One of the biggest ultra marathons in Australia, the Six Foot Track Ultra Marathon sells out to 850 curiously strange people in a few hours. The course is limited to this number for several reasons, including the sheer difficulty of squeezing too many people into the narrow aperture that occurs about 150 meters from the start, reducing the track size to 6 Feet, the width of two horses. (Hence the name Six Foot track, which is an historical track harking back to the white explorers)
I really didn’t train for the Six foot Track event specifically. I had been running hills every Sunday, but only up to 2.5 hours over the steamy summer, with one 34 k run (a circuit created by runner Peter Hall in Northern NSW and including a 7 k relentless climb, and a total elevation of 1,140 meters over the 34 k, we call it the Tomawin run because of its location), and another 2 hour 45 run in the Nerang Forest which is a tricky trail run with many undulations and some steep hills. (My running buddies have a joke about my definition of “undulations”. Do you mean standard undulations, or Christine’s version of undulations? My version tends to be quite challenging hills, not mere undulations.)
Up until 3 weeks ago the 10 or so weeks before this had been very difficult running. I was well, felt good in myself, but as soon as I started to run there was an experience of an internal flat battery. On and on, week after week. Potentially very demoralising for a serious runner. I just surrendered to it for the most part. And kept up my training. Not able to push hard, but certainly able to show up to each training session. One day, out of the blue, this absence of spark lifted. The girls said it was because I started to wear a running skirt! Co-incidentally, from the day I did start to wear my running skirt, my mojo kicked in again and I have felt strong since. The very next day, on the Tomawin run, I felt very good, even in the heat.
With a tendency to be a workaholic, I rarely take time off. I was looking forward to this adventure of the Six Foot Track as a kind of mini break. Lots of time on planes, trains and in buses, time to meander where ever my mind took me, unstructured, time to read, write, or do nothing at all. And then of course, time to run and disappear to the place I go when ever I run an ultra marathon event...hours of just you, your footfall, the forest or hill, or creek, or path. Trail runs require high level concentration on one simple thing. Where you place your feet. It is a moving mediation. You do also have to be highly tuned into the state of affairs of your body..fluid, fuel, overall health. There is an intensity of focus that eliminates all other distractions. I have no memory, 1 day later, of thinking about anything else at all, except these things. For 5 hours!
My running pal Jess, now from Sydney, and her partner Craig came up from Sydney for the day to support. They collected me from my hotel at 5.45 am. I was very relaxed, with race tension at about a level 1 on a scale of zero to 10, where ten is the highest amount of tension. I didn’t have much to eat before (because I had forgotten to think about it..that's how relaxed I was), just a food bar, and a piece of damper with golden syrup, provided at the Six Foot Track race start. It felt about right though. I was seeing this as a training run, just like Tomawin. I only ever eat a sports food bar before a training run.
The Blue Mountains, Home of the Six Foot Track Ultra Marathon
It was cold, about 10 C. Much colder than usual Six Foot Track events I am told. This for me, was great. I am a cold weather runner. Forecast to be a maximum of about 18C. Perfect running conditions.
I was in wave 2 of 4 waves in this years Six Foot Track. Wave 1 was for the elites. I had had two conversations with friends of mine who had run the Six Foot Track before, on what to do about the start, which is very tricky. An immediate very steep, very rocky downhill for about 400 m, then narrow, steep, wet, slippery stairs for about 800 m. They suggested I didn’t rush too much to get to the stairs, and to preserve my safety in the bun fight that can happen on the stairs. Normally an excellent and fast downhill runner, going from stationary to full pelt down a steep rocky hill while still cold and with a 100 other people all fighting for the safest footfall in a narrow space didn’t work for me. I erred on the side of caution. As a consequence, when we came to the stairs, it was a dead standstill. Single file, very slow. Frustrating.
All too slowly I figured out that I needed to pass some people who were far more cautious than I, and all of a sudden I found myself with no one in front of me, running in the forest. A weird feeling in a race, to be on your own. Note to self, if there is a next time running the Six Foot Track, warm up, hit the downhill faster, and be a little more aggressive on the stairs.
Oh dear...I needed to pee...and it was 10 minutes into the event. Silly me had not gone to the toilet before the start. This is the kind of mistake I don’t usually make. Given the beautiful surrounds and an explicitly worded request to not use the Six Foot Track as a toilet, I waited for the first aid station. Toilets? I yelled. “3rd tree on the right!” was the answer. 3rd tree it was.
The aid stations on the Six Foot Track were all manned by the fireies...that is Aussie slang for the bush fire service. The local full time and volunteer fire brigade. The aid stations were plentiful, and well stocked with sports drinks, water, coke, lollies (snakes...really good for running), cut up power bars, bananas. There were more aid stations that I have experienced in most major marathons, and there was certainly more care and support than the Boston marathon, an event I experienced to be deadened under the weight of hubris.
The first 15 k is downhill. I am a downhill runner. Especially a trail downhill runner. My third mistake was to get caught behind a group of people running on a very narrow, very rocky trail, single file. And to not be aggressive. I easily lost 5 minutes or more here. For a while I was very relaxed with this. Then out of the blue, I just thought, to hell with this, I am going...and I asked if I could pass. All the runners were extremely obliging. I dropped them all and was in my element running like a mountain goat, down the trail. Note to self...more aggression needed. (Did you ever think you would hear this from me?)
At the bottom of the Megalong Valley is the Cox River. (15.5 k’s into the run) There had been a lot of rain recently, so it was quite high. We cross it by going into it, with a rope to hold onto. I went into it up to my neck. It was cool, but very refreshing. Rather fun. On the other side another aid station where I had my first nutrition, a gel. My shoes were filled with course sand from the river. There was an older guy, a veteran of 12 Six Foot Track events running right beside me. I mentioned my shoes..he said forget about it, there a plenty more creek crossings. So I did. I ran with sand in my shoes for the rest of the race.
I asked him about what to expect next. Right out of the Cox River you start the climb. He said most people will walk it. Only the top runners will run it. Almost everyone was walking it. However, we hadn’t done any climbing so far, and it wasn’t steeper than Tomawin. So I thought to myself, heck..if I can run 7 k up Tomawin without stopping, then I can do this. So I kept running. Slowly, but very consistently. The veteran runner did too. Although he was going faster than I. I didn’t see him again. I determined to stay running for at least 35 minutes. And I realised that because almost 100% of the people were walking, the prevailing story was to walk. I felt good, and my energy was not being depleted by running, so I stayed running. And passed a lot of people.
There were even more frequent aid stations on the hills, at least every 2 kms. There was no chance of running out of fuel or fluid. I drank the sports drink at every aid station, with a few exceptions. Ate some snakes, or power bars, and thought if I keep this up I am going to put on weight running a 45 k event!
Big lesson...I know the lesson about running your own race, but this was finer distinction of that...to NOT get caught in what everyone else was doing. To NOT go along with the crowd. To trust myself and my experience and my understanding of my own body. At no stage, except for the very last hill at about 41 kms, did I feel that horrible anaerobic energy depletion that I often feel on the hills in the Kokoda Challenge. Granted, the hills in Kokoda are much much steeper than these ones.
I kept running to the top of the first hill, and then there was a downhill, so I let rip. Then another up hill. This one I walked a fare bit. I probably could have run more.
By this stage you see many of the same people. There are a few that you play cat and mouse with. You pass them, they pass you. Repeat. A few I spoke with. The old veteran had said that at the top of the second hill is about a 10 k run along the ridge. It was still rising but only slowly.
The biggest issue I had by this stage was the need to go to the toilet. My old running friend, diarrhea. I hung on, and it would pass, and then it would come back, and then it would pass. Probably 20 k of this. The forest was wooded, but the ground shrubs were sparse, so there were not many places one could go with any version of discretion. Finally, someone told me there were toilets about 2.5 kms away. Of course by the time I got there, the need had passed, but I decided to make use of the facilities. We had 10 k’s to go, and an hour to bring it home to make the under 5 hour mark.
Now normally, 10 kms in an hour is easy. But I knew that at the end of a 45 k run, and a trail run, with more hills to come, this is not often achievable. So I knew it was touch and go. However, the toilet stop and a snake lollie wedged in my right cheek dissolving slowly over 20 minutes had given me new energy, so I went for it.
When you get into single digits on an ultra run, you can smell home. There were a few mountain bike riders on the course now, offering encouragement. Someone said we would definitely come in under 5 hours. The general consensus was that we, the people around me and I, were doing a great run.
I couldn’t believe it, but I had the diarrhea impulse again. This time however, there was no negotiation. Body, there will be no stopping until I am done! So hold on. That is an order.
Some dude who must have been delusional said that the last 8 kms was downhill. Not! There were few steep hills, but hills there were. I walked many of them. I knew that the Six Foot Track finished with a downhill. Then there was a sign that we had 5 k to go, then 3 k. But the distance between them was definitely more than 2 kms. (Believe me, at this point, every bit of accurate information about how far there is left to run matters.)
However, my mojo was really kicking in and I was going for it. I felt good...heck, except for the diarrhea, I had felt good the entire way. So I was flying. Then we hit the last 4 k and this is serious downhill. Narrow, very rocky with big hard to negotiate rocks and a very steep grade. My quads were protesting, and the sand/gravel in my shoes felt somewhat uncomfortable, but I wasn’t prepared to let that rule my need to get down the hill fast. I had to pass a few people, and my aggression was politely in place. (Including, to my glee, some girls who had passed me earlier). I was flying. It hurt. It was tricky. Dangerous. But I was joyously happy.
Then someone said, "around this corner, you will hit a path" (which was made of very large oddly shaped boulders, "so by no means smooth and still quite difficult to negotiate) and from here there is 600 meters to go, down the switchbacks to the bottom and the finish."
I could see the finish of the Six Foot Track in the valley below. I could hear the yelling from the crowd. I knew they could see me, way up above, hot pink shirt, flying down the trail. There were regular tourist on the path. I didn’t care. They very clearly got the message to get out of my way. Nothing was going to stop me. (Most people really suffer on this section because their quads are shot from the first 15 k of downhill).
And there I was...one final corner and I was done. And Jess and Craig yelling at me. I was so happy. Ecstatic. It has been years since I have felt so well, and strong and good for an entire race. No nausea, no gut aching fatigue, no zero energy. I had felt strong and energetic the whole way. Apart from the discomfort of the diarrhea. And a little bit of dizziness at the 10 k to go mark.
You could not wipe the smile off my face. 5 hours 10 minutes. 33 woman overall. 11 th in my age group...which is from 40 to 49. The winner of the women overall was in my age group. In 5 months I will be 50, and if I raced this time in that age category, I would have placed 2nd. 260 overall, men and women, out of a field of 850.
More than all of these numbers though, to be able to run and feel good and strong. Ah...to be able to bottle this...to reproduce this.
I certainly will try to reproduce the feeling in future ultra marathon events and probably in the next Six Foot Track
expectations...this a BIG key. All my best events have occurred when I
have zero expectations. This also means I am relaxed. No stress. Stay
running my own race. Do NOT get caught up in other peoples race, like I
did last year at
#2.Just because everyone is walking, doesn’t mean I should. Trust myself. Trust my inner wisdom. I have been living with it for 50 years. I should actually know best for me.
#3. Cooler weather..this helped.Can't always order this up.
Lots of fuel constantly. The first sports drink was within 20 minutes,
my first bigger calorie hit was just after an hour and then every 20 or
so minutes after that. (The organisers of the Six Foot Track really got
#5. Go to the toilet before race start. (This would have saved me 1.5 minutes.)
#6. Enjoy it.
The Six Foot Track is an exceptional event. Very well run, beautiful scenery, lovely location. It is up there with my favourite events. Big Sur, Chicago, Honolulu.
The Six Foot Track was not as hard as I was expecting, given my experience with Kokoda and my training on Tomawin. Another good lesson. Train on harder courses and the run will be easier.
My girls are all keen to join me next year, to make a weekend of it. Sounds like a plan. Watch out Six Foot Track when the girls are in town.
I just have a simple prayer...to be able to run most of my events and feel as good as I did. Oh if it were that easy...the pathway to personal mastery is always mysteriously inconsistent..
Let go of expectations. Relax. Trust. Listen to my intuition. Stay Cool.
Story of my life...which is one of the reasons why I love running.
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