Medals, Marsupials and Memories

       In 300 meters, your destination is on the left.

Our campervan–lovingly dubbed ‘The Millennial Falcon’–groaned to climb the hills in Springbrook National Park, deep in The Great Australian Divide mountain range. Tomorrow morning this giant grassy lot was to become the finish line of the Coastal High 50k, a race we flew 12 hours from Taiwan then lived aboard a minivan with convertible back seat bed with fold-out kitchen to attend.

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I could write a novel on our journey traveling around Australia in The Millennial Falcon, but I’ll save you the time and just give you a quick rundown: Every morning around sunrise, we’d wake up and make breakfast while the kookaburras and cockatoos sang their morning songs. Then we’d prepare the van and head to our next destination, usually 100-200k away. We decided to follow the rule that we could eat lunch on the road somewhere interesting, but in an effort to prevent us from just going to restaurants the whole trip, every night we needed to cook dinner on the butane stove and pump sink that folds out of the back of the van. This meant we’d always stop by the local grocery stores for the majority of our food. When we would arrive at our destination, I’d check my maps, set up my GPX into my watch for what I was hoping to accomplish that day, grab my hydration bottle and GoPro and go run–whether it be a national park, a mountain, or a popular Strava segment nearby.

Then, when I returned and the sun began to set, I’d cook dinner and we would crack open a bottle of wine or a few local craft beers while massive Australian sky showed off a display like visiting a planetarium. Before we fell asleep, we’d check local weather nearby and decide where to head tomorrow. All over Australia are cheap ($11-35 AUD) campsites, priced according to their location and amenities. Our cheapest night (my favorite night) was to park on top of a mountain with nothing but a hose, outhouses and so much wildlife that I lost count of the wallabies and kangaroos on my run that evening. Our most expensive night (Summer’s favorite night) we had 5-star tile bathrooms, laundry facilities, a spa with full bar, decorative flamethrowers and waterslides.

 

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Even if it was a bit too cold for Summer.

Our goal over our two weeks was to start on The Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, make it down the coast to Sydney, visit the famous Opera House, then head inland to the Outback before crossing The Great Dividing Range and getting back to The Gold Coast. We were highly successful, found ourselves with extremely lucky with the weather.

But hearing that we had a fun time not a fun story, so let’s go back to reading about me suffer.

We took our spot in the parade of campers lining the edge of the sprawling grass venue surrounded by towering eucalyptus trees. In the middle of the field was a lone pickup truck, three Aussie dudes, a fold out table and a box of bibs. I parked the van, shutting off the engine to let in the deafening silence that comes with being in the remotest of a remote national park in a characteristically remote country, then walked up to the race director’s “office” to collect my bib. By the time I returned, The Millennial Falcon circus came to town, with Summer climbing all over the trees to attach carabiners and daisy chains to hang our (okay, my) stinking laundry.

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“That’s it?” she said, looking at my lonely bib waving in hand. I told her I looks that way, then looked around for something to occupy my time for the next few hours.

I walked up and down the line of campers, not really knowing what I was expecting, but still surprised to see cars, campervans and tents filled with recluse runners fiddling nervously with their race packs, checking the fit of their hat again, folding and re-packing their drop bags. Our noisiest neighbor was a family of wallabies thumping through the woods behind us. Overhead, the Milky Way was a splatter across the clear, crisp sky. It was already 10 degrees and would drop more as the night went on. Only one man was outside, hunched over his camp stove illuminated by his headlamp. Though I couldn’t make out is face clearly from the lamp, he greeted me cheerfully. He told me in stereotypical Australian nonchalant that a wallaby just hopped by while he shook a concoction of pre-workout powders. He told me a bit about the local wildlife and we wished each other good luck tomorrow.

I prepared my overnight strawberry oats (with Runivore chia seeds, of course), started cooking dinner and set out my gear amits the tornado of Summer doing acrobatics in the back seat to put away gear and convert our bed into a dinner table.

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The race wouldn’t start until 6:30, but local runners were instructed to park their cars at the finish and hop on a bus to the start line at four. Sounds excessive, but the start line was a 1.5-hour drive with our tour bus climbing up and down mountains and slowly edging around cliffs. As soon as we boarded and got moving, the Australian art of smalltalk took over and the bus was alive with nervous chatter. I was seated next to a very friendly middle-aged plumber who mastered the art of not letting a conversation die down enough for us to get a nap.

Living in Asia for four years has given me the superpower (or burden) unwillingly tuning in to any conversation around me that is in English. In my everyday life, I don’t hear English often, and on this bus I was bombarded with the sensory overload of every story, tips and goals for the upcoming race. Either Australians are modest, or everyone on the bus was concerned about making it up something terrible called the “Appletree Hill Climb” before cutoff and surviving the journey to the finish.

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Appletree Hill is a section beginning at 35k that started as an almost-runnable hill to a foot-over-knee vertical inline, topping out to almost 1000m of ascent in less than 10k. Suunto graciously supported the race by sponsoring a ‘King of the Hill’ timed section in the course. Runners get timed at the base of the climb as well as the peak, and the male and female with the fastest climb of the day would be awarded a top of the line Suunto 9 watch. Having done all my training on a volcanic island known for its brutal climbs, this was the section I felt would set me apart from the pack. My game plan was to keep myself near the front runners and then kill the hill, destroying my enemies toward glorious victory. I was trying to figure out what I would do with this ridiculously expensive watch, having already owned a fancy Garmin 915.

This, of course, did not happen.

Race director Matt made an artful speech before the race began, telling runners advice, of the dangers on the course, and the dead kangaroo that was hauled off the course this morning (I wish I was kidding.) Then, before we had a chance to say no, wave one was instructed to line up to the big inflatable start gate.

To thin the pack at the start of the race before we filed into the first section of single-track trails, we immediately dropped down a road, descending 100m, turned around and climbed back up a trail back to the start line. I laughed as tall, young, lean Aussies bombed the hill and turned the corner, positively running back up the slope. Every race has these ambitious newbies who get swept up in the pre-race nerves and come out of the gate forgetting the race was fifty freaking kilometers long.

My smile faded as we passed the start line again, cheered on by Matt, and were greeted by more inclined road. In fact, the first five kilometers continued like this. With a quick glance at the elevation profile again, I realized after we climbed the first ascent, there was a 20-freaking-kilometer gradual descent down 700m of squishy but technical trail. The kind of stuff I know I can zip down and eat my way back to the front of the pack which was now fading away from me.

This, of course, did not happen.

My game plan going into the race was to let 15 people pass me on the first climb. I counted 20 heads go up the first road climb by like we were doing a vertical K race. Okay, let’s change that to 20. And fine, let that guy go, and wow this dude looks strong, let him go, too. And then this team of three guys soldered up wearing matching Superelite Sponsored Brand Team jerseys and gear. 25 people behind, that’s fine. Just fine.

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As we finally turned off the road, got on the trail and began the glory-drop, something–a big ground wasp I’d find out after talking with medics at the aid station–stung my ankle. Two more runners zipped by while I stared wide-eyed at my red and swelling ankle. Okay, 27 people. I can catch back up and at least get top ten.

This, of course, did not happen.

We ducked under vines, slapped through corse bundles of ferns, lept over branches and slalomed between trees. I checked my watch: 4:20 pace. Holy macaroni, I am a freaking trail running god. I passed one, two, three runners. People tried to stick on, but I was gone. I was told by passers-by that a mob of front runners all held together around five minutes ahead. Knowing my downhill pace and fancy feet (and achy bee sting ankle), I knew I’d catch them before we arrived at the base of the Suunto King of the Hill segment. Meanwhile, I tried recording everything I could on my tiny GoPro Hero Session 5. Cliffs so high if you kick a rock off the trail (or drop a GoPro) it will be in freefall for 500m before reaching its demise below.

Massive redwoods felled ages ago draped ominously over the trail or cut to allow a body to pass through them. Creeks dribbled with water so fresh that you could smell it. I zipped through open sections, grabbing trees to rip around turns, each time expecting to see this mythical mob of front pack runners.

This, of course, didn’t happen.

I scored a 6th place Strava segment trophy for my efforts from bee-sting peak to the 25k aid station, yet only overtook a handful of runners. Frankly though, I was having too much fun to care. I paired up with one of the jerseyed team runners, a “old guy” (his words, not mine) who was in his fourth year running this race, and we had a blast flying through trail that just kept dropping and dropping. I was in trail running heaven.

After the aid station at 25k, the resulting 10k was forestry roads with giant climbs and drops. Seriously, Aussie cars must be built with tires made of Spiderman’s hands because sections of these were close to vertical, both up and down. Even worse was it was the basins between climbs where a McDonald’s playplace of fist-sized rocks awaited to twist ankles and jab your feet. I was brilliant enough to wear my super flexible, paper-thin North Face Lytewave shoes–shoes that would later be thrown away because these dirt roads obliterated them.

The unfamiliar dancing I did, along with my poor hydration while gritting my teeth at the pain in my feet resulted in some nice cramping in my right adductor and both calves. Although I spent the past 10k begging for flat, now that I got it, it was impossible to get the leg turnover that I should have at this stage in the race. We turned onto a farm road, instructed that the road itself is dangerous to run on and to prance in the overgrown grass lining the fences of the farms we passed. This lasted for around 200m as I looked ahead and behind and saw other runners ignored these instructions and were trudging down the road away from me.

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It continued this way for another 5k: flat road with the smell of manure and the mooing of cows to cheer us on. Some more regular running form, a GU gel, more water down my gullet and the cramps faded and the swelling in my ankle died down. Although the foot pain lingered, my legs could turn again. The runner in the distance ahead of me kept twisting his head to gauge how far back I was, maybe uneasy about the fact that I was gaining on him. He held me off until I arrived in the 35k aid station at the base of the Suunto KOM, him clocking into the climb at 18th place and me at 19th, then he stayed behind at the station as I refilled, chugged Coke and high fived the volunteers on my way out. In all my effort to finally pass this guy, I overlooked my hydration again, leaving with my bottles full but still feeling very thirsty. The cool dry weather tricked me into thinking I’d be fine not drinking much thus far, and this was about have its vengance.

That’s when the climbing started. I pulled out my phone while I powerhiked the first uphill, scrolling around at the live tracking, fully convinced there was an error because there’s no humanly possible way I was a full hour behind the front guys.

Spoiler alert, I was a full hour behind the front guys.

As I was checking my Instagram and taking selfies (no, just messaging Summer to give an update) a lanky pale redhead with soaked white shirt and bright red running gear caught up to me. We both began the climb together, and chatted a bit. He told me through strained breaths that he had run the race last year and was fresh off a tour running races in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and Europe. We teased about American politics but he clearly seemed more ambitious than me, so I said I’m going to keep my pace slower for this part of the climb, and told him to go ahead but only if he promises he wont let me come back and overtake him later.

I plugged the headphones into my ears and climbed, watching the glow of his red Salomon backpack ahead like Rudolph’s nose. Each time the trail flattened out again, I caught back up and jokingly told him he broke his promise. Looking back now, I feel terrible for teasing him like this because as we reached the main climb together, he grimaced at me with a ghostly white face and finally told me it’s too much and to go on ahead. I egged him on to stay with me to overtake the next guy together. We were coming up on another runner whose race bib bore the insignia of being medically trained and agreeing to help those in need (what a cool race feature.) Instead, my red-backpacked buddy tumbled into the trees nearby, blood drained from his face, grasping branches and heaving all of the contents of his stomach into the ferns. The med-runner we were coming up on supported him and started dialing his cell phone. I asked if I could help but he told me it’s alright, so I climbed on. Less than ten minutes later, medical staff was running downhill past me carrying bottles and gear. Props to Coastal High for their medical preparation. You can’t plan for everything, and you never know what you’ll need until it’s too late, but they seemed to be impecablly prepared.

On the final bit to Appletree Hill, the crunching of gravel echoed rising up behind me. Not just a runner, but a woman my age was closing in at a rapid pace. She passed me as easily as she arrived, telling me to hurry up, it’s almost the peak and the beer is getting warm. The thought of beer made my stomach churn, and I slapped my hydroflasks on my chest, feeling they’re empty and my mouth dried up. I’d like to file a formal complaint as well, as there was no beer on top of Appletree Hill. You lied to me super fast Aussie girl.

I overtook one more guy, then heard him catching up again to me. It took him five words out of my mouth before he asked if I’m American. He told me the story of how he ran Western States this year. If you don’t already know, it’s America’s prolific 100-mile race which requires a certified >100k distance qualifying race within a cutoff time and even then gives you around a 1.8% chance of success with your first year attempting to join. Most people apply every year for around 5-8 years straight before getting in. He was accepted on his first year applying, which is strange because the guy on the shuttle bus sitting next to me at Tarawera 102k in New Zealand told me the same story. We stopped and looked each other over before he yelled out, “ah shit, mate, it’s you!”

The ultramarathoning world is small.

Chris and I caught up on what was new in our lives as we finished off Appetree Hill.

He told me he feels cooked and to go ahead without him, and despite my protest, let me take off into the finishing 7.5k alone. “You caught up to me so you are as fast as me. It’s almost over,” I told him.

His eyes glared into the horizon as he foretold, “oh, it’s not over.”

The finish line was ahead just around the block, but instead of going straight there, we still needed to descend rapidly down 430m in the first km down a massive waterfall basin, turn the corner and achingly climb back out. On the downhill I was dropping like a bomb. The steep rocky steps felt a lot like home, and I caught up to a runner in a flat brimmed blue hat.

“You’re crazy,” he muttered as I blew by. I listened as his footsteps follow me as we plummeted toward the pool of water below, sprinkled by water dumping somewhere 400m overhead. With nobody behind and gorgeous views all over, I knew it was time to bask in the grandeur of a remote mountain swimming hole, and go swimming deep in the heart of Australia.

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This, of course, did not happen.

Like a Hollywood slasher flick, blue-hat-guy pummeled out of the trail after me while I filmed a useless video of the waterfall with Chris hot on his heels.

Shit shit shit.

I had an extra thirty second on these guys and needed to utilize the gap I had in order to hold them off. Unfortunately, the next five kilometers were nothing but slow uphill slope. With shortened steps and heavy breaths I quickened the pace upward. At each switchback I saw that blue hat on the trail just below. At one point, I heard his breathing as we switched back and I ran just overhead him.

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That’s when the spirit of Petr sat down on my shoulder telling me in Czech accent, “tomorrow we drink beer in wheelchair. It is race, not picnic.” I didn’t look back again. If he was going to take me, he’d need to earn it. I told myself I will come back another time and dive in that pool of water. Right now it’s time to race.

Eventually, I passed the viewpoint overlooking the falls from the top indicating that was the end of our suffering, and turned onto a gravel trail where the clamour of the race venue echoed overhead. “A runnah is comin!” an Aussie mother said, grabbing her kids off the trail. A hiker cheered me on, “ya got fifty meters, yer almost theyure!” (Okay I’m terrible at Aussie accents.) I kicked up to a faster jog and crossed the finish line into the arms of Matt and the other race directors. As per custom, the directors hugged every finisher who crossed the line.

Unable to breathe or answer their questions coherently, I accepted my medal and waddled straight for the water tanks. It would be two minutes before blue hat guy and Chris came in behind. In the end, I was 16th (15th man as I was decimated by that girl on Appletree Hill) with a time of 5:32, my fastest 50k.

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Sure, I could have paced better and raced harder. I could have tapered instead of running through national parks and fruitlessly hunting Strava segments every afternoon. I could have nailed my hydration better and stopped filming GoPro videos that would later come out shaky, blown out and useless. I could have buckled down and ignored the amazing experience of running fifty kilometers through the mountains in Australia flying by around me.

This, of course, did not happen.

And I am so glad it didn’t.

I did keep my promise though. 11 days later, Summer and I made our way back north again to drop off the Millennial Falcon and spent our last night camped at Springbrook National Park. The morning we were set to drop off the van, we hiked down from the grassy field still holding the barrier tape from the race and jumped into that frigid, glorious pool of water, reflecting on the trip we had in Australia and how unbelievably grateful I was to have so many magical experiences.

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