• Elliot Cooper

Gunghalin Gallop 31km

Updated: May 23

10am is a leisurely start time. I even lay in bed for 30 minutes after the alarm goes off. When I do get up I see that there’s still frost on the ground outside. So the late start is probably a good idea.

This race is short, even shorter than the last one. So I’ve decided that today I’ll just push my body as hard as I can for the duration of the race and see what happens. Mutsumi and I jump in the car with our swim gear packed: we’re planning a swim in the afternoon. At 9am we pick up Matty G. We talk strategy, “I still haven’t fully recovered from Siberia” he says, “are you planning on going out hard?”

At Hall Showground there’s time for bibs, for sunscreen, for Vaseline. We stand around chatting, and as 10am closes in we strip down to our run wear. Standing at the start line we’re briefed on the course. It’s an out and back with two ascents of One Tree Hill. At the end, instead of heading down the road there is a short single track section. No problem, I can do that.

I can do that.

We head out. I’m at the front with a guy who’s taller, slimmer, has longer legs, looks more relaxed: even his pink headband is intimidating. He asks, “you done this one before?”

“No,” I say “but I like your headband.”

Leaving the showground I take the lead up Hall Street. I can hear footsteps, but I can’t see anyone in my peripheral vision. I wonder how long this will last. Moving on up the gravel road, I take note of where to turn off on the way back: good. I take the steps over the fence and press on up the banked curvy track. At the top I’m through the gate without a glance behind. The footsteps are very close, but I start thinking: ‘I wonder if I can hold the lead until One Tree Hill’. That’d be something.

Arriving at the One Tree Hill, I am still in the lead, but my legs feel cooked. I don’t have to climb far before three guys over take me. If they can do it, good luck to them. I run where I can, and hike where I can’t. At the top of the hill I fill my hand-held and another guy overtakes. I’m ok with that, my plan is simple: go hard and see what happens. I head down the steps, taking care not to trip. Across the switchbacks I can see that the guys ahead of me have already taken a healthy lead. On the next few rises I can only see 4th place, and after that, nobody. Behind me I can see two runners. One in black, and behind him, one in green.

At about 10kms in there are some beautiful, big hill-side curves which allow you to see ahead as you enter and behind as you leave. I see no-one ahead, but on the way out I notice that the guy in green has overtaken the guy in black and is now reeling me in. I really want to hang on to 5th place, so I press on with all I’ve got.

At some point the top three guys come from the other direction in quick succession, I don’t know it then, but they’re pushing each other in a competition that, for some, will end badly. Then 4th place comes through, not far behind. A few hundred meters on is the turn-around aid station. I rush to fill my handheld from a water tank. As I turn the tap, the tap itself falls out of the tank causing water gush out onto the ground. As this happens, the guy in green U-turns and shoots back down the track. I get my water bottle full and leave the volunteer to get the tap back in the tank. I can’t stop. That’s my 5th place heading away, so I chase.

The guy in green quickly gets a sizable lead on me. No matter. I follow my plan shouting encouragement to the runners coming towards me. Matty G. is in there, “go, goat!” he yells. It’s not an acronym. He just thinks I behave like a goat.

After chasing for about 5km I notice the guy in green is not yet out of sight. Leaving the single track and rounding the first corner in the fenceline 4WD track, the situation changes. The guy in green appears to be with another runner. Then he appears to overtake that runner. Had we caught up? As I get closer I see that it’s the guy who has lead since One Tree Hill. I catch him and ask if he’s ok, “I felt a twinge, and don’t want to make it an injury”. That’s a smart choice, good for him. But now twinge-free me is back in the top 5.

I’m steady on the flat and uphill and I still have power to unleash on downhills, so I make that my game plan for the rest of the race. Over the next few rises I keep 4th in my sights, then at about 22kms I see that guy in green has almost caught another runner. It's pink headband guy. “Damn, he’s good!”, I say to myself. I’m also realizing that this means I must be closer, too. There are some curvy sections of trail with trees. My hand-held empties. There’s a photographer (thank you, looking forward to the pix). Then I emerge from the trees to the One Tree Hill switchbacks and I see that the guy in green has taken 3rd place, and 4th place is maybe 50 meters ahead. I’m all in.

The climb to the summit is hard, but something is going on here. Just starting up the steps I see the guy who was 4th after the turn around and assume he is in second. Then I get higher and the guy in green is coming down, followed by pink headband guy who I saw him catch in the switchbacks. But that’s not all. There’s another runner, the guy in blue who was second after the turn around. Just before I reach the top he’s on his way down. That means he’s just lost two positions on the climb. He looks in bad shape. I fill my drink bottle and get to work on my game plan: the last 5km is downhill.

By the time we’re off the steps I’m right behind 4th place. After a few hundred meters the track is wide enough and I have the power to go around. I can see he isn’t happy about it. I accelerate, and bit by bit I reel in 3rd. Pink headband gets through the gate first but I’m right on his heels and he yields to let me go down the tricky banked turns first. I can see 2nd now, the guy in green. At the gate at the top of the gravel road he chooses to go through the hole in the gate, I take the ladder over the fence. I’m right on his heels now and he yields to let me down the single track to the left. Suddenly the trail is steep and rocky, and at this speed it’s everything I’ve got to stay upright. I’m hurtling straight at a tree now, but manage to stop. I look down and see a trail heading off to the right and I go.

‘Strange, I thought that last single track section would be longer’ I think, emerging onto a gravel road. But this is not a moment to critique the trail, I’ve just gained second place and the only thing in my mind is hanging on till the finish.

It’s an all out dash down Hall Street, and strangely there are no markers indicating a turn into the showground, I turn in anyway. I call out “Which way do I go?”

“That’s the wrong way” comes the reply. Martin waves me over and I enter the field “do a lap” he says. I do a lap and finish. “I don’t know where I went wrong” I say to the race director.

“It’s the same distance. There won’t be an investigation” he replies. Oh, really?

Exibit A: Compare my Strava route with Mike l'Pirate's Strava route. In the detail we can see where I went left then turn sharply right, back out onto Hall road. Mike went left and left again, on a separate course through the bush.

So the ending isn’t how I’d hope. In a hurry and trying not to hit a tree, I go with the option in front of me. The guy in green, the only one in a position to see my mistake, does not draw my attention to it, and I'm not the only one to get the last bit wrong.

Some time after Matt finished, he mentioned that he’d seen Mutsumi waiting somewhere on the last section. So about a half hour after finishing I start walking back up the trail to find her. She’d been thinking I must have had a bad fall and so she was quite confused to see me walking towards her from the direction of the finish line.

First ever second.

Sri Chinmoy really put on some great events, and I love to get out there with Mutsumi and see the local crew: John, Martin, Pam, the Gunrunners, the Speedygeese, the random runners just having a go. I’m happy to place second, but think about it: we were out there in perfect weather, on a great local trail. Everyone’s a winner. Matty G. won because he got to enjoy the trail for longer. In the car he kindly points out that my second place “doesn’t count because it’s not an ultra.” True that, Matty, true that.

When you’re only running 30-odd km you’ve got the rest of the day ahead of you, so we enjoy some time with Matt, his wife Lilit and son Gabe. Later, Mutsumi and I go swimming at the AIS, and I have a few high-quality cramps in my left calf. We did the shopping at Belconnen Mall, too. Does anyone remember that song by local band P-Harness, ‘I want to be as big as Belconnen Mall’? Look it up some time, it’s a good one.


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