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  • Writer's pictureMark J. Keenan

The 14 Hour Party

‘Tomorrow is the big party day.’

It wasn’t going to be easy and Sam, the race director who said these words, knew it. Eighty kilometres is a long way, and this was no easy course. But the point he was making made a lot of sense to me.

I’d trained for five months to get to the start line, and spent the best part of the past week planning and packing my gear. Race day should be a celebration of all of that preparation and hard work; it should be about having fun, enjoying the course, embracing the experience.

The next morning, I clung to this idea, as the hood of my jacket flapped in the onshore breeze, and the waves whipped the shoreline, in the grey-blue light of an overcast dawn.

Weather aside, it had a party feel.

There were a lot of people; several hundred, with both solo and team entries planned to start simultaneously. Many of them talking to each other, hugging newcomers as they arrived.

Excitement filled the air as we marshalled behind the timing pad. Runners tightened their hydration packs, and wished each other luck, before joining the announcer in the final countdown.

Crazy, crazy conga (Leg 1)

I clicked the button on my watch and set-off through the car-park, towards the bitumen road, completely surrounded by other runners; and my own thoughts.

What if I didn’t make the cut-off? I’d never run this far before. Not even close. I was entering the unknown and had no idea if 17.5 hours would be enough. But I hoped so.

After a kilometre, we left the road. My mind calmed as soon as I hit the trail. The sandy track weaving through overhanging bush, the familiar feeling of moving my body through nature settling me.

You know how to do this.

We reached the first section of single track and came to a halt, as a few hundred runners tried to squeeze through a narrow path in the trees. I slowed and walked; there was no point trying to rush ahead, I had a long way to go.

The conga line continued for a while, eventually breaking apart as we made it to some wider trails and hills. The hills were quite runnable but I resisted the temptation and stuck to my plan, hiking up them, and saving my energy.

I used the climbs to eat and drink, and to go over my nutrition arithmetic.

I’d never spent any time planning my calorie, fluids, or salts intake on previous runs. For some reason, it hadn’t seemed important enough. Even on the various circa 50k ultras I’d basically winged it. This time I’d done my research, and I’d even done a couple of test runs to work out how much water I was losing each hour. I really wanted this day to be the best it could be.

We ran through the coastal forest, until we emerged into an area with only low scrub and undulating sandy hills. The sun was low on the horizon, silhouetting the runners ahead of me. It was an incredible beginning to the party.

Greens party (Leg 2)

I arrived at, and departed from, Checkpoint 1, eight minutes earlier than my plan showed. I wasn’t surprised. I’d been conservative in estimating my time, and my plan had been to take it easier and keep some reserves for later. We also seemed to have run nearly a kilometre further than I expected. Not unusual for a trail event. In any case, instead of worrying about these things, I filled my bottles, reminded myself of the party tag-line, celebrated how good I was feeling, and took off into Boranup forest.

As I ran the first section of this leg, I was passed by a number of relay runners who’d started at the checkpoint. They were all so supportive of me and the other solo participants. Having someone tell you what you’re doing is incredible can really boost your confidence. I really appreciated it.

By this stage, I think most of the solo runners had settled in for the long haul. There wasn’t much talking as we overtook, or were overtaken, by each other. We were all running the same race, but differently; and we were all, I guess, occupied in our own heads.

I tried to stay out of mine, focusing instead on my surroundings; the thick green and brown of the ground vegetation; the thin, white tree trunks reaching towards the pale, blue sky. How small we feel, in the grandness of nature; how unique we are, in our ability to experience it vividly.

As we neared the approach to the next checkpoint, I was starting to feel it. No matter the training I do, it seems around 28k is the point when my body decides it’s time to talk to me. To tell me I should stop.

Fortunately, I’ve learned not to listen, and so I ignored my legs complaints, and carried on, until I reached the up-and-down trail leading to Conto’s campground, and Checkpoint 2.

My wife, Karen, and youngest son, Jack, were not meeting me at this checkpoint, but I had sent a drop-bag. And while there was nothing particularly exciting in the bag, just a few jelly beans and glucose tablets for the next leg, I had thrown in a fresh top. Surprisingly, changing shirts was actually a great way to shift my mental state, and I was in and out of the checkpoint in a short time, and feeling pretty good!

Beach party (Leg 3)

The sandy track, before and after the Conto’s checkpoint, is the only out-and-back part on the course. It was great to be able to provide encouragement to people coming in, hiking up the hill, at the end of the second leg.

I was now 40 minutes ahead of my plan. Feeling confident, I decided to send my wife a message with a revised, earlier, arrival time at Checkpoint 3. Karen and Jack were meeting me at the next aid station, so I could refuel (and perform any required maintenance!). I was looking forward to seeing them, and had started thinking ahead to it, as I started climbing the hill which would lead to the coastal trail.

The sun had come out from behind the clouds, and it was suddenly hot! By the time I’d reached the crest, I was really feeling the heat. Fortunately, I’d run this leg in March, as part of a recce training weekend, so I knew we’d be heading towards the ocean, where it would be cooler.

As I reached the long, slight downhill, to the coast, I started running again. Ahead of me, the ocean smashed onto granite boulders, sending white spray into the air. Trail runners raced across the rocks, in front of nature’s midday show.

After the rocky coastline, there is a segment of the course which winds up and down, following the dirt road. I still had over 40k to go, and some tough terrain ahead, including a 4.5k beach segment. So, I took it easy, keeping a decent pace, but allowing myself to conserve some energy.

Eventually we reached a single trail section of the Cape to Cape Track, where it winds along the cliffs. The vegetation is only waist high, allowing a commanding view of the coastline, north and south.

As we crested a high point, I saw in the distance, a short stretch of white shoreline. I recognised it as Redgate Beach and I knew, just beyond it, was a much longer section of sand. About 4.5k, in fact. And we would soon be running on it. Or, more precisely, walking on it.

The section of beach prior to Checkpoint 3, the White Elephant Cafe, seems endless. Just when you think you’ve reached the end, you round a corner, and there it is; more sand!

I took it in my stride. Literally. One step after another. I didn’t waste energy trying to run, or even trying to walk fast. I just put one foot forward, then the next, and enjoyed the incredible views, and sound of the ocean. A brief shower passed over, and I put my arms out, letting the water land on me, enjoying the coolness of the rain and the wind.

I have never had anyone crew for me, and it was simply magical; having my wife and son there to cheer me in, to help me refuel and restock, and hug me before I leave; there is no other way to describe it.

It’s my party, I can cry if I want to (Leg 4)

Refreshed, refocused, and with a new shirt, I headed on. I was now an hour ahead of my plan, but more importantly I was feeling strong. And this was something I’d not experienced before after 50k.

My plan for the last 32k of the run had assumed I would be moving at snail’s pace. But I wasn’t, and for the next hour or so, as I passed the mouth of Margaret River and started climbing the brown, boggy tracks on this section, I started to wonder what time I might be able to finish in.

Solo runners finishing in less than ten hours, receive a large wine glass as a trophy. These people are elite. If you finish in under 14 hours, there is a smaller glass up-for-grabs.

Based on my previous ultramarathons, I expected to take around the same amount of time for the last 30k, as I did for the first 50k. Because, obviously, I’d be exhausted by the fifty kilometre point. But here I was and, obviously, not exhausted at all!

It’s a mistake to start thinking about the end of a race, when you are so far from the finish. As your mind does the calculations, over and over, about what ‘might be’, you lose focus on ‘what is’. Pretty soon, I started feeling a bit low.

Endurance events are well known for being an emotional roller-coaster, and so I knew what was going on. I’ve met many people who run long distances, who have, or have had, mental health challenges. I’ve pondered what it is which makes people do these things, especially when, at times like this point for me, it seems like it’s exaggerating, not diminishing, the emotions and the mind’s responses.

I think it’s the movement, repeated over and again, like a mantra. And the connection with nature; the ground, the sky, the weather.

As I came up from an inland section, onto a ridge-line, the wind blew across me, and I smelt the sea. I stopped thinking of the end of the race, and came back to the moment. I started running, one kilometre at a time, counting down, making up a little song about how I would soon be at the next checkpoint. All of the negative thoughts drifted away.

As the sun dropped below the horizon, I strapped on my headlamp. I was looking forward to this part of the day. Some might find it strange, but I find something comforting in running trails at night. It’s like you are in a bubble of light, floating along in the darkness, following some mystical path.

Party on, Wayne. Party on, Garth (Leg 5)

Reaching Gracetown was incredible. Seventy kilometres down, only twelve to go. And there they were again, Karen and Jack, with grins from ear-to-ear, as I ran into the checkpoint.

I was feeling good. No, I was feeling great!

Bag restocked, potato chips eaten, I looked at my watch.

It was 7pm.

Two hours.

Twelve kilometres.

‘OK, gotta get my bag on. I’m going for broke!’

I started off and nearly reached the path. I turned and ran back to hug Karen and Jack.

‘I’ll see you at the finish. I’ll be there before 9! Before 14 hours!’

A few hundred metres of bitumen and I was on the trail.

I’d never run here before. Rocks and boulders, lit by my headlamp, stretched out into the darkness. On my left, somewhere at the bottom of a steep drop, I could hear the waves pounding the cliff.

I bounced across the rocks, climbed up the boulders, nearly slipping a couple of times.

Make it, don’t break it, I reminded myself.

Somehow, I managed to maintain a good pace. Three kilometres in half an hour. I can do this!

The sandy trails appeared again. Far, in the distance, little spheres of light moved silently in the darkness. I could see we were going to be running up and down the hills ahead.

It took 15 minutes to complete the next kilometre. It’s not going to happen, and I want to enjoy this. I sent a message to Karen, to say I’d be at the finish around 915pm. As much as anything, I think I was trying to take the pressure off myself.

I kept moving. I kept running. Eventually reaching the turnoff to leave the track, and heading inland towards the finish line, at the Cheeky Monkey Brewery.

As I crested a long, steep hill, a younger runner caught up with me. He told me he’d never run more than ten kilometres before, and yet here he was at the 76k mark with me. I’ve heard some incredible things, but this was right up there with the craziest of them. We ran together as the road flattened out, and I mentioned how I’d thought I’d make the 14 hour but had decided it wasn’t possible. I thought maybe he’d be held back running with me, so I said I was going to walk for a while, and slowed down. This was a turning point for me. As his headlamp disappeared into the distance, I started to regret not staying with him, and keeping the pace; so I started running again.

Running east along a fence-line, I could hear the announcer at the finish line. I checked my watch. It said I’d done 79k, so I’d only done 9k on this leg. Surely, I still had three kilometres to go. I wondered if they’d reduced the length of the finish leg to make up for the extra distance in the first two.

I had fifteen minutes.

Hope flooded in! Along with anxiety!

I lengthened my stride, and increased my speed, all the while wondering how far it was to go.

On the other side of an open field, I could see someone walking, their headlamp dipped low. Beyond the runner, the dark outlines of a row of trees, and behind those, the lights of the brewery and the finish line. Or at least, I hoped so.

Reaching the trees, I could just see the gantry marking the end of the race. But it was on the other side of a fence, and a road. And the course markers were taking me to the left, away from the finish.

I couldn’t believe it, but I kept running anyway.

I reached the gate at the end of the paddock and crossed the road, and ran down the track towards the finish, just as rain started to fall.

I crossed the line at 13 hours, 52 minutes and 47 seconds.

The race director congratulated me, handing me my sub-14 hour wine glass. I told him I needed to call my wife and son.

They were amazed I’d already arrived, but were on their way. I was so sorry. Of course, I knew they’d forgive me, but I was disappointed I’d messaged them.

By the time Karen and Jack arrived, I felt like I might explode. Their smiles and hugs, their obvious pride, adding to the incredible sense of achievement I was already feeling.

It was an amazing event.

It was my best run ever.

It was a big party day!


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