• Elliot Cooper

Smoked Out

Updated: May 23

On New Year's Day I walk a dog up to Bruce Ridge. At first I thought the air seemed a little better than in the morning but in less than two hundred meters I’ve taken my hat from my head to cover my nose and mouth instead. I lead the dog up high enough to look back towards Mt. Ainslie, but it’s lost in the smoke. How long is 2020 going to be like this?

Smoke has been a feature in our lives since November. On the drive down to Falls Creek on the day before the Alpine Challenge 100 miler, there’s smoke in the air from around Dederang. Matty G, already in our digs at Bogong Village, sends a message: “There’s been a course change” Mt. Bogong is on fire.

We drop off a few things at the Bogong Village house and take the winding road up to the Falls Creek check in station. Matty, Mal and I go through gear check and learn that we’ll have to wait another hour for the course briefing. Meanwhile the RD stomps around, yells into his phone, yells at people, stomps around, and so on. Eventually something like a race briefing happens, and we come away believing that the course will be 180km long. Dad is trying to recalculate crew station times and locations. Matt and I repack drop bags and leave them at the drop-off point. I'm preoccupied with the fact that I haven't slept well for the last two nights. I just want to get whatever shut-eye I can get.

We’re up at 2:30am getting down calories and double-triple checking our gear. It’s a twenty minute drive to a 4:15 roll call before the start. Matty G in the back says “I hope I don’t lose any toes today.”

Runners trickle into a room at Falls Creek. It’s 4:15 but no roll call and no one is coming to call us to the start. Finally the RD comes and says the start has been delayed until 5am and he’s decided to make another course change. Instead of heading down the hill to Lake Guy, then crossing the river and heading up towards Warbly Corner, we will now start in the opposite direction and head out to Langford’s Gap along the same route as last year before heading towards pole 333 and following the regular north loop over Mt Hotham and Feathertop. It’ll cut the course back to 160km, but now we have to again rethink times for crew points. It doesn’t really hit home at the time but what this means is that instead of spending the heat of the day on the high plane where potable water is available at aid stations, we’ll be on that north loop with big climbs and little access to water. Is this guy just making it all up as he goes along? Yes. Yes, he is.

We stand awaiting role call. “Andrew” someone says. “Andrew”. I realise the owner of the voice is addressing me. He looks angry. “Andrew” he says. “No” I say “not me”. He walks back to his friends “who’s Andrew?” one of them says. They laugh at him. Perhaps in the dawn I look like a cousin who bears that name, but that cousin’s sport is rock climbing. I’d be pretty surprised to see him on the start line of a miler.

Roll call happens and we go. On the climb out I’m taking it slow. I want to stick with Matty but he’s taking it slower. Torn, I climb and stop, climb and stop. Before leaving the ski slope we’re side by side. At the dam wall I slip on the wet grass and come down in a puddle. Well, I guess this race begins with a wet bum.

Passing the dam wall and moving on to single track I feel more comfortable. I let the runners in front of me limit my speed for a while. It’s a pace that feels sustainable. I’m enjoying the scenery and starting to feel really engaged with the experience.

There’s a bit of yo-yoing with Matty and some other runners. It’s the early morning, bodies are still waking up, morning routines come into conflict with the blunt facts of running.

The late course change has made the Langfords Gap drop bag redundant. Nonetheless, I stop and eat a couple of gherkins I’d packed in a peanut butter jar. There’s no point hurrying here. Potable water will be scarce and I don’t have a good sense of the distance or difficulty between here and the next drop bag so I fill my bottles, grab a few gels and hope that will get me there.

At Cope Saddle Hut there is a junction with 4 possible paths to take and 2 going in more or less the right direction. The RD said there would be course markers at major junctions, this one looks pretty major to me but there’s nothing to indicate the correct path. I take off my pack and get out the map, but before I can look another runner comes along with the map loaded on his watch (I had done this but stupidly hadn’t taken the time to figure out how to use it). We figure it’s the single track and take it. Matty is with me as we move on to Pole 333, but I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable that I haven’t read the map and figured this out for myself.

Matty and I head out towards Mt Hotham together. At a water crossing I get my right foot stuck between two rocks and bash my shin as I come down. It hurts, but the pause makes us realise that we’re at another unmarked junction that could easily be missed. Matty leads again and I follow. He’s using his running poles well and his descent seems effortless. I almost wish I had poles too.

Matty G, poles out for Pole 333. Poles.

Soon he makes a pit-stop and I move ahead. But another junction stops me and I need to study a map. Again before I can understand the situation Matty turns up and says “left”. We head down to Diddums Campsite. There’s a river with a strong flow and because the air is warm, because my bottles are almost dry, and because the volunteer at pole 333 had said “get water from the river”, I draw water before heading up the ascent towards Mt Loch. I drink before treating the water with UV light from my Steri-pen. I will pay for this later.

I climb well and overtake several runners. At the top of the climb another unmarked junction. A sign points right to Mt. Loch. The next aid station is at Mt Loch Carpark, which is on Mt. Hotham. The runner behind me shows me the way and we head off down the dirt road. At the Mt. Loch aid station I find my drop bag. I can refill my bottles with electrolyte energy drink, pack in some more bars and gels. I guess it will take six or seven hours to get back here. I pack what I think will be enough food.

Heading out I’m adjusting my pack and I hear a voice say, “are you alright?” I know that voice because belongs to my wife. I look up and there she is. I thought that she would be hiking Mt. Feathertop from Harrietville, but here she is. Mum and Dad are there too. After finishing Mt. Beauty Parkrun (mum’s 50th) they decided to see if they could catch me here and they arrived at exactly the right moment to do so. Now Mutsumi will hike the Razorback to Feathertop and descend to Harrietville, so I will see her again on the next climb.

The Razorback

On summit of Mt Hotham I’m focused on the view over the Razorback and happy to ignore - for the moment - the faint smell of smoke in the air. The descent to Harrietville is tough-going but it feels free and good. For a while it’s fairly steep and technical, but much of it is very runnable, and I could imagine really enjoying it if my stomach felt a little better. It’s also a bit longer than I had anticipated, or maybe it’s just the heat getting to me. Approaching a bridge I see a brown snake on the trail, fortunately the snake isn’t hanging around. I stop to wet my sleeves and hat in the river, and to fill a bottle. This time I zap the water with the UV. By the time I get to Harrietville I’m again out of water. But there’s another problem, I’m also worried about water.

Strangers yell “go Elliot!” and Mum and Dad are there to walk me into the aid station and help me get what I need. I eat watermelon, a sandwich, drink water, mix electrolytes, all that. I know there’s no potable water in the rest of the course so I fill bottles and the bladder I packed for emergency only use and leave with the heaviest pack I’ve ever had to carry in a race. Before leaving I ask the volunteer “So it’s just down here and to the right?” “I’m not allowed to comment” is the reply. Ok, thanks.

The water weight combined with the incline in the road makes it almost impossible to run. But I’m looking forward to the climb. I’m 60-odd kms in with a 1500m ascent in front of me: just my kind of problem. The weight of the water encourages me to drink. Soon I’m filling my bottles from my Platypus, which balances the running vest out so I can climb faster. Then I hear Mutsumi calling out. She’s been to Feathertop summit. I’m glad to see her. She gives me an apple and tells me that there’s a spigot just ahead off the trail. There’s still a fair distance to go before Pole 333, so the smart thing is to just fill up the bottles and use the water to cool down.

There’s a 1.5km dogleg to the top of Feathertop. At the summit I count the plumes of smoke from bushfires: there are eight. Heading back to the turn onto Diamantina Spur I see Matty. He says the climb felt awful, but he’s only 3km behind me so he’s not doing too bad. I fumble around with a map for a moment to make sure I’m taking the right turn but it’s useless and I end up just following another runner. I feel stupid.

The Diamantina spur descent is easily the most technical part of the course. There are exposed ridge sections at the top, steep loose dirt sections in the trees further down and plenty of places to trip. I feel confident and overtake a few guys. It’s all good until I come out on a road. Do I go left or right? I have no water so I stop and draw from a creek, zapping the water with UV. The next runner comes along and turns right so I follow. He stops at a creek to cool down and so do I. I want to move faster, but then there’s a split in the road and have to wait. Then there’s another split. Then at a river crossing I take off my shoes and socks partly because I don’t want to get my shoes wet at this point in the race, partly so that it looks like I’m not waiting. The runner goes straight through the creek and by the time I’ve got my shoes back on he’s out of sight. Soon there’s another fork in the trail. The map identifies a hut off the trail, but I’ve just passed a hut so I figure I’ve taken a wrong turn. I head back down the trail and soon find three runners coming towards me. I stay with them for a while, but nobody is moving at my pace. I move up hill and I'm again obliged to draw water from a flowing stream.

It’s along this stretch where three things happen that tell me I'm in trouble. First I reach into my bag for food and realise that all I have is one gel. There’s still a ton of climbing and about 15km before I can access my drop bag. Next, I come around a corner into a small clearing and see a large black dog standing by the path ahead glaring back at me. “What are you doing here?” I hear myself mumble. I stay still a moment to see if it’s going to move but it just keeps its eyes fixed on me. I take a couple of steps and as my perspective shifts I see that it’s not a black dog at all, just the burnt-out end of a fallen tree. “C’mon” I tell myself “keep it together”. The third thing to happen tell me I'm actually very tired and my coordination is getting poor. A short distance further up the climb I’m getting thirsty, so I remove the lid from the bottle with untreated river water and with the bottle still in my vest pocket I dunk the Steri-pen and crank up the UV. Then I drop the lid. As I bend over to pick it up the bottle empties onto the ground. Hopeless. Now I'm hungry, tired and thirsty with one gel and no water. At the top of the climb I feel so sleepy that I decide to just lie down. The grass is so soft and comfy, I just want to sleep here.

I just want to sleep (about 85kms in)

At Pole 333 there’s an option to turn back towards Falls Creek and complete the 100km course. I briefly consider doing this, but it’s not what I came here to do so I continue on the 100 mile course to see if I’m tough enough. On the descent from the plateau to Diddums campsite I suddenly feel amazing. It’s like I just needed to get 90km on the legs to warm up. Now that I’m doing this loop for the second time, I know where I’m going and I feel great. I quickly dispatch the descent and at the river I draw water again, just in case. I climb and climb towards Mount Hotham.

Then darkness falls and my energy is immediately sapped. I can’t see anyone around and start to believe that I must be in last place. I’ve wasted so much time at junctions that it just seems ridiculous to stick with this thing. My eyelids feel like they're made from the heaviest matter in the universe. There are just a few kilometers to Loch Carpark where Mutsumi, Mum and Dad are waiting for me with a Pizza but right now I'm just too sleepy to take another step. I sit down for a few minutes and think things through. If I continue, I'll be descending the Diamantina spur at 2am or 3am. If I can't keep my eyes open that's going to be dangerous. Even though the chance of getting lost from hear on are low, the mental energy I've expended feeling like an idiot for my inability to navigate has dulled my will and left my mind a little scrambled. I don't want to see more black dogs out there. After a few quiet minutes I make my decision.

I walk into the Loch Carpark hut and say to the official “thank you, I’m done”. In a chair to the side there’s a guy who is in a total mess and appears to be planning to continue. He demands from me a reason for quitting. I just tell him "I feel depleted" but I don’t think it computes. I wish him luck. Maybe it’s his first miler. I think it’s important to complete your first miler.

The trip back to Bogong Village is gruelling. The winding of the road is sickening and we’re desperate for it to stop. Dad does an amazing job driving, though he looks as tied as I feel. I’m lucky that the pizza is keeping me busy. When we arrive there’s only one slice left in the box.

All that anyone in the world can think of is sleep.

The next day I feel good. No, I feel amazing. I’ve finally had a good rest. Mustumi and I walk around Lake Guy. Even with the 100km I did run, my legs feel good. While on the walking trail our phones blare with messages demanding that if we’re on a hiking trail to descend immediately. We are at the foot of a mountain burning out of control.

Recovering. Feeling strong.

In the evening we gather for a dinner of risotto, salad and wine. It’s a great meal, and we sit around enjoying the meal and each others company. We're all there, Mal and his partner Justine, Matty's wife Lilit, and baby Gabriel are there, mum, dad, Mutsumi and me. We share in the satisfaction of Mal’s 60km finish, Matty’s 100km finish and even my miler DNF. Between us we covered 260km. Why be disappointed at that? It's a great time to be together. Suddenly something changes in my stomach and I need to lie down.

My condition rapidly worsens. There are bouts of diarrhoea. Then the vomiting starts. Later, I see Matty in a bad way too. It can only be the river water, everyone else is fine. At least Matty's dinner isn’t coming back up. After a while I give up on maintaining any semblance of decorum and just squat naked outside while all sorts of horror happens. It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. Yuk.

Some days I think I feel better, but then it comes back. The sickness seems to be mirrored by the smoke in the air. Two weeks after the Alpine Challenge, on the morning of the Tour de Ridges trail half marathon Matty and I get up early with a plan to do a few laps of Mt. Taylor before the race. Lap one is ok, but as we head out for lap two something is wrong. The pains in my stomach that would normally just go away are getting worse. I fall behind. “Matty” I call out, “I feel like garbage. I’m turning back.”

We meet back at his place where Mutsumi is ready to head to the start line at the Mawson sports fields. I go along and send them off. I’m tempted to grab my bib and go for it anyway, but I’m not kidding anyone. I just have to suck it up and accept my first ever DNS.

The smoke lingers and gets heavier. I join a gym to lay down some kms on a treadmill. It’s boring. I soon realise the treadmills shut down after ninety minutes, so I keep the pace a bit hot when I'm putting in a half-marathon. It's not great, but it’s better than a lung-full of particulate matter.

Matty plans a small event on January 11, the GGU: Griggsy’s Garage Ultra. It’s one lap of Mt. Taylor every hour until there’s one runner left. A few days before he calls it off and he, Mutsumi and I escape to Sydney for the weekend instead. We get some good running done on the Bondi-Manly Trail. After a joyful 30km of coastline from Kiribilli we arrive together at Manly Beach and realise smoke has followed us to the shore.

Later the air in Canberra clears with a bout of hail. Hail like we’ve never seen. Two days later on the way home from work I’m staring across Lake Burley Griffin at renewed fires, now closer than before. And smoke.

How long is 2020 going to be like this?


©2020 by Running Beyond Reason.