The Race

85km
4800m+ elevation
Unmarked course

Pre-race excitment

Harrietville Caravan Park 5:55am:

People are milling around the startline in the pre-dawn darkness, headlamps on, nervous chatter breaking the still early morning air.  It’s the inaugural running of the Hell’s Cauldron, an 85k monster through the brutally beautiful Victorian Alps.  I’ve been in the same place at the same time for the last 3 years….but this year feels different.  I feel more relaxed…calm even.  Previous years I’ve been racing, but this year feels like an adventure, or an expedition.  I feel like I’m here to complete, not compete.  It’s the most relaxed I’ve felt at a startline in a long time.

With a few brief words from Paul reminding the 40k & 64k runners to turn up Feathertop Lane & not follow us out the Great Alpine Rd, we trotted out of the caravan & on our way to one of the biggest adventures of my life!!!

Now, a word of warning…I’m going to be very sketchy with the details of the course.  As part of entry into this race, we had to sign a waiver not to share any GPX files etc. in regards to the course.  I will only share details that are already commonly known!  In the true spirit of the event, I ditched my GPS watch for a very classy $13- Casio!

I also want to outline my nutrition plan for the race here, as it was vastly different to what I have previously used.  For the first time in a race (I’d been doing it for a couple of months in training) I was going to use only Trail Brew (a powder blend of carbohydrates, electrolytes & natural flavouring) & water.  I’d been playing around with different ways of doing it, but had settled on using a double-concentration of Trail Brew in one 500mL flask (400 Calories) and water in the other, as recommended to me by Darcy from Trail Brew.  The aim was to drink half a flask of Trail Brew every hour (200 Cal) then drink as much water as I felt I needed.  The benefit of doing it this way was that I could adjust the amount of overall fluid I was drinking depending on the conditions simply by drinking more or less water, without having to muck around with the strength of the Trail Brew mixture.

Anyway, where was I?  As we headed out the road, there was that one obligatory runner that didn’t listen at the race start & had to double-back as they missed the turn down Feathertop Lane!!!  As we passed the 64k & 40k turnoff, I could see the headlamps of 4 or 5 runners bobbing along in front of me, about 50m or so ahead.  I gradually caught up to the lead group as we headed out to the Trout Farm & went past all but one of them as they stopped to check their maps & their bearings.

Mandatory gear

As we headed up the gravel road I looked out to the left for the pink ribbon (the one & only course marking on our entire course!) that signified where we needed to turn off onto the singletrack where the real adventure began!  I just caught sight of it at the last second & turned off & called for the other runner to follow me.

We went along in silence for a while until he asked “are you sure we’re going the right way?  I haven’t seen any trail markers?”  I told him “it’s ok, I know exactly where I’m going & there aren’t a lot of trail markers out this way”

We chatted for a while as we hit a section of the trail that climbs 1000m+ over 4k & I found out his name was Matt & this was the first time he’d been in Victoria outside of Melbourne.  Turns out he is only 24 (yeah, that makes me feel f’ing old) AND he’s already completed a miler at Tarawera…in 22 hours no less!!!  I was thinking this is probably the last time I’ll see him before he disappears off into the distance as we heard someone else coming up behind us.  It was Dan Beard, who I’d seen at a few other runs before, but never really spoken to before.  We all chatted for a bit, laughed at Matt’s kit (he had thigh sleeves & short shorts on that made it look like he was wearing arseless chaps), discussed the fact that at his age he should be out drinking beers & not running with us old folks, then Matt took the up the lead when I said I was sick of taking all the spiderwebs for them.

Matt disappeared up the trail & Beardy & I got to know each other for a bit.  After quite a while of talking families & trends in pharmacy, Beardy let me know my shoelace was undone.  I stopped to do it up but told him to keep going as I needed to swap the empty bottles in the front of my pack for the full ones in the back.

I caught back up to him a while later as he stopped at a spring to refill his water & followed him up the last steep climb up to the peak of Mt Feathertop together.  As we climbed towards the summit the fog became thicker & thicker to the point where visibility was reduced to about 20m or so.  We got to what we thought was the summit, but we were both unsure as, if you’ve ever been to Feathertop, there’s no bright shiny sign saying “you are here”.  You usually just know, because you can see that you’re on the tallest peak.  But, with the fog, we simply couldn’t see.

My new favourite fuel!We both decided we didn’t want to be cheats, so we kept heading down the other side, but the track soon disappeared into nothing, so we went back up & decided that yes, this must be the summit after all!  We were still a little confused as we hadn’t seen Matt & we should have seen him on this out & back part of the course.

A bit foggy on Feathertop!

Beardy told me to go past if I wanted & I took the invitation as technical descending is one of my strong points.  I was feeling super-relaxed as I descended down Feathertop.  On the way down I saw Matt & he called out that he had missed the turnoff, so it now made sense why he hadn’t seen him earlier.  I headed towards the Diamantina Spur turnoff & was happy to pass Mick (who I had come to Harrietville with) coming the other way along the Razorback in the 22k event, looking strong.

I turned down Diamantina Spur (one of my favourite tracks in the Vic Alps) & told myself to take it easy on this steep & treacherous track…then promptly ignored my own advice & overtook 6 or 7 of the 64k runners on the steep rocky section towards the bottom of the track.  I stopped at the river to refill my 4 x 500mL flasks (2 with Trail Brew powder, 2 just water) & headed up the next big climb.

As I jogged/hiked up the climb I heard a howl & some strange growls from off in the distance somewhere & was wondering if it was an Alpine Dingo, when I heard a much closer & more urgent CRACK from just behind me.  I turned just in time to see a large tree crashing to the ground about 20m behind me, taking out 2 smaller trees in the process.  For the next half an hour I swear every tree on the spur started making suspicious noises!!!

There was a big red-bellied black snake (more yellow than red) to greet me at the top of the climb.  I tried to get it to move off the track by banging my hiking poles on the ground a few times, but I think it was too cold because it didn’t even acknowledge my existence…so I just carefully skirted around behind it’s tail and kept on moving.

The next few km were fairly uneventful, having to follow the orange resort boundary poles at one stage where the track is unmarked & gets a little sketchy, passing one of the iconic High Country huts soon after.

cameron wood 04After a short steep descent down to a creek crossing, and a fairly short, but HOT climb up & over the Great Alpine Road, I reached the first (of two) checkpoints at the 42km mark, well under the 9 hour cutoff in 6hr 25min.  I slammed down a mini ginger beer can from my dropbag & refilled my 4 drink flasks, (after sanitising) again 2 with Trail Brew, 2 with water.  I stood chatting for a while to the guy at the checkpoint about the course, then as I headed off I asked him if he could hold up the next runner for an hour for me…which he politely declined!

About 100m down the track I turned & ran back as I realised I’d left half my shit from my dropbag sitting on the table, but the aid station attendant repacked it for me before I got there, so I could turn back & head on my way.  I was hoping that I had enough fluid (2L) on board to make it to the next checkpoint at 70km without having to refill, but I knew there were a couple of points along the river where I could refill before then if needed.

On the next section of the course, I got to see several of the 64k runners heading in the opposite direction & it was nice to be able to say hello & talk to people other than myself!  As I descended the next steep section the sun had come out & it was starting to get quite warm.  By the time I reached the bottom of the valley I had already used most of the water from one of my flasks, so I refilled it & headed along a nice runnable section, still feeling pretty good.

The k’s ticked by fairly quickly, but as I neared the last (and nastiest) climb of the course I had already nearly drained my water bottle again, so at the last available river crossing I refilled it once more. I actually asked myself out loud if I was going have enough water to make it through the next 14k stretch, as there were no more opportunities to refill until the last checkpoint at roughly 70k.

cameron wood 05Now, here is where I put an “Explicit Language” warning.  I you’re ok with the F-bomb read ahead…

I started the climb, knowing it was going to be difficult, but also knowing it was the last major climb on the course.  I thought if I can get to the top of this & still be in front, I was confident I could hold out anyone on the last technical descent.  It was the first time I’d really thought about winning & I was on a high…for all of about 3 minutes.

Even without having over 50km in the legs, this particular climb is possibly the hardest one I have ever done in an event.  It didn’t take long for negative thoughts to creep in, and by the time I was about 10mins in I’d had enough.  It was steep, it was rocky, it was hot and I had had enough.  At that point, if it was easy to withdraw from the race I think I would have done it.  The problem was, it was such a remote section of the course, if I pulled out I had to keep going anyway, so I didn’t have a choice.

I started hoping for someone to overtake me, so I could sit down and have a rest for half an hour.  I didn’t care about winning anymore, I just wanted for it to be over.  But, despite hearing voices (imaginary apparently) several times, every time I turned around there was no one there!  I started talking to myself…”you’re going fucking crazy! There’s no one there!”

I was taking 4 or 5 steps then stopping and yelling out “THIS IS FUCKED!!!” taking a deep breath, then repeating the process!  I could hear my heartbeat in my ears so I started trying to focus on my breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth.  Every time I stopped I thought of Gordy, the guy whose horse was lame so he ran the Western States 100mile on foot, and him saying “I just focused on what I could do.  I could still put one foot in front of the other, so while I could do that, I was still moving”

Thankfully, this particular climb gets a bit easier towards the top, so after God knows how long things FINALLY started to get a tiny bit easier.  I gave myself permission to walk the entire section, even though there was runnable bits, to try & recover a little and save some energy for a bit later on and I think this helped me mentally get through it.  Once I reached the top of the climb I had regathered my shit and was filling a million times better.  I even started to get a bit teary thinking of seeing the kids at the finish line…but then I said out loud “snap out of it dickhead, you’ve still got nearly 25k to go!”  I tucked my hat into my pants to stop it from blowing off and headed off.

I was down to about half a flask of water and was going through it quickly & I estimated I still had an hour or so to go until the last checkpoint.  That didn’t worry me too much as going without water for half an hour or so shouldn’t cause too many issues.  I started running along one of the most stunning sections of singletrack in you will find anywhere, undulating with only the odd little steep section here & there, and actually started singing out loud to myself.  The song that always pops into my head is “Chase That Feeling” by The Hilltop Hoods, because that’s what ultra-running is all about, but I had to stop as I was starting to come across some of the back half of the 64k field heading past in the opposite direction.

This particular section of trail lets you see the final checkpoint from quite a long way away, giving you the illusion that you are closer than you think.  Seeing the hut that marked where I would be able to refill with water, I drained the last of my flask thinking I’d be there soon.  Rookie mistake.  I think in hindsight I might have still been probably 6k away, and the wind was making my mouth sooooo dry!

Finish line hugsThe next 30-40mins saw the seeds of doubt re-sewn in my mind & I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see if someone was coming up behind me, until I finally yelled at myself “What the fuck are you gonna do if you see someone?  You can’t go any faster than you already are.  You’ll just end up falling flat on your face!!!”

And, I did…about 30 seconds later!  Luckily, as I tripped, I managed to roll so that my pack took the brunt of the impact.  Thank God for all that mandatory gear giving me a soft landing!!!  I got up & had a moment of panic as the detachable pocket that holds my phone was missing from my right shoulder, but thankfully it was sitting in the alpine scrub, just to the side of the pack.  I re-attached it, took a deep breath & continued on my way.

Looking out across the valley towards Mt Buffalo I saw a flash of lightning & briefly wondered if I should ditch my poles in case they became lightning rods…but it was still a fair way off, so I thought that can be a problem I leave for future me to deal with!

By the time I reached the hut, I could no longer spit or swallow my mouth was so dry!  I could see a chair & a clipboard next to the hut door, but there was no one in sight.  I stuck my head in and called out “knock knock!” and someone came rushing out & said “Sorry!  I wasn’t expecting someone so early”  I looked at my watch & what I had hoped would take me 4 hours had taken a little over 5!

She asked if I wanted to come in by the fire & I just said “No thanks, I’m too thirsty!”  Not sure it really made sense, but she didn’t question it!  She grabbed my drop bag for me & I slammed down another ginger beer can, then she helped me fill 2 of my bottles, 1 with Trail Brew.  I knew that this probably wouldn’t be enough water, but I also knew it would be quicker for me to refill my water bottle from the river I would be crossing in just over an hour’s time rather than take my pack off to swap bottles.

Once again, I got about 50m down the track before realising I’d left my poles behind so had to turn back to grab them!  As I turned once again to leave the checkpoint, I saw Matt coming into it & he couldn’t have been more than a minute behind.  As we passed he said “Seeya at the finish line” & I replied “You’ll probably see me before that!”

I put my head down & hiked up the last little climb, looking back a couple of times but unable to see Matt behind me.  I looked at my watch & it was after 5:30pm.  I probably had 2 hours of daylight left, if that, as the clouds were coming in & the rain was threatening & it was getting darker by the second.

From there, it was a steeeeeep rocky section for a few k, undulating for a couple of k, then steeeeep again down to the river.  My quads & hips were tight & I couldn’t afford a fall on this section so I was very tip-toey on the rocky technical sections, then lengthened my stride on any less steep & less rocky sections.  Even then, it seemed to go on forever & I was back to yelling again “When will this fucking end!?” and “I just want to get off this fucking mountain”.  Eventually I could hear the river below, so I grabbed my now empty water flask out & took the lid off, not wanting to waste any time.

I ducked to the right of the bridge & refilled my bottle in record time, the whole process only using up probably 15-20 seconds & I remember thinking “why don’t I do that every time?” then crossed over to a short steep climb up from the river on the other side.  Crossing the river I looked at my watch & it was 6:55pm.  I estimated the last section would take me roughly 40mins so I should come in just after 7:30pm & hopefully not have to get my headlamp out.

All of a sudden I felt energised.  All my self-doubt, all the muscle soreness, all the fatigue slipped away.  I felt fast, I felt fit, I felt fresh!  I don’t know how it happened, but that last 5-6k of the race I was flying along beautiful ferny, glorious singletrack, feeling better than I had for the entire day!  I knew for the first time that I was going to win.  I felt invincible!  The rain started coming down but that just made me feel even better!  I’m getting tingles now even describing the feeling.  I’m not sure if this is what people mean when they talk about finding your “flow” on the trails, but the feeling was incredible.

For the next 20mins or so I flew, not thinking about anything, just existing in this moment, feeling like I was floating, until the sight of the trailhead just up ahead snapped me out of it.  In the few seconds I took my eyes of the trail I smashed my big left toe into a rock & somehow managed to stay on my feet.  The pain was instant, but I wasn’t going to stop.  I knew where I was.  I knew I just had to make it about a k and a half down the road to the caravan park & I was done.

I hobbled for a bit until I could force myself to ignore the pain & return to some sort of normal running gait.

The trophyAs I ran down the road into the caravan park, I could see my 12 yr-old Declan waving and running around excitedly.  I picked up my pace & near on sprinted down to the finish line.  I had done it.  I had completed the hardest event in my life, and somehow I had won it!!!

My 9 yr-old Finn hugged me at the finish line & I said to him “I’m soaking wet & I stink” and he just said “I don’t care” & hugged me even tighter.
Finish line hugs

There was a little confusion as they said that I came second.  I looked at them bewildered and said “What are you talking about, I’ve been in front for nearly 70km!”  The lady marking finishers on her clipboard quickly set us all straight, saying I was definitely first & the other person with the Hells Cauldron bib they had seen had transferred to a shorter distance.

Crisis averted, I hung out at the finish line to wait for Matt to finish, but could only say a quick congrats before I had to take off to the shower as my whole body was shaking from the cold by this stage!!!

The next morning was a short presentation & catch-up with the other runners. 9 out of the 15 had managed to finish, with only 4 of us going under the original 15 hour cutoff (extended to 18 hours a few weeks before the race).