The melancholy sound of Xavier Rudd, the steam rising off takeaway coffee cups and the pale mist lifting from the valley combine to offer a hint of warmth against the frosty air as Dave and I descend to Scenic World. We thread through the groups of nervous runners and bags of gear searching for a quiet indoor posse. Amongst the bustle a lean guy with big brown eyes sits quietly, calmness radiates off him . I sit down opposite enquiring where he’s from.
‘Dunedin. My family doesn’t even pretend to be interested in my running any more they’ve stayed in Sydney and are more excited about visiting the zoo today.’
‘This is a zoo!’
I fish a large tube of voltaren gel out of my drop bag and place it on the table.
‘I’ve got a sore hip, IT band probably. Do you think I should take this with me?’
Mike raises an eyebrow.
‘You could rub a lot on now, should be good for all of half an hour, at least with a bung IT you can still walk.’
Ben arrives I introduce him to Mike, Ben stares at his race number, it takes him a few seconds to place why the name is familiar. They are both veterans of Western States, different years, same pacer. I decide we need a photo. Dave and Ben cluster together, I gesture for Mike to join them. Ben looks from Mike to me, his eyes widen as he mouths to me.
‘I’m getting a photo of three trail running superstars. I know he’s good otherwise why would he come all the way from Dunedin to run here?’
Later Ben will explain that Mike holds the record as the fastest Kiwi to complete the Western States.
I take a few snaps of the electricity running through the crowd as the first wave of runners head off. I turn around and spot a couple of Aussies on the side line.
‘You two are supposed to be starting now aren’t you?’
‘Yeah but we decided to hang back for a later wave, give those guys a chance, we’ll chase them down later.’
‘Yeah I’m doing the same.’
‘Good luck aye’
We watch the third group start. A flash of white catches my eye accompanied by a bang and a thump. A rectangular object bounces on the asphalt. I realise a drink bottle has been dropped, it’s owner is desperately pushing her way back through the sea of runners to retrieve it.
‘I really hope her race improves.’
The first few kilometres are an out and back. I can hear my feet brushing against the hard grey surface of the road. There are lines of cheering spectators despite the early hour. I high-five a few kids who think the lady in pink and blue is a hero. The still, clear day is beginning to warm up as we drop down the Furber stairs into the shade of eucalyptus forest. The lower valley’s ferns remind me of NZ. I’m behind a pair of big calves shod in Hokas. The Hokas stumble whenever the terrain is uneven.
‘What kind of Hokas are those. Are they any good?
The calves stumble again.
‘They’re Speedgoats. Yeah they’re ok. I did a 100 miler last weekend, not sure how this is going to go.’
I have an idea how it will go but stay silent concentrating on Big Calves’ description of the trails around San Francisco where you can, and he does, run ultras every weekend.
I pass him on the uphill near the first aid station. I still have plenty of water but the real reason I keep going is I’m afraid to stop. For the last five weeks I’ve had a sore heel. Unable to run pain-free I’ve cycled, lifted weights, done yoga, stretched and tortured myself using a foam roller, a spiky rubber ball and watching other people run. I’ve made multiple visits to a physio, a bloke who specialises in running gait analysis and a massage guy. I’ve messaged all my running friends for advice. I’ve read Bryan Powell’s ‘Relentless Forward Progress”, ( a bit out of date). On the recommendation of the running gait analyst I bought Hokas which I’m wearing for the third time ever. I dislike their ugly shape, wearing them I feel like an elephant trying to do ballet. I miss the ability to feel the subtle mood changes of the trail beneath my feet. I resent having to tie shoelaces. But the cushioning might help me finish this race, if I don’t trip and topple over one of the massive drop offs into a ravine first.
Not far from check point one I spot the first casualty limping towards me. His left gastrocnemuius is held together with brown tape and dust. The look of utter devastation on his face halts my self pity in a heartbeat. I pat him on the shoulder of his shattered dream.
‘So sorry mate.’
On the dusty fire trails somewhere between kilometre 15 and 20 my left hip starts to complain resuming the quarrel it initiated when Dave and I went for a short run the day before. For a few kilometres I consider whether this spells disaster or a minor setback. The test is whether the pain will merely be bad company or throw a tantrum. Xavier’s lyrics bounce in my head.
‘Breathe, breathe in the air
Set your intentions
Dream with care.’
Tribes of eucalypts either side of the dirt road bend and stretch, their glossy heads silvery grey in the distance, sun-bleached green close up. Strips of curly bark and decaying leaves brush the orange earth and pool in the dust. The cloudless blue sky stretches overhead like a tarpaulin drawn tight and uniform sealing in the heat close to the hard-baked earth. This is a great surface for fast travel but I maintain my modest shuffle, both hips are irritable.
The first big climb of the day is the Golden Stairs, I pass a few runners but the effort of doing so barely seems worth it, I know they will all overtake me again on the flat. It’s still early though and I surrender to impatience and pass a few more, passing feels good as I’m able to go at my own pace but we are soon at the top where I’m overtaken. The Tarros Ladders are exhilarating, I love the rock climbing using natural hand and foot holds as well as ropes. I ask the runner behind me how she is finding it.
‘You’re doing great!’
Marshalls supervise this technical section.
‘Are you here to film people who slip?’
I’m disappointed the climbing doesn’t last longer as the focus distracts from discomfort. We travel up and over Mt Debert and another series of undulations take us to Dunphy’s Camp and aid station two. I collect some water and head up Ironpot Mountain, the view from the top over the plains and mature eucalyptus forest is impressive, canyons are visible in the distance their striking orange cliffs naked and raw. The landscape has a pared back directness that reminds me of the locals, bare, hard rock, cloudless skies, abrupt ascents and descents, and stark temperature switches between sun versus shade.
We have a narrow out and back to tackle up the top, foot placement is crucial as the rocky outcrop is narrow with steep drop offs on either side. At the end of the out we wait while the marshal tinkers with his scanner. We can’t continue until our race numbers have been recorded. I use the wait to get out my phone and snap a few pictures.
‘This is our lunch break.’
I check my watch it is indeed noon. Nobody seems too concerned about being held up. Three guys from Gundungurra are playing didgeridoos on a rock in the sun, primal soulful music that fits the landscape perfectly.
‘Follow, follow the sun.’
The afternoon sunshine travels with me all the way to the dusty field that doubles as check point three. I refill my water bottles, grab a couple of slices of watermelon and some crisps from the bowls lined up on the ancient trestle tables and head out. Two women wearing blue squad run tee shirts and carrying poles are travelling at about my pace, they pause to take a picture and celebrate when we reach the 50km marker. We are half way only in terms of distance covered but it’s a morale boosting milestone. I spot a lone runner trying to take a selfie and offer to take his picture for him. We chat as we jog on. He has done the race before and recalls leading the way up the steps to Nellies Glen.
‘Best save some energy for Nellies.’
I can see the hill in the distance. Stair climbing in the shade despite the extra energy we’re expending I feel cold for the first time since we started. Part way up my companion stands aside ceding pace setting duties to me.
At the top I’m reunited with team Squadrun, the view is so enticing I would have kept running straight ahead if they hadn’t called me back to the course. Gratefully I follow them into Check point four the Katoomba Aquatic Centre, the 57km mark.
‘What’s your number?’
A volunteer goes searching amongst the lines of drop bags returning with mine which contains a change of clothes, a second pair of trainers and various food items I thought I might want. All I take from the bag is a woolly hat and an extra snickers bar, though I swap a drink bottle pre- loaded with electrolyte powder for an empty one. I dump my rubbish into the drop bag and hand it back. More watermelon and some crisps are stuffed into a plastic bag to eat while I shuffle and I’m out the door.
There is a slight breeze now and the chill I felt while climbing Nellies accompanies me as I head along Katoomba back streets and reserves. Despite the flat grassy terrain I’m not travelling fast enough to keep warm. I stop and pull my rainbow striped polypro long johns on without taking off my shoes. This is an awkward manoeuvre even when your hands are not numb. I must have looked like a clown because several runners stop and ask if I’m okay. I wave them on and mission accomplished rejoin the procession heading towards Echo Point and the Three Sisters.
Local residents have come out into their backyards to observe the spectacle. They appear to be struggling with what to make of the drama unfolding before them. Is it an adventure, a feel-good drama or a freak show? Some clutch glasses of wine, most peer hard into the twilight searching the face of each actor in order to gauge the appropriate response. Approaching 60km of travel most of us wear the fixed mask of a zombie so spectators largely settle for the safety of a wave or a clap.
‘Love yah tights.’
The pink glow of sunset against the olive gum trees and the burnt orange canyons combine with the easy terrain to lift my spirits. Later I’ll fondly recall this section as one of the highlights. The guttural sounds of flocks of invisible birds screeching in the valley below feels eerie but exciting. One particular species of bird cries like a ringing bell which serves to underline the fact that time is passing. The 60km point marks the moment where I felt confident I will go the whole way. Ben’s words float back to me:
‘You can’t really pull out till 60km and if you get that far you may as well keep going.’
Even though I know it would be better to soldier on to maximise distance covered in daylight I stop to take a few snaps.
‘Are you okay?’
‘This is so damn beautiful look at that sunset!’
A small group of runners together descended the steep Giant Stairway towards the heavy metal bird band. The steel railings standing between me and the 400m drop feel icy under my bare hands.
‘Those birds are hungry for runners.’
At the bottom of the stairs a series of wooden benches prove perfect for removing packs to get out high visibility vests, pull on gloves, woolly hats and turn on head torches. When we resume running through the dank Leura Forest I ask the women behind me if she wants to pass.
‘No I’m grateful to have some company down here it’s a bit spooky.’
To pass the time on the dark trails we share stories of NZ runs we’d done while avoiding random rocks, puddles and patches of mud. Somewhere out in the dark lie the Leura cascades but our vision is restricted by our torch-light to ferns, trail and the occasional marshal till we emerge from the forest and the lights of Katoomba bounce onto the horizon.
The dazzle and warmth of the Fairmont Resort is a welcome change at 70km. I venture inside the heated building to the flush toilets, walking across plastic covered plush carpet. Back in the cold I stand wolfing crisps while a volunteer kindly takes my water bottle across to the water taps and fills it. I must look tired because others were simply directed where to go. I head back out thinking 10km till check point five.
‘Tomorrow is a new day for everyone
Brand new moon, brand new sun.’
Even flat trail takes a long time on tired legs. I’m passed by a few people and catch up to a few. Over Lillans bridge and past the Wentworth Falls we pass a few car loads of people drinking, singing and cheering. Ben mentioned that he got clipped by a car’s wing mirror last time he ran this section. I keep to the verges.
At Queen Victoria Hospital I sit down on a chair for the first time while I dig out a spare torch from my drop bag. If the batteries in my primary torch give up I don’t want to muck around switching batteries.
‘24km to go.’
It’s flat road to Kedumba Pass followed by a big downhill, (650m over 8.5km). A couple of experienced runners have mentioned this section is a good place to make up time especially if you’re chasing a sub 18 hour finish. My Plan A with a perfect race build up and no issues on the day was sub 18 but I’m working to Plan B – completing the race. Downhill is painful. The temperature drops randomly then rises a little only to plunge again.
‘Slowly it fades
Slowly we fade
Slowly you fade.’
The section between Keduma Pass and the final emergency aid station at the 91km mark passes in a slow motion blur. We’re watched over by a fresh moon accompanied by a lethargic batch of stars swept about by a breeze that blows on my neck like the breath of a Dementor.
‘You’re not in Azkaban now Sharron!’
I follow the high visibility vests and bobbing head torches in front of me. We are doing the last brutally long, slow climb.
‘If you could choose would you rather get to the top by gondola or escalator?’
‘I’m happy to do stairs.’
Above the final aid station the dirt road takes us back onto the single track and into the enchanted Leura forest. Marshals mill around in the gloom endeavouring to keep warm, a few have lit small fires. I hope they have thermoses of tea.
‘You’re all endurance athletes you are doing a fantastic job.’
I follow two South Africans chatting to each other in Afrikaans, my feet adopt the rhythm of their walking poles click, click. We’re at the base of the Furber stairs now. There are 951 of them, we are 1.2km from the finish line. I turn and ask the runner behind me if he wants to go past, he doesn’t. I haul on the metal railings with my arms to give my legs some relief. We catch up to those ahead of us, a sea of bobbing head torches mark the path to the top. We can hear the finish line music spilling over the cliff edge.
‘Spirit bird she creaks and groans.’
High visibility vests and head torches come off, we assemble our best game faces and stumble blindly into the bright lights of the finish line. A marshal places an orange and black towel covered with the race logo around my shoulders. I walk to the bag drop area and wait till an exhausted volunteer has time to ask me my race number.
‘How long have you been here?’
The girl looks up at me and smiles.
‘I can’t remember.’
I thank her.