Many wonder what goes on in the mind of an ultra runner. All that training. The hours and hours on end of running and building strength for their chosen event. The greatest thing to train in an ultra runner is the mind. This is often the first thing to go…but it needs to be the strongest thing to make it to the end. We don’t know what lessons race day will throw at us. This story is not unlike many other ultra-running tales, however Lauren has shown us through her experience that when our body fails us, our mind is the most powerful thing to get us through the hardest of trials. – Nicole.
I looked ridiculous. Oversized orange high-vis vest flapping around my torso. Bare legs splattered with mud and goodness knows what. Buff wrapped around my mouth and nose for a semblance of warmth. Visor on head, and head made bald by my purple rain jacket hat. Eyes straining out of smudged and foggy specs.
And if you were close enough – don’t know why you would be, I smelt pretty bad – you would have heard me mumbling an incomprehensible self-pep-talk, punctuated by hound-dog whimpering as I trudged those final few starlit kilometres along Obi Obi Road back to that mirage-like turn-off to the finish line at Mapleton QCCC.
Hard to believe this adventure in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland had begun just after dawn the previous morning: the start of the 2017 edition of Blackall 100 – my first 100km event.
Technically, it was 103km. The course had to be altered due to recent downpours. The year before, when I had done the 50km, the course had also been altered but due to opposite conditions – fire threat. What will you thow at us next year, Mother Nature? Earthquakes?
The first 7.5km stretch along Montville-Mapleton Road to Kondalilla Falls was the oil this old body needed to get going. The views over the Sunshine Coast to the left were beautiful. “I’m tired!” some cheeky soul yelled behind me.
Gentle rain past CP1 and down to Kondalilla Falls made the temperature perfect. So much nicer than the hot conditions of the previous year. Oh, how I was to rue that thought as the day progressed!
Some piccies at the base of the falls, then onwards and upwards, back along Montville-Mapleton Road before slipping back into the slick rainforest. I felt great on this winding downhill section to Baxter Creek Falls. Bax the troll was kind enough to let me pass, and over the bridge I went. The rain picked up and it was a muddy climb back out. Some well-placed signs along the way made me smile: “In the first half, don’t be an idiot, in the second half, don’t be a wuss”; “Are you running this hill or are you Walken?” (pic of a sly smiling Christopher Walken); “Run hard & leave it all on the trail” (pics of stick figures vomiting and number-two-ing). A quick g’day and a selfie with the Grim Reaper manning a gate, a fluids top up at CP2 back at the QCCC, and I had 22km under the belt. I was feeling great.
The rain picked up on the 9.5km stretch to the next checkpoint (CP4) – the party checkpoint, thanks Brisbane Trail Runners! – at the Mapleton Day Use Area. It painted the rainforest a brilliant green, dazzling even through my fogged-up glasses.
I was still feeling good during the 10km to the next checkpoint (CP5) near Cooloolabin Dam, although my legs were starting to get a little tired. The rain kept hammering, the puddles got bigger, the mud thicker, and I wished for windscreen wipers on my glasses. Another fluids top up at CP5, a bite to eat (salted boiled potatoes, who knew how good you could taste after 40-plus km?!), then on to tackle plenty of uphill during the 11.5km loop around Cooloolabin. I started to feel a hot spot on the sole of my foot, so back at CP5 (about 53km in) I investigated. I pulled off my soaked sock and to my horror saw a brain mushroom instead of my foot! Being submerged in water for so many hours did not agree with my feet, and a blister was forming between the wet crinkles of skin. There was not much I could do.
By the time I got back to CP4, I was cold. I’d covered 62km+, I’d been soaked through for hours, and my morale had nosedived. In fact, I’d begun to despair. The rain was relentless. My feet were in extreme pain. I considered dropping. I’d gone farther than I’d ever been – I could be proud with that, I told myself. But I had worked hard to be here. And I knew it would be hard. I knew I would reach a breaking point. I had to push through it.
I didn’t make a decision, but went through the motions. I put on my rain jacket. A lovely volunteer – fellow RMA Sandi – helped me, as my fingers were frozen. I didn’t dare look at my feet as I changed my socks. Just then, a sheet of water from the tent above fell and dumped itself all over my head. Another RMA and her husband, Nerida and Matt, who I’d been chatting to on and off during the day, were there, saying positive things to me, but I could barely respond. A volunteer told me my lips were blue and looked at me with concern, but I told her I’d be fine once I got moving. I made myself believe it. I headed off for CP5 at Cooloolabin Dam once again.
I did warm up a bit with the rain jacket (and attractive high-vis vest on top), despite the rain hammering down. It was a slippery slope back to CP5. Once there, I pulled off my wet t-shirt and put on a dry singlet and long-sleeved top. I felt quite a bit warmer with dry clothes on under my rain jacket.
It was evening. With my headlamp now on, the incessant rain made for poor visibility. It flashed before my eyes like thousands of needles. I battled those hills around Cooloolabin Dam for the second time that day, but my spirits were much better. I was alone in the dark for most of the time, except for a quick chat with Nerida and Matt, who pushed on ahead of me. Their headlamps glowed in and out of my sight in the darkness. I didn’t mind being alone, but it was comforting when I could see them, like fireflies reminding me I wasn’t lost.
CP5 finally glowed ahead like a magnificent oasis in the night. I’d done 84km. I was amazed I’d got that far. My body was struggling, but my mind – so often my biggest foe – was getting me through. A wonderful checkpoint volunteer reminded me I was “getting it done” and had just 19km to go. 19km! I could do it. I told him I would walk it. He said if that was the case, I’d make it back by 1am. That was in about 5 hours’ time. Five hours! But I could do it. I knew I would do it.
I did run a bit after CP5, but as the blisters ripped across the soles of me feet, I had to admit I would be running no more that night. It was a surreal, slippery trudge back to CP4 along Mapleton Forest Road and some closed-in single track. It felt like I was in a tunnel. I put my headphones on and listened to some music. I was alone for that whole 9.5km stretch. I often wondered if I was still on course. But then an orange ribbon would wink at me from the side of the trail. It’s OK, you’re not lost. I thought about the day I’d had – the stunning rainforest, pockets of banter with other runners, the incredible volunteers who knew just what to say, the immense power of positivity (lame but true), my nutrition (one thing I did get right!), my feet, the rain, oh the rain! And the quiet strength that hums so hotly inside all ultra athletes.
The rain had stopped by the time I reached CP4. Someone rang a bell and whooped as I approached along the gnarly, muddy track. It was a bit of a jump up to get to them, so two volunteers (I think one of them was Sandi!) reached out and hauled me up. “Only 8.5km to go!” (Though I think it was closer to 10km) Someone had my drop bag ready for me, but I was feeling lightheaded again and didn’t want anything from it. I veered towards the food table, resplendent with goodies I uncharacteristically didn’t want. A volunteer, sensing my spaced-out state, took me under his wing, suggesting some sausage rolls and party pies for the road. “You’ve got to keep moving, you can’t get cold,” he told me. Way too late. “I know, but I need to go to the toilet.” “You mean the real toilet? OK, I’ll wait out front for you.” Quick relief stop, then this fantastic volunteer told me: “I don’t mean to be mean, but you have to keep going. You can’t hang around. I’ll guide you to the trail. You could make it back by midnight.” “Oh, I don’t care about that. If it’s 12 or later …” “Yes, you do care! Here’s the trail, you have the hard bit first, then it’s back to the road and you’re home.” You’re home.
I sang a little, I stumbled a lot, I couldn’t ignore the excruciating pain in my feet or the extreme cold I felt, but the music in my headphones lifted me enough so that I eventually freed myself of the rainforest, got back to Obi Obi Road, and shivered along that long solo walk back to the turnoff to QCCC.
After having been on my own in the dark for hours, a few people passed me right at the end. I didn’t mind at all – in fact, overjoyed to see them running – running! – to the finish. Amazing. I saw the glow of the QCCC hall with my husband and daughter inside. I pulled my buff down, took off my rain jacket hat – “Oh my god! Hallelujah!” – and walked across that finish line to ring the crap out of that big cow bell!
I’d felt lightness and darkness, touching camaraderie, I’d reached breaking point, returned, spiralled down again, then up, and let my mind steer me to the end. I did this to test my strength. To feel alive. To live.