Reasons for Running: Alpine Challenge 100 mile.
Updated: May 23
Out on a training run Matt posits the following argument: “You run faster than me on the uphill. On the downhill you run faster than me. And, on the flat you run faster than me. Based on these observations, I determine that I will finish the Alpine Challenge before you.” It’s an uncomfortable line of reasoning for me, because I have enough experience to understand his logic. “You’re probably right” I sigh, and we press on over the Bullen Range and into the night.
Work grinds on relentlessly. The semester ends and suddenly I have a digital pile of marking to do. I squeeze my training into my schedule by commuting on foot. I’m conscious of neglecting the chores. I ignore the pressing need to look at the Alpine Challenge course map. Then finally I attribute a grade to that last assignment, and there are a couple of days to think and formulate a plan. I spend a few hours looking at the course in 3D in google maps. Mt. Bogong looks majestic. I’m excited about the loop over the summit. The Mt Feathertop summit will be deep in the night, and a different kind of challenge. Finally getting a grasp of the course makes me feel alive and ready. I’m relieved.
Mutsumi, Mum and Dad have all offered to be my crew, but even with three people support will be tricky. I list significant locations in a spreadsheet indicating possible crew points, my ETAs and the travel times they will need to budget to hit those times. The driving is substantial. After Langfords Gap, they will have to make a two hour drive to Mt. Loch car park, then find me again at Harrietville close to midnight to help me with nutrition, shoes, clothes, morale, whatever I need for the remainder of the night. Then they will need to drive another one hour forty-five minutes back to Bogong Village to get about three hours sleep before getting up to drive to Pretty Valley Pondage so that Mutsumi can run the last 10km with me over Mt Mackay. I try to make as clear as possible what it is they’ve signed up for. I take stock of the information and reason that it all looks possible.
Bits and pieces of information have been arriving by email. It’s snowing in Falls Creek. There’s a suggestion of a course change. The start time has been pushed back from 4:30am to 8am. The pre-race Q&A, which I’d thought I could probably skip in favour of an early night now seems necessary. Paul Ashton, race director, lays it out: some parts of the course are covered in knee deep snow. There will be no Mt. Bogong, no Mt. Feathertop. Mt. Mackay is a maybe. The expansive course is cut down to a 35km loop which we must complete 4 times, with a final out and back to make up the distance. So we’ll get our 100 miles, but the elevation gain has been drastically reduced from 7800m to about 4000m, and therein lies the rub. This is the only race in Australia that is a qualifier for Hardrock and awards finishers 6 ITRA points. 4000m won’t get us either of those things. People are upset and angry. We’ve spent a lot of time, effort and money getting here and major reasons for running this race have been stripped away. Those seeking 6 points for their UTMB qualification are likely to only receive 4, which, the way the maths works out, is as good as getting zero points. Those who came to run Mt. Bogong and Mt. Feathertop will have the opportunity to run neither. Those seeking a Hardrock lottery ticket are likely to not receive it (this fear is confirmed in an email from the Hardrock RD a couple of days after the race). A guy leaning against the wall looks as though he might cry. The course will be a grind. When morning comes, what reasons have we to start?
Lately I get nervous in the few hours before my races. I don’t know why. I’m awake at 3:30am. I want two more hours or to start running. I get neither. What’s the rationale behind shifting the start to 8am, I wonder. Is it because the new course might have many people finishing pre-dawn? I guess that would make things harder for crew. We get to the start line and it’s cold. I don’t know what to wear. I know I’ll feel warmer once we start, but I decide to leave on my full rain gear. I’ve never done that before. It feels strange. About 3 km in I’m stuffing the rain gear into my pack. Matt and I try to stay together but we’re not very successful. I go ahead, then stomach trouble stops me. I catch back up to Matt who is surprised to see me come from behind. He’s not feeling well either and says ‘I’ll see you on the flipside’, which I guess is something people say. As I run ahead I can hear him vomiting violently. This is starting to seem like a madness.
It turns out that Matt is fine and he gets back to Falls Creek ahead of me. Mutsumi and my parents fuss over me and Matt with food, vaseline, shoes, sunscreen. I see that dad is organizing to send photos to Matt’s wife so she can keep up with the action. There’s a lot going on. “How’re you travelling?” Matt asks. “Well, it’s not much of a fun course”. Paul Ashton is in earshot “Who said it’s not much of a fun course?” I’m in no mood to deal with the situation and look away, but Matt is forthright with Paul: “I’d prefer more firetrail, the single-track is hard to run” he says. Matt has gone crazy, I think. The single track is the ONLY good bit.
Matt and I head out together. I’m feeling a bit better, and I’m happy to have one lap behind me. Matt is video chatting with his wife and son. He’s in a winning mood and talks for a while about how his baby is the cutest of all babies. Before the snow melt section leading over towards Mt. Mackay he stops to take off his shoes and cover his feet with plastic bags. I’m dubious about the value of this but I decide I’ll give it a shot. Somehow I take a long time at my preparations and Matt is well out of sight by the time I’m running again. He will stay ahead for the remainder of the race. It’s good to have the Mt. Mackay ascent up first as I can get into the rhythm of the climb. I summit and take a couple of photos before bombing the descent. My memory starts to get hazy from here on in, but I know that I’m smiling. There are good people to talk to on the mountain roads. Somewhere along the route I see Malcolm, another of our group who is walking the 70km (2 laps) race, who tells me Matt is not far ahead.
The repetition of the course makes memories uncertain here. But I’m looking forward to dusk. Running through the night until the next morning is something I only get to do a couple of times a year. Just as it’s getting dark I see Malcolm on his second lap. He’s already walked longer than he ever had before and he’s starting to struggle, but he’ll be fine. By the time I get to Cope hut it’s dark. Out on the Pretty Valley Track another runner matches my pace. We talk. He’s a marine biologist from Canberra. He tells me about his trips to Japan working with fish farmers whose fish populations are stricken with disease. He’s in the 100km race, and nearing the finish. He chose the shorter distance because he ran 100 miles 6 weeks earlier at the Hume and Hovell, and placed third. Now that I’m able to look him up I see that his name is Ingo Ernst. I stood on the podium with him at Kowen Moonlighter. He was second I was third. The lap is otherwise uneventful until the descent from Mt. Mackay when I get a sharp pain on the top of my right foot. I stop, shake it off and try running again. It’s no use, the pain keeps coming. I loosen my laces and walk, jogging here and there, stopping when it hurts too much. Matt passes me in the other direction at the top of the first short climb out of Falls Creek. He’s made up some time.
Inside at Falls Creek I’m thinking about how my foot hurts, how I’m tired, how I don’t have to go out again. But I only let myself think that for a couple of minutes. Somewhere in my reverie Mutsumi is stuffing my face with real food and helping me change my shoes and socks. I point to the walking polls I never intended to use. “I’ll need them,” I say. Back out on the course I hike and I hike. I run here and there but mostly the thing that I’m doing is a hiking motion, keeping arms in time with legs. At check points someone emerges from a hut or a tent and I say my number before pushing on into the darkness. Sometimes I want to run but I have no idea how to run with poles so it never lasts very long. It’s light by the time I reach Falls Creek. There’s a guy sitting at the desk who looks at me doubtfully. “I’m going straight back out” I tell him. “Don’t worry,” he says “I won’t mark you as a DNF”.
I know that I started the final 17km out and back in shorts and arrived at the finish with rain pants on. From these two facts I can reason that at some point I stop to put those rain pants on, but know this fact from deduction alone. It’s great to have Mutsumi with me as I push on to reach the final checkpoint on the course. We manage a run here and there, but really I’m mostly walking. The landscape is beautiful in the morning light. The course leads, again, around several high points in the landscape before the checkpoint comes into view. I notice that the tents that have been there all night are gone. It looks like there now just one person waiting with a clipboard to take down numbers. But as we get closer I realise my eyes have deceived me. No one is there. If no one is there, how do they separate a successful completion from a DNF? Panic. I try to call Paul Ashton: no service. There’s nothing for it so we take a couple of photos showing the time and start heading back. This seems like a serious oversight on the part of the organizers, but as one of the other runners we spoke to on the way to the finish: “Strava doesn’t lie”.
I cross the finish line together with Mutsumi, hands raised. It’s a great moment. My finish time is recorded and I receive my finishers medal. I hug and thank my crew. Mum says something about coffee and/or beer. There’s nothing in my head so I just say yes. In the cafe I discover that I’m standing before Paul Ashton. I feel a pang of sympathy for him as I think of the extra burdens of course changes and people grumbling about points for UTMB or how the alternative course is not much fun. I shake his hand and say “thank you for organizing this event”. “You’ve just finished have you?” he says, which I think is weird because he was standing at the finish as I came in. Then he says, “what’s wrong with your face?” The conversation goes downhill quickly.
Sitting down now there’s coffee and beer arriving. All of my energy is now focused on staying awake, and my success rate is diminishing. At some point, the collective opinion of our group regarding appropriate environs seems to shift, and there is a car trip back to the cabin. There we find Matt awake and we congratulate each other in a proper way. I shower and go to bed. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to be horizontal.
It wasn’t the real Alpine Challenge in that we didn’t get to run the Hardrock-qualifying course. The loops were a suboptimal solution to the problem of running 100 miles, but a solution nonetheless. To do that once this year was something important to me. In suggesting this race, Matt got me thinking about being more strategic in my race choices. The qualifier didn’t come through for us this time, but I’ll definitely be looking for those qualifiers and those ITRA points when I sign up for future races. Thanks to Mutsumi, Mum and Dad for crewing! Mutsumi has seen me like that before, but now Mum and Dad know what I look like when I’m truly exhausted. The race lived up to the “challenge” in its name for all of us.