Thanks to our unwelcome virus friend, COVID-19, 2020 has been like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard for running event options. This year has taught me to run for nature, adventure, friendship and peace rather than big finish lines, PBs and medals; but when Summit Shoalhaven entries opened, I registered immediately. The chance to run in an actual, REAL event both excited and scared me. I had become quite nomadic with my trail running, but the thought of being around like-minded souls and challenging myself to run further drew me in like a moth to a flame. I just didn’t realise how hot that flame would be.
With 4 distances on offer ranging from 13km to 50km, I registered for 50km. The event organisers faced many challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, but they handled each hurdle wonderfully, doing everything possible to make sure this event would be COVID-safe. Consequently, the start location changed as buses could not transport runners to the intended start point. I had to choose between a distance downgrade to 40km or upgrade to 55km. The event was supposed to happen on 4thOctober 2020, but was postponed until 28 November 2020 – 3 days before the official start of Australian summer. I upgraded to 55km and prayed for cool weather.
The week prior to race day was challenging. Two of our three kids got sick – one with chicken-pox, the other croup – and we had 5 nights of less than 2hrs sleep. With no one able to come near our house to help out due to the sickies, I got through it thanks to buckets of coffee and kind food deliveries on our doorstep from family. The temperature predicted for race day was 38C. I contemplated withdrawing from the race, especially if the kids were too sick for me to leave them, but the planets aligned. I packed my bags at the last minute (very unlike me) and headed down the freeway to Nowra in the car with Mum (best chauffeur and cheer girl ever).
Awake at 4:15am, I got dressed and ready in autopilot mode. We left our hotel at 4:50am to drive the winding road through Kangaroo Valley to race headquarters, which made me feel terribly sick. Event HQ was a quaint paddock and we parked next to a wombat burrow! Registration was swift and contactless. I pinned my race bib on and the official race briefing began. The announcer told us if we didn’t feel we could complete 55km, we could turn off at 36km and complete 40km and get a 40km medal. I wondered if I would be tempted…
After a huge good luck hug from Mum, I wandered down a little track to the start line at the base of mighty Mt Scanzi. At 6am the race started, but it was so surreal to be at an actual event I can’t remember how it started. It was not a loud gun or fancy music, but I do recall the beautiful patter of dozens of running shoes rhythmically hitting the dirt together. Hearing this old sound again made my soul sing with joy.
The first 2km was a gruelling 2km vertical climb to the top of Mt Scanzi. We hit a wall of humid heat only 500m in. I heard a voice call from behind, “Hi Sal, it’s Tina!”. It’s bewildering how many times the RMA sisterhood has been there to lift me in the hardest times. Today the universe sent RMA Tina. We would have each other’s backs through this whole thing because that’s what RMA sisters do.
I also met a local man who bravely told his story of losing everything on his property in the bushfires that devastated the area earlier this year. Everything – his home, contents, outbuildings – except 9 horses that miraculously took shelter on a patch of grass that did not burn. Yet, here he was, kicking his ultramarathon goal. If this race got unbearably tough, I would think of this man.
THE 55KM COURSE
What goes up must come down! The 2km starting climb became a 2km steep descent down the other side that other runners likened to Kedumba in the Blue Mountains. The majority of the course was undulating fire trail, with some quite steep ascents that most of us walked.
The cicadas were so deafening I had to cover my ears in parts. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful – rolling green valleys framed by majestic, charred eucalypts sprouting their first fuzzy bits of green re-growth post-bushfire. The herbaceous smell of sprouting undergrowth was like forest cologne; so good that it made me feel giddy whenever I ran into a cloud of it.
The heat was brutal. At first it was tolerable, but after about 10km it was like running in an oven.
At the 19km checkpoint the first runner withdrew. I offered her some kind words and support and told her she was wise to listen to her body. Tina and I helped each other refill our hydration packs and continued down the dry, dusty trail. At this point there was very little shade as the bushfires had taken out the tree canopy, but the valley views provided great distraction.
At 20-24km we climbed a very steep section and I noticed most people were walking, even when they got to the flatter bits afterwards. Today was not a day for personal bests, this was about survival and determination.
I decided to get through this, I would have to focus on good things and do good things.I told every runner I saw that they were amazing and to keep going – you can do it!
I looked for Tina at every turn and checkpoint and we gave each other so much encouragement.
I rescued poor cicadas as they fell from the trees onto the burning hot track and placed them gently in shady shrubs. The heat was even too much for these poor creatures, yet still, their chorus cheered me on.
I thanked every volunteer for their kindness and cracked a lot of bad jokes around them. I’m sure they gave me extra ice cubes and water because of this (maybe to shut me up to stop me telling bad jokes?)
I made the 39km cut-off checkpoint with 1.5hrs to spare. I was not tempted to take the turn off to the 40km finish. Little did I know that shortly after I had been there, all other runners were diverted to the 40km course as the temperature had reached a dangerous 40C.
40-51k I now refer to as the ‘Oven Road of Death’. The medical rescue car whizzed past me with lights flashing to pick up destroyed runners way more times that I’d like to remember. I thought of the man who lost everything in the bushfires a lot. I left Tina at the 44km aid station and we both told each other we were okay.
The final 4km is 2km back up Mt Scanzi, then 2km straight back down. I forged my way up, the hot, thick air burning every breath. I got to the top and a volunteer gave me a cup of ice, but I couldn’t eat it for fear of choking. I was crying with happiness. I have no idea how, but I gunned the final 2km. I was sweating so profusely that my shoes were squelching. The hill was so steep my toes were hitting the ends of my shoes but I felt no pain. I flew like a running angel, passing 4 others walking on my way down who cheered me on in awe. My last kilometre was a 5:24 split!
At the bottom of the hill I saw mum in the distance, her little arms flapping with excitement. She disappeared into the trees up to the finish chute. This is when I started to uncontrollably squeal. I was going to finish this this. I. Was. Going. To. Freaking. Finish. Holy crap!
With the announcer shouting my name to the treetops, I crossed the line, my cheeks bursting from smiling so hard. I fell into Mum’s arms, both of us crying tears of joy. I thanked the Race Director for an epic event. The aid crews went above and beyond to keep everyone safe in extreme conditions. I’d go back and do it again in a heartbeat.
Not long after, Tina also crossed the finish line and I gave her a big cowbell reception. We had to move away from the finish quickly because of COVID-19 regulations, but I was so glad I saw her. Mum and I drove to the river nearby and we jumped straight in, fully clothed, to celebrate. It was tremendously good.
Shoalhaven Summit Ultra taught me that I am capable of much more that I ever dreamed of. I learned that the most important things you need to complete any huge race goal are not your legs. What you really need is:
a heart full of gratitude and kindness,
a mind full of wisdom and peace,
respect for nature and this precious earth,
bucketloads of optimism and insanity,
and a team of special people who love and support you through training to get you there.
Finish time: 7h 59m 25s
Elevation gain: 1485m
On course temp: 34-42°C
Fluid consumed: 10 litres!!
Sweat loss estimate: 7991ml
Average heart rate: 152bpm
Max heart rate: 173bpm
Daily step count: 64,112
Author: Sally Hinchey.