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Cradle Mountain Run Report 2002
Article by: Sean Greenhill
Probably the oldest trail ultra in Australia, the Cradle Mountain run traverses the Cradle Mountain- Lake St Clair National Park in Tasmania's glacier- ravaged high country. It follows the historic Overland Track for its full length from Waldheim Chalet in the north to Cynthia Bay Visitors Centre on the shore of Lake St Clair in the south. It can and does snow here in Summer; it can also be fiercely hot.
Competitors are limited to 50 and strongly vetted for their suitability to run a full day unsupported in isolated country. There is no vehicular access inside the park; runners must be entirely self sufficient and carry suitable alpine gear; the only aid being at Narcissus Hut, approximately the 67km mark, where some volunteers bring in food on a ferry.
Thanks to the strict qualifying criteria, usually only a couple of runners DNF each year; however last year on a clear day in a drought ridden summer, the temperature hit 37 C and almost half the field, including your correspondent, failed to finish. This year, when talking to veteran runners, the mere mention of the 2001 race would induce a long intake of breath, and conversation would be broken out by a drawn out "yeah.... last year!"
This year it promised to be different after very high rainfall in the previous few months, including snow on the trail in December. More like the traditional conditions for the Tasmanian high country. I was the only runner from NSW who entered in 2002, though I wasn't alone; Martin Fryer had come down from Canberra to race, and I had known Martin for a long time- when there's a tough long ultra to do, Martin will be there, always promising to finish well up in the field. Paul Ashton, the RD of the Wilsons Promontory ultra, was also there. Paul's done this trail quite a few times and is a runner of my own mid- pack skills, so I was anticipating running with him for a good while.
My plane arrived at Launceston airport almost two hours late on Friday the first. However, I was greeted by Martin and Doug Strohfeld, a competitor who was also co ordinating the transport for the Launceston end. They had waited round well after they had expected to be on the road; I climbed into a mini bus which I expected to be full of angry runners, but there didn't seem to be any problem beyond my own guilt. I met Adam Johnson for the first time, and also Rob Taylor, who had just done a traverse of the Du Cane Range in Cradle Mountain- Lake St Clair National Park, then run up Mt Wellington for recovery. He didn't look near his sixty something years. It turned out Martin had picked up a stomach bug from eating Italian the night before; he alternated between depression over his pending performance and vowing some Old Testament style vengeance on the restaurant he had eaten at.
As we drove into the high country, thick mist and fog descended; rather than enjoy views of Cradle Mountain from the road near Daisy Dell, we instead saw vistas of grey, and soaked ground on all sides. Martin and I dumped our gear at the Cosy Cabins- we would share rooms before and after the run- then walked over to the Wilderness Village Restaurant to carbo load and listen to the pre race briefing. This also involved an equipment check to verify we had all the required alpine gear- thermal tops, waterproof jackets, sufficient food, compass, lighter, map etc. Including water, my Karrimor Mountain Marathon pack weighed in at just over 5 kilos.
Martin and I rose at 3.30 the next morning to meet Bob Richards, the former RD, who would drive us from our cabin to Waldheim Chalet in time for last minute preparations before the 6am start. As we drove in through a light drizzle, passing wombats and bandicoots who were startled by the headlights of our van, I asked Bob just how long this race was. "I believe it's 85K," he replied, "but we put 80K on the t shirts." Sounds like the 30K runs we do in Sydney Striders that always seem a bit longer than that. Paul Ashton also told me he believed it to be 85K.
The start was very low key- we lined up on duckboard at the trailhead, then at 5.58 the front runner started to move. "Have they started?" asked one runner near me. We all hit our stopwatches and strung out in single file on the duckboard as the drizzle thickened. For the first 5 minutes we were in strict single file as the duckboard was too narrow for any passing; then we started heading upwards towards Crater Falls and Crater Lake. I was right behind Paul Ashton, who was not having a good day, breathing harshly as we ran up a flight of wooden stairs next to the spectacular falls; at the top of that ridge we ran into thick mist. Normally one could see the valley Crater Lake resides in- sheer rock walls carved out by glaciers. But today we couldn't see the cliffs, we could hardly see the lake itself! The climb resumed, very steep now, hands were required on some of the steeper rocky sections. I was still right behind Paul; in fact I had trouble seeing as my glasses had fogged up badly in the humidity, so I figured I'd step where Paul's feet stepped.
On this climb to Marion's Lookout, Paul offered to let me (and anyone else) pass; others did, but I felt half an hour into a 53 miler was too soon to be pushing the pace! We reached Marion's Lookout, perched above Crater Lake, to be greeted by more drizzle and mist and a strong wind. I was glad I had my thermal longsleeve on under my coolmax shirt. Normally at Marions's Lookout you confront the massive blade of shattered dolerite that is Cradle Mountain for the first time; today it was hidden from view. Running on a mixture of rocky trail and duckboard, we reached Kitchen Hut after 50 minutes; right on 13 hour pace. Then Paul left me behind as the going got much rougher; he moves better on technical surfaces than I. The trail was now going right round the base of Cradle Mountain but there was still nothing to see apart from the rocks underfoot; certainly not the bulk of Barn Bluff, Cradle Mountain's higher sibling, also hidden by the rain and fog.
After about 75 minutes the technical rocks gave way to extended stretches of duckboard, so I ran hard along the rim of Cradle Cirque, dropping away steeply on my left. The winds picked right up and the rain was driven hard against our skin and clothes; we jammed our caps lower on our heads and kept going. I was running with a small group which dropped down steep switchbacks into Waterfall Valley; from here the trail would be a mixture of rocky stuff and duckboards over rolling terrain until hitting Pine Forest Moor, about 8km away. I ran into Windermere Hut to refill bottles from the rainwater tanks there after about two and a quarter hours; 17km had passed by. I was now running with Malcolm Strohfeld and one or two others as the trail crossed Pine Forest Moor. The massive cliffs of Mt Pelion West- third highest mountain in Tasmania- were hidden from view on our right by the weather. Last year when passing through here, the cliffs were truly imposing despite being quite some distance away. We dropped steeply to Pelion Creek, climbed up the other side, then began the long descent to Frog Flats.
For me, the Pelion Creek- Pelion Hut section was the worst of the run, as the terrain definitely is not my best and the weather was at its most arduous. I'm not a good downhill runner at all, nor am I any good on technical terrain. This length of trail as covered in tree roots and the rain had turned the earth to mud that I would sink ankle deep in. Max Bogenhuber (or was it Dick Bartlett?) talked about runner stepping in mud, stepping out and leaving a shoe behind. I could now appreciate what they meant. Malcolm and the other runners passed me as I slogged downhill; on my left was a steep embankment to the Forth River; on my right a steep grade upwards covered in tangled rainforest. But my concentration was pretty much focussed on where my feet were going. It seemed forever before I reached Frog Flats, the lowest point on the course, and turned east towards Pelion Hut. I ate another Powerbar (my diet was a combination of Protein Plus Powerbars, Mega sized Kit Kats, and a couple of tubes of condensed milk) and took advantage of my long walking stride to set some pace as the trail- still highly technical and muddy- sloped upwards.
By now it was after 10am and the rain was really coming down. At least it seemed to drive away the fog, because when I reached the clear on the Pelion Plains, I could look into the distance for the first time all day. I arrived at Pelion Hut, the first of two cutoff points, just after 11am and 35K of racing. Volunteers park a car three hours walk away on Arm River Road and walk in to ensure everyone comes through before 12pm. Any runners who do miss the cut have a three hour walk out. I was amazed when they told me I was 47th- that was just behind 13 hour pace and I thought I was doing okay. Just what sort of field was in this race? I left quickly, passed two runners just out of the checkpoint, refilled bottles at a creek crossing, chatted to two German backpackers, then began the climb to Pelion Gap as the sun briefly came out. Not wanting to overheat in a steambath, I stopped, removed my thermal undershirt, replaced the coolmax shortsleeve, then continued on the long but not especially steep climb (again, over highly technical terrain).
Inevitably, at the top of Pelion Gap- a broad, duckboarded pass between Mt Pelion East and Mt Ossa, Tasmania's highest peak- I met thick mist, rain and powerful cold winds. Mt Ossa was not discernible; Mt Pelion East could be glimpsed occasionally through the clouds. I descended fast down trails that were fairly rough, but nowhere near as difficult as what I had encountered on the north side of the Gap. I passed two runners then jogged into Kia Ora Hut. I was now on about 13 1/2 hour pace, but felt strong, so ran hard from there to Du Cane Hut over better trails. The 13 hour split times supplied by the race organisers allow for 30 minutes from Kia Ora to Du Cane; I did it in 24. Then I headed into dense forest en route to Du Cane Gap.
This trail was also rough and muddy, but I was able to get a good jog- trot going- not as difficult as earlier on. There was some duckboarding over the most difficult areas, but the most dominating feature was the darkness from the low, dense tree canopy. Although the climb to Du Cane Gap wasn't particularly difficult, I passed quite a few runners here, including Paul Ashton. He asked if I could carry him up the hill, I told him to mentally play a few Led Zeppelin songs, that'd keep him going!
Unlike Pelion Gap, Du Cane Gap is densely forested and without significant views, although the Acropolis looms overhead, and the clouds parted occasionally to show up great views of the ancient rock columns that make up its walls. The trail dropped steeply then wound its way through dense forest to the incongruously named Windy Ridge Hut; which lies in the Narcissus River Valley. Another bottle refill from the water tanks and I was on my way, passing two more runners; pushing it as hard as I could.
Mentally the 9km from Windy Ridge to Narcissus was very tough. A twisting trail winding in and out of trees, passing over plenty of waterways, it had a sameness that made it hard to judge one's progress. The sun threatened to emerge briefly, but when I ran into Narcissus the sky had steeled over again and the wind had picked up. A few minutes before Narcissus Hut, the trail firms to duckboard and crosses a bridge over the Narcissus River, only a few metres wide. However, this is the main feeder river for Lake St Clair, from which emerges the mighty Derwent River; so to cross the smaller Narcissus is quite a buzz.
"Thank God for the Salvos!" I declared as I ran into Narcissus at 3.42; still on 13 hour pace; I had run strong, but my legs were now feeling a little heavy from the effort since Pelion; and especially since Windy Ridge. Sue Drake greeted me, gave me coke, fussed over my gear; the wind was really blowing and ice cold, so I donned my longsleeve thermal again, slipped my coolmax shirt over the top, then left Narcissus with the possibility of a sub 13 hour finish in the back of my mind.
When leaving Narcissus you actually run away from the Lake briefly, then gradually curve around past a few side trails until you strike the rough stuff that will be yours for the next 16km or so. It drops right to the water's edge, then rises up around the foot of Mt Olympus, crosses plenty of creeks, winds in and out of trees, passes through dense patches of ferns. Around 6K after leaving Narcissus you pass Echo Point Hut. I reached it right on 5pm, still exactly on 13 hour pace. I passed three more runners along this trail, and around 6pm the trail swung around so I could look across and see the boat ramp at Cynthia Bay, right next to the finish. From then that was my focus, when I could afford to lift my concentration from the trail.
At around 6.30pm the forest quickly thinned and the trail began to rise. Down to the left I could see a small beach; I assumed that was the mouth of the Hugel River at Watersmeet, around 10- 15 minutes from the finish. I ran hard on muddy but smooth trail which, frustratingly, swung away from the shoreline. Where was the damn river crossing? I passed a walker who said the finish was about a mile away; then the trail swung back towards the shore and started to descent. Sprinting, I passed over the bridge at Watersmeet at 6.39, turned left and followed a smooth dirt walking path through well groomed trees. I passed several walkers out for a casual stroll from the Visitors Centre; then rounded a corner and emerged at the Visitor Centre Carpark. On the far side was the finish; there were plenty of people standing around, including Martin. In Greg Welch style, I leapt across the finish line with bosh fists pumping, finishing at 6.48pm, a time of 12 hours 50 minutes.
A can of Solo was thrust into my had; I had a few minutes to talk to Martin about his impressive 11.06 finish (his split round the lake was third fastest of anyone) before the heavens opened and steady rain began to fall once again. We accepted Mike Dennis' offer of a lift to Bronte Park Chalet, where all the runners and officials would stay; after a shower, we were tucking into plates of food and a few schooners of Cascade and James Boag in the dining room, the building being warmed by a few roaring fireplaces.
Next morning the awards were handed out over breakfast; Mark Guy, a triathlete who hadn't done the event before, was first in 8.58. Imogen Pearce and Genevieve Duncan tied for first woman in slightly over 10 hours. After a post race photo session that was laced with plenty of humour, we went our separate ways, in the case of Martin, Adam, Rob and a few others it was back to Launceston to connect with flights to the mainland.
As a weekend, it's a good running experience, what with all the meals in the company of all these other hardcore runners. There aren't many chances to cross a major National Park in a day- but be warned, the trails are highly technical and the weather might not be favourable! Thanks to Sue Drake, Bob Richards, Doug Strohfeld asnd the others who put the effort into this "running weekend".
Sean has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :
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