So Michael McGrath calls me ‘How would you like to do a totally unsupported 100km run along an old convict built road with only 3 water stops? On the hottest day of the season? Oh, and if the furthest water tank is out of water, we’re screwed’
‘ That’s the craziest idea I’ve heard for ages. Let me get my backpack.’
Well it didn’t happen quite like that, but it could have……. Michael is a meticulous planner and when he said he was doing a 100km route that hadn’t yet been done as a race, I was intrigued.
Starting at Wiseman’s Ferry, the Great North Road was built in the 10 years after 1826 and almost immediately fell into disuse as people preferred to travel by river boat. Today it’s a well known mountain bike track, fairly smooth and open in parts, but overgrown and dense single track in others.
I wasn’t feeling very charitable when the alarm went off at 3:40am on Saturday morning, but managed to stay awake and get out side to be picked up at 4:15am for the drive to the start. There were 3 runners, Michael McGrath, Rob Mattingly and myself. Mike was obviously hedging his bets, taking along one mighty fast runner (Rob) and one plodder (me). It worked well, we know each other well enough that there were no problems with ego or understanding each others needs, and I was pretty sure they hadn’t heard quite all of my jokes. There was a lot of smoke around and Michael checked- there was 9 fires within 50km of us, but none likely to be close to our run.
We were aiming for a 6am start, but by 6:08 we’d come off the ferry and started the Garmin. The first 3.5km are along a tarred road along the Hawkesbury River until we get to the entrance of a fire trail and enter Dharug National Park on the Western Commission Track. My only problem was that at 2.7km I’d looked at my Garmin and thought ‘wow, my legs really hurt a lot’. It was only 2 weeks after Trailwalker and I’d done a fairly hard strength session with Andy DuBois on the Wednesday. Knowing that I was with 2 runners better than me didn’t help, so I resigned myself to joining the pain train a little early. Normally I’d expect to feel pretty good for at least the first 20-30km, so 2.7km was pretty ordinary. Sub optimal indeed.
Luckily we all knew it was going to be a long day out, and even Rob who would normally bound up all the hills was playing it sensibly- we walked the hills, kept the heart rate down and stopped to take pictures frequently. We re joined the Great North Road (GNR) at about 15km and 4km further on we got to the first water stop- it’s a barrel with a tap beside the road provided by the Wat Buddha Dhamma Buddhist Monastery there. Thanks! About 400m further we turned off on to Simpsons Track and had another short stop at the Ten Mile Hollow camp ground where there is more fresh water. We then entered the longest stage without access to water (39km). There’s quite a few areas with signs of previous habitation, but it’s mostly just flat areas with different vegetation where the bush is taking back ground. We reached a large open area where Simpsons Track meets Ten Mile Hollow Road, took a pic at the plaque, and carried on up Ten Mile Hollow Road. We also took a short diversion to have a look at ‘Fairview’- and abandoned home in the middle of nowhere. Very cool. This next part included the biggest climbs of the day. As you can imagine an old convict built road has to be reasonably flat to allow for horses, but later roads don’t have quite the same restrictions. Anyway, the views were spectacular.
Eventually we came back to the Great North Road. This would have been my last bail out point- we’d done about 34km, and all I had to do was turn back on to the GNR and home was about 18km away. It’s essentially a 24km out and back from here to make the 100km distance. By now I was getting into the groove and thought I may as well carry on. I mean how bad can it be, right?
The answer came quickly- the road turns rough and gnarly almost immediately. There’s heaps of leaf litter on the track, and as you might think for a road that’s been disused for over 80 years, it couldn’t really be called a ‘road’ any more. For me, this bit was increasingly soul destroying. I knew we would have to come back this way and mentally it was eating away at me. It was much rougher than I’d expected and progress was slow. I knew that we could expect the Mogo camp ground at 58km so I started focussing on that. Our first marathon distance passed in 5:50 which was pretty good considering all the time we had spent sightseeing. With about 15km to go we rounded a ridge and were fully exposed to the sun. Apparently the temps were mid 20’s however by then we were really feeling it. Winter doesn’t prepare you for this! At 51km I got the Dead Man’s Suck. My water ran out. I still had a 750ml bottle of Coke on my front, but I was trying to save that. Oh well, that plan turned to ‘get fluid on board, worry about caffeine levels later’.
At Circuit Flat Bridge we were originally intending to do another loop to increase distance. However it wasn’t needed and we took the direct route to the camp ground. Michael said ‘it’s 2.2km from here to the campground, you can’t get lost, see you there’. I hadn’t told him about my water situation but it sounded pretty straightforward. Unfortunately 2.9km later I was wandering around the bush, by myself with no fluids, in a blazing hot sun thinking ‘uh oh, this is bad’. Luckily I carried on and found the campground at 3.1km. It was a simple mis remembering- I wasn’t in any real danger, they would have come back to look for me, but I think we all realised we’d have to stay together from then on, and Michael said as much at the camp ground.
The water tank was full of fresh delicious water, and I drank 1.5 litres before lying down on the grass and we all watched the wind move the trees for a while. Michael went to refill his bottle and yelled ‘guys, we have a problem!’ The water was alive with larvae. We’d all drunk some but we had yet to fill our bladders. I’d borrowed a water filter but hadn’t brought it along because of the weight. In true MacGyver style we then filtered about 8 litres of water through a bandanna (unused) into a water container we found onsite, then transferred it into our packs. I applied a Compeed to a developing blister and remarked to Rob ‘gee you’ve been good today- you haven’t turned a nasty shade of green or grey like you usually do’. He didn’t say much and wandered away towards the toilets. On the way there I thought I spotted him stop to have a spew but I wasn’t sure. Unfortunately this wasn’t the last spew of the day.
At this stage we all felt like we’d had a good day, and if we’d had support at this point we probably would have pulled the pin. Conditions were difficult, and weren’t getting better. The camp ground is next to a public road, so here is where we saw the only 3 humans we would see all day. One stopped their car to go to the toilet, and one couple actually talked to us- they were scouting for a place to camp for the night.
With 43km to go, I suggested to Rob that we could wait for a tourist and ask them to take him home, or we could all give up. He said that he’d be ok, and would simply walk back if we had to, and that’s the way it worked out. I need to make something clear here- you might think it’s unwise or dangerous to head back into the bush with an injured runner, but Rob is one of the strongest people I know. If he says he can do something, he can. It wasn’t easy, most of it wasn’t fun, but we got it done. Also- I’m not singling him out for any criticism. It could have been any one of us having issues (in fact 2 weeks earlier it had been me), and this is essential to the story!
Strangely, I was feeling fantastic- my leg soreness was gone, my mental attitude was good and I was raring to go. It never lasts, but was nice to have for a short while. Could have been the stop- we spent more than an hour at Mogo.
The last 43km was just a death march. We sandwiched Rob between us so he couldn’t drift off the back, and I occasionally tried to get him to talk about races where he had experienced great success, like last years North Face 100. Michael reminded us that he’s won the Dolls Point marathon a few weeks back so I was forced to tell everyone that I’d once won a race that nobody had ever heard of too, but it was an ultra marathon so there. The conversation died out, and the sun descended. At 30km to go I started counting down until the Buddhist water stop. None of us were keen to keep drinking the ‘protein water’ but we had no choice. The bush at night was teeming with bugs. There was spider webs across the trail, beady eyes reflected from our headlamps and innumerable moths attempting suicide in our lights. I got my share of protein straight out of the air as they flew everywhere. At one of our many stops Michael produced some crushed fruit, and magically Rob was able to keep some of it down. In fact both of them took off on the last 2km of downhill heading back to the start. By then I was shattered and wanted to get off the ride.
We got back to the car, took off some crusty clothes, had a wash in the cold water basin, a quiet beer and headed home. And got lost. To be fair, none of us really had any mental acuity left, but arriving home well over 24 hours after leaving, with the local wildlife signalling imminent dawn I was able to have a real shower and fall face first into bed.
Thank you Michael and Rob for an experience I will treasure. And yes, next time we can definitely go sub 15 hours. Oops, did I say next time?