It was early August during Melbourne’s coldest and wettest winter for many years and training for October’s marathon was progressing at pace. My wife Em had been an absolute legend as always, accepting early nights, supporting my early mornings, feeding an insatiable hunger and tending to various aching body parts all in the hunt for a sub 3hr time. In an attempt to redress this balance I said that the choice of our post-race holiday in November was completely up to her – after all I had been more than an influential factor in choosing trekking in Nepal as our honeymoon location the previous year!
Now, just to explain, there is almost 100% trust in our relationship – except when Em hears words from me along the lines of “of course I can relax for a week; if you want a beach type holiday then that’s absolutely fine with me”. A few days later I get a cryptic email at work saying “how long after a marathon is it sensible to compete in an ultra?!” And so it came to be that flights to Port Douglas were timed to allow access to the beach, the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest and also the Spiny Cray trail running event – the latter designed to tire me out enough that I would sit still and enjoy myself for the rest of the week.
So the 10/10/10 rolled around and the Melbourne Marathon went perfectly to plan – of course there was more than noticeable pain for the last 10k, but a chip time of 2hrs 58mins and 46secs made all of that bearable. The next question was how would the legs pull up? The resounding answer was given when attempting to bend legs getting up and down stairs in the next two days – but fundamentally no injuries! Still it was decided that the ultra event would be a step too far just 7 days later, so in the middle of the week I reluctantly emailed Shane and asked to drop back to the half marathon distance.
After that significant preamble it brings us to the morning of Sunday October 17th – a 5am alarm, the ritual jam on toast followed by a beautiful drive from Port Douglas to the Julatten Highlander Tavern, 400m above sea level. It is a cool morning by local standards, (though not for a pom who is only just acclimatised to Melbourne after 5 years living there), and the day before my 34th birthday. The whole day certainly felt like an early present starting with the friendly reception given by everyone at the event. I registered with Lorraine, who I had previously met at the Roadies Club Run whilst up in Cairns with work a few weeks before and chatted with people from near and far – one lady had driven 6hrs from Townsville which made my 3hr flight pale into insignificance! Over the last 12 months or so I have entered a few trail runs and the atmosphere is so far superior to the faceless big city centre runs that it is hard to even draw a comparison.
The race briefing is held by Chris at 6.50am and a few announcements are made including an admission that the 56km ultra event is actually 57km – there are a few smiles in the gathered crowd, but looking at the field for the headline race you know that an extra 1000m was not going to bother these extremely fit looking athletes. There is also mention that the water stations are manned by friends and family which further enhanced the cosy feel of the day.
7am then ticks around and we all set off along the Mt Lewis Road. A gentle downwards slope of bitumen almost lulls you into a false sense of security, but the course profile provided on the event website showed that even those completing the half marathon with me will face a continuous 600m climb through the rainforest before reaching the turnaround point. I set off at the front of the pack with Chris White who it is clear would have blown me off the track had he not been pacing himself for the 57km to come! As it happens we have an equivalent pace in mind and push each other up the climb on a dirt road which is wonderfully soft underfoot due to the recent rains, but not enough to remove the required grip needed by the trusty trail runners.
I have included the data off my Garmin Forerunner here if you would like to have a looksy.
As promised the slope is almost relentless, though at one point there is enough respite in the gradient for Chris to pass on some knowledge of Queensland flora. Apparently we have just skipped over a branch of the ‘wait-a-while’ tree that has fallen onto the track. Wikipedia later told me that ‘the spines of this tree have been known to trap weak sheep’. Fortunately it is early enough in the race that I have more strength than an old mutton, though I do for a second wonder if that was a motive for Chris telling me of these harmful barbs only after we had skipped over it! Then I remembered we were in different events, but still the Aussies do like to have joke on us unsuspecting poms – I have only just stopped looking for drop bears in the trees of Australia!
My turnaround point is marked by the second of two drink stations where voices of encouragement urge us on. We have gone slightly past the half way distance for a half marathon as a flat spot was required for the tables – trail running was never meant to be easy or boring! I wish Chris all the best for his continuing journey and to say I am impressed when I later see his time is under 5hrs is a significant understatement. For my own race there is now only a quad thumping downhill to come, which I have never particularly enjoyed, and last weeks marathon aches came back in abundance. However, 1hr 40mins and 41secs after setting off I return to the Highlander Tavern in 1st place – I only started running in 2004 on the other side of the world in the Bath half marathon and the Spiny Cray is the first race I have ever won so I’m pretty pleased with my holiday activity.
After the finish we cheer in other runners, partake in the delicious fruits provided by the organisers and look longingly at the beer that others are enjoying whilst realising that this particular pleasure will have to wait until the driving is over for the day! Again there is no shortage of conversation to be had with those returning from the half marathon and 5k races. Ivan has done a brilliant job as race coordinator and as the presentation comes to a close we spare a thought for the 57km runners that are still running under a sky that has broken its cloud cover and started to heat up another far north Queensland day. However, for me it is time to return to Port Douglas with my wife and keep that promise of a relaxing holiday – for a couple of days at least!