees at nearby Bronte Park, or 100 F on the old temperature scale. Definitely not typical Tasmanian high country weather; it made all the apline gear we were carrying look a joke. I almost hoped that the famously unpredicatable conditions would dump a blizzard and sleet on us- anything but this damn heat, and the March flies that came with it to annoy us.
We passed a sign indicated Pelion Hut was 15 minutes walk; not long after that, at approcx 11.20, we arrived at the hut and had our names struck off. Steve removed his t shirt and put on a singlet; the staff who registered our names commented on the unusual heat, as I again refilled and drank heavily, not really up to eating. Just as we were leaving Keith White came running in; with his wide sleeved t shirt stained dark by sweat, he resembled a giant bat swooping in. "Keith," I exclaimed reflexively, "shouldn't you be way up there in front of us?" "You passed me ages ago near the start!" he exclaimed between breaths, before heading to the water tank to fill his own bottles.
Steve and I headed south for the climb to Pelion Gap, along more slow, root strewn trail. The dense rainforest around us, and the topography of the ridge, prevented any breeze from reaching us, so the air was hot, stale and unpleasant under the dark tree canopy. We passed four runners along this section of trail, all going slowly and affected by the heat. When we came into the open next at the top of Pelion Gap (1126m), my feet were painful and starting to blister, partly the result of the shoes being rammed into and over countless roots and rocks; and the skin had been softened by the sweat that was streaming out of my skin.
Steve and I could see, opened up in front of us, another broad open moor- Pinestone Valley- with the Du Cane Ridge defining the southern end. Rising directly to our left was Mount Pelion East, to the right the highest mountain in Tasmania, 1617m Mt Ossa, in reality a long ridge serrated by eroded dolomite. Descending from Pelion Gap, Steve complained that he couldn't hold food down and was suffering from ebbing energy levels; I decided to fix my feet, so we both sat down on the trail. Steve nibbled tentatively on some food taken from his pack; I removed my saturated socks and shuddered at the pale, wrinkkled skkin of my feet, which looked as though they has been in a a bath for hours- in a way they were, bathed in my own sweat so make every step was a squelch. I ignored the blisters starting to form, put on a spare, dry pair of socks, and tied the original pair to the back of my pack, so they could dry in the sun- just in case I needed to change out of the new socks when they became soaked! No runners appeared behind us over the crest of the ridge, so we set off and ran hard downhill through tinder dry yellow grasses and over loose rocks and rubble. I led all the way here until coming to Kia Ora Hut, where we refilled our bottles and spoke to the hikers there about conditions further up the trail. It was around one o'clock- four hours to make the Narciussus cutoff, and from Narcissus we could walk if we so wished.
From Kia Ora Steve was really struggling in the heat and dropped off behind; worried about the cutoff, I ran hard and reached the next Hut, Du Cane, at around 2pm. I asked the two race officials there how long it had taken them to come from Narcissus and they replied three hours.
Three hours, I repeated to myself as I ran (slowly)- they walked it in three hours. This should be okay. My mood was upbeat and confident; feet picked up higher off the ground, I was running solidly. Again, i was surrounded by forest. This was not quite as bad as the earler technical surfaces, which Steve and I had collectively referred to as "shitty stuff", such was the demoralising effect of having to slog slowly through it. Not what I had expected after the first spectacular alpine hours of this run.
The trail after Du Cane Hut was not "shitty stuff" at first, but open forest path paved of dirt and some duckboard with roots passing through fairly regularly- though not as tangled and gnarled as before. Steve caught back up to me and I outlined the theory which made me so confident. "Three hours for those guys from Narcissus? Yeah, but I know them, they're runners too. They'll have run up from the ferry in three hours, without having already done what we've done. We'll push it close." I ate the remaining muffins in my pack, to provide fuel for the slog up Du Cane Gap, then the final trail section to Narcissus.
We passed several more runners as the trail began the climb to Du Cane Gap; but our standing in the field would not matter a jot if we missed the cut. The higher we got, the rougher the trail became, revising back to the shitty stuff from earlier on. Now we were fighting to make headway, especially as the sun blazed hotter and the trapped air became staler and nastier. Every stop for a bottle refill was a relief; a rest.
When you pedal a stationary bike, you place a fan in front of you to provide a steady breeze and keep the air fresh. I'm not sure if you've tried to pedal a stationary bike without the fan or any ventilation, but the air quickly becomes bad and foul, heats rapidly, and the sweat floods off you and quickly pools on the carpet. That sensation was what we faced climbing the north side of Du Cane Gap, I was heaving for breath and the socks were again squelching, thoroughly soaked in sweat as they were. Odd feeling.
We overtook another runner, then coming down the south side of Du Cane Steve began to run away from me; though I kept him in sight all the way to Windy Ridge Hut. Descending the trail, strewn with tree litter, I noticed my fingers were swollen and lips parched, even though I had drunk plenty of fluids, mixing water from streams up with powders and drinking all I could. Swollen fingers I knew were a sign of electrolyte depletion, a problem I had never suffered before; not good news. I made it to Windy Ridge Hut at around 3.20pm.
Two runners who looked in need of medical help were here. One had passed out, the other had a leg locked into position by cramps and was in great pain. Steve was gone; he must have stopped just long enough to have his name marked off, then charged hard to chase the cutoff. I stocked up on electrolytes as best I could then headed out; I asked one staffer how long it was to Narcissus. She replied, an hour and a half. "Is that running, walking or staggering?" I replied. "If you walk fast, and consistently, you might make it," she said, he face reflecting the fact that such a feat was obviously a really hard task.
For ten minutes I ran fast and inspired, then the oncoming symptoms of electrolyte depletion overwhelmed me and rapidly I was reduced to a shuffle. I was light headed and dizzy and staggering from side to side over this rough bush trail. A muscle under my left shoulder blade cramped up, then my right hamstring started to rebel- every high step I made over a fallen log, rock or dry creek bed the muscle would catch briefly in cramp, then let go. In a few minutes, I had gone from steady progress to a body shutdown and something that could not be called running any more; more like a death march. It got thoroughly bizarre; at least eight times I turned to look behind me as I heard running footfalls and voices, but there was never anyone there, even when I waited for a few minutes. After Windy Ridge I didn't see anyone until quite close to Narcissus (I did see my fourth snake of the day though, a copperhead) but I could always hear someone right behind me. It didn't occur to me till later that it would have been an aural hallucination.
I battled my own failing body and the heat for half an hour until I grasped that I would go faster walking than still trying to run; so I walked, trudged, drank some more fluids, and slowly started to come good again. I passed a couple of hikers, and through the trees I could see Mount Byron, near the shores of Lake St Clair, a deformed cone of rock. When my watch beeped for five pm, I started to jog again, slowly, as I reached the forst duckboard for a while. I came into an open grassy section, saw a stand of trees on the far side, and concluded that they marked the shores of Lake St Clair- only a few minutes to Narcissus, surely? And then I could stop racing and recover from this hole?
The trail crossed a river on a swinging bridge, took to more rock covered dirt path, then Narcissus Hut came into view and I slowly trotted into the clearing. By my watch, it was 5.24pm and I was out of the race- no running round the lake for this mainlander. Sue Drake, who I had not met before, saw my Sydney Striders shirt and asked if I was Keith. "No," was my response, "Keith's somewhere back there," emphasised with a jerk of the thumb. She offered me a glass of Coca Cola, then some of the best tasting homemade Anzac biscuits I had ever tried. I ate and drank rapidly, then Sue said a ferry was leaving shortly and I could join it if I didn't dally. I hurried down to the jetty by the lake shore, where Paul Ashton and a few others were waiting. Paul had made the cut by one minute, then elected not to continue. I flopped my sorry body down on the boards next to him, but the ferry didn't leave till after 6pm, just after Keith White came in, his legs badly shot. Kris Clausen had already won the event almost three hours beforehand, but still close to an hour and a half slower than his winning time in 2000, an indicator of the tough conditions.
The ferry driver gazed over the tired and shattered men before him, said we were the youngest looking bunch of old men he had seen, then, when he pulled away from the jetty, radioed ahead that the "floating hospital" was on its way. We were amongst the 22 (out of 52 starters) who did not finish the event, a far, far higher total than normal. Two competitors ended up walking out of the National Park from Pelion Gap.
Given my training situation and the oppressive conditions, I'm amazed I did well enough to be one of the first to miss out, if you know what I mean. This is a tough run, no question, but if you know what to expect regarding trail surface, I don't regard this as being the uniquely tough event that one or two race committee members and locals hold it out to be. From my own experience, the Glasshouse Trail 100 combines the atttrition of sheer distance and a guaruntee of hot conditions to make that event formidable; the Bogong to Hotham 60km is, mile for mile, probably the toughest going round, and is also held in the unpredictable alpine climate, while the Blue Labyrinth 90km event has distance, tough trail running, sheer climbs, and no support; it is uniquely hard in Australia. I think you can make a good comparison with this event and Sydney Trailwalker 100K in terms of trail conditions- Trailwalker is probably more difficult in that regard. I'll train for the 2002 Cradle Mountain by doing a lot of running on the technical surfaces of the Trailwalker course. A compariosn with an alpine mountain run like Bogong-Hotham isn't valid - yes, this has alpine features, but is more of a tough bush run. Very hard, tough and satisfying, yes, but not far beyond other events in this country. Unquestionably, though, it deserves respect and the weather can just as easily be bad the other way- cold and storms. Over Christmas, it snowed on the trail, so the rigorous equipment rules and qualifying standards are justified.
Sean has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :
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