Sweeping GSER 2019 — Speculation, Despair and The Power of a Gel!

A friend told me he couldn’t wait to read my race report for GSER (Great Southern Endurance Run). I said I couldn’t write one, since I didn’t race. But as I drove home from Victoria and mulled over all the interesting, crazy and downright hilarious events of the past weekend, I just had to share!

2019 has been a pretty lacklustre year for me. I’ve managed UTA 100km in May (and to be honest that was on a wing and a prayer with little preparation). I’ve had some personal/professional challenges and am currently 10kg overweight and horribly unfit. 2019 is going to be the first year I haven’t run a miler in quite a while.

A couple of weeks ago I saw that my mate Byron was looking for a sweeping teammate for GSER 100 mile race. (Sweeping for my non-running friends is NOT me finding my inner Martha Stewart….it refers to walking some of a race course behind the last runners to make sure no one is left in the wilderness!)

Byron is one of the most positive and generous people I have ever met. Selfishly, I thought I’d love to hike through some new terrain in Victoria with my friend. I envisioned sweeping a 30-40km section. So I volunteered!

I got myself down to Bright, Victoria on Thursday. Due to some course changes from unexpected snow, we were now sweeping the 2nd half of an altered 100 mile out/back course…..85km was a little more than I’d planned, but the train had already left the station!

Byron and I met up with the Race Director, Sean at the pre-race briefing. We realised we were headed to the start earlier than anticipated due to the rough access roads. An emergency visit to Woolies gifted us some nutritious 2min noodles, 12 packets of Apple oatmeal…and 24 Anzac biscuits that appeared in the trolley! We packed for a night out prior to our sweep start time of Sat 6am. I had a sleeping bag that didn’t zip and Byron had a summer doona and ‘warm shorts’….ultimate professionals 😉

Friday morning we see our mates off at the start and then head to the Mt Speculation aid station with Sean. The drive was a fairly extreme 4WD track up the mountain. A few times Byron and I got out and hiked a pitch, while Sean had a ‘monster truck’ run at it.

3. Mt Spec

The lead runners of the race had been absolutely crushing the course and we realised they were going to arrive before the main aid station caravan with supplies, so we did a bit of ‘adapting on the fly’. We pooled our 2min noodle supplies, Coke (good thing there was a 2 for 1 deal at the gas station that we had succumbed to) and the fortuitous Anzac biscuits. A quick sprint up to the top of Mt Speculation for photos and then a speed descent in my road Hokas, so that we didn’t miss the first runner.

The first guy through, Joseph, was on fire. He looked super strong and kindly offered to donate his unused nutrition to the next runners….on the proviso of course, that they agreed not to pass him if they caught him 😉

A couple more runners turned up, along with the awesome Caravan of Courage Aid Station Crew. As each runner came in we tried to assess the best way to help them. Did they need kind consideration? Calories? A warm shirt? Or tough love?

We met so many great people through the night! Some looked like zombies; some had been out of water for 8 hours; some were deep in the F@#K this S#$T state. I think the fact that they needed to return through the tough section they’d just done, was mentally a lot more challenging than if they would have been going forward into unknown territory. The fear of the known was worse than the hope it might get better! We had an opportunity to help get our friends Warren, Simon, Josh, Scott (in varying states of health) through the checkpoint quickly.

Watching the huge swings as runners recovered was awesome! Trying to positively manage their mindset while letting them be the final decision-maker on whether to continue, was an interesting challenge.

Around 1am, Byron and I decided we needed a lie down for a few hours before starting on our ‘sweeping’ role. I kept listening to the runners chat whilst lying in a swag behind the chairs. I couldn’t help but throw my 2 cents in from the prone position, at intervals shouting, “no, you look fine to continue, just get up and start hiking”. Probably not the most informed advice since I couldn’t see them, but the reaction of the runners looking for where this unsolicited advice was coming from, was pretty priceless!

5am hit and Byron and I start getting dressed for our 29 hour shift of sweeping from Mt Speculation to Harrietville. To be honest, I was tired and thinking this was not one of my smartest ideas! It was also really cold. Taping my feet with frozen fingers wasn’t super inspiring.

6am cut off hit and we were ready. The sun was up and suddenly the lovely medic (who had been awake working the entire night) asked, can you take Frank with you? Who the hell is Frank??? Frank the Frenchman had missed the cutoff by a few minutes so was technically out of the race. But he was dead keen to continue despite being disqualified. As the aid station was really remote, it was very tough to evacuate people from there. I hadn’t ‘clocked’ Frank, so I was a little wary agreeing to take him back along the section that had just taken him nearly 12hrs to complete….but the medic knew her stuff, so we agreed. [Frank managed to set a 3.5hr negative split on his return to the Reilly Hut aid station!]

Off we set. Byron, me and Frank the Frenchman! As we rolled down the hill we came across the remaining runners (they were now cut off) along with the sweeper, Craig. He was going to have a quick nap and turn around to follow us…. very hard core! We crossed Mt Despair (awesome names out there in Alpine NP!) and lost the trail a little. I think that someone outside of the race may have taken some markers down, because there were a suspicious amount of them missing.

As we approached the Viking (yes it looked as fierce as you would expect) we found our mate, Scott. He is one of the founders of Trailblazers, a Sydney running club I belong to. He’s a very experienced ultra runner but was not having a great day. Little did I know we were about to spend 20+ quality hours together!

Scotty was weaving his way up the hill and it was obvious that he was in a spot of bother. I asked when he had last eaten and got a bit of a rambling answer about him sleeping in a meadow and eating sandwiches. I suggested he take a gel and he said he would at the top of the climb. 3 mins later, the weaving intensified and I more forcefully told him to sit and get the gel in. There was no way he was getting to the top of the Viking without it.

Following Scott (and then Stewart who we meet later on in this saga) was probably the most educational ultra experience I’ve ever had. Usually I’m the runner in the hole and I’m too delirious to know what is going on. Obviously fueling is all-important, but I have never witnessed (from an coherent outside perspective), the incredible recovery swing that can happen after one gel!

Over and over through the day, Scott rollercoastered from a weaving disaster to an absolute running machine. I told him he was Buddha that kept being reborn. He decided he was a cat with 99 lives!

The Awesome Foursome (Frank, Byron, Scott and me) trooped upwards. Scott was adamant that he was pulling out at the next aid station. I suggested that climbing something called ‘The Viking’ wasn’t the best time to make that decision. Two hours and 3 gels later, Scott was out in front and running with purpose! I suspected he was trying to get ahead of us so he could pull out… I was SO wrong!

We arrived at Reilly’s Hut (I nearly trod on a pretty snake on the way there) and there was no sign of Scott. My heart sank because I thought he’d got a lift home. But no, he was taking a nap in the hut so he could continue!!! (Cue air punching and celebrations from the sweep team!)

Along with excellent hashbrowns, we found Stewart at this aid station. He was sitting a little sideways in a chair. When I said hi, there was just a glazed stare response which as a tad concerning. It was hard to know how much we should ‘push’ in the role of sweepers, especially if you don’t know the person. So I asked Stewart….are you determined to finish? He looked surprised at my question and responded with a firm “Of Course!” Brilliant news that he was so positive, despite currently resembling a mannequin.

We suggested he get a 20min nap before we all headed out for the next section. We planned to leave 1hr before the cut off to provide lots of cushion time as the next night was probably going to get a little ugly.

As we started the next climb I walked next to Stewart to sound out his background. “So have you done other milers?” — “Yeah, GSER in 2017, Moab 240 and done a few others”. Holy hell, this guy had run 240 miles in a single go….we were so getting to that Harrietville finish line!

Scott and Stewart moved forward and Byron, Frank and I keep cruising along picking up markers. The afternoon light was fading and we were all feeling a little flat. We found Scott again and his feet were giving him real grief. I’d done some re-taping at 3am in Mt Spec aid station, but by 5pm, they were back to being really messy. We did an emergency fix up job on the trail thanks to Frank’s strapping tape.

Scott was more invested in finishing now, but still wavering a little. We discussed whether a medic at the next aid station could definitely fix his feet (Of course they can, I said confidently…hoping very hard there was someone dressed as a medic when we came in!!!). His feet looked pretty awful, but I also thought Scott’s brain was trying to pull a glucose-hole ‘swifty’ on him, telling he couldn’t continue. He needed to believe that the medic would fix the feet (and good taping can make a HUGE difference to messed up feet). Once he was sure of the feet could be fixed, he never discussed pulling out again.

It was fascinating listening to the positive/negative waves of talk from Scott. It was so closely linked with him taking on nutrition, that I realised it was better to avoid conversation until 15mins after taking on fuel. That way, he was verbalising a lot more positive points.

At this point Byron pulled me aside and suggested that we split up. It was quite slow pulling the markings and Bryon rightly thought that Scott might subconsciously start waiting for us, which would cut into his nice 1hr cushion that we had been trying to maintain, so that he wasn’t near being cut off.

It was a really smart call from Byron…only it meant that I had to start running!! Eee gods, SO not fit enough for this grand plan!

Down the hillside with Scott, who was on an energy upswing and me holding on for dear life! We found Stewart looking for the trail in the dark scrub. From here on in, the night descended into a mad, spectacular, wonderful insanity.

Stewart and Scott took rotating turns at being sprinting superheroes/weaving slog walkers. We got into Selwyn Ck aid station and agreed on a 20min sleep (I took a lie down next to the fire and some kind soul put a blanket on me). Sticking to our committed schedule, we pushed off towards Mt St Bernard (the last aid station). As we climbed out of the Selwyn Ck, I turned and was relieved to see 2 headlights coming down the hill. Frank and Byron had got all the markers behind us and were on track for some hot food!

The witching hours arrived (1am-4am) and they did not disappoint. There were comments on the disgusting people that left ‘cigarettes’ on ground (Scotty did not believe me when I told him many times that they were sticks). An in-depth discussion on if the Carnauba wax in Orange Caffiene Shot Bloks were vegan (and how Scott used Carnauba wax to make candles as a child!). Blair Witch white trees that Scott told me were white because of salt in the ground (need to Google that one!). Me joking about hoping the 2nd Twin climb was the runt of the ‘family’ (Stew and Scott thought that was a piss poor joke effort from me!)

Being out in the wilderness in cold conditions, trying to find course markers with 40+ hrs sleep deprivation, is a bonding experience that has to be lived to be believed.

Scott and Stew were both determinedly fighting to move forward efficiently. I was fading hard as we climbed up the Twins and my feet were starting to feel like swollen minced sausages. It was important that these guys didn’t know I was hurting. Unconsciously they might slow to wait for me, which would jeopardise them meeting the cut offs.

The sky started to lighten as we approached the last aid station and I told them both they would have to go ahead. I was now going to need to take the markers from the course for the last section, which would slow my progress. I didn’t mention I also felt like death warmed up, which was also going to slow my progress!

1716

We said goodbye at Mt St Bernard and off Scott and Stewart trotted with purpose. I started hiking up the road to Mt Hotham and hit a HUGE low patch. I had been distracted focusing on being the ‘cheerleader’ and once my buddies were gone, I fell into a hole!

15

I trudged up the hill with a few 50 mile runners in my sights, but didn’t have the strength to catch them as I pulled the course markers.

Finally I hit the Bon Accord descent into Harrietville. I’d noted this descent on the map profile before we started and thought that it was going to be a tad unpleasant on tired, unfit legs. As I slogged my way down, I found my mate Stewart again! Looking at the watch and his somewhat unstable gait, I suddenly realised he was in danger of not making the final finish cut off!!! With the most calm and encouraging voice I could muster, I told him that I thought it was time to start running a bit more. We were both horrified how high above the river we were, but there was nothing much to do about it, but start shuffling down.18

Watching Stewart battle down that last descent—tripping/crashing/getting up/running again—is something that will stick with me for a long time. I had met this guy 20hrs earlier and was now deeply invested in him finding that finish line before 11am. I was madly trying to calculate off Avenza maps how far we had left and our current pace…then my watch died. When Stewart asked me if he could make it, I told him yes, but you have to run. I was praying I was right because I had no idea!

It was one of the most memorable and emotional finish lines I’ve ever experienced….and I wasn’t even in the race. Scott was there looking as fresh as a daisy along with all the other Trailblazer runners. Stewart was a very relieved man knowing his heroic effort got him in before that blasted cut off.

What a huge privilege to share the trail with Byron, Frank, Scott and Stewart. They have helped reignite my passion for this insane sport.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

My feet thank you a lot less…..perhaps it is worth training for these things 😉

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