Six Foot Track - Race Report

by Sean Greenhill (2001)

"Ride boldly and never fear the spills"
- A.B. "Banjo" Paterson

In the history of Australian ultra running, races have come and gone, the Royal National Park ultras, the Jagungal Wilderness Trail 50 Miler, Brisbane Water Bush Bash, even the Westfield classic. Typically, these events attract only a couple of dozen desperadoes- even the Glasshouse Trail Ultras attract only 25 odd for the 50 and 100 mile events. Cradle Mountain gets 50, while Brindabella Classic has touched the century mark of competitors on occasion.

One event stands out from this proud collection- the Six Foot Track, a classic with an 18 year history and following an early colonial tradition. When the Sydney settlement expanded beyond the barrier of the Blue Mountains and the Jenolan Caves were discovered, a new horse and coach trail was laid down from Katoomba in the 1880s to accomodate the tourist trade. A hundred years later, less than a dozen runners marked the hundredth anniversary of the tracks founding by running the old route from Katoomba to Jenolan, self supported apart from what water could be obtained from puddles, and an aid dump at the Caves Road crossing.

Now this event attracts well over 400 runners a year, with plentiful aid stations staffed by the Blue Mountain bushfire brigades, who are in part funded by the proceedings from this race. In recent years the event has been under the stewardship of Big Chris Stephenson, a triathlete who was one of the runners in that original self supported expedition. Chris, however, had relinquished the reigns this year as the event was held on the same day as the New Zealand Ironman, which Chris would be competing in, looking to qualify for Hawaii. Kevin Tiller, who has run this event plenty of times (along with a lot of other ultras), Cool Running webmaster, and recent founder of the Sydney Fat Ass Ultra series, was the new Race Director.

I rode on a motorbike for the first time on race day- Darryl Chrisp picked me up on his machine for a trip out to his friend Clive's, from where we switched to less heart stopping motor transport for the drive to Katoomba. Having been holding on in white knuckle terror earlier in the morning, I was now able to get a quick snooze in before arriving at the Explorers Tree, where the race would start.

The starting area is a dirt road winding off the Great Western Highway, closed at the far end with a gate, and this morning was full of hundreds of runners, crew and friends and relatives. With skies grey and showers forecast, the temperature was pleasantly cool, although a mist had descended to block any views of the mountains from this high perch above the escarpment floor. It had the hallmarks of near perfect running weather, although for the previous two days rain had dumped on the mountains, so it was likely the trail would be muddy and creeks swollen. I packed two spare pairs of socks- I knew a change would probably be likely after the Cox's River crossing, and a second pair in case the wet conditions dictated it.

Because it attracts so many contestants, Six Foot Track could almost be a social gathering as well as a race. Before the start, friends hail others with a wave of the hand, a shouted name; as you walk around, snatches of overheard conversation, if they are not about old war stories, are punctuated with "have you seen xxxx yet?" At the less frequented, hardcore events, such as Bogong- Hotham and Glasshouse, the pre event conversation is short, tense; faces, minds and bodies steeled for the oncoming onslaught, at Six Foot Track, it is a comradeship, of campaigns rejoined.

I wandered about, eating some complimentary damper bread and puzzling about my race number. Two waves of starters would be used, one at 8am, one at 8.15, to prevent congestion. Last year the fast runners had gone in the first wave; this year, somehow I had ended up in the first wave. My record- 3 starts, 3 finishes- in 5.44, 6.46 and 6.35 consecutively- hardly justified this, it seemed. Bemused, I concluded Kevin must have placed all his old cronies and friends in the first wave and the rest could wait fifteen minutes.

Alf Field asked me about my Cradle Mountain run; I saw Gary Leahey and put it to him that he should do well, given his recent "training run" in Tasmania; Ross Shilston had flown up from Melbourne for his 13th running, unfortunately he had left Kevin Cassidy behind in the deep south. Joining him amongst the Melbourne brigade were the lantern jawed, thoughtful John Lindsay, and Mr Perpetual Motion, Kelvin Marshall. In addition, there were two fellow employees of ACNielsen present; the stocky, sporty statistician, Steve Croft, and the muscular, bespectacled IT veteran Steve Montgomery. Bets had been placed at the office, psyche outs attempted via internal email; soon we would see who was going to have bragging rights at work on Monday morning.

Eventually, Kevin Tiller's urgings over the PA switched our minds to the task at hand and the first wave lined up to do battle. Stopwatches were set; speeches made, I had my customary handshake and exchange of "pleasant to have known you" with Darryl; then it was GO!

The first section is over a descending fire trail to the stone staircase descending Nellies Glen, a notch in the escarpment wall. Traditionally this start is fast as runners hustle for position, given that, on the staircase, there will be no chance to overtake. I hit the staircase with Darryl in front and Ross behind; in the hottest years these stairs are always wet and dressed with moss, now rivulets of water were running down the stairs with us. The further we got the trickier it was, scrambling over rocks and tree roots, we eventually (after around 20 minutes) hit the bottom and a narrow bush path that widened into fire trail. I congratulated myself on not falling on the stairs for the first time, in my fourth attempt. I was still with Darryl and Ross; I asked Darryl why he wasn't in front as he usually was and his response was to leave me behind.

So I pushed on with Ross, who has done everything there is to do in ultra running; including going to America and running the Western States 100 miler, and competing at the Leadville 100. We were talking about his training methods for Leadville when the first, fast runners of the second wave- the speedy rookies, it seemed- started to pass us. It was startling to see the speed that some people use over 46K, rarely had I seen front runners in action before.

The trail snakes its way through private farmland at the base of the Megalong Valley; on either side of us were huge escarpments, solid and square as though hacked out of square blocks by a mighty chisel, then ravaged by the erosion of millennia. The tops of these buttresses were shrouded in grey fog, a counterpart to the water underfoot on the trail; numerous large pools had to be scrambled round. Running through a cattle paddock, Ross suddenly exclaimed "shit!" and stopped dead in his tracks; I stopped and walked over to him, his response was to wave a hand impatiently at my inquiry and urge me to get going. Reluctantly I did start running again, around the next corner I tried to step round a fallen branch, my left foot caught on something and I did a long slide in the mud. Luckily I didn't damage myself like I did two months ago at Bogong- Hotham; I jumped up and kept running, with mud over both legs and encasing my right side from shoulder to hip. Down the trail, I stepped round a pool on the trail and a spiky plant cut a deep welt in the shape of a 7 on my left shin. With all the mud and blood, I must have resembled some B Horror movie product, although that could be said of me at the best of times anyway.

The trail crosses Megalong Valley Road, and traditionally a large crowd of friends and relatives gathers here to cheer the runners on. Mike Ward was there, took one look at me and asked with a resigned tone in his voice, "Have you fallen again, Sean?" I made some joke about doing this event in true Adventure Racing, Fat Ass style (Dave Pettit, where were you then?) and pushed on, as the trail passes through open fields, over a ridge or two, then enters the bush and becomes technical, mixing up sharp edged rocks and tree roots on a surface too narrow for anyone to pass with comfort, and continues like this until the Cox's River crossing, 16K in. A lot of people fall here, including the woman in front of me, who took a spill a few minutes before reaching the crossing. We hit the river after 1.43, my target was 1.45, which was the time I made it in 1998, when I went on to finish in 5.44.

In 1999, a hot day, the river had been low enough that we could cross over on rocks and keep our feet dry. This year the water went up to my waist- I'm 6 foot 3- and we needed the rope to keep our footing. I emerged from the water with shoes full of gravel, I stopped, cleaned out the insides and changed my socks, removing the Ultimax Coolmax socks and donning RX Teflon coated ones. John Lindsay had passed me in the water, and trudged off towards the first major climb, the Saddle. Nick Drayton was changing his socks already as I sat down and changed mine, he set off just ahead of me also and d Graham Wye was just behind.

On hitting the climbing, switchbacking fire trail that climbed over the Saddle, most runners drop to a walk, but I felt strong and kept running, using short, rapid strides and vigorous arm pumping to drive the legs along. Soon enough I had reached Nick's broad back and then, just in front of him, John's, then kept running uphill. Evidently all the leg weights I had been doing in the gym lately was paying off in spades, as I continued overtaking runners all the way up the saddle, waling only one or two markedly steep pitches, then reaching the end of the switchbacks, looking out towards an open field, under a grey sky, with a badly eroded trail winding upwards, downwards again (past an aid station) then upwards again, up and over a ridge. Runners of various colours and garbs were strung out, including two figures in familiar Striders green and white. I walked past them fast; Keith White and Alf Field. "Hi boys," I muttered between breaths as I pushed past them, to the top, and then started descending the other side, now the steep switchbacks were in reverse, dropping down to Alum Creek.

Some runners charged hard here, using the downhill to make up as much speed as they could. I tried to go with a couple but my socks, already wet from being in contact with the soaked inner soles, threatened to bunch up under my feet, so I reasoned it was best to conserve a bit for later in the race and controlled myself on these downhills.

The Alum Creek section involves four crossings of small waterways; that is, small in that normally a runner can hurdle them and keep their feet dry. Not so this year, we all emerged from the crossings to the next climb with feet thoroughly wet, again, and slogging through mud as the trails tarted to curve upwards to the most severe climb on the course, Pluviometer, a 600m rise in 6K. This climb is deceptive, as several times a runner can look up and see the sky visible not too far up, as the ridge seems to end. They will think they have neared the top of the climb when, in fact, it is merely reaching one end of the escarpment, then winding back round other side and further upwards. Two aid stations are on this climb, and another at the top, and all of it is good quality fire trail. Again, I was able to run most of the climb, but nearing the top, I was labouring a bit and started walking, took two bananas from and aid station, ate them as I ran, then, with renewed energy, started running again at the top of the climb. It was about a quarter past 11; we had been on the trail for over three hours. I passed Charles King, one of the most friendly and mild of men, at the top of Pluviometer, as I ran through the aid station without stopping and pushed on down the trail as it undulated for the next 10K over the top of Black Range.

Its an appropriate name as this section goes through dense bush, so there is nothing to stimulate the senses but more and more trees. The black moods that this monotony instils were heightened this year when the rain started to come down, in a light drizzle, and the odd gust of wind cooled us to the point of being uncomfortably cold. In the humidity, my glasses fogged up, but, given that the surface was good and I was running hard and didn't want to break the rhythm I had fallen into, I didn't stop or slow to wipe them. I just pushed them down my nose, lowered my head, peered over the top and kept going. I wasn't running fast, but where most runners were walking the ups, I felt strong enough to run almost all of them, thus making up the time I was lost through lack of raw speed. In fact from the Saddle to the finish I walked very little, and overtook a lot more runners than caught me.

The western end of the Black Range trail has thinner bush, the trees are less common and punctuated by grass and shrubbery, before opening out into pine plantation. When I reached these thinner trees I knew the monotonous slog would soon be over and the new, changed section of track would be dealt with. Then, before the pine plantations arrived, I saw a stocky runner wearing a red cap ahead- Steve Montgomery.

Monty and I exchanged a few insults, he asked if I had seen Crofty; I had, passing him back at the bottom of Pluviometer, Monty said his hamstrings were giving him trouble, so I pushed hard on this flat bit of trail we were on, where he would need his hamstrings more than hilly ground, where more power comes from the quads. We hit and aid station; I had filled my bottle and left just as he was arriving, then followed a downhill stretch for several hundred metres before hitting a trail junction with race marshalls; here was the new section. Normally the race would pass through this junction and hit Caves Road, then runners would run on the bitumen for six kilometres. Instead I was directed left and downhill on a recently cleared firetrail. The sun blazed out briefly from behind the clouds, then the course descended into thick rainforest vegetation, punctuated with ferns. The trail was grassy, and up ahead was a familiar figure; Michael Bailey. "You're having a great one!" he enthused, his finger firing the camera he held. "You'll go 5.10!" Back at the junction, a sign had said it was 9K to the finish; I looked at my watch, it was about twenty past 12. A 5.10 finish, arriving around 1.20pm, seemed definitely feasible, and I pushed harder over the unfamiliar but good terrain. The trail dipped down, then up, then down again, before a last severely steep section had me walking up through a field of 5 or 6 other runners before we hit the Caves Road crossing and descended into the bush on the other side of the tarmac.

Where the trail before this had been good, grassy fire trail, this section was narrow singletrack; dirt path with leaf litter etc, right next to the road, separated only by a narrow line of trees. I found myself in a group of four runners, one of whom was wearing a walkman (!!!) as the trail emerged from the bush onto a kind of gravel carpark, hit the shoulder of the road, then ducked back into the bush. A sign here proclaimed 5.6K to the finish. So much for the 9K sign back there, I reflected,, and adjusted my expectations from 5.10 to 5.20.

I was alone again, the other runners having dropped back, but soon the solitude was broken by a voice calling my name. I looked my at a blue singleted figure; the face was unfamiliar, and I apologised and asked who he was. Turned out it was Craig, a Channel 9 character I had dealt with regularly via phone and email but never met. On the Thursday before the race we had exchanged emails, I had told him to look for the tall red shirted guy with goatee beard; and this figure had materialised behind him on the trail, running hard.

We spoke briefly, then I remarked that I had better push on and secure the ACNielsen line honours and left him behind. The trail was all familiar, a section of dense bush, then a steep two kilometre descent to the finish line. I passed another fellow Strider; Dave King. Dave is pretty fast and has done Sydney Trailwalker 100K; he had run an excellent time at Brindabella Classic last November and I wondered how it was that I was passing him. Either he was having a bad one, or I was having a REALLY good one; with the new course, minus the bitumen section, it was hard to evaluate times against previous years.

The descent to Jenolan is really three different sections; firstly a wide, rough fire trail, littered with loose, sharp edged rocks that punish the battered feet of tired runners. In 1998 when I first ran the Six Foot Track, this had been virtually a runway escalator that we were slipping and sliding on, since then it seemed to improve every year and now I was able to run on it with something approaching control. Dave came sprinting back past me, his breath coming in harsh gasps and sweat spraying as he strained for a final, finishing effort. Down to the right you can see the roof of Caves House and know you are near home; the trail narrows to a tight, dirt covered path where runners are strung out in Indian file and the vegetation on the side of the path covers most of the ground. Its not as steep to run on as the earlier rocky section and I passed several runners here.

With 500 metres to go, the sun came out again as I hit the bottom of the bush path and arrived on a paved pathway. Teeth were gritted and I charged for home. The noise of the crowd and PA was drifting up as I charged down the path, shouting "runner coming, on the right!" to every casual walker out there, passed right above the finish area, descended the last set of stairs, turned and sprinted under the finish banner with a clenched fist, in a time of 5.22.

Pain and elation hit rapidly, I hunkered down in the finishing causeway, fighting an attack of nausea, then stood and walked towards my friends. Darryl had come in a few minutes ahead, in 5.17, Martin Fryer had distinguished himself again with a 4.14 performance, Joel Mackay and Gary Leahey both ran 4.50 odd. The winner, running the event for the first time, had done 3.53, a relatively slow time, less than a minute ahead of second, and veteran Bianca Van Woesik took the women's title.

Several cans of soft drink and some greasy food were rapidly consumed, then I had a shower, and watched the rest of the field battle their way in before the 7 hour cutoff. Monty, John Lindsay, Charles King, Alf Field, Geoff Hook, all made it in, then came Ross with 11 minutes to spare, battling the effects of a recurring calf injury and wondering whether he should have left it alone after 12 finishes. An almost unrecognisable Max Bogenhuber- clad in Grim Reaper robes and heavy dark sunglasses, played his role as sweeper to perfection and hit the line in exactly 7.00, for his 18th finish, the only person to run every Six Foot Track event.

Awards were handed out (with Kevin Tiller as MC), speeches made, new war stories were added, complimenting the old, then it was time to go. Traffic jams are not a frequent thing out here in the bush, three hours drive from Sydney, but there is one every year as runners disperse to recuperate from their efforts on the first Saturday of March. Soon afterwards, as pain fades along with rationality, the plan to return to this benchmark event next year starts to form.