Wild Horse Criterium seemed like a good idea when I signed up. 12 hours of running in the scrub at the base of Wild Horse Mountain in the Glass House Mountains on Easter Saturday. Midnight start. Hours of darkness. As many laps of the 11km course as you could do. Chocolate bunny waiting at the finish line. What’s not to like?
But when I lined up at the start 10 minutes to midnight, along with 15 or so other nutters, I did feel that familiar tingle of, “What the flip have you got yourself into this time Lauren?!”
Race director Alun warned us that the water level at one of the Coochin Creek crossings was up due to the recent rain. But he added, we shouldn’t worry because the water was only “knee height”. I took stock of his lanky frame, compared it to my stunted one, and deduced that this creek would be up to my shoulders. Sure, no worries!
I set off at my usual shuffle near the back of the pack. I had no intention of pushing it during this race. I had Ultra Trail Australia 100 coming up in 6 weeks’ time. Part of me felt silly signing up to a 12-hour race with such a big event not long after. But I felt a little less like an insane person after chatting to one of the other runners Kris, who was also doing UTA100.
The first lap was all about getting to know the course – as much as we could in the dark. The silver super moon shone beautifully above, slipping between the silhouettes of the pine trees. Despite the moonlight and the illumination of my headlamp, I could only see a few metres of trail ahead of me, sometimes less. Lantana and grass taller than myself obscured the way, as well as mist and the occasional light rain. The lights of the other runners played hide and seek ahead of me. Whenever we passed each other, their faces were obliterated by the piercing white light of their headlamps.
The bush was eerily quiet. I was on high alert. What the course lacked in elevation it made up for in varied terrain and tripping hazards: roots, sinkholes, gravel, rocks, sand, thick mud, and of course, the creek crossings. My feet were already soaked at the 3km mark with the first creek crossing, but it was nothing compared to the second crossing about 9km in. Thankfully, the water was my kind of knee height after all. Although I didn’t mind having to wade through it, I did fear for my feet. Visions of Blackall 100 the year prior, when it had poured with rain all day and night, returned. My feet had suffered during that race, swelling up like mushrooms with blisters ripping down the soles from being constantly waterlogged. I had packed multiple changes of socks for WHC in case of a wet day, but I hadn’t planned on getting this wet so soon! There wasn’t much I could do except keep on keeping on.
With each lap, we had to return the way we came. Our first lap was clockwise, our second lap counterclockwise, and so on. I chatted withsome other runners on and off but was on my own most of the time. The bouncing light of my headlamp became almost hypnotic in the quiet darkness. I was elated when the sky started to lighten after 5am when I was on lap 3. Despite the extra light, I fell flat on my face three times during that lap.
We 12-hour runners had been joined by the 6-hour and 55km runners at 3am. Later in the morning, more runners trotted onto the course for the 33km, 22km and 11km options. Some even ran with their dogs! I said hello or well done to everyone I passed. Although I did receive some nice friendly smiles and hellos in return, I was a bit dismayed that so many runners didn’t respond at all. They seemed so serious! Probably chasing a podium finish, I reasoned – which, for me was a ridiculous possibility I did not need to bother myself with!
On the plus side, their seriousness inspired me to have as much fun as possible – and to be as annoyingly cheerful as possible! This worked wonders for me. Making the conscious decision to stay happy took off what little pressure there was and kept me going. I took a bunch of selfies – in front of signs, “drinking” from alcohol cans scattered by litterbugs, posing with an orange course tape moustache at the six-hour mark. I sang aloud to the music on my headphones, played air guitar and air drums, danced a little and posted a couple of pics online.
Some may see this as foolish and wasting time. They’re right. But why run for 12 hours if you can’t have a bit of fun? I was in a great frame of mind – something I haven’t always achieved in races. Not once during the day did I feel like quitting. Even as my body started to fail, my spirits were high. I felt glad to be out there in the bush, not a worry in the world except for the task at hand.
I still had enough wits about me (or, depending on your perspective, no wits) to stop mid-run to sign up to Coastal High 50 – another ultramarathon. I’d done 55km and had nearly killed myself doing a jump shot for the bemused photographer (if you didn’t jump, did the run even happen?) when I remembered registrations for the extremely popular CH50 had opened at 8am. I must have snapped up one of the last spots available – the event sold out within 2.5 hours!
I walked most of my sixth lap. I topped up my water at the start/finish area, grabbed another muesli bar, checked the time – 10.25am. I realised there was a slim chance I could finish another lap before midday. 1 hour 35 minutes seems like ample time to run 11km, but I was hobbling by that point and I wouldn’t make it if I walked. I had to push the pace if I wanted to finish my 7th lap in time to have it counted towards my official total. So much for not pressuring myself!
This lap was the only time during the race I felt less than average. A couple of kilometres in, one of the remaining 12-hour runners (a few had dropped out by that stage) was headed towards me. “There’s a snake!” she yelled. On a normal day, I would have turned around and hightailed it while screaming my guts out. Not this day. “Oh, bloody hell,” I moaned. “I just want to get this last lap done before midday!” I put a foot forward, intending to go straight past the black snake between us, but realised if it snapped out and bit me, I would have to waste precious time taking off my pack to get my compression bandage, put the bandage on, wait to be rescued … and probably not be able to finish my lap. So, I yelled at the snake. “Go away, you bloody snake!” The other runner threw a stick at it. It slid away. Awesome! “Good job! Keep going! You’re looking strong!” I yelled over my shoulder to my saviour as we went on our merry ways, not at all as if one of my worst nightmares had almost happened.
I pushed through the sand one last time, I painfully kicked my feet into the rocks one last time, I slipped on the muddy edges of enormous puddles one last time, and I waded through the creek one last time, yelling a “**** you, you ******* creek!” just as someone else appeared in the opposite direction and no doubt tut-tutted me as they went past.
I finished my last lap at 11.45am – well before midday! I’d done more than 77km and was grinning ear to ear. There weren’t many people at the finish line, most had packed up and gone home, but the mad ones left gave me a hearty cheer. I was surprised more than anyone to have scored 3rdfemale finisher in the 12-hour category. I was stoked. The trophy was awesome – a hand-made wooden plaque adorned with a real horseshoe, crafted by the race director himself. It was an honour to have my photo taken with the winner Kathryn, and second-place getter Kris, who had been so cheerful and encouraging to me when we passed each other on the course.
In no way am I a fast runner, but I am stubborn. It’s this annoying trait that got me to the finish line in such good spirits – even if my waterlogged feet did look as though they had been bitten by a walker from The Walking Dead.
Best of all, I got my chocolate Easter bunny.