I did not choose this race; the race chose me.  Now that it’s done, I know that it happened this way for so many reasons other than actually running 50km.  The last 12 months has been a spectacular journey of ups and downs and round and rounds.  Let me take you on the ride……

2019 was a really challenging year.  I used running as a way to cope when everything else in my life seemed out of control.  It was a year full of (more) kid-induced sleep deprivation, job worries, loneliness, grief and trying to keep too many of life’s juggling balls up in the air.  Running was the only thing I could control, so I ran a LOT (like 50-60km a week).  Despite what 2019 threw at me, I still had a fabulous, injury-free year of running.  I managed to achieve the big goals I was aiming for – a massive 34min marathon PB, a Coastal Classic finish and a 6-foot Track Marathon qualifying time.

When the 6-foot Track Marathon lottery was drawn and I didn’t win an entry I was absolutely gutted.  I desperately searched the running calendar for alternative events to do. I found 22 possibilities, but my shift-worker hubby (who would need to look after our kids) was working on every date except one: 1 March 2020 – Snowies Ultra Trail.   

I didn’t register for Snowies right away because it scared me.  I knew I couldn’t take my family with me due to the cost and the long car trip (imagine the kid vomit!) but leaving them behind made wonder whether it would be any fun at all.  I get social anxiety, so going places where I don’t know anybody paralyses me with fear. I took a big chance and posted in my local running ladies group asking if anyone was keen to do a road trip to Snowies with me.  An RMA named Lisa said yes – and she would be doing her first half marathon.  Holy crap-sticks.  Could I do this??  Running 50km seemed like the easy bit.  I would have to let all of my control-freaky anxiety go. Eeeek!

I met Lisa at an RMA social dinner the week before Snowies. Our mutual friends told me that we were similar people, but when we met, it was like fireworks, rainbows and happiness explosions all at once.  For the first time I felt this was going to be so good.  I was excited!!

In the few days leading up to the run I checked over my gear so many times, making sure I had my mandatory kit and enough fuel to get me through 50km.  This would be my first big race on a purely plant-based diet.  I planned to do this Ultra using only Tailwind and gels, as I had done in my last marathon, despite every experienced ultra-runner telling me I’d need to eat some food on a 50km course. I had to trust my instincts.

On Friday we departed Sydney.  Lisa and I both cried saying goodbye to our kids at school drop off, but once we hit the road, the fun began. The 6-hour trip passed so quickly as we chatted and sang our way from Sydney to Jindabyne.  I swear we left a trail of rainbow glitter all the way down the highway.  That night, just before bed, we stood on the balcony in our pyjamas in the dark looking up at the splendiferous blanket of stars above.  We saw 5 shooting stars. What good luck!

We wondered if there was a Jindabyne Parkrun, and sure enough there was.  Of course we did it and took a smiley jump shot. And of course neither one of us cared if it sapped some of our energy for the main event, because it was stupendously fun!

On Saturday afternoon we drove 20min to race HQ, Lake Crackenback, to pick up our bibs.  As we walked down to the start line (which was already set up) we heard “The Voice” by John Farnham blaring out of the loudspeakers.  This moment was spine-tinglingly perfect.

4:45am Sunday: my alarm goes off.  Race day is here!!!  Although her race wasn’t starting until 10:45am, Lisa was up to drive me to the start line.  She honestly is the best human ever (sorry other humans) and this was one of so many acts of kindness and positivity I noticed about her over the weekend.  As we drove in the dark to Lake Crackenback we prayed that we wouldn’t hit any kangaroos and Lisa DJ’d my usual pre-race songs.  I cried like a baby when ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ by U2 played.  This has always been my go-to song before every race but this time it meant more than ever, having been played at my friend Astrid’s funeral in December (I had done some run-fundraising for her cancer meds).  I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to live and run.

We arrived safely at the start line and it was absolutely freezing – 9 degrees! I put one ‘survival box’ at the 23km checkpoint at race HQ and sent another box on a bus to the 35km checkpoint.  I gave Lisa an enormous, shivery, goodbye/good luck hug and jumped on the bus to Gaden’s Trout Hatchery where the race would begin. When we arrived at the trout hatchery the sun was rising over the mountains, making the low-lying mist glow like a golden fleece blanket over the valley.

At 7am the race started! 141 of us ran straight up a gravel trail and over a suspension bridge toward the alpine forest.  With all of the synchronised foot-pounding the bridge wobbled out of control and there were lots of shrieks and profanities (!) but it was fun and everyone was thankfully okay.

The next 20km was trail running heaven.  Snakey, rocky, technical single-trail weaving through alpine forest, with lots of fun MTB burms.  Some of the snow gums were so tall I couldn’t see their tops.  The air smelled like wet sawdust, moss, sweet wildflowers and eucalyptus. The kilometres melted away and I didn’t even notice the significant elevation as I listened to the melodies of twittering birds in the low shrubs, the rhythm of my feet on the dirt and the pounding rapids of the mighty Snowy River.

I emerged from the dense alpine forest and ran through some open scrub land to the back of Lake Crackenback Resort.  The single trail here was only one foot wide so I did some running on the grass as the trail was annoying my size 11.5s. With forest on my left and resort units on my right, I could hear the race announcer in the distance back at HQ and knew my first survival box wasn’t far away.   Suddenly I heard excited squealing “Salllllleeeeeeeeee!!!”  It was Lisa, running a 300m PB through the resort to give me a hug and a high five!!! What a superb morale boost!  Bless her!

At the 23km checkpoint my fueling was on track.  I refilled my Tailwind, grabbed a few more gels, got another high five from my Bushies mate, Al, and plugged on, feeling great.

I stormed up the hilly road through race HQ with a massive grin on my face and got a nice shout-out from the MC.  Back into rocky single trail, I could feel the day starting to get hot and this section was much more exposed to the sun.  This part of the valley was also amazing – the mighty river still roaring at me as I hopped over rocks, bridges and up the biggest mountain of the whole race without noticing!

I reached the 35km checkpoint, refilled my Tailwind again and decided to try some food.  I ate 5 blueberries and decided no more, but I put my salty boiled potatoes in my pack just in case I changed my mind later (not knowing that the next time I would see these potatoes would be 3 days after the race when laundering my race pack LOL!).  I weaved my way back through the same stunning single track, down the big mountain, passing a big tiger snake and a mob of kangaroos along the way.

At the final checkpoint, 44km, I saw a race volunteer who I had befriended along the course.  He was on his bike checking on runners.  He told me I had the biggest smile ever and that I should be very proud of myself for getting this far.  I had been so calm until now, then I finally realised what I had done to reach this moment.  I told him that I had a 2yo, 6yo and 8yo and that I felt like a feather floating on the wind, running unburdened by a pram or my work backpack containing a laptop.   I drank a huge amount of water here and it was the best water I had ever tasted in my life.  I thanked him for his encouragement and pushed on, up the dusty, hot single trail to the finish.

As I rounded the final corner of the trail and burst out of the forest my Garmin clicked over 50km, my heart pounded like a drum and tears welled in my eyes.  I squealed with happiness all the way up the final grassy hill, where I could see Lisa jumping up and down like a crazy woman squealing too.  Cowbells were ringing, people were cheering and the MC called out my name.  As I crossed the finish line, I smiled a smile so big I thought my cheeks were going to burst!  I did it!  The atmosphere was electric and I was elated.

After exchanging huge hugs and race stories, Lisa and I jumped in Lake Crackenback, still in our running gear.  The cold water felt amazing on our weary legs and it was such a fun way to celebrate our successes!

This was honestly the best event I have ever done.  The race itself was spectacular, challenging, beautiful, friendly and so well organised – but the real life-changing stuff had nothing to do with completing the ultramarathon.  I learned to let go, to be free, to trust my heart and not worry so much about everything.  I left as a new person with the most precious kind of ‘medal’ I could ever hope for – a new best friend for life.

by Sally Hinchey

Snowies Ultra Trail ~ 1 March 2020 ~ 7:23:13

cover image credit: Sioban Downing (Geosnapshot)