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Wilsons Prom 10/6/2001
Article by: Sean Greenhill
Wilsons Promontory thrusts out into the Bass Strait, a raw tongue of rock and sand battered by elemaental forces blowing up from the Southern Ocean. A look at the map tells of the harsh conditions sometimes encountered here- Refuge Cove, Windy Saddle, Roaring Meg- and the name Sealers Cove is not the only evidence of tough people to live down there- in World War 2, the Promontory was closed to the public and used as a giant training ground for commandos.
Amongst the peaks, beaches and forests are an extensive network of trails. A number of Victorian- based ultramarathon luminaries, such as Ross Shilston, have used the Promontory extensively for training. So when Paul Ashton came up with the idea of a 43K, 50 Mile and 100K at the Promontory, my immediate reaction was "makes so much sense- why has it taken so long?"
I suppose, in a way, I was well trained for a shot at 100K- two weeks previous, on May 25- 26, I had run 100K over the rugged Sydney Trailwalker course. I wasn't sure of my ability to back up in a fortnight, so in the intervening period kept the running to a minimum and made sure I was as rested as possible.
In the meantime, Paul assembled quite a field of runners, amongst them Nigel Aylott, former Bogong- Hotham winner and World Rogaining Champion, and David Waugh, who had secured a top placing at February's Cradle Mountain 50 Miler, and who had a solid multisport background. The legend, Kevin Cassidy, who has finished Western States, Leadville, Wasatch Front and Angeles Crest, decided to make a comeback and shoot for the 100K.
I flew into Melbourne on Saturday morning and travelled in a rental car down to Shallow Inlet, a half hour drive from Tidal River, the principal camp ground of Wilsons Promontory- also the Race HQ, start and finish. Saturday evening I drove down to Tidal River with my mother for the race briefing. In the darkness, we could see the silhouettes of conical peaks faintly outlined against the fading light of the sky. It brought back memories of the first time I ran Bogong- Hotham last year, when I drove down with Martin Fryer and every peak we passed as we entered Alpine Country seemed taller and more impsong than the last. That time, the peak of Mt Bogong dominated the skylin. THis time,it was the hulking mass of Mt Latrobe to the left, and Mt Leonard and Oberon in front of us.
A gathering of desperadoes had assembled in the Rangers Office at Tidal River at 6.30 to hear Paul give final details. John Lindsay, a veteran of Comrades, Glasshouse, Bogong and, most recently, China's Great Wall Marathon, had showed up, as had Kevin C and a few others I didn't know- Mike Dennis, and several military types attempting the 43K option as training for a multisport event later in the year.
The 100K route, Paul outlined, started with a giant figure 8 loop that left Tidal River for the East coast of the Promontory, turned inland at Waterloo Bay, then south, ultimately emerging at South Point, the southernmost point on the Australian mainland, and then the Promontory's historic Lighthouse before heading north back to Waterloo Bay and crossing from East coast to West coast, following the beaches and trails back to Tidal River for 78K total. This would be the 50 mile option, which, it seemed, no one was intending to do from the start. The 100K would have 9 starters. Those 100K runners would then do a 22K loop north of Tidal River, to the summit of Mt Bishop, around Lilly Pilly Gully, then out to the east coast again and back to Tidal River via tracks and beaches, capped off with a final 2K loop across Norman Bay beach (Tidal River's beach) and back to the Norman Bay carpark. It looked very tough and I projected an 18 hour finish- I hoped to cover the first 78K in 12 hours. The course was not marked- we would have to rely on maps, track notes from Paul, and signage.
I ran with the Camelbak Rim Runner, becuase I needed its full 31 litre capacity- there would be no aid except back at Tidal River, so we would need to carry enough food and gear to sustain ourselves for 12 hours at least. I packed eight or so cheese sandwiches, a handful of powerbars, six or seven tubes of condensed milk, and gatorade and sustagen powder. In addition I packed a second longsleeve polypro top (in addition to the Sydney Striders longsleeve I wore all day), a wwaterproof jacket, EPIRB, mobile phone, space blanket in case I was stuck out there, compass, headlamp and pen torch. I kept the Striders longsleeve on all day, along with long tights. Kevin Cassidy and his friend Sandra stayed in our cabin the night before race day, and his gear fit into a much smaller package- he had the jackets, gloves etc, but his food intake was less, and he fit his gear into one big, two bottle bumbag. I resolved that, being 6 foot 3, I needed a lot more food than he.
"Pardon me, I'm doing a survey on idiots who hang out in carpaks at 6am." Paul Ashton's voice cut through the blackness that shrouded Norman Bay carpark just before the Sunday morning start. The RD had spent an uneasy night- he had camped at Tidal River and his food had been raided by wombats! I wondered aloud whether they were rabid, or worse... we left the carpark at 6.04am, under a black sky and cold winds that cut like a blade- I donned my second longsleeve and still felt the chill. Because of the darkness, it was hard to tell what the days weather would turn out to be, but it had rained the day before, and several days straightr before that. I ran slowly through Tidal River with Kevin until we reached the turnoff to Mt Oberon carpark, so Kevin and I switched to a powerwalk up the hill. Paul had gone on ahead, which surprised me- I knew from experience he was of a calibre similar to my own. Possibly I was still tired from Trailwalker.
The sky had hardly lightened when Kevin and I reached the carpark and set off on a dirt trail branching off on the left toward Windy Saddle and Sealers Cove. I switched on the headlamp, showing up a damp rainforest made of ferns, and a steep dropoff on the left hand side of the trail towards the gully of Titania Creek. Caution was what was needed here. Kevin dropped back suddenly and told me he'd catch up; I pushed on over rolling singletrack before emerging to a steel coloured sky at Windy Saddle, perched above the trees, between Mt Ramsay and the impressive Mt Wilson. From here, the trail gradually dropped to Sealers Cove, and was again under solid tree cover. The lamp was switche don again as I descended over wet rocks and mud, to be joined shortly by John Lindsay, a better downhill runner than I. We set a pace that seemed too fast for me, but when I mentioned that to John, he didn't seem to agree; this confirmed that I hadn't recovered fully from the previous fortnight's exertions. It was slippery, dicey going until we hit Sealers Swamp, just prior to the beach; now we ran on wooden boardwalks and were able to switch off the torches. It was 7.30am and we were passing through lush, damp forests, emerging from permanently waterlogged ground. A complete contrast was when we reached Sealers Cove beach under clear skies and headed south along firm sand.
At the far end of the beach was an inlet where Sealers Beach cut in and met the sea; there was no way past it but through the water, so John charged right in without pause, and I followed. We slogged back up into the bush and down to Sealers Cove camping ground. We missed the water, and backed up to a fixed pipe pouring out good, if somewhat stained, water. John was done first and set off as I was still mixing my powders into my bottles, but I soon caught him and we ran together, him leading the downhills, me passing on the uphills.
And there were plenty of both. The trail round the coast south to Waterloo Bay is a rocky one, that drops to beaches, climbs headlands, and descends again. It was a fine day and some of the vistas from high points on the trail, of rocky coastline and pristine beach, were magnificent. It was slow going however, and it was something like 10.30 when John and I reached Waterloo Beach, 27Km into the run. We had followed paths littered with deep leaf litter, and run along trails perched high above rocks and sea. We had passed plenty of hikers, almost all of whom seemed to hav heard of the run and enthusiastically wished us the best.
John was hobbling at Waterloo- unbeknownst to me, he had fallen and damged an ankle when running behind me, his shout of pain smothered by the noise of the sea. He tended to it at the Waterloo Bay campground as I resupplied, but it got worse and worse as we ran along the sand and duckboarding. I was feeling pretty good by now- as though it had teken me hours just to warm up, doubtless another symptom of "Trailwalker hangover". I had taken food constantly- several sandwiches, a powerbar and routine sucks of condensed milk- so I suppose I had no right not to be full of energy. I set off from John along the Waterloo Walking Track, heading inland to Telegraph Track Junction.
This trail gradually ascended into mountainous terrain; on the left, Mt Boulder, on the right, Mt Wilson. The path was fairly smooth, and in some cases made of duckboard; I made fairly good progress through open heathland to Telegraph Track Junction, which was just inside light forest. I signed off on the runners register at the junction at 11.31am; Paul and Mike had passed through just over half an hour earlier. The running course turned south along good firetrail to ascend Martins Hill, and while walking this climb all my energy drained away and I started to really struggle for the first time- probably more mentally than physically. At Halfway Hut, partway up the climb, I had a pitstop and water bottle refill, and spent several minutes sitting next to the hut getting my act together mentally. Some consolation were the suberb views from several points along the trail- views stretching from coast to coast and encompassing all of the Promontory south of the Mt Wilson- Mt Oberon Range. The sands of Oberon Bay were clearly visible, as were endless hectares of low lying trees and heath, and spectacular rock formations on the spurs of Mt Boulder.
Such a contrast to the walking track to Roaring Meg, which was flooded and required careful negotiating; at least it was downhill and I was able to recover a little, the vegetation changed to denser forests, and Paul and Mike were at Roaring Meg campground when I jogged in. They had just completed the out and back to South Point. I spent 10 minutes talking to them before they departed for the lighthouse; just after they left Kevin Cassidy, to my surprise, jogged in. John had told me Kevin had seemed in trouble when he, John, passed earlier on; I had assumed he had dropped out and told Paul that was likely. I was glad to have him there though; if nothing else, it was obvious that the sun was going to set not long after we left Waterloo Bay the second time, and working together would be important then on unmarked trails.
One thing was remarkable about the descent to, and climb out of, South Point- it took over an hour and we saw not one other person that whole time. The trails were rough and rocky and navigation was sometimes tricky; in short, it was challenging stuff and I enjoyed it at that point. At South Point a tongue of rock juts into the water with a sign...
SOUTH POINT Southernmost Point On Australian Mainland Lat. XX XX Long. XX XX
Forget the numbers on the sign... I enjoyed the rest of the "south end" of the run, climbing back to Roaring Meg, then good rolling trails all the way round to the Lighthouse, with a little firetrail mixed in, from rainforest at Roaring Meg to dry, inhibited growth on the approach to the Lighthouse. As you run down around the headland, off to your right through the trees the Lighthouse and associated buildings hunker on a pillar of rock thrusting up out of the water; on your left, to contrast, intimidating South Peak casts a shadow over the whole complex.
The trail drops to the waterline, then climbs a bloody steep concrete path which I cursed all the way up; I was trudging, spent, stuffed, but still jogged the last part of the rise out of pride and trotted down to slap my hand on the sandstone brick of the Lighthouse. Kevin followed me in just afterwards.
We just beat the sun bck to Waterloo Bay, helped by good scenic trails the whole way. It was around 5.20pm when we started walking/ jogging up the same Waterloo Back Track we had done earlier; once again, returning to Telegraph Track Junction. Back at Roaring Meg I estimated returning to Tidal River around 8pm; this still seemed feasible. Torches did not need to be employed yill we were almost back to the Junction; we steadfastly held off using the lights and instead let our night vision develop and show us the way. The night was clear, yet not yet cold, unfortunately no moon.
We filled out the register at Telegraph Track Junction and took it with us, as we were the last two; Paul was now 90 minutes ahead. We had been slowed as we approached the Junction by chronic pain in Kevin's Achilles; his ability to run was now seriously impaired, and now the last unpleasant act was to commence.
It's firetrail from the Junction down to Oberon Bay; according to Paul's data, 3.6km long. I nicknamed the track "the Flying Dutchman Trail" as it never seemd to end. That 3.6km took over three qurters of an hour, mainly walking. We reached the beach after passing the campground, spoke to a young woman who guessed that we were racers, and headed north in the blackness. Navigation was tricky, so we kept to the banks of Growlers Creek that runs around the back of the creek, then when it cut across the beach at the north end we followed it down towards the surf looking for a gap in the rock face that confronted us; after all, we were at the foot of Mt Oberon, and its conical shape loomed over us in the faint starlight.
The night before at the prerace briefing, John talked about a training run he did down at the Promontory last December- he had come through Oberon Bay and been unable to find the track out. Now, neither could we. We crossed the cold water of Growlers Creek and started scrabbling over the rockface, first to the left, then to the right. We couldn't tell where the "track" had actually gone along the beach; Paul had made some insrructions avout where the exit trail lay in relation to the beach trail, but we didn't know if we had been on the beach trail, or just on hard sand. We headed right, crossed and recrossed the waterway, just as the wind picked up from the south. Chilled, I donned my jacket, just as Kevin started to muse that we might be out there all night. My mouth was dry, I was seriously concerned, but comforted that Kevin was there as well, and I think he recirprocated that- had we been alone, it would have been far more serious. He suggested we head back to the left again; but we looked round one last big boulder to our right and saw a gap in the rocks above us. We had found the exit track after at least half an hour searching.
Our delay would, by now, surely have been noticed; I wondered how my mum and Sandra would react to these developments. What hadn't helped was that Kevin had filled out his time on the Telegraph Track Junction next to John Lindsay's name. so that Kevin's mark on the register lay blank all day, so that those back at Tidal River thought that he was possibly lost or injured out there in the early stages of the course.
At Little Oberon Bay around the next headland, we crossed a creek and dropped to the beach. We briefly looke dright but found no trail, so we headed left down to the edge of the sand, followed trhe beach to the end... rocks. No trail, no exit. Back to where we crossed the creek, we heded right, upslope... no trail. We headed back to the beach, then headed right immeadiately up a very steep, loose slope. At the top, was a tent, open fire on the sand, abandoned packs, but no people- a recently vacated campsite. We searched round, but again found no trail, and our calls went unanswered, so we had no choice to descend to the beach once more, down to the end again, for more fruitless searching.
Kevin, after another delay of at least half an hour, took the bit in his teeth and hauled himself up a steep slope with his hands, me right behind, and after some climbing found ourselves standing on the trail. Where it came off the beach we had no idea; but we were now seriously overdue, so we headed off right away to Tidal River, on the other side of one last headland. Just before rounding the headland (by now I was walking easily, in order to stay with Kevin, who was really fighting a battle with his own Achilles tendon) a light came round the trail towards us- Davis Waugh, who had taken second place in the 100K and who had now decided to look out for us. We rounded the headland and David rang in to Paul and said where we were- we could look down on Norman Bay beach and saw two lights running along the sand- David figured these were Damon Goerke and Richard Rossiter, who had set out on the second loop of the 100K- he told us Nigel had won in 12.07, and Paul and Mike had dropped at Tidal River.
Myself, I decided that I would not go out on the second loop, becuase Kevin was not fit to continue and I didn't want to risk unfamiliar trails in the dark alone (I had visions of another beach episode) and I was completely psyched out by getting lost- mentally, just bummed, physically still fine. We reached thew south end of Norman Bay Beach, set off on the last trail to the carpark, and walked intogether for a finish after something like 16 1/2 hours out there (still awaiting full results). Tired, but relieved. I could have run most of the way back, as I felt pretty fresh, but I doubt I would have navigated my way in alone; possibly, not coped mentally with getting lost alone in the dark. Staying with Kevin might have slowed me down a d get in that night!
I spoke to Paul the next day and was surprised to find that, instead of being DNFs, we were credited as finishing the 50 mile option. The last two!
I don't want to comment on the course layout, because Paul hinted that there would be changes next year, but the terrain that the Wilsons Promontory Ultras are held in is tough and fantastic, comparable to Cradle Mountain without the altitude, but slowed up by the beaches and the significantly shorter amount of daylight. It would seem that finishing the first loop before sunset is crucial, as no one who arrived at Tidal River after dusk went on, especially given that the trails are unmarked.
Paul, good luck with this one, best wishes for the 2002 edition.
Sean has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :
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