Mark J. Keenan
A Tale of Two Ultras
This is the tale of two ultras; a story which begins on the golden sands of a picturesque beach on the southern coast, and finishes, in the dark, on a loosely paved footpath in the hills.
In mid-October, I packed my car with all my trail-running gear, some downloaded tunes, and my youngest son, and set off on a long drive. Our destination was the port city of Albany; a town renowned for the breathtaking beauty of it’s rugged coastline. And we were going to run it.
Perth Trail Series (PTS) had organised a weekend of trail running events. The first was an ultra-marathon, run either individually or as a two person relay. I’d signed up to run the complete 48k course myself. My son would do the first section to the cut-off, approximately 21k, and then head back to town to eat fish and chips, and wait for me to arrive. Later, we would head out for the night run, set on the trails of Mt Clarence and passing a special light installation commemorating the ANZACs. Then on Sunday morning, we’d tackle the hills around the town centre - three peaks and 21k for me, two peaks and 14k for my son.
As plans for running weekends go, it seemed like an excellent one. On the Saturday we walked down to Middleton Beach to check-in for the ultra. The weather bureau predicted rain and storms, but there was more blue sky than clouds when we arrived. After everyone was signed up, we hopped onto a bus to head out to the starting point of the course. It was quite a long ride and, since the check-in was also the finish line, there was plenty of time to ponder the folly of signing up for the run, and to wonder if we should have taken a whale-watching cruise instead.
Arriving at Mutton Bird beach, we were directed down some stairs towards the start gantry. I’ve never seen such a sensational location for the start of an event and it’d take something really special to beat it. Golden sand gently curving against grass covered dunes, to create the bay. White peaks, rising and falling in the turquoise sea, as waves formed and collapsed on the beach.
It was spectacular. And, for a short time, it managed to divert our attention from the task at hand; running back to where the bus had collected us.
The distraction wouldn’t last long and, following a race briefing, we were soon running.
After a short section of beach, followed by a sharp climb, we moved onto the Bibbulmun Track.
Albany is the southern terminus for ‘the Bibb’ and the course would take us along the trail until we reached civilisation, where we would tackle the three hills around which the town is built.
The first section of the run was on an undulating, sandy track. Low grasses and scrub, greens and browns, with splashes of wildflowers, surrounded the track. It was warm, but I found my rhythm quickly and settled into a steady pace, resisting the urge to move faster by reminding myself of the long distance ahead.
At around the 6k mark, my son and another runner, passed me on a slight rise. I stopped and took out my phone to take a photo. I didn’t expect I would see him again until after I’d completed the ultramarathon. Probably in around 7 hours.
I was wrong.
Before I’d run another ten metres, and before my son had left my sight, I misstepped, pushing my right foot was backwards under the leg in a way it’s not designed to do.
It hurt. A lot.
I swore. A lot.
My gut churned and I thought I was going to be sick.
It started raining.
I stopped and rested for a minute, then tentatively moved on.
The ligaments across the top of the foot throbbed with pain, but as I walked it started to feel a little better, and my stomach settled. I drank some water and kept going. Some runners passed me, checking if I was okay. After a few hundred metres, I picked up the pace, increasing to a slow run.
A friend arrived and asked me how I was going. I told her about my foot and she slowed down to keep me company. It’s one of the things I love most about the trail community; the camaraderie and selflessness. Everyone is in it together. I cheered up as we continued together for the next few kilometres, chatting and enjoying the outstanding scenery. Around each bend, an incredible vista, another postcard view.
My foot was still sore but I knew I would be alright; after all, I’ve sprained ankles and feet before and still managed to push through. I just had to take it easy for a while and everything would be fine. I would finish the ultra and might even still be able to do the other two events.
I was wrong again.
As we left the coast and started across the peninsula, towards the mid-point aid station, my foot really started to ache.
I slowed to a walk, telling my friend to keep running and that I’d be okay. I realised I had a tough choice to make and I needed to think it through. I could continue on, and try to finish the ultramarathon. In doing so I’d risk making the injury worse. I’d done something similar last year, continuing to run with a calf injury. Ultimately it sidelined me from running for months.
Or I could call it quits and, hopefully, get back to the trails in a couple of weeks.
It sounds like an easy decision. It wasn’t. But by the time I’d reached the checkpoint, still within the cutoff limit, I’d made up my mind.
Albany ultra was my first ever DNF (did not finish). Weeks later, and knowing I made the right choice, I still feel disappointed. But I don’t feel sad.
And that’s because, while I didn’t get to complete any events that weekend, I did get to spend time with my son; to see his inspirational efforts, completing a total of 41k of challenging trails over two days, and to eat fish and chips and play Battleships with him.
In an incredible display of grit, he went from completing the 21k along the Bibb, to a 6k night run on the trails around the ANZAC centre on Saturday evening, and finally a 14k event taking in two of the Albany’s steep hills on the Sunday. He was proud. And so was I.
I also volunteered as a marshal at the Sunday run at the top of Mt Clarence, watching everyone struggle as they crested the hill from the southwest and then directing them onto the next challenge. There were more than a few groans of despair when, on cresting the hill a second time from a different direction, I sent them up the war memorial stairs.
In the days following the Albany running festival, I took it easy on my foot, only doing a couple of functional training sessions, and avoiding running completely. By the next weekend, it was feeling good enough to test out on a short road run. I pulled up fine and decided I’d head out on the trail for a couple of hours later in the week. I had no problems at all. I was starting to feel really good.
Now I had a decision to make.
In 2017, I’d missed the inaugural Ultraseries WA (USWA) Feral Pig event due to injury. It had been one I had really wanted to do. The event was on again in 9 days. I was trained, injury free, and still disappointed at having to DNF; obviously, I had to sign up! But which run? 50 kilometres or 50 miles?
In the end, I made the smart choice. As much as I was attracted to the 50 miler, I’d not specifically trained for it. So I went for the 50k instead.
And I’m glad I did, because that Feral Pig is a deceptive swine.
For a start the actual distance is 53k. Then there’s the impact of the event starting at midday, when the sun is just getting it’s heat on. And the terrain; sure, there is a lot of runnable trail, but there’s also climbing a few hills and rock-hopping to deal with.
I knew all of this before I committed, yet it was still going to be a lot tougher than I expected.
Like Albany, we checked in for Feral at the finish line, and I’m now convinced this, and the associated long bus ride, is all part of the run director’s intentionally tampering with us psychologically. On the plus side though, the bus ride allows everyone to have a chat and a laugh, and release some of the nervous energy that inevitably builds up before the start of a run like this.
By the time we arrived at the start point for our event, the Brookton Highway aid station, the sun was well and truly out. A few people huddled under the marquee knowing there would soon be no option to find a shady place to rest.
While we waited, I looked through the list of 50 and 100 milers who’d already passed through the checkpoint. There were some crazy times on the list. I was pleased to see a few people I knew had already run by and they seemed to all be doing great.
At precisely noon, forty five of us set off down the Bibb, along the ‘scenic route’, back to where we’d started our morning.
It felt good to be moving and my pace showed it. I knew the early section of the course, as I’d run the first 14k once before. And I had been reliably informed this was the easy part. So, after the first couple of kilometres, I intentionally slowed up, reminding myself I had a long haul ahead.
In the run to the first aid station at Mt Dale, there would be a lot of people passing me, and the occasional miracle moment where I would get by someone. Of course the glory of passing someone would usually be diluted by the realisation they were running a much longer course than me. In any case, traffic wise, this was the busiest time on the track. Which, of course, meant I got to meet a few lovely people I’d not met before.
Trail runners, especially in endurance events, are awesome. I don’t know if it’s because although we all have different drivers to be ‘out there’, we all understand what it takes to ‘stay there’. In the hurt locker. The pain cage. After all, wherever you are, even if someone is there in support, you are the one who has to take the next step. Or maybe it’s not that deep; maybe we are just a weird bunch whose personal oddities make us understandable to each other.
Back to the run.
After getting to the top of Mt Dale there is a pleasant surprise. Beautiful views and, better yet, a long down section. Later in the race, when I’m tired and just wish a freshly made bed would appear in a nearby clearing, running downhill is not always the best. But before then, when my legs are relatively fresh, I love it.
Of course, what goes down, must go up. Right? Hang on, that’s not true is it!
Except, it seems, in trail running events.
I reached the bottom, climbed the next rise, and reached the 20k mark, at almost exactly 3 hours.
I was happy. For a short while anyway.
I’d been warned the section past Mt Dale was more difficult than the section prior. I now know ‘more difficult’ means ‘quite a lot more difficult’. Over the next three and a half hours, I would travel another 16k. I would spend time with a friend who was struggling with nausea, eat a couple of slices of the best orange ever at Beraking aid station, meet someone who had decided to complete the Feral 50 miler as their first ever trail run, feel completely overcome with emotion and fatigue, race through a 3k switchback section as if I’d all the energy in the world, take a wrong turn, and finally arrive at the Allen Road Bridge just as the sun started touching the hills to the west.
At Allen Road, I changed shirts and grabbed out my headlamp. I wouldn’t need it for a while but I really didn’t want to have to stuff around with my pack again. I filled up my water and electrolytes, stuffed a few lollies in my mouth, bid farewell to the vollies and the other runners, and headed out.
Climbing Mt Hall as the sun went down was something else, almost mystical. There were only a few runners around and I spent long periods of time by myself, moving through a scarcely treed landscape, climbing over rocky passes, in the waning light.
I had been looking forward to this part of the run. To be weary, and alone, on the track at night. I know it sounds like a strange thing to say, and I can’t explain why. But it was how I felt. How I still feel, now I’ve done it.
At one point I crossed a section of the trail where the trees had been cleared. I turned off my light and looked towards the sky, into our galaxy. I felt so small.
And yet so much a part of it all. It was incredible.
“We are made of star stuff.”
Carl Sagan once said this, on his TV documentary show called Cosmos. I watched it when I was growing up, and I remembered it right there, staring up at the stars.
For me, it was worth every step just to get to that clearing.
But, I still had quite a few more to go.
And they were going to be the toughest mentally.
I can’t recall exactly when I’d had enough but it was somewhere around 4k from the end. I’d been recently passed by three runners, and then a friend of mine also went by. It was pitch black, deadly quiet, and the trail was winding back and forth, up and down, through a never ending forest!
I hardly ran at all in those last few kilometres.
I just walked and walked, on and on. Constantly checking the distance on my watch in some vague hope I’d misread the numbers and was closer than I thought.
I passed the final Bibb campground and was careful not to wake the sleeping hikers, while secretly wishing I was one.
Finally, ahead of me, I glimpsed a light.
The end was in sight!
I ran the last section, down to the carpark, across the road and into the finish chute.
A handful of runners, relaxing in chairs, finish line volunteers, and a couple of spectators, clapped me as I crossed the line.
9 hours, 39 minutes.
It’s not a fast time, but it’s one I am proud of.
Endurance running isn’t for everyone and, while I can’t say I loved every minute of these two ultras, I can say they make me feel alive, they help clear my mind of some of the junk which builds up there, and, I think, they make me a better person.
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