Updated: Feb 12, 2020
All images (C) 2019 Canal Aventure, G. Piekle/D. Lemanski
I’m less than one week out from travelling to Mozambique to take part in Ultra Africa, a 220km self-supported stage race and my second this year as part of the Continental Challenge. As I prepare mentally for this event, I have had time to reflect on the last race that was the most difficult I’ve ever completed and one in which I came very close to quitting.
Earlier this year I became the second person in the world, joining my good friend and great runner, Brigid Wefelnberg, to complete The Track, a 530km self-supported stage race from Alice Springs to Uluru in Australia's Northern Territory.
I broke all of my own rules. I didn’t use my framework in training and took a very haphazard approach to the little preparation that I did. After all, I’d always muddled through before and this was the second time I’d been out to Alice Springs to run The Track, the longest self-supported stage race in the world. I ran it in 2017 where I was 3rd male and 4th overall and I felt like I didn’t do a lot to prepare that time…this was no different, right? No. Wrong. I was belittling the fitness and strength gained from having completed several long tough races through 2015 and 2016. I was ignoring the fact that this time, I’d taken a two year break from racing and when I looked back after the race, had only ran 700km in total in the 12 months leading up to The Track 2019.
As with any big goal, I broke The Track down into a race of three distinct parts.
The rugged climbing stages of days 1 and 2.
The middle section of relatively flat but consistently long, arduous stages of days 3 to 8 and finally
The final 137km long stage of day 9 from Mount Connor to finish in Uluru.
Here’s how I remember the experience:
Section 1 - Climbing
I hit the first checkpoint on the first and shortest day of the whole race just 14kms in. The heat from the sun was relentless, the terrain rough and rugged and the weight from my bag felt like another person on my back.
I could feel the undeniable twinges of cramp already grabbing at my calves and whilst the trail had been undulating, we hadn’t reached the big climb of the day. I walked gingerly out of the checkpoint and straight onto a steep rocky track. Now my quads were cramping as well and I was cursing myself for my severe lack of training…Leading into the race I’d wondered if being there before would be a benefit or a hindrance. It was at this early point that I realised knowing what was coming over the next 500km was a massive mental burden. My mind was already trying to do what it thought was best for me….Stop!
I managed to push myself the 30 km to the first camp at Serpentine Chalet Dam but was already feeling rough and tired. I got my food and calories in and went to bed with the memory of day 2 being the most difficult day from 2017.
It didn’t disappoint. We set off carrying an extra litre of water as the first available refill in this stage was at 31km. I didn’t appreciate the extra weight and it served as another issue for my mind to beat me with. We were in a dry river bed with huge rocks and boulders that we scrambled over on all fours. After about 14km we took a sharp right turn and aimed straight up a 1,000m climb to a stunning ridge-line. We were travelling west along the Larapinta Trail and the views were incredible but I was spent. I traveled slowly along the ridge, again deeply frustrated with myself. The rough technical terrain is usually my sweet spot where I can pull back some time moving comfortably but my legs felt like lead and I stumbled along.
The decent off the ridge was steep and rocky with 8 km to go to the checkpoint and our first water refill spot for the day. I kept a sharp lookout for the rock and the right turn as I dragged myself along the soft sand riverbed that replaced the ridge-line. I remembered this is where I nearly went horribly wrong in 2017. I saw it and called Stewart back who’d missed the turning by about 200 meters. By the time I made it to the checkpoint, I was angry, tired and emotional. I’d spent about 50 mins with no water with the temperature peaking over 40C in the sun. I threw my kit down and the always solid Ian was there to help out. We got my water sorted and lovely Jax talked me down from my mounting frustration, gave me a much-needed hug and I set off again. I knew I only had about 10km to go for the day but I was exhausted. I felt like I was travelling backwards. The next section was so long and isolated. The bush that afforded shelter in 2017 had all been burnt away and the black earth that replaced it reflected the baking sun.
I’d been dehydrated getting into the checkpoint and was going through my water quickly in the very exposed terrain. The stage ended with a long stretch through deep soft sand in another riverbed. It seemed to go on forever and whilst there didn’t appear to be another option, I was convinced I was going the wrong way. I started calling out in the hope that someone would hear and respond. I felt like I’d gone too far but didn’t have the energy to retrace my steps. My water was empty again. I knew I wasn’t thinking straight but just kept moving forward and eventually I saw a marker arrow mounted on a tree showing that I was heading in the right direction. I got to camp and was more angry than I can remember. In such an exhausted and exposed state, I felt that the water situation was very dangerous given the terrain and temperature. In hind-sight, whilst that stage still concerns me a little, my anger and frustration was more at my own lack of fitness and preparation than anything else.
I was so tired by this very early point in the race but mentally I considered that I’d finished the first section and would move out of the hills onto easier terrain. Trails where I could get more of a manageable rhythm going. In my mind I told myself that whilst these days were longer, the pattern to the movements would be more manageable than what had already gone. After all, only 450km or so to go…I’d passed the first test and was into the second section.