Six Foot Track - Race Reportby Alan Woolford (2003)
To get a feel of what the Six Foot Track is all about and the amount of effort that is required to complete the course, it’s important take in some relevant points. It’s a little more than a straight 45km run. Many hiking web-sites describe it as a 2-3 day hike.
I had heard that a four hour marathoner can complete the Six Foot Track in six hours. My best marathon time is four hours two minutes so my goal time was to try and better the six hour mark.
In total there is 1528m of climbing and 1788m of descending. To put that into some perspective, the easier descent along the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail descends 1219m over 12.9km and the more difficult ascent along the South Kaibab Trail ascends 1372m over 10.1km.
Pre-race at the Explorers Tree
Arrived early at the race start at about 6:45am for the 8:00am start. An early start is a good tip for anyone contemplating doing the race as the line up for registration stretched back 30-40 metres by about 7:30am. Free breakfast put on by the Rural Fire Service was great. Helped myself to a hot cup of tea and a slice of damper.
It’s a strange feeling looking at these two black and gold striped poles that represented the start. Beyond those poles was the unknown. Got talking to a guy who had completed the race three times previously. Trying to gain as much information about the track before I set off. One tip he gave was in regard to the descent into Jenolan Caves. He said “Make sure you don’t slip. If you go over the side you won’t be seen again.” I thought at this stage, “What am I doing here?”
While the crowd built I was trying to spot Big Chris Stephenson, legend of the Six Foot Track and Ironman. Not knowing what Big Chris looked like, he was easy to spot. He stood there, a man mountain of an athlete looking fit and trim. Also, because most of the field were runners, there were not many athletes with their legs shaved. The Lake Taupo cap finally gave him away. I went over and introduced myself and chatted for a couple of minutes before saying I’ll see you at the finish (knowing that he would be well ahead of myself). Although we only spoke for a couple of minutes I could tell that Big Chris is a genuine bloke that loves endurance racing with a passion. Even though he has done this race many times before, he was standing there soaking up all of the atmosphere videoing everything and everyone.
There were three wave starts with mostly all the virgins in the last wave. I had noticed Big Chris had a wave three start number and I wondered why this multi-finisher was back with the virgins. I was soon to know the answer to this question. There is a seven hour cut-off time in the Six Foot Track and there are three people you don’t particularly want to see or hear. Firstly there is the “Sweeper” who carries a broom throughout the race and runs at seven hour pace. If you run with him you’re pretty much guaranteed of making the cut-off. Two other guys are also called “Sweepers” but I’m pretty sure they’re commonly known as the “Grim Reapers” and that‘s right, Big Chris was a Grim Reaper. They both have whistles to let you know they are approaching. If they catch you, they will assess whether they think you can catch the seven hour sweeper and they have the authority to pull you from the race. I thought to myself, the next time I want to see Big Chris is at Forster.
Start to Nellies Glen (net descent - 325m / distance - 1.7km)
The pre-race briefing advised that every year they tell people to go extremely easy down to Nellies Glen and every year people fall and wind up in hospital. Steps are always wet and steep and that there is mud and corrosion in some parts caused by a constant stream of water.
Initial 500m or so was good going along a fire trail then everyone came to a halt once the track narrowed to single file only (there goes my sub four hour time - I wish). It was slow going down the steps and very easy on the heart rate after the initial burst where my heart rate shot up unusually to about 170bpm. Although easy on the legs I knew the steps would come back to haunt me later in the day.
Nellies Glen to Megalong Valley Road (net descent - 155m / distance - 6.4km)
This stretch of track was easy going through the valley with plenty of time to take in the views. Although the track was flat, firm and the width of a fire trail, at about the 4-5km mark into the race I spotted someone who had fallen. Three runners were assisting him and they advised help was on its way. I don’t know how he fell but he had blood streaming from his head, arm and leg. I found out later from Big Chris that he had a suspected fractured jaw and ribs. This incident should have told me something, but I didn’t know what at this stage.
After the flat part of the track I reached some rolling hills over some grazing property. Apart from the obvious differences between this marathon and road marathons, there are also a number of other features that the track has in-store. A couple of these features are in this section of the track. Firstly there are the fences that need to be climbed and then the cattle grids that need to be negotiated.
Upon reaching Megalong Valley Road a dozen or so spectators were there to cheer the runners on. This was great to see and someone with a cow bell made the atmosphere a little better.
Megalong Valley Road to Coxs River (net descent - 300m / distance - 7.4km)
The track along this section narrowed to single file again, however a good pace could be maintained. I caught up to a guy who was going at a nice pace so I kept behind him following in his footsteps. There were a few butting of toes on rocks but nothing serious (so I thought).
Next minute my upper body was near horizontal to the ground with my arm outstretched trying to keep my balance. I managed to stay upright, however down the track about 500m the guy in front of me went down but he was OK. A further 100 or so metres on a seemingly firm piece of track, I went down in a screaming heap. My medial joint on my right side between the metacarpal and proximal phalange (sorry, it’s my current anatomy and physiology studies coming out. I mean my knuckle on my right little pinky) cracked and I thought I had broken a bone. I could move my fingers with some pain so I knew it was probably just bruising.
After these two incidents, the girl who was running in front of both of us stopped and said, “you two better go by. I don’t want you falling on me”. Another tip, never assume you’re on a firm piece of track.
The other feature of this run is the river crossing at Coxs River. I had read that in previous years the water level had been up to armpit level on guys six feet tall. At a very average size (so I think) of five feet five inches, I would have needed to swim across. Thankfully the drought had dried the river to such an extent it was only waist deep. There were two options, wade across the river or run 15m down river and cross over the rocks. When I got to the river there were three people wading across and I thought why wouldn’t they just go over the rocks? I chose the rock option and probably crossed twice as fast. After a photo pose for the camera I was off on the road to the gates of hell.
15.5km into the race, and the clock has ticked over to 1 hour 53 minutes.
Coxs River to Mini Mini Saddle (net climb - 470m / distance - 4.5km)
After an aid station stop where I dropped my first salt tablet it was off up the hill. Started to run as far as I could (about 100m) and then thought it might be better to conserve a bit of energy for long climb ahead. Kept up a good walking pace catching and passing people quite often. To get an idea of the pace, my heart rate was steady at about 176bpm for the climbs for the rest of the race.
As the climb went on and on and on and on, I noticed a guy with a “I hiked the Grand Canyon” t-shirt standing about six foot two inches tall stroll past me with ease. His legs went up to his armpits and I offered him $50 for his legs. He laughed and kept going. There isn’t much to report on this first climb except for a small twinge in my right Adductor magnus muscle (that thigh muscle on the inside of the knee).
Mini Mini Saddle to bottom of Pluviometer Hill (net descent - 190m / distance 2.5km)
After reaching the aid station at Mini Mini Saddle it was a pleasant change to stretch out and run down hill, however a few sections were quite rocky, steep and unstable under foot so care was needed. By the end of the descent, the knees that were spared when climbing coped a bit of a hammering.
Parts of this section also included some creek crossings where the water was only ankle / shin deep. I opted for the dry route again stepping from rock to rock. I saw one guy who must have stepped into a deep hole in the creek (or fell in). He was soaked from head to toe. After crossing at another creek I heard a loud splash behind me (some rocks were a bit slippery).
At the bottom of Pluviometer Hill I hydrated once again at the aid station. I got into a bit of a routine downing a cup of coke, followed by a cup of Hi-5 and then a cup of water. At this station I dropped another salt tablet hoping it would keep the cramping at bay. There were 17 aid stations in total all set up and run by the Rural Fire Service. These guys are equal to the volunteers at Forster. Always there to help when required.
Bottom of Pluviometer Hill to Pluviometer (net climb - 440m / distance - 3.5km)
The climb to Pluviometer, the steepest climb of the race. Basically it is uphill all the way. At this stage most runners or should I say walkers are tuned into the same wave length. Reach a 10-20 metre section where the track has a smaller incline and everybody starts jogging. Then as if the trees had signs saying “Everyone walk from this tree” everyone would target a certain tree then start walking again. If you were super motivated, you might run to a tree 5 metres further to gain a two second advantage.
At this stage both thighs were beginning to cramp. The cramping lasted for a few minutes then it would ease. As I tried to increase my walking stride when the legs started feeling better I felt a twinge in my right hamstring. I knew I could get through the race with cramping thighs but if one or both of my hamstrings go, well that’s it. I backed off once again and plodded on to Pluviometer.
Pluviometer to Black Range Campground (net climb - 205m / distance - 8.7km) One of the most welcome aid stations I’ve seen on top of Pluviometer. At this stage I thought the intense climbing was behind me and there would be more rolling hills than shear climbs. Did the hydration routine again and grabbed a hand full of lolly snakes (I’m blaming my new addiction to blue snakes on the Six Foot Track). My one and only wee stop was about 100 metres down the road from the aid station.
Some welcome flat undulating parts of the track saw me striding out at about six minute km pace. At about the 32km mark I did a split time from the Coxs River crossing (15.5km). That 16.5km section which included 8km of some pretty severe climbing took 2 hours 33 minutes.
While jogging at about this 32km mark the cramping in both legs reappeared and took a little longer to walk out this time. Luckily I was able to walk out the cramping while going up a hill (would’ve walked up the hill anyway).
Black Range Campground to Caves Road Crossing (net climb - 20m / distance 3.2km)
This section had a number of downhills followed by an equal number of uphills. On one of the last downhill runs, my entire right thigh (front and back) seized up. This was the only time throughout the race where I shared my pain with others “Ahhhhhhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiit”. After slowing to a crawl for a few minutes, my third salt tablet must have kicked in and the cramping went once more.
As Caves Road Crossing drew nearer the going was pretty good and I was still a good chance (so I thought) of going a sub six hour time. All I needed was to maintain around a seven minute km pace. The final hill insult came just before the crossing. This hill was only about 500m long (so it seemed) and it felt like the steepest hill on the course. Once at the top spirits started to soar once more with quite a few spectators gathered around Caves Road Crossing cheering on all of the back of the pack runners.
Caves Road Crossing to Finish (net descent - 420m / distance - 7.1km) Once over the crossing the track narrowed again into single file. The course was flat, seemed pretty safe under foot and was in a picturesque setting of wooded trees. OK, I’ve got my second wind (or maybe my 7th or 8th) and I’ve got 42 minutes to run the last 7km to break six hours. Lets do it.
As I was running comfortably through the forest I heard this huge clap of thunder, then it started to rain quite steadily for five minutes with other claps of thunder every minute or two. I had heard someone say previously about something to do with not being around trees when lightning struck. Never mind, I’ve got race to run.
With about 2.5km to go the track was on a fire trail and started to descend quite steeply. Its condition deteriorated with a lot of loose dirt and rocks covering the track. This was the start of the final descent of about 400m to the finish. I tried descending as fast as I’d dare for a few minutes, however at this time I knew my sub six hour time was not going to happen today. I also realised that this was the section of track one of the runners at the start had warned me about. I went to the edge and looked down and quietly declared, “he was right, you wouldn’t be found if you went over”. This was further reason to look at self preservation at this stage of the race. Decided to take it easy and take in the atmosphere that was building.
Down one final section of single file track and there it was, Caves House. Running down the first man-made path of the race, I heard the familiar voice of Margie screaming my name from below. She was trying to take a photo but I still had to negotiate the uneven rock path, so I gave her a quick wave and kept looking ahead. The best view of the run was along this section with Carlotta’s Arch and the aqua coloured limestone lake to my left. Down the final steps and then along the finish chute where I gave Bernie a high-five and the photographer a great big smile of relief. Stopped the clock at 6 hours 9 minutes. Margie took another photo of me with my medal and I gave her big hug. As Margie and I walked up to say g‘day to Bernie, I noticed Bernie had brought along a very attractive slim and tanned bottle of Crown Lager. That Crownie hardly touched the sides. Thanks Bernie.
In all, the Six Foot Track is a legendary race run very professionally by the Rural Fire Service. After a couple of days to reflect on the race, I’m afraid I’ll have to use one of big Arnie’s famous lines “I’ll be back”. The only thing I would do differently is stay at Caves House on the Friday and Saturday nights. That way you can really party after the race.
Until next time, bring on the hills in training.