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The Hundred Down Under
by: Carol La Plant
The Glasshouse Mountains, in Queensland, Australia, are the site of Australia's only trail 100 mile run and a really unique place to experience the highs and lows of an ultra. On the trails here, you find kangaroos and their smaller cousins, the wallabies, as well as big monitor lizards, the occasional very poisonous snake, and amazing birds that become raucous at dawn and dusk. The call of the whip bird is a signature song of the rain forest, with a piercing whistle that travels across the forest and ends in a snap, like a whip being cracked across the sky. Kookaburras give loud chattering calls that sound like chimpanzees, making the early morning forest sound like it's full of monkeys. Big pale cane toads lurk on the trails at night and don't budge at the sight of a runner. And who knows what strange creature might be rustling in the bushes? The mental diversions are endless.
The 2002 edition of the Glasshouse Mountains Trail Runs, on September 28-29, 2002, featured the toughest conditions in the history of the race and the biggest field ever for the 100 miler. The 18 starters in the 100 were alternately fried in 95 degree heat under the super intense Aussie sun, and boiled in sweltering humidity when the course went through the tropical rain forest. This year the course was changed, featuring more steep climbs and harrowing descents, inspired apparently by the adventures of co-RD Bill Thompson at Hardrock, Leadville and Wasatch.
A local custard apple farmer, Bill Thompson, 59, is a walker who only runs when necessary to make the cutoffs and only starts training a few weeks before the event. During the run, he relishes hardy meals of fried eggs, bacon and Guinness. Despite his unorthodox approach, he did 29:27 at Leadville and 34:27 at Wasatch this year, and placed 30th at Hardrock in 2000. In 2004, he plans to do Western States and Wasatch.
The starting line included the usual veterans and several new additions. Two time champion Graham Medill returned after a three year hiatus, and last year's second and third place finishers, Sydney runner Kieron Thompson and Victorian Kelvin Marshall, were back, looking very fit, Kelvin having finished a multi day run across the Simpson desert a few months ago. Sean Greenhill, 24 and 6'3", returned with steely determination after two disappointing DNF's, this time planning to run the entire way with fellow Sydney runner Lawrence Mead, after the pair had successfully completed a very tough 85 mile Fat Ass run in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. Sydney ultrarunners put on a series of gonzo Fat Ass runs during the year that are a great addition to the ultra calendar.
The 2000 women's winner, Kerri Hall, was back after foot problems resulted in her first ever DNF in 2001. Nearly all of the aid was provided by Kerri's family and friends, none of whom were runners but all seemed to share her enthusiasm for the run. They were a welcome improvement over previous years when teenagers doing compulsory military training were conscripted for the aid stations, and were at best unenthusiastic. I was back for the fifth time, with three past finishes, but extremely under trained after being sidelined most of the year with a knee injury. Bill Thompson, after being my house guest, was determined to beat me, both in the race and in our shared record of the most finishes at the Glasshouse 100.
Newcomers included the original race director, Ian Javes, who had an impressive running history, including completing the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne 1000K, but he had never before attempted his own Glasshouse course. Another new face was Lyn Lewis, one of only three women in Australia to run 100 miles on a track in under 24 hours. Lynn was a strong hill runner and trained on the Glasshouse trails. The run also attracted an eastern European marathoner whose familiarity with both English and trail ultras was limited. Told he would need a flashlight, he initially understood that he would have to wear a flashing light. During the run, he expressed amazement at the unexpectedly rugged terrain and withdrew at the halfway point.
The 100 miler started at 5 a.m., followed by the 50 miler at 5:30 and a 53K later in the morning. A 28K and a 12K started Sunday morning, scheduled so that all the runners would be done by 11 a.m. Sunday, when there was a banquet and awards. The 100 and the 50 miler started from the Teamsters Hall of Fame, a living museum of historic Cobb & Co. stagecoaches from the days of the Australian gold rush, surrounded by corrals of horses that pull the coaches.
With a crack of the mighty coach whip, we were off in the rosy dawn. The course is roughly a double 50 mile clover leaf, with the stem going to the start/finish and the main aid station at the center reached three times on each 50. At about 8 miles, there is a steep climb up and down Mt. Beerburrum, one of the volcanic peaks that make up the Glasshouse Mountains. The path down is usually perilously slick with wet leaves, but this year it was dry, due to the severe drought that is ravaging eastern Australia. This was my first opportunity to see how the other runners were doing. Ian Javes had already lost time checking on the "stuff up" concerning the absence of an aid station at the bottom of the hill. Throughout the day, Ian could not get free of his role as race director. Bill Thompson trailed at the back of the pack, but striding along powerfully, already recovered from Wasatch.
By 9 a.m., the temperature was in the mid-90's and the steep, rough sections called goat track were sweltering. At several points, the course emerged from the forest and passed by pineapple farms, enormous fields of ripe pineapples perched improbably on the spiky leaves. In a hot, open section of the course, aid station people were concerned about a first time 100 mile runner, Jan Hermann from Sydney, who was dressed in black shirt and shorts, and seemed to be struggling with the heat. I passed him at about mile 30, gave him a couple of Succeed caps and guessed he would drop. In that section, the big lizards, called goannas, streak up trees, and some runners paused to let a 9' python cross the trail. On the second 50, when I returned to that section in the dead of night, something in the bush roared out with resounding, unearthly growls.
I got to the finish line of the first 50 tired and blistered, but determined to finish. Graham Medill's wife, Phillipa, kindly helped wash and bandage my feet, and I tagged along with Sean and Lawrence, as they headed out for the 2nd 50 grimly determined not to drop. They pulled ahead of me by the first aid station. It gets dark by 6, with only about 10 minutes of twilight. I turned on my LED flashlight and discovered that its beam was not strong enough to pick up the white course marking ribbons, some of which were placed quite a distance from the trail. I went off course but headed in the right general direction for the next few miles, though a town park and trail system, adding perhaps a mile. Once back on the mountain trails I knew the way, and the weak flashlight was less of a nuisance.
Soon, at about mile 60, Jan Hermann, the runner who I'd assumed was dead meat, came dashing along, totally revived, in hot pursuit of his Sydney friends, Sean and Lawrence. He was moving really well, as though he'd been resting all day. At the mile 75 aid station, as I was having tea and fruitcake, Bill Thompson caught me. I hustled out of there before him, but knew he'd beat me. He caught and passed me in a few miles as we picked our way through the dark forest. He was walking, with a powerful fast stride, while I was shuffling along in a poor imitation of a run.
In the light of Sunday morning I got to the 85 mile aid station and realized my pace was too slow to make the 30 hour cutoff unless I could pick it up considerably. I did. I was determined. On the fire road, a big burley guy driving a ute (pickup) cheered me on several times, "Keep on, little mate - afterwards we'll have a bea-YAH!"
I met Sean and Lawrence returning from an out and back on a section of very rough goat track. They were both carrying sticks that they'd used, and Sean gave me his. The makeshift walking sticks were a lifesaver on the steep, rocky hills, allowing me to use my arms to assist my debilitated legs and badly blistered feet. After completing that section, there remained about 8 miles, mostly fire road with a final short insulting stretch of goat track. I was on the course with the Sunday morning racers and was running so hard that, my husband Phil told me encouragingly, I looked like a really dirty 28K runner. I finished with 21 minutes to spare, elated. Bill had beaten me again but I had won my own battle with the course.
All of the times were much slower than previous years. Lyn was first woman, and Kerrie had suffered her second drop, with the same foot problem. Sean and Lawrence finished, their joint approach getting them through in great style. Indeed, Sean was so euphoric that he promptly entered Western States.
Two days later many of the runners and race personnel got together for a blowout celebration at Bill's farm, where he roasted a half sheep over a pit and good Aussie champagne flowed more plentifully than now scarce water. In the early evening darkness, as Bill stood barefoot turning the spit in the glow of the fire, I wished that more runners from the States could experience this magical place.
The 2003 edition will be held earlier, on August 16/17, so it should be cooler, and will be on a new course, going through the Glasshouse Mountains then following streams down to the ocean.
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