Tassie Trail Fest – Ultramarathon

One week before the event began, I paid $400 to run 100km on a steep, 35km circuit, three times, around the Launceston cataract gorge in northern Tasmania. It took me 13 hours 14 minutes. It had been raining the whole week prior to the event, I had blood blisters the size of golf balls on the soles of my feet. It was the middle of winter on an icy cold morning; it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

All week I was rushing around Hobart city, trying to collect kit, prepare all the food, and gather all the mandatory required safety gear, that must be carried at all times. I was informed that bag checks would be random, and penalties enforced if any of the kit was missing. The items on the list were: thermals (top and bottom), a rain jacket rated to 10,000 (what is a rating?), capacity for 2L of water, snack, two head torches, a compass, a whistle, a space blanket, gloves, beanie, neck warmer, long waterproof pants. Somehow, I had to fit all that in my tiny trail runners backpack and then carry it for half a day.

I made homemade bliss balls to compensate as my number one fuel source. Dates, almonds, chia seeds, cacao powder, peanut butter, coconut oil, all combined into a food processor until it formed a thick, doughy texture. Roll the mix into balls and put them into the fridge. It is the easiest to make, most nutrient dense, tasty workout treat I can think of.

Natural sources of energy tend to not be as intense initially, but are longer lasting and go a long way to avoiding the potential mood destabilization crash of high sugary, high caffeinated options. Considering this was a big run, I packed a caffeine gel, for an emergency situation for the end of the race. I also consumed some electrolyte drinks to assist with hydration absorption. Water doesn’t quite cut it over huge distances.

Race day was forecast for dry conditions. It had been raining all week leading up to the day. The drive from Hobart to Launceston was non stop rain. I parked in a quiet suburban picnic area, apparently nearby a popular truck stop, for the next six hours I was interrupted by noisy truck brakes while I attempted some rest.

At about 3:40am I got up and made some breakfast. It was important to me to drink as many fluids as possible and eat with at least a two hour digestion period. I ate a typically large bowl of porridge washed down with a coffee and about 1 litre of water.

Misty rain fell on the short drive to the starting point. Some enthusiastic runners were preparing for the 5am start of the 100 mile event. I watched the anti-climactic take off, the siren sounded and about 15 participants plodded around a soggy cricket oval, passed back past the start point in somewhat of a warm up lap, onto the tarmac and up a steep hill towards the cataract gorge.

It was an even smaller field of participants for the 100km race. It was supposed to be 400 runners but because the Australian government had once again elected to assert its strict covid stance, the state borders had once again been closed, preventing hundreds of travelers from entering Tasmania. It was a miracle that the event was going ahead. The participants who did manage to get across the border, were forced to wear masks while they ran.

The rain stopped at 5:45 and didn’t come back, leaving much relief for the water logged track and particpants. The terrain was completely drenched, there were many puddles to navigate, protruding rocks were slippery, and much of the track was wet, sticky mud. With head torches illuminating the path, we set off in similar fashion to the previous race, trudging around the cricket pitch for the warm up lap, allowing my fresh Solomon trail runners and brand new bamboo socks to instantly fill with water. We completed the warm up lap, passed the start line, onto the road and walked up the impossible-to-run hill.

Much of the pack had set off too fast, and clearly misjudged the difficultly designed 35km loop. The first ten kilometres was a steep grind, on a poorly signposted, zig zagging mountain bike trail. Confusion was wide spread and the lead runner in the 100 mile event went the wrong way. Later in the day, the event organizer admitted that he had chosen the most difficult track imaginable, designed to make runners quit, to even complete it three times would be a decent effort.

After 10km of mostly walking, The track finally levelled out and the next 10-15km’s was predominantly flat, passing along the top tier of the gorge. We looped back to the gorge via the swinging bridge and passed it as the morning fog lifted. I had consumed almost all the water in my pack so stopped at a tourist water fountain to rest and re-fill. A couple of bliss balls went down nicely for the climb up the staircase that follows the chairlift back up the hill.

The track descended down a large staircase and onto the main road, across a bridge and another staircase needed to be climbed vertically upward. From the top it was a few more kilometers of winding flat forest and a gradual descent back to the cricket pitch to re-fill the water bladder, drink some electrolytes, collect some more snacks, change my water logged socks, and do it all again.

The second lap was exactly the same but easier to navigate and therefore faster. the sun was providing enough warmth to remove my thermals and run in shorts and a t-shirt, with woolen gloves for the shaded gullys. I was moving at a smooth, steady pace, running consistently on the flat and downhill, only walking to go uphill, and stopping for no longer than it was nessesary to re-fill my backpack. I was steadily eliminating the ten pack of bliss balls, sculled half a litre of electrolytes, replaced my socks again and refused to look at the irritating blood blister on the mid rise of my right food that was causing immense pain on every second step.

In front of the clubhouse was a crew of construction workers cutting and drilling a frame to build a patio at the entrance. The elaborate disruption meant that in order to re-fill snacks, I had to climb over drills, drop saws, and off cuts of 4×2 treated pine. The constant trigger of saws cutting through wood and nails being fastened into timber was not a very inspiring motivation as I prepared to tackle the remaining 35km’s in the dark.

It was afternoon in northern tassie, the sun dipped beyond the horizon, the temperature plummeted, and the crowd dispersed. I would run the final lap virtually alone in pitch black dark. I silently prayed that the $15 headlamp from Bunnings wouldn’t malfunction as i mounted it over the top of my beanie, I wore a fresh new pair of thermals on top, an emergency pair of leggings, thick woolen gloves, loaded my backpack with any remaining snacks which were oat cakes and cashews. I set off in a hurry, no time to waste in tackling the final lap despite the protests from my excruciating blisters that have grown with every step.

It was a desolate track. Gone were the lined up spectators cheering me on, the bushwalkers going for a casual stroll, even the stewards handing out refreshments had packed up for the day. My body was tired, running on repetition and a typically stubborn mindset. I had to concentrate extra hard in the dim light that bounced and blurred to spot the ribbons or arrows which marked the way. There were no dodging puddles or navigating obstacles, I would have to intuitively guide my foot away from any danger and simply hope for the best.

About halfway I met a young scrawny competitor who was little over halfway from completing the 100 mile race, he questioned whether I was the 100km leader, I had given it much thought but I assumingly replied no, I think Im more closer to last place. I slowed my pace and we plodded along together, offering words of encouragement to each other and a relieving brief period of company.

I stopped for one final water re-fill at an empty gorge that hours earlier was swarming with people. My body was exhausted and thankful for the rest, I was moving slow but I was now certain that I could finish the race. Behind me, In the distance, a familiar looking speck of light was gaining considerable ground, soon jogging past me and the gushing water cooler without breaking stride. It suddenly dawned on me that the scrawny guy who was wondering if I was in the lead was right, I WAS in the lead, and this guy had just overtaken me, I was now in second place and needed to get a move on if I were to catch him. It had been 13 hours and 95kms, the thought of winning this event had never entered my mind until now. Suddenly my swollen blisters were not so irritating. I watched the leaders head torch teasing me in the distance, he was a man on a mission but I was hopeful of catching him now that he was in the lead still with 5km to go. I sprinted as fast as I could up the rocky staircase.

I was gaining ground but loosing energy. The only hope of catching him had to involve the caffeine gel I had strategically left unopened in my bag. On the downhill I swung my pack to my chest and continued running while blindly searching the pack. The gel was awkward to consume on the move, I reached the road where I could see the leader almost to the top of the next staircase going up. I leaped up the stairs two at a time, at the top I could barely walk but soldiered onward in a downright crawl towards the next crest of hill. Through the forest the leader was nowhere to be seen. Once the trees opened up I could hear the small claps of a cheering crowd, he was crossing the finish line as I stepped foot onto the cricket oval for the final victory lap. I crossed the line in second place less than two minutes behind the winner.

I probably should have won the race but I was more than happy just to have completed it. I was presented with the prize of a big bowl of spaghetti, meatballs and potatoes and chugged about a litre of electrolytes. My two inch blood blister finally revealed itself, exploding a few days later while at work. There were no showers in the clubrooms so I climbed into my freezing van covered in dirt and sweat, had a few puffs on my vape pen and went to sleep. A few hours later I woke to go to the toilet, and again an hour after, and again, and again. I got up at about 7am and drove straight to Hobart.

An ultra marathon complete. A true adventure and test of stamina and endurance. I am looking forward to the next one or tackling the 100 mile event.

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