Great Southern Endurance Run (a.k.a. GSER100)
17th – 18th November 2017
Mt Buller to Bright across the Victorian Alps, Australia
181kms, 10,000 metre climb, 11,000 metre descent
It made no sense on paper – why did they think the first 11kms would take the fast guys 2 hours? Really!? Apart from the Buller summit it’s all downhill. Hmmmm…… maybe there was something we didn’t yet know…
Section 01 – Mt Buller to Gardners Hut – Leg 11.6km — Total 11.6km – 352m up – 1,414m down – leg time 1:52 – total time 1:52
Easy listening hits waft across the PA, a polite countdown from race director Sean Greenhill, 5am, and we’re off!….. slowly…… There aren’t many races where every competitor is walking within the first fifty metres – clearly a sign that this was not going to be any ordinary event. We kick straight into the first climb to the highest point in the race – Mt Buller at 1,805 metres. Then super easy downhill for a few kms with everyone enjoying the fresh start and each others company. ‘Sweet’ I’m thinking, ‘we’re gonna SMASH that two hour estimate – Sean doesn’t know what he’s talking about!’
Then, following a simple, innocent green arrow, we turned left off the road. And suddenly it all made sense.
Lesson one: in Australia, never trust a log. No, not because it might be a snake, but because it is the slipperiest object known to mankind. It was carnage all around as one by one we all learned this valuable lesson. There was also no track. Well, not an obvious one. We just followed markers through the bush really. Very technical and you’d be mad to try and run. After about forty minutes I foolishly trusted a log, slipped and fell hard and managed to ram a cut off tree branch into the top of my foot. Serious pain ensued and I couldn’t bend my toes for around ten hours after that – seven days later as I type this it still isn’t great. Towards the base of the descent the track improved and I actually beat the two hour mark by eight minutes. Ha! See! Easy! Yeah right…
Section 02 – Gardners Hut to Upper Howqua – Leg 33.9km – Total 45.5km – 1,854m up – 1,548m down – leg time 4:44 – total time 6:37
This is a big section but an enjoyable one. Very beautiful running beside the Howqua river. Then comes the main climb of 1,100 metres. It’s very steep and the first real taste of what the remainder of the trails will be like. Nearly all the tracks just go straight up the guts of the mountain – none of the criss cross traversing that we tend to prefer on our side of the ditch.
Most direct route possible! I had almost run out of water so 20kms into the leg I refilled at a water tank beside Bluff Hut (32km). While this did me no harm during the race, I’m pretty sure it was responsible for me being pretty sick for 24 hours after the event. If I had known that the following 13kms to Upper Howqua were the easiest and fastest 13kms in the entire race I wouldn’t have bothered – but hindsight is often cruel! Cross a river and there is the family! So good to see everyone and soak in some aid station atmosphere.
Section 03 – Upper Howqua to Speculation – Leg 17.3km – Total 62.8km – 1,578m up – 822m down – leg time 3:56 – total time 10:33
This is where things got really interesting. The ascent to Mt Howitt (54km) began harmlessly enough with a few meandering river crossings, then up we went through something that mostly resembled a trail – which was nice! Then came the ominous sound of distant rolling thunder. Not exactly what you want to hear when you are on your way up to an exposed 1,800 metre peak. Soon we could see the flashes as well, then it boomed right overhead along with heavy rain and hail. Fellow runner and all round good-guy-to-have-a-beer-with Simon Byrne and I hit the deck and threw our carbon fibre poles away – not great things to have on you in an electrical storm.
After a few minutes we realised that lying still in a hail storm gets you really cold so we put on our big boy pants and carried on. It was not long after this I was joined by fellow kiwi Tom Hunt – a seasoned ultra man who it turns out lives about ten minutes from me – small world! We ended up running/walking/climbing together for the next twelve hours – so good to have company into the night. The Cross Cut Saw, Mt Buggery, Horrible Gap – someone had fun naming all the points along this section. We arrived at the Mt Speculation check point in good spirits and ready for a moments pause. Looking back, that section was probably my favourite section of the whole race – lots of proper alpine running.
Section 04 – Speculation to East Buffalo Road – Leg 31.2km – Total 94km – 2,119m up – 2,637m down – leg time 7:29 – total time 18:02
Absolute monster of a section. This took us 7 1/2 hours despite the fact that we were both in good shape. There was a 45 degree rock face to traverse and a cable ladder climb up out of a rock shaft towards the top of ‘The Viking’ (73km) – one of the best names for a mountain I’ve ever heard. A quick soak up of the view before yet another lightning storm started heading our way – here began a very very steep descent – especially tricky in the wet and wild weather – before we started making our way through the first section of the Barry Mountains.
A lot of this was runnable and we made good ground. On the final climb up to the East Buffalo aid station the rain was really hammering down so it was a wonderful thing to get under the cover of the tents for a few minutes. ‘Would you like some Hash Browns?’ ‘I’m sorry, did you say Hash Browns!!??’ Turns out they weren’t kidding – warm shredded potato goodness out here in the absolute middle of nowhere. I think they even stood in the rain to cook them. Now THAT is classy. There is a lot to do at these aid stations especially when they are 7 1/2 hours apart. Change of thermal and shirt, refill all the bottles – some with tailwind, some just water, eat, drink, eat some more, repack everything, stow drop bag and then get moving.
Section 05 – East Buffalo Road to Selwyn Creek Road – Leg 14.2km – Total 108.2km – 935m up – 859m down – leg time 3:40 – total time 21:43
This should have been fairly straight forward – a short leg and not too much climbing – but things are often not what they seem in ultras. The first moment came around the 100k mark where it became evident that I was moving at a quicker pace to Tom and a very reluctant parting of ways had to happen – I was really enjoying the company but had to accept that this was a race after all and why not try and go for it. So off into the dark and lonely night I went – for the first time solo – but it was not for long. An Aussie runner by the name of Dave Batho was wandering around just past the summit of Mt Selwyn (103km) and he was not a happy chap – I quickly discovered why – the trail markers were nowhere to be seen (they are reflective and can normally be spotted from a long way off). We split up and criss crossed our way blindly until finally a shout from Dave signalled that a marker had been found. But this was just the beginning of a very long and slow descent where we were constantly stopping and heading off in different directions to find the next marker tag. Really, this is not what you want to be doing at 2 o’clock in the morning. There a few rumours and theories as to why the navigation was so difficult in this section but I’ll leave that for another forum.
Section 06 – Selwyn Creek Road to Mt Saint Bernard – Leg 16.8km – Total 125km – 1302m up – 949m down – leg time 4:16 – total time 26:00
Quickly in and out of the aid station (no drop bag here) and I found myself in the company of Ross McPhee and Andy Turner – good blokes. Once again this section was much harder than it looked on paper (you can see a theme developing I’m sure – everything was harder than it looked on paper!). I knew there was this climb to something called ‘The Twins’ (121km) but the mountains before that were so tough I actually thought I’d already done it. How wrong I was.
As dawn lit up the western sky in blood red we looked at an almighty climb that loomed ahead of us. The profile says it was only 200 metres – and I guess it was – but it’s the hardest 200 metre climb I’ve ever done. It is followed by an equally steep 300 metre descent – quads starting to really voice their disapproval now. An easy (by comparison) climb up Mt Saint Bernard, turn the corner and there is the wonderful sight of the family waiting on a beautiful clear morning. Huge lift to the spirits – the pumpkin soup really helps too (thank you Emma!!) I am now joined by my pacer Rod Foster – who also paced me at C2K last year. Much better race this year though – moving freely and keen to get this done.
Section 07 – Mt Saint Bernard to Harrietville – Leg 21.9km – Total 146.9km – 600m up – 1,589m down – leg time 4:05 – total time 30:05
Tarmac? For 6 kms? No chance to fly though, it is a steep uphill – very reminiscent of coast2Kosci actually – suddenly the monotony of the road made me feel tired for the first time. Luckily it didn’t last too long – we then hit a juicy 1.5 kilometres of descent in the space of around 8kms. Really tough on the legs and I couldn’t go as fast as I wanted too. Somewhere along here Christian Stockle flew past like a man possessed – he eventually finished a remarkable fourth place which goes to show that if you’ve managed to save a bit in the tank for the end you can really move up the placings.
Nice run into Harrietville and it’s the final aid station before the finish – last opportunity to see the family before the very long final section. I am informed that they have the best donuts in the world here – a bold claim but sadly I never got to try them!
Section 08 – Harrietville to Bright – Leg 34.1km – Total 181km – 1,318m up – 1,511m down – leg time 5:36 – total time 35:42
Yes, the final section is 34 brutal kilometres long and there are no water drops. I had been freaking out about this section since the day the course notes were released – and it delivered. The long initial ascent wasn’t too bad – it was the twenty million little bitey ones that followed that started to break my spirit. Up until this point I had been in a good headspace overall. Now for the first time it was getting really hot. It’s early afternoon on the second day, nearly 30 degrees and humidity is through the roof. Just before the high point at 159kms I had my one and only pity party. I was freaking out about the heat and our lack of water and I just wanted to get this thing over with. I expected a little sympathy from Rod – ha! I got none. Instead he said (and this is a very loose quote because I was a bit loopy at this point) ‘we’ve only got 20 to go. Lets break it down into 5k sections – theres only four of those. You’re going well, you’re in the top ten and we’re damn well going to stay there. Now get moving!!’ It was just what I needed. Good on ya mate. Then two merciful things happened – we started going downhill again and it started raining hard – a big temperature drop and we were moving at double the speed. I was starting to mildly hallucinate by this point – seeing pot plants in the middle of the track – and every dead tree looked like a signpost – I kept looking forward to seeing what was written on them only to have my hopes dashed every time! Anyway…. huge descent again and all of a sudden we only had three kilometres to go – and it was all flat. We looked back down a long straight and there was no one behind us so we knew we could enjoy the last few minutes. We joined a single track alongside the river and it was great to still be sitting on 6 minute k’s. The rain had gone and all was well when suddenly the runner Stephen Rennick comes flying by. ‘Where did he come from!?’ Rod and I asked each other. He was gone in a flash and we had no chance of chasing him down – full credit to him – i would have done exactly the same thing if I saw a catch that close to the line.
The good news is I finished in 8th place which is where I thought I was before being passed so it was all ok with me. A silver buckle (for finishers under the 40 hour mark) and a wonderful hug from super-support-crew wife then, for the first time in a day and a half, I could sit down.
It’s an amazing course, albeit far rougher than anything I expected but on reflection that makes conquering it all the more satisfying. They want to do it in reverse next year – now that really is bonkers!
Approx 14 x Pure energy gels (kiwi made, very good on stomach, highly recommend)
1 x frozen smoothie – rice milk, banana, berries, LSA and ground almonds (approx 300 grams per bag)
2 x One Square Meal bars (bite size)
3 x date muesli bars
2 x cups of pumpkin soup
4 x hash browns!!
Some nuts, chocolate, watermelon
Tailwind and water.
Garmin Fenix 3 watch with portable USB charger which allowed it to record the entire event (had to recharge twice on this one).
Altra Lone Peak 3.5 shoes (didn’t change them, didn’t need to)
Icebreaker long ski socks
UD PB 3.0 Vest
Black Diamond Carbon Z poles
AY-UP head torch with spare battery
Battery charger and the usual themals, jacket, pants, buff etc…
A huge thank you to my family for their support, Rod for being a rock solid pacer and a damn fine chap, Stephen Redfern for his lending of stuff and also being a damn fine chap (and monster of an ultra runner) and thanks to you for reading this ridiculously long race report! The inaugural Tarawera 100mile race is next (Feb 2018) – see you there!