What it was like to run Australia's Hardest Marathon, the Buffalo Stampede
You see to this point, it had become a case of the harder and more ridiculous the conditions or the track was, the more committed I became to accomplishing it.When I signed up for this thing I knew it would be hard, it's 42km – that's a long way. This was my first ever marathon. It's in Bright, Victoria – that's going to be fairly hilly (the understatement of the century). Two days prior on the Friday, two of my team mates competed in the 20km race which was an out and back on a section of the course I'd be running that day. The weather was nice and clear and sunny on the Friday and yet one of them had to pull out after 10kms from fear of the height, from fear of slipping and falling down the hill and not stopping… something I didn't quite understand until I was up there 2 days afterwards and fully understood the decision she made there. The other team mate running the 20km dislocated his shoulder running the course and very impressively bandaged it up into a sling and continued on to finish the course – a very impressive effort and show of determination. The following day on the Saturday, the 75km race which two other team mates of mine were running in, had to be cancelled half way through due to the weather turning very sour and a few competitors having to pull out due to hypothermia. All of this to say, a big portion of the battle was simply getting to the start line whilst maintaining a positive mindset about the race despite what I'd witnessed over the two days prior. As any long distance runner will tell you, it's a battle of the mind, not of the body.
The journey to the start line.
I finish my banana bread and head back to my room to triple check my pack for the mandatory items; a whistle, snake bandage, space blanket, enough food and water to last the race. Check check check. I'm slowly feeling more comfortable and start to get dressed for the race. I strap up my left ankle with strapping tape as my sports podiatrist had shown me. Ankle is feeling good, supported. Check. On with the perfect pair of socks I'd spent 10 minutes deciding on the night before, the compression shorts, the thermal long sleeve top, then the jumper and finally the waterproof shell jacket.
I'm feeling good. I'm warm, comfortable and prepared. I check my pack and pockets again – the butterflies creeping in an manifesting as mild OCD. Ok, NOW I'm good to go.Much to my surprise as I leave my room I hear the friendly voices of my team mates who have unnecessarily braved the cold morning and sacrificed the warm bed and a sleep-in to come and see me off at the start line. A greatly comforting gesture which further helps the butterflies. We all jump in the car and start the journey up the mountain. From our house in Bright to the starting line, near the peak of Mount Buffalo is around a 30 minute drive, twisting and winding up the side of the mountain as the temperature continues to drop, 12°, 9°, 7°, 2° - ok we must be nearly there. We arrive at the start line and jump out of the car. The cold and rain hits you in the face with the full realisation of the challenge you've willingly accepted to participate in. I jog down to the tents to escape the rain and huddle with the other runners around the outdoor heaters to try and avoid my body temperature dropping whilst we wait to start the race. The collective nerves and anticipation are overshadowed by the excitement and support of everyone toward everyone else. Professional runners joking and having a laugh with the more amateur runners, everyone wishing every one else luck and playfully sledging each other about the fantastic weather and conditions.
One thing that has continually impressed me about running, both road and trail (my favourite), is just how friendly and supportive everyone is. It's a community of people just wanting to be better than their last race, a bit faster, a bit stronger.
They give encouragement to others for times which would be snails pace compared to their own, because they know for that person, they're pushing, their doing better than they were last time. It's the same at a marathon as it is at every 5km Parkrun I've done, most Saturday mornings.As more and more runners pour in from buses and cars, the race organiser comes down for the pre-race briefing and announces that the track we were going to run around the top flat part of the mountain before we started the decent, has been shortened due to debris on the track caused by the horrendous weather conditions overnight.
About to begin.
With the start of the race imminent we head out from our warm(ish) shelter of the tents and find our placing in the starting area. Experienced runners race to be at the front, knowing they want to head out of the gates fast and not wanting to be stuck behind another runner on the single width track. The more junior runners (myself included) size up the competition and self-select a position in the grid relative to how well we thing we're going to go in the first section of the race. There only thing more annoying than being stuck behind someone running just a little bit slower than you, is having someone nipping at your heels forcing you to run faster than you're comfortable with. "10 SECONDS" is yelled out by the race organisers and everyone checks their running watches are setup properly, ready to go. I check my Huawei Watch 2 and the damn thing can't get a GPS lock because of the thick cloud cover. I quickly take my phone out of my pocket and start a new run on Strava, because if it's not on Strava it didn't happen.
The start of a long way down.
And we're off… I'm fumbling to quickly put my phone away and zip up my pockets as the crowd runs across the grass toward the start of the track. The start of the course is a 4km (reduce down from 7km) ring track around the top of the mountain. A mixture of trail types, stairs both up and down and some natural rock formations set a nice tone for the start of the race. After the 4kms we cycle back to the starting area, a quick wave to the support crew and team mates and we're off on the proper journey, the legs and feeling slightly warmed up and ready but the fingers still frozen and numb despite the lined neoprene gloves (a last-minute but brilliant purchasing decision). The side of Mount Buffalo is mostly solid granite rock so after a few k's through the trail and bushland I'm heading down some seriously steep and rocky territory. I've settled into a rhythm with a group of runners cruising down the hill. The legs are feeling good and I'm actually overtaking some other runners. I've found my groove and I'm loving it. We're running down a track call "The Big Walk" which would be a very suitable name if you were doing it in the other direction, and walking. Most of my training runs I do are on quite technical courses with lots of rocks, steps and tricky gradients so the first 15k's or so I'm finding quite easy. 'This isn't so bad' I think, naively running the mental calculations to try and calculate my finishing time based on the downhill section I've just finished running. As the tree canopy opens up we run along the side of the mountain, a brief section on the tarmac, then back into the bushland. Powering down the hill, the runners are starting to spread out, it's the first time in the race which I didn't have someone behind me and I couldn't see anyone in front of me. It was also the first time in the race where I could feel my fingers and were starting to warm up a little. The course on this downhill section was quite a steep walking track but wasn't slippery so you could move quite quickly. As the course starts to flatten out I realise I must be getting close to the first check point, Eurobin Creek Aid Station which is about 17kms in. I'd gotten there about 15 minutes faster than the earliest time Jase had anticipated. I was feeling really good about the pace, my ankle was holding up and I was ready to tackle the hills.
Eurobin Creek Aid Station
After Eurobin the course runs along the mountain road for a km or two before veering back onto the rugged alpine territory. I took the opportunity of tarmac to grab a quick bite to eat whilst I power-walked up the hill, ditching my jumper as I had definitely warmed up by that stage and was starting to sweat. I wanted to stay dray as I knew at the top of Clearspot (2 mountains from here), the temperature would undoubtably drop and being cold and wet is not a good combination. As the terrain steepend the pace went from a run to a power walk, I'd trained for hills so I was quietly confident (as you can see above), but nothing could prepare me for what was to come.
The start of the climbing.
Naively (are you sensing a theme here?), I hadn't familiarised myself with the course too closely opting for the ignorance is bliss method which I'm still not convinced wasn't the right thing to do. As we started the climb up what I thought was Clearspot (but was in-fact the smaller Keating Ridge) the sheer scale of the mountains and course I'd started soon hit home. I'd busted out the running poles which I had umm'd and ahh'd about buying. But thankfully I listed to the advice of my running coach, Jase and running buddy, Ian, and invested in a pair. It was quite possibly the single best decision I'd made in relation to this run. Enabling your upper body to take a bit of the stress of your legs just means you can power up hills so much faster, and the best use of them was still to come. The legs were burning but I'd trained for that. The poles helped delay this as much as possible but eventually the familiar pain brought comfort instead of discomfort. About 2/3rds of the way up the hill another runner had slowly caught up and was starting to over take, we chatted for a bit and recognising he'd done this course before, I asked him "this is the big hill yeah" referring to Clearspot. "Haha no, that's the next one" he laughed. Clearspot was still 12kms away. He wished me luck and continued to power on. Eventually I reached the top of Keating Ridge which indicated we had about 5kms of downhill to go. The course was mostly a fire trail which made for relatively easy running. My legs and hips were starting to cramp up with the rhythmic impact of running downhill. I make it down to the bottom and once more, the course starts to flatten out and thanks to my earlier hill climbing friend, I now know that we're approaching into the Buckland River area, a beautiful valley between Keating Ridge and Clearspot. The course turns into a dirt road running through some private farmland and I stand up taller, try to stretch out my gate to loosen up my hips. The course runs through the little country town of Porepunkah, a slight rise as we run along Harris Lane and then I see the friendly faces of my team. It's unbelievable how much this makes a difference to your spirit on a long run. At this point I'm about 25kms in and the hardest part is yet to begin. Seeing the warm smiling face of a friend gives you a bit of comfort and escape from the situation. The next 7kms is all up hill. And when I say up hill I mean up mountain because there's no way you could call this a hill. The weather did help play favours for the simple fact that there was so much fog you couldn't actually see how far you still had to go. All you could do was put one foot in front of the other and keep going. The climb up Clearspot mountain started off innocent enough, a steep but manageable climbing fire trail. But then it kept going, and going, and then some more. And then it got steeper, and muddier, and then steeper, and then muddier. This picture above does not in anyway do it justice. I'd become so focused on not stopping for too long and just trying to power up the hill that I forgot to take photo's. The top half of Clearspot became an exercise in mountain climbing. There was no pace, no speed, it was a slow torturous exercise with the only goal being go up and don't slip back down. I eventually got into a bit of a rhythm; spot somewhere your foot might not slip, firmly plant both poles into the mud, carefully pull yourself up, then repeat. This went on for about 4kms in horizontal distance, and about 700m of vertical climb. This picture below gives you a bit of an idea of the terrain. You can check out lots of pictures taken by everyone by searching #buffalostampede on Instagram.
This part was by far the hardest, a serious test of will and belief. I had gone into the race knowing I would finish it come hell or high-water. I didn't care how long it took, I just wanted to finish it. Despite my best efforts to remain positive there was undeniably moments going up this torturous climb where I thought about pulling out of the race, but I just kept reminding myself that 1 foot after the other, I was getting closer the finish.
Eventually, in the distance, muffled by the fog the soft comforting sound of cow bells rings out and a feeling of relief comes over as I know now I mustn't be too far from the top of the mountain. I remember from the all to brief look I did take of the course map that there was an aid station at the top of Clearspot. That meant a chance to get some fresh water, have a bit to eat and prepare for the big decent.
As I got closer to the top the course crosses a road and then returns to fire trail for 500m or so before you come out at the clear spot aptly name Clearspot. It was quite cold up here but I knew I wouldn't be here for long. A quick recharge and refuel before the controlled falling down the other side of the mountain.
A quick shout out to the volunteers who were at the top of Clearspot. You guys were absolutely fantastic, so helpful and friendly. Even removing and refilling my camel pack for me because I couldn't move my arms enough to take it off. MASSIVE thank you.
The Descent from Clearspot to Bakers Gulley
After having a quick feed, reload of the hydration pack, and seeing some more warm friendly faces it was time to start the downhill. Now, again you can't even really call this running. The approach to get down the 500m elevation was equal parts surfing, sliding on your arse, and controlled falling. It was chaotic but it was made easier by seeing almost everyone else in the same boat. Eventually, after 30 minutes of falling down the muddy mountain, it was time to start climbing again. We'd reached Bakers Gulley and had started the climb up to Mystic. Mystic is like Cher, it doesn't even need a second name, it is what it is – a super steep, slightly smaller version of the Clearspot climb. At the bottom of Bakers Gulley I wad delighted to find a small creek. I was able to wash a bit of the mud off the poles and my gloves and splash some fresh water on my face. Even in this freezing cold weather, somehow splashing water on your face felt nice and refreshing. It's possible delusions had set in at this point. Having just done the climb up Clearspot, going into Mystic was a bit easier. I knew it would be tough, I knew it would be painful, but I knew eventually I'd get to the top and when I did, that would mark the end of the climbing. Once I reached that peak it was all downhill to the end. The thought of that gave me the energy and determination I needed to continue.
The final run home
Reaching the top of Mystic was the moment which I felt like I was almost finished. The moment I knew I had it in the bag and the pain was mostly over. There was only 5kms left and it was all down hill. The course from the top of Mystic back into town runs mostly along a down hill mountain bike course. A combination of drop-offs, muddy terrain (surprise) and rocks made for a somewhat tricky, but reasonably quick descent. Once we reached the bottom of the trail it was just a few kms run alongside the river back into town. With fresh legs, this part of the track would have taken me no more than 15 minutes. Having just climbed to the heavens and back, it took about 30-40 minutes. I was utterly exhausted at this stage and having got a bit carried away thinking I was almost finished, had drunk waaaay too much water and had gotten a stitch. A combination of shuffling and walking saw me through the next couple of kms before seeing that friendly smiling face of Eddie's once again. He'd run out about 750m from the finish line to take some photos like the one above. I mustered all my remaining energy (I must have had some in my little toe), to run the last km to the finish line. There was no way I was going to walk across the finish line. The feeling of hearing the crowd and noise was the sweetest sound.
The finish line.
I crossed the finish line arms in the air in exhilaration. You only get one chance at the victory shot and I wasn't about to do it all again! The emotions swolle as my heart rate started to decrease. 6 months of training, and 6 hours 40 minutes of running through some of the most difficult terrain and conditions I've ever experienced had come to this moment. Happiness mixed with pain and a torrent of endorphins, I could feel tears of relief coming over me. The hugs (not too tight) and high fives of congratulations from friends and team mates inflated the feelings of accomplishment and the gratitude that it was over. It might sound cliche, but words simply can't describe the feeling you get when you cross that finish line. It's an adventure as much into the depths of your own strength and resilience, as it is the adventure and exploration of the peaks of those mountains you concurred. Would I do it again? Maybe. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. For now, I'm looking forward to getting back to my regular exercise schedule of Bootcamp and Parkrun. That is until I spot the next challenge…
A final word.
It would be amiss of me not to thank the people who helped me to get both to the start line, and to the finish line. Firstly, a MASSIVE thank you to my friend and running coach Jase Cronshaw of V&B Athletic. for all the training sessions and huge amount of advice. Sarge Meredith from Original Bootcamp Cronulla for my general fitness training. To my running buddies and travel companions (in alphabetical order – don't get your knickers in a twist); Deepak, Eddy, Ian, Karine and Vanessa for the advice, the laughs and the great adventure. Thank you to my sports podiatrist, Trent Salkavich from Balmain Sports Medicine for strapping me up so my ankle didn't fall apart. Shoutout to Les from Pace Athletic in Rozelle as well for going above and beyond to get me the running poles on such short notice. And here I was thinking this was just another run in the park…