Race Report: Heysen 105, 19th October 2013
“Between us we had made, carted and erected more than 12,000 waymarkers, manufactured and installed over 4,500 stiles, routed and painted 8,000 warning and information signs, built bridges, sand ladders, board walks, designed and authored 15 maps, 2 books…”
– Terry Lavender (from “The Last Post… or how to build the Heysen Trail in 400 years or less”, p.123)
The Heysen 105 is annual trail race along 105km of the 1200km Heysen Trail in South Australia, created by South Australian runner and coach Ben Hockings.
I’d originally planned to run the H105 last year, but an injury saw me on volunteering duties for the whole year, which gave me a lot of time to think about running goals, training, motivation, etc. I wasn’t familiar with the H105 course, so in the month leading up to the race, I ran most of it in sections. One section was run in rain and strong winds, where I struggled to keep warm enough even in a waterproof jacket, while other sections were run in strong heat. In terms of equipment, I knew I had to be prepared for either. In the week before the race, the predicted temperatures for race-day ranged from 26-32C and it became obvious it would be a hot day with no cloud cover. My hot weather plan included drinking plenty of water, ice cubes under my cap at each aid station and sucking on them as I ran to cool my core temperature. I also decided (unsure how much difference it would make) to wear white to reflect the heat and opted for short shorts. My partner Sarah had agreed to be my support crew and to meet me at or near the official checkpoints with a car-load of food, drink, blister kit, and moral support. A week prior to the race, we drove to all checkpoints from start to finish, typed some obscure road-names into the GPS, and generally made sure Sarah wasn’t going to get lost on race day. A friend Mike generously loaned me his hand-held GPS unit with topographical maps in exchange for showing him how to download maps onto it. I’ve always been a map-and-compass person, but navigation was a means to an end in this event. I knew if the GPS worked, it would be worth the extra 170g of weight – anything that reduced the amount of thinking required on the day would help.
Things started to feel real a week before the event at the pre-race dinner/briefing. I arrived late from work to a packed room at the start of a lecture on basic map-and-compass navigation. We had all been given beautifully printed colour A3 maps of the course and worked through some examples. This was followed by two excellent safety presentations by Mike. The first covered bush-fire safety, based on his decades of experience in the Country Fire Service. Lessons I learned re. bush-fires were: never run uphill, hide in the lowest point available, and put as much rock between you and the radiant heat of the fire-front as possible. This provided the link to the snake-safety presentation, as I imagined snakes hiding under the rock with me. Mike threw a plastic snake at the feet of the audience, talked about snake behaviour, then gave a practical session on snake-bite treatment. A gory lesson learned here was that red-bellied black snakes often bite more than once and have proteolytic venom that breaks down flesh. It was around this point that I made a definite decision to wear knee-length hiking gaiters during the event.
I had planned on an easy few days before the event but work was busy and I never quite seemed to catch up on sleep the whole week. 2-3 days before the event I had planned an easy run with some brief speedwork. However after a 2-week taper (“taper fatigue” = the strong, ill-considered urge to run brought on by the withdrawal of tapering) I was raring to go and against my better judgement thought I’d knock off an 8km hilly trail fast enough to finish before dark (no head torch). Not a good idea and I still had sore quads on race day.
In terms of preparation, I had made multiple lists of dropbag and rucksack contents well in advance and packed the rucksack, but we didn’t start packing the rest and loading the car until Friday after work, which meant I got to bed after midnight. Something to avoid next time. Once in bed, I felt a surge of adrenaline as my thoughts looked forward to the event. Despite this, I was so tired I fell asleep quickly.
At the Start Line
Some people camped at the finish line on Friday night, but we opted for a comfortable night’s sleep at home, a slightly longer car journey, and getting up at 4.30am. We arrived 30 minutes before the start and a row of vehicles already lined the road with runners and families/support crews making last minute-checks on plans and gear. It was hard to gauge the general mood of the runners, but there seemed to be a mix of apprehension, excitement, and that pre-race tension that begs for a few kilometres underfoot before evaporating. Unfortunately there were no toilets at the start, and I saw people running down the road to “warm up”, then darting sideways into the bush. I collected my race number and had the last of my mandatory gear checked off. I talked with a few people and was glad the time went quickly, as I could feel doubts creeping into my mind (reasons I wouldn’t finish, sore quads, will the knees hold out?). Shortly before the start, race director Ben gathered everyone together for a briefing, then at 7am we were off heading north up Halls Creek Road.
Newland Hill (Start) to Inman Valley (CP1) (21km)
This was the only section I had never run, and I was relying on signage, following other runners, and GPS. The route climbs through grassy hills, eventually leading into pine plantation, and much of it feels quite remote. Within the first few kms, the front-runners were starting to separate from the pack as they followed the fence-line around the fields. I was in the front quarter of the pack but thought to myself that really had no meaning at this early stage. I knew I would take a while to warm up and there was no pressure to go fast at this stage. I had heard too many stories of runners (especially men) going out too fast, comparing themselves to others rather than having confidence in their plan, and having to DNF after half the distance. My plan was to maintain a slow, easy pace for the first half of the race, to forget I was racing, in order to avoid burning out later. But I also knew I had to take advantage of the flats and shallow gradients to make up time. I ran behind Barry and Maurice, and soon Howard caught up with us and we chatted for a bit before he pulled away. He looked very relaxed on the steep ascents and gave me some good advice about fast-walking versus running steep ascents. This had always been my plan, but it’s always good to hear it confirmed by someone more experienced. We caught up with a German runner, Bernd, from Victoria about this point, who was making fast progress and resembled a stick insect, using two Leki walking poles with great skill to reduce the load on his legs. The day was still fairly cool at this point but I could feel the impending heat, and with no cloud cover I knew the sun would be relentless. On Hancock Road I enjoyed a panoramic view north and south over the surrounding hills and we passed several historical farm buildings and an old machine for turning hay. Arriving at Checkpoint 1 (Inman Valley) at about two hours, a great crowd of volunteers and others were cheering the runners. Sarah was there to meet me with water and other resupplies, including ice cubes, which I stuffed under my hat and one in my mouth. I think Barry passed me at this point, as I faffed around, and this leap-frogging continued for most of the day.
Inman Valley (CP1) to Myponga (CP2) (16km)
Approximately 2km north of Inman Valley is the biggest climb on the course, about 230m of ascent over Sugarloaf Hill to the start of Myponga Conservation Park. Just after crossing the style at the start of Sugarloaf, a brown snake slithered across the single-track about three metres in front of me and stopped once it reached the safety of a grassy field. It stopped briefly with its head raised above the grass, looking impressive and obviously ok with the idea of both of us minding our own business. I fast-walked and ran the rest of Sugarloaf, passing one runner on the way. The challenges were the steep gradient and lateral slopes, which invited blisters. Coming out onto the dirt road that leads into Myponga, the brother of a runner (Roo) shouted encouragement. He re-appeared frequently along the course and at one point ran for about 100m holding a bag of ice cubes on the back of my neck. Other runners had similar stories about this guy, who definitely deserved a Supporter of the Year medal. Going through Myponga I was on my own. The climbs were longer than I remembered and I tried not to overdo it, remembering how much longer I had to go. I focused on keeping moving, rather than speed. On Nunn Road I was glad to leave the fields and get up some speed. At this point I saw Dej Jamison a few hundred metres ahead of me. He was going strong and on Causeway Road he vanished ahead. About 30 seconds after he passed a big gum tree, there was a loud crack and a huge branch fell off to block one side of the road. Shortly afterwards I arrived at the 37km mark, Checkpoint 2 at the corner of Causeway Road and James Track.
Myponga (CP2) to Mount Compass (CP3) (22km)
At Checkpoint 2 I knew I had to stock up on plenty of water for the next section to the Victor Harbour Road crossing, which took many runners 3 hours to complete last year. I realised at this point I had lost my race number, which had been attached to clips on a race belt. Luckily someone found it and I got it back at Checkpoint 3, but back to safety pins next time. I set off up the hill from James Track and past the house with the barking dogs into Yulte Conservation Park. This turned into a single-track which wound uphill, leading to a huge descent to a creek. The track was so narrow with dense scrub on both sides that it was hard to balance without snagging arms or legs. I ran with Dej through part of Yulte, and he said he was struggling with cramps. Coming out of Yulte, I missed a right turn and had to double back. The rest of this section blended into running along fairly flat fence-lines, past a farm, then into a section of felled commercial blue gum forest. This section is tough, with a vehicle track of soft beach sand and long, gentle uphills for several kilometres. It was hard to know whether to run or walk some of this section and I opted for alternating running with walking. I was at a low point here about 6-7 hours into the race and although I had eaten plenty of gels, even the thought of them was starting to make me nauseous. I had tried to eat a vegemite sandwich which felt so dry I couldn’t swallow it, even with mouthfuls of water. This was the only solid food I had available until Checkpoint 3. In addition I had been using electrolyte tablets and my hands felt swollen. I had a huge thirst and was using up my water at an alarming rate, which can be a sign of dilutional hyponatraemia and I wasn’t sure if I was underhydrated or overhydrated. Looking back and thinking of the conditions, it was obvious I was dehydrated (and was probably imagining the swollen hands) but I had been careful to drink a lot of water and couldn’t believe I needed to drink even more. I had planned for 600ml an hour plus what I could drink at checkpoints, which was an underestimate in these conditions. In the first five hours I drank 1L per hour not counting checkpoints. I was feeling sicker by the minute and only had a small amount of water left, despite having planned for the distance and heat of this section. From here, sand gives way to a dirt road with a few ups and downs, then more fields, and here Hayley caught up and we ran together until Wood Cone Road with Howard who disappeared off ahead. I kept going but my pace had slowed and everything was a huge effort. I noticed a goat standing on the grassy verge, staring at me. It wasn’t behind a fence or tied up in any way. As I stopped to photograph the goat, Hayley ran past and out of sight. I kept going and met Sarah shortly before Checkpoint 3 at approximately 58km. I sat in a shaded camp chair, retaped my feet and changed socks. I felt like continuing immediately but I knew ten minutes spent on feet and food could potentially save a lot of time later on. My sickness subsided and I managed to swallow a sandwich and a fruit bar. Solid food made a huge difference and I started to feel the energy almost immediately. I stuffed some fruit bars into my pack for the next section and drank as much fluid as I could manage, and set off.
Mount Compass (CP3) to Blackfellows Road (CP4) (15km)
After Checkpoint 3, I crossed the Victor Harbour Road and followed the track up a hill to the left into the infamous grassy field – the only field on the whole H105 course which is crossed diagonally, rather than along the fence-line. Several Heysen Trail signs are placed across the field but on previous years I had heard it was overgrown with grass, and two weeks previously the markers were hidden by a crop of oats. Today (of all the days they could have done it!) a Ford tractor and harvester were cutting the oats into rows. Crossing the rows of oats meant lifting the knees high every time like PT drills and I was glad to exit the field onto a flat sandy path that winds through forest for several kilometres. After a brief stretch of road and a climb up Stones Ford Road, I was feeling reasonable but still very thirsty. Thankfully I had managed to eat a couple of fruit bars. The approach to Finniss Conservation Park was picturesque, fording the Finniss River, then leading up to an expanse of grass like a golf fairway. Earlier in the race I had been dreading this hill, but when I got there I focused on moving forward bit by bit. The last 5km of this section really dragged and I didn’t seem to be making any progress. My feet were hurting going along the final section. I was happy to see Checkpoint 4 at 74km, which came into view suddenly on Blackfellows Road.
Blackfellows Road (CP4) to Kuitpo Forest HQ (CP5) (13km)
Leaving Checkpoint 4, the crowd gave welcome encouragement. After the 22km section of CP2-3, the next section of 13km to Kuitpo Forest Headquarters seemed very do-able. I could see Barry further up the hill ahead of me as a single-track climbs up the side of the ridge. I focused on maintaining a sustainable pace that wouldn’t bust my quads for the final section of the race, which is rumoured to be flat but isn’t. This was a beautiful section of the route with single-track winding through mixed forest, some fields, and eventually entering Kuitpo Forest Park. Entering Kuitpo was a big psychological boost – partly because I hoped there would be shade, but also because it was the beginning of the end – entering the same forest as the finish line. It was like a science experiment watching my pace slow by 1-2mins/k on the Garmin as my body burned up carbs. Then within ten minutes of eating another fruit bar, the pace increased again without consciously changing my effort. With plenty of carbs on board, the long flat dirt road section of Kuitpo was just a matter of ignoring the continuous discomfort in my feet and knees, and keeping going. Another boost approaching Checkpoint 5 was that I had arranged to meet Julie, my buddy runner, there. I knew this would help in the final section. I ran into Checkpoint 5 at a good pace and met Julie and Sarah for a final pit-stop at 87km. I knew I didn’t need much for the final section except mandatory gear. I had been debating whether to take a light-weight headlamp or a heavier, brighter Ledlenser H14 that I’ve used on rogaines. In the end I decided the brighter light would help my confidence on uneven terrain in darkness, and would give more of an advantage than the saving in weight. I filled up on water and a fruit bar, and set off with Julie on the final 18km to the finish.
Kuitpo Forest HQ (CP5) to Rocky Creek Hut (Finish) (18km)
The start of this section went well and I was able to keep up a good pace on the flat due to the food I’d managed on the previous section. I had never run with a buddy runner before and by this stage even acknowledgements like “aha”, were too much effort. I felt bad for not talking, but I realised that by this stage I needed my full concentration to keep moving and focus on the route. Although people had told me the final section of the H105 was “flat”, the combination of a sustained gentle climb with soft sand after running 90km is exhausting. Here we passed Hayley and her buddy Bec. After this section there are more flat tracks, then road, where we gradually caught up with another runner who had been moving considerably slower than we were for some time. As we tried to pass he sped up to 5 min/k pace and was obviously determined to keep ahead of us. I was aware that with a buddy I had a big psychological advantage, which made his pace even more impressive. After a few minutes I conceded that I couldn’t maintain this pace to the finish and slowed down. Impressively, although the other guy slowed ahead of us, he still managed to sustain a good pace and soon disappeared. This final 8km section was tough, even though it was on flat bitumen and dirt roads. Not excruciating, but a constant, low-level feeling of pain, exhaustion, and thoughts of, “Why am I doing this?” I realised I had left my fruit bar on the table at Checkpoint 5, so I had no solid food to eat on this section. The tank felt pretty empty and it took a lot of effort to maintain my pace. The distance on my watch went up painfully slowly. About 800m before the finish we caught up with the same runner who had sped away from us earlier and had slowed down considerably again. Knowing we were within reach of the finish, but without knowing if my legs would respond, I gave it all I had as I ran past, hoping I remembered to take the correct turns at the final confusing T-junctions and trying not to fall over in the dark. I heard Julie shouting behind me to keep going, which made me think the other runner was trying to do what he had done the last time we had met. (I later found out Julie was shouting because she had fallen over in the dark.) I didn’t look back, but despite feeling like I was going to vomit, kept the pressure on until I saw the finish banner and heard cheers and a cowbell. I crossed the finish alone, and when the other runner came in congratulated him on a great run.
The second I crossed the finish line at 105km, Sarah and various volunteers came up with smiles and congratulations, offered food and checked I had warm clothing to put on. I learned that the winner had gone into hypovolaemic shock and required IV fluids in the back of an ambulance, so Susan the nurse was carefully observing every finisher from the sidelines and people were being encouraged to rehydrate and wrap up in warm clothing. I had a dropbag with a complete change of clothes, including a down jacket. I put on everything and sat in my chair by the finish line wrapped in a woollen blanket with my feet up on the eskie. I felt so happy just to have finished and to sit down for good this time. I was told I had finished in 13 hours 12 minutes 36 seconds, and in fourth place overall.
There was a jubilant atmosphere at the finish, which was in a clearing with a generator and floodlights. Everyone was waiting for any sign of voices or lights from the forest, and when they thought a runner was approaching, everyone would start cheering and clapping, and someone banged on a cowbell. I was told that unfortunately up to 20 people had pulled out of the event, which meant that no one would cross the finish line for long periods. We stayed behind until after 11pm to see as many people finishing as we could; unfortunately camping had been cancelled due to a total fire ban. Maurice, who is a professional chef, cooked pancakes and barbecued sausages, eggs and bacon for everyone, which was great. It was the first time I had experienced an atmosphere of that kind at a running event with so many people staying behind afterwards.
Even with my plan to go out slow, I probably still overdid it a bit and paid for it on later stages with reduced speed on downhills. I will also stick to my taper plan, and have more awareness of the strong temptation to overdo sessions during the “withdrawal” phase. In terms of fluid intake, I was definitely being too cautious and could easily have drunk a lot more. This would have helped with food intake and could have prevented such a low-point at Checkpoint 3. The other thing that would have helped at that point in the race would have been a sugary drink without caffeine like Ribena. Coke helped in the later stages of the race but it would be easy to overload on caffeine. With food, it’s probably good to take more than one solid food option in my pack so I am not totally reliant on gels if I can’t eat it. I also realised the importance of sticking to a nutrition plan, or at least if you go off plan, to make this decision rationally, rather than letting it slip for several hours and getting into problems like I did. My plan for feet worked pretty well with a few small blisters only on the toes. Overheating due to knee-length gaiters probably contributed to this and my shoes could have been a half size bigger to accommodate swelling in the later stages. Bodyglide, leukotape, and a single pair of socks did pretty well overall. Psychologically I think I managed to balance running competitively and enjoying myself during the event. But I have reminded myself that although it’s tempting to compete against other runners, everyone in ultra events is running their own event and competing firstly with themselves. As in everyday life, it is often fairly meaningless to compare oneself to others, even if we all do it. Under pressure or stress, compassion and consideration for others can go out the window even in the kindest of people. Seeing so much encouragement and selflessness during the event, and even now hearing the stories of runners helping each other keep going, reminds me of how I want to run my next race.
Yumigo! (website of South Australian coach runner and coach Ben Hockings, creator of the H105)
Other H105 (2013) race reports: