Trials and tribulations of the KSR trail running team.
I haven’t been looking forward to writing this. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding analysing what went wrong – exactly the opposite – but it’s never fun to talk about how you let your team down. And I want to apologise for making this account so me-centred, but I’m the only reason we DNF-ed, so that’s why.
Kokoda 2014 got off to a good start. The Gold Coast’s own Pogo Goats made what seemed to be a very conscious effort to take the lead early, using the twists and turns of Nerang to disappear from sight quite quickly. KSR, along with CAC Hammer and Rapid Ascent were happy to keep a slower pace: we were confident that the pace we were keeping was more than fast enough to finish approximately 100km of hilly terrain in a decent time.
There was also another consideration: after the original 96km course was abandoned due to a bushfire close to the startline, we were now running the last half of the original course backwards then turning around. Consequently, this meant we were running a course marked from the opposite direction – hazardous when you want to move through thick bushland at pace! A few kms before the first crewed checkpoint, after we’d developed a small gap on CACH and RA, we ended up missing one of the turns. Luckily we realised the error early, tracked back and within a couple of minutes we were back on track and in at the checkpoint, only to discover the course had delivered us a shake-up – we were now in third, with CACH and RA ahead and Pogo Goats somewhere in the forest behind us.
This unexpected news didn’t change our tactics. We were still all feeling strong (Ben and Clarke in particular) and we were slowly reeling in CACH and RA with some tactical hiking up Hellfire Pass. My calves, which had held us back in 2013, were feeling good (not spectacular, but good) and we were more concerned with remembering all the words to Steve Miller Band’s ‘The Joker’ than getting in front of the two leading teams. We gradually reeled in the frontrunners as we headed back down off the hill. That steep, dry descent was the first time I felt off the pace, but given my historic lack of ability on steep downhills I wasn’t really worried.
The ascent to Army land was longer than I’d remembered (probably because it was downhill last year!), and I made sure I moved within what I thought my calves could take. This meant a pretty leisurely pace for the guys. I was pleased to be running freely when we got into the checkpoint, where a race-weary Caine and an injury-recovering Moritz (aka Joker, Smoker or Midnight Toker) joined us for a few kms down the descent toward the Eco Centre. It was a short sharp uphill section that first shocked my system, ripping the air out of my lungs when it really shouldn’t have.
“No worries,” I panted at Ben, “It’s just one of those moments where your heart rate soars for no reason. I’ll be good in 90 seconds.”
Ben looked at me like that wasn’t normal. I realised that may actually not be normal. Whatever. It happens to me in training sometimes, I lose my breath out of nowhere and I always bounce back. But not this time. I felt a bit better after a walk, but something wasn’t quite right. I was confused. I’d been eating well, my fluids were fine and the pace was fine. I’d deliberately gone slow up to the checkpoint to make sure. We were only just getting started. Coming out of the Eco Centre the weirdness hit me again, but this time my stomach decided to join in. I was getting very queasy so I walked for a couple of minutes out of the checkpoint toward Numinbah, thinking surely this has to pass eventually.
By Numinbah, after some rolling hills that I usually enjoy, I was getting worried. We were halfway in but my stomach was acting like we were in the last push home, and I was feeling bizarrely foggy in the head. But the medical team gave me the all-clear, and we were actually able to run pretty comfortably back toward the Eco Centre. But not for long. I slowed back to a walk – no, a slog. Food and water started to get harder to take on, and the guys really had to work to keep me motivated. I wasn’t just worried that I wasn’t going to pick back up – I was just plain depressed. About everything. I knew that had to mean the sugar wasn’t getting into my system, but up until that point getting food in hadn’t been a concern.
By this point, we’d surrendered the lead. Finishing was the only goal now, and my deterioration between the 40km and 60km points made that seem highly unlikely. At the Eco Centre, I had to stop myself from falling asleep as I tried to take in some soup, and by the time we hit the ascent back to the Army land checkpoint, Clarke was pushing me from behind and Dave had to tow me with one of my poles just to keep me moving. A vomit halfway up helped ease some of the nausea but didn’t do much else. Time felt like it was speeding up and slowing down rapidly. Physically, mentally and emotionally, I was a wreck.
At the checkpoint I wanted nothing more than to sleep. Dave, Ben, Clarke, Moritz and Andrew Duffus did their best to keep me awake, eating (that is, trying to eat) and drinking. Despite my woozy protestations we got away from the checkpoint, but I didn’t get far. Andrew and Moritz graciously drove back up to pick us up from the checkpoint.
We might have got off to a good start, but we (I) never even got to the race’s middle. We might have stopped at 60km in, but the back end is where things get interesting. The last 20% of any ultra isn’t just harder per step than the preceding 80%, it’s almost a different race. We didn’t even get to that point this year.
I was seriously depressed and on the verge of crying for no reason for the next 24 hours. I didn’t let myself behind the wheel of a car for a while. My legs were fine within just a few days (that’s actually very good for me!), but a week later, my stomach has only just recovered. I never want to let the team down like that again, so I’ve decided to steer clear of racing for a while and get on top of whatever has stopped me racing properly. I’ve had two races earlier in the year with some similar issues, which I’d put down to illness and lack of fitness respectively. Being all clear on those fronts for this race, something else is going on. I’ll be seeing some specialists shortly.
If I make the team next year, I want to go back and give Kokoda another crack. It knocked me around in 2013, killed me in 2014 and while nobody ever ‘beats’ a trail I want to get as much revenge on that 96km/100km as I can. And I promise I’ll be better prepared for it next time.
A huge thanks to Ben, Dave, Clarke, Caine, Andrew and Moritz for all their hard work on the day and leading in, and to all the teams who slogged it out over a tough course.