Coast to Kosciuszko is a 240k ultra marathon held each December from Eden on the south coast of New South Wales Australia, to the Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko. I had come across the event in 2008 when I saw a thread in a running forum, and it grabbed my attention immediately. Back then I had run a few marathons, and was about to run my first ultra, a 46km trail race called 6 Inch in my home state of Western Australia. While I worried about running further than 42km for the very first time, there were these super beings running 240km at C2K. I found it difficult to fathom how anyone could run this distance, and while following the race updates online came to the conclusion this was event was only for running freaks.
Two years later I had run a few more ultra-marathons, extending up to 100k, and started to think that maybe C2K could be achievable at some time in the future, so I went to find out exactly what it was all about by crewing in the 2010 race for New Zealander Vesa Murto. The experience was totally inspiring, and Coast to Kosciuszko became what I saw was as my end goal in running. There were still lots more races and distances to conquer on the way to my C2K, but it became my ultimate achievement to aim for.
Fast forward to 2013 and I had the qualifying requirements of a 100km race (North Face) and a 100 miler (Glasshouse) in the bag, was in good shape, and had been training with lots of kilometers and hills all year.
I have been coached the last couple of years by American ultra-marathon legend Karl Meltzer, and emailed him about my intention to enter C2K. His reply was “This race in December looks epic to say the least. It’ll probably hurt more on the roads, but hey, that’s how it is.“ When the guy who calls the Western States 100 Mile Race a track meet says a race looks epic, you know it’s one tough event you are letting yourself in for.
Paul Every the Race Director for Coast to Kosciuszko limits the number of entries to 50, and receives many more entry applications then there are spots available. So it was always touch and go whether I would get an entry spot, and it seemed appropriate I received my entry confirmation email while in the middle of the WA bush running an aid station during the WTF 100 miler. It was great I could share my joy with my ultra-running mates who were also there helping out. Rob Sutton who had previously run C2K was an entrant in WTF, and I told him I had been accepted for C2K when he came through the aid station, 140km into his 160km run. He asked me if I knew whether he had been successful, but unfortunately I didn’t know.
The day before the race my crew and I met up at Canberra airport for the drive to Eden. I had a crew of five, something my running buddy and 2012 women’s Coast to Kosciuszko winner Bernadette Benson had jokingly said made me “high maintenance”. But crewing in a team of two in 2010 had let me experience how tough that can be for 45 hours, so I wanted a large team that could get adequate rest during the event. I had booked an apartment in Jindabyne to make this even easier so the crew could return there for sleep during the race.
My crew was made up of Sue my wife, who has crewed for me at 100 Milers and other events over many years so knows me and my running better than anyone. Joining Sue in the first crew team as my pacer was Liz Bennett, a very well-credentialed ultra-runner from Canberra and who had twice before crewed at C2K, so brought in the race experience edge we needed. Team number two comprised “Rob Rob” Robartson who I run with most days on my training runs in Perth, so we know each other exceptionally well, his wife Esther who is a nurse so handy for any medical stuff and my son Bryn who came down from Sydney to help out and capture the event with his camera.
We drove to Eden via the C2K course, reconning the last 80km. I find reconning races this way is both good and bad,,,you get to see what you’re in for so can mentally prepare, but at the same time it re-enforces the ridiculous distance you are about to undertake.
In Eden we checked into the caravan park, and then made our way to the pre-race briefing and dinner. Being introduced to the audience by Paul Every in the same breath as Australian running legends such as Jo Blake, Ewan Horsburgh, Nicky Wynd and Sharon Stoltz made me feel slightly inadequate and wondering whether I deserved to be sharing this experience with these guys. Then it was back to base and to bed. Luckily I was able to get to sleep reasonably quickly, and managed about 5.5 hours before I woke at 3:15am, about half an hour before I had planned.
Staying at the Two Folds Bay Caravan Park, we were able to walk from there to the start line just 300 meters up the beach, and took the obligatory start line photos and the passed on best wishes to the couple of runners I knew such as Rob Sutton and Mick Thwaites.
In no time at all Paul Every started the race, and we were off, meandering through the sand to the main road, and within a few hundred metres to a nice little trail climb. When preparing for the 2013 race I looked back at notes I had written in 2010 after crewing for Vesa, and in large type font I had written ”walk every hill!”. This became part of my race strategy, and was allowed for in my pace goals for the various race sections. I had studied the pacing of various runners who had achieved around a 40+ hour finish in previous years, and looked at those who finished the strongest over the last sections and their respective paces early in the race. I set an average goal pace of 8:30 minutes per kilometer from the start to the 70km mark at Cathcart, then 10 minute pace from Cathcart to Dalgety, 12:30 pace from Dalgety to Jindabyne and 13:30 pace from Jindabyne to the finish. If this all went to plan I would have a 43 hour finish…with three hours up my sleeve for the 46 hour race cutoff.
Finishing the first 4km trail section, I was in second last position, actually surprised there was someone going slower than me. I had planned to become very well acquainted with the sweeper for the early sections given my slow planned pace. Onto Towomba Road I ran with Marina Brun-Smits (who I had raced with at Glasshouse for the two previous years) and Kirrily Dear for some time. At one point I pulled ahead by 50 metres or so, but needed to have a toilet stop so deviated into the bush. When I had finished the deed I turned around to see Marina and Kirrily following me into the bush, and after explaining to them that this was not indeed the course, we got back on the road to continue our run.
During the first 24km section to Towomba I was feeling my injury niggles such as my hamstring and lower back, and was a little concerned. My physio had been treating these for the last month, and they had caused me to miss a few runs in my leadup. I kept telling myself that other sources of pain would overtake these down the track, so they wouldn’t be a problem. My experience in ultras is that I only really feel one pain at a time, so if my hamstring starts hurting, and an hour later the back starts aching, the hamstring pain fades into the background. Coast to Kosciuszko would be no different.
Towomba (24km) is the first place you are allowed to make contact with your crew and it was terrific to meet up with the team, and get some drinks and food on board. My bowels had been sending messages to my brain for a little while that I should have a prolonged toilet stop, and I remember Liz saying the previous day there were real toilets at Rocky Hall (50km mark) as we drove through there. I confirmed this with Liz and decided clenching the cheeks for the next 26km was preferable to a bush jaunt at this stage, so I continued on.
During the Towomba to Rocky Hall section I slowly caught C2K ten times starter Jan Hermann and had a little chat with the race legend, which was inspiring. Jan and I piggy backed each other quite a few times during the race, and each time we met up Jan was nothing but friendly and supportive.
Coming into Rocky Hall I was very relieved to know that shortly I could finally have my toilet stop. The way that crewing works on C2K is that the crew car drives up ahead for a set distance (5km in the earlier parts of the race for me), and when I approach it one of the crew runs to me to find out what I need, and runs back to the car so the crew can get stuff ready. At the Rocky Hall stop, the crew member did the same thing, but as well as ask for my requirements, communicated the bad news the Rocky Hall toilet was broken, and that I would have to wait until the base of the Big Jack climb 7km further on. Stuff like this does affect me mentally, and I was just a little bit angry for the next few kilometers, not at anyone in particular, just the situation.
Also at Rocky Hall Rob Rob who was in charge of my stats said that I was averaging faster than 8 minutes pace, against a planned 8:30 pace and whether this worried me. I told him that I didn’t think I could physically be running any slower than I was. That’s a great way to be feeling.
Coming out of Rocky Hall Race Director Paul Every ran with me for a little while and told me that I should use Jan Hermann as the thermometer for making the finish cut-off. He suggested that Jan would pass me going up Big Jack, but that on the following sections to Jindabyne I should concentrate on catching him, and putting distance between us.
That was great advice I took onboard, however slightly inaccurate. Jan didn’t pass me going up Big Jack, rather he passed me while I was on the toilet at the base before the climb!
During Coast to Kosciuszko you are allowed pacers only after sunset (8:30pm) on the first day, the only exception is during the climb of Big Jack Mountain, a 6.7km long category 1 climb with 8% average grade. I loved this part of the race as it allowed me to spend time with my son Bryn as we made our way through the superb rain forest environment to the top of this mighty obstacle. Being able to connect with Bryn in these circumstances throughout the race was definitely one of the very best race outcomes for me. Fantastic.
Once at the top of Big Jack it was a much flatter run into the end of the next section, being the tiny village of Cathcart (70km), however now on the plains rather than being in the forest, the strength of the wind started to become a nuisance, especially when approaching Cathcart. I thought of all those coast runs I had done each Monday night from Sorrento Beach with my mates at Northern Suburbs Running Group, and how this wind was nothing on some of the Sou’wester gales we had run into during those runs.
At Cathcart my crew asked me what I needed as usual, and were somewhat surprised I said I would like some sort of vanilla ice cream from the Cathcart shop. They kept the ice cream for me until our next meeting point a turn a few kilometres down the road. Those few kilometres were tough going with the wind getting stronger straight into my face, and I wasn’t in a happy place. It’s funny though how things can change so quickly, at the meeting point the crew had coffee ready for me which was just superb, I had my chocolate covered vanilla ice-cream, and as I took off up the new road, I noticed the wind was no longer blowing into me. Happy times!
The section over the Monaro plains is one of my favourites, rolling farmland in the middle of no-where, and with the sun starting to go down, the light creates spectacular landscapes.
When I went through the Monaro Highway crossing (81km) I went past Jan Hermann again while he was resting in his chair. A few kilometers further on I was a little way ahead of Jan when Race Directors Paul & Dianne drove past and they gave me some much welcomed support, saying how well how I was going, and how well I looked. Can’t get enough of that stuff during an ultra.
Just before the turn onto Snowy River Way (103km), the 8:30pm pacer deadline came up, and Bryn joined me as my first pacer, definitely a happy moment to know I would have people running with me for the rest of the race.
The 100km mark came up and I celebrated that with Rob Rob, Esther and Bryn at yet another crew stop . I was through 100km in 14 hours 13 minutes and feeling really solid. Just 20 kilometers later came another celebration with the half way point at 120km in 17 hours 33 minutes. Most of the race to date had been on dirt roads, Snowy River Way was bitumen, as would be the rest of the course.
Rob Rob soon replaced Bryn as my pacer, and we walked all the hills and ran all the flats and descents until just before Dalgety, probably a good seven or eight hour stint for Rob Rob, made a little longer because the changeover crew had taken a wrong turn on their way back from rest at Jindabyne, and then driven straight past us without seeing us when they finally did come back. This little hiccup was soon sorted, and Liz took over pacing duties. Running with Rob Rob was terrific because we know each other so well from the many miles we have run together.
For a while before the crew swap I had started to feel hot spots on my left foot, and knowing blisters were on their way I asked Sue to go ahead to Dalgety Hall to set up the blister treatment stuff so we could treat it quickly and get out of those warm inviting environs as quickly as possible.
The blister treatment helped somewhat, and I was able to keep running for much of the section to the bottom of the Beloka Range climb. The sun was now starting to come up which lifted my spirits quite a heap, especially seeing the sun was creating much needed warmth after a very cold night when temperatures had gotten down close to freezing.. One macabrely amusing thing during this time was seeing Rob Sutton’s crew with their camper van parked up at the Dalgety cemetery. I saw Rob sitting there in his chair looking like death warmed up; I asked how he was going and all he could utter back was “not too good mate”. Liz and I commented how maybe the cemetery had not been the best choice in parking sports by Rob’s crew.
Just before the base of Beloka Range is the 100 mile point and I ran through there in a time of 24:51, a time I was super pleased with given that it was two hours and forty minutes faster than my previous 100 Miler at Glasshouse.
The Beloka Range hill is like a wall that smacks you in the face when you get there. A category 2 climb of nearly 5km with 6% average grade it’s a tough climb to do after 160km. The worst thing for me at Beloka was that the pressure from climbing to the sole of my left foot made my blisters scream. Sue set up the car at the summit of Beloka, and treated the blisters again with more padding. As well we added an extra insole to the top half of my shoe, so I could put more emphasis on the heel.
Unfortunately the blister pain pretty well meant that I could run no more as the pain was just too much, and I was forced to just concentrate on walking from thereon. This was unfortunate as I certainly felt strong enough to run the flats and down hills into Jindabyne (182km) at the very least.
Just before Jindabyne another crew change took place with Rob Rob, Esther and Bryn taking over for another stint. At the changeover I asked the crew if they could go into Jindabyne and get me a bacon and egg roll. Funny the things you feel like eating 182km into a run.
Just past Jindabyne a car stopped and the driver informed us there was a brown snake on the side of the road, 100 meters up. 400 meters later we still hadn’t seen a snake, so Bryn and I had come to the conclusion it had taken off into the brush…but 200 meters later Bryn shouted out a warning as the 1.5 meter snake lay there in full view. It may well have been dead, but we gave it a wide berth just in case.
The section after Jindabyne is a long climb of some 13 kilometers with a 5% grade. As well as the climb the temperature had been rising into the mid 20’s so it was warming up. The heat combined with the exertion of the climb, and 32 hours without sleep were starting to take their toll, and my mind was starting to go. At one point Bryn asked me what I needed at the next crew stop, and I knew what I wanted which was sun screen, but it took me like what felt like five minutes to find the right words to come out of my mouth. I knew this wasn’t good so thought I may finally need a micro rest, and asked Bryn if the crew could get the chair out. He came back with the news the chair wasn’t in the crew car, which at the time was devastating news. After all Jan had a chair, Rob Sutton had a chair…where was my chair! The crew suggested I sat and rested in the car instead, however I had made a vow I would not get in the car until the end of the race, so I continued on without my rest.
A few kilometers further on I had convinced myself I really did have to have a sleep, and found a place in the bush just off the road to have a short kip. Not sure whether I actually slept at all, as the sighting of the brown snake earlier certainly had me on my toes a little. Rob Rob came down to my bush sleeping point and got me going again, and at the same time phoned down to the other crew who were resting in Jindabyne to bring the chair up.
When Liz and Sue arrived with the chair, I was finally able to have my little rest, it is amazing what reviving powers just five minutes of shut eye can have, and I continued refreshed.
By now not only was my left foot’s blisters hurting, the right foot was also starting to get blistered, so Sue performed surgery on this foot as well. The blister pain seriously affected the speed I was able to move at, and for some kilometers I was down to just 15 minute pace. There wasn’t much that could be done though but continue, and as Liz said, “just one step in front of the other”
At around the 200km mark Sue advised she had been monitoring Facebook and had seen a notification that the race director had decided to cut the race short at Charlotte Pass for all runners who did not get to Charlotte Pass by 4:30pm as it would be dangerous to go to the summit and back in the dark because of issues with crossing snow and ice. There was no way I would get to Charlotte Pass by 4:30pm, so the race was going to end 20km short for myself and many other competitors.
Emotionally the brain doesn’t deal too well with this sort of news 35 hours into a race, and there were many mixed emotions. The overlying one though was I knew the race directors would not make this decision unless it was 100% justified, and our safety was the major concern. In 2010 I had been on the summit in darkness with Vesa in 80 to 100km per hour winds, so I knew what a treacherous place the summit of Mt Kosciuszko could be.
One highlight of the last 20km was famed ultra runner and WTF Miler veteran from the fat ass days “Milov” who was crewing for the Indonesian runner Hendra Wijaya serenading me with music blasting from his lap top on a hill just past Perisher with Monty Python’s “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life”. It was just so surreal, but strangely fitting at the same time. I will remember that moment for ever.
As we got ever closer to Charlotte pass strange things started happening; I warned Liz to be careful of deep puddles on the road as she would get her feet wet. She replied with the fact that there was no water there. Also the diamond reflectors which are normally fixed to road markers in one spot, were moving up and down each pole. I wondered about the engineering they had put in place to create that awesome functionality.
We approached the crew car and I heard Liz whisper to Sue that I was hallucinating, and suggested she drive just 500 metres up for the next meeting.
The last few kilometers to Charlotte Pass are relatively flat so we made reasonably good time, and as we entered the car park wondered where the actual finish line was. Luckily some of the volunteers were wearing reflective vests and we headed in their direction to see Paul and Dianne at the finish ribbon. They both congratulated with my with a warm hug for completing the event in 39 hours and 47 minutes.
I had an enjoyable drive down the mountain seeing giant koalas and kangaroos the size of trees and then a very welcome glass of celebratory champagne with my wonderful crew when we got back to the apartment. The next morning we made the presentations for me to collect the famed Akubra, a fantastic memento of the event.
I pulled up lame with severe swelling in legs and feet the days after the race, and ongoing issues with blisters, but as I write this (race finish plus 4 days) things are recovering well.
I am entered into the ultra race that started my ultra journey back in 2008; the 46km 6 Inch race which is on this coming Sunday (race finish plus 7 days). On Monday I said to my mate Scotty Hawker I was a thousand to one chance of starting. Two days later I’d say those odds are down to a hundred to one.
One fear I held before C2K was that when I achieved this goal I may lose my motivation for running. I guess that is not the case.