I could feel the warm ground against my right cheek and the sun on my back. For the first time all day I noticed the sound of birds singing in the distance. Such a peaceful moment was in stark contrast to the prior events that had lead to it. This was the Buffalo Stampede, Australia’s first sanctioned SkyRunning race and I was supposed to be charging up a mountain, not lying down! It would be another 4 hours until I could even stand unassisted, but all I knew at the time was that I was completely spent…and I loved it.
The day’s journey had begun before the sun was even up. Rain from the previous day had left the first climb up Mystic Mountain covered in a slick layer of mud and spotted with puddles that would only appear in the light of my headlamp when I was almost on top of them. For this reason we were all being extremely cautious and let Mick Donges, a man who know the course well, lead the way and I followed closely behind in second place. 50m from the summit Caine Warburton came charging past, making a bolt for the first summit in the King of the Mountain challenge. At the top, Caine, Moritz and I all made a break from the rest of the field, purposely trying to give ourselves some space for the descent down Baker’s Gully. Given the steep and slippery nature of Baker’s Gully, we had figured it would be safest to ensure we weren’t trying to descent among a large group of runners!
Caine led KSR‘s charge down the muddy mountain, while Moritz was behind me. A couple of times I ended up sliding down on my side, but could always bounce straight back up, hardly losing any forward momentum. By the bottom their was already a fair separation between Caine, Moe and I and it stayed that way as we made our way around the flat kilometer at the bottom that lead to the steep climb up to Clear Spot.
As soon as the course kicked upwards, my hands were on my knees for a long-hiking-slog towards the summit. This is the sort of terrain that I love and I was reeling Caine in quickly. We encouraged each other as I passed but neither of had a lot of breath to spare! I was glad that I had checked out the course earlier in the year as the several false summits would have probably done my head in otherwise. At the top I didn’t even look back to see who was behind me, instead diving straight into the descent towards Buckland Valley.
The combination of spectacular views of low lying clouds in the valley below, with being able to open up and run fast down the gradual descent made the approach towards “Warner Wall” one of the most memorable parts of the race. Coming down the “wall” was fast and fun and I past the spot which would be my final undoing blissfully unaware. It was along the flat stretch of road that lead into the Buckland valley checkpoint that Dakota Jones caught up with me and we began chatting as we headed towards Keating Ridge.
We were both breathing hard as we made a solid push up the gradual ascent of Keating Ridge. The small gap I made on Dakota running back down was quickly gobbled up when we hit the road again the lead us to the Eurobin Creek checkpoint at the base of Mt Buffalo. Although I thought I was moving quickly through the checkpoint, Dakota ran straight through, being looked after by his crew on the fly. By the time I left the checkpoint (less than a minute later), he was out of sight.
I didn’t have to worry about being alone for too long as I could see Blake Hose was closing in behind me. When I stopped at a road crossing for a convoy of cars, Blake finally did catch me and we set off up the “Big Walk” in pursuit of Dakota. Near the top after a series of switchbacks, I looked around and couldn’t see Blake anymore. But I knew there was a good chance of him making a surge later in the day, so I didn’t let my pace drop.
I came into the checkpoint at the Chalet on top of Mt Buffalo to be informed that Dakota was now 8-9 minutes ahead. He must have flown up the Big Walk! I was just hoping I could reel in some of that time on the way back down.
For the first time in my life, going up the couple of stairs that lead from the Chalet to Chalwell Galleries, I experienced some cramps/spasms in both my quads and adductors. Having watched Dan Nunan cramp every step of the last 40km of the Kokoda Challenge last year, this had me slightly worried. Fortunately as soon as I reach the top of the stairs the cramping stopped and did not return.
Manoeuvring through the rocks that form the Chalwell Galleries was both fun and a welcomed chance to slow down. Returning towards the Chalet, I began to see the other runners heading in the opposite direction. Seeing that Caine and Moe were in 4th and 5th place respectively had me very optimistic for a good result for KSR!
As I passed through the Chalet checkpoint for the second time, I noted that I passed through the SkyMarathon course in about 4.27 and was informed I had gained a minute on Dakota. I was feeling good and looking forward to the long descent!
A couple of kilometers into the descent I heard Blake coming up behind me. It wasn’t long until he caught me, but we decided to run together and I continued to lead. I may have even *somewhat boldly* suggested that we should work together to catch Dakota.
The rain from the previous day had had left a stream of water running down the granite face of Mt Buffalo. I was just thinking how well my Hoka One One Huakas seemed to grip to the wet rock when I suddenly heard Blake crash down behind me. I quickly turned around to run back to help him, seeing that he was clearly in a lot of pain. However, a couple of runners coming in the opposite direction got to him quicker than I did and told me to keep going. I set off hopping that there would be people at the upcoming road crossing that I could send to help him. Fortunately that was not necessary as it wasn’t long before Blake had caught up with me again. The shot of adrenaline seemed to make Blake run even faster and this time he took the lead and lead the way to Eurobin Creek.
And that was where the wheels began to fall off. Despite feeling good going INTO the checkpoint, I was shuffling OUT of the checkpoint. The gradual incline of Keating Ridge was taking its toll but I stubbornly tried to keep running. I felt like my hamstrings had packed up and left me! Up ahead I could see Blake was combining walking and running to pull away from me and eventually I realised that my shuffle was no faster than a walk, so I might as well save some energy and start doing the same.
Coming down the other side of the ridge I could run again, but I knew I wasn’t moving nearly as quickly as before. I hoped this inability to run would pass but when the sweeper coming in the opposite direction informed me that Blake already had a 3minute lead, I knew I would have a lot of work to do if I was to see him again!
Along the road that lead back into the Buckland valley checkpoint I was just hoping that things would turn around when I hit the steep stuff and would start hiking again. Matt Cooper appeared in a car beside me and offered some words of encouragement. These along was more encouragement from my parents and Dave Coombs (who had unfortunately withdrawn from the race) at the Buckland Valley checkpoint had me in a positive state of mind, but my legs just wouldn’t cooperate!
The miniscule incline of the forestry road heading towards the climb to Clear Spot felt harder than the Big Walk had. My feet were barely being lifted off the ground and I was tripping on rocks so small that I hadn’t even been aware that they were there when I ran the same path earlier in the day. But I refused to start walking; not until I thought it was steep enough to justify it!
Finally, I hit “Warner Wall”. This was my moment of truth. Ever since Eurobin Creek I had been telling myself I would feel good again once I was on steep terrain and could hike again. It was such a relief to start walking, but I still wasn’t feeling any better. “It just needs to get steeper”, I told myself. But as incline steepened, my cadence dropped to a mere trudge. My hands were on my knees, not for added propulsion, but to stop myself from falling over. Another one of the small rocks that had taunted me on the forestry road was my undoing and I tripped, stumbled, and fell onto my hands and knees. With all my strength I tried to stand back up, but I wasn’t strong enough. So I did what I could; I crawled. Like an infant I started crawling up the mountain. Looking back I know this meant I was done, but at the time I had one clear focus: continue moving forward by any means necessary!
After about 50m of dragging my tired body up the mountain, eventually I could no longer even push myself forwards with my legs. They were slipping out from underneath me and only my arms were holding me up. But those gave out too and I came crashing down onto my face. After a few moments of getting over the shock of what had just happened, I tried to get up, but couldn’t. I was done.
After several minutes of trying to resist the urge to just fall asleep (I figured consciousness was my friend!), I realised that Caine would be approaching. I knew he would stop to look after me if I hadn’t yet rung for help, so I mustered up what strength I could to roll onto my side so I could unclip my pack and access my phone. Thankfully Telstra had reception so I was able to call my parents (who were crewing for me) and get them to come pick me up and alert the race officials of what had happened.
Just as I had expected, Caine was the first to find me and I could hear the panic in his voice, but I was able to convince him to go on and I kept waiting. Grant Guise and Andrew Tuckey were the next to pass by and again, while both offered to stop and help, I convinced them to go on. The conversation I had with Brendan Davies, when he found me, went something like this:
Brendan: “Is that you Caine?”
Brendan: “Do you need help?”
Me: “I’ve rung for help. Keep going.”
Brendan: “Do you need water?”
Me: “I’ve got water.”
Brendan: “Do you need food?”
Me: “I’ve got gels.”
Brendan: “Take it easy then.”
Me: “I think I’m taking it pretty easy.”
It goes to show just how supportive the trail running community is, that all these elite athletes were ready to sacrifice their own race (despite the many hours they would have put into preparing for it), to help me. I was very relieved when I finally heard my parents’ voices and although they pretty much had to carry me to the car (which isn’t easy on a steep slope!), we got there safely. Within minutes I was planning for next year’s race.
Looking back, and after several conversations with my coach Andy DuBois, we’re pretty sure we know what went wrong. I’m not going to list those reasons, because that would be making excuses. On the day I gave it everything I had and came up short. Congratulations to everyone who managed to finish the race; I am truly jealous and plan to join your ranks next year. Thank you so much to everyone who helped to put the race together, and to all those who supported me and were wishing me well on the day.