• Elliot Cooper

Run Darkly: Kowen Moonlight 12hr solo.

Updated: May 23

I hate being lazy. I fill my calendar with things to do. When my morning yoga session doesn’t fit, I just get up earlier. If I have spare time after a run, I run some more. But today I’m still in bed at 10am and I don’t care. I think about all the things I have planned for the day: A decent yoga session, breakfast, then after breakfast I’ll probably just do lunch. Then, I’ll make sure I have all my gear ready, eat a little more, and leave. At 4pm. There’s time, so I shut my eyes again. I hate being lazy, but today the laziness is strategic. I’ve gotten myself into that mythical scenario wherein the longer I doze in bed, the greater are my chances of success. So here I am, laying in bed without the slightest worry that I should be up and doing work, or chores, or exercise. Bliss.

Tonight is the night of the Kowen Moonlighter. When I told one friend what I’d be doing this weekend, he gave me a look that ultrarunners know well: that mild look of disgust that manifests on an interlocutor’s face when they actually start to think about what you plan to do: as if to say “what’s the meaning of such an activity?” I wonder what he imagines. Does he imagine me as a guy out in the darkness of the moonlit wilderness who is, instead of doing something apt like stirring a cauldron, exercising. Does he imagine that the exercise goes on so long that the exerciser body crosses into a state of confusion? Could he imagine a crazy person running well beyond the time that normal people think it’s time to stop and go home, until his body says no and starts heaving with nausea? And does he go as far as to imagine the early morning hours a figure with a glucose induced sickness, and legs no longer under his control, stumbling into the dying patch of light emitted by his torch: a figure who swaggers along silently but for irregular wild emissions ringing out into the night? Hah! People really do imagine the most absurd things. Running in the woods at night is just good fun. I’ve been excited about is all week.

I think I’m going to run at least 100km. 110km would be great. But as for placing, I have no idea. I have enough experience neither in local races, nor just hanging with local runners to gage this kind of thing yet. Also, this being the first time this particular race is run, there are no results from the previous year on the Kowen Trail Run website to see who the local stars are, and how many laps they were able to complete.

Truth be told, as I make my lazy preparations I’m ignoring something important: I don’t have enough energy bars. Those that I do have are one’s I haven’t tried during training. I have magnesium salt tablets, but later I’ll figure out that I only brought the caffeinated ones. That’s going to make me nauseated. At least I won’t be sleepy. And, without really knowing how this happens, somehow my plans to get to the event by 4:30pm aren’t working out. Instead I finally rock up at 5:15, pretending like I’m ok with that. At the same time the gravity of my disorganisation is starting to sink in. I pass the gear check, but when I’m told to put an emergency number into my contacts list I suddenly can’t find my phone. I spend precious minutes rifling through my bag, and I’m beginning to panic. I stop, take a deep breath, and finally think to look under the bag. There’s the phone. Pam (race director) is by now on the mic doing the race briefing. But I have to attach my bib and change. At the back of the room, hands now shaking with nerves, I miraculously manage not to attach my bib number to my shorts without stabbing myself with a safety pin. I also change my t-shirt (thanks John for taking a photo of that crucial moment). I don’t hear a single word of the briefing. I zip up my bag and stash it in a corner before walking out the wrong door. ‘Where are the other runners?’ I think, as another wave of panic surges up.

Pam sees that I’m confused and redirects me back through the hall. I line up next to Scott Tee, who is in the triple (three laps) race. There passes a weird moment in which we can’t figure out whether to shake hands or fist bump. I’m still unaccustomed to fist-bumping, and after awkward dance of alternately opening hands and making fists, I settle on a fist, he on an open hand. I wait, and finally a fist bump is accomplished. I think there is a countdown, I can’t really remember now, but 6pm ticks by and we all start running. I relax. Que será será.

We start the loop at the Womboin Rural Fire Station, then head out down the bitumen for a while before hanging a right onto a dirt road. After cresting the hill we turn back to the left for a short descent before dropping in to single track on the right. Here there are many turns, trees to duck and squeeze between, occasional deep-looking puddles to avoid, and a constant up-down up-down profile. There’s a bit of rollercoaster feel to this section; you have to be agile. About half way along there is a time gate and aid station. A group of volunteers camp out there all night and make sure there’s water, lollies and salty potato chips for anyone that wants something. If you shine your head lamp next to the lollie bucket, you might even find a gel or two. This is super important when you’ve eaten too many lollies.

In the dwindling light I realise I’m next to Michael Thompson. There are two Michael Thompsons. They were both at the Bush Ultramarathon a few weeks back. This Michael Thompson is the one in the sky blue shorts; his get-up invariably tends towards lighter shades. “It’s Michael, right?” I say, “How did you go at the Bush Ultra?” “Alright. I finished.” “How far are you hoping to run?” “70km would be good. I want to to more than the Bush Ultra. If I can do that I’ll give the Sri Chinmoy 105km a shot.” I say I’ve already committed to Sri Chinmoy, so I guess I’ll see him there. The thing about these races is that there aren’t many people willing to throw their hat in the ring, so we keep seeing the same niche group everytime we turn

up to an event. Five-minute kilometers are not in Michael’s race plan so he suggests I move ahead and I do.

The first few laps happen quickly. Everything is fine except for one thing. My compulsory reflective gear has a hard plastic buckle on it which keeps tapping against my stomach, which pretty quickly leads to a sick feeling. I hitch the buckle up and wrap it around the chest straps on my running vest. This creates two new problems. The reflective straps over my shoulders are now too loose and keep slipping off, and the buckle is now tapping against my sternum, which makes me feel even worse. I put up with this for 3 laps before putting my run vest outside the reflective gear. Problem solved.

On lap 5 I catch up with Michael. I have no sense of my position or his, especially now that most of the runners doing singles, doubles or triples are off the course. “Go team!” yells the soloist as I pass. I’m not running with anyone. It’s just me out in the darkness, occasionally overtaking someone. No one will overtake me for the rest of the race while I’m on the course. When I come in from lap 5 Martin (race timekeeper) tells me I’m in first place.

It’s lap 6 sometime around 10:30 and the Google Hangouts chime sounds on my phone. It’s Mutsumi messaging from Japan. I’d planned to call her before the start, but in the panic I didn’t get to. So, why not just call her now, I figure. There passes between us the following conversation:

Mutsumi: おっ、走ってる?

Elliot:うん。よく分かんないけど、今、一位らしい。

Mutsumi: 本当?(笑う)

Elliot:うん、そう言われた。今日、何を食べた?

Mutsumi: 味噌汁。

Elliot:いいな!味噌汁を食べたい。エイドでは蛇とポテトチップスしかない。

Mutsumi: 蛇とポテトチップス?

Elliot:そうだよ。蛇をもう一本食べたら、吐いてしまいそう。一年間ぐらい蛇を見たくない。

She says she’ll be awake for a while so I tell her I’ll call again in a couple of laps. I keep moving forward into the darkness. And I feel the darkness moving towards me. Lap seven is horrible. I just want to throw up all the glucose I’ve been putting into my system and replace it with something else, but I only have one protein bar left. That’s not enough to even get me through one more lap. I walk where I have to, belching, stopping for the occasional dry-heave. On my way back down to the Fire Station I give encouragement to runners heading out, apparently to make myself feel better. Mostly they are silent. I wonder what they’re listening to.

At the Fire Station I go into the hall to eat. I grab a cup of lentil soup, a cup of pumpkin soup, a cup of rice pudding. Everything tastes amazing! I walk back out into the night trying to get the food down as fast as possible. It’s hot, so I have to force myself to take my time. With a slight burning sensation in my throat I move out. It doesn’t bother me at all, I’m feeling way better. So good that I decide to call my wife again.

Mutsumi: 今はどんな感じ?

Elliot:さっきまではひどかったけど、レンズ豆スープを食べて元気になった。

Mutsumi: レンズ豆スープ?

Elliot:そう、蛇はもう嫌だからデポに入ってレンス豆やかぼちゃスープ、それからライスプディングもたべた。

Mutsumi: え?スープやプディングがあるのになんで蛇を食べたの?

Elliot:まぁ、そう言えばそれはそうだね。

Everything is good. So around I go again and again and again before stopping for one last pig-out on soup to get me through.

Heading out on Lap 11 I grab my tights in case it gets cold. About a kilometer down the road I realise it’s actually quite cold. There’s nothing for it so off with the shoes and shorts right there in the middle of a public road. But I’m not a weirdo: it’s on with the tights, shorts and shoes and off I go. I’m feeling good again. I know now the maximum possible distance is this plus one more lap, so I make that my goal. The milky way is beautiful so I turn off my light and gaze skyward while I run. Then I hear a vehicle coming from behind. The car stops somewhere behind me. Suddenly its high beam lights wash out everything around me. Now it’s moving towards me as my eyes struggle to adjust. Now the the driver talking to me: “you missed the turn off,” it’s Pam, “How did you go past it?” “Uh, I dunno” I say, shrugging. I start heading back, I run towards a runner who has followed me. Surprised to see me running back she says “hello”. “We’ve missed the turn,” I say. We back track for a short distance and find the turn off. I’m glad Pam turned up when she did. It’s like she’s psychic!

It’s after 5am when I finish lap 11. I’m low on energy, but there’s no time to refuel. I fill one soft flask with water and go, knowing I have to run this last lap like I ran the first. I head out again into the darkness. After more than 11 hours in this race I’m suddenly back in form, running 5 minute kilometers uphill. I veer onto the dirt road, at the top of the climb Pam is there yelling out “are you the team?” I guess she’s looking for a relay team that is about to hit 100km. “No,” I say, “it’s just me”. I turn left and then, for the last time, drop in to the single track on the right. For the first time in six laps I’m jumping fallen trees, leaning in to switchback turns, running every uphill. I’m not stopping. That’s what I yell when I see the lights of the halfway point: “I’m not stopping,” “what number are you?” says a stern voice, “sixteen,” I say “one-six” comes the reply. “Thanks for being out here guys!” I yell as I round the aid-station and pick up speed on the downhill. This single track section which in the first laps seemed short, then later seemed so long, now feels short again. I’m pushing my limits and my breathing is getting heavy. I burst back out of the single track onto the dirt road where Pam is waiting to measure a team’s 100km. There’s an exchange as I pass but it doesn’t compute. All I know is I’m running. I can hear myself breathing hard like Zach Miller in Jamil Coury’s video of his 2016 TNF Endurance Challenge win. (Just way less cool.)

I want this last lap bad! I bomb the descent while noticing that the sunrise is stunningly beautiful. For a split second I think I should just stop here and watch as we spin towards the coming light. But I’m instantly brought back by my certainty that it is now mere minutes from 6am and the incessant “haa, haa” sound of air exiting my lungs. I’m on the asphalt now, unaware of anything but my proximity to the finish line. I turn in through the gate and cross the line with three minutes to spare.

It’s not the 100+km that I’d hoped for but it’s 3rd place, and no other soloist has run further than me in the time limit. I’ll take it. I’m grateful to the Womboin Rural Fire Brigade, Pam, Martin and all the volunteers for putting this event on. I reckon I’ll be back next year, hungry for 100km.

A WORD ABOUT STEPTEMBER

My participation to this race was a prelude to my Steptember effort. The Steptember fundraising drive raises funds to help people who are living with cerebral palsy. Steptember participants do 10,000 steps everyday from September 4 through October 1. As the team captain for team 4LeftFeet, I’ve committed to taking 15,000 steps per day, and to bookending the period with the Kowen Moonlighter 12 hour, and the Sri Chinmoy 105km ultra (on Oct. 7). Do you think that might be worth a donation?

Donating is easy. Just go to https://event.steptember.org.au/donate/search?search=4LeftFeet, scroll down and click on my name. Whether it’s $10 or $50, whatever you can spare goes towards helping people who are not able to run like you or I.

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