Damo’s Cut: another local runner on the Cent
Just two weeks after Matty G and I conquered the Cent unsupported, something amazing happened. Another local runner, Damien Stewart, turned up on the trail unannounced with the intention of not only completing the full Canberra Centenary Trail, but also adding in additional high points that he feels should be included in the route. Anyone who has spent time on the CCT trying to follow the route will be aware that it has changed over time and the markers have either not been updated or have been insufficiently maintained in several places. At the time of writing, the government supplied GPX data is in conflict with the official map supplied on the same website. The CCT is a route in flux. Like the city it circumnavigates, it is becoming; in a constant state of renewal. That’s why Damo’s variations fall within the scope of the CCT and what the Cent can be. His ambitious move to make running the Cent more difficult – not to mention more scenic – then go out and try to run it in one push is worth talking about. I caught up with him to ask a few questions about this attempt and to hear his thoughts on Canberra’s greatest trail.
EC: Tell me about your interest in the Canberra Centenary Trail.
DS: I moved to Canberra in 2013, which was the year of Centenary for Canberra and a general big year of firsts in terms of my own ultra-running, having first participated in Six Foot Track (my first official trail ultra) and then The North Face 100 (TNF100) in May. I found Canberra to be an awesome training ground for these events (having lived in the Sydney CBD), and I loved the way the nature parks could be linked together to form all sorts of combinations of runs – flat and fast, hilly and technical – the list was endless. I wasn’t aware of the CCT as a concept then. I just ran whatever trails I could.
It was only when I found out about the Sri Chinmoy Canberra Ultra 100km, that I paid more attention to the CCT. This event did not include all sections but covered a lot of the same or similar routes to the CCT. In training for that event, I did more reccy runs and expanded my familiarity of Canberra’s fantastic trail network.
EC: When did you first decide to make a single push attempt? What happened?
DS: So, after the 2013 SC100, I fell into a rhythm of TNF/UTA in May, and SC100s in September, plus the other local AMRA events. At the end of 2016 with a few of these under my belt, I became aware of the Great Southern Endurance Run (GSER), an epic run through the Victorian Alps from Mt Buller to Bright. I had never run a ‘miler’ before and this seemed the next logical step in ultras – however, I needed to prepare. I then read about Julie Quinn’s and David Baldwin’s complete circumnavigation of the CCT – hey! – I could do that too! Wouldn’t have to travel – I could just run out of my door and be on my way.
I started studying the CCT route in earnest. This included ordering the paper maps and sticking them on my wall. I also grabbed Julie and David’s route GPX file and modified it to include running from my house (I was living in Hughes, southside at the time), up to the Wanniassa Trig and the high route along Isaacs Ridge.
I kicked off at 5am, Friday 11 August. I published a link to the Trail Canberra Facebook page for tracking, encouraging people to join in for a section or two. I had people join me throughout the day, which was great fun and the support was welcome. I had no firm expectations, it was just a big experiment to see how far I could run, carrying my own stuff, keeping on track. I went out conservatively and paced well or so I thought at the time. However, the cold (this was a ‘Canberra winter’ after all!) started to wear me down. I managed to stumble my way to Stromlo. After heading up Eucumbene Drive, I knew the remaining southern section would take me through to dawn – and I just didn’t have the stamina or mental strength for that. So, I headed for home, pulling out after 112km – my longest to date run at the time.
EC: In this recent attempt you decided create a variation on the route. Why did you choose to deviate from the official route, and what is the goal you have in mind by doing the CCT this way?
DS: My first attempt in 2017 was also a variation. I saw Julie and David’s route, and after looking at the map, decided I needed to add in more hills to get a bit of extra vert in ahead of my first GSER attempt. The linking of trails, bike paths and roads of the CCT was great, but there are parts that aren’t as scenic as they could be.
My most recent attempt was about revisiting that initial 2017 run, backed by much more extensive firsthand experience of the route and, more importantly, surrounding hills. Also, having run the GNW miler in 2018, I really wanted to add more distance and more vert. The 2019 edition of GNW had to change to a multiple loop course (based in part to regulations requiring extensive planning and approvals for road crossings – a real shame!), which did not really appeal to me – there aren’t many events in Australia comprising a single loop, or long and difficult point-to-point runs. As with the first run in 2017, I saw this as an opportunity to remedy that, starting by running out my front door.
I am not sure if I will do the ‘official route’ solo, to be honest. Perhaps with someone else though – never say never!
EC: You ultimately completed your CCT variation in two parts. When you originally set out you intended to complete the loop in one push. Tell me about that experience.
DS: The motivation to have another go came mainly from a few sources – Canberra locals, including your own solo and subsequent FKT effort with Matthew Griggs, Brendan Codrington, as well as the cancellation of events due to COVID-19, such as my annual mainstay of UTA. The final push was a very favourable autumn weather forecast for the weekend. I had everything; just a top up of some gels and it was a go!
In hindsight it was a little hastily organised. I had in mind the extended route, taking in additional hills, yet unlike my first attempt in 2017, I didn’t sit down and plan it out extensively. I just downloaded your GPX, put it in my watch and madly packed the night before. I am terrible at getting sleep before ultras. I fret over small things and so got to bed late.
The original goal was to be out of the house and running by 6am, but further messing about in the morning meant that was pushed back until 7am. My pack didn’t feel right, I was adjusting clothing – normally I’m better with this stuff. On reflection, I think I underappreciated the immediacy of doing this straight out the front door. For UTA, for example, I travel up to the Blue Mountains the day before; that time in the car is spent thinking about the event – crucial mental preparation time! It took me a while to find my normal rhythm. The southern section was first up, and it wasn’t until I got to the top of Urambi Hill did it feel like I was really locked in.
I was also acutely aware of my heart rate spiking due to carrying all the extra supplies I thought I needed. This caused me to slow down, perhaps too much.
I had said to my family I’d aim to meet them at the top of Red Hill, near the restaurant around lunch time. That plan was binned when I got a text just before 12 and I was still running along the bike paths through Isabella Plains, heading towards Wanniassa. Damn. I had only sent them the tracking link this time – this was a solo run. That was when I started to mentally do the sums about pace, time and distance remaining; it was going to be a long day out.
On the fly, I decided I wanted to go over Mount Mugga Mugga. The original CCT route actually wound around the rear of the quarry. Now that the quarry is in use again, there’s a fence line to follow leading up from the old trail that was a temporary linking route. This was steep and very rough under foot – not really what you want when you’re falling behind. The actual summit is within the quarry boundary. I saw the hole in the fence but decided to push on – it would be just my luck to fall in! Once over the main hill, it’s a scrabble down through thick undergrowth and granite rocks. I knew I’d cross the CCT trail again, but again took time to emerge. Eventually, I made it to Red Hill just after 4:30pm, 57km on the watch.
Seeing my family was a good pick-me-up. I pushed on, ready for the night. The CCT section through the Parliamentary Triangle is a little ordinary – do I go around the High Court? The need to find the path was a good distraction though. I continued over Kings Avenue, and through Russell, heading up to Mt Pleasant via a good little tricky single track – another diversion from the official CCT route. Then it was onwards and upwards via the original Neverest course to get to the top of Mount Ainslie. I spent quite a while there filling up with water, getting warm clothes on and generally trying to steel myself for the hours ahead. The people at the top, enjoying a clear night overlooking the city were the last souls I’d see until dawn.
The following section was long and isolated – I went off the trail a few times; it was getting colder and colder. It was 2.2 degrees heading through Mulligan’s Flat. Any time I stopped moving, I’d start to shake and shiver. I knew this fatigue, but the stars were clear and that spurred me to follow them.
I reached the northern border campsite. There was someone camping there! I didn’t see them, and kept moving to stay warm. Hope I didn’t scare them too much. Footsteps and bright headlights at about 2am would put me on edge!
The rolling hills through to Hall are not severe but take a cumulative toll. I was falling asleep on my feet by this stage, the cold waking me as I literally shivered myself back to consciousness. I summited One Tree Hill and somehow managed to slip into my Primaloft thermal jacket. I sat on the bench at the summit; I think I had several micro naps before managing to shuffle back down the hill and out of the wind which had picked up.
In the distance, I could see the lights of Telstra Tower – how far was that now!? My mind couldn’t comprehend the remaining effort. After ages, I eventually made it to Hall. As the sun rose, I ordered an Uber. I was spent.
EC: What were the factors that influenced your decision to stop?
DS: The ultra-running triple threat: cold, fatigue and negative headspace. At GNW100 in 2018, when I rolled into the 100km checkpoint at Yarramalong I felt terribly similar. The difference there however was the set of amazing volunteers, one who sat me near a warm fire and fed me hot sausage sandwiches. I am really going to extend a smile and warm thanks to these brilliant people when events resume! A little under 2 hours later and I was shuffling back out onto the course – I had none of that support this time. And that was the whole point, to really challenge myself, stripping back to just myself, my thoughts, and the course in front of me.
Another factor was also promising my family I’d be back ‘early Sunday morning’, so I also wanted to honour that too.
EC: How did you feel finishing off the route the following weekend?
DS: Really good – giving a sense of completion – and also a reminder how out of it I was the previous weekend. A few kilometres from Hall, there was a Maccas. A quick stop there with a coffee and some hot food would have gone a long way of putting me back on track. Alas, didn’t think of that at the time last weekend.
It was also good to explore the section leading from Hall towards Belconnen. I haven’t really run through there much. In fact, it was only in my 2017 attempt did I cover this part! My impression was that it’s not as scenic as the other sections, and seeing it in daylight confirms this. Telstra Tower loomed as a beacon, and I knew the trails around there afford magnificent views in all directions. The Arboretum was spectacular when I reached it, with clear blue skies and lots of greenery. Here my route diverged from the CCT, taking the revamped paths up and over Dairy Farmers Hill before picking up Boundary Road, heading towards the Monlonglo pine forest. Throwing in a quick summit of Barrer Hill, I spied a convenient point to cross the river and make a beeline for Stromlo Forest Park.
It was a casual jaunt back along Eucumbene Drive, where I aborted my attempt in 2017. This time, it felt more of a victory and I happily headed for home, knowing – despite doing it in two parts – it was done.
EC: What would you like to see or happen on / with the CCT in the future? What advice do you have for someone making an attempt?
DS: I think as it stands, the CCT offers a great framework for connecting the various trails around Canberra. Perhaps opening more routes and looped sections that encompass the various surrounding hills would encourage more people to use them. That said, there are trails out there already that locals use and run or mountain bike along daily – but it would be nice to see them officially get a mention in the CCT.
One improvement to be made however is to do with maintenance on the existing route, especially through the more urban sections such as Tuggeranong and Belconnen. Markers are few and far between. Some are missing. The construction around Coombs was the reason I hopped over the river. And that section to Stromlo was based on your route and my own knowledge. There’s nothing to follow out there right now. Hopefully, that will be remedied once the new paths are completed.
In terms of advice to someone making their own attempt on the CCT:
Try and run most of it in smaller runs beforehand. This will give a good idea of where turns are which is especially important at night.
If you can, download the route to your watch – I do this for most super long runs such as these to help me stay on track.
Really dial in what you need to take with you. My error this time was taking too much and paying the price carrying that extra weight.
Prepare for the night! You will get cold, so taking a few extra layers is a definite must.
Practice digging yourself out of negative spots. These long efforts can turn dark at times, and learning to recognise when that occurs and getting out of that bind is a great skill to have for ultra-running – something I am still learning to do!
Above all – enjoy exploring Canberra! What other capital city has such an extensive trail network that’s so accessible? It’s a unique way of exploring the city, and to that end the CCT has really achieved something special. Go do it!
Here’s the final, combined route done over two days. I am planning a reverse traverse of this route (with perhaps some minor modifications yet again, eg. bypassing the AIS) in a few months’ time.
Distance: 167 km
Altitude: 513m to 900m
Climb: 5260 m
Descent: 5279 m
This ‘Modified CCT’ added the following hills:
Isaacs Ridge (High)
Mt Mugga Mugga
Davidson Hill (inc. Trig)
Many thanks to Damien Stewart for supplying text and images for this post.