• Elliot Cooper

The Cent: In Full, Unsupported

Updated: May 23

It’s been a couple of years since I went out on a whim and tried to run the Centenary Trail unsupported, and a couple of months since I did a full clockwise loop with the support of my family. I did that loop in lieu of Neverest, which was postponed due to bushfires. Now that Neverest has been cancelled due to Coronavirus, it’s time to do it again.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many runners to rethink the events they were training for and transform them into something that fits within the constraints of local restrictions. These event’s fall broadly into two categories, virtual event and race equivalent efforts, and examples of these are everywhere:

Virtual event:

  • The Quarantine Backyard Ultra (based on Laz Lakes’ 4.16mile/hour format) which Mike Wardian won with an astonishing 63hrs of running.

  • The Little Dog Front Yard Challenge wherein competitors ran 1 mile every hour. The race ended due to a technical blunder at 246hrs, but one runner chose to round it out to 250.

Race equivalent efforts:

Despite the restrictions the running community is getting out there and running as hard as ever.

When Neverest is canceled Matty G tells me I should do the Neverest course solo and I consider it for a while, but since finishing the clockwise loop of the Cent back in March I’ve been thinking about running it in the opposite direction. Eventually Matty agrees it's the better option and decides that he will run with me. Then he suggests an idea that at first seems nuts, but is actually the logical thing to do given that current Covid-19 restrictions would technically make our aid stations illegal gatherings: we will run the Cent entirely unsupported.

The rules for an unsupported run on the FKT website are:

Matty has been doing shifts in a Covid-19 response role, often working weekends. When he finds a gap in his roster we pin our window on the first weekend in May. We first plan to set out at 6pm on the Friday, but as the week wears on the weather deteriorates into strong winds and persistent rain. It seems the rain will be mostly gone by 6am Saturday morning, and our start time is decided.

Guessing that the longest section without a source of potable water is from Mt Ainslie summit and the Mulligan’s Flat carpark, we break this stretch by making our start in the middle at Hackett. Of course, this means that Red Hill and Mt Ainslie will be left until the very end of the loop and we will then regret this decision, but it seems like a good idea at the time.

At 5:30am I leave the house. Matty is sitting in his car in the driveway tucking into a Big Mac meal. We drive up the road to Hackett and park in front of our mate Aaron’s house. Aaron has gotten up to see us off and we walk to our start point at the southern end of the Hackett Houses Track. The last of the night's rain is in the air. I go live on Facebook and at 6am we set out. A few hundred meters in I realise I hadn’t started my watch. We think about going back, but if one of us has the data we’re fine, so we push on.

On these long efforts anything can go right or wrong. On the shoulder of Mount Majura it’s already light enough to put away our head torches, and on the way to the summit we stop a couple of times to adjust gear to make ourselves more comfortable for the long kms ahead. The rain has stopped altogether now and there’s enough blue sky for the Sun’s rays to begin to reach us. I decide to take off my rain pants. I hate running in anything heavier than a 5-inch split short. I think about changing into the short sleeve t-shirt I’m carrying but decide to hold off. That T-shirt never comes out of my pack, and eventually my apparel decisions below the waist will become a problem. Right now my stomach is giving me hell. It will settle later on, about the time I become hypoglycemic.

Matty under the rainbow - Northern Boundary.

Mulligans Flat carpark is our first water point. We refill and continue to the Northern Boundary Trail. About 10km into this section our adventure goes atmospheric. There’s harsh windchill, and then there’s horizontal rain. This is the highest part of the course and the temperature drops. But it’s beautiful and we are blessed with a rainbow. At One Tree Hill I go live again. We’re 38km in.

When we reach Hall the first marathon is behind us. We stop for water and call in the first marathon on Facebook for the 42.2km in 42hrs virtual event. One marathon down, just two and a half to go. From Hall to Nicholls, the trail stays off the bitumen, but after that we’re forced to run on the hard stuff for a long stretch. It’s here that Matty shows his strength. My body hurts as I start to show signs of caloric debt, Matty has been successfully chowing down on cheeseburgers, brownies and gels, while the thought of eating repulses me. Adding to my troubles is the fact that Matty is a master of the asphalt grind. The more he pushes ahead, the weaker I feel.

Looking back I know that it wasn’t quite the walk in the park for Matty that this seemed at the time. The reality is that we were both suffering with stomach issues and the problems that a heavier pack cause, only he was the better sufferer on the day. We grab some water at the bubbler by Lake Ginninderra and make quick work of Belconnen. I’m relieved when we get to Gossan Hill.

The navigation is tricky in places, and Matty lets me catch up so I can show him the way. We pick our way through the AIS section and passing over Bruce ridge we spot a figure. Matty waves and yells “Mutti!”. Mutsumi has been watching the Google location share feature in Google Maps and come to snap a few photos while being careful to keep her distance. After all this is an unsupported effort.

Climbing Black Mountain Matty just ahead and I can see him eating. I wish I felt like eating. But everything repulses me. I try to eat a homemade energy bar. Normally find these dangerously moreish, but everything about putting it in my mouth is horrible. I’m out of water to wash it down with, too. My focus is the water fountain at the summit. Once there I go live. In the video I look tired, Matty looks Stoic and focussed. We discuss the route. There are variations on the Black Mountain section which are confusing when you’re trying to take a course that is consistent with previous efforts. For the summit we take the route I took last time in reverse but coming down Matty decides that we should do the loop around Little Black Mountain, which has not been included in previous efforts. This adds about 2km to our total.

At the Arboretum we do the zig-zags. On the trail past the main building the markers point in wrong directions or have no arrows at all. It's a good thing I know the route. We push through, the nav is a little tricky to get to the river so I rely on the Codrington data, which I still have on my watch. Once across, we’re met with a 2m high temporary fence. There's nothing for it but to climb over. About a km further down the track we realise that the temporary fence is a big loop we've climbed into. There's nothing for it but to climb back out.

We push on. Matty is strong and moving ahead. I feel like garbage and trail behind. We make our way to Stromlo for a chance to refill out bottles. I’m cold, disorganised, and demoralised. The wind at Stromlo Forest Park is bone-chilling. After a few minutes break we move on to Eucumbene street.

Cooleman Ridge gives me a lift. We spot Mutsumi taking photos as we move through. We wave. We get to the end of the ridge and I’m able to get a little ahead of Matt on a downhill, but that doesn’t last long. As soon as we're on bike path again he seems to be sprinting. I do a video check in and morale wanes the further Matty gets ahead. It turns out he's just making some time to remove a rock from his sock while I catch up, but I can't hide that my mood has taken a dip when I do. Things aren't about to get better for me, the trek down Kambah Pool road is my least favorite section of the course.

Heading into the Kambah Pool Carpark there’s some dude standing at his car giggling and saying something about having forgotten his headlight. Matt tells him we’re running the Centenary Trail. “Ah, ok” he says.

The darkness is coming on suddenly, so we get our headlights out. Trail gives me some life and we move together strongly through this section. It’s not long before we see the lights of Tuggeranong. We pass the stone fence marking the old boundary of the Lanyon and Yarralumla homesteads. Looking off to my right and vaguely think “jeez, the river seems a bit close” then something clicks and I call ahead “Matty, stop. It looks wrong.” We backtrack about 500m and find the fork in the trail where we should have gone left instead of right. We exit onto Athllon Drive and make a bee-line for the bubbler at the Tuggers Parkrun start point. We’re both completely dry.

At Tuggeranong we spot Mutsumi again. It’s like she’s stalking us. She snaps a photo at the water point. All I want is to stop for a burger and shake or six. But instead I turn my camera on and talk to Facebook. Just the idea that people are out there waiting for our updates is enough to get me moving again. The phone battery is getting low so I connect it to a charger pack and chuck it in the back of my running vest to charge. The moment I’ve got my vest back on and adjusted the bloody thing rings. Who would be calling me now? I get my pack off and answer. I hear my mum’s voice: “Where are ya?” I feel like I’m repeating myself when I say, “we’re in Tuggeranong, I just put an update on Facebook”. “Yeah, we watched it” Mum says, “but we couldn’t hear what you said.” Imagine a world where you call a person in a video you just watched to ask them what they said because you couldn’t hear them. That’s the world you live in now. “Are you eating enough?” Dad interjects, “I’m eating as much as I can” which is a statement that would normally mean something quite different to what I’m actually doing.

I know the next section is going to suck and it does. I feel hungry and nauseous and my quads feel wrecked. I’m so sleepy that I can’t hold my head straight on my shoulders. If I were to lie down, I’d be unconscious in seconds. My eating strategy is to put a small piece of energy bar in my mouth and let it dissolve until I can swallow it. This works sometimes but if the piece is too big it takes too long the nausea rises up and I have to spit it out and try again. I can’t wash down every mouthful with water either because there’s no water point until Lake Burley Griffin which, if you measure it, is approximately fuck knows how far away.

Matt is dragging me on not just because he’s stronger, but also because he’s worried about time. I hate that I’m causing us to bleed so much time, but I’m putting in everything I’ve got. I’m worried about time, too.

I get my legs back on Isaacs Ridge and lead for a while. We pass by Mugga Mugga hole-in-a-hill, and the minimum security gaol before crossing Hindmarsh and taking the left onto La Perouse Street. Red Hill and Mt Ainslie still stand between us and the finish. On a normal day these are mere bumps, but this time they’re going to hurt both ways: on the way up, on the way down. No two ways about it. What?

The navigation is tricky through the parliamentary triangle and I tell Matt not to go ahead because he doesn’t know the way. We get through the weird square zig-zag and wave to the lonesome security guards who are no doubt wondering who these head-lighting idiots are and why one is wearing shorts when it’s after 11pm and maybe 2 degrees outside. Fair.

We cross Kings Avenue Bridge. If I’d looked around I’m sure it would have all been very pretty. We do the weird swerve the trail does over Anzac parade so that you have to cross in front of the AWM and head for the Mt Ainslie trailhead. Matty still has the power to push on and again while I trail behind. The concrete path is so depressing that I can only take solace in the knowledge that the end is nigh. At the top I need water and to get a rock out of my sock. Rocks in socks has been a theme all day, but this one tiny rock is the worst. Matty is already heading down the steps. I follow, and every step is awful.

I don’t know if Matty waited, or he was struggling with the downhill, but somehow we’re

Blurry Matty G at the finish point

together again as we leave the single track. It’s not long now and when we make the final left onto the road that leads to the Hackett Houses Track Marker where we began over 18 hours ago, we see a headlight flash. It can only be Aaron waiting to see us finish. We get closer and see it again. And again. Matty and I are running in sync now, with only a couple of hundred meters to go. I’m almost in tears of relief that very soon I will be able to stop.

I was sure that we’d finish in less than 18 hours, but that’s the thing about an adventure like this. There are so many variables, and in the end so many things you know you could have done better. (I know, for example, that next time I’m going to use a different nutrition strategy which may or may not include cheeseburgers.) After my first Cent I was convinced that 17hrs was possible, Matty having completed his first Cent is now considering what it would take to go sub-16. But you’ve got to get a lot of things right to unleash that potential. Despite the slow progress resulting from my inability to eat this Cent was quicker than my first by 13 minutes. That’s a win. But more importantly, by completing this trail unsupported and in a single push Matty and I have done something that hasn’t been done by anybody else. I’m proud of that.

Whatever you think of it, the Centenary Trail is an important benchmark run for Canberra, and the Cent club is still very exclusive with just 5 runners having completed it in a single-push effort to-date (congratulations, Matty). I’m looking forward to seeing who puts their hand up next and I'm happy to share knowledge with and support anyone serious about doing their own Cent.

So that's the story of the first unsupported Cent, but there are so many other great running stories coming out at the moment. Let me know in the comments about the running goals you’re setting yourself in the time of Coronavirus!

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