Great Southern Endurance Run

17, 18, 19 Nov 2017

181km Trail Run



Race Report - My First 100 Mile Ultra

With a few days now having passed since the most epic, longest and hardest single run ever, here’s a few more thoughts about the GSER.

It began in the damp pre-dawn fog and mist, a host of runners gathering at Mt Buller the day after heavy rain.  At 5am sharp the race started with more than a hundred torch beams probing the dark fog on the ascent to the Mt Buller summit. The moment I started I suddenly realised I’d left something essential behind in the car – my trekking poles. I’d just have to do without. Up to the summit of Mt Buller we went, and then came 4 Mile Spur. This was a long 1200m descent into Howqua Valley with some careful rock scrambling over slippery sharp rocks being required. On one of the gentler sections my right thigh slammed into a protruding log, bruising my quad, something that would give me grief in the many long miles still to come.

A quick drink at the small aid station at Gardners Hut and then on I ran, up the Howqua River on easy gentle tracks, that became a road, climbing steadily up the valley. Then came 8 Mile Spur and the long ascent to The Bluff. I missed not having my trekking poles, so I grabbed a stick and used that instead. At 1726m, The Bluff is a high windswept alpine plateau, above the treeline. The cloud was low and rain began to set in. A quick stop near the summit cairn to put on the rain jacket and then on I went, discarding the stick I’d used as a trekking pole on the way up. There was a clap of thunder and pellets of sago snow or light hail came hammering down as I passed over Mt Eadley Stoney. At last, upon reaching Bluff Hut the wild weather abated, I was now on fire trail, and it became warmer and warmer as the trail wound its way down into the Howqua Valley once more. Finally at the 45km mark, I reached the first substantive aid station and checkpoint of the course – Checkpoint 2, “Upper Howqua”. I was about 8 hours in. I stopped for the first time on this race, bolted down a peanut butter sandwich, refilled my pack with water and food for the next leg, then set off again.

Again there was gentle upstream valley running for a short while, through lush green meadows and many more river crossings. It meant for constantly wet feet, something I would pay for dearly many long hours later in the race. Then came the endless long climb of Mt Howitt, another lofty alpine peak at 1742m. For this long climb I found myself another stick to use as a trekking pole, which I again discarded upon reaching the summit plateau. Throughout the day the clouds and sun came and went, and once again on the highest ground thunderstorms threatened and more light hail pelted down. This squall was shortlived however, and the sun began to weakly show itself as I approached one of the true highlights of the course, the famous Crosscut Saw. This chain of high alpine peaks with the path going either around or directly over them, was spectacular. Far away and below were deep dark green valleys shrouded in mystical cloud. The Crosscut Saw led me to the very aptly named Mt Buggery, which was exactly that to get over and leave behind. Then came Horrible Gap, which was exactly that, tortuously slow and impossible to run. I had to step carefully over sharp rocky ground, the track indistinct, ducking and weaving around sharp rocks, fallen logs, and snowgums, their mottled green bark glistening in the damp. It was along here that I met a couple running together. They expressed horror at the sight of the back of my leg, I turned around to see that it was indeed caked in dried blood, and wet new blood was covering the dried blood, the whole back of my leg was sticky with it and a horror to behold. “Must have been a leech in the last valley”, I thought, and kept going.

The top of Mt Speculation seemed to never come, but when it did, there was a campsite full of schoolgirls there. They cheered me on, they seemed to already know my name until I realised they’d just read it on my bib, and they promised me that the next aid station was just 5 minutes away. And indeed it was, and I arrived there tired, cold and in pouring rain. It was about 13 hours in, and soon the light would begin to fade.

Probably my biggest mistake was not changing into dry socks here. It was cold and wet and I wanted my stay at this checkpoint to be as quick as possible so I wouldn’t get cold and stiff. I left the checkpoint, running or walking along very rough overgrown fire trail that led gently downhill. At the damp and grassy Catherine Saddle the fire trail gave way to rough single track climbing in zig zags up a broad slope that became narrow ridge. It was here that the route became very slow and difficult. I found myself another stout stick to use as a trekking pole, and this one I would keep and carry with me all the way through to the very outskirts of Bright. The rough and faint trail traversed a series of conglomerate rock slopes, wet and slippery, great care had to be taken here. I was overtaken by a man and his pacer, moving quickly. Unknown to me at the time, he would become the only competitor who was both older than me and ahead of me. The conglomerate traverse gave way to agonizingly slow sidling of the mountain range through dense undergrowth on a muddy track that ducked and weaved, it had to be walked carefully. At last it climbed up and reached a high point called “The Razor” just as the light was fading. The view from here is etched on my mind, the last rays of sunlight lit the summit of The Viking, and in the fading light I could see a flash of torchlight near the summit of the Viking, meaning that someone was already up there. Another runner near me said, “That’s The Viking and that’s where we’re headed next”. And then darkness fell.

What came next was one of the slowest, most arduous and most frustrating sections of the entire course. In the totality of night the route seemed to descend endlessly, ducking and weaving in pointless and disorienting meanderings through dense thickets of trees. Their silvery green leaves heavy with water droplets dazzled in the torchlight, and a maze of fallen logs criss-crossed the path so that almost every step involved straddling a log or negotiating an obstacle course. It seemed just never to end. At last it began climbing, steeper and steeper, until the near vertical rocky bluff of The Viking stood in the way. The only way up was up a steep crack, a tiny rope ladder had been placed here, along with a carillon of dangling loops and ropes, supposedly to assist us in climbing up. It required all my strength to haul myself up while still clutching my trusty walking stick in one hand. The long-awaited summit of The Viking revealed itself soon after, cold and breezy in the dead of night. And the descent down the other side was predictably steep. What then followed was endless downhill, excruciatingly slow on a tortuous winding track, muddy, slippery, strewn with logs and hopelessly disorienting. I was mostly alone on this long tiring section, only Abimanyu, with whom I had been swapping places repeatedly throughout the race, passed me here. After finally reaching Barry Saddle an overgrown fire trail provided some relief from the tortuously slow single track.

When the trail began a long descent I broke into a steady jog and kept it going, passing several people, all of whom later passed me in return. I knew I was paying a heavy price for this increased pace, my feet were now screaming at me and blister formation was well advanced. My jogging pace stopped abruptly when the long descent gave way, as expected, to a relentless climb. At long last, 22 hours and 20 minutes into the race, I reached Checkpoint 4 – East Buffalo Road. It was still the dead of night, but at least it wasn’t raining.

The people at the checkpoint were very helpful and kind, and my pack was fully replenished with water, electrolyte and snacks. I bolted down another peanut butter sandwich and a mouthful of protein powder mix. The long awaited change of socks happened here, but it was too late. The fresh pair of socks, with their stiff dry cotton weave, actually made my feet more painful than the soggy wet socks that I had just abandoned. So setting off from this checkpoint at around 3am was at a hobble, I realised I would never get my feet back and there were still 87km left to go. The route followed a partly overgrown fire trail, and the night was growing old. Was it my imagination or did it just keep going up? The ever-climbing trail forced me to a walk. It began to get light as I continued climbing, and was fully light when I finally reached the summit of Mt Selwyn. From here the route went to slow single track again, and I was forced to pick my way slowly through tussocks of grass and an obstacle course of sticks and rocks. After a slow steep descent on very sore feet the course reached a road, which I then followed to the next checkpoint, Checkpoint 5 – Selwyn Creek Road. I had now been on the go for 26 hours 30 minutes, 108km in. There were still 73km to go.

Lying in the crash pad at Checkpoint 5 was David Von Senden, who would become one of just 2 finishers in the 60-69 age group. Not long after I began labouring up the steep hill after the checkpoint he surged past, obviously very much awake now after his power nap. He soon disappeared into the distance ahead. The road climbed steeply until the course departed the road and resumed the now familiar terrain of alpine woodland with fallen logs and an indistinct path that was hard to follow and impossible to run. From here to the next checkpoint was some of the most difficult, steepest and most undulating terrain of the entire course, and my feet were screaming for me to stop. David, who had surged on ahead earlier, had lost his way and came up behind me. We would walk to the next checkpoint together. Abimanyu also took a wrong turn here and was now somewhere behind. The high alpine ridge heaved up and down, and what I thought was The Twins was actually an unnamed peak, and what I thought was the road we’d follow to Saint Bernard was just a fire trail we wouldn’t use. There was a tortuously steep descent into a steep saddle and way above us there was a trig station atop a dome shaped grassy summit, that was The Twins. We finally arrived atop this peak after some steep climbing, and the summit was enveloped in thick wet cloud with a cold wind blowing. Course markings were few and far between on this denuded and exposed alpine terrain, but by following the obvious lie of the land we reached the treeline and another steep descent which finally led to the fire trail and the long awaited Mt St Bernard Checkpoint – Checkpoint 6.

The Mt St Bernard checkpoint was a miserably cold and wet roadside outpost, it was now raining steadily. The misery of the situation was offset completely by the lovely and helpful volunteers who attended to our every need with friendly efficiency. David’s pacer, a charming young lady, took charge of David here, and so I hobbled out of the checkpoint alone.

Any time not moving with feet as written off as mine made it hard to start again and so I limped out of the checkpoint, shivering and crippled, forcing myself ahead until my body loosened up again.  The next section was 6.5km of the Mount Hotham bitumen road between Mt St Bernard and The Razorback. Along here I experienced the worst weather of the entire race. A freezing cold wind blew across from the southeast, flinging driving rain and scudding low cloud. This was the first time ever that I have worn both a fleece and a rain jacket while running. David and his pacer came past and would remain ahead of me for most of this section.

It was a great relief that to finally reach The Razorback ridge and to leave the bitumen road behind. I was still shivering cold. About a kilometre further on I took a left turn onto Bon Accord spur and thus began the long descent to Harrietville. The rain stopped, the sun came out for a couple of minutes, and I could take off my warm layers and continue in normal running attire once more. There was no running here, my feet were just too sore for running downhill, so it was just a case of painful walking into the ever warmer and ever more humid valley.

At the base of Bon Accord Spur I caught up with David and his pacer again, plus another female runner, who were in the process of crossing the fast flowing stream there. The next 6.5 km into Harrietville was on gentle single track with a flat or easy gradient. Despite the gentle grade of this section, I just couldn’t run it, so I powerwalked as best I could. Finally, 147km in, and with about an hour and a half of daylight remaining on the second day, I reached the Harrietville checkpoint – Checkpoint 7, located in a peaceful green parkland shaded by established European trees.

I knew I would have to stay awake for the best part of another night – my third straight night without sleep – so I filled my water bottle with a 50/50 coke/water mix, the caffeine in the coke would keep me awake. While I was bolting down an avocado sandwich, Abimanyu came through the checkpoint, having corrected his earlier navigational mistakes. He was still going strong would surge ahead now, this was the last I’d see of him. David on the other hand was slowing down, and I left the checkpoint before he and his pacer did, and I would complete the entire last section alone.

Again, the staff at the checkpoint were wonderful, and again it was brutally hard to start out from the checkpoint on such painful feet, hobbling and limping on my stick like an old man until the body loosened up enough for me to walk freely. There were a few kilometres of main road before turning off onto fire trails, which soon began climbing steadily into mystical mountains once more. While the trail kept climbing and climbing, darkness fell. I reached the Wet Gully Track, which turned north and continued climbing gently. Unlike most of the fire trails on this course, these were not rough and stony but smooth and gentle, with the occasional unexpected nasty hill. Although it made my cry out in pain, I forced myself into a slow jog along some of these sections. I was alone the whole time, markers were few and far between, but I just kept relentlessly pushing on, knowing that every step was a step closer to the long awaited finish line. Every 5 kilometres was a 5 kilometre marker, 155km, 160km, 165km … at 170km I could sense the end was in sight. I could see the lights of Bright, or I thought it was Bright, and then all of a sudden the trail climbed steeply once more, a relentless long hill that had to be ground up, and all it meant was more pain for my feet on the way down the other side. There were the lights of Bright again! But then, no, the track swung away in the opposite direction, there was mud, frogs, the 175km marker! Why was the track so devious? I stopped to look at the map, yes I was still on track. It had to end soon. My body was breaking down, starting to give up, I couldn’t keep going much longer. Then there was a fence line, we had to go around some farm, then the track swung again, then I was in an open valley, suddenly I knew where I was, the finish line would be where this valley met the Ovens River, it was nearly over! I discarded my trusty stick which I had been carrying with me for about the last 30 hours, and broke into a hopeless shuffle along the road and thence the bike path into town. The last kilometre were the only steps in the entire course that I had run previously. This was the vaguely familiar route along the bike paths and the caravan park to finally go under the bridge and into Howitt Park, the finish line! I was in a daze, it was 3am in the morning, and the finish line was quiet with hardly anyone there. In fact, I missed the finish line completely, thinking it was around the corner behind the Brewery like in the Buffalo Stampede. But then a voice called me over – “This way Ashley.” There was the finish line, just a couple of volunteers were there, I stumbled over it, slumped into a chair, it was over.

It was 3:28 in the morning, 46 hours and 28 minutes after leaving Mt Buller, my first attempt at 100 miles unbroken, the race of a lifetime, an all time epic, never to be forgotten, one of the longest, toughest and most gruelling races I will ever do. In the end, it is the people who you do it with when you’re there, and who support you on the course or remotely from anywhere around the world, who make it all worthwhile. Without the support and motivation of all these friends, both on the course and elsewhere, I doubt that I would have finished this race at all.

Ashley Burke


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Race Report copyright © Ashley Burke 2017. Not to be used for any purpose without permission.

Web page created 25 Nov 2017, last updated 25 Nov 2017