• Elliot Cooper

A Run in the Time of Corona

Updated: May 16

Elliot: The Blue Track

In the year and a half since I met Matty Griggs, we’ve spent many hours running together talking out running goals. Hardrock was the first goal. If there was one race to run in the world that was it. But we’ve talked out the numbers and run the only qualifier in Australia for the past two years only for it to be excluded from Hardrock qualification due to course changes. Then last year Hardrock itself was cancelled due to the course being buried in an unusual amount of snow. This year the Barkley has been cancelled, Western States has been cancelled: Hardrock will certainly be cancelled. In Australia this trend was already well established with smoke and fires and the pandemic has reached us. Everything is cancelled. It’s time for the running community to step back, look at the world as it is now and create new goals and challenges that don’t involve organised events, high-fives or more than one other person.

As running culture was being swallowed up by these disasters, AIS was completing the resurfacing of its Olympic track. It was red, and now it’s blue. Around Christmas time Matty had the idea that we should go and run the first marathon on the new surface. When the smoke subsided we did that. Then he had the idea that we should run the first 50km. We did that, too.

We’ve had two sessions on the track since then: a 40km and a 30km. Those sessions - being shorter - were easier. But they were also easier simply due to the fact that there were less circuits of the same damned 400 meter track. Without actually doing it, it’s hard to know how mind-numbing it is, but I have an idea of how to explain it. I remember back in uni one of my teachers wistfully saying “where would we be without Gabriel García Márquez?” Having read Love in the time of Cholera I felt compelled to supply the un-asked-for yet obvious response: “we’d be less bored, and we’d have more time.” But secretly I knew that when you get past halfway you know that you’re on the way to achieving something that few people experience. Track running is the Marquez of the ultra-world.

Matty has caught the bug; he’s become infected with the idea of running around in flat circles for 24 hours straight. He did it last year without much practice, forcing himself to lay down 200km. After he finished he staggered and puked. I supported him throughout the race, support which extended to holding him up while he took a shower, because his legs would not. That was the most tapped out I’ve ever seen him. Probably the most tapped out I’ve ever seen anyone. I was proud of Matty that day.

He’s preparing to do it all again, only better. He’s got a plan to find his way into the Australian team. He’s done the maths. An A qualifier is 240km. An improvement of 40km is improbable, but Matty has been working hard and he’s in with a chance for a B qualifier at 230km. If he gets that and someone with an A qualifying run can’t go to the championships, he could be on the team. He just needs to show up and give it everything.

Matty’s enthusiasm for this event is potentially transmissable. When Neverest - my first big race of the year - is pushed back to May, I start thinking that I’ve been running track with Matty, so in a way I’m also trained for his race. I get as close as staring at the Sri Chinmoy 24hr sign up page, hovering my cursor over the sign up button. I could do 24 hours of boring blue track circles, I tell myself. But Mutsumi talks some sense into me and I stick with the original plan. I’ll be there again to support Matty from the sideline, watch him gut it out, get him what he needs to keep going. As a consolation for my own half-baked blue circle dream (or night terror), I’ll do the midnight marathon after Matty has finished.

Almost everyday another race is cancelled; the event-scape is an expanding wasteland. On Sunday before the event all races shorter than the marathon are cancelled and spectating is advisedly discouraged. On the Tuesday the AIS announces that their facilities are now reserved for elite athletes only. At the AIS people who run for 48 or 24 hours are just mediocre.

Matty: What I remember.

We all know now what extraordinary times we are living through. Each day seems to bring a new challenge and a new disruption. But even with the madness of bushfires and weeks of thick smoke 2020 has already become my best year in running. In early January my wife got on a plane with our 18 month old son and flew out of the thick bushfire smoke lingering over Canberra, around a tropical cyclone and was flying over Iran when the Ukrainian Airlines passenger jet was shot down. After a tense few hours I learned that Lilit and young Gabe had made it safely. I would be alone for five weeks. Cue heavy training.

My partner in insane distances, Elliot Cooper, was up for some distance and together we racked up some serious long runs, our longest being an 80km, 12 hour backyard ultra style race from my garage. So by the time my wife and son had returned from Armenia I had put over 700km in my legs and was well on the way to overtraining. Luckily the return of family duties meant I didn’t have to busy myself with running anymore, just in time to start tapering for my goal: the 24 hour race at the Sri Chinmoy track festival.

As Coronavirus starts to sweep the world I’m called in to work in the Department of Health’s taskforce, tracking down the contacts of people with the virus. The work further distracts me from running and my 5am shifts force me to cut my sleep short. As race day nears, events are being cancelled left right and centre. Sri Chinmoy cancels their ancillary events and asks all the long distance runners to minimise spectators and provide a list of all support persons. The number of participants and support crew is sure to be well under the 500 limit for outdoor events so as I left work on Tuesday to commence my “recovery” leave I was confident that the race will go ahead. That same afternoon the race was cancelled. The AIS were requisitioning the track for the use of elite athletes preparing for the soon-to-be-cancelled Tokyo Olympic Games.

In the statement by the Australian Sports Commission Board they state that although they understand the importance of “community” events, the AIS was designed to serve “elite” sportspersons. One can only imagine what the board thinks of ultrarunners. They probably didn’t even take into account the fact that this race was an International Association of Ultrarunners Bronze and Silver label event. That it was also the Australian 48 hour championships, and that there were a number of world level athletes competing with a some (myself included) hoping to achieve a World Championships qualifying standard. I was pretty upset by this decision. But as the weekend rolled around I accepted it. Sitting here now, reflecting on how it played out, I think the cancellation was ultimately for the better.

Before the cancellation I had planned to have dinner with Elliot and his wife on Wednesday to make final preparations for the 24 hour. By then the race was off and I had already decided that I didn’t want to waste my good form. One way or another I was going to do an epic long run. We talked our options over dinner and by the end of the night we’d settled on tackling the Centenary Trail and aiming for a new FKT. Elliot had achieved this only a couple of weeks ago and felt I was up to the task.

The following day, I received a message from the race director of the Australian 24 Hour Track Invitational. It said that, given the current circumstances of race cancellations, if I could run 220km or more I would receive an invitation to participate in their elite race alongside Aussie ultra-running legends Kevin Muller, Matthew Eckford and Stephen Redfern. All I would have to do is run 220km. Simple, right?

Race day is predicted to be hot, and in my mind I am mulling over ways to beat the heat. I come up with all kinds of elaborate courses, including having a run commute between a night course by my house and a day course in the shade of the pines on the Isaacs ridge. I spend the afternoon trying to come up with a course, but at the end of the day I settle on a simple up and down loop along the bike path beside Athllon Drive with a dog leg back to my house for refreshments. The course measures 1.76km with about 10m of elevation gain. I figure I can round it down and claim 1.75km a lap.

Race morning arrives. I’m now thinking that the advantage of racing from home is there is no commute. I wake up at 6am, finish off last night’s pasta for breakfast and hurriedly prepare. Given the preparations for this “race” really only commenced about 18 hours before start time, things aren’t terribly well organised. The start time of 7am comes suddenly and we are trying to take photos of a watch with a time-displaying phone in the same shot to prove I started on time at zero kilometres. The start is inelegant, but a few seconds after 7am I’m running.

The early kilometres are a pleasure. I easily run my goal pace of between 5:30-5:45 min/km. I circle around the blue chalk dots that mark the turning points of my home-made course. My heart rate is higher than I’d like it to be at around 130 bpm but the pace is comfortable so I carry on. After a couple of laps I have to take a bathroom break. The time trial shit is a true art form, and I’ve got the skills. With a lightning bazooka 45-second stop I’m back out on the course reeling in the kilometres. Another advantage of a home course: it was only a 20 metre detour!

After 3 hours of running I have passed the 32km point. That means a couple of kilometres in the bank. I’ve prepared an equation in my head to calculate what it will take get to 220km. All I need to do is 4 hours at 10km an hour. That makes 40km. And then for the next 20 hours I need to run 9km an hour. That makes 220km. I know what you’re thinking: “Dawg gawn it, Matty. You is good with numbers.” People tell me that all the time.

Elliot runs with me for a little while and we discuss our claim to be some Canberra’s (if not Australia’s) best mediocre ultrarunners. He parleys on the matter of if I were to qualify for this elite 24 hour race, would I not then be elite? My answer; well my goal isn’t to beat the elite, simply to participate. And perhaps that is the most mediocre goal of all! Not to win, simply to take part! “If I succeed, I will get a singlet printed for the race with “Mediocrates” printed on the back. Like Socrates, but mediocre.”

The shade on the bike path is starting to disappear and the sun is getting hotter. My heart rate is starting to go higher than I’d like, hitting around 145 bpm. I’m still trying to hold my pace of around 5:45. Then somewhere between 3 hours and 4 hours in I decide I need to take action. I will try and cool myself. I request a shirt change and a wet bucket hat, but due to our lack of preparation it takes a few laps before I manage to communicate what I want to my team. When we get our routine sorted, I am wearing my oversized AURA club shirt and bucket hat. Every lap I come in Lilit or Elliot pours water in my hat and on my head and shoulders while I take a drink and grab a gel.

Tough kms in the heat.

As I get my temperature under control, I start to feel like I am running on empty. At that point it clicks that the drink I have been taking doesn’t taste like my normal sports drink. I have been drinking dissolved sugarless rehydration tabs. Another miscommunication and sign of how unprepared I was to take on this challenge. I say to myself, well now I just need to catch up on the calories I’ve missed. I start taking on extra gels and my normal energy-packed sports drink.

At five hours I’ve covered 53km, and my mate Jeremy joins me for his lunch run. He runs a couple of laps and before he heads back tells me how crazy I am. I can’t argue. I’m still on pace above the magic 10km per hour, but the heat is starting to seriously bite and I’m starting to feel nauseous. After 6 hours and 64km I hit a low spot and the nausea quickly becomes a problem. I’m struggling to hold on to what I’ve got in my stomach and don’t feel like adding anything. I am baking under the sun and the bike path feels like a furnace. I feel I have no choice but to slow down.

I start to shuffle, just moving as best I can. I make it to the 7 hour mark with a bit less than 72km meaning that in the last hour I logged less than 8km. I’m way off pace. The doubt starts to worm its way into my head, “if I’m doing 8km an hour now then I won’t get anywhere near the 220km I want.” It is 2pm now and I figure there are still three or four hot hours before the cool of the night. “Why am I doing this again?” When I pass through the aid station next lap I tell Lilit and Gabriel that I am struggling, and that I want to quit. I’m not going to make 220km anyway so why go on. They tell me to do another lap and that Elliot will join me next lap. I leave the aid station and head down the alley to the bike path and suddenly, I am letting go of my stomach. I yack for what seems like minutes but was probably only a few seconds. I struggle through the lap and tell myself I am going to give it away.

As I come in to finish of the lap Elliot is ready to run with me, so I guess I have to go out again. I grab a gel and some sports drink and we start another lap. I tell Elliot it’s time to quit. Running more than 70km is a good session, I say. But Elliot has other ideas, “why not just run till 80k, it’s not that far away.” I struggle on slowly, and for some entertainment ask Elliot to tell me a joke, he’s got nothing so I say, “ok, tell me an anecdote”. He proceeds to tell me a story of the time he had viral pneumonia isolate to a specific body part that wasn’t his lungs. It’s a terrible story. We keep ticking of the laps at a slow pace and I’m getting some gel and a sip of water each lap. As we get closer to 80km I start to feel a little better. I even start to wonder if it is possible to make it to 100km. Before I know it, I’ve made it to 80km. Elliot has helped me hold it together long enough to get this far, I hit 80km at 7 hours 54 minutes, undoubtedly the fastest 80k I’ve ever run. Elliot stops to restock the aid station and lets me run to 8 hours on my own and I get to just under 81km at 3pm. Despite the struggle I’ve still got a 1km buffer under the belt. I remind myself of that golden rule, “never give up when you’re ahead”.

The realization that I’ve made it this far lifts my morale; I am starting to feel a bit better. My heart rate has dropped and there is a bit of a breeze. After 9 hours I’ve hit 91km. Then I go through 100km in 9 hrs 55m. I hit ten hours and still have a 600m buffer (if my plan is to run 240km, that is!). It’s 5pm and the shade is starting to spread over the path and the temperature is beginning to dip. I go through 110km with a couple of minutes on the good side of 11 hours. At around 6pm my race walking protege Owen shows up with his dad Chris to do a couple of laps with me along with one of the BBQ Stakes regulars and two-time bGGUer Andrew. They keep me company as the sun starts to sink and the temperature becomes ideal for running. At the half-way point, I auspiciously hit exactly 120km in exactly 12 hours! Time is a flat circle on a flat Earth, and the gods of mediocre ultrarunning are smiling on me with crazy-eyed shit-eating grins.

The night is here and my company of three have departed. I dig into the grind, trying to keep my pace as close to 6 minutes/k for as long as I can. My future is a bike path stretching out before me like a moon-lit river of chafe and blistered suffering until I cry mercy and stop, or until the clock reads 7:00am. What’s it going to be?

Elliot: What I saw.

Matty is trained and ready to run. The new plan is to go big regardless. Corona can’t stop him. The Wednesday dinner goes ahead and the topic is alternative races. The ideas floated include:

  • A counterclockwise lap of the Cent,

  • A hot lap of the Sri Chinmoy 100km course with the goal of bettering Brendan Davis’s course record of 9:38:31,

  • A double lap of the Cent for 280km, a lap of the Cent followed by a lap of the Sri Chinmoy 100km for 240km.

We focus on the counterclockwise Cent and spend some time going over aid points and sections that are tricky to navigate. I’m excited about this idea because it would keep up the momentum around the idea of running the Cent. In the back of my mind I begin dreaming of a year in which all races are cancelled so Matty and I get busy driving down that FKT.

But Matty has something else on his mind. There is a 24hr invitational which may still go ahead. Matty has been messaging the race director to pitch for an invitation. On Thursday Matty gets a message and forwards it to me.

Thursday night we’re talking about course options, Matty has been out to recce a few. Should he run on bike-path, loops of the fields at Mawson, or, to have shade in the heat of the day, through the pines on Isaacs Ridge? When I arrive at his place on Friday morning I gather that the shaded Isaacs course is probably out (the spoon drains could be hard on the quads later in the run). It’s only after about 50km or so that Matty decides that the whole thing will be done on the bike path alongside Athllon drive.

I’m taking a day of annual leave to put in what I know will be a tough and long day (and night) supporting him. The race has been cancelled, but they can’t cancel the opportunity to do something great. I’m up in the dark to walk a dog, smash some brekky and get to the start. At 6:40am I’m there, setting up a table next to Matty’s driveway. He gives me some printouts and says he wants me to write down times at 10km intervals, distances on the hour and numbers of laps. I’m prepared to cover nutrition, morale and whatever else crops up, but numbers, too? It’s time to start. “Get the start photo” says Matty. “Got it, go”. Matty runs.

The morning sun is rapidly becoming more than I can cope with on my weak white skin. I’m sitting by the table burning up. After 10 laps or so Matty mentions that there’s a marquee in the garage. I set it up pronto, but the sun is still too low for it to produce much usable shade. I’ve brought a book to read thinking that it’ll be about 4 hours before Matty needs my help, but I don’t get a chance to read. I’m mixing electrolytes, finding food or clothing that Matty needs: it’s hectic.

By early afternoon, Matty is suffering hard. Around 70km he has a puke break behind a bush. I’ve got to keep him going, so I run with him. He’s talking about quitting. I make that judgement that Matty probably isn’t in the mood for one of my inspirational maxims like, “You can do it, only got seventeen hours to go”. Instead I opt for something more back-handed, “keep going until you get to 80k, then you might at least get a 50 mile PB”. Or at least he might take it as back-handed motivation if he didn’t know how this plays out.

If you get to 80k you might as well do 100, and once you’ve done 100km, well you might as well just keep going. By the time he hits 80km the sharp edge has gone off the heat of the day and he’s smiling again. It looks like we’re locked in for the long haul.

As the afternoon wears on, the temperature slowly starts to dip and everything gets a bit easier. It’s easier to write the numbers down, and to get Matty the food he needs. The only thing increasing in difficulty is getting him to eat. Around 5:30pm, Andy Blyton, Chris Toyne and son Owen (Coach Matty’s race walking disciple) turn up to run with him. While he’s got some company I duck off to Woolies to get some more supplies: gels, electrolytes, watermelon, Body Glide.

As Lilit and my social media posts and live videos go up, Matty is getting a ton of encouragement on Facebook. Lilit streams video on Facebook here and there, just to show Matty still ticking off the kms. In the night I will run with him to do live check ins at milestones: 50km, 100km, 160km and so on. At some point Lilit gets some memorable footage of Matty lubricating at the aid station. I try to post answers to questions and thank you messages for the encouragement, but only manage a few. Kelly-ann Varey (who was also signed up for the 24hr track) is following keenly and turns up to support in person. All the while Lilit is around, looking after Gabriel, making soups and checking on her crazy husband. She serves me up some amazing beef and lentil stew for dinner. Here and there I’m running, maybe just to check Matty’s pace, see what he needs, or distract him from whatever is hurting the most.

Around 1am I make sure the aid table is well stocked, put on an alarm and wrap myself in a sleeping bag in the front seat of my car. Half an hour of sleep does me a lot of good. When I get up I feel ready to run. Here I put in my longest stint. I run beside him or just a head to give him a subtle hint to keep his pace up. When he wants something I skip half a lap to get it for him, maybe he needs some numbers written down, so I do that and catch up.

Matty’s pretty quiet. I’m struggling to think up something to talk about that will keep his mind of the hours ahead. “Tell me a joke” he says. I’m stumped, I can't remember even one. “Knock knock” I say. “Who’s there” I have no plan for what to say next, “It’s your mum” I say. “It's your mum, who?” “It’s your mum. She’s come to visit. You should open the door.” “Ah” he says, “ok, tell me a story”. “Did you hear about the gay commune that went to live on an island and succeeded from Australia?” I try. “Yeah." he says "The Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands. No gay people actually live there. I mean, they might, but they’re Bureau of Meteorology staff”. I can’t even tell Matty obscure facts. He knows them all. From there the conversation just devolves into me saying increasingly disgusting things in an effort to make him laugh. Nothing works. Fortunately 200km is coming up. Time for another broadcast.

He's not crying or spewing or shitting his pants, and he’s still running: that’s ultrarunning success.

Before the sun comes up we see two headlights coming towards us. “Runners” I say. “Yeah” says Matty, “they might be here for us”. It’s Chris and Owen? They’ve come back to run the last kms. Now with 4 of us together it’s not just me trying to keep up the conversation. We run up and down, the sun is rising slowly. The goal of 220km is coming up and we broadcast the occasion.

There’s still time and we’re going to make sure Matty squeezes every meter out of this 24 hours.

Matty in the afterglow.

As I look back over my splits and analyse my race, I feel that I can go further; that 240km is a possibility. The slight incline of the course took its toll on me. The heat and my lack of preparation at the aid station meant I was spending twenty or thirty seconds there every lap in the second half of the race. The biggest benefit for next time is I will have another 24-hour race in the legs: experience is key.

Despite my big 225.25km on Strava, it is impossible to know exactly how accurate the distance is. So to try and add credibility to my effort, running the same 1.75km lap every lap (with a change in the direction part-way through) and turning on my blue dots, I covered 127 full laps plus my final incomplete lap where I reached the second blue dot and a hundred or so metres more. I know this blue dot is 400m (measured) to the finish. So I completed 128 laps -400m, giving me a minimum race distance of 223.6km. This unsanctioned and unofficial 223.6km to 225.25km run would’ve given me the 6th biggest distance in 2019 and if I take the upper range of this run, the 6th biggest in 2018, eclipsing the legendary Brendon Davies by just over 400m. Now if that doesn’t confirm my status as the best mediocre runner around I don’t know what does.

Because what mediocre runner wouldn’t dream of being able to say they have a better PB than one of Australia’s best ultrarunners? But it’s a run in the time of corona. Sanctioned running is absent without leave. Accredited qualifying races are out. Who will ever know if I could have qualified to wear an Australian jersey? Not knowing when another race will appear on horizon, we stand now in the isolation of this new age, wondering, what can we do next?

©2020 by Running Beyond Reason.