Week 7 – Alpine National Park

We acknowledge the Traditional owners of these lands, the Taungurung people and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future.

Another weekend of my National Park being dictated by my growing obsession with Ultra running.  This weekend (15-16th February) I was completing my first ultra-marathon – The Archie.  To qualify for takayna65 in March I needed to have successfully completed an ultra-marathon (an ultra
qualifies as anything longer than a marathon, 42km).  The Archie was my only real option – it was perfectly positioned a month before takayna, it was 50km (or so I thought!) and the 2000m of elevation gain meant I would be in good shape for takayna.

I’d mentally signed up in November 2019 and since losing my licence had been trying to convince any number of friends and family to come up to Mt Buller as public transport wasn’t a viable option.  Eventually I found a taker – my younger brother Dougal was keen to get away for the weekend. He is living between Melbourne, Aireys Inlet and our family farm and was more than happy to slog his
away across the state.  After another terse week at work I managed to squeeze out a few hours early so I could make the train to Seymour, where Dougal met me, and we hotfooted it up Mt Buller.  We had to reach the Village by 7pm for a mandatory race briefing and there was no way I was going to miss that after all the bullshit I went through to get out of work early.

Preparing for my first Ultra event was a lot more time consuming than I’d imagined – from finding accommodation to sourcing the extensive mandatory gear list and of course, the training.  Come race time, I felt the hard work had already been done.  Being in the exposed alpine, every conceivable layer was necessary along with a fixed plate compass, first aid kit and whistle, just to name a few.  I had to purchase some new gear and looking at the forecast, I thought I would need do didn’t want to waste my money on crappy stuff.  From entry fees to gear, food, fuel and lost hours of work, what was supposed to be an inexpensive hobby was adding up.  There had also been a chance the race would be cancelled due to the January bushfires, but thankfully the areas of Mt Buller we were running were spared.  The big brother race to The Archie, The Hut 2 Hut, had to alter its course and rather than do a 100 kilometre out-and-back course was two laps of the Archie 55km route.  The Hut 2 Hut race took place on the Friday and was still underway as congregated in the Mt Buller Cinema for the pre-race briefing. On the drive from Seymour we’d passed through pelting rain and I felt for those dedicated souls out there, plodding through 4000m of elevation gain in the dark and the cold. 

 

Participating in the smaller distance race always gives me a little reality check, as I think I’m a trooper for attempting to run 55km, but in comparison they are doing it twice as hard.  Regardless of which event I’m in, I remind myself that everyone is running their own race, against their own challenges, and as Lucy Bartholomew says, there is no ‘just’ when it comes to races.  Saying I ‘just’ did the 55km is unfair to myself – it was going to be a struggle and I should be proud of the work I’d put in. But I’m getting ahead of myself here… Back to the briefing.

If I wasn’t nervous before, the pre-race briefing certainly dialled my anxiety up to 100.  Talks of medic-air lifts and initiating lightning protocol had me reaching for my phone and renewing my Ambulance Victoria subscription – actually.  One the briefing was done, I lined up to get my mandatory gear checked.  I thought I was smart in brining my smaller snake bandage but it didn’t pass the test so had to buy a longer, bulker one.  But I got the tick of approval and was able to pick up my race bib and GPS tracker.  I was ready to race!

 

The next step was to find somewhere to sleep for the night.  The plan was to drive out to Howqua Gap Hut, however there was a big ass excavator across the access road.  Instead, we drove around a bit and decided the upper carpark looked pretty cosy.  There was already one guy there, so we found a corner to set up camp.  I was in my tent and Dougal in the back of the Landcruiser.  I got myself sorted for the morning and went to bed, feeling pretty calm and ready for rest. 

 

It was an early start – I was up at about 5.30 to eat breakfast and get my gear together.  After a windy night I was expecting to wake up to dark, ominous skies, but was relieved to find it was shaping up to be a clear, sunny day.  It didn’t take long to pack down the tent and drive the few kilometres up to the start line.  I scouted high and low for coffee, but there was none to be found.  At 6.30am the starter gun went off, with just enough light to guide our way as we set off from the Village towards the Summit.  The route was supposed to head up Mt Buller summit to start with, but due to the forecast they decided against it, which suited me just fine.  After passing the summit we turned off the main track to Four Mile, where one of the race directors (obvious due to his raging mullet) was giving everyone high fives as we descended into the first technical section. 

It was hard to maintain speed as I negotiated rocks, roots and branches, trying to ignore the adrenaline and just take it easy.  I’d pushed up the hills early to get ahead of the pack and was thankful for it as the single track was slow going and I could only go as fast as the person ahead.  The trees cleared as I reached the exposed ridge, which gave me serious déjà vu of the Razorback at Cathedral Ranges. I slowed down to appreciate the gorgeous sunrise over the mountains.  The track was hard to locate and I relied on the runners ahead to guide me across the escarpment.  From here the track levelled out, and I found myself behind a group that were maintaining a decent pace, so settled in as we wound our way down to the Howqua.  An uneven step in a moment of distraction shot pain up my left leg, and I managed to save it before rolling my ankle entirely.  I pushed on, the initial shock dissipating into a constant but bearable pain. 

 

By 8.15am I’d reached the first river crossing, right before the first aid station. The river was wide and fast, and a bit of a novelty.  We’d been informed about the multiple river crossings, but the river was wider, deeper and murkier than I’d expected. The rocky bottom meant I had to keep my feet low and shuffle my way forward, trying to land each step in the gap between rocks.  After a short uphill I arrived at the first aid station, where I was super surprised to hear a loud ‘Hilary!’.  I wasn’t expecting to see anyone I knew and was stoked to see Jacqui from the Mt Buller camp volunteering.  After a brief catch up, I set off again, enjoying the blue skies and dense bush as the track meandered along the Howqua River. The next 17km followed the river to Pikes Flat, where the track climbed back up Mt Buller.  I was settling into a bit of a groove and feeling good, however still walking the uphill sections. 

I crossed the Howqua so many times I lost count.  These brief periods of sunshine as I crossed the river were a delight and I relished the opportunity to soak up the mountain goodness.  After passing Richie’s Hut it wasn’t far to the 8 Mile checkpoint, where I was greeted with wide smiles and potato chips.  Hurrah!  They were keeping an eye on the radar and said it looked clear until that evening – just the incentive I needed to keep moving!  I continued onwards, headphones in, eyes open and legs pushing forward.  The final aid station before the climb began was Pikes Flat, where I wolfed down some watermelon and quickly set off.  As I crossed the Howqua for what I would soon discover to be the last time, I was affronted by a steep, winding hill. These would be the first of many, as my pace dropped dramatically and I settled into the uphill slog.  My water bladder was dry – I hadn’t filled up at the aid station and now had 14km and 800m elevation gain to get through with no water.  Oops. 

 

I was leapfrogging with another guy who was finding the hills as much as a challenge as I was – we joked about their savageness and felt for those who had to tackle these twice, in the dark and the rain the day before.  As I pushed on ahead, the steep hills slowly started to level out to a gradual, bearable uphill. We were in full sun as we wound up Cornhill, and I stuck to a walk while keeping my eyes peeled for a stream so I could refill.  Thankfully I finally found one, and finally broke into a jog, feeling revitalized by the cool, mountain water.  I caught up to a few guys ahead of me and had a chat to a few of them as we wound our way up to Howqua Gap Hut.  Most of them were looking pretty worse for wear – my legs were certainly tired, but mentally I was feeling good.  I stayed strong on the hills – just power hiking my way up, one foot in front of the other.  When I passed the middle-aged males, I gave them a big smile and wave, but internally I was giving myself high fives for staying strong, both physically and mentally.  The final stretch to the Hut was a bitumen road which had a bit of traffic, a reminder that the outside world still existed. 

 

Arriving at Howqua Gap Hut was a milestone – the bulk had been done, now there was just 12km to go, as well as a 590m climb.  I stocked up on fruit and used the loo before setting of for the final leg. These trails were familiar to me which made it easier mentally as I knew what was ahead.  They were single track, and I was alone so enjoyed the yellow flowers and bare snow gums as I climbed towards the summit. 

 

After reaching the outskirts of the Village, the track wound under chairlifts and around trails, all bringing back memories of the running camp back in December.  Track’s we’d practised our downhill running on were now dug up and unrecognisable, as I felt sad that a place where I’d made a memory was destroyed.  An impromptu aid station brought me to tears at the 50k mark – a group of women were cheering me on as I wound my way along the contour track, all shouting encouragement and positivity.  The achievement of what I was doing was starting to sink in, and before I knew it, I was wiping away the tears streaming down my face. 

 

A few kilometres ahead I was startled by a creature bursting from the bushes, very surprised to find it was in fact Dougal, who’d be waiting for me to pass for quite a while.  We walked together for a bit before the track peeled off away from the Village, the track joined the summit path for the final time.  Looking up towards the summit I questioned how my already exhausted legs were going to get me up there – it looked like forever away!  People returning from the summit were passing me on the trail, as I passed on genuine encouragement and praise for their amazing efforts.  The cloud had rolled in by this point, and I was thankful for the cover as I left the trees behind, summit bound.  It was a slow slog up, but before I knew it, I was at the cairn, tearing out my page in the book that awaited all runners.  Every runner had to tear out the corresponding page in the book  to their bib number and show it on completion to prove you’d made the summit journey.  I wasn’t aware of this fun ritual until reaching the summit, which made me realise every runner’s number was odd! After a brief photo it was back down, as I allowed gravity to take control and propel me down the mountain.  As much as I wanted to be done, I took it easy on the grass, wary that a knee or ankle could give way at any second. Once I reached the gravel and then asphalt, I let go, and bounded my way to the finish line.  I passed a group of people who said ‘wow, she must have run the whole way!’.  I smiled to myself, knowing that if that had been the case, I would have crossed the finish line hours ago.  But they were still impressed – as was I.  I was feeling strong and elated as I rounded towards the finish line, completing the 52.8km course in 8hrs 50min. It was fantastic to have Dougal at the finish line for a hug and to ply me with fresh watermelon and water!  I received my race momento, a super handy vac flask and unloaded my pack of the rubbish I’d picked up along the way which consisted of the standard gels, bottle tops and random soft plastics.

 

It was about 3.30pm by this time and people that I’d passed throughout the day were tricking across the finish line in a flurry of hugs, high fives and tears.  Dougal and I still didn’t know where we were camping that night, so headed off, feeling electric and energised after an amazing day in the Alpine.  At Mirimbah we pulled up next to the river, as I was desperate for a swim and a wash.  After crossing the river multiple times that day, the temperature was familiar but still took my breath away!

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