I’m not sure what it is about the Spiny Cray Ultra, but despite it being the longest run event I’ve had a go at it is without doubt the most enjoyable. Maybe the altitude affected air pressure stimulates early endorphin release, or the biodiversity of highland Daintree region rainforest may trigger some primal reconnection with the natural environment. Its probably something simpler: 54 of the 57km’s are heavily shaded by rainforest canopy and crystal clear rainforest creeks provide water cooler, sweeter and more physically refreshing than anything you’ll find in a drum of electrolyte. Most likely though it was probably the generous offer of the Highlander Tavern to shout free beer to any finishers that kept a smile on my face and the words ‘pure’ and ‘joy’ rattling around in my head as I rolled down the long smooth downhills on the return journey.
That said the event certainly poses a demanding challenge and the website’s description as a ‘true tropical test’ is spot on. Any thought of running 57km with an impressive 1550m of ascent and descent will daunt the calves, quads and lungs of all but the most well prepared mountain runners.
Julatten’s Highlander Tavern formed the start line for the 6:22am (Civic Twilight) start, the cool mountain air 450m asl promised perfect running conditions and also provided the medium for almost visible anticipation. Pro Photographer Muzza (Extreme Photography) took an early mountain bike assisted lead on the short bitumen section before the pack split and the climb up 27k’s of dirt to the turnaround at 1220m asl began. I’d managed to sneak under 5 hours in the 2010 inaugural running of the Spiny Cray Ultra (4:57:30) and held a casual goal of equalling or maybe even bettering this time but held some doubts due to a somewhat disjointed preparation and the lingering uncertainties that play with the mind before any such event.
The watch and kilometre trail markers helped fade most of these uncertainties as I reached Peter at the 5km marshall tent without a hint of fatigue and feeling fast on the steady climb. His enthusiastic encouragement joined a near constant dawn chorus of bird calls as the climb continued to the Half Marathon turnaround (10.55k) where Alex and Ron helped me punch in, grab a hydration belt from my drop bag and sent me on my way a couple minutes ahead of the 2010 effort.
From here the climbing steadied and undulated between creeks, ridges and valleys with the ‘Lunch Spot’ Creek (16.5k) and the 23k creek proving particularly morale boosting and the rolling jungle clad ridges revealed by rare breaks in the canopy hinted at just how large and wild this area is. It was near the 25k mark that I glanced at the watch and realised 2 hours had flown by with over 1000m of climbing behind me and I still felt really comfortable. The final 4k climb however removed most of these feelings of ‘comfort’, with the uphills really starting to bite and the spring sucked from the step.
A seemingly unending climb brought the old tin miners hut and turnaround point into sight 10 minutes quicker than last year and Mike proudly displayed a fine selection of treats as I punched in. A sweaty palm was filled with various running snacks not suited to squeezing into a belt, my bottle was refilled and I happily turned looking forward to what should be 28.5k’s of downhill.
What had been steady and brief downhills on the outward journey morphed into vicious soul smashing slogs on the return and if the climbs were biting before, they were starting to drool as I approached, then chew and spit as I stumbled up. The guarantee of 10k’s of unbroken downhill, the prospect of a 4:45 finish and the purely joyous downhills between these climbs kept the feet moving up though in what, if viewed from a distance, could loosely be described as running as the return to the Half Marathon turnaround brought great relief.
The legs sparked back to life with the unbroken downhill home and a couple of sub 4 minute k’s kept some hope of a 4:45 finish alive. A final water top up at the 5k tent briefly broke the downhill momentum but the last few k’s of downhill really put the fun back in running and I again wondered where to the last 4 and a half hours had seemingly disappeared. The 4:47 finish time and 10minute PB had me thrilled and another brilliant Mt Lewis Road running experience left me motivated to tackle bigger, longer, faster and higher runs.
Well done to all Spiny Cray Runners in all courses for making a top run great and big thanks to Shane, Course Marshalls and Admin Crew for a thoroughly professional, well organised but refreshingly casual and friendly event. I hope it continues for many years to come and I get plenty more chances to ramble through the rainforest, jog in the fog and climb in the clouds while pondering just what makes the Spiny Cray Ultra joyous.