Some people have an online shopping habit. While locked in quarantine entering Australia in February, I developed a ‘race entering’ habit.
Mum suggested a trip to Alice Springs (‘a running holiday’) and I signed up that day. I also talked her into entering 2 stages. It was the first time I would pin a number on since May 2019!
With only 3 weeks to UTA, knee niggles and very unfit… I thankfully entered the short course. The longest day was supposed to be 26km. How hard could it be?… Famous last words.
We flew into Alice Springs on Tuesday and found where they’ve parked the planes! Had a walk around town and along the Todd River (which wasn’t too wet)!
Wednesday race briefing. Lots of interesting adjectives used by the Race Director. “Dehydration, tough, self-rescue, navigate, challenging.” Lots of saucer-eyes from the crowd after the pep-talk!
We walked to the start of Stage 1. Sold as “easy, flat, 11km (or maybe 14km) through the desert outskirts of Alice as the sun sets”. Having never done a stage race and being very aware of my current fitness state, I vowed to cruise around. 1.5km in I’m blowing like a racehorse and hitting 190 max heart rate! The mountain bike single track started climbing and I realised I was in no shape to race… and this wasn’t flat!
As the sun set over the desert I recalled this was meant to be a running holiday and I took my first ever mid race photo!
Trotting along as dusk set in, I realised the 2 ladies in front of me missed a turn and I yelled out to them. One heard but the other didn’t and I hoped she was going to eventually find her way back to town!
We crested a rise and the photographer @themattimage popped out of nowhere. I tripped and nearly face planted but luckily recovered in time for him to take this gem.
We finally started descending to the Telegraph Station and I was thinking I could finish before I needed to put the headtorch on. All of sudden it was really dark. Dusk to pitch dark happened so fast. Got myself down to the finish (headtorch blazing) and was a little worried about how cooked my legs felt. Hopped on the shuttle bus back to town with Mum, who had walked out to finish and madly started reorganising the pack for tomorrow. The hamster cycle of run, repack, sleep had begun!
Stage 1 complete – 12.01km. 1hr15min.
Bus pickup at 5.50am and off we trundled to the Old Hamilton Downs Homestead. Today was meant to be the hardest stage both physically and navigationally. We set off on a 4km 4WD track and my cement legs were concerning. I resolved to back off the pace and remain patient (not my strong suit). It is SO hard not to get carried away when someone shouts “Go!”
We found the single track of the Larapinta trail. The pace of the group I was with dropped and we wove into and out of a dry river bed, being careful to keep spotting the pink streamers. The track finding kept me mentally occupied….no time to lament how unfit I felt.
We clamoured out of the riverbed, over a short, sharp climb and hit the one and only aid station. The trail is only road-accessible at set points, so we filled up the mandatory 3L fluid and set off into the wilderness. I heard dingoes howling to each other across the valley and hoped it wasn’t a bad omen.
Up a climb passing cheery hikers and out onto a ridge for our first overview of the MacDonnell Ranges. The wind was great heat relief and the vista stunning.
I tried to get trotting across the ridge. Sharp rocks made for technical running. The best technique seemed to be short steps, high cadence and NO view gazing while moving. At intervals I’d trip and need to power hike for a minute to reset the rhythm.
We dropped off the ridge and the track became indistinct in a narrow gully. Apparently unusual rainfall had made the track the greenest it’d been in years. The gung-ho grass obscured the track and was chest high in places. We wandered up a narrow creek and it was so scenic that I whipped out the phone again! Could get used to this running holiday business!
Just as I started to fully embrace snail pace, I heard a weird buzzing. A drone was above me and I managed to coordinate tripping up a rock and falling into a spinifex bush. REALLY don’t recommend this. They are sharp!
Up the hill, the friendly photographer/drone aficionado cheerily informed “2km to go but I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit of up and down”. 2mins later a friendly man told me “down, flat, up, down and you’re there!” Never saw the fabled flat section, but they weren’t kidding about the up and down!
I found a pair of runners and one of them was following the self-rescue directive with a couple broken fingers and a split eyebrow. They asked me to go ahead to warn the medics he was on his way, but on the last climb he nearly caught me again which was bit embarrassing.
Back on the bus and off we headed for the shower/clothes wash/repack shenanigans so we could start again tomorrow! While repacking, I realised that I had gone through twice the fluid I normally would.
Stage 2 complete – 20.35km. 3hr35min.
Day 3 alarm made me think this stage racing gig was a bit harder than anticipated. Back on the bus at 5.50am but this time Mum was geared up ready to toe the same start line!
The drive into out start point was an exciting ride and the bouncing made Garmin congratulate me on my stair climb achievement before I exited the bus! I was sure the initial 4km 4WD track to start would feel horrible on heavy legs and it did not disappoint. Happily, hitting the single track of the Larapinta was a great improvement.
Today’s adventure took us up a climb early on and I was going through my fluid at an alarming rate, even though it wasn’t that hot. Once we were up high, the breeze picked up and we could see the ridge we ran yesterday, far off in the distance.
I tripped, skipped and stumbled along the rolling, rocky ridge wondering how Mum was travelling. As I crashed into another spinifex, adding to my collection of splinters, I realised my Salomon laces were undoing themselves! I’d got red dirt in the clip holding them tight. Some quick ‘on trail’ clean out repairs, got them working again.
Photo credit: @themattimage
My friendly guy popped up again “6km to go and you just roll down the hill”.
He was on the money for 4km of lovely runnable descent… but glossed over the last 2km of sandy/rocky/technical dry creek bed. There was a little cursing as I wobbled across the rocks really hoping for that finish line.
Managed a quick tourist visit to Standley Chasm located at the finish line and then Mum appeared. She’d had cramping in the last descent and was indulging in some foul language but was otherwise unscathed.
Very excited for the last evening of clothes washing, recalculating nutrition for pack, repack chaos. The hat was starting to not bounce back with my soap scrubbing efforts!
Stage 3 complete. 22km. 3hr38min Brook. 5hr14min Mum.
Day 4 alarm and both Mum and I were alarmed at how tired and rough we felt before the last and longest stage. Mum was packing it that she wouldn’t make the cut off at 13.5km. I warned her that the first 3.5km 4WD track would feel s#%t.
Off we trotted with me praying for a single-track climb. I was slow up the climb, but the high point was a breathtaking view off Counts Point.
I got into a groove along the ridge and almost felt like a runner descending into Serpentine Gorge (the aid station). Leaving there I had just 14km to go. I tried to push a little. That enthusiasm lasted until I saw a sign saying 7km. I had to assume that was to the Ellery Creek Big Hole finish line. It seemed demoralising far. Then came the little rolling climbs with technical rocky sections and a near dummy spit from moi.
Friendly man was in position with “1.5km to go and all downhill to the finish”. Third time lucky, I prayed! It felt like at least a ParkRun, but oh what a finish line!
Had a mandatory dip in extremely cold water and then started asking if anyone had been cut off. Everyone had made it through, so Mum was somewhere in the blazing sun. Hopefully she was surviving with better humour than me.
As runners came in, I chatted with a girl I’d run near for most of the 4 days. Another runner overheard us discussing when I expected Mum. “Are you talking about Toy?” (Never a good sign!) His report, “very bloody but smiling and not accepting help and pushing on”. Sounded about right.
She appeared, looking like Rocky but definitely smiling. No cramps but a lot of skin left on course.
Stage 4 complete. 27.5km. 4hrs1min Brook. 6hr26min Mum.
The whole adventure was harder than I expected. Backing up each day was challenging even with the short distances and the technical terrain was tough. I was impressed with the back of the packers on the long course consistently spending 7ish hrs out there each day with not a lot of recovery time.
But wow, it was knock-your-socks-off scenery and really social getting to run/bus/dine with your race mates each day. The event was really well run. As far as ‘running holidays’, add it to the wish list!
I’m bringing home a little piece of the Larapinta Trail with me… many spinifex splinters!
Salomon Sense Rides and Hoka Torrents
Black Diamond poles (1 day)