It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings

… but in my case, it was more like Roxette belting out “These boots were made for walking” with perfectly timed ironic angst.

After covering 315km in four days and finally feeling like I was on the home straight, my attempt at the 450km ANZAC Ultra was finished. I suddenly went from bouncing along the trail to having sharp shooting pains all up my left shin, unable to bear any weight on my left leg. When I saw that the swelling and redness had spread from my lower shin up my leg and around towards the achilles, I switched off the music and turned around on the trail.

Canberra is gorgeous!
Ready to start!

Four days ago, 8am on Easter Monday, a small group of runners set off on an epic challenge that sought to celebrate the centenary of ANZAC Day, and raise funds for Legacy, an ex-service organisation that looks after the welfare of former servicemen and their families. The original route was meant to re-enact the 320 mile Cooee Recruitment March from Gilgandra to Sydney, but red tape and logistical obstacles saw the final route manifest as a 6-laps of a 75km loop on the Canberra Centenary Trail. There’d be teams and runners doing shorter (300/150/75km) runs which started later in the week so ideally it wouldn’t get too lonely out there!

450km would be the furthest I’d ever attempted. For those of you who asked why, it’s because it was there. I chanced upon the race on one night, and after a few emails exchanged with RD Phil Essam,  I’d signed up. I like challenges, and this one was too good to pass up. I didn’t know too much about ANZAC, but I found out soon enough.

My official cheerleaders

Arriving in Canberra Easter Saturday weekend, it was a whirlwind of family (my cousin, Pinghan, and his gorgeous family had offered to take me in and also help crew me for the race), friends, logistics and crazy weather. The race start was at Stromlo Forest Park, where some runners and crew had already set up tents and campervans and our tent was tiny in comparison! I was so lucky to meet Gavin and Jeff from Tailwind (one of the race sponsors) who not only lent us a mallet for the tent pegs (super-hard ground there .. noted for next time!), but also very kindly gave me a bag of Tailwind to get me through the first day as my supplies wouldn’t arrive till Monday night via ‘Buzz Express’! 😉

Race village – ours is the blue one on the left 🙂
No such thing as bad weather …

Lap 1 – Monday 8am, 0km done
The race briefing was as expected, and lovely to see Aussie ultrarunning legend Wayne ‘Blue Dog’ Gregory again after far too many years! Almost everyone knew everyone else, and I may have been the only nutter outside of Australia who’d signed up, but certainly grateful for a familiar face.

Supplies tent!
450km or bust!

The forecast was for rain, and it was much colder than I’d expected. Anyway, life goes on and once I’d done my massive grocery shop, unpacked everything from the Iherb delivery and sorted out the squillion things on my race check list, it was Sunday night and time for bed. How on earth do you prepare for a 450km single-stage race? I was so excited I couldn’t sleep properly .. feeling good!

After discussion with Mile 27 coach Andy Dubois, the basic plan was to go as far as possible before collapsing from exhaustion, have a short sleep of 20-60 mins, restock, refuel, and repeat. I meant to average 15h per loop including rests and had a total target of 90 hours to complete. Nutrition was to be Tailwind throughout –  it worked well for me and I had a stack of snacks in case I felt like a treat. Best laid plans and all that.

Unmanned water point at Kambah Pool

There were 20 solo runners and four teams, so a nice little group. It was cold but dry at the start, and we were waved off without much fanfare, steady as you go. Pinghan would start meet me at the end of the first loop with some hot food and Buzz would take over when he arrived that night. I run with a tall chap named Geoff for some of the way, he’s got pink zinc striped across his face and only arrived at 3am this morning from Sydney, after all week in a yacht race, crikey! 23km to Checkpoint 1 at Tuggeranong went by way too fast, I know I should slow down but I’m running as I feel. My enthusiasm will burn off in a 100km or so, but for now lets go with it.

It’s not as flat as I thought it’d be, though. In fact, it’s bloody hilly for a 1000m D+ loop so far. The terrain is ok, hard-packed and not technical at all. There’s a beautiful gorge (Murrumbidgee River, I think) and lots of massive kangaroos along the way. Everyone who’s run past has been lovely and chatted for a bit, and I’ve already showed how sure-footed I am by tripping over nothing at all .. Andy Sewell runs past, amazed he’s found someone clumsier than himself. 😉

Andy running past

The route marking is pretty clear so far, rain started around noon and the second leg (28km) from Tuggeranong to CP2 at Lennox Gardens had a few ‘nice’ climbs. Not the same adjectives on later laps for sure! Feeling great and chugging along, I meet Liz Stephens and Lisa Hussey (and Gonzo!) along Mugga Lane, and am rather envious of Matt Daniels’ welcome convoy compete with customised t-shirts just before we hit CP2.

Liz, Lisa and Andy 🙂

I haven’t taken anything from the CPs so far, still good with water and Tailwind .. I’ll refuel at a water stop later on. I haven’t need to drink much so far due to the cold. I’ve been alone for most of the day (with Tiggs on my shoulder) and going round Lake Burley Griffin is the flattest section (8km), and possibly the most mind-numbing. Nearly get lost trying to find the bridge across to the other side, but it all works out and I’m at Black Mountain Peninsula before I know it. Skeeta (Matt’s crew) and a lovely elderly couple (Cheryl’s parents/crew) are there and I’ve seen Skeeta at so many places along the way so far that I thought he was a volunteer marshall and that they were either triplets or Phil managed to get loads of volunteers who really looked the same! I didn’t twig till later that he was waiting for Matt ..

Gorgeous afternoon by the lake ..

A loop of the peninsula and then towards the Arboretum, it was lovely inside the cork oak plantation, nice and soft underfoot and I couldn’t resist the temptation to poke one of the cork oaks to see if it was really that soft. Just 16kms to finish the first loop, it’s undulating again and I’m looking forward to the hot rice and salmon that’s waiting for me at Stromlo. It’s been a cold and increasingly wet day, but nothing I haven’t done before and time to get ready for Lap 2. It’s just gone dark by the time I get to Stromlo, and I’ve run in with Cheryl, who’s doing a great job so far. The 920XT’s battery gave up the ghost just before I got in, it’s taken me just over 10 hours for this first lap.

Lap 1 done!

Pinghan, Phil, Phoebe and Nellie are all there waiting, Tailwind mixed, chargers ready and jammies on. In the mad rush with kids and kit, the hot food was left behind, so Pinghan scoots back to get it while I try to stay warm. It’s just over an hour before I’m headed out again, had to hide in the ladies changing rooms to stay out of the wind, but all good. It’s raining heavily now and Phil wants to know if I’ll wait a bit? Nah. Might as well just plug on while I can. It’s about 7.30pm, Monday night.

Karen’s crew was well stocked and mobile 😉

Lap 2 – Monday 8pm, 75km done
It’s quite different in the dark. The course markings aren’t very reflective, so I’m glad we got to do the first loop in daylight. My propensity to get lost is always a worry, but at least I get to do take the scenic route! I catch up to Matt not long after, he’s lost the trail and we amble ahead together. It’s nice to have some company at last, more so in the dark. We catch up with Liz a little further on, and she’s got enough energy to power all of us. I’m try to keep up with her powerhouse pace, whilst holding a conversation, answering her phone and generally distracting us from the fact that it’s cold and wet. She’s also carrying everything and the kitchen sink with her, I’m so impressed I think I have a girl crush for the first time in decades. And you should see her guns. I’m hitting the gym when I get back to HK.

Black Mountain in the distance .. Canberra is definitely NOT flat.
Still not flat. 

Somehow Matt drops behind, but we stop periodically to shout out and check he’s still on the trail. The highlight of the night had to be the massive wombat we saw … it was the same size as me if I was wombat-shaped! I was totally stoked to have seen that! Coming up to CP1, I get a message from Buzz to say he’ll be in Canberra soon – he was driving over from Sydney. He’ll meet me just after CP1 for a status check, yay!

Autumn colours enroute

Liz and I get through CP1 and head for McDonalds (I didn’t even know it was there!), hoping to get a hot drink .. we’re soaked through and freezing by now. No luck. The 24h Maccas is only open for drive-in customers and will only serve people in CARS. Not even if you’re freezing, wet and have just run 98km. We get rescued by a lovely chap who drives in and buys us both a hot drink. Bless! xx
Liz heads off with her coffee as she’s got her car parked about 20km away, and she’ll stop there for a sleep. Buzz arrives a few minutes later, swaps my two pairs of wet gloves for a dry set, gives me a hug and sends me on my way. Hot tea coming through!

A much needed hot tea

The next leg to CP2 is awful. I’m getting colder, wetter and slower, and the sleep monster has started his shift early. Once I’m in the bush, I’m bouncing off trees, walking with my eyes shut and suddenly desperate for a sleep. I can’t stop as I know I’ll freeze, so I just keep going. The bush is pretty sparse, so when I see anything big enough to sit on, or lean against, I do so, count to 20, then get going again. Oh, and check for spiders first.

Sunrise at last!

Its taken forever to get to CP2 – 11.5h, longer than my entire first lap! My crew are worried. I’ve been in contact so they know I’m ok, and are waiting for me at Lennox Gardens with a camp bed, dry clothes and hot food. I’m so grateful to see them! Quick refuel, they tuck me in and I’m out like a light for 60 minutes.

Coming into CP2 and FREEZING
Time for 40 winks .. I’m under there somewhere.

I’M UP! OK, recharged and ready to go! The sun is out at last, I’m fed and dry with fresh shoes and socks, then Buzz waves me off.  It’s the boring flat loop around the lake, but it’s slow and steady. The 920XT is dead and I’m on the 310XT now, but the readings are all wonky and taking it out of retirement was not the best idea.

Me and Tiggs on the run

The next bit is a bit fuzzy and I can’t remember who I did or didn’t see (not hallucinating yet) but I do know it was a bit of an effort to get back to Stromlo (150km done!) and things are starting to hurt. Both my Achilles are swollen and sore, I have another mystery sore lump on the top of my right foot and I’m completely wet and frozen again. Buzz makes me stand under the hot shower for 10 minutes as he updates me. Several runners were pulled off the course the night before with hypothermia, and it looks like the weather will get worse before it gets better. I’m cold and grumpy and not receiving this news very well. I change, eat, and see if the massage services by Michael Gillan would help. It’s nearly 2pm on Tuesday, and I faff around trying to get some sleep and work out what’s wrong with my Achilles. Laces are loosened on coach Andy’s advice, and hopefully that’ll sort out the pain and swelling on the top of my foot. Buzz and I decide I should head out just before it gets dark and cover as much ground as I can. I plan to do the full loop so it’s hi-vis vest and headlamp on, and out I go into the rain again.

Lap 3 – Tuesday 6pm, 150km done
It doesn’t seem to take long to get to CP1 again. With the exception of a near head-on collision with a large man-sized kangaroo on the trail, it’s pretty uneventful and the pain in my achilles is bearable. The rain got worse, and Buzz met me just after CP1 with a change of plans. I thought I’d try and get a quick 30mins kip and dry off before tackling section 2, but the weather had other plans. We end up sleeping fitfully in the car till daybreak – the rain was so heavy and it snowed at one point in the night .. Buzz took the executive decision to wait it out.

Ready to rock after a night in the car

SO. Wednesday 5am and back on the trail again. I was aiming for a 15h loop, and feeling good after some rest. The sun was out, I was keeping up a pace again and apart from my right ITB complaining a little (I guessed from trying to save my sore achilles) everything felt good.

Not so easy to get through these gates after 225km!

This was my favourite lap so far, everything felt great, mainly because the sun was out, and I was (relatively) flying. Had some company on the boring flat lake loop with superfast Liz, her friend and their dog (sorry, names all forgotten!). Looking forward to dry clothes and hot food waiting at Stromlo, I was having a great time. I think really need to stick to the warm, dry races. I was still on Tailwind and random snacks, looking forward to pot noodles or rice and salmon at the end of each loop. The last 4 km back into Stromlo didn’t quite go as planned, with achilles hurting again and this time my lower left shin feeling pretty wrecked as well.

Kangaroo spotting again
Blue Dog motoring on banana power

I pretty much walked the last bit in, passed by Liz who was powering ahead, Blue Dog, who was on banana power, and I limped into Stromlo just under 16h (minus the giant nanna nap in the car) feeling rather sorry for myself. There was a gorgeous sunset, and just enough warmth in the air to cheer me up a little. Buzz got Danny the medic to come take a look at my legs in the race office where it was warm and dry. Danny made all sorts of disapproving noises, but to be fair, he did his best to keep all of us going for as long as he felt was safe to do so. He thought I might have torn a muscle where my left shin was red, swollen and very sore to touch. At the very least it was some serious shin splints. I haven’t had shin splints for over 20 years! 🙁

Feet up and sunset!

While Danny is sorting me out, Matt and Andy both come in. Matt seems like he’s holding up ok, and is off to rest for the night before going out again the next morning. Andy is hoping to go out again soon, but it looks like he’s got the same problems I have. Danny doses us both up, tells us to rest for the night and play it by ear in the morning. Or at least rest 4 hours or risk bleeding out from the meds. I’ll take the rest if it means I get to carry on, Andy does the same. I can’t face sleeping in the tent or car, so we get to Pinghan’s house and crash out for the night. It feels amazing to have a hot shower and a warm bed, I don’t think I’m going to wake up, and I owe my cousin big time for all his hospitality.

Lap 4 – Thursday 6.30am, 225km done
Amazing what some sleep can do … I’m ready for Lap 4! I start with Lisa (Harvey-Smith), but she’s not having a great time with it and I soon lose her. I asked Buzz to help find me some gaiters and poles, and bless him, he did! I had Sally’s awesome pink gaiters and he’d promised me a set of poles by the time I was done with CP1. What a star. I’m back on track, everything hurts and it’s 2km down the road before I ring Buzz, asking him to meet me enroute with a pair of scissors. We chop off the back of my Hokas, and it’s a world of relief. My sore Achilles hopefully won’t take too long to ease off now. I’m limping along quite happily till I get to the end of Kambah Pool Road. My endorphins seem to hit a black hole, fatigue crashes in and I’m falling into despair. I want to talk to someone but don’t know what to say. I deliberate for ages, still moving forward from force of habit (always useful), and then dial Andy’s (my coach) number. There’s no reply. I try again and then give up, hoping that he might call back. I’ve forgotten he’s at Buffalo Stampede.

Hacked off Hokas
Happy on the start of Lap 4 …
… and then much less happy.

I feel like I’m at the bottom of the barrel and I’ve got nothing left. I’m 240km in, with 210km to go. It feels too far to think about.

Then I remember the emergency ipod. Together with a hand delivery of Gurney Goo (indispensible anti-chafe solution!), John Ellis lent me his ipod with a ‘Jeri The ANZAC’ playlist. I’ve never run with music, in training or in races, but I’d been carrying it in my pack since Monday. Nothing for it. I plug in the earphones and realise I don’t even know how to turn this on .. duh. Tech dinosaur gets the hang of it after a while and I’m good to go.

Cow photobomb .. I think Matty started this 🙂

It’s Fix You by Coldplay. Suddenly I’m crying like a baby and running. Well, running in comparison to my disheartened trudging pace before, anyway. My heart and spirit feel like they’ve been given a huge boost and my brain is completely distracted by the new soundtrack to my epic run. It’s like caffeine but better, and I know the words!

Sun’s out, yay!

“When your legs don’t work like they used to before” from Thinking Out Loud made me giggle, and then Angels by Robbie Williams got me into full on karaoke mode. I scared some kangaroos with my yodelling and was absolutely delighted with drowning out the pain and fatigue with some tunes. New secret weapon!! Plus it was such a surprise to see what the next song would be. I’m eating up the miles, at CP1 in good time and Buzz meets me further along with my new poles. He’s found some Black Diamond foldies, and they’re purple! I KNOW this is going to be a good day.

Pink and purple!

I’m off again, singing, clacking my poles and meeting a few people along the way including Andy and Julie. There are some faster runners now as the 300km runners have started, I do get startled by a couple coming past as I’m in Surround Sound Karaoke Land. ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ takes me up Red Hill,  ‘Mambo No 5’ takes me past Parliament House and ‘Titanium’ takes me into CP2 and 275km. Brilliant! I catch Liz up again and we power walk the second half of the lake, joined by one of her friends. I take off again as I need to move quicker, walking hurts more than running. 

It’s much colder by the time I get to the arboretum, time to layer up. Liz and her friend catch me up there and power on, my shin pain is back big time and I’m back to trudging. No worries, only about 10k to Stromlo! Just then, the magic ipod ran out of battery, and I felt bereft. I was too tired to want to think for myself, so I turned on Ian Corless’ podcasts instead and listened to Sage Canaday blathering on about something instead.
Recharged, refuelled and my shin is looking a bit worse for wear.

Grumpy, cold and finally back at Stromlo, I limp to the race office again for a status check with Danny. My shin is still red and swollen, hurts like a bugger to touch, I feel broken all over and we need a new plan. I’m 300km down, with less than a miler to go, there’s no way I’m giving up yet. Danny’s magic meds are dispensed with the proviso that I get at least 4 hours rest before heading out again, so that’s the plan. Sleep till 5am and then head out. Get another lap in, sleep, and finish the job on Saturday. Worst case I’ll finish Sunday morning. I’m on it.

Not good.
Buzz sets up the camp bed in the ladies changing room again and I crash out there. Except I can’t sleep. I want to go on. I’ve had some hot food, and a bit of banter with some of the other walking wounded – Andy, Matt and Liz all checked in, and now with an hour’s sleep I wanted to go again. I made myself rest a bit longer .. and I give up. I pull on the rest of my warm layers and head out, it’s still dark out but I can’t twiddle my thumbs till sunrise.
Lap 5 – Friday 4.30am, 300km done
I’m off in the dark, but it feels good to be making some progress. It’s slow to start, I’m cold and will need to ease into this. And everything still hurts. I pass Gavin, Jeff and Karen on the way out, and Gav gives me a big hug. His run is over, and I’m gutted for him. 
Just as it’s getting light, Matt comes bouncing past, looking great and we have a quick chat before he heads off again. It’s daylight now and I start taking some layers off, and get passed by Kristy and Colin from the 300km looking nice and strong together. I get new resolve seeing these guys go past, and now I’m stripped down to my skirt, top, poles and ipod. Off we go!
Canberra cloud formations are beautiful!

I love how the light of a new day and some music can make such a difference. Life is good again, the pain is forgotten and I’m clacking past Kristy and Colin, and then past Matt as he stops to refuel with his crew. So lovely to see everyone and I get the feeling I’ve nailed this.

The long stretch down Kambah Pool Road is happy enough, at this pace another 15h loop shouldn’t be an issue. Skeeta and Leigh (Matt’s crew) pass me on the road and stop at the trailhead to wait for Matt. 
I’m bouncing along, about a kilometre in on the trail, when there are shooting pains up my shin and I can’t support my weight. I would’ve fallen if not for the poles. Another 50m of hopping and I know what this means. it’s a different sort of pain. The kind that says ‘Sorry, this is serious.” But I don’t want to accept it. It can’t end like this, not when I’ve broken the back of it, the sun is shining and my ipod is fully charged!
But I can’t even walk. I look down and see the redness and swelling have much further up and around, something Danny told me to look out for. Matt comes by, and offers to call Skeeta to pick me up. I decline and say I’ll get my crew. No sense holding them up, I need to get this looked at first, no telling how long that will take. He gives me a hug and says he’ll finish for me. Everyone I’ve met, runners, crew and volunteers alike have been amazing like that. 
I’m hobbling backwards on the trail and it feels so wrong. It’s always been about moving forward, surely I could make it to CP1? That’s another 12km. No chance. Kristy and Colin pass and offer their sympathies, and so does Valastik.
In the end, Matt called his crew anyway. Leigh and Skeeta found me on the trail and drove me back to Stromlo. Such lovely, generous people I’ve had the privilege of meeting!
Pinghan and Buzz are at Stromlo, and Danny comes in to take a look, and pronounces the end of my run. My crew concurs. 315km and I’m finished, live to race another day.
Gav, Brick and Jeff

Despite the failure of my ANZAC Ultra attempt, seeing the dogged determination of everyone else out there on the course, the supportive marshalls and volunteers smiling no matter what time of day or night, and the generosity of both runners and crew all along the way have really made this an experience to remember. Matt, Blue Dog and Liz all promising to finish for me, Andy gutting it out in spite of an eventual stress fracture, Sam nailing the race with a torn VMO, and Brick finishing in second place despite some very impressive blisters.

No more running
Amazing ladies and 450km finishers!

Huge huge thanks to Buzz, Pinghan, Aimee, Phil and the gorgeous kids for all their help and hospitality, couldn’t have done it without you! xx Coach Andy for all the prep and advice leading up to this and putting up with my constantly changing schedule. So, so glad to have met Bek, Julie, Skeeta, Leigh, Phil, Sally, Cathie, Anya and everyone else I’ve forgotten to mention!

With Andy, Danny and Liz

Big hugs to everyone who sent messages on FB, whatsapp and text .. I got them all and even though I couldn’t reply, your thoughts and strength were very much appreciated xx

War historian C.E.W. Bean defined the spirit of ANZAC to have 
‘stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat.’ 

The hardy souls I met at the ANZAC Ultra certainly embodied these qualities, runner, crew and volunteers alike. Despite the challenges from the weather, cold, a lack of resources or unexpected obstacles, everyone did their best. That’s all that mattered.

This was the only edition to be held so there isn’t a chance to do this again, but there’s more challenges round every corner so I’ll just sort out my shin and get back on the trail. My race report was very much a personal account, but with these events, it’s all about pushing your own limits. I don’t think it’s ever really a race against anyone but yourself unless you’re at the very pointy end of the field. It was quite a lonely journey for the most part .. I had sections with great company, but mostly very long periods by myself.

Danny the medic was an absolute trooper, going well beyond the call of duty. I don’t think he ever slept and he must have boosted the local pharmacy sale a hundredfold with the amount of magic pills he dispensed. But you shouldn’t go round telling ladies they have cellulite! (For the record, he said cellulitis, which is completely different.)

There’s a great account by Rob Sharpe, Gav’s long-suffering crew, here:

Sam Weir’s race report here:

Pics of the event here: (I don’t seem to be in any of them!)

And for those who asked, my equipment list is here: (I did wear everything at the same time when it was cold, plus a few borrowed layers from Buzz and Pinghan!)
Cap – Raidlight
or Visor (daytime only) – Salomon
Buff (for warmth, wiping off Tailwind messes, and emergency boob tube services)
Sunglasses – Oakley zero
Base 1 – Arcteryx Phase SL crew
Base 2 – North Face FlashDry long sleeved base layer
Base 3 – Long sleeve ski thermal top
Armsleeves – Compressport
Mid-base – Marmot ThermalClime Pro 1/2 zip Long sleeve
Waterproof jacket – Marmot Nano and Marmot PreCip 

Gloves – Kalenji liner gloves and Dynafit thernal gloves
Skirt – Salomon Anna Frost Special Edition
Tights – North Face FlashDry
Rainpants – Patagonia H2No Rain pants
Pack –  Salomon S-Lab 5litre
Socks – Drymax crew or Under Armour
Shoes – Hoka Huaka
Anti-Chafe – Gurney Goo
Headlamp – Black Diamond Storm
Nutrition: Tailwind as main base, supplemented with snacks and a hot meal after each lap. I find on the longer events, I use treats as an incentive. They aren’t necessary but I like them so I reduce the amount of Tailwind to compensate.
Tailwind – (approx 1 scoop and hour with 250-500ml water)

Snacks: usually a nibble of something every couple of hours, I didn’t always carry everything, but restocked with what I felt like at each lap.
Clif Kids Organic Zfruit ropes
Salted/honey roasted nuts (macadamia, cashew, almond)
Gluten-free pretzels
Gluten-free shortbread cookies
Bak kwa
Plain salted crisps
Dried fruit – mango and peach
Ginger chews

My toes looked like this after 315km – should’ve gotten a gel pedi! But Gurney Goo was amazing 🙂
These are Brick’s feet … I did give him a tube of Goo for next time! 🙂

1 Comment

  1. Glad you enjoyed my blog abour Gav and our adventures. How did you get so many photos taken ? I gave up after a while. Too wet, too busy, too tired. I was just using a camera, not a phone, but what a great record of the event. Glad to have met you. Get well, and see you out and about somewhere no doubt.


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