• Elliot Cooper

Bush Capital Ultramarathon

Updated: May 23

I’m new to the Canberra running scene, so there are a lot of events out there that I don’t yet know. I’m starting to get to know, or hear of, some of the people who make events happen, but I’m still very much an outsider. Before the start of the Mt. Ainslie Parkrun the guy who sometimes comes and takes photos is calling out the details of a race he organizes that will be happening in a few weeks in the area. He calls it the Bush Capital Marathon. It’s a fundraiser for the Australian ultrarunning team, he says. It’s entirely on trails and there are several distances to choose from including a half-marathon (one loop of the mountain), a full marathon (two loops), and an ultramarathon (three loops). I have no races planned for July so make a mental note to sign up for the ultramarathon when I get home. I’m know I’ve seen the organizer on facebook, so I look him up. His name is John Harding.

I sign up and when an email goes around asking for a few more people to volunteer I do. I’ve been meaning to volunteer more, why do I need prompting? I turn up at Campbell High School early on the Saturday and meet John, Martin and Paul. They look and talk like they’ve been involved in local running events for a while. There are others too, and I try but fail to commit their names to memory. Everyone is friendly and we talk while setting up tents, tables, chairs, a start line, you know: the things for a race. Trophies are displayed and the finishers’ prizes (nice mugs with the Bush Marathon logo on it) are delivered. I hang around for the start of the 16km run, before heading home.

It’s Sunday. Race day. A few of us are standing around in the cool morning air. Some are already in their race gear. I’m still wearing long pants and a jacket, trying to keep warm until the last possible moment. There’s a bit of conversation here and there about race experience. In this field of 11 runners there are two Michael Thompsons, same name, same spelling, same age category. One is starting his ultra-running journey today, the other is a veteran ultrarunner and speaks of the AIS 48 hour track run where he racked up 238km. The shortest time I’ve ever covered that kind of distance is more like 10 days. A couple more runners, for whom this is their first ultra are aiming for the Sri Chinmoy 105km on October 7th. Off to one side are two guys who look like they’re just going to be faster than everyone else. John calls us over for the race briefing, gives us a run-down of the course and calls over Martin, who he introduces as an Australian ultrarunning champion. Our crowd is small, but it’s impressive.

From the start a guy in a pink t-shirt matches my speed and doesn’t waste time in striking up a conversation. “I’m Matt,” he says, “This’ll be the furthest I’ve ever run,” he says. I know the pace is probably a little bit hot for me, so I’m thinking if this is his first ultra he probably ought to be moving a bit slower “but, I’ve walked 50 kilometers before” says Matt. Ah ok, I think, he has walked 50km, like the people who are walking the marathon today, I guess that’s something. I notice that he’s got no gear; he doesn’t appear to have any food or water with him. Attached to the bib belt around his waist, is a big green cup, which, he tells me, he uses to wash his baby.

About 5km in Matt is still keeping pace with me, and we’ve been talking the whole time. I rarely have such persistent conversations, even when conversing is the main thing I’m doing. We talk about what we do for work, races we’re interested in doing, places we’ve lived, mountains we’ve climbed. We’re really getting to know each other. After the first aid station Matt, intuiting that the 50km walk thing he mentioned hasn’t sunk in for me yet, brings the topic up again, “I’m the 2016 Australian champion of the 50km walk” he says “I finished in four and a half hours”. Oh! I get it. Walking. As in speed-walking, like in the Olympics, with the hip-swinging and the arms moving. Wow, that’s really hard to do. I have no idea if 4:30 is fast, but it’s clearly a worthy achievement, whichever way you look at it. He points out that he was the only person in the race, but I’m no less impressed. I do a bit of math in my head and realise that that day Matt walked at a substantially faster pace than I ran my first marathon, on his way to a 50km finish.

The trail hooks gently around to the west and the longest climb of the loop begins. Our pace slows but we run - and talk - all the way. We crest the climb and take a right where the trail kicks up to Hackett Hill. I’m feeling great and enjoying the climb. For the first time Matt lags behind me, but soon we’re together again scooting down the northern end of the hill. Over the loose rocks of the descent we’re agile but careful, then we pick things up on the graded road out to aid station number 2. I have enough water to get me back here from the dog-leg, so I just grab a couple of lollies. Matt has a drink from his cup. We keep moving. It feels easy out to the turn around, back at the aid station I get some ‘sports drink’ which I’m not sure but I think is actually cordial. I chew a salt tablet just to be sure I don’t cramp up. Matt and I keep the pace steady until the start finish line.

Matt decides he’ll be more comfortable in running shorts and stops to change. I don’t need to stop, I just grab some sports drink and a few lollies “I’ll see you soon” I call out to Matt, thinking that he’ll catch me in no time, but at the same time I can’t help but think about how I’m now in 3rd place, and finishing 3rd is something I don’t get to do often. But now I’m by myself. At least until Telecom road where the first half-marathoner passes me while powering up hill. No one else is near him and it’s not until sometime past the first aid station that other runners from that race start to pass me. Obviously that guy knows what he’s doing.

I’m getting to the top of the slow climb before the right hook to the kick up Hackett hill and about 8 people from the half have passed me. I’m walking here and there because it’s getting a little harder now. But mostly I can run. I follow the ridge, then, hearing footsteps behind me, decide to let things go on the descent. I’m feeling agile and free, and apparently I’m doing 4:30 kilometers. Woohoo. I fill a flask at the aid station and grab some lollies, the need for fuel is becoming more and more apparent. I’m down to only one protein bar now. I’ll have to restock when I get back to the depot. The dog leg still feels ok, but I on the way back I’m getting slower. Seeing that I should be able to finish the marathon in under four hours, I push on and get there in 3:56. I grab whatever protein bars are left in my drop bag, do a few unglamorous squats to loosen up the knees a bit, and head back out.

Going out on the last loop feels light mentally, but when the body is seizing up the finish line never comes soon enough. I take more salt and hike the up hills. I’m careful on the descents: I don’t want to fall. But I do want to hang on to third place and I realise I’m looking behind me quite a lot. I head out on the dog-leg without wasting time at the aid station but I’m really hurting in those core muscles and my form is going to pieces. I reach the turn-around and head back, feeling better to be on the home straight. After about a kilometer I see Pam hurtling towards me, practically sprinting, and she’s just overtaken Matt! We offer each other encouraging words, but now I’m running scared. Fortunately the muscle pain is starting to ease a little, so I put the hammer down.

I pass the aid station, just grabbing a few lollies. Only about 5km left, drinks can wait. I push my speed up a notch, I know the speed is unsustainable but I only need to get over that finish line so I push anyway. The pain seeps back into my legs and core and I’m reduced to telling myself that I can. I keep saying ‘I can’, ‘I can’. I’ve never been much of a positive-reinforcement kind of guy, but it’s all I can think to do. My pace slows so I say ‘I can I can I can’ and I speed up. There’s a hill ‘I can I can I can’, and I get up it. The I can thing is getting a bit nutty, but no one can hear me. Before rounding the bulldozer on the way down to the school I peek behind me. Nobody.

I cross the road, thanking the marshall and follow that line of witches hats around the tree and up the rise to the finish. The only people there are organizers, volunteers and the attending medic. First and second place have already gone home. I don’t blame them, hanging around in a cold breeze after an ultra is not my idea of fun either. It’s a little while before Matt and Pam cross the line, but I’m glad I’m there to see them come in. I shake their hands and notice that Matt is bleeding from his right knee. He has taken a tumble, when he walks past I see that he has also destroyed his cup, only about half of it with the handle remains. Oh dear, I think, what will he wash his baby with now? I want to get myself home, but I choose to sit a while. The truth is I can hardly move.

What a great event! I love the local stuff and this is about as local as it gets. Thanks to John, Martin and the other volunteers for putting it on. As maybe half of the runners in the ultra discovered, it’s a good race for getting into ultra-running. It’s rare to find a race that is entirely off-road, and that’s something that makes this race special. I reckon I’ll toe the starting line again next year, hopefully with double the number of contenders so more people can have a new experience of a mountain that for many of us is part of everyday life.

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