Every year our RD (Rohan Day and Race Director, it’s all in the initials) prays for snow on race day. Every year we runners pray for the opposite. 2015, mild and dry 2016, wet, cold with rivers where trails once were, and 2017, cold after overnight rain, wet trails and snow last 36k runners and the sweeps. Roll on 2018 and what are we served up with? The ‘zero bragging rights, zero excuses for a failure’ of near-perfect weather. Disappointed indeed…
It’s hard when you’ve been talking up the mandatory gear list and the 101 reasons for carrying it, when a bluebird day greeted us. Churlish? No. But I wonder what we can expect next year. Oh and I will be there next year, the year after that, and every year until the bitter end.
A Bit of History Wonderland 20 and 36k events run on the Sunday are quite often the focus of the weekend. Many more of us travel to run those 2 events than the 2 and 8k events on the Saturday. But it is good to remind ourselves why the Saturday events are important. Firstly, they introduce many runners to trails. How many young kids running either 2 or 8 will grow up to be our next Australian rep or a budding race director for a new or existing trail race? Secondly, Halls Gap is a bit of a drive for well over 90% of the participants and volunteers. Such a great way to encourage the family to not only make the trip but to run and/or vollie. As such, this event has become a favourite on the running calendar, most of us already pencilling a prospective date for next year and grabbing all the best accommodation around the place.
My history with this race has been documented before, no need to go over that in detail. But in some respects, I always felt I had a point to prove with this course. It has everything; rock clambering, some decent climbs, stunning views from up top, beautiful single trail, a fabulous flowing downhill (on the 36, c’mon you 20k runners, you know you want to do this!), and a final 14k section that whilst being a bit of a grind, is also very runnable and a great way to test the speed or endurance (depending on how well you’ve smashed yourself across the top.
Race Weekend Nicky had decided to join me this year. She came up in 2016 for the rainy shitfest of a weekend and quite possibly vowed never to return. At the last minute, our friend Rachel also decided to come up. They would both run the 8k on the Saturday, and then go off and do their thing on Sunday as I ran my race. As I was volunteering on Saturday afternoon, we left early to try and get there for lunch. And that we did. A few hours to spare, we all checked in at registration and I tried not to smoke the credit card on merchandise and food supplements (just succeeded, just…). A quick bite to eat and then I was off up the track to marshal for the kids 2k run.
(Before I headed off, Dave from Colbric Medics stuck his head out of the First Aid tent, waved and said hello to me and mentioned that he’d book a place for me for tomorrow. Cheeky sod!)
I was at the 1k mark, directing everyone across the bridge and hi-fiving kids and adults alike. Kids were great; some slapping my hand with gusto, some barely flicking the fingers, others just giving me a sour look and folding their arms. To be fair, I’ve volunteered at races where adults have done exactly the same thing. Finally, the sweeps come through, but they’ve de-marked the course of ribbons. It shouldn’t have been, it was the first k of the 20 and 36 courses the very next day. No problems, myself and another vollie grabbed them and walked back and re-marked. Somewhere along here I remembered that a friend Tony O’Connell was sweeping the 36 course, and one of his duties would be to remove the ribbons from the course. Now far be it from me to say Tony is short, just not as tall as me. So I cheekily chucked a few high up in the trees; having to jump up, grab the branch and peg the ribbon so that it hung tantalisingly about 2 and a half metres in the air! Unfortunately, my practical joke was all for naught as it was the 20k sweeps who de-marked this section, and it was the lithe, long-limbed Nicole Paton who had no problems through here. Bugger…
Back at the start-finish line again, and now volunteering for the 8k race. Many runners who would run on the Sunday were running this event (some also rocked up with their kids for the 2k). Nicky and Rachel were dressed and ready to go in their Baw Baw Runners tops, looking very chipper indeed. My role here was handing out medals at the finish, as well as giving the podium placegetters a card that alerted them to time, and attendance for prize giving. That all went well until after mens 1, 2 and 3 came in, I had to wait for the first 3 women to finish. You’d think that would be an easy task, and it was as I knew 2 of the first 3 women. But before my friend Kerry ran into 3rd place, a young (under 10) child finished. A mop of curly hair, tied in a bun at the back. Being young, the voice hadn’t broken. You are probably guessing where this is going… No-one near me who can tell me how many females have placed, my mind in a whirl trying to think through this, I just hope the poor lad wasn’t traumatised by my attempts to determine his gender. It was such a relief when Kerry finished and I could hand her the 3rd place card.
Nicky and Rachel finished in 54 minutes, quite a good time on this course, both happy enough with their runs. The sun still shining, even though the temperature was dropping, it was still a picturesque sight in Halls during the late afternoon.
Saturday night out for dinner with other runners from my local running group, Baw Baw Runners (BBR). Running the 20k event were Paul, Catherine, Dave and Leonnie. Another BBR Gines was running the 36 with me, but not dining with us. The conversation turned to running (no surprises there), and about eating and drinking before an event and how to avoid the dreaded early race pit stop. Shane Winzar from LTR was sitting behind me at another table with his family, but unable to contain himself added his observations on this illuminating topic.
Home by 9, spent the next 30 minutes sorting through gear and placing it piles on the floor in our room so that I could grab it all in the dark the following morning and not disturb Nicky.
Unlike previous years, it was dry. But quite cold. The alarm went off at 5 so I could get up and eat at least 90 minutes before the race. To not disturb both Nicky and Rachel I attempted to do everything using my phone torch app. Not easy, but I managed to cook my porridge, toast some bread and brew a strong coffee. Then it was get dressed in the dark and wait around for the time to wake everyone up and head to the start line.
Never one to get really nervous before a trail race, but even by my standards, I was very relaxed. Focused, but just ticking over the time before we headed off. Dry gear bag dropped off in the hall, chat with a few friends, wish them all the best etc. then head over to the start area to get ready. Caught up with other BBR’s ready to run, quick photo then into the start chute. Chatting with friend Karin and she asked me what time I expected to do. I paused, then told her I was hoping for around 4:30. And in all seriousness, this was the first time I’d really told anyone that time. I’d thought about it prior to the event, wondered if I was capable, but kept it all to myself. I’ve made bold predictions before but then seen them dissolve in a sub-par performance.
More photos and then countdown (Matt Bell nearly missing the start…) and we were off.
Climb to Pinnacle
Some people went blasting out of the start area. Not sure whether that was nerves, over-enthusiasm, or a need to get in front to avoid bottlenecks on the stairs and climbs. I was content to run a very comfortable pace in the early stages. Been here before, know the course can trash all and sundry on the first 2 climbs, and it’s 20 or 36k, not 5….
Sure enough, first stairs were slow, other steeper climbs were at a very casual pace. It wasn’t until we were a few k’s from The Pinnacle that the runners started to get some distances between them and we were able to run our own pace. Then you would get to another hard section and close up again in an attempt to hold the pace and maybe pass a few people. Met a number of friends on the way up here, all of us remarking on how great the weather was, and even though cool it was nice to run in.
Hit the Grand Canyon and we slowed up again. Nobody really frustrated here, we all just kept moving and respectful of each other’s needs. By now I can sense we are near the top of this climb, I’m going well, time to the top similar to last year. And that was the plan, easy across the top of both The Pinnacle and Rosea, then push the pace on the sections beyond if I had it in me.
As we approached the top, I passed Stuart Hughes. Not sure if his recent race in Western States was still taking its toll on him, but he ventured that he was struggling a bit. Knowing Stuart he would put in a solid 2nd half performance and probably catch me along the way. I stopped at the platform to take a few photos of the view, cloud and/or fog in the lower valleys outside of Halls Gap, and then continued on my way.
Descent to Rosea Carpark
The descent of Pinnacle isn’t hard, but you need to pick your line to run and trust your footing. Falls here can be catastrophic. The sun now shining on us, the temperature was a few degrees warmer and very comfortable to run in. A few rock scrambles later we hit the single trail on the way to the next aid station. By now numbers have thinned out, and it is only a few others around me as we ran. Felt good here, it was nice to stretch the legs out and actually doing some consistent running after the climb. Most of this was downhill, which is an added bonus. (Although it does mean we then climb again later…)
Hit the aid station at Sundial and I ran through. Still had heaps of water, hadn’t even had a gel at this point and we are over an hour in and around 7k (such was the slow pace of the climb). A quick wave and thanks to the volunteers as I ran through, and then started the climb towards where the 20k runners split off to the left. Thought I was hallucinating at this point, could have sworn I saw an undertaker on the side of the trail. But no, it was just Rohan Day chatting with the marshal here! He called out to me alluding to the fact I was still going and not to repeat 2015’s aborted attempt. I assured him I wasn’t going to…
After the split from the 20k runners, it was down to 3 of us climbing up before the descent to Rosea carpark. Didn’t realise it at the time, but fellow VUR Amanda Meggison was up ahead, I followed her as we climbed, taking the opportunity to have quick drink and a quick breather.
Hit the descent to Rosea carpark and I was content to tuck in behind Amanda. She descends better than me, not hard really, I’m pretty crap at descending. At one point a runner comes up behind us, descending faster. Trail etiquette dictates that you call out if you want to pass, he did. Then promptly took 2 steps, tripped and hit the ground, at pace. We had barely slowed when he bounced back up, dusted himself off and continued on his way. I was reminded of the difference between trail runners and Brazilian footballer Neymar’s histrionics at the recent World Cup. As we approached Rosea carpark aid station, I ran over the spot where I rolled an ankle in 2015. Barely registered this year, just a memory.
Climb to Rosea
Friend Warwick once again dressed up for the occasion was volunteering here. I asked if there were toilets here (couldn’t remember from the race notes), as I was a bit desperate. No was the reply, bugger was mine. Nothing to do but run on and hope I make it to Borough Huts before an accident occurs (too much info?). On the other side of the aid station is a gentle climb. Previous years I’ve walked a fair bit of this, but feeling stronger I decided to run as much as I can, knowing that it gets steeper and less likely to be any running on the final climb to Rosea. This is what is commonly called douche grade hill, enough to know you are climbing, not steep enough to justify a walk. It went on for a bit, probably a k and a half before we turned hard left and commenced the hardest climb of the day. Now, 10.5k in around the hour and a half mark and the rock hopping commences, again. There are some sections you can trot, probably last about 50 metres, then it’s clambering again.
I take the opportunity to have my first gel of the day. I was carrying 2 gels and a cliff bar along with some sports drink and about 1 and a half litres of water. I might have overdone the water, it was a bit of weight in the pack, but I didn’t want to have to refill the bladder for a 36k race, just sports drink flask (much easier and quicker).
As we climb, the views behind us towards Dunkeld and surrounds come into view. Another stunning vista, I stop for a photo. In doing so I lost track of the 4 guys I was following. Most, if not all had indicated they were running Wonderland for the first time. I hoped they wouldn’t get lost across the top. Despite near perfect conditions, sections of trail here are hard to follow. PWS markers missing or faded paint on rocks makes it a bit of a lottery in places. I pushed a steady pace up, aware I was a bit faster than previous years but keeping it in check knowing the final 14/15k from Borough has always been my nemesis in previous attempts. Close to the top and I started to catch a few runners. Some are being cautious, some are stopping to take photos, and possibly rest breaks, others are confused by the trail.
Descent to Borough Huts
Eventually, we summit Rosea then start the descent. Firstly on lots and lots of rock. The trail twists and turns, you have to crouch down and clamber through rock crevasses, jump down off metre high rock ledges and then occasionally you get some running again. Only to have another section of rocks. But, it’s fun. It keeps you guessing, you have to focus intensely to stop accidents, and there is really never a dull moment across here. There is one final rock staircase to descend until we hit the single trail 5+k descent to Borough Huts. A runner behind me, we get the legs working again, slowly picking up the pace until we are going fast enough to stay in control. We don’t say a word, just head down and enjoy the run down. Picked up a few runners down here, and then had 2 come barrelling past me 2k out from Borough. 1 of them the guy who stacked in front of me (I’d passed him climbing Rosea). Blood streaming down his leg from his knee to his shoes! A k out from Borough my quads were feeling the descent. I peeled back the pace and cruised into the aid station.
Borough is always my fave aid station. And it didn’t disappoint today. Friend Nicole and her friend Jacqui were dressed up in Alice in Wonderland themes. Nicole helping me with drink refill and telling me I looked in great shape. Actually, I felt pretty good. It is 21k to there, a good ol fashioned half mara, albeit a pretty friggin tough one! But previously I’ve got here, felt like shit and then had a shit run back to the finish. I was a bit fatigued, I won’t lie, but I still felt I had plenty of running in the legs. A quick pick of a few lollies from the table, downed a gel (only 2nd of the day) and then headed off down the road and into the single track that takes us to the trail/road around the side of Lake Bellfield.
The Long Flat(ish) Road around Bellfield
Along this track, came up behind another VUR, Jonathan Ennis-King. It wasn’t until we turned off the single trail and on to the road was I able to run up beside him. We’d bumped into one another on Rosea last year, so it was nice to have a synchronous moment. This time further along, about 7k further along. Having a chat as we ran about respective years, what we were both doing Surf Coast 100 and that if we kept the pace up, sub 4:30 was on the cards. After Jonathan said that I took a sneak peak at my watch, we were running between 5:15 and 5:30 pace. I was a bit surprised, but the straight and flat road allowed us to settle into a groove and it wasn’t until the first of the small climbs along here did he put some distance between us.
The first climb along hits about 27k in. Some call these a ‘pinch’. This is more a slap in the face. Just as you’ve settled into a nice rhythm, the legs suddenly feel exceedingly heavy, the HR spikes and you are reduced to a walk. I’m still picking up runners along here, not so much on the flat sections, but any climbing I was able to hike faster. There are 4 or so small climbs on this section after the big initial climb. We are approaching the northern end of Lake Bellfield and the dam wall. Soon the trail descends towards Fyans Flat. I vowed not to look at my watch here until I reached Delleys Bridge, just run and get it done. Legs starting to feel the fatigue, but I’m still running.
Passed a friend, Steve just before the drop to Fyans. Bent over heaving his insides out. Sports drink, litres and litres of the stuff. He’d felt ill most of the race. Finally, it all came up. Nothing much I could do except tell him to just get some water in and continue on. (He amazingly finished not too far behind me).
I forgot how long the descent to Fyans was, seemed to take a long time until I hit the flat grassy areas. Previous years it was like running through a swamp. This year basically dry with occasional puddles. Caught up with a few of the runners I’d been climbing Rosea with. Stretching out cramps, some fatigued and walking. Now about 31k in and I ran past the aid station here. Plenty of food and water on me, I just wanted to keep running. Stopping would arrest momentum and make it hard to get going again. Photographer here, just as I caught up with LTR Aldonio, as I ran past. Hit the single track back to Delleys and just put the body into automatic, get a pace of around 6 min/k and hold it on the flats. Walk most of the hills, but otherwise kept going until I could hear the traffic crossing Delleys.
35.2k on my watch as I crossed the bridge, 4:19:50 elapsed. You beauty!!! Knowing it was just under 1 and a half k to the finish, I knew I could get in under 4:30. That last section is on a bitumen footpath, hard on the legs in trail shoes after a punishing race. I felt slow, in reality, I was holding mostly 5 min/k and under for large sections. Passed Nicole Paton, sweeping the 20k with a few runners in front of her. Turn the corner and the main street is in full view. There are crowds lining the run in, friends and random strangers hi-five you and you do feel like a rockstar/elite athlete finishing.
And then it’s all over. Warwick, who was up at Rosea carpark, is now back down at the finish and hands me my medal, which was a nice repeat of Saturday where I’d done the same for him in the 8k race. Watch says 4:27:26, a whopping 23 minute PB. I could not be happier. Nicky was there to see me finish. She takes a few photos and then I go in search of coke, and smash down 3 cups worth. I was tired, fatigued but feeling very good. Usually, I can’t eat for at least an hour after one of these events, but within 20 minutes I was searching out coffee, then a large lunch of bacon and eggs at Livefast cafe.
Caught up with my fellow BBR’s and they all finished, some not as happy with their result as others. But already there is talk of coming back next year.
It’s taken me a few days to realise just how well I ran that course. It’s had the better of me on all previous occasions. I won’t say I bested it, always feel there is room for improvement; what drives me on, to better myself. Stronger, faster. Running along Bellfield, Jonathan had asked me what was my best run this year. I gave it some thought and said Duncans 50k. It was the first ultra I felt I nailed a great time and a great result. An hour and a bit later having finished here and I have to admit that it is now replaced with Wonderland. The result is not wholly unexpected, I’ve been training well, very consistently and keeping injury free. But race days can throw up many unexpected issues; food and or drink disasters, injury, just feeling not right after a bad sleep etc. But on Sunday it all came together.
On reflection, the race should have been the last try out of nutrition for SCC. It didn’t work out that way, and I’m trusting that I will be right on the day. Main thing knowing that I can stomach solid food, because over 100k I will at some point need to eat solids, having been sick of sweet liquids and/or lollies of some description.
And now I need to look after myself, attend to a few niggles, and plan ahead for SCC100 on Saturday 15th September. I’m in great shape, positive mental attitude and looking forward to the challenge. And it’s really only 20 parkruns, back-to-back. Or so I keep telling myself.
PS, and in a nod to my friend Michelle Edwards who always post “Things I learnt..” in relation to her races. Things I learnt at Wonderland, never shake Michelle’s hand if she’s been racing with gloves on.
Until next time…
You can read the original version on Les’s blog and check out his other reports.