Friday, May 20, 2011

End-to-end guidelines

There has been lots of discussion about how you should establish a claim for a fastest time on an end-to-end run. A site dedicated to just that called 'Fastest Known Times' uses the following guidelines:

How do you establish a speed record?
Buzz Burrell has proposed 3 common sense guidelines:

  • Announce your intentions in advance. Like a true gentleman, pay your respects to those who came before you, and tell them what you intend to attempt and when.
  • Be an open book. Invite anyone to come and watch or, better yet, participate. This makes your effort more fun and any result more believable.
  • Record your event. Write down everything immediately upon completion. Memory doesn't count.

These three rules do not "prove" you have done anything. They just make it easier for a good person to believe you.

Supported, self-supported, unsupported? What does it mean?

  • Supported means you have a dedicated support team that meets you along the way to supply whatever you need. This generally allows for the fastest, lightest trips, and for an element of camaraderie and safety, since someone knows about where you are at all times.
  • Self-supported means that you don't carry everything you need from the start, but you don't have dedicated, pre-arranged people helping you. This is commonly done a couple different ways: You might put out stashes of supplies for yourself prior to the trip, or you might just use what's out there, such as stores, begging from other trail users, etc.
  • Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind. Typically, this means that you must carry all your supplies right from the start, except any water that can be obtained along the way from natural sources. This approach has also been termed "alpine style". The longest trip I'm aware of using this style is Coup's 20-day thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. For most people, carrying enough food for more than a few days to one week will be prohibitive. Unsupported also means unaccompanied!

Thoughts on Verification:
You put in a huge effort and trashed your body for the next 6 months. You want people to believe what you say you did, right?

  • Follow Buzz's guidelines above.
  • If other people are involved in your trip, make sure they are involved in the telling the story as well.
  • Photos & video really help.
  • Independent verifiers are key. Consider passing out cards to people you meet along the way with information about your trip & asking the person to email you to confirm when and where they saw you.
  • For shorter trips where it is practical, GPS tracks (.gpx files) are great.
  • SPOT Tracker just might be the ultimate verification tool, and it provides a measure of safety as well. Also, it's a lot of fun for your friends to be able to watch your progress online in real time. They cost about $100 plus $100/year for the service. The current version of the Tracker weighs about 7oz, but apparently a new, improved Tracker weighing around 5oz will be available in November 2009.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reflections #4: Deadfalls

Much of the Alps has been burnt by either the 2003 or the 2006 bushfires. This is a major cause of the problems with track overgrowth. Wherever the canopy has been cleared by fires, dense saplings spring up covering every available inch of ground. The other problem is dead trees. Many of these have blown down and block the track until Parks can get to them with a chainsaw. If they can get to them. But worse still are those still standing.

I had just refilled my pack from my drop on the Jamieson-Licola Road. I was walking along Middle Road below Mt Skene, a relatively level, narrow 4wd track. The fog had moved in but there was no perceptible wind. Not a zephyr. Out of the stillness I heard a loud 'crrrraaaaacccckkkk' then a loud 'crash-kaboom'. I turned and watched as the tree fell across the road not 20 metres behind me, where I had just passed.

I looked at all the foreboding ashen grey dead trees that lined the upper bank and overhung the road I was on. In the eerie fog they looked ominous and all looked ready to fall. Not 20 minutes later I was stopped by another crack. This time it was ear-piercing and resonated through the forest. There was a long pause as the 'craaaaaaccccck' echoed before a massive 'KAAABBBOOOOMMMM!' followed. All the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I couldn't tell how far away that was but I felt the ground shake with the impact.

That old riddle about 'if a tree falls in the forest and no-one hears it does it make a sound?' came to mind. Bloody oath it makes a sound!

Reflections #3: That Incident

It was 1:50am. I know that because I was startled out of a semi-sleeping stupor to the sound of engines. One to be precise. Must be a 4wd, nothing else would get in here. Lights flashed across my tent and swept around the clearing below me. My tent was perched amongst the trees on a bench above the main clearing. Again the bright white light sweeps across me, turning night into day. I jump up, excited at the thought that someone has come to rescue me from my misery. The sudden sleep induced euphoria is soon swept aside by the realisation that they are not here for me. I am not in any distress. Extremely uncomfortable with the tent leaking on me but certainly not in any need of rescue. Then the harsh reality sinks in: at 1:50 in the morning on a rough 4wd track deep in the mountains they can be up to no good. So my initial urge to stick my head out and wave has gone full circle and now I hunker down low in my small tent, feeling very vulnerable. I curse the reflective guy ropes. The engine roars and they circle the clearing. Well the lights all turn away from me. Good, they are going. They completed the 360 degrees and then trained all lights on me! Oh great, target practice time. I lie with my heart beating so loud that my ears throb. The engine roars again and they are gone. For good I hope.

I lie for a long time listening to the wind in the trees and the rain splattering on the tent not inches above me sending a mist of spray each time. Patchy sleep overwhelms me again.

Reflections #2: Snakes galore

On the first afternoon I was moving pretty fast with the full pack (not trail running fast but hiking fast). I startled a brown snake and he scurried off. He was a good 4ft and I came upon him suddenly so it gave me a bit of a fright. My radar was switched on now, just as well as it turned out.

Not long after I came around a corner and right in front of me a huge black shiny snake was crossing the path. I stopped suddenly and he turned and came towards me. His body was as thick as my wrist. He was glossy black and his head was big and slightly flattened like a cobra. His tail was stunted and not the usual taper. The afternoon sun shone on his shiny scales and glinted in his menacing eyes. I took a step back as he started towards me. And then another. He stopped and I swear he was eyeballing me. His forked tongue flickered and his unblinking gaze gave the appearance of trying to mesmerize me. I fumbled for my camera. It wouldn't work. I dug out my phone, not taking my eyes off him. Likewise he was unflinching and not taking his eyes off me. I turned my phone on and still the standoff continued. I held it up and took a pic. The electronic shutter noise startled him and he arced up towards me hissing and I backpedaled rapidly. (I seem to have lost the shot in the process!) He settled but still did not move away. I picked up a branch as big as him and threw it between us. It landed in front of him with a thud and he still didn't flinch. Such bluff and bravado was clearly being backed up by intent. There was no way around. And then as I stood wondering what to do he slowly turned, happy that he had made the point that this was his turf, and slid off the track.

Not half an hour later I came around a corner and nearly stepped on a tiger snake slithering in the same direction. He stopped as suddenly as me. He was stretched out and probably as long as the last one but not nearly as thick. And again I was stuck but at least this one wasn't threatening. Again I threw a stick nearby but no movement. Then he decided to move but continued along the track at his own pace. I followed at a distance until finally he too turned and slid off.

Later that day as I was jogging to make camp in daylight I came very close to putting my foot down on a small grass snake. And the next afternoon as I trotted down the track to the Jamieson-Licola Rd once again I came very close to putting my foot down on a yellow-belly black snake. I was carrying 2x10cm compression bandages but out there a bite from anyone of them (except the grass snake) could have been fatal. Apparently the big black one was a blue-bellied black snake and I still get a chill when I think of the encounter.

Reflections #1: Black River revisited

After spending ages first trying to find the route out of the river and then many hours fighting our way up to Mt Shillinghaw against failing light in 2009/10, I dreaded the Black River section. Especially alone, with no moral support. Even the name was ominous: the “Black River”. And with the repeated flooding throughout Victoria over the summer I was concerned about how deep and fast it might be flowing.

I reached the river at 10:30am after a knee smashing descent down a little used 4wd track. I treated 3 bottles of water. I still had over a litre on me. I budgeted on about 4 hours to the top where I had a litre of water and a coke stashed for the road bash to my full food/water drop on the Jamieson-Licola Rd. I had used up all that water by the time I emerged.

10:45 and I was wading downstream. Forget the guidebook that talks of tracks along the riverbanks and crossing back and forth. The jungle has reclaimed that track and the river is your best bet. It was cool and clear but became inky black where the undercurrents swirled into deeper pools as it wound its way around corners and over and under logs. I didn’t remember going so far downstream. I ducked under a couple of logs and around a few corners. My thighs were wet but no deeper thank goodness. Then rounding a bend the familiar big log high above the water reaching horizontally from one bank to the other. I scrambled up the left hand bank. It was fiddly but I got onto the log and walked out into the middle.

I put some orange flagging tape out for Dave who was coming through in a couple of weeks time. Then climbed down onto the right hand bank and up into the scrub. There was no track. There were no markers. I was glad I had been here before. I knew I had to angle across to my left and climb onto that spur in front of me. Still no track. But as I started up the narrow spur I saw the remnants of a burnt diamond marker on a tree. Then it got interesting.

It was worse than last year. Way worse than I remembered. Even with the added flavouring of 12 months of nightmares about it. The same12 months of extra vigorous growth made it worse. I actually saw another burnt off marker and found a couple of short sections of track but otherwise it was just find the least resistance. And stay on the spur. Sometimes I was cocooned and caught in vines and branches and couldn't move at all. And it was hot. There was no air. No wind. The branches would snag on my pack or wrap around me and I would have to fight to move forward. It was claustrophobic. And I was climbing the whole time. But stay on the spur. And keeping fighting through the growth or climbing over the burnt logs.

When I finally got to the knoll where I was supposed to turn right (north-east) all I could see was a sheer drop into thick bush. Last time we had taken that, following the gps and ended up in thick impenetrable bush. After hours of bush-bashing I was keen to try and avoid more of the same. So I kept going across the knoll along the right hand edge hoping to pick up the trail leaving the knoll. I checked the gps frequently. I should have crossed the trail. Nothing. Just dense bush. Eventually I started dropping off the back of the knoll and realized so came back onto it. My heart sank. I would have to just make my way down into the saddle before climbing up to Mt Shillinghaw as best I could.

I lined up parallel to the trail based on the gps plot. It was terrible, sliding where it was open and strangled where it wasn't. I went back and forth hoping to pick up the track or just trying to find the least dense path. When I finally bottomed out in the saddle it was impenetrable and I couldn't see a thing. Fck! I went back and forth trying to find a way through. I gave up and started just angling across to where I thought the trail should be again based on the gps. I got into a little clear space. Out of the blue a footpad appeared coming across my path from the left. Which surprised me as I thought it should be on my right still. But I was so excited to see it I just angled slightly to follow it. I started climbing straight away. Oh yes, I was already climbing Mt Shill. I wanted to celebrate but something told me not to be cocky until I reached clear ground again. Then I hit another wall of bush. Bugger. I looked down at the gps to get a heading and WTF? I was headed back up to the knoll! Angling onto the trail had taken me back the way I had come. I couldn't believe this so checked the compass and map and sure enough I was going the wrong way. In the dense undergrowth I had worked around in a semicircle until I hit that path. I was shattered. I turned around, now totally unconfident with where I was going and went back across the saddle, again hitting a blank wall. I rechecked my compass and gps and just plowed on following the heading.

It was so hard to make headway. I was hot, tired, frustrated and disappointed. But above all else I was calm and focused on just getting through there. There was this overwhelming understanding that I had to just keep going until I was out, no matter how hard it got. There was no option of giving up. There was no other way out.

Slowly I started climbing again and eventually I hit the old overgrown vehicle track and just kept bashing until I saw the ribbon I had put out last week when I hiked in from the food drop on the road. Now I was happy. And relieved. I stamped my poles into the ground in a little celebratory exclamation! I had beaten the Black River. I thought then that I would get to Tharwa for sure.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Defeated and disappointed but a little wiser and dryer

How good is hindsight. Because the decision to go it alone meant a change in approach I bought a new light-weight tarptent suitable for one man to replace my tried and tested 2.5 man version. Time pressure dictated that I had time to practice pitching and get the seam-sealing done but never a proper field test. I will describe in some more detail the rest of my adventure later on and provide gear and track insights for those keen to follow but just to explain my decision now.

On the third afternoon I was pretty much on target. Just reloaded at my Jamieson-Licola Rd drop barrel. A misty fog had rolled in and it was getting late so I opted for the low road around Mt Skene. Then the rain started. Drizzle at first. But gradually stronger and like the frog in the boiling water I was soaked through before I realised. No problem, I carried a dry set of sleeping clothes. I made it to Rumpf Saddle and found a cosy site on a bench amongst some small trees above the clearing. I set up the tent quickly and stripped and crawled inside and put on warm, dry clothes and made up my bed. No hot dinner tonight.

As the darkness took over I soon realised the rain pounding on the tent was coming through. To my horror with every heavy drop a misty spray was being transmitted. I mopped the moisture with my small cloth repeatedly but it was going to be a long, sleepless night. As soon as I would doze off the spray on my face would wake me again. My down sleeping bag stood up well with it's lightly water-resistant shell but by morning it was damp through and my sleeping mat was soaked. I packed up my bedding and night clothes to avoid more exposure to the water and put on my wet socks and rain pants and jacket and wrapped myself in my space blanket to ride out the day of rain.

Another night of similar but less heavy rain and my spirit was broken. Decision time. I could take an uncomfortable situation and create a dangerous one by going deeper and higher into the mountains with wet and dodgy gear. Or I could hike out to the nearest town and give up. Not ever wanting to put myself in a situation that forced others to come rescue me if I could avoid it, I hiked the 43kms to Licola and got a ride home.

Sitting in the sun this morning I wondered, as we always do when we quit before the end, if my decision was a little soft. Then I remembered what the conditions were like and how much worse they can get and how dangerous it could be wet and exposed to the elements. In hindsight my error lay in trusting an untried piece of critical equipment. With a dry tent I would still be out there. A day slower but still going. Lesson learned. The hard way. I still got to spend 5 days out in the mountains. I saw some spectacular country, awesome snakes, and climbed some killer hills. I conquered the dreaded Black River that has given me nightmares since the last time. And I came home safe.

I have sent Dave Byrnes my best wishes and some tips on the trail. I will watch his progress eagerly. Beau was still going as of yesterday and aiming for Falls Creek Friday night. A great effort and he now has the toughest trail ahead but will be hardened and should be ready for it.

Thanks to Phil for the line of communication and Dave McK for monitoring the safety watch and my wife for supporting my effort and driving all over the country to drop me off and collect me.

Friday, March 11, 2011

AAWT 2-0 Mellum

Well with regret Andy has pulled the pin on his solo unsupported attempt.
Combination of bad weather and a crap tent, wet clothes and sleeping bag his undoing. He is now 'walking 40km with tail between his legs to Licola'

Bummer mate, next time we do it together with crew and beat it!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Slow progress

Wet and Cold

Latest report:

Andy made it in and out of Black River after a big day, lots of tricky navigation and long hours on his feet. Weather turned at Licola Rd camp and after a very sleepless wet night (tent didn't cope too well) he decided to push on to Rumpf Saddle before bunkering down to wait out the weather. Fear of getting spare (dry) clothing and sleeping bag wet before he sets off into the Wilderness Area(Crosscut Saw etc) for 4 days before his next drop at Hotham made the decision easy, that and only 10-15m visibilty.

Hopefully tomorrow will bring better conditions so he can forge on.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On route to Black River

Latest from Whippet:

Doing it tough with weight, might not make it to river tonight, otherwise ok.
Picture at Mt Easton. 'brutal, overcast but tough day.

Edit: 'Stopped at Fiddlers Green, fresh start tomorrow'.

Go Champ!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Day 1 Update

Whippet has reached the Baw Baws, saw some track workers out there.
50kms in 11.5hrs. Going well...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ready to go

Startline at Walhalla

Drops are done!

Whippet has finished his drops and is flying back to Melbourne today in readiness for a start tomorrow morning. Whilst out there he bumped into Beau's crew waiting for him at Kiandra.
He is ready to go!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nearly packed, time for drops

The never-ending sorting-packing-shuffling is nearly complete. I have food and supplies for 22 days. I hope not to need that much but I learnt last time not to underestimate and it is miserable out there if you are really hungry. Really miserable. The logistical changes from a crewed traverse to an unsupported one are immense. I have gone over the topos, the guidebook, Karl's blog (and notes he sent last time), feedback from other runners and several other recorded traverses many times trying to anticipate how long each section will take, how much I will need, where I can camp and most importantly, where I might find water. I have bagged up each days food (700g/day) with a stash of treats at each drop barrel to top up the calories. My pack has come in heavier than I wanted with a base weight of 7.7kg before food and water are added but I also hate being cold so have a full set of dry thermals/clothes to change into each night. And I have gone with a slightly heavier but more robust Aarn pack that will allow me to move more freely and reduce back strain because of the balance pockets at the front. And I am expecting the blackberries to be rampant so the heavier material might pay off. I can still run with the pack up to 12kgs but it becomes too much after that.
Turns out I can't get my silly little phone to send pics to the blog so will be relying on others to forward those on.
I will set off tomorrow driving to Canberra via the mountains to deposit the drop barrels. I have to admit that the excitement is being drowned out by a healthy dose of fear as the start looms so close. I think having seen the worst last year is not helping as I now know what I am in for until I reach the clearer ground after the first week. But with fear comes respect and this is a trail and a course that cannot be approached without that. I have trained hard. Done my homework. Now I will see if I am up for the challenge.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mobile blogging

Hopefully this will allow me to blog on the go!

Looks like I have a system, albeit slow, that will allow me to post blogs on the go when I hit mobile reception. I have also added in a link for the Spot tracker in the sidebar that once activated will show my progress through the mountains.

I will also likely send stuff to Phil and Dave to post up as it will be a lot easier for them. Thanks Plu for the tip, but the new little prepaid phone will do the trick when I have access.

Much of my food is bagged up. To look at it I start to wonder if it will be enough. I remember only too well running out of food with Phil last year and getting back to camp very hungry. I guess that's a good incentive to get to each drop a little faster to have spare food to feast on.

Just nine more sleeps.


Friday, February 25, 2011


I have pushed the start date out a few days. I now plan to start on Monday March 7th. I will spend 3 days driving to Canberra depositing my 5 barrels along the course before flying back and getting a ride to Walhalla. I have mapped out a rough planned itinerary which I hope will get me back to Canberra in around 18 days if all goes well. Just as track conditions will vary from the recently cleared (Ropers Hut to Maddison Hut thanks to Parks Vic) to the massively obstructed (north of the Viking with regrowth and downed trees) I will vary my plans to suit. Which means I have spent many hours scrutinizing the guide book and topos to map out all potential water and camp sites en route. While the record summer rains should make water more available it could pose problems with creek crossings (picture Phil and I wading waist deep along Black River after 10 years of drought last year!) and downed trees and track wash-outs. I do know that John Chapman and a team of volunteers are continuing with clearing in the Baw Baw section so there will be some bonuses.

I have no control over the elements and conditions but I have been working hard on my fitness. And gear and food planning is critical to keep my load light. Because I suffer from the cold I doubt I will reach the minimalist standards that Karl achieved for his traverse but I am working at it. His knowledge and experience are helping me plan and re-reading his blog is great motivation.

Back to the packing........


Friday, February 18, 2011

Count down

So I have set a start date: March 4th. I had hoped to be out there a few days before that but the amount of organisation necessary continues to deny me that. I have all the gear I will be taking but haven't done a full pack weigh-in yet. A little afraid of that one! I have purchased a new and slightly bigger pack (Aarn Mountain Magic 44) this week from Backpackinglight in Melbourne and despite being a bit heavier than I wanted it has plenty of room and rides well even when weighed down. The Marathon Magic 30 I used last time is just too small without the luxury of sharing gear with Phil. I have most of my food sorted. The difficulty will be a balance between carrying enough but not too much while not underestimating the length of time between drops. I am still struggling to get the Blogger account to recognize my phone. It doesn't seem to accept the 3 network, which is a real pain. Will keep working on that. Transport to and from the start/finish is arranged. Just need to get everything packed and sorted. Oh and keep training.
I will be marking the last 30km of the Maroondah Dam race tomorrow and running/sweeping the 50km race on Sunday so I will get a good feel for the new pack. My legs already feel like bricks so it should be a fun weekend. :)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Solo and unsupported

So looks like it is on. I am going to traverse the AAWT on my own. I plan to start early March. I will drive to Canberra the last weekend in Feb depositing my drop barrels and then leave my van in Canberra, fly back to Melbourne and get a ride to Walhalla.

This has been a dream of mine for many years and the sudden flurry of interest spurred me into action. I still have much preparation to complete. Shifting from the previous supported-style attempt to solo changes many aspects. I would have loved to have all the team there again but that will have to wait. I had been training hard anyway but have moved focus to more specific work, namely carrying a heavy pack everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. I am sorting feverishly through gear and planning food for the drops. I have set up a mobile blogger to access this blog via sms on my phone so hope to keep updates coming. I have a little over 2 weeks to pull it all together and get out there but in actuality my mind has never been far from the trail since we bailed out just over 12 months ago. I can't wait to get back out there.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

March on the AAWT

The summer of 2010/11 marches on and our window of opportunity for another attempt at running the AAWT is slowly closing. January was out due to my commitments as race director at Bogong to Hotham. We tried to organise a March start but it became too difficult to co-ordinate everyone with enough leave. Meanwhile, interest has grown in running the track and there is a solo runner making a start in early March with full support and a film crew. Another well known ultrarunner, Dave Byrnes, is heading off on a solo-unsupported traverse in mid-March as well but is not concerned with speed records. I still have my leave booked and the pull is growing undeniably strong to head out there again. It would be a totally different affair without the whole team and I feel a little remiss in going without them but I have a chance to still squeeze through that window so an early March start is on the cards again for me. Solo. Unsupported. How fast? As fast as my little legs can carry me. :)

GNW272 November 13,14,15th 2010

While not part of our AAWT attempt so perhaps technically doesn't belong here, Phil and I had a crack at the speed record on the Great North Walk track in November. Seeing as anything big we do is considered just training for AAWT anyhow, I thought I would share our experience here:

My phone rang at 9:30pm, Friday night, waking me up. I sat up startled, thinking it was my alarm going off. It was Blue Dog. I’m still not sure what was said or even why he even rang except that it was the night before the Great North Walk 100s and he and I shared the mantle of the only runners to have run every year and managed to finish. Except he surpassed me: my first year was only the 100km while he had 5 straight 100mile finishes. I mumbled something still half-asleep and he realised he had woken me up so apologised and hung-up, promising to see me on the beach on Sunday. The beach. Patonga Beach. The finish-line for the 100miler. He had no idea of what we were about to do. By waking us he had inadvertently robbed us of a couple of hours of precious sleep. Sleep, the all-important currency of the long-haul ultrarunner.

What were we about to do? My partner in crime, Phil (Spud) Murphy, and I were about to run the entire GNW from Newcastle to Sydney, sandwiching the GNW100s trail race in the middle. The Great North Walk, for those unfamiliar, is a 250km walking track through the Watagan Mountains paralleling the coast between Newcastle and Sydney. The GNW100s is a 100mile and 100km race along the track from Toronto to the beach at Patonga (with the 100km race finishing at Yarramalong). The 100mile race is actually 175km. With deviations off the established route to designated checkpoints as part of the race our journey would be 272km. The race alone has around 6,000m of elevation gain and loss. Add another 97km and plenty more elevation. Held in November it was nearly always hot. So why would we even try?
Phil had run 4 straight GNW100 milers, reaching as high as second place last year (2009). I had also run 4 straight GNW100 milers scraping across the line in second last place last year. The first year of the race in 2005, Phil had paced Blue Dog in the 100 miles, while I had run the 100km. We had both been here for every year of the race. We both had a strong affinity for this race. We had been planning to run the GNW track in its entirety for some time and once Darrel Robins, Andrew Vize and Terry Coleman set a speed record time of 66 hours in June 2009 that became our target. What better opportunity than incorporate our attempt around the official race? Maybe that was our big mistake.

12:30am Friday night and the clock on the billboard read 26C degrees. The humidity was high, incredibly oppressive. Even at midnight. The waterfront in Newcastle was pumping. The nightclub on the pier was spilling patrons out onto the carpark and as they wandered by they asked if we were selling that cold pizza we were eating out of a box in the car-boot. In shorts and tshirts with camelbaks and headlamps we must have looked a little out of place.
1:00am and we trotted off along the street full of enthusiasm and not just a hint of trepidation. Under street-lights and a half moon we wound our way towards the Oblesque on the hill following the familiar GNW bollards on street corners. An unmarked police car pulled up alongside us. The burly Maori officer asked what we were doing. “Running to Sydney.” Bemused if not a little incredulous was his expression and response. “And what are they?” he asked, pointing at my collapsed trekking poles. “Walking poles”, I motioned somewhat comically how they worked. “And that thing flashing on your arm?” “That’s a GPS transponder so people can track our progress.” OK, they seemed happy that we were harmless. Maybe a little crazy, but harmless.

The GNW100s starts at 6am Saturday morning. Race briefing 5:30am. Registration before that. We allowed 4 hours to run the 25km of trail and bike paths from Newcastle to Teralba. We couldn’t afford to miss the start. The humidity was unbelievable. Sweat clung to any exposed skin, unable to evaporate. Our clothes were drenched. We ran, walked, talked and soaked in the night-time peace and quiet. Phil had recently run this part of the course to be familiar with it. This proved invaluable but we still missed one turn coming off a beach and we found ourselves off track but only lost a few minutes. Spider webs punctuated the path and caused much consternation for the lead runner, usually Phil. There was some nice fast singletrack and leg sapping soft-sand beach running. It was hard to believe we were so close to Newcastle suburbia as we ran along fully enveloped in dense bush. On one of the headlands Phil pointed up at the sky and I just caught the tail end of a huge shooting star. Finally we hit the foreshore path at Warners Bay and we were free of cobwebs, for now.

We trotted to the race start-line at 4:50. After registering we reloaded our packs and filled our camelbaks. We were not using any crew throughout the race so placed drop-bags into the checkpoint boxes. We were itching to go. Our personal stopwatch was still running. News of our plan spread steadily through the runners. There was some disbelief and some admiration but a definite hint of incredulity.

6:00am Saturday morning, finally. Race start. Phil and I settled well back in the field. I was used to being here. Spud was in a different zone, used to being up the front. We chatted and trotted amongst old friends. We left the bitumen and climbed the rolling ridges before dropping to Heaton’s Gap. We refilled our packs again at the service station. And then began the long hot, breathless climb out of the valley.

Phil had our projected splits printed out. I ignored them, trying to concentrate on drinking, eating and just getting to the next Check Point. The first section to Checkpoint 1 is undoubtedly the toughest part of the race physically. With an extra 25km in the legs and no sleep it felt a tad tougher today.
By the time we dropped into the Congewai Valley the weather gods had dealt their hand for the day: hot and humid. I had run every GNW100. This one felt the hottest and the most humid. Spud had been running just in front of me all morning, tempering his pace to match my slower pace. When we hit the road I resolved to get it over as fast as possible. We ran nearly all of it.
Congewai School was a hive of activity. I took a bit longer than planned and by the time I was ready to go Spud was a little anxious. Updates on Bill Thompson had him only 10 minutes behind us. That meant we were closer to the cut-offs than we planned. While our plan had been to run conservatively to save our energy for the third night, we didn’t want the stress and pressure of battling with the cut-offs.

We pushed up the hill with the promise of a rest at the top. This climb to the communication tower is notoriously tough, made worse by the number of false summits. Eventually we topped out and met several runners recovering. We sat down and I ate some creamed-rice. Conscious of the time we hurried off again. This ridge road is pretty runable but the humidity sapped my strength and we walked sections we should have run. There were runners all around and the conversation helped distract me from the task at hand.

Watagan Creek Valley and the afternoon sun was finally sinking lower in the sky. We wouldn’t make the basin in daylight. Not even close. The long, long climb to the unmanned water-stop had sweat dripping from my chin and stinging my eyes. Dave Byrnes was there manning the water drop but the big surprise was Blue Dog in the back of Dave’s car. He had pulled out, injury finally winning the war. I felt a mix of disappointment for him and excitement at the realisation that all I had to do now was finish and I would surpass him on top of the honour board as the only person to finish every GNW100s. We exchanged some banter but I knew he was hurting. It was not what I wanted for him.

Night came quickly and we found ourselves in a little convoy of runners. The Basin seemed to take forever to negotiate, made more difficult by fallen trees obstructing the track. The Basin Checkpoint was a welcome sight and we tried to keep it short but get well fed. I had a couple of cups of hot soup and choked down some more creamed rice. Bill came in to rousing applause and a look of horror on many runners face. At least 6 runners jumped up and checked out, aware that Bill represented the imaginary moving cut-off.

The climb out of the Basin was way longer than I remembered. I was lathered in sweat by the time we reached the top. A cocktail of tiredness and an ambiguous corner had us second guessing ourselves and we lost some time checking out the possibilities. The maps came out and reassured we made our way onto the long descent to Cedar Brush Track Road. Knowing what was before us we settled into a steady run-walk routine. We passed a few runners. Fatigue was getting the better of me. Spud agreed to a short nap at the school.

But the Yarramalong Checkpoint took forever to come. My eyelids were so heavy. We checked in and I found a cot and lay down, Diane promising to wake me in 10 minutes. My head spun and danced with a thousands images of the day and night. Voices vibrated through my ears. “10 minutes Andy”. “Give me another 5.” Tick, tick, tick, tick. “Time Andy.” I climbed up. My head was full of fog. There was no sleep to be found with so much activity. Paul Every clearly disagreed and snored contentedly on a cot beside me. Phil and I staggered off into the night once again.

Bill was in CP4 when we left. Our buffer was gone. No more sleep stops. Up Bumblebee Hill and under the Powerlines. Climbing the hill I could see a runner’s light cutting a path through the darkness below. It was moving swiftly and smoothly across the trail. “That you Bill?” I yelled. “Yep” was the reply. Oh crap, he is going to catch us. We knew only too well that Bill walks an even pace with almost no slow-down factor. To fall behind him so early would mean a constant battle with the cut-offs all the next day. We ran more, walked less and no more talking.

The course deviation along the road gave us some respite. Running down the road I looked back to see Bill’s light bobbing along behind us. He was like the Terminator, relentlessly pursuing us. We passed Grant and then picked up Jane and she stuck with us through the early hours. We stopped for a brief refill at the unmanned water drop. Still looking over our shoulders. Jane ran ahead and we were alone again, silently plodding on the soft sandy track.
I struggled with fatigue through the wee hours. I cursed myself for losing concentration. I tried to catch up to Phil but every time I got near he would correspondingly pick up the pace. Finally I caught up and I conceded that he should go on without me. I could not fathom finishing the race, yet alone the full GNW272. I was defeated. He told me to hang in there and I would come good. My mind could not cope with the enormity of what we were trying to do. I refocussed and concentrated on just getting to the next checkpoint.

On the last big climb into Sommersby, Bill passed me. Effortlessly. He was listening to Mendelssohn’s Concerto on his ipod and moving as rhythmically as the music in his ear-buds. I caught up to Phil and as we hit the bitumen leading to the school the sun was rising. Bill was walking way up ahead on the road. We ran all the way to the Checkpoint to get back in front of him.

In and out. In such a hurry I forgot to refill my bladder. Oh, what a catastrophe that could have been. I did a little check as I shuffled down the road and realised my mistake. Back to the school and filled up. And then we were running again. Solidly. The new day brought new energy. We caught Jane and Nikolay. The four of us ran as a group.

Approaching Checkpoint 6 we were doing the maths to work out how much time we had left. If we could leave CP6 by 11:30am that would give us 6.5 hours for the last section. We could do that comfortably. If nothing went wrong. Nikolay wanted to pull out but we convinced him to hang in there and we would get him home.

In and out once again, bare necessities only. Phil was calling out time checks to get us out quickly. 11:30 and we were on our way, a ragged bunch but totally focussed on finishing.

We were walking lots and my pace was slower than the others so I would have to run to catch up. We were silent as each of us dealt with the demons in our minds and the baking sun on our backs. It was hot again. Damn hot. Every pool of water I would dunk my hat and pour water over my head. I walked into one pool to cool off my burning feet. The cold water was refreshing but the arthritis in my toes ached for ages afterwards negating any benefit. I was getting worried about the time. I knew from last year we had to pass the ‘15km to go’ sign by 2 pm to be safe. (Note: that sign is at least 5km out.) But we reached it well before 2:00 so I knew we could make the unmanned water point before the 3pm cut-off. And we did, with 10minutes to spare. But I was sure now that Bill was going to miss it and possibly not finish (remember to never underestimate Bill!).

We refilled and hustled out of there. The road and tracks seemed to go around in circles. As we crossed the sandstone plateau the heat created a pressure cooker effect. There was no escape. Phil pulled ahead but I could still see him occasionally on the next rocky outcrop. I heard Jane behind me say “Hi Bill”. I got a fright seeing Bill there. Such amazing strength and pace consistency. With less than 2 hours to go I knew that meant we needed to do some solid running. I asked Bill how we were placed. He said OK but we needed to move a bit faster. He passed us and I urged Nikolay to stick with him. I could see Nikolay was torn by his loyalty to our little group but I assured him I would look after Jane and he needed to keep Bill in sight. I knew I could still run if I had to and if it got close I would give everything to make the finish on time.

Jane was struggling. She lagged further and further behind. I encouraged her to run when she could. Her face was expressionless, a steely grey mask. I asked her if she wanted me to push her or leave her alone. She said “both”. “Typical female response,” I complained and made her run again. I knew we could finish but we needed to keep a steady pace. And she was battling to do that. I was tired and missed reading all the warning signs. She was already in trouble but I didn’t see it.

Finally the big drop down towards the rubbish-tip where we would hit the dirt road. We were getting close. Oh so close. I told Jane we could let Bill go now but we would need to run on the road to catch him again. I got ahead on the steep descent and I caught Bill at a small creek just before the road. He was wetting his hat. I jogged behind him to the track junction with the road.

I waited here a few minutes. No Jane. A few more minutes. Still no Jane. Something was wrong. Crap, I started running back up the hill, calling her name all the way. Still no Jane. Finally I was back to where I had last seen her. This is not good. Something is wrong. Really wrong. There was nowhere for her to go but down this track. I kept calling. No response. Then suddenly I heard a low groan. Then silence again. I kept calling. Nothing. I had no idea where the noise had come from but she was clearly in trouble. Finally she answered: “I can’t get out, I just want to get out.” “Keep talking to me, Jane.” I had a fix. She was in the bushes. Somewhere. I could hear the rustling. I started bashing my way towards her. It was thick. I reached her and she was upright, but only because the thicket was so dense it held her up. “Tell me you just came in here to wee?” I implored hopefully. One look into her vacant eyes and I knew she was not well. She was delirious. I dragged her back to the path where she promptly collapsed. I made sure she was breathing OK and dug out my phone. No reception. I started searching for Jane’s phone. She came around again and half helped me get her phone out.

I got Dave Byrnes on the phone, not without further drama. I relayed the predicament and told him I would get Jane down to the road if he could get a 4WD to us for evacuation. After hanging up I tried to get her onto her feet but she crumpled back onto the ground. I tried supporting her but it was hopeless. Just then Kim Cook turned up. I didn’t realise anyone was still behind us. “Boy am I glad to see you!” He was pacing Jon from the Phillipines. We slung Jane between us and half carried, half walked her down the hill. At the bottom I sent them on their way, doubtful they would beat the cut. Kim said they still would but they had to run.

Jane was regaining some composure. But she was still ashen grey and not always making sense. I looked at my watch. My race was over. But I was so glad I had gone back when I did. Off track and unconscious it would have been impossible to find her.

What seemed like an eternity but was really only another 15minutes, Dave and the doctor came roaring along in the 4WD. I explained the situation and the doctor examined Jane. He decided she was badly dehydrated and probably had heat stress and would give her IV fluids. I updated Dave on Kim and Jon’s progress. It was now 5:10pm. Dave looked at me and said he would give me a time concession for lost time helping Jane but he also thought I could still beat the clock. Damn. 6km in 50 minutes. With hills. After 194km and 40 hours. Damn. I would really like to finish inside the official cut-off. OK I would do it.

I charged up the hill. I ran, and ran, and ran. Phil’s words echoed in my ears about not wanting to have a hard race finish and be trashed for the GNW272 into Sydney. Damn, I want this finish. My legs were screaming at me. My lungs started burning. I was red-lining but wasn’t backing off. I tasted vomit in my mouth. My chest was pounding. Damn. Damn Dave. If he had just said I had no chance I would have jogged home. I should have recognised that glint in his eye.
The gravel road went on forever. A huge black snake was stretched across in front of me. Jump that and keep running, adrenaline surging through my veins. And then another hill. Finally I had to walk and catch my breath. Only to the top of this hill and then run hard again. 30 minutes to go. Another turn, more road, another turn. Run hard. I was sucking in big air. Running for all I was worth. 20 minutes to go. I could do this. Finally the last turn and Patonga Rd was in sight. Empty one water bottle to save weight. Across the bitumen. Check my watch. Oh crap this will be close. I ran the singletrack paralleling the road as hard as I could. Then the gravel road to Warrah Trig. Empty my other bottle. Another snake, small this time and easily dodged. On and on and on it went. All up-hill. My legs felt like cement but I lifted them over and over again and threw them out in front of me.

Finally the carpark, then up the stairs, only minutes to go, I wasn’t going to make it. Yes I would. Harder, faster. I plummeted down the paved trail throwing everything I had into it. Hard right turn onto the gravel road and then that soul destroying climb up to the beach access track. I ran for all I was worth, uphill. 3 minutes to go. Turn onto the singletrack and run hard again.

Too late. My watch ticked over 6pm as I was bouncing down the steep rocky track. I backed off, defeated, and trotted down the hill, flashes of the beach and the finish line so tantalisingly close. I hit the sand and the bell started ringing. And ringing and ringing and ringing, echoing along the beach. I ran all the way, savouring every step. Alone and dead last. After the cut-off but finishing nevertheless, a tear of joy welled up in my eyes. A tear of relief. A tear of pride. I ran all the way across the soft sand to the finishing post spurred on by the sound of cheers and applause. 6:04pm. My 5th hundred mile finish and my 6th GNW finish. How sweet it is.
Dog made me kiss the post. Dave hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. People congratulated me. Phil was there, fresh from a swim. I stripped down to my shorts and waded into the water.

I lay back in the cool of the Pacific Ocean. Water lapped across my cheeks and forehead as I floated on my back. So calm and tranquil. All the pain ebbed out of my tired body. I was so relaxed I nearly fell asleep right there. The tide could have carried me off in carefree oblivion.
But the big clock was still ticking. Our crew for the next phase, Kathy, was waiting to drive us to Brooklyn. After collecting our drop-bags it was a short drive across the Hawkesbury River to Brooklyn to rejoin the GNW. We parked and had a 30 minute nap in the car. 30 minutes could have been 8 hours or 5 minutes. In my head there was no longer any relevance to time. I woke feeling drugged and sluggish. My mind craved real sleep. I just wanted to stop moving and lie still.

We had trouble locating the start of the track off a small bridge but the GPS told us it had to be in there somewhere. Pushing through some bushes Phil found it. We left the houses and were running in bush again. Full blooded running. Refreshed, renewed and full of pizza, again. The trail was like a highway, wide and flat. The only obstacles were webs. Some ambitious spiders had spun their webs right across the path. The first you would know was when your face was plastered with the sticky tight-knit web.

We were running a good pace. I was full of confidence that we would finish and break the record. The trail twisted and turned a few times but we gobbled up the miles. Then before I knew what had happened I was climbing hand-over-fist down into a river valley. Then up again. Each new outcrop to negotiate tested my cognitive functions. Suddenly I was overcome with the need for sleep. “Sleepmonsters” they call it, courtesy of our third night without proper sleep. I was tripping and staggering like a drunk. The leaves on the ground became a writhing mass of baby snakes. I was hallucinating badly.

Phil waited patiently at every turn. The trail was hard to follow, often just the easiest way down a rocky cliff. The occasional GNW sign reassured us. This went on forever, repeating the same pattern of clambering, staggering and catching up. Finally we were climbing again and we could hear a train, signalling the next crew stop at Cowan train station.

I was barely shuffling now. My feet dragged across the ground. We were well into our third night and it was killing me. I felt the burden of the team effort. I had offered to let Phil go on but he wouldn’t finish without me. We refuelled at the car and headed back into the night.
Not 10 minutes from the car and drizzle settled in. I so much wanted to just turn around and go back. Once again the trail degenerated quickly into a twisted torment of rock scrambling and climbing and descending. My mind was fighting battles with all my senses. It became impossible to tell what was real and what was imaginary. I could see Phil below me and I was certain he was on a steel viewing platform. What a perfect place for a nap. When I reached him he was on a narrow trail. Further and further we descended and with that my consciousness receded further and further from reality. The leaves on the ground wriggled like more baby snakes. Boulders morphed into a building or a car. I had no peripheral awareness. My world was confined to the small dome of light cast by my headlamp.

I reached Phil again and he told me to have a sleep. My legs crumpled spontaneously and in seconds I was fast asleep where I fell. An ant crawled up my nose and I woke with a violent snorting fit. Within minutes I was asleep again, but not before I heard Phil say he would nap too.

Maybe 30 minutes later I was aware of being roused. I staggered to my feet and as if on autopilot trudged off behind Phil once more. We had lost so much time with my dawdling pace and the sleep stop. I finally told Phil there was just no way I could go on. It was becoming dangerous. I couldn’t navigate simple obstacles. He resolved to stop with me at Berowra Waters, our next crew meeting.

As the third day dawned we were treated to the tranquil setting of Berowra unfolding below us. We had covered 220km in 53 hours. We picked our way down and along the shore. Kathy came out to meet us. We sat and had some more cold pizza and a breakfast beer while contemplating what might have been. It all seemed so anticlimactic but we were drained of all emotion, except maybe disappointment. But out of failure comes strengthened resolve.

People ask why we do this sort of thing. I usually answer that if you have to ask you will probably never understand. Once again I had been tested. And I had come up short. Running the entire GNW had been a goal for a long time. Failing to complete it will simply fuel that desire. I couldn’t ask for a better companion in Phil to lead me through it and my main misgiving was letting him down. Clearly my mind had failed my body. But it was purely fatigue through lack of sleep that defeated me. Sure the weather didn’t help. Sure the extra miles to complete the race didn’t help. Sure the dramas and sprint to the race finish didn’t help. And of course my lack of training didn’t help. But pure and simple: I needed more sleep to finish this.
The GNW is a classic trail. Without doubt the GNW100s is a classic trail race. Once again I thank Dave Byrnes for creating and building this great event and blessing our speed-record attempt. Our crew, Kathy, who stepped in to fill the critical role of support was amazing. And Phil, what more could I ask for in a companion to attempt and hopefully one day complete this epic adventure. And complete we will. Next time.