So I did it! I’m am now officially a marathoner (well technically an ultra-marathoner, but kinda depends on who you speak to) having completed the 2016 Six Foot Track Marathon in the Blue Mountains. Woohoo! I’m proud to add myself to the growing list of runners who have tackled and survived the race within the reasonably tough 7hr time limit. I managed to sneak in under my 6hr target in an official time of 5:47:33! But it wasn’t easy…
The race starts at the Explorer’s Tree in Katoomba – entrants and their keen supporters are bussed (or walk) to the start line from the High School in central Katoomba. It was pretty smooth sailing for the start line logistics. Being in the last wave (more on this later), I made my way along for 6:05am for a 7:35am race wave start. There were no queues and I was straight on a waiting bus that quickly filled up and off we went. At 6am this time of year it’s still pretty dark out there but I was able to spot a few runners walking to the start line as we made our way there. Once there it was quite overwhelming to see the number of runners! The traditional red Six Foot Track Marathon banner hung across a stretch of fire trail where everyone was gathering in excitement and trepidation. It was fantastic to see so many of the runners I’d met during training and exchange warm hugs and encouragement.
I made it through the toilet queue just in time for the official start and watched wave 1 tear down the initial downward sloping fire trail and soon they were out of sight. Shortly after (5mins) wave 2 were tearing off. I watched wave 3 head off, 10 mins later, and tried to snap some pics of my running friend, Andrea, as he made a good start midway in the pack. Then it was wave 4 where a number of runners I know were bouncing with excitement to get going, including Enrique, Julia, Claire and Lisa from Achilles. I snapped some pics then as soon as they were off I got myself in position at the start line. Being more comfortable with technical downhill and knowing what was coming up at the start, I made sure I was second line from the front of the pack. I was in wave 5 as only had my Coastal Classic time to qualify on, having never done a marathon before. Whilst I thought my 4hr Coastal Classic time was good, it wasn’t good enough to secure me a better placing for the start of the race. Based on my Coastal Classic time the estimator said I’d do Six Foot in 6hr36 hence the last wave allocation.
This brings me to my most important observation about Six Foot Track! Race prep for this starts at least a year in advance! If you want to get a good start wave (which is key to reduce bottle-necking prevalent in the latter waves) then you need to get a good qualifier. The Six Foot website has a tool to calculate this – it’s buried in the race entry criteria tab under Additional Notes. There are various qualifying races, if you’re a road marathoner a time of under 3h20 will get you in wave 2, under 3h45 will get you in wave 3, under 4hr for wave 4 and 4hr-4:20 for wave 5. For Coastal Classic I would have needed a sub 3h20 for wave 3 or sub 3h45 for wave 4. Working back from my official Six Foot time (5h47) it wasthe equivalent of a 3h55 marathon time or a 3h30 coastal classic time. Both of which would have seen me in Wave 4. To be honest between wave 4 and 5 I doubt there’s much difference. There was serious bottle necking in Nellies Glen – on the steps for my friends in Wave 4 and for me (at the front of Wave 5) we caught the slow wave 4’s at the single track in Nellies. So unless you’re able to get into Wave 3 I’d expect some decent bottle necking at the race start as the less confident runners make their way through the technical sections.
For me positioning at the front of wave 5 was good, I avoided the less confident wave 5 runners come Nellies steps – with only 10 or so runners ahead of me and all moving with ease down the steps. This meant I got the race nerves under control and settled in a little. Note that it did take a decent pace on the initial downhill before the steps to achieve this but being in wave 5 I didn’t have to venture out my comfort zone to achieve that lead. We bottled at the single track section of Nellies which is a shame as I love that stuff! That’s the best bits to run in my opinion but as with all trail runs you just need to suck it up! There was a guy getting agro at some folk behind me and one of the guys rightly pointed out “if you wanted to avoid the bottle necks you should have qualified stronger!” and that is spot on! As I said earlier this race starts well before race day. If you’re in wave 4 or 5 mentally prepare for this, you will get bottle-necked. That’s trail racing!
Once out of the Nellies Glen the track opens up to a gentle downward sloping fire trail.
After the bottle-necking it’s tempting to floor it here and I was probably running a touch too fast in this section conscious of the single trail at Cox’s River. Another great but technical downhill that I love to run. Crossing over Megalong Valley Road there are port-a-loos and a nice wee crowd of supporters to cheer you on. At this point we were still in a blanket of fog which was lovely and cooling but did mean that hitting the prettiest part of the course we saw nothing but a vague hint of fluro running gear in the distance. On a sunny day, Megalong valley is a bounty of endless green valley, enticing vineyards, wild flowers and is also spattered with cows (and their poop!) and the odd horse watching in interest as we bound by. It’s such a shame that we had the fog as two photographers are set up in this area hoping to capture with the beautiful valley backdrop. You can see from the pics that we had nothing to admire but the bleak, grey fog. But as much as I missed the beauty I knew the fog would burn off soon enough and I’d be begging for it come back. And at this point, 15kms in I was feeling nice and fresh so didn’t need the surroundings to lift me up.
To my surprise the field was really sparse heading down toCox’s. I was largely along on the single track passing only a couple of others. I even managed to sneak a bush wee in without any interruption. I was glad I did as Cox’s didn’t appear to have port-a-loos which I thought it would, only the usual long-drop toilet which is rank on a normal day so with 700 runners ahead of me I figured it would be busy and even more unpleasant than normal. But to memory there was no queue. The river was pretty low around knee height at worst – despite the mother of all thunderstorms dumping a huge amount of rain the night before. So I made it through with ease and with only 2 other runners in the water with me. But then as soon as I’d crossed the river and made it through the aid station there was suddenly another 20-30 runners around! I think a number of people stop at Cox’s and ring out their socks / empty their shoes refresh at the sizeable aid station. I decided not to as I wanted to keep my momentum up in preparation for the impending doom that was about to be unleashed (Mini-mini and the Pluviometer!). There was a bit of gravel in my shoe but largely my Dirty Gal Gaiters had protected me so I soldiered on, knowing there was a lot of walking rather than running ahead of me.
The fog had started to clear as I made my way down to Cox’s and by the time I hit the hills, where you’re fully exposed, it was beating down and the temperature swiftly rising. The combination of well worn-in runners, wet socks from Cox’s and the heat of the day meant that hiking up the hill behind a bevy of sweaty runners was not pleasant – toe jams for days as my wife would say! At least it was motivation to pass more and get a wider berth!! Still this beats my mate Andrea who had a guy fart in his face on the uphill – yep us trail runners are a pleasant bunch… So this is where the heat really started to play a part in the success or failure of race day. Now yes it’s Australia, it’s hot! But this heat was 8 degrees hotter than the previous year and with the humidity at 80%+ the Six Foot organisers felt it prudent to put out a pre-race warning; even offering extended refund terms for those adverse to hot conditions! Now that’s a warning sign if ever I heard one!
Following the heat warning I was glad I’d already decided to run with my Salomon vest. Whilst there are aid stations every 3-4kms in Six Foot (one of the most manned events in the world with 1 volunteer to every 3 runners!!) I know how dangerous the heat and dehydration can be having struggled on a couple of training runs and previous adventure races where water wasn’t supplied. There was no way I was going to tackle the hardest run of my life without having at least enough fuel to get me most of the way there. And I’m glad I did, the extra heat led to extra consumption of Tailwind and left some of the later runners without any at the aid stations. Something I’m sure the race directors will look at for next year. But hey, maybe it’s my trust issues, but as non-elite runner I think you always need to take some responsibility for yourself. Back up salt tablets, electrolytes or gels are just common sense in a race like this if you ask me, especially if you know you’re going to be out there for more than 6 hours! Even with 4-5kms between aid stations, if you’re dehydrated and under fuelled that can take a hell of a long time to cover when there’s no shade and it’s all up hill. Even with my hydration and nutrition pretty much spot on I still succumbed to the effects of the heat and exertion and was very nauseous for the second half of the race. The only time I’ve ever contemplated stopping to be sick in a race! And that was with a pack on me. At no time did I pass through an aid station with less than 500ml of Tailwind and 500ml of clean water. I took 2 litres of my own tailwind (1.5l bladder and a 500ml flask with just the TW powder that I added water to at the top of Pluvi – I had caffeinated Tailwind in the flask to help perk me up later in the race).
Climbing Mini-mini and Pluvi was a battle. I moved slower than I normally would, mostly I guess due to the heat but also I think I struggled to get into the focussed hiking mindset that is needed to keep your pace up. In training runs I had broken the monotony with running sprees – just 100 steps of running. But on race day I just couldn’t. I think the heat had a big impact on my mental state at this point. Everything felt so tough and since everyone else around was walking I just walked too. There were small parts where the route flattens and whenever it did I had to remind myself this was a run and not a hike and to pick up the pace. Finally the top of Pluvi was in sight – I’m glad I trained on the course in advance as there are a number of false summits that make you think the pain is over but it isn’t! And in fact even when you get to the top of Pluvi it’s not over. The Black Range is your new hell. I swear I could actually see the door to the hurt locker as I entered it at the 26km mark of the 45km race. A mere 19kms to go you say – how delightful! Oh and it’s mostly uphill for the next 10k – oh you spoil me! *sob*
The Black Range in an interesting place. The trees blackened by fire and a wide undulating trail it would normally be nice (particularly in the opposite direction) but after the pain of Mini-Mini and Pluvi it’s a S.O.B of a trail section. They say that this is where runners pick up the most places and I can see why. There were a lot of walkers at the stage. I managed to run most of the flats and hike the hills. Of the biggest motivation were the two guys from Wave 4 who were loudly noting how women kept passing them on the flats but smugly stating how they’d catch them back up on the hills. Which to be fair was happening but when I passed them for the last time on the flat and they again loudly noted “see you’re right and it’s all women” I felt like reminding them that the last two women (myself included) had not just passed them on the flat to be caught again on the hills but had actually progressed form the wave 10 minutes behind them to catch them on the flats! It really grates me to hear people make assumptions and pass judgements on other runners.
Like the guy who once told me he saw a blind runner pass him and had to catch him as he “couldn’t be beaten by a blind guy”! Yes that happened! Yes that guy’s a d*ck….! I’m sure these guys were just talking nonsense as you do in a race like this at the 30km mark but it just really annoyed me (again probably because I was at the 30km mark and well and truly in the hurt locker!). On more reflection I was definitely not in a great place because I’d forgotten that I actually had my emergency headphones and pump up playlist!! Whilst I hardly ever run to music (both in training and races) I think that something to zone me out would have been ideal at this stage.
I didn’t get another distraction until Deviation. The final split point in the race and where the best group of people were gathered. NRG runners lined a section of track with cow bells and signs and smiley faces and big cheers and it was AMAZING! Almost as amazing as their sign “There’s beer at the finish” which with 10kms to go seemed so close. But in trail land a lot can happen in 10kms! The pick me up was much needed as I entered the only section of the trail I hadn’t experienced in advance. Luckily I’d been warned the night before of a couple of other big hills to come. One in particular that’s called the Insult and boy was it an insult. It was a mother-f*cker of a hill. Luckily you’re under decent tree cover at this point so it’s not as exposed as Pluvi and Mini-mini but just seeing such a beast of a hill so far into a race was mentally and physically tough. I was really grateful to bump into Paul at this stage who I’d done a few training runs with through the Striders. He was gearing up for the UTA 100km and was carrying a slight niggle going into 6FT so decided to pull out and support people instead. He’d been chatting with a mate for a bit and was on his way back to the NRG fun camp when we crossed paths. He jogged / walked with me for a bit as I pushed towards the big hill and started my climb. He let me know I probably still had an hour to go which shocked me as in my mind I thought I was going to be a lot closer to my 5.30 dream time. But the reality was a grateful slap in the face. It made me put my big girl pants on and tell myself to get it done! Which is what I tried my best to do when I was back to running solo. I managed to run to the next hill which wasn’t nearly as nasty so I got up it at a decent enough walking pace and then I was across Caves Road and ready for the grand finale.
Now at this point I was convinced it was time to hit the notorious downhill section. But alas, no! There were more wonderful undulating hills to get through first. This is when I couldn’t resist shouting “F%#$ YOU SIX FOOT!” to the trail. But quickly shook that attitude and got back to my internal monologue of “Get it done! Get it done!” which I’d be chanting in my head since passing through Deviation. They even throw in some stairs just to check you can still work that part of your brain! Fun times 6FT you little devil you.
But then the downhill finally did appear. It’s rough and dangerous (especially on tired legs) but for me it was invigorating and the faint ring of cow bells and cheers from the crowd confirmed it was not a hill mirage and was in fact the end. And there I was, like a new woman, flying down the hills – or so I thought until I checked my pace and realised I was only doing 7:45 minute k’s. Hahaha. The slowness of my previous pace obviously skewed my awareness of how I was travelling. But who cares, I was having fun – despite a near depilating side stitch that caused searing pain (and uncontrollable groans and grunts – but helped scare other runners out of my path)
I ramped it up and by the time I hit the concrete downhill that winds into Caves House I was in my element again. I crossed the finish line to a roar of supporters, some I knew, most I didn’t. And my name was called out as I ducked my head to receive my medal. What a feeling!
Now where’s the quiet corner for me to crawl into and cry with exhaustion, pride and elation.