Six Foot Track - Race Reportby Sean Greenhill (2002)
I approached the 2002 Six Foot Track with a highly competitive state of mind. This race suits my strengths (such as they are!) down to the ground- plenty of long uphills to run or walk, and not much technical stuff. I'm at my best on uphills, partly as a result of doing regular weight training, and partly because I'm naturally a fast walker. On the other hand, being 190cm and 85kg, negotiating technical terrain at speed is definitely not my forte.
Last year off very little recent training I had run 5.22, which was surprising, but also indicated that this race was the one where, given a decent fitness base, I could be competitive. Martin "Dr Phibes" Fryer proved an excellent sounding board for advice from several months out; when I needed a good set of splits to work off, or advice on speedwork, or a gee up when the mathematics of a sub 5 hour run seemed beyond my abilities, Martin could be relied on. Maybe I should refer to him as "coach".
In the lead up, Martin and I had run the Cradle Mountain 85K four weeks before, and had finished that particular test of attrition running hard and passing other competitors; after that, I cut back to 40- 50K a week and concentrated on speed and strength- lifting weights 3- 4 times a week with an emphasis on legs and on core muscles; and doing fast/ hard runs- on Tuesdays and Sundays with Sydney Striders, and on the treadmill at 5K pace. Through a combination of this training schedule (not enough mileage to tire me), and Martin pushing the right psychological buttons, I was getting fired up about the race ten days out. The night before the race, I was fit to start climbing the walls.
Martin and I stayed at my Mum's place the night before and after; half an hour from the start at Katoomba, it was an ideal base. The weather forecast was for 17 degrees maximum at Katoomba with some clouds; seemed like ideal running conditions. I packed a small bum bag with a change of socks (which I didn't need) and several chocolate bars (which I never really felt like eating), and took a hand held bottle. Last year Martin had run 4.14 for 14th place (of about 500 runners); this year over 600 had entered, and Martin hoped to match that time, although he wasn't particularly optimistic in his ability to do so; he felt under 4.20 was more realistic.
The start and finish at Six Foot must be the biggest social event in Australian ultrarunning. We arrive an hour before the race start (8am), collected our numbers within a couple of minutes (when we were expecting a lengthy queue) and spent the next hour doing a year's catching up. I also took a few minutes to attempt a last minute psyche out of arch rival Steve Montgomery, a workmate who was doing his twelfth Six Foot Track this year. Who would have bragging rights in the office on Monday morning?
The start is broken into two waves these days; seeded runners and veterans (including myself) started at 8am, and newer runners at 8.15. We were underway at 8.02, with the usual sprint down the trail for a few minutes until hitting the stairs at the top of Nellies Glen. No matter if there has been months of drought, these stairs are always wet, slippery and covered in moss. Always there's a serious fall by someone here; I fell there in each of my first three Six Foot runs. Not today. From there I ran hard along the open dirt road that winds out from the base of the escarpment. I had split times in my head- 1.35 to Coxs River, 2.55 to Pluviometer summit; 4.00 to the "New Section" turnoff. In order to get to Coxs that quickly, I wanted to make up a lot of time early, as I would slow down appreciably on the one technical section of the trail, between Pinnacle Ridge and Coxs River.
At one point when passing between farms, the road forks. There are no race specific markers in this event; although there are some trail markers; I knew from experience to take the left, narrower path, passed some trail markers, then came back to the main trail as two Billys Bushies who had taken the right fork came running in. I asked them if they knew they'd cut the course; one replied "well, that shows how little you know about the Six Foot Track". Annoyed, I said this was the seventh time I was running the trail, and what's more I'd passed markers on my section; had they. No, they had to admit, as I put my foot down and ran away from them, over stiles, fences and into open farmland. All too soon came Megalong Valley Rd crossing. I climbed a stile, waved to a couple of familiar faces I saw in the crowd, then passed Trailwalker teammate Stewart Vincent on the downhill through the cemetery.
Climbing towards Pinnacle Ridge over singletrack, I passed fellow Strider Rod Lovel, who's done a lot of tough runs in his time (sub 3 hour marathon) but had not done this lark before. Rod and I ran more or less together all the way to Coxs River; I'd sit back and counsel against setting a hard pace "because I've seen some bad falls on this section", Rod would counter that later on we wouldn't feel like going fast, so why not do so now? Pride was too much so I stuck with him; although negotiating the technical section here didn't seem as difficult as previous years.
It was a shock to hit the steep grassy bank leading to Coxs River after just an hour and a half. I was ahead of pace; I was getting my feet wet after 1.31, not `.35. Self doubt struck- was I going too fast? Would I blow up on Pluviometer? I entered the water several metres to the right of the safety rope, reasoning that I'd keep away from the silt and muck stirred up by the main boy of runners that way; and less crap would get in my shoes.
Straight away the water was up to my ribs, which is not a good development when you're my height. Rod went in right behind me and he's not exactly a tall fellow; shock spread over his face, he tried breaststroke, he said "hey Sean, is there a hole here? I'm worried I'll vanish!" As we emerged, Graham Willis cam running up; he'd gone in much further to the right than us, scrambled over rocks and kept his feet dry. Rod did not feel this met the spirit of the event and, with a smile on his face, showered Graham with alliterative abuse.
As I walked through the aid station on the far bank, I found there was very little crap in my shoes; for the first time, I didn't need to change socks. I pushed on and started up Mini Mini Saddle, a 430m climb in 4km. Now all those hours in the gym came into play as I started passing people who I really didn't expect to see; one of the first was Dave King, which had me seriously worried, as Dave was, to my mind, a definite candidate for sub 5 hours; if I was passing him this early, what sort of pace was I doing? I could tell I was working hard, but had found a good rhythm running most of the up sand walking only a few very steep pitches; I elected not to break the rhythm by staying with Dave and kept going. I tried to eat a chocolate bar but was unable to do so; I ended up dropping the remnants back in my bum bag. The race would be done on sportsdrink alone. I passed Monty; we exchanged some good natured sledging, and he grabbed my bum bag, in an effort to have me drag him up the hill. A vigorously brandished fist dissuaded him.
Near the top I found myself in the company of a fellow who just refused to walk any of the hills; no matter how steep the grade, he was running; I'd keep pace with him while walking. Turned out this was Hugh Jorgensen; we would stay near each other until near the turnoff to the new section. Hugh figured we were on a sub 5 hour pace and was moving at a similar rate to myself, so we fell into stride as we jogged down the far side of Mini Mini Saddle, through the Cattle Yards, through Little River, and then tackled the big hill, Pluviometer, 440m in 5km. The legs were feeling heavier by now, so I powerwalked far more of this than Mini Mini Saddle; far more than I'd done on Pluviometer last year. However, Hugh never pulled away from me (even though he still ran the whole thing!) and I was still passing people, only one person passed me. These were well credentialed runners too; One figure in a GURU Singlet seemed particularly familiar.
I couldn't believe it, this guy was a sub 14 minute 5K man, Gold Medal in the 1990 Commonwealth Games 5000m, had done a very respectable time in last year's Six Foot, and been in the third placed team at Trailwalker 100K. After passing him, there was Barry Rutter, who smiled broadly and told me to go for the sub 5. You can do it! he exhorted. What support.
Hugh and I pulled into Pluviometer aid station (26k) in 2.51. We were moving really well; Hugh remarked "we'll blow 5 hours away". Pluviometer is not the end of the uphills at Six Foot Track; over the next 9km, as the race follows Black Range Rd fire trail, it rolls and undulates and rises a further 220m, although the total gain is more than this. "Hugh," I said, "there will be no walking on the Black Range!" which he readily endorsed. He started to pull away from me, and a few folks passed me; I was in no mood to try and take in the scenery, so just looked periodically at my watch and tried to grind it out.
The new section (so called after it replaced the bitumen bash down Caves Road) involves three noticeable climbs, the second of which is particularly nasty; I walked, the discipline that had kept me running right along Black Range had slipped. Everyman's twin said that, from the Caves Rd crossing it had taken him 38 minutes to run to the finish last year; in the same sentence he added that he'd done a 2.58 marathon last year, so, having never gone under 45 minutes or 10K myself, I was dubious. he was adamant that it wasn't a case of whether we'd break 5 hours, but by what margin; I was uncertain.
We crossed Caves Rd in 4.06. There was a guy in the aid station there who was fantastic; I remarked I had 54 minutes to meet my goal, and he immediately grabbed and filled my bottle, then, when I drank an extra cup of Maxim and looked for the rubbish bag, he took that from me as well, said not to worry about the rubbish, and to bloody well get going. So I did, passing Joel Mackay and Stephen Jackson, who was limping badly after damaging his knee on Pluviometer. I asked if he needed help, his reply through clenched teeth indicated that he was going to finish, no matter what!
Once off Caves Rd, runners follow a narrow singletrack below the level of the road, then the trail swings away from the road and climbs steadily upwards, drops down to meet the road again at Binda Cabins (5.6KM TO GO according to the sign) then rolls up and down for 3km which seems to take forever. I got a bit emotional on both sides of Binda Cabins as it became more obvious I was going to meet my goal. Finally off the undulating trail (which felt as steep as a rollercoaster at that point!) and onto the last descent down the Mt George firetrail, a steep, rocky drop with a cliff rising up on the left and sheer drop on the right. You can look down onto the roof of Caves House while running down this path.
The first people I saw were my mum, and Kieron Thompson. I spent a few minutes hunched over a railing, trying to recover my breath and stretch out cramping legs. Martin (4.19) came up and we exchanged high fives; then it was time to shuffle off and find my bags, then head for the showers.
Even more than the start, the Six Foot Track finish is where runners catch up and trade war stories until the awards ceremony. I had a beer with Dave King; chatted to Nick and Stewart about the upcoming Trailwalker; saw Geoff Hook finish for the 12th (and, he said, final) time; marvelled at Max Bogenhuber's comeback 4.58 race; and chatted to various members of the Striders mafia. Eventually it was time for the awards, Martin, Kieron and I parked ourselves up the back of the crowd and saw Tom Sloan and Dawn Tiller collect their winner's awards, looked at the six seconds separating second woman Xandra Dunn and third place Liz Short, wondered how Adam Jordson took half an hour off his time last year to come third.
Then it was time to go. Martin, my mum and I stopped in Blackheath on the way back to consume some pizzas; then got in 10 hours sleep that night.
The Six Foot Track is the premier "event" in Australian ultrarunning, great aid stations, tough terrain that's still pretty much runnable; really good organization and the best race website I've seen. If you're thinking about doing the race, all the details you need can be found at www.sixfoot.com