Four days, tough terrain, arid landscape

Run Larapinta 2018

Short Course

Race Review

My first real look at multi-day, multi-stage racing.

Having to balance the urge to run as hard and as fast as I can with the foreknowledge that as soon as I am done, I will need to feed, sleep and pack to get ready to do it all again some 12–18 hours later.

I had gleaned a little insight into the concept in 2017, when I took part in the Trail Running Series and ran four of the five stages.

But this would be different, instead of weeks between each race, I would have hours.

Any running event, distance or time is achievable If you’ve put the training in.

And I have put the training in; 19 weeks of long back-to-back-to-back training days, hill work speed work and plenty of trail running.

Once on the ground, the idea is simple enough; you’ve just gotta’ get up every morning and put in 110% until you are done.

Sitting at the departure gate at Tullamarine, I am feeling confident.

I have the base fitness to do this and I am confident that my global experience running trails in interesting environments will furnish me with a good base mentality.

I just hoped I packed enough running clothes and running shoes, all the mandatory gear and enough on-course nutrition to get me through.

Pre-race

I had been in Alice Springs a couple of days and had used the time to get a look at Stage 1 as well as get in a couple of acclimatisation runs.

My Wednesday evening trail run had been a bit like jumping into a hot bath — a little hotter than expected but you get used to it quickly.

So the initial two kilometres to the trailhead were quite uncomfortable.

But by the time I hit the trail I was suitably adjusted and could focus on enjoying and exploring the hills on the edge of Alice.

I also got a glimpse of how quickly it gets dark, and I was grateful for my head torch and the lights at the Old Telegraph Station which helped guide me back to civilisation and our 7:30pm dinner reservation.

Day 1/Stage 1 — The Black Knight strikes again

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1,888 kilometres, 521 days, 4 hours and 27 minutes since I registered for this event and I am finally sitting at the race briefing.

Sam Maffet, the man with the plan, is in the process of putting the fear of god in us.

“This is tough, really tough” he says. Words and phrases like “harsh environment” and “unforgiving” float through the air “take your concrete pills” he says.

Holy shit I could die out here.

The race briefing lasts about 30 minutes and with everybody in the crowd a good half a kilo lighter, we meander back to our rooms to prepare, Short Course Stage 1 starts in 90 minutes, only 90 more minutes of waiting….

There is a certain air of emotion shimmering above the short course competitors as we begin the countdown into the final few minutes.

It feels like nerves but it also feels like a bunch of people who are just bored of waiting.

As the officials ask us to come forward and toe the start line, it is clear it is nerves. Nobody wants to stick their neck out and be at the front of the pack.

However, I am a man with a plan. If I can run this loop at around 4:50min/K pace which would put me over the line around the 52-55 minute mark, which would (based on 2017 results) put me somewhere close to the top 10 and, as is with a lot of these events.If I can go out hard and get some clear air, when I ease off the pace, I can just chip away at that target.

So the horn is blown and I sprint off the start line with a bunch of other guys, the five of us pursuing a mountain biker who is leading us out to the turn onto the first section of single track.

I’ve left the line at something in the 3 minute pace range and I know this is way too fast, but I just need to make it over the first section of single track, then I can ease off a bit.

3-something is not sustainable and it drops down to the low 4 min/K mark – still too fast but sustainable for a couple of kilometres, maybe.

Then I really being to notice the number of runners in front of me.

I’m fourth. Holy shit balls, I’m fourth and I am keeping up with them – just – but still. I’m fourth.

We dip left and enter the single trail, still fourth and I think I might be able to take third.

Should I do that? I’m running way too quickly here maybe I should ease up a bit, but this is great. This is fun. I’m running with the antelope.

But my wombat ways swoop in with a vengeance. A glance at my watch, a glance at the blue tee in front of me, my eyes off the trail for a millisecond.

Cool breeze, whooshing, flight.

The world goes sideways and the ground shoots towards me, the left side of my body grinds against the sharpest rocks on the entire course and I lay spwarled across the rocks on the side of the trail while various parts of my body send in damage reports.

I’ve cut my palms, that much is obvious, but nothing too bad and I am getting some serious ouchie reports from my left leg, I am scared to look at it at first, so I just make sure I can stand up.

Runners stream past me.

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah I’m good” it’s only my ego.

Black Knight mode; t’is but a scratch.

Undefeated by my fall but now sporting cuts and grazes making my left leg look like a topographical map of the region, I limp, hobble, walk, jog, canter, (and finally) run back up to a pace which is a little easier to maintain, the bulk of the field is still behind me and I am able to spin up to a decent enough pace to know I am still in with a chance to beat the sun to the finish line, the race is on.

At the checkpoint, I take on some water and use the pause to check the damage.

In true Black Knight fashion; I’ve had worse!

The sun sinks towards the horizon and the dips in the trail begin to take on the night chill.

As I run the peaks and troughs I transition through these hot and cold zones, the effect is like taking a cold shower on a hot day.

I know if I reach the Todd River crossing before 6:20, I can make it to the finish before I need to pull my head torch out and despite my fall I am still on track; at 6:22 I cross the Toddy River, less than 2 kilometres to go and it is flat(ih) and wide trail. I’ve got this in the bag.

As I round Bungalow Hill, the Telegraph Station is in sight, I know from the map that I need to do a sharp left before the old homestead and come down alongside the river, but I was not expecting the track to be lined with blue, red and purple flashing LED lights, guiding us in for the final few hundred metres as we entered the boulevard of ghost gums and run through the finishers arch.

Day 2/Stage 2 — A rainbow farting unicorn

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A few cuts, nothing major but there is a nasty bruise on my right knee and I am having trouble kneeling.

I need to perform an awkward looking lunge to tie my shoe and I hope the restricted movement doesn’t come back to haunt me later in the day.

If anything, this solidifies today’s game plan — look after myself, finish without further injury.

The long drive through the dawn mist to the start line is very pretty and I am disappointed to find the mist had lifted by the time the horn blew.

We head out at the horn and the pace is quite civilised. I am tracking at the back of the leading pack and they are knocking out low 5min Ks for the initial few kilometres, my knee is feeling pretty stable as well.

Like a unicorn farting a rainbow, the course is incredible to tackle, amazing to look at and horrifying all at the same time and at around the six kilometre mark this fun nightmare trifecta makes its first appearance.

I have lost the front pack as I slowed on a particularly rocky piece of trail and follow the trail markers into the middle of a dried-up river.

Through lack of any other options and the occasional trailie footprint in the sand I have to assume I am on track and progress through ankle deep sand and over boulders then size of car tyres.

After a fairly pacey initial 5Ks, my suddenly slow progress is frustrating as I plod through the first couple in a of a series of “the longest kilometres in my life”.

Climbing through a small gulley, I eventually emerge on a runnable piece of single track, surrounded by spinifex, a really, really spikey bush which dominates the landscape in the MacDonnell Ranges.

Through the course of the event, most people encounter these bushes through either a minor fall or a momentary straying from the main trail and subsequently will spend a few days picking spinifex barbs out of their limbs.

However, the easy running is short lived and I soon find myself at the dreaded, course split. This section of the Larapinta Trail has a high route and a low route.

We are taking the high route.

I know it is going to be a climb, we’re covering 500 – 600 metres of vert and I am not unfamiliar with the feat. But I wish I hadn’t looked up.

Flashback to the race briefing, Sam says “swallow your concrete pills”, I chase the metaphorical medication down with a nice long swig of electrolyte.

The initial part of the climb is doable, a long winding path following the contours of the landscape but it seems after about 10 minutes of this, the trail designer got bored and decided the best course of action was to go straight up.

As I tackle the sharp ascents and the relentless switchbacks, I find myself thinking of Marysville, of the evil second loop.

I only hope that like every other mountain trail, of this height, that I have tried to run up that the ridge at the top is a whole heap of runnable fun.

But what I think is the top, is not the top.

The final ascent reveals a totally un-runnable ridgeline track, slabs of rock stick out the ground at 90 degrees and on one side is a long drop back to the plain where we started and on the other, a mix of bone breaking, concussion inducing bushes and boulders.

I pick my way along the rock strewn tightrope and accept I am going to be up here for a while, so take in the view and hope the descent is a little easier.

With nightmare flishbacks to the second loop at Marysville, I progress up the side of the ridge, preying for something runnable when I get to the top.

It takes me nearly an hour to cover the the 3KM and steep 400 metres of switchbacks and tracks which must have been plotted by a mountain goat, but the view at the top is totally worth it, below us, on either side is flat nothing for, what looks like, hundreds of kilometres.

It turns out, the climb and the ridge were the easy part of this climb.

Maybe it’s because I have been out here for 2.5 hours and have not eaten since breakfast, maybe it’s because my wobbly right knee is threatening to help me find the mortally quick way off the ridge.

Or is it just the pfffing sound of the rainbow farting unicorn flying in the sky above me.

Steep switchback turns into crashing through trees and bushes and climbing over and around boulders as I slowly pick my way down to the valley floor.

I am reading Scott Jurek’s account of his FKT on the Appellation Trail and at one point he remarks how there were times, and sections, where every part of his body made contact with the trail. So while at night I read about Scott Jurek making full body contact with the AT,

I find myself living that very same notion on Stage 2 of RL.

Eventually I emerge in the valley below and soon I am forging once again along single tracks through dry creek beds and fields of spinifex.

The trial flattens out eventually, if only momentarily, and there is another checkpoint — making sure we get off the ridge.

A quick check in and I am back on it, forging along a dry creek bed up the middle of some unknown valley.

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I thought the worst of the course was over, but I was wrong.

My legs are trashed from the ridge climb and at 3 hours in I really should be eating something but I have decided to ignore that fact, hoping the remaining 5Ks will be knocked out inside 40 minutes.

After some light running, I am once again hauling my tired body over boulders as the course pushes up a dried up river, bounding and bouldering up mini cliff faces and generally cursing Sam for inflicting this stage on us — although, this is what I paid for.

While contemplating a climb with a fellow runner and taking advantage of a chance to stop, I am overtaken by my new buddy Bruce.

Standing on my foot and asking if I am ok, I am too tired and feeling too British to complain about the foot he is squashing and tell him I am fine.

Although his concern triggers some sort of panic centre in my brain and as soon as I have cleared the climb I reluctantly suck down some warm pureed apple.

If I am honest, I do not feel like eating the pureed apple, or anything for that matter — and I guess that IS the warning sign because 20 minutes later I feel great, still trashed, but focused and back in control.

A 1.5K marker to the Standley Chasm carpark marks the start of the assault on the final 1.5Ks, which immediately launches into another almost vertical track up and over a small ridge.

I have picked up a trail friend and as the path levels off I can see the crest and I pray for a Spielberg moment, I prey to crest the ridge and see the finish line, but at the top there is just more valley, more steep down, more trees.

But we can hear the PA from the finishing area, we’re close. We’re so close.

Picking our way down steps cut into the rock we push through a clump of bushes to see a concrete path, and it’s flat. There are a couple of marshals there too.

“You’re close. Only a few hundred metres to go and it is flat all the way to the finish.”

I have forgotten what the word flat means at this point, but after walking the best part of the last 10 kilometres, it feels good to get the legs back up to something resembling a run.

I may have cursed Sam Maffett at various moments during the run, but the sense of accomplishment at the finish and the knowledge that I managed to swallow my concrete pills and finish without incident is a humbling experience, I learnt a lot about my limitations in those long four hours.

Despite my earlier complaints, I am looking forward to tackling Stage 2 the next time I take part in Run Larapinta.

Day 3 / Stage 3 — The fun run

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I wake up feeling pretty loose and confident about the day.

My body is still cooperating and today promises to be a lot more flowie and runnable.

The run starts up-hill but and on bitumen, so a relatively easy start. But we are soon on the sandy, rocky single tracks we have all come to recognise as the Larapinta Trail.

Running along single tracks, skirting the edges of low hills is bliss.

Although I receive a wake-up call at the 5K mark when debating with myself whether to walk and take on some fluids; I inadvertently step off the trail and end up in the bushes, some minor medical attention is required at the 12K checkpoint where I get them to wash and disinfect my fresh set of grazes.

Despite my fall, progress to the checkpoint feels fast and I know, once I leave it, that there is only nine or so kilometres left, which takes the form of the Pound Loop, running through Ormiston Gorge.

Sub 2:30 may no longer me on my rader but I can still pull this out in sub-3.

If you are ever in Alice Springs, do yourself a favour and go to Ormiston Gorge and run the Pound Loop.

Initially heading over a hill and away from the gorge, the track eventually curves back and you follow the wide sand and stone creek right through the middle of the gorge.

The trail is very runnable and there are some awesome zoomie sections where you can weave and generally have a hoot.

I reach another sandy river crossing and with only a few kilometres to go, sub 3 is still looking good.

Until I take a tumble, after stopping a fellow trail runner from running in the wrong direction, and spend the next 10-15 minutes using my spare water and my second first aid kit to clean myself up a bit.

Sand and rocks are not my friend and I have decided to purchase a pair of fingerless MTB gloves, to protect my palms.

That’s the problem with palm cuts, they bleed like hell.

By the time I reach the final climb I am beginning to feel a little dismayed by the whole process.

Pushing too hard and getting distracted teaches lessons out here, painful ones.

I am irritated by the tumbles and pissed off as I watch the 3 hour mark tick over.

But this is a bad headspace to be in. I need to get myself out of a funk before I end up in one permanently.

The trail marker indicates a 30 minute walk back to the car park (and the finish line). Salvation, I embrace the challenge of getting there in less than 30 minutes.

It is now me against the clock and a sub 3:30 finish.

Stubborn and invigorated I drag my aching and battle-scarred limbs back up to something resembling a run and moved with determination over the final hill.

Ironically, coming down was the easiest and scariest part of the entire run. Smooth, concrete steps have been constructed, stable ground and down hill all the way.

The urge to whoosh is hard to resist but I am concerned that if I am going to trip again today, it will be here, so I whoosh with caution.

Crossing the line at 3:12, I am happy to finish.

Delighted with the runablility of the course and settle into the process of reviewing some valuable life lessons.

Day 4 / Stage 4 — I love it when a plan comes together

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Somehow I have survived the last three days.

I have pushed hard and hung on and I have the scars to prove it, but I have also relished the opportunity to witness the beauty of this place, and my Instagram feed has the photos to prove it.

But this is it, this is the final day.

What we have been building to. 30Ks to the Homestead and the finish line.

It has taken me three days, three falls and numerous plasters and bandages but I finally have a race strategy and I am going to stick to it.

  1. No distractions — the trail is all that exists, your world is the three feet of rocks, sand and root directly in front of you.
  2. Start out slow — no more tracking with the front pack, start slow and get marginally quicker.
  3. Drink 400ml of liquid ever 5Ks (or every 3 beeps of the water, my trail setting is still in miles) — alternating between electrolyte and water.
  4. Eat every 90 minutes — even if you don’t feel like it.

So I did.

I found a nice steady pace and took my time getting around the various groups of people, I walked every three beeps and drank my 400ml of liquid, I ate every 90 minutes or when I got hungry and I found that I was slowly catching and passing and staying ahead of the runners in front of me.

My goal was 30K sub 4 hours.

This stage has everything the other three stages had, it was almost as if everything was building to this moment, the collective experience of the first three stages meant there was nothing on this trail we had not seen before.

The trail flowed along single tracks, crossing dry creek beds, dry rivers, climbing a big ass hill (Hill Top Lookout) and finally, running the first 3.5Ks of Stage 3, in reverse.

Progress is steady but there were parts of that trail where it felt it would never end, the mid-morning sun is strong up here and as the trail snakes across the low hills, we can feel ourselves getting cooked by the sun.

But I stick to my plan, I am hydrated, fuelled and when I see the 3.5K to Glen Helen sign I know I had a very runnable section and a road finish.

The last piece of single track I would run on in the race seems to stretch on forever. The undulation is nice but after 83Ks of running over four days, I am beginning to wilt, but I am so close, I just need to keep pushing, focus on my feet and keep moving forward.

The Road.

Shit. The road.

I’m on the road. I’m nearly done.

I can see a couple of runners ahead of me and they are walking the slight incline.

I think I can catch them. I know I can catch them. I find new depths of energy and like some half-baked Terminator, relentlessly pursue the runners in front of me.

He beats me to the top of the hill, to the turn to the Homestead and he starts running again.

Defeated.

But I had forgotten about the final hill near the helipad and he’s walking it.

I pass the 500 metres to the Homestead sign and forge onwards.

He crests the hill before me but I am still catching him, slowly closing the gap.

Coming down the road towards the homestead, I hear the cowbell ring and I swell with emotion, I do not know whether to laugh or cry, to celebrate or mourn the end of the race.

I am glad it is nearly over, I am tired. But part of me wants to go back, wants more days, more stages. Part of me is considering attempting the whole trail at some point soon.

We are directed right, weird as I thought we would be going left, and I soon discover the final 50 –100 metres is going to be a sand finish. I pass the runner I have been chasing.

“Thought I would never catch you.”

“Mate. I’m done.”

We enter the final few metres and the finish tape is up, I grab the hand of my fellow runner.

‘come on. Let’s finish this together”

We cross the line, running brothers. Conquerors of Larapinta.

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My accumilated time is 12:21:02 which puts me 35 out of 90 in the General Standings.

Additional photos (below) supplied by Matt Hull

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