Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Great Southern Endurance Run 100 Race Report

GSER100 Race Report

"I am the author of all your pain"... those were the words spoken to me by Sean Greenhill - himself an evil genius of Blofeld levels - at the GSER race briefing. I heeded those words with some trepidation as I eagerly awaited the start of my final race of 2017 - the suitably almighty GSER100.

I've had a bumper year of events with successful completions of:

Hong Kong 100
Tarawera Ultra
Sixfoot Track
Buffalo Stampede Grand Slam
Ultra Trail Australia
North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail
Hounslow Classic Slam

Even though this was the first year, the GSER was already earning itself a reputation of being extremely brutal and tough, and it certainly looked like it!

The Course

GSER winds its way through the harsh mountains of the Victorian Alps, for 181 tortuous kms:

This one promised some absolutely epic climbs with a total elevation gain of over 10,000m:

Whoever said Australia was flat? Let them do this race and we'll see what their opinion is afterwards.... :)

The Plan

1. Gear:

With this race demanding a lot of mandatory gear, I would need a decent size pack. The last thing I wanted in the middle of an intense thunderstorm (and yes there were several of those) was to be fumbling around for a rain jacket. Also of note - the checkpoints were very far apart, with sections of 30km or more between some, so i would have to carry enough nutrition/hydration to last several hours. So, I went with my Raidlight Olmo pack, which luckily, is super awesome. I had also received info that the trail was hugely overgrown in places and would shred any exposed shins, so I went with full length running tights.

Pack: Raidlight Olmo 12l
Clothing: Salomon S-lab shirt, 2xu thermal long tights
Shoes: La Sportiva Bushido
Rain Jacket: Outdoor research Helium

2. Nutrition:

I decided to use a strategy here of mainly gel, blocks and Overstims between checkpoints with some real food once I had got to an aid station. With this being such a long arduous race, getting some good solid food down was going to be key, so i made a mental note to stop for long enough at each station to eat, drink and recharge.

3. Race Strategy:

The whispers were going around that this was going to be a real slog. The terrain was rough, the track was uneven, overgrown and sometimes difficult to follow, the climbs and indeed the descents were brutal and relentless (the first 11km was all downhill but was still expected to take 2 hours). Therefore, I decided to treat this as a long tough haul and not a speedy run. I would be on my feet for at least 34 hours (target time) so mentally prepared myself for this. I also told myself mentally that any kms where I could enjoy a nice canter at anything over 12kms/hr would be a bonus. :)

The Race

Wow, Mt Buller didn't disappoint with its absolute disdain for runners! When we arrived, it was cold, foggy, raining and downright miserable. It seemed fitting though, that the weather wasn't playing ball and added to the already immense difficulty. I was nervous as hell - everyone I spoke to was afraid of this race (turned out rightfully so) and I had no idea how I was going to go over this distance being relatively inexperienced (only twice before have I gone over 100kms).

Atrocious weather at Mt Buller - so welcoming! :)

After getting some pasta down at the buffet, I actually got some decent sleep, which was strange given the dire warnings we were all given at the proceeding race briefing. At this point I was just telling myself to laugh (!?) at the difficulty because I just knew Mr Greenhill had made this course as tough as they come, and being pretty well versed myself at both the Buffalo Stampede and Hounslow Classic, the brutality certainly wouldn't be lost on me.

The next morning was a very pleasant surprise. There was still a bit of rain, but the temperature had warmed up a few degrees. It was almost perfect running temp, maybe still a bit cold for my liking but not bad at all. I had a quick chat to some fellow runners (Stephen Redfern, would I thought would be in with a good shout for a win here), Simon Byrne and David Longo (who was crewing, not running this time), then it was time for the off. I settled into a slow steady pace on the headlamp-lit initial climb up to Mt Buller summit - this was only the beginning...

The first descent from Mt Buller down to Gardners Hut... was bloody awful! The realisation that yes, this was indeed going to take 2 hours to descend kicked in fast and I think everyone now knew what we were in for for the next day... and night... and day again. The trail was treacherous, uneven and, well, pretty much hidden for a lot of the time. Also I would say 99% of the runners learned NOT to step on a wet log within the first 5 minutes it was like stepping on oiled ice... :)

I think after 10 or so stacks, I reached the first checkpoint Gardners Hut with plenty of cuts and bruises! Nothing too serious though, and I was still good for water and food, so didn't stop here - being pretty confident that I had plenty left to get me to Howqua Campground.

This section wasn't too bad, there was a nice runnable trail after Gardners, although worryingly I started to feel a few mild cramps as I ran along here! "Oh sh*t" I was thinking, I really didn't want to have to battle cramping for 30 hours along with the terrain.... Luckily this seemed to clear up as I got to the first major climb up to the Bluff summit (and bizarrely enough didn't come back for the rest of the race).

The Bluff was a pretty hard climb, over 1km straight up so it got the legs working pretty good. Not too many issues though - enjoyed the fantastic scenery at the top and then an uneventful descent into the Howqua checkpoint. All good so far - a few more cuts and bruises on the shins, but still reasonably happy!

Coming into Howqua - so happy to see my son!

I stopped here for a good feed of fruit, cake lollies and a bit of soup and to see my awesome support crew, May plus my 2 little monkeys Mia and Teddy, it was great to see them and I knew it would now be a long time till I saw them again at Harrietville. I also changed shoes at Howqua - there wasn't really anything wrong with the Busihidos but I fancied having dry feet for a short while, so changed into some La Sportiva Akashas. Imagine my total dismay when after only a few hundred metres there began a series of creek crossings... So much for dry feet! :(

Still feeling very happy at Howqua checkpoint

The following section was slow, slow, slow... We started to get some rain and thunderstorms which was a bit scary in places (literally flash, then BOOM!) - I was, sensibly, using all my kit though and staying relatively dry and warm. I started to feel it a bit summitting Mt Howitt, and the proceeding up/down/up/down/up/down etc plus the difficult terrain made it quite slow going, the route was also getting difficult to see in places as the trail here was very indistinct and quite overgrown, hiding some of the markings. However, my watch was helping heaps - it had the course pre-loaded from a gpx file and it was steering me the correct way very accurately which gave me confidence I was always going the right way. Although the going was tough, I reached Mt Speculation without too many problems and stayed for 10-15 minutes to refuel and reset a bit mentally.

Following this CP, the climb up to The Viking was blooming hard again, and another thunderstorm hit making this even harder work. I was getting pretty tired of being wet! At the top of the Viking, there was a bit of a climb up a ladder, and at the summit - even though it was absolutely spectacular, I had my first major dummy spit. For some reason I simply could not find the course marker and I was going absolutely spare - i went east, west, north south, every direction but ended up returning to the ladder as the trail either vanished or I could not see a marker. Absolutely seething by this point (i think i was here for a good 20 minutes), i FINALLY caught sight of the tape, which had been mostly hidden behind a tree. GRRRRRRRR!!!!! On the other side of the summit, just before the descent i lost sight of the markers a couple more times which by now had me RAGING (the tiredness didn't help, it was probably the reason i kept losing sight of them) but I was on my way down after a few more unscheduled stops. 

(NOTE - about the markers - for a course as complex and demanding as this, the course markings were exceptional, and although I may have complained about not seeing some of them , I did not get truly lost one single time, so fantastic work by the team getting this done - I ran the whole coures, but I still can't begin to imagine the effort it must have took).

The following 20kms were what I can only describe as a bit of nightmare. The trail was very difficult to follow and was swallowed up by the growth, so i was getting frustrated as hell and it was getting late so I was now facing the darkness. I had been alone for much of the race, and a recent section of continuously climbing over fallen trees (i swear there were about 100 of them) had beaten me up a bit mentally, plus to top it off I was feeling some pretty terrible nausea whenever i tried to eat. Getting to East Buffalo Rd was a very welcome stop - the nausea was getting worse and I felt I really needed some solid real food, so I stopped and had some noodles here and had a bit of a mental reset.

The next section to Selwyn Creek Rd wasn't much more fun - the nausea remained, and one of the other runners had to give me a ginger tablet, and then a bit later, some actual ginger crystals which just about saved my life (thank you Andy Turner!) as I was ready to retch. Upon reaching the Selwyn Creek Rd checkpoint, I stopped again to have some more proper food (soup), get some Coke down me and then let my stomach settle. After a while, it began to improve, so was then my cue to leave.... Now apparently I had done and dusted the hardest part of the course, and it was only a few hours till the sun would start to rise again, so I began to perk up a little bit. This proved to be extremely premature and the next section absolutely destroyed me in so many ways. The course, again, was very indistinct in this section- more so than before and it was soooooo draining to try and stay on track - navigating solely by the markings, while trying to avoid all the ground obstacles. This culminated in my most hated section of the course through an area of hundreds (maybe thousands) of dead trees, and then a hike over the Twins... Ah the Twins, everyone surely has memories of this bit. My personal favourite was finally getting to the bottom of a particularly disgusting descent whereupon I looked at the obvious exit (a road) only to see 2 crosses indicating this was not the way. I looked up at the monster, almost vertical "hill" to my right thinking "NO - surely not"???? With almost soul destroying disappointment I spotted the markings displaying a bitterly crushing path up the almost insurmountable wall in front of me. Expletives flew forth cascading from my mouth like a waterfall of abuse - directed at no-one of course (not even Mr Greenhill, honest), i was still alone... and off i trudged.

After negotiating the Twins, the next checkpoint could be seen, and some hope returned. By the time I had descended to Mt St Bernard though, my feet had started to burn up a little from the constant friction of the climbs/descents so i needed a little attention. This gave me a good 20 minutes to see my amazing support crew, sit down, eat and grab some nice hot tea (thank you volunteers that was awesome). May had also been and got some nectarines, my new fave checkpoint snack so this perked me up no end. Since my feet were one big wet mess, the (brave) first aid guy had some difficulty locating the newly forming blisters, but he did a great job and I was well patched up leaving the checkpoint. I actually really enjoyed the slow gradual climb up the road after Mt St Bernard - I took the time to have a bit of a rest, so walked most of it - the sun had come out and it was all rather pleasant after the nightmare trek that had come before it.

Mt St Bernard - how bloody tired do i look???

These guys were feeling it too! :)

I was soon at the top of Razorback Ridge feeling pretty good - I must have been still (just about) in the top 10 and I was moving really well so I was in pretty high spirts. The last checkpoint stop had sorted me out mentally too. However, just after the ridge on descending Bon Accord Spur, my race all but ended. It was a gentle descent, nothing tricky about it, but on placing my right foot down a sudden stabbing pain shot through my right quad just above the knee. It actually felt like a knife had been plunged into the muscle and it stopped me immediately. I walked around gingerly for a good 5 minutes before deciding to carry on and see if the pain faded... Coming down the descent though was excruciating and I was slowed to a pathetic hobble. I contemplated going back up to the ridge, but thought I should just try and make it to Harrietville - however that seemed to be a good 8km away still. I sent an sms to my crew that I was basically out of the race and would just make my way to the CP - but this would take maybe 3 or 4 hours.

Tired and hurting, but still happy to be getting patched up a bit at Mt St Bernard (before the injury).

That was a fairly accurate assessment and it took an age to hobble along and finally arrive at Harrietville. The volunteers there were just the best - they strapped up my right leg and iced it. I informed them I would be dropping out, but they told me to take some time and see if the ice maybe reduced the pain a little. I waited 10 minutes, maybe more and stood up but my leg really was shot. I was well and truly gutted to get that far and have to DNF, but I really had no choice. I was pretty certain that if the terrain was the same as i'd encountered previously I would get totally stuck and end up needing rescue. My super crewer May then came up with the idea that I could use the poles I brought along to take the weight off my right leg. I've been trying my damn hardest not to use poles in any races so far (no idea why - i think I just don't want to carry them, and like the idea of not having any "help" - that sounds totally stupid when writing it), but thought this might just work... The volunteers had me do a couple of test hobbles down the nearby riverbank, and suggested that even if i take 10 hours to do the last 36kms, i will finish! What the hell I thought let's just crack on and finish this beast... I did require some extra help in the form of a couple of Nurofen (I hope they are not on the banned substance list) as I really was in a bad way, but with the push from the CP volunteers and May, I forced myself out of the checkpoint...

Strapped and iced at Harrietville. :(

This last section as expected was extremely slow - i found that flat and uphill were merely painful and I could almost do a fast walk with the poles. However, my leg just could not handle any downhills and i literally had to use the poles as crutches to lower myself down. By sheer luck though I found the last section to be the easiest - less tricky to navigate, the terrain was reasonably consistent, and the hills, although numerous were not soul crushingly steep. I did start to tire horrifically along wet gully ridge - i was so sleepy, on more than one occasion I would just shut my eyes as i hobbled along and catch some "moving sleep". I started seeing shapes that weren't there (my sons/daughters toys mostly - which turned out to be nothing but rocks), and I kept hearing phantom footsteps behind me. It was actually a real surprise that almost no-one passed me in this whole section, as I was moving so slow.

With about 10km to go, I looked at my watch... Miraculously I was still some way under 40 hours, and thought that with an almighty effort I may be able to get the last 10km done in 2-3 hours. I really smashed myself - i was literally taking all my weight on my arms using the poles in order to move faster. As I hit the bottom of the last descent though, I was way ahead of schedule (well, the now "revised" schedule) and was thinking "bloody hell i'm still going to crack 40 hours"! I was passed shortly afterwards by Simon Byrne who i ran with for a while nearer the start, but I had absolutely no ability to chase anyone, and sat back in the comfort that I was still going to earn a silver buckle - which was totally unrealistic prospect hours ago at Harrietville.

The sight of the finish was so welcome - my right leg was about to fall off and my arms were absolutely killing me - i think my triceps were about to wave a white flag too, from holding all my weight on the poles. Once over the line in (unbelievably) 38hrs 41mins and 12th place, I got a hug from Mr Greenhill, which was worth 1,000,000 belt buckles (ha ha) and then proceeded to scoff possibly the most welcome helping of bacon I've ever had!

Remy and I had both made it!

Summary and Event Review

Overall, it's unfortunate that I had a bad day (race-wise). The nausea and injury turned the race more into a struggle for survival. Strangely enough - it seemed quite apt though - i think this is an event where simply getting to the end is a real achievement.

I've been in a lot of ultras - this one BY FAR was the most difficult. There was frustration, some swearing, some definite toys put of pram moments - but what a spectacular event. We had everything - thunder, lightning, rain storms, hail storms, cold temps, hot temps it was an absolutely complete view of what the environment can be like in these mountain regions (yes we even saw some snow at the start). It was harsh, it was brutal, it was tough, but it was beautiful. I would say that everyone who started this race was a very experienced trail/ultra runner, but those who finished were rewarded with something they would not have experienced before in any other race. There was a real feeling of overcoming the odds, and there was mutual respect from everyone there.

This race deserves pride of place in the difficult ultra hall of fame, it simply is the work of an evil genius.
The Great Southern Endurance Run 100 (181kms)  Course Ratings (out of 5):

Toughness: 6!
It's tough - the toughest race I have done so far, and nothing even comes close.

Runnability: 1
The trail fights you at almost every turn and the climbs/descents are so brutal they can't be taken at any speed. Also, not much flat to speak of so running is at a minimum for this one (check out the average pace times for proof).

Fun Factor: 1 or 5
How can I rate this? It's totally dependent on what you are looking for, and how the race goes, but its going to be Marmite for sure - you'll love it or hate it with a passion. I actually said out loud 2 or 3 times during the race "argh - this is just NOT FUN"!!! But that was a lie - it's just that the constant unrelenting difficulty broke through the armour a few times. There's so much to see in this race and it really is just the finest example I've experienced of mountain scenery in Australia. Yes the difficulty can wear you down, but the reward for finishing is sweeter for it.

TOOPP rating (Toys Out Of Pram Potential): 5
Over such a long distance there is so much to fight against - the huge climbs, the quad busting descents, the trail constantly fighting back, tiredness, some tricky navigation, the constant need to concentrate. There is no let up... I lost it more than once and I would imagine most would have had at least one dummy spit during this race. I think it's just all part of the charm though. :)

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