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American 100 Mile Glasshouse Finisher in 1998

American 100 Mile Glasshouse Finisher in 1998

by Carol La PLant
Glasshouse is Australia’s only 100 mile trail run, and a largely undiscovered ultra treasure. Only 3 other Americans have tried this race, and only one other has finished - Janine Duplessis, who holds the women’s course record. In addition to the 100 miler, shorter options are available. A 100 mile relay, 50 miler and 52K start with the 100 miler, and a 27K and 12K are run the next day, all on the same course. The management, in the form of Ian Javes and his tireless volunteers, is dedicated to getting the runners through the race, and the sights and sounds along the course are unlike anything in the U.S. From the exotic birds, animals and reptiles to the Aussie English spoken at the aid stations, you get the feeling that you’ re a long way from Kansas, Toto.

The race is run in the state of Queensland, about an hour north of Brisbane. Queensland is a vast, sparsely populated state, a friendly kingdom on the edge of the outback. The race is held in September, which is early spring, usually a dry time of year with high temperatures in the 80s. This year, however, El Nino brought unseasonable rain and cooler temperatures to Queensland.

The course goes through rainforest and agricultural land where pineapples, macadamias, and custard apples (like a cherimoya, but bigger and much sweeter) are grown. The Glasshouse Mountains are volcanic peaks that tower above the rolling plains and can be seen for hundreds of miles. The course is a double 50 mile loop. Each loop forms somewhat of a cloverleaf, running to the top of one mountain (Mt. Beerburrum), then around or between several others (Mts. Beerwah, Tibrogargan and Tunbubudla), and returning to a central fire lookout 3 times, before heading back along the stem of the cloverleaf to the start/finish area. Most of the course is rolling hills and flat on fire roads, although there are a few steep areas and sections of goat track (steep, rocky sections with bad footing).

Last year I read accounts of the run, and it appealed to me for at least two reasons. One was that it was a small, new race, perhaps like the old days of ultrarunning here. The other was that my mother came from Queensland, and I had never met any of her family, many of whom still live there. I noticed that lister Melanie Jonker had walked a race at Glasshouse, so I wrote to her for information. Melanie sent me lots of information, including a Queensland map and last year’s very comprehensive race booklet. We stayed in touch, and she was really helpful, later sending information on places to stay and car rentals. Melanie, a walker, entered the 50 miler, her first, and won it. She also put me in touch with another 100 mile entrant, Kevin Cassidy from Melbourne, who had completed Western States, Leadville, Wasatch and Angeles Crest. We traded many posts about running and life in our two countries. Melanie and Kevin made going to this race half way around the world seem possible.

The race was on September 26, so my Super-crew, Phil Brown, and I arrived in Sydney on the 18th, after a 14 hour direct flight from San Francisco. Our travel agent had booked us into an economy hotel in Kings Cross, which turned out to be a red light district. We picked up the car - a Daewo, soon named the Dirty Daewo - on the following day. The immediate challenge was that Australians drive on the left. Sydney is a very big city with major traffic congestion and many roundabouts, which are used in place of stop signs. Phil dealt with these challenges deftly, only losing one left hubcap while parking. After retrieving the hubcap, we began the journey of over 600 miles to Brisbane and the Glasshouse Mountains.

We took an inland route through the Hunter Valley, a vineyard area and the Aussie equivalent of the Napa Valley. I kept a sharp lookout for kangaroos and koalas, and at dusk we spotted ‘roos poised near the road, sitting on their long hind feet, small faces on long necks, and pointy ears. Throughout the trip, we would see thousands more ‘roos, particularly at dusk and dawn when they move around. Most cars that are driven in the country are fitted with a ‘roo-bar to protect against damage from hitting them, as they wander onto the highway at night. We saw a wombat, a big furry water animal with teeth like a beaver but a much bigger body. We saw many cockatoos - big white parrots - and galahs - pink and gray parrots. We also saw flocks of lorikeets - small parrots with brilliant green, blue, yellow and red plumage. We later saw a wild emu and its 7 chicks, as well as giant lizards about 2 feet long. We also saw an enormous dead snake in the road.

We arrived at Glasshouse on the 22nd. I was eager to see the course, and Ian had already marked it, using white ribbons, arrows attached to trees and some limestone arrows on the ground. I ran a difficult section called the goat track. I jumped every time I heard something moving or slithering in the bushes. By race day, however, I lost my fear because I learned that there are no predatory animals in Australia and the snakes, while many are poisonous, tend to be shy.

We spent the next days relaxing at the beach and touring. The local fruit stands were wonderful, featuring sumptuous ripe pineapples, several kinds of great avocados, papayas (called papaws), and delicious custard apples. One place sold a fabulous cold, thick drink made of fresh mashed pineapple. In a nearby town, we visited Elvis Parsley’s Fruitland, where an intrepid Elvis imitator decorated his fruit store with Elvis memorabilia. With the least encouragement, he’d flip a switch to start his musical accompaniment and overhead lights pulsating, and launch into renditions of Suspicion and You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog, with a fine powerful voice. He was a terrific entertainer who performed for me in bare feet (common in Queensland, despite the snakes), shorts and a T-shirt, but had star-quality talent.

On the Friday before the race, we awoke to pelting rain, which continued for hours. The tropical storm was unseasonable, but there had been rain throughout the week, and the rain continued off-and-on for the rest of the day. In the evening, we met the other runners and their families for a pre-race dinner at the sports club where the race would start. As the menu choices seemed to be leaden lasagna, beef or chicken, I ate only potatoes from Phil’s dinner.

Race day was cool and clear. Dozens of cadets, who were teenagers taking military training, were assigned to man several of the aid stations. The cadets wore military camouflage and boots. Their first task was to fry up a mighty breakfast for themselves, which smelled good in the night air. One girl cadet ran up to 100 miler Kerrie Hall, who lives in the area, and proudly displayed two pieces of metal - a newly acquired naval ring and a badge for marksmanship. Young Aussies are really into tattoos and body jewelry.

We were weighed, and pulse and blood pressure were taken. The information was written on wristbands and recorded on a chart that the medical personnel would have at the lookout, where there would be mandatory medical checks. Finishing times would be adjusted to subtract 3 minutes for each medical check, a clever idea in my opinion. My weight was slightly low, with pulse 52 and blood pressure 130/80. We started in the daylight at 5:30, 10 people in the 100 miler, 2 starting the 100 mile relay, 8 50-milers, and 9 running the 52K. We trotted across a grassy playing field to a tunnel under the highway and onto a dirt trail. My usual fast start by inhibited both by dodging mud puddles and by an unusual lack of energy. We were unable to avoid the mud for long, however, and we soon found ourselves ankle-deep in pools of muddy water.

After the second aid station the course turned up a dirt road then onto a steep paved climb to the lookout at the top of Mr. Beerburrum. The view from the top was spectacular, but the steep path down was made treacherous with wet leaves, causing several runners to fall. Back down, the course wound through fairly flat fields but was difficult because the thin sandy dirt formed a very slippery, slick mud. Eventually the type of mud changed to the clay that builds up under shoes, then the mud subsided. This area was agricultural, with pineapple and sugar cane fields.

After rolling hills and many sightings of colorful birds, I arrived at the fourth aid station, where Phil met me. I told him I wasn’t running well and had no energy. After more rolling hills, the course made a long climb up to aid station 5, the lookout, which was the first medical check. A medical person took my blood pressure several times, then worriedly brought in the medical director, Dr. June Canavan, a sports medicine specialist from Queensland University, who took it again and told me the reading was about 80/60. My pulse was 135 and very weak. I have never had any problem with blood pressure before. The doctor said that one cause might be that I was fighting a virus (Phil had been sick in the weeks before the trip), but she cautioned against continuing because I could faint or have heart problems. I elected to continue, if only for a little way.

The next section was the goat track that I had run a few days before, and the bad footing was worse after the rain, so I necessarily went slowly. At the next aid station, Dr. June met me even though it was not a regular medical check. My blood pressure was worse, about 70/50. Still, I elected to continue.

The course followed single track trails and fireroads through dense forest, with vines hanging from immense trees. Again, there were ankle-deep muddy ponds. Another runner had a standoff with a black (poisonous) snake here. This section was mostly flat, so I tried to run. Soon my right leg was seized in a massive cramp running from by foot to my hip, the most intense cramp I’ve ever had. I stood unable to move and whimpered. I took more Succeed caps and Advil. Another woman in the 100 miler, Rachel Smith, passed me. I could not catch her because I could only walk, running would make the cramp return.

Phil met me at the next aid station, number 7, and I felt no worse. Rachel was still there, so I left quickly. I found I could run, slowly. The course made a loop on fireroads and returned to aid station 7. I saw Rachel behind me and picked up the pace. No cramping. When I returned to No. 7, Rachel was no longer in sight and I was generally stronger. The course was flat but muddy to another aid station, then rolling hills back the medical checkpoint at the lookout. The birdcalls were amazing - in the midst of a din of screeches and whistles, one kind of bird had a call that sounded like a shot whistling across the forest. At the medical check, my blood pressure had gone up into a more normal range, and I felt better. I ate the delicious cantaloupe (called rock melon) and pineapple, as well as taking swigs of Clip and an Aussie coffee drink similar to a Starbucks Frappacino.

The next section was a long loop around massive Mt. Beerwah, with an aid station at the far side, returning to the medical checkpoint at the lookout. The trail started out on a red clay fireroad but soon went into steep single track through rainforest. The trail, while slippery, was alive with birds and lizards. The mountain towered majestically to the right. I knew I could finish the race.

Returning to the medical check, the course then headed back toward the start. After a long refreshing downhill, there were rolling hills then another short nasty goat track. Here, I caught up with Kevin Cassidy, who had decided to drop. I was very sorry to see such a good runner having a bad day. I tried, to no avail, to dissuade him, then continued on, running.

I reached the turnaround in about 12 hours and quickly headed back out. It gets dark at about 6 p.m., so I had little light to make it to the first aid station. There, Phil gave me my Lister lights (a waistband neon light system invented by Suzie Lister’s husband, Dan) and a QX40 flashlight, as well as a polypro top, dousing everything with much-needed mosquito repellant. I changed shoes and saw large blisters developing from immersion in liquid mud.

Phil met me at the 2nd aid station, which was fortunate because no one else was there. I then set out again into the fields and soon got lost. The trail split, and I could find no indication of where to go. Backtracking to the last ribbon, I shined my flashlight into the distance, causing farm dogs to bark and a woman then to yell about the bloody racket. After exploring both trails and backtracking when I found no mark, I picked the one on the left and, much later, found a ribbon.

There were no glowsticks. Hopefully there will be glowsticks next year! The non-local runners remaining in the race got lost at night. Part of the problem was that the white ribbons were mostly hung in eucalyptus trees, which have bark and vegetation hanging from them, and the ribbons are hard to distinguish at night. In addition, the trees were sometimes a goodly distance from the trail, so the flashlight would have to cover a large area. Trail choices that might have appeared obvious in the day were not necessarily marked, but the choice was far less obvious at night.

Thousands of big toads were on and around the trail, particularly the wet sections. They croaked and jumped throughout the night. When I waived the flashlight beam off the side of the road, looking for a ribbon, the ditch would respond with a chorus of croaks, chattering and whistles.

At aid station number 3, I told Phil that it was very hard to find the trail, and we agreed that he’d drive to number 4 and walk back toward me. I needed to have Phil out on the course with the Dirty Daewo, because most of the aid I took was my own, and we didn’t know if other aid stations would even be there.

I continued through the medical check, with no more problems, and again onto the goat track. The cadets manned the next aid station, and they were all asleep in their tent when I arrived. The aid was laid out on a table. I was unsure of the trail out from there, so I tried to wake the cadets. One tall, lankly teenager rubbed sleep out of his eyes and pointed me down the road. After a while, I realized that this was not the right trail, returned to the cadet bivouac, and found the correct trail. A mile or so later, however, I got lost again after missing a turn. I backtracked up and down hills in the moonlight. Phil met me on the way to the next aid, and we decided that he’d miss the next station, where the course was easy to find, and walk further in to guide me to the following station. In the interim, there were more ponds and toads. The cadets at the next aid stations were awake and helpful, although shy. We met Kerrie on her way out to where I had been, looking very strong and determined. We later learned that her flashlight went out and she braved a long section of forest in the pitch dark.

Around 4:30 a.m., the bird calls became very loud. There was wild hooting, like the sound of hundreds of chimpanzees. Australia does not have monkeys, and I learned that the sound came from kookaburras, a sedate looking bird with a large head and short white feathers. Parrots screeched and flew overhead. The call of the shot bird whistled through the forest. Phil, who had paced me in the last 17 miles of Vermont, said he really knew he wasn’t in Vermont now. Although I had wanted to break 24 hours, going into the race, I was glad to have had a chance to witness the wild sounds and sights of the rainforest at dawn.

I ran the loop around Mt. Beerwah in the early morning light. Wallabies (small ‘roos) came bouncing out of the bushes to look at me, staring for a few seconds then bouncing back, their large feet slapping the brush. Partway through the loop, a walker named Art, who began the 27K early, caught up to me. He was a very interesting local who was originally Dutch, and he was good company, telling me about macadamia farming and life in Queensland. Despite his good company, I was tired and my blisters hurt, yet I was surprised that I couldn’t drop him, a walker. Every time I made a determined effort to take off running, he inevitably caught me as soon as I walked.

Leaving the medical check at the lookout for the last time, a crowd of 80 runners was assembled for the start of the 12K. One of the runners was Phillipa Medill, the wife of Graham Medill, the 100 mile winner both this year and last. She announced to the crowd that I was the women’s leader in the 100 miler, and there was loud cheering. I waived to the crowd, with tears in my eyes, and continued. A while later the 12K run started, and the fresh, clean runners offered encouragement and congratulations as they passed. Women, in particular, wanted to know what the run was like and said they were inspired. One slower runner, named Sue, became my self-appointed pacer, and sheep-dogged me most of the way to the finish, insisting that I keep running and stay with her.

Finally, Phil appeared coming down the trail to meet me, and I trotted, while he walked, toward the sports ground and the finish. I ran under the banner with arms outstretched and a huge grin. There was a crowd applauding, and I was happy. I gave special thanks to the vigilant medical director, Dr. June, who followed my progress when I wouldn’t heed her advice to quit.

Afterwards, I lay on a cot and Dr. June and her helpers drizzled ice water on my legs and feet, a delicious way to clean off and ease the pain on this 85 degree morning. Dr. June said that this treatment would also prevent nausea, and indeed she was right. After a while there was a report that Kerrie had passed the last aid station, then there she was, across the road and approaching the finish. The gutsy effort of this walker-runner doing her first 100 miler had the crowd cheering. She ran through the sports field to the finish banner and plopped down eloquently beneath the banner.

The awards ceremony and banquet followed soon after, before I had a chance to wash up. Elections were a week away, so several local politicians were present. The wife of a custard apple farmer (Bill Thompson) who ran the 100 miler and finished last year but dropped with blisters this year, asked me to help convince the politicians that they should support the race. I was seated with members of the local government at the banquet and tried to muster my lawyerly abilities to rise to the occasion and argue for support of the race, knowing that I probably smelled like a dead wombat.

The awards were gold medals from the Queensland Marathon & Road Runners Club to the men’s and women’s winner, a ceramic plate saying Glasshouse Mountains Trail Run - Winner, a 100 mile T-shirt, an embroidered cap, with gold embroidery for sub-24 hours and blue for sub-30, and a polo shirt. In addition, the winners get their names on a revolving trophy.

I really love this race, for both the good heartedness of the people and the beauty of the course. I want to figure out my strange blood pressure problem and come back to run better.

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