I can’t imagine a better day race than the Great Southern Endurance Run 50 mile event. Sure, I toed the start as a 100 mile entrant, but after rolling my ankle a couple of times in the lead up to the event I knew by the 45k aid station that the closer finish line would be my destiny this year. It was well worth the effort to keep going.
Prior to the GSER, I knew it would be one of my biggest challenges. To be honest though, I had absolutely no concept of what I was in for. None. Did anyone out there? Every time I think I have gotten my head around “hard” in endurance running, another level appears. Sean and Mel at Mountain Sports are almost always the instigators. They make a game of it. And it’s a game that keeps sucking me in. Create an event that sounds awesome, then only reveal its true brutality once it’s too late to escape.
The trick with the GSER is that its name sounds just like the iconic Western States Endurance Run (WSER) in the USA. WSER is known to be fast, with a record of just under 15h. GSER took this year’s winner, Martin Kern (arguably the top ultra-runner in ANZ at the moment), twice as long. Using the term “Run” in the title of GSER really is a cruel misrepresentation!
I had been consistently building my strength and pace over the previous twelve months in the lead up to GSER. I started with a 13th placing at Hounslow, a near one hour PB at the UTA100, and then suffered though 100k of stomach issues to finish Ultratrail Lavaredo in Italy. I bounced back pretty well from Lavaredo and steadily rebuilt my weekly mileage.
I entered the GNW 100k as a warmup for GSER, but on my final taper run I landed on a loose rock while descending and my entire foot rolled. My ankle let off an audible crack. GNW (and actually walking in general) was off the cards and my sole focus went to repairing myself. A week of compression, icing, and using a balance ball followed. I limited myself to cycling (non-load bearing) and eventually a slow reintroduction to running. The pain subsided, but full stability never returned on uneven surfaces. Two weeks before GSER, my ankle rolled and cracked again as I descended down to Bantry Bay for some stair work. I instantly thought it was game over, but by some miracle it actually seemed to improve things. I could at least toe the line at Mt Buller with a degree of confidence.
The family and I drove down on the Wednesday and stayed at the base of Buller at an Airbnb (Pete’s Studios – Pete was a great host). After driving all day we managed a short walk and I had a 5k shakeout run on a perfectly manicured singletrack – yes GSER runners there is such a thing at Mt Buller!
On Thursday it became clear the mountain gods were not at all happy with the idea of a few hundred runners bagging all their peaks in a handful of hours when a mighty storm whipped up.
We decided make a pilgrimage to Bonny Doon for some serenity and powerlines. And by paying our respects to Australiana as a whole, there was a sense of hope the mountain gods might be appeased. They weren’t, and by the time we headed up the mountain in the afternoon to explore and check in the conditions were mental.
I took my firstborn onto a snow alter but I wasn’t able to make the necessary sacrifice.
Race briefing was memorable (if a bit late!) but bought with it the disappointment of discovering there would not be pumpkin soup, baristas – and I guess by extension, string quartets – at the aid stations to support us on our journey. Luckily RD Sean reminded us that in being selected for the race we were confirmed hardened trail runners (he was too polite to call us unhinged).
I had an unusually good pre-race sleep. The weather had improved from Thursday, but the mountain was still shrouded in cloud.
The race starts at the centre of Buller Village. The first couple of kilometres summits the mountain (the race highpoint) before descending all the way to the valley floor on an imaginary trail. I found myself in a good bunch with a couple of New Zealanders, and there was plenty of talk and occasional off trail excursion and backtrack. The trail fairies who had manicured the trails at the bottom of the mountain obviously hadn’t been told about this track and it was very slow going.
I hit the 11k aid station in 1hr 50min – slow going for a 10k, 1200m descent, but bang on target.
The next section followed some stunning trail alongside the Howqua River before turning to climb The Bluff, 10k and 1200m above. I paced myself well on the climb and was ready to increase speed at the top. I think somewhere along the way we endured our first hail storm, and by the second peak visibility had become poor – the light was flat and the trails were less than obvious. It took a sharp eye to stay on course. Even still, I loved the countryside in all its bleakness.
This section was where my ankle let go three times. Each time it was bad enough to hurt, but never bad enough to stop me in my tracks.
Eventually the weather cleared and we received our third season for the day. The trail also cleared and eventually opened up into a long fire trail descent to the second check point. I ran the bulk of this section with Christian Stockle from NZ (as well as the descent off Buller) whose goals were similar to mine: a – Daylight Saturday finish; b – Sub 40hrs; and c – Finish. I didn’t mention I was mentally contemplating d – switch to the 50 miler. Every step on the descent was accompanied with growing ankle pain, and after a careless trip I knew I had to go with option d. Christian on the other hand went on to smash his a goals and ran 4th (and rapidly closing on 2nd!).
The second aid station at Upper Howqua is a critical point in the race. It is the only place you see your crew on the Friday and if you are thinking you won’t be completing the 100 miles you really should let them know there. Otherwise they face a five hour drive to Bright, followed by a 6 hour round trip back to Lake Cobbler. I gave a clear direction to meet me there. Apart from my ankle I was actually feeling great and my times were still spot on my target. Kira and the kids did a great job refuelling and resupplying me and cheering me on my way.
Not that I didn’t have second thoughts. Given different logistics and better phone reception by the Speculation aid station I probably would have turned right and headed off into the night rather than turning left and heading for the 50 mile finish (Kira would have killed me).
The leg from Upper Howqua to Speculation is a mere 17k, but its bloody tough. On paper it looks easy but between more imaginary track followed by more thunder, hail and then once again sun mixed with a bit of scrambling things were slow going. My watch was auto lapping on 5k intervals and > 1 hour 5k’s test my lack of patience.
Near the top of Mt Howitt I was caught by the female leader and ran pretty close to her the rest of the leg. There was a group of girl guides camped on the track and she was getting plenty of cheers – possibly the most remote cheer squad ever.
The last 3k into Speculation took an eternity with constant climbs, descents and bush bashing but on arrival I felt great. Several hours of mostly walking and I guess knowing I only had 17k to go probably helped but I was very tempted to continue on with the 100…
I didn’t bother with my drop bag and instead grabbed some coke and half a cup of noodles. I let the aid station manager know where I was headed, and then charged on down the fire road towards Mt Cobbler and ultimately the finish.
The next few k’s were a fast and welcome relief, although my ankle gently reminded me that my decision was wise. Otherwise I was feeling really strong and I passed three other runners on this section.
Eventually it was time to bag my final peak of the day. By this point the storms were rumbling again and I wasn’t looking forward to getting above the treeline amongst lightning, but I had to keep pushing. Fortunately this storm cleared fast and I think it was the first of they day that wasn’t accompanied by hail.
I really enjoyed the final section of the climb up to Mt Cobbler, the final section being on open solid rock slopes. The climb is an out and back and I was curious to see how close the next runner was. We crossed paths just below the treeline, so it was unlikely I would pick up another spot.
At the summit it was golden hour and the sun came out. The mountains were amazing and the gods finally appeased. For the first time in the race I took some time to soak it up and take a few photos and then set off to the finish. I passed a couple of runners maybe 15 minutes behind me still on the climb, and then spent the next few k’s looking over my shoulder as I constantly had to stop to scramble over trees every few meters. No one appeared.
I had only given the map for the final leg a cursory glance before leaving Speculation and I was expecting a few k’s of road to finish, so I was extremely surprised when saw some people cheering as I emerged from the singletrack after one final river crossing. The kids came charging out of the car where they were sheltering from the rain with Kira in tow. I turned left and touched the finish banner in 6th place after 14hrs 24minutes.
By contrast my UTA time was 2hrs quicker over 20k more distance. The GSER50 course is a very solid challenge and delivers it all in a day. I’d love to have a crack at racing it hard from the start.
For me 6th is a great result, but bittersweet. Everything went perfect on the day with the exception of my ankle. I finally got a nutrition strategy that worked for me (A mix of my usual high-5 gels & extreme drink, but with the addition of Powerade and Potato Burritos – 50% normal potato, 50% sweet potato and 50% Uncle Bens Mexican brown rice). All my gear was perfect and my training paid off. Whether or not I had the extra 100k in me this year will never be known, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering about what might have been.
Something inside me niggles to go further. Part of it is the great memories of running through the night at Lavaredo, but probably more so spending the weekend in Bright watching the legends finish the 100 miler. I loved hearing their stories and gathering knowledge.
It took me 2 go’s to get myself sorted at Lavaredo so if I get a second go a GSER… well… maybe I’ll have to offer my crew chief and wife a mega bribe.