My 2019 GSER race began in November 2017, when during the inaugural GSER I pulled out at the 108km due mainly to picking up a pressure sore on my left little toe which essentially killed all the area around my toe and meant every downhill step the toenail was being driven into raw nerve endings. It would eventually result in the end of my toe falling off 3 weeks later – it has grown back and I’m not Freaky McNotoe anymore.
Although I knew at the time it was 100% the right decision to make, any DNF will always make you think about the ‘whatifs’ somewhere at the back of your mind. After going through so much last time with no reward and living with the weight of a DNF in such a personally important race, I was determined to be as prepared as possible for the 2019 race.
A comment by Richard Bettles to Colm Connolly after one of our Saturday runs just after UTA 2019 really struck home for me and would guide my preparation for the next 4-5 months. Even though I’d kind of known it before I’d never really paid it the proper attention before, but this time when Richard said, ‘You need to run 100km a week to race a 100km’, I committed myself to regularly running 100+km in the lead up training – which I did. Training for the GSER went perfectly up until about 4 weeks to race time; I was doing 120km weeks, running 6 days a week and twice a day 3 days a week, with lots of stairs, hills with weight vest and a bit of strength training. Then I picked up a pes anserine bursa tendonitis in my right knee that slowed the amount of running I could do. I still managed to complement my running time with lots of ellipses and stair machines, and luckily the injury came on just before tapering so most of the work had been done already.
So to race time, after a drive down, a few hours of relaxation, we went to the short briefing & check in, then I settled in for a good nights sleep before a 3:30am wake up and possibly 2 nights of no-sleep, however 30min after I fell asleep my mind decided that that was enough sleep and that I should maybe stay awake for the rest of the night. Just like last time I was going into a GSER on practically no sleep, this time I didn’t let it worry me and just accepted my fate – it is what it is.
I drove the 20min to the start point and met up with the rest of the Trailblazer runners and caught up quickly with Darren Linney with whom I’d spent a bit of time running with last time. Photos, handshakes and ‘good lucks’ done we headed off to the start and it being 5am and in a suburban area, a very quiet ‘go’.
I was blessed with the company of Simon Lauer and Warren Rolfe for the first 4km as they humoured us with keeping to our speed before taking off when it was light enough for no torches. Warren nicely said he’ll see me soon, I laughed and said ‘nah mate, you won’t see me again until you’re coming the other way’. So nice of him to have faith in me like that.
I fell in with a good group that kept a good pace up the Bon Accord Spur led mainly by Zoe O’meara, unfortunately when we got to the top near Diamantina Hut she fell over on the ‘face smashing’ rocks and hurt her ribs, wrist and thigh. I was very impressed as she recovered herself and we ran together along the 6.6km Mt Hotham Rd section to the first checkpoint, in 3:30. I lost Zoe soon after the aid station and was immensely glad to see she pushed through the pain for another 40 hours to finish.
The Twins was the first serious steep climb of the race and I was happy with how easy I found it, and for the rest of the race I found the steep climbing parts were my strength and looked forward to them.
After another 3:30 section, and having a good chat to a Canadian runner, Sarah, I came into the Selwyn checkpoint where I’d pulled out 2 years previously and it hit me how close I could’ve been to finishing the previous race – which lasted until the return journey when I found out how long it takes to get from Selwyn to Harrietville on tired legs.
I was in and out of the checkpoint in no time at all and ready for the climb to Mt Selwyn and I forgot what a prick of a climb it is – mainly due to it being peppered with sharp little bushes that scrapped my knees going through. After Mt Selwyn & Little Selwyn there was a long easy downhill fire trail section where I could properly run and found myself doing 5min/kms down it, which wasn’t great for my IT band which got angry and reminded me to slow down.
The Riley campground aid station was a welcome sight, as it had a toilet and a stream to cool my IT band down in. I must’ve done alright on the previous section as I saw Warren leaving the checkpoint just as I got in. A quick cup of soup and my first cup of tea, and it was time to hit the longest & toughest section of the race.
I’d starting running with another Sydney-sider Mike Wilcox who had trained incredibly hard for this event. We had a lot in common so talk came easy for us. We cleared Barry’s Saddle and got to the base of the Viking in 1:30. The Viking looks intimidating from both sides and the climb seemed to go on for ages, but in reality we got to the top in 30min. Along the traverse with Mike in front I stopped to text my wife, and then a little later had to stop to rearrange water bottles in my pack, I could still see Mike when I stopped, but he’d disappeared in the minute I’d taken. I wanted to catch up to him so I started pushing the pace and practically running up the hill, but I couldn’t see him. This went on all the way to very top but it was like Picnic at Hanging Rock and he’d just vanished – I later saw him at Speculation checkpoint and he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and lost a few minutes getting back on track. After the race I was sad to see that he’d had to pull out at the Selwyn checkpoint on the way back.
The descent down the Viking went well and I was running with Sarah the Canadian’s husband who was the 2nd leg in their relay team. The horrible part I’d remembered between Mt Despair and the Viking had been cleaned up a bit, but it was still a mission in constantly climbing over fallen trees.
It was starting to get dark on top of Mt Despair and at the bottom through the horrible scrubby part before Mt Speculation I came upon Darren Linney and Oliver who were having trouble finding the trail. It was good to see Darren again. I took them on what I thought was the trail for a bit, but it quickly disappeared and it took 15-20 minutes of bush bashing through wet, thick chest high scrub, over logs and trying to follow the Avenza course map before we finally found another marker, and then another as we joyfully called out each seen marking tape.
Once we were on good fire trail again I went back to power hiking and lost Darren & Oliver. The Speculation aid station was a welcome sight as I knew I’d see Byron and Brook – who quickly filled 1 water bottle and gave me a glass of coke to do the 35min out and back which succeeded in getting my feet absolutely soaked.
Brook was great, pushing me to get out as quick as possible, going into my pack to grab water bottles whilst also looking after 3 other runners and more coming in. A very welcome cheese toastie (thanks you!), a cup of soup from Byron, some clean socks and I was off in no time. Which was good as I was starting to get real cold, real quick. Just under 19 hours for the first half of the race, wild imaginations of finishing under 40 hours started filling my head.
Through the scrub again and lost again. Though only for a few minutes before I saw some runners heading the other way, and shortly afterwards I came across Scott Enfield who seemed ok, but said he’d hit the wall and was bored of the race. Gave him some encouragements and forgot to ask about David Bristow who I assumed was somewhere behind Scott.
Getting to the end of Mt Despair took me 2:30 hours or 2:30am and I was still coming across runners coming the other way. Knowing they were really going to be pushing to get there before cutoff I tried to give as much encouragement as I could, and started worrying about Dave and whether he’d get there in time, till finally I came across the sweepers and hoped that I’d just missed Dave somewhere along the way. Unfortunately he’d had to pull out at Riley due to a few things mainly his water bladder bursting just before the Viking and nausea.
Just before the Viking Penny Deacon caught up to me who would become my running companion for the next 5-6 hours. She had been flying until shortly after the Riley checkpoint she realised she’d left with no water and nutrition so had to go 7 hours on practically nothing before the team at Speculation got her hydrated and back on her feet again. She’d end up finishing in around 45 hours – super tough and a tip of the hat to her.
The descent down the eastern side of the Viking took forever (1 hour longer than the ascent), and we were both glad to get into Riley campground after 26 hours and daylight. It was hard to leave that checkpoint as I had my feet next to the fire drying them out, a cup of soup and after shutting my eyes for 3 minutes, 2 cups of tea. Thanks to the threat of no hash brown until I left and Penny pushing on, I got my shit together and ran to catch up with Penny.
If it wasn’t for Penny I probably would’ve just hiked most of the way up the easy fire trail climb, but she started running so I had to catch up. Sometime before little Selwyn Penny retired from our race with each other and decided to go a pace more to her liking. I wasn’t to see another person for over 2 hours as I summited Mt Selwyn again, and had my legs torn up going down it again.
I was in good spirits when I got into Selwyn, the body, legs and feet were fine. Another cup of tea, some potatoes from Mel, and a quick strap of my dodgy little toe and it was off for the 2nd last section which was only 16.6km long.
It was hot and sunny, and I didn’t want to put sunscreen on top of my shaved head in case it got into my eyes for which I was to pay the price of having a very uncomfortable sunburnt head for a few days. One of my water bottles with my homemade Tailwind in it had leaked and soaked my visor in sugary water, so I absolutely copped it from fly’s for the next few hours. They were seriously driving me to distraction as I was swearing and muttering to them as I attempted to relieve myself of their plague – so distracted that I missed the turn off the fire trail until a couple of kms down the track when I thought something wasn’t right, checked my map and had literally just turned round when the Race Director called and told me to keep going on the fire trails to catch it up at the next saddle. I could tell straight away that was going to be an extra 2-4 km of fire trail, and looking at it later I probably only missed 50 odd metres of climbing – which I would’ve much preferred to be hounded by those bloody flies! At one stage I noticed there weren’t many flies around and I thought I’d lost them, but when I bent over to grab a water bottle out of the back of my pack I was immediately swamped by a huge swarm of them who’d be sneakily hitching a ride on my head and visor.
I finally got to the Twins and was glad to be back in real Alpine country, plodding up a hill. I was struggling down them when I had enough and decided to stop being lazy and actually push hard downhill – which worked until I got to the short fire trail section before the last aid station when I had a sudden downstroke of energy. However the amazing crew at the Mt St Bernard aid station were exactly what I needed, 2 cups of tea and the best potatoes I might’ve ever had later and I was feeling real good for the last section. They even made me a cup of tea to put in a water bottle that I shoved down my fleece to keep me warm.
I don’t think I was ever in doubt I wouldn’t finish, but leaving the last aid station I knew for certain I was going to finish my first miler no matter what.
For me the last section was by far the worst and hardest section. It started with a 6.6km mainly uphill road section, which my feet most definitely didn’t need. Simon Lauer and his wife Sasha drove past and gave me some good encouragement which I needed shortly after as I felt a blister (I didn’t know I had) burst on my heel, which made me hobble for the next couple of kms. It got dark just as I started going down the Bon Accord spur, and with the head torch on, my tired, sleep deprived brain starting seeing things in the trees and bushes. I was moving well and felt physically strong but the hallucinations had started making it hard for me to keep any pace up as I started losing touch with what was real and what wasn’t. I turned on some music from my phone to try and keep my brain engaged which helped for a while, before the hallucinations started up again. I found I couldn’t look around, just on the 2 metres directly in front of me on the ground otherwise it was too much for my mind.
The Bon Accord was the longest 15km of my life and the kms seemed to take ages to tick over. By around the 10km mark I was also getting aural hallucinations of people talking not far away which played on mind as I kept thinking I can’t be too far now. Finally I got to the wide open fire trail with 1.4km to go and I started running – I felt like I was going fast, but in reality when I looked at my watch it was 7:30min/km pace.
Looking at my map I knew I was pretty much at the finish line, but I couldn’t for the life of me see it – I was still wildly hallucinating and seeing potential finish lines everywhere. I turned off the music on my phone, yet could still hear it and the song was playing perfectly in my head even though I checked several times to see if it was definitely still off.
Finally I could hear what I hoped were real cow bells and people clapping, and see the last bridge which I’d forgotten about, and came into finish 42 hours 19 minutes and 16 seconds after 173+ kms, 11,000m+ and no sleep.
Dave, Warren & his wife Kathleen were there to see me finish, for which I’m very grateful. I was pretty sure I’d finished and they were real, but as I was still hallucinating a bit I wasn’t 100%. Surprisingly apart from the hallucinations I felt pretty good and certainly better after 2 cups of the best soup ever. I started getting pins and needles down my left arm, thankfully the medic said that was normal and no I wasn’t having a heart attack.
Looking back I didn’t get the thrill of finishing like I did with my first marathon or 100km race, but more a quiet satisfaction of finally getting it done. All in all I was very happy with how my race went; my nutrition and hydration worked well, and my body performed better & stronger than I expected – so I’d done the training right. If it wasn’t for the sleep deprivation I’m sure I would’ve done a better time, that being said I’m more than happy with the 42 hours time. Mentally I had prepared myself to be out there for the full 55 hours, so anything less was a bonus.
Will I do a mile again, possibly, but one not as long or tough. For now I’m looking forward to running free.
Big thanks to my wife and kids for my absences & patience, the Trailblazers family who were down there, in particular Dave Bristow for looking after me post-race and the Byron/Brook combination at Mt Speculation, all the other runners I met along the way, and the Mountain Sports team for sticking their necks out to put it on again and allowing me to right my DNF from last time.
Altra Olympus 3.5 shoes – ‘the best Jerry, the best!’
Nutrition was mainly my homemade Tailwind – half Maltodextrin, half Dextrose, salt and some powdered orange cordial, a few muesli bars and whatever the aid stations had.
Black Diamond carbon fibre poles
A Salomon 12L pack with broken zip borrowed from Steve Ward
You can view the original source of this article on Joshuas Blog