Six Foot Track - Race Reportby Greg Robinson (2003)
I had first heard about the Six Foot Track itself from my father and uncle. Something about hiking it in 1944 with nothing more than a billy, a canvas tent and frost on the ground. They had hiked it a few times since then of course, and had always described the route as a beautiful 3 day hike. But for some reason it had always been on my "to do" list and remained there, even after spending so many summers rock climbing around the region. The Six Foot Track is an old supply track between The Explorer's Tree, just outside of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, and Jenolan Caves. 45km of trail separate the two, with a few steep descents and steep inclines in between. It's definitely the premiere ultra in Australia with 700+ entrants this year.
Race commitment happens in small increments in our family. I had dropped the usual subtle hints to my partner that this was something worth doing many months before. I had mentioned the beauty of Caves House. I had mentioned the accomplishment of a race of this difficulty. I had mentioned that with the 700+ entrants, we were not going to be last. Convincing her to do the Gold Coast marathon was spectacularly easy in comparison. July, Gold Coast, beach, warmth, were the only words she heard and we were already booking tickets from Melbourne's dampness. I do not know what persuaded her this time to commit to the Six Foot Track marathon, (as I would use the same persuasive skills again, hee hee), but thankfully we signed up and started training.
The race was remeasured sometime during our preparations and became 45km long (it was thought to be 46.6km). One less mile to run can't be a bad thing. I hoped it was a hilly mile they removed. It's still called a marathon (even though it's longer), whereas it's probably more appropriate to call it an ultra/trail run. I didn't have much to compare it to, other than an ultra I had helped out many times before called the North Shore Knee Knackerer Trail Run held in Vancouver, Canada each year. Runners there have to contend with snow (left over from winter on the mountaintops) and hungry black bears as well as the usual rocky trail, hills and distance. How hard could this Six Foot Track marathon be, I wondered? At least there would be no bears and snow.
Race Day arrived at lightening speed; our long training runs in Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges completed. Having not been to the Blue Mountains in over 10 years, the day before saw us examining the start and looking at the steep descent down Nellie's Glen to the valley floor. We soaked in the beauty of the views afforded us from the area, and were unsettled by the destruction of the bushfires that had ravaged the area earlier in summer, but left the Track unscathed.
On the race morning the swelling crowd gathered. We met an old friend Ken at the start, and our training buddy Danny. It seemed that many people met here each year. We were introduced to the race sweepers, Action Jackson, who carried a broom with a small bicycle horn attached to it, and his cohorts who blew whistles to hurry up people to ensure they met the 7-hour cutoff time. With the first two waves let go, and a quick hug with my partner, our wave was released and we were off down the fire trail to the top of Nellie's Glen. After a few hundred metres, we all heard the sweeper's whistle and laughed at the thought of being caught by the sweeper already. At the top of Nellie's Glen everyone walked down the slippery staircase to the valley floor. We plunged through ferns and water, with steep cliff lining either side (where was my climbing gear?). Competitor's chatted amicably without a compulsion to proceed with haste, as there was still a long way to go and so much to be lost with a slip and a twisted ankle at this point.
Once safely down, there was a good hour or so more to reach the Cox's River. We crossed farmland with beautiful green pasture and jumped over the occasional barbed wire fence using stiles. The gentle downward trail helped us get momentum for the hills ahead, and provided us beautiful views of the cliffs along Narrow Neck. Never have I had such a pleasant start to a race before.
Once at Cox's River (1hour 32mins) we had to negotiate across the river's flow. While there is a bridge across the river, the spirit of this race dictates that you must go across (or through) the river itself. Luckily with the drought the river flow was way down, and competitors could step across the rocks without getting their feet wet. That is of course, unless you fell in. Which is what I did. Once I wrung out the socks and removed some stones and sand, I proceeded up the next challenge; a series of hills climbing up to Mini-Mini Saddle then up again to the Pluviometer.
With all the hill repeats and hilly trail runs during training, I had naively thought that I would run some of the first big incline. Wrong! It seemed that everyone power walked as best they could, and running wasn't any faster and wasn't even an option. So I settled into a walking pace and plodded up the hills to Mini-Mini. It seems that only the lead athletes and the insane try to run these hills. A sharp downhill to Little River (2:24) saw me through there and I plunged another foot into the stream.
Back up again, somewhere along here I saw a huge guy with size 15 feet, and realised it must be Sean Greenhill, who I had briefly met a few months earlier while he was running another ultra (where my partner and I were merely camping and handing out jelly beans). Spirits soared at Sean's expense, and while I encouraged him to continue on even with his flu-like symptoms, it made me realise that I was actually feeling pretty good, smiling, and having a fun time. I wondered if it would last.
Once at the Pluviometer (3:06), there was another 14km of gentle uphill before meeting Caves road. Along the way I ran with a few people and tried to keep my stride length long, while walking the occasional steeper hills. A few good conversations saw the time hasten, and I wondered how my training buddy Danny was progressing. I hadn't seen him since the start and thought he was near the front of our wave, while I was near the middle. Obviously Danny was having a good day. I tried to keep smiling and kept eating and drinking.
Crossing Caves Road (4:29) was great, as I knew then that I had only 7km of downhill to go, and my quads felt strong so I was looking forward to hammering down to Caves House and passing a few more people. Somewhere here I caught Danny, and urged him onward. He was having a great race also, but his early speed may have caught up with him a little. I started smiling again.
I continued down down down, getting a view of Carlotta's Arch on the way, and then plunging across the finishline at Caves House (5:14). I am not usually emotional when finishing a race, and in some endurance races you tend to pass the point of having anything left long before the finishline actually arrives. But I was a little bleary eyed as my strategically placed relatives cheered me across the finishline from a prime position on the terrace. This was the first time they had seen me complete any running race since I was probably about 10 years old finishing Sydney's City to Surf 14km fun run. I sat out the front of Caves House until my partner came home, cheering and clapping and soaking in the race finish.
We socialised post-race with beer, stories and friends, long after the awards had finished and most competitors left via bus back to the start. Our hopes of seeing a cave the next day were unrealised, with the hundreds of steps involved in most caves it was a punishment we did not want to put ourselves through.
Six Foot Track marathon is a challenging course, over beautiful terrain. It is a well-organised event with a worthy beneficiary (the NSW Rural Fire Service and Six Foot Track Heritage Trust). And the finish area, with its congregation of ultra runners, spectators, steep cliffs and caves is as spectacular as any other race I've done.