It feels like the racing at Six Foot Marathon begins when entries open many months before race day. After making sure my diary was clear and 15mins of madly hitting refresh on my browser trying to sign up for the Six Foot Track Marathon I had secured my spot in this iconic race. In a whirlwind of activity the race had sold out in record time (minutes, not days or even hours)
This is one of the monuments of Australian running, not just trailrunning but on the road too. It has heritage, a tough course record and throws up an extremely challenging course. For me it represented a must do as part of this years focus on trailrunning.
The race itself follows the Six Foot Track. A path cut through the Megalong Valley that connects Katoomba to Jenolan Caves. It was created before cars and provided a shortcut for visitors wanting to visit the Caves. It draws its name from its width :: 6 feet :: wide enough for 2 horses to pass. The race follows the course of original track but instead of being 6 feet wide it is now a mix of predominately firetrail with a bit of single track thrown into the mix. The race is spot on 45km (according to my Garmin). So while its called a marathon, its longer than the requisite 42.2km, so many think of it as an ultra. I tend to agree.
The race is technically a downhill run with the finish below the start but… If you ignore the first and last 3km in between lies 39km with plenty of up. The net gain (altitude difference) between the 3k mark and the 42k mark is 513m… not bad for a “downhill race”. My Garmin counted a total ascent of 1500m+.
For me the course has 6 distinct sectors. There are heaps of other descriptions out there on the net of the course which break the course up differently but this is my take. These six easily collapse into 3 milestones.
Sector 1: Down the Stairs 0km – 2.3km (Explorers Tree, Katoomba to Nellies Glen)
This section starts at the Explorers tree and follows a firetrail/walking path until a series of steep stairs formed in the bush. The descent is quite aggressive and the trail cannot really handle the numbers of people hitting it simultaneously for the race. Its almost all single track.
Sector 2: Across the Megalong Valley 2.3km – 10.2km
With the stairs behind you its time to get on with running. This is the most magnificent running country I have traversed. Everything about it I love. You can read more at my Megalong Mega report!
This sector starts is what I consider classic Australian bush on a firetrail and once over Megalong Rd opens out into magnificent farmland. Eventually it turns to single track. There are a few rolling hills and a slightly sharper climb at the end. For me this sector ends when the bush returns and the trail starts to drop down to the Cox’s River.
Sector 3: Singletrack to Cox’s 10.2km – 15.2km (Cox’s is the 1st Milestone)
From amazing farmland in Sector 2 to a perfect singletrack descent in Sector 3. This section is mindblowing. Nothing else to say really. The sector ends in the Cox’s river and the first real milestone of the race. More on that later.
Sector 4: Up to Pluvi 15.2km – 26km (Milestone 2)
I have written about this sector before in my Megalong Mega report too. I really like this climb and both the consistency and variability. Everything around you keeps changing so its visually stimulating but underfoot it keeps going up at an almost relentlessly consistent grade. The climb is broken in 2 (or 3 if you count a very small descent in the middle of the first stage). The first stage is up to Mini-Mini Saddle. A brief descent follows with 3 crossings of a small river before climbing recommences in earnest. Reaching the Pluviometer is a welcome achievement and the second key milestone of the race.
Sector 5: Boring Firetrail aka Black Range to the Caves Rd crossing 26km – 38km
All good things come to an end. For the Six Foot this means that after an amazing 20k+ of running through the Megalong Valley you are presented with a long, mindnumbing, uphill firetrail through the Black Range. Pluvi is not the top… don’t forget it. If you want to do well at 6ft you need to torture yourself and run this thing ahead of the race. If you don’t you will suffer. This sector ends at the road crossing. Note that the traditionally accepted course description ends the Black Range at the Deviation Campground… wherever that is. For me the character doesn’t change till the road.
Sector 6: One Hell of a Descent (Finish! Milestone 3) 38km – 45km
Once across the road you can almost feel the finish mentally its great to know its all downhill from here. Except it isn’t. There is 5k of rolling single track first. Its good but at this stage your mind is on finishing!
And then with 2k to go it is as if the ground vanishes beneath your feet. 2k of solid, steep, quad destroying descent. I don’t even know how to be ready for this but if you are prepared its an easy 4 minute gain compared to a fatigued slow and cautious descent.
And finally 45k later you are done!
Race day for me started with a 4am alarm back in Sydney. The family were coming up for the day to support me and nurse me home so as soon as we were dressed (at least the 2 adults!), we jumped in the car and I drove 3 very sleepy passengers up to Katoomba.
On arrival, the parking was well organised, I picked up my number in record time and found a toilet without any lines whatsoever. The bus to the start was a different story. The line was huge. Not really a problem as we had plenty of time. The area at the start was packed when we arrive but we managed to find a small space, take a quick family selfie and hear the gun go off to make the start for Wave 1. 5 mins later Wave 2 was off and it was time for me to line up at the start.
I started in Wave 3. Originally I was seeded in Wave 2 which I was happy with and felt appropriate since my qualifying time was a very contained run at the Southern Highlands Challenge 50k. I had only taken on that run originally to qualify for the Bogong to Hotham and given it was just before my Sunshine Coast 70.3 I certainly didn’t extend myself. Unfortunately the organisers of the 6ft at some point decided to redistribute the waves and I ended up in Wave 3. I must have been right on the edge of cutoff between the waves. Knowing this I tried to seed myself near the front and I was initially in the second line until the-said failbots arrived and barged their way in (seemed to be a fair few NSWIB jerseys in that group). Anyway at the start I felt pretty comfortable and ready for a great run.
For the race I was wearing my Salomon S-Lab Sense 3 SG’s and carrying a handheld Ultimate Direction bottle with its pocket stuffed full of gels. I went with handheld because the course record holder said that was what he used. If its good enough for him its good enough for me!
Like my STS 20k review I will sum my race up inline with the sectors in my description…
Annoyed, Awesome, Happy, Restrained, Slow, Ouch
Sector 1 – Down the Stairs: This is annoying. I hated the comment at the start “The race won’t be won on the stairs”. I hate the failbots who seed themselves at the front and can’t descent stairs properly. I hate it when people connect to the tail of a long conga line rather than force the pace and tell the person ahead to pull over. Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate…
For me trail etiquette is – If the person ahead starts to gap you and there is someone breathing down your neck – pull over. If stair descents aren’t your thing pull over. For some people descending stairs is a special kind of magic. I’m not one of those people generally, but compared to the majority of Wave 3, I am Merlin. I did eventually get into clear air… right at the bottom of the stairs. At this point the guys at the front of the wave were well gone and any hopes of getting paced along a bit were gone with them.
Sector 2 – Back to Running: Once on the firetrail I settle into a comfortable pace and started looking ahead for runners. I passed a few runners in 1’s and 2’s in the first km of this section but after a while there were a few larger groups… how had so many people gotten ahead of me at the start?
Thinking this was strange I realised their bibs were a different colour. I had run into the back of Wave 2 that started 10mins ahead. I was going well but I certainly wasn’t running that fast. I think the organisers need to rethink their seeding process a bit!
Once this section meets and crosses the Megalong Rd I am now on familiar ground – this is the trail that also forms the Megalong Mega. From here the trail continues as dirt road for a while before turning into single track with a short climb. All was feeling good so far.
Sector 3 – Beware the Conga: I love fast single track descents, especially ones I have run before and the single track down to the Cox’s river was in great shape. The rain in the week preceding the race had made it just perfect for my Salomon SG’s and I was flying. That was until I hit another conga line. The guy on the tail caught me muttering under my breath (he had headphones in!) and confirmed its was a bit of a slow line! Duh!
After a few hundred meters and picking off runners in 1s and 2s through wider sections, I saw my chance and hit the afterburners through a short rise and over a crest. My Salomons seamed to float me past 5-10 runners in one foul swoop like they were all standing still. The lead runner copped a bit of abuse as I passed (the response was… “They can pass me at any time”). From there I charged on down to the Cox’s river.
Sector 4 – The Tippy Toe Woes: I have come to quite enjoy river crossings in runs and the Cox’s is a great depth to cool the legs a press reset ready for the looming climb. The Cox’s River however seems to have a special kind of gravel. The kind that is attracted to the insides of your shoes. At the Megalong Mega, I stopped and emptied my shoes. I really didn’t want to repeat the shoes off here. Time to unleash my secret weapon: a tip I had picked up earlier in the week that was guaranteed to work.
Once engaged, going tippy toes creates a gravel repelling vortex around the shoes.
Only… It doesn’t work… at all.. The only reason I can think of is that my lack of formal ballet training must have meant I was doing it wrong. Once on the other side I found a place to sit and empty out my shoes. An exercise I did a particularly half-arsed job of and then suffered the distraction of the odd (actually pretty much constant) small stone(s) moving around my toes for the rest of the race.
I crossed the intermediate timing mats at this point in 133rd place with a time of 1:20:24.
I made an even more horrifying discovery at this point of the race too. This was so distressing I put the the tippy toe woes well behind me – Salted Caramel Gu. Don’t get me wrong, who doesn’t love salted caramel, I certainly do. But in Gu form… during a race… grose. I managed to swallow and with a big gulp wash the remnants away as I the trail turned upward. Maybe the aid stations down the track would dish up a better flavour.
At the bottom of the final climb up to Pluvi I passed a guy with a stereo integrated into his running vest. I was happy to get out of earshot pretty quickly.
I contained myself well on the climbs up to Pluvi. In fact I was 3mins slower than the Mega on this section. Partly this was because of the handheld bottle affecting my ability to powerwalk and partly because once at the top I was entering the unknown so I wanted heaps in reserve. On the course I passed far more people than passed me although the results don’t show this and have me loosing quite a few places on this sector. The joys of badly seeded wave starts!
I arrived at the top feeling pretty good and ready to get back to proper running.
The timing mats at the top of Pluvi placed me 173rd in 2:43:03. I guess that even though I was moving forward amongst the people around me the earlier waves had pushed a but harder in this sector. Of course I didn’t know this at the time and at the end of the day I was running to my own plan.
Sector 5 – A Dark Place: I wasn’t mentally ready for more climbing once I departed the Pluvi aid station and I can confirm the course does keep going up. The mental drain of successive short but punchy hills was made worse by the sound of music getting closer from behind. The hills were alive and to me, the music man behind became a human version of Top Gears Citroën 2CV. I held him at bay for what seemed like an eternity but eventually he got me and went on by. I would however get back ahead before the sector was out.
At 35km I still felt like 4:30 was within reach. As I mentally lifted for the task at hand so too did the course sharply turn up. The 5k from 35-40k I could feel my time slipping away.
Like the previous sector I passed more people than passed me but the timing shows me loosing plenty of spots.
Sector 6 – Things are about to go down: 7k to go. The first 5k of this sector is a brief rolling single track alongside the road. This turns into an extremely steep quad smashing 2km downhill to the finish The downhill hurts like nothing else. This downhill is where I genuinely lost spots. I tend to be a conservative descender whether on bike or foot and with legs already pretty much smashed I wasn’t going to wreck myself for the sake of a couple of minutes. About 6 or 7 people did blast past me on the descent. Not sure what goal they were chasing but they weren’t leaving any time on the course in that sector.
I finished with a time of 4:43:06 in 194th. I missed 4:30. Interestingly my Megalong Mega elapsed time was 4:13 so the +30min rule of thumb I have heard mentioned was pretty accurate.
The Wrap Up
I enjoyed myself in the race despite the seeding, the stair traffic, the Salted Caramel Gu and the Hell Descent into Jenolan Caves. The organisation was efficient and the volunteers on course fantastic. The course marking wasn’t great and in a few spots I was glad I could see a runner ahead.
The thing with this race is like other races with heritage (Challenge Forster) the mythology of the race can definitely be greater than the reality. I have this feeling having completed the race. I am very glad I have done it and I am not saying I would never come back to set a PB but it just lacked something. The monotony of the Black Range is part of it, the inability to actually start racing until the bottom of the stairs another. The most critical thing to me is that once out of the Megalong Valley there are just so many better places to run in the Blue Mountains (and around Sydney). The Megalong Mega is for me a much better course.
I am never big on heritage sake but if it was up to me I would probably look at running the top 20 males and females from the traditional start at the top and have a self seeded rolling start for everyone else with the timing mats for actual results at the bottom of the stairs. Kind of like the rolling start that worked brilliantly at Ironman Australia. Personally I would also probably also just turn everyone around at some point after the top of the Pluvi to finish the race at Megalong Rd so everyone gets 2 doses of the magic that is Megalong Valley. Wouldn’t it be great to have a more festival type environment at the finish! (and space!)
Right now I would rank the race behind races like Kedumba Half, Wentworth Falls and the Southern Highlands Challenge. Whilst the organisation was in the same ballpark as these the 6ft course just isn’t as good. FWIW I feel very different about the Megalong Mega sector – I could run it over and over again. This sector is that good.
Oh, and both Stu Gibson, the Male and Hanny Alston, the Female winners set new course records, Both the previous records had been long standing. Amazing! Hanny also came in top 10 overall!
My final note… Sometimes you can grasp onto the old for so long you miss out on something great and new. At times its better to let heritage go. Maybe for 6ft, with 2 freshly canned records its a good time to evolve the race a little. I kind of get the sense that Jenolan Caves is a bit like Forster and probably doesn’t care that much whether it hosts the race or not. (Every second statement relating to Jenolan Caves is focused on “improving the relationship”)