Runners and cyclists stood shoulder to shoulder on opposites sides of the starting chute. The 1250m peak of Mount Donna Buang loomed over the picturesque town of Warburton and we were all just about to commence our intense journey to the summit. While the cyclists would take the 17.6km route along the winding road, we runners would be taking the more direct 7.6km trail.
The run started with a fast 1.4km, beautiful stretch beside the Yarra River and I was happy to sit back in the top 10 while letting some of the speedier road runners set the initial pace. There was no point over exerting early on, as the flatter running abruptly ended when we reached (what is recognised to be) Australia’s steepest residential street, Martyr Road.
As I made my way up the asphalt wall, I started to pick up a couple of places to sound of cheers from the handful of spectators that lined the street. I was trying hard to resist the temptation to surge a little to catch the leaders who were at this point only 20-30m ahead of me (which is further than it looks on a steep incline!), knowing very well how easy it is to go too hard early on in vertical races.
After cresting Martyr Road I had to opportunity to open up on the (only) short stretch of downhill, in which I moved up another position and gained a little bit of ground on the leaders. This was also the point that we entered the single track that would take us most of the way to the summit. I actually found myself reminiscing of the Sky Rock n’ Run Marathon that I had run the previous week, as the steep, narrow, fern lined track through the forest had a similar feel to much of that race due to the soft, wet ground and somewhat bumpy footing.
During a short stretch running alongside a paddock I could see first, second and third all steadily running just up ahead and as the course steepened I started to close the gap. Soon after crossing an aqueduct, I found myself in third place and focused on maintaining a steady running rhythm while reeling in the front two runners.
Right when I found myself sitting just behind second, the race leader stepped off to the side of the track to catch his breath and let UK orienteerer Ralph Street and I go past. At this stage I was happy to let Ralph lead the way for a while as he seemed to be running strongly. I found on some of the steeper sections I could keep pace with Ralph’s running while I power hiked, so I took the opportunity to give some of my tiring running muscles a break.
It was on one of these steeper sections that I excused myself past Ralph and tried to build a lead with a mix of hiking on the steeper stuff and running the more gradual inclines. Every time I put a little bit of distance between Ralph and me, he would catch it all back up again on the runnable stretches. This game of cat-and-mouse continued all the way to the 5.4km mark when we reached the road and started to run side-by-side along this foggy 1km stretch (which we were sharing with the cyclists).
We could only see about 30m ahead as we pushed each other through the cloud, opening up on this flatter stretch and preparing ourselves for the final 1.2km trail to the summit. The sound of a vuvuzela resonated through the fog and I knew we must almost be at the end of road section.
I was trying to find that extra gear when we hit the trail again, but my legs felt like they were starting to give out from underneath me. Still Ralph sat just behind me, even when I started hiking on inclines I would have run earlier. Eventually the inevitable happened and Ralph pasted me and I desperately tried to hold pace with him. My legs were refusing to run on anything remotely steep and I was forced to attempt keep up by hiking. When we reach a junction signalling 600m to the summit, Ralph picked up his pace and left me watching the gap between us steadily increasing. I tried to go faster but my legs (and even arms) were burning, and I simply couldn’t keep up.
In just 600m Ralph managed to put 46second into me, winning in 53:23, while I came through (relieved to have finished!) in second place in a time of 54:09. Another UK orienteerer Peter Bray rounded off the runner’s podium. However, we had all been well and truly beaten by the cyclists, with Cyprus Monk being first to summit in a phenomenal time of 48:27 (and a total of 6 cyclists had finished before Ralph). The female contest between cyclists and runners was a little closer, with winner Georgina Beech (1:07:02) being the only cyclist to finish before the first runner, Judith May (1:09:57).
This novel race was a really fun way to cap off a busy 3 months (after 11.5months away from racing!) and was a fitting finale for my 2015 races. The time off has renewed my appreciation for every opportunity I get to run in mountains all around the world. Thank you so much to all those who have supported me throughout the year, and bring on 2016!