Razorback Run 64km Alpine National Park – 2013 by Anthony Traynor
I’m convinced Race Director Paul Ashton is a sadist. This race report could end right there and it would explain most of the day I just did. But I will go on to explain why.
I had never run in the Victorian Alps before, but not through a lack of trying. For the past 2 years I had been entered in the Bogong 2 Hotham run, but 2012 I was out through injury and the 2013 the event was cancelled due to extreme weather. So with about a month before the event, I entered. I wanted one more good run before the end of the year, and to have the chance to run in the Alpine area. Oh boy, what I had been missing.
In the month before the 64 km Razorback run, I had studied the course notes and map, convinced I was going to get lost and cause a major event in an attempt to rescue me (or maybe not). I also studied the contours on the map to try and give me an indication of what I was in for. (You may laugh hysterically now). Those contour lines in NO WAY give an indication of what you are in for.
My brilliant support crew (wife Melanie), and I arrived in Harrietville on Friday evening and checked into the Harrietville Hotel Motel. Not a bad spot at all and found the meals were great. I relaxed, had a walk around Harrietville itself and went up to the Bungalow spur trailhead to have a look where I would be entering a world of pain.
We had an early meal about 6.30 p.m and hung around the bar as slowly more runners filtered in. As more and more runners came in, the more and more I felt unworthy. Calves of steel, bulging vastus muscles, not an ounce of body fat. Oh dear, what have a done? I’m in the company of real runners.
I was anxious for the briefing to gather as much info as I could about the run. At most events, the briefing has previously seemed to me, to serve mainly as a safety checklist, reminders of cutoffs, etiquette, weather and any last minute course changes. This briefing I was hoping for some more insight into the route, and what to expect. I didn’t get it. It was a blur of some spots you might be able to get water, followed by “see you at the Snowline Hotel for presentations”. In fairness to Race Director Paul Ashton, there was a fair bit more, but to be quite frank, I was shitting myself. I was sitting at a table with a guy from Alaska and he was asking me about the course. Oh god mate, don’t run with me. I hope he made it, as I never saw him again.
The briefing started off warmly with Paul asking the gathered masses where we were all from. Paul gave acknowledgements to those from international destinations and all states except Tassie. There was a fair swag from South Australia and WA.
As Paul said, awards are usually given out at the end; however, an exception was made to Matt, who was awarded the Golden Wombat award for several unsuccessful attempts at completing this run. Maybe this year Matt? Matt was given a plaque and a head torch to assist; hopefully he wouldn’t need to turn it on.
Straight to the room to pack after the briefing and off to sleep.
Alarm at 5.00 a.m. race start 6.00 a.m. at the Caravan Park, about 400 meters from the Harrietville Hotel. Weather? No idea, looks good outside but the briefing notes make a point that the weather can change quickly and dramatically here. Mandatory gear is vast. I have long johns, second thermal top, jacket, gloves, beanie. The old Salomon s-lab is packed to the brim. I’m wearing a thermal and a fleece vest, for this I am thankful now, and will be in about 2 hrs.
I jog out onto the main road and see no one. Shit, I’m late, I’ve missed it. I start to run. Fuck, I didn’t even check out where the start was last night, am I even going the right way – idiot! As I pass the Snowline motel, I see someone else casually walking the same direction. I stop sprinting and walk, cool as a cucumber.
We gather poised, wait for a few stragglers and Paul gets us off 4 minutes late at 6.04 a.m. Beautiful morning, no weather update from Paul, so must be allgood. GO. Holy crap, as always some are off like rockets. By the time I’m onto the main road, a distance of about 300 meters, some runners are a good 400 meters in front already.
The first couple of kilometers are through Harrietville. Past the general store and down Feathertop lane to a little bridge crossing over the creek, and then up a bitumen road to the trail head that is Bungalow spur. This is pretty much where it starts to hurt, and doesn’t stop for another 10 hours. So we are now about 2 kms into the run and the magnificent little gully that climbs gently for about 300 meters begins to rise, and rise, and rise. Within 3 kms of the start we are reduced to walking spots.
Early on I start thinking about my walking technique. I think this is how I will reduce the amount of damage. About 5 kms up the Bungalow spur climb, the first of three major climbs in store, Simon Ferraro who has the look of someone with revenge in his mind overtakes me. I don’t know this for sure, but I try and hang on. Another guy who I never got the name of also overtakes me. We managed to exchange “how good is this”, and that’s it. I never got within about 20 meters of him again so didn’t get a look at his name printed on his race bib, nor able to yell out “by the way, what’s your name”. But I will call him red t-shirt.
Bungalow spur is relentless. 11 kms of up. I estimate in that 11kms there is 50 meters of flat. Sections are certainly runnable, but taxing. The forest is amazing. This is some incredible country and we haven’t even hit the snow line. There is a small section of relief as we approach the site of the old Feathertop Hut. But it is only small. Another half km of pain then it tapers off again towards Federation Hut. The Federation Hut site is awesome. It’s a beautiful open campground area with shelter and spectacular views. So far there has been no need to navigate, as there isn’t really much that could go wrong as far as route goes up until this point. And apart from some confusing trail off shoots here, it’s pretty hard to miss the imposing summit of Feathertop standing over us.
The map and course notes say 1.5 kms to the top. It looks like 10 kms. The climb is a scrambly (is that a word?), skree layered, fumbling effort that blows the quads of the uninitiated (me). About 200 meters to the summit I find Bryan Ackerly down and already being attended to by others. There is a fair bit of blood on the jagged rocks and even more running down his leg. Bryan floated past me over 5 kms ago like he was on an escalator. He’s gone down hard on his knee and is out of the game. They don’t need any more bandages so I follow Simon and red t-shirt to the top. Red t-shirt and I discuss how we better be extra mindful of the descent, considering what has happened to Bryan. He faces several hours of hobbling down Bungalow spur back to Harrietville.
At the summit it’s WOW. 1 hr 40 min. I think that’s all right. I really have no idea, and had set myself a goal of breaking 13 hours. It’s an arbitrary figure really because I have nothing in my running history to compare it with. TNF100 was really hard, but also my first ever ultra. TNF has a lot of elevation gain, but I don’t know how much. I’m sure this run has more elevation per kms covered, but again I don’t know for sure. We’ll see. I really just hope I can finish.
It’s blowing pretty hard and I’m glad I still have my beanie handy and my vest still on. The video footage I take is completely washed out by wind. But the 360 views are worth it. I am so fortunate the weather is clear, I was really hoping for a clear day to see this. I chat briefly with Simon who also takes some snaps and we’re off.
Red t-shirt and Simon lock in behind each other and I try and hang on. I’m about 20 meters behind and manage to stay in touch, and reclaim some ground, when the terrain remains flatter (this will not be an advantage on this day my friends).
Back at the junction where the Memorial cross is, and where the Razorback track meets the Bungalow Spur track, we turn left and head about 1.5 kms along the Razorback heading south. I have studied the maps and course notes but am glad I am behind Simon and red t-shirt, who seems to have a clear knowledge of where to go. We get to a junction right where the track straight ahead climbs up over High Knob. I see Eliza Allen standing there on the phone. She’s double checking directions I think. Red t-shirt says, “Left here for 64 km, straight ahead for 42 km”. He’s off, and so am I.
Heading east down the Diamantina Spur, which, after relentless climbing, is a relief. But only briefly. Now the 3.6 kms of seriously steep terrain tests the already punished quads and any weakness in the knee, ITB or glutes will be exposed. Do your strength work kids! Out of nowhere comes a thundering noise and the words ‘coming through’. Flying past us is a runner with poles going flat out. In 10 strides he is past us and gone. So much for preserving the quads for later in the day. I say to myself, “he’ll probably prove me wrong”.
Half way down I stop to access my pack and take some electrolytes in. It’s pretty warm, and I’m losing fluids at a fair rate. I lose Simon and Red t-shirt. The last section of this descent is not runnable, and involves time on my backside. I manage to make it to the bottom and see Simon and red t-shirt starting off along the Kiewa logging road. This is pretty much the last time I see them. Running along the logging road next to the river is perfect. The water is clear and flowing, and as I write this a few days later, no ill effects from refilling my bladder from here. The sound of wildlife next to the water flowing over pebbles drowns out my whining.
This is one of the few sections so far I have felt like I could run for any length of time. It’s a wide fire road that rises gently for 1 km, and then steepens for another 1 km. At this point I see my old mate with the poles who flew past me down the previous spur. His quads intact he says, “the track is this way’ and indicates to the left behind a tree. The road keeps going, as does another runner in yellow. He is a big unit who I see later at Derrick Hut.
I am unsure, so stop and consult my map. The track surely does veer left towards a crossing of the river at Blair hut. I baulk for a bit, deciding the safest way to cross, before simply walking thru. The soaking of my feet in the icy water is such a joy, I don’t care if my Hoka’s don’t drain. Through the clearing and peeling left to head east again, this time towards Weston Hut.
Now I clearly had not studied the map well enough, or digested the course notes, as I was not expecting another brutal climb here. But the next 3 kms to Weston Hut simply hurt. It hurt really bad. You climb 500 meters in about 1.5 kms. This seems to go on forever and is my worst section of the day. This whole 5.5 km climb from the river to the High Plains takes me over an hour. I am passed by a couple of runners who take the time to ask if I’m okay. “Yeah, just hurting”. I have been for nearly four hours now.
As if not demoralized enough, I look at my Garmin Fenix. It says I have covered 37 kms. Initially I am stoked; until it beeps and informs me I have just done a 4-minute km up the climb. Shit. As I am passed by Zak Brown I ask, “How far are we in, my GPS is stuffed. He replies about 24 kms. Holy crap. Zak and I rubber band for the next 10 kms, each stopping for a photo or two and to collect ourselves.
About 1 km after Weston Hut, the terrain begins to flatten out and we hit the Bogong High Plains. Magical. A vast open plain with an instant view of the yellow La Sportiva flag in the distance, marking the check in point that is pole 333. The chance to run consistently again loosens the legs and I feel rejuvenated. I get to 333 in about 4hr 40 min, and Neil Kinder sticks out his hand and says ‘Gidday Anthony’. He offers great encouragement and is kept company by a group of hikers who have come from Pretty Valley on their way through to Hotham. A group of packhorses are also travelling through and I have just missed a mob of brumbies. How good is this. I stop and chat for about 10 minutes. Too long really, but I enjoy the chat, and quite frankly the rest as I watch a few more runners come across the plain towards us. It looks sensational as the minute figures grow and start to stride as they hit flat ground. I eat and move my ass. Running out of water though……
This is a pivotal moment. I feel like I am on my way back home, even though I am not yet half way. The next 3 kms are awesome. Views of the entire high country. A gentle breeze. Crystal blue skies and brilliant people, all smiling saying, “How good is this”. I stop to take a photo of the packhorses and Dej Jamieson catches me. He introduces himself, smiles and takes off, raving about the scenery. God he looks fresh. Maggie Jones also catches me and I follow them both, and again, try and hang on.
The descent to Cobungra gap is not as steep as expected, footing is good, and so far the tracks have been pretty well clear and defined, so I haven’t been too concerned about heading the wrong way. With a bit of care and some pre study, you should be fine with the course. However, this is definitely not a run for beginners. If you get injured, or heaven forbid, start looking for reasons to justify a DNF, you are a bloody long way from an exit.
Into Cobungra Gap and Dibbin Hut and the trickling Cobungra River. I should have stopped and filled my bladder again. Big mistake. BIG. The last of the major climbs up Swindlers Spur is more about the cumulative toll, and the 4.5 kms grind me to a halt a few times. For those with more hills in their legs, this will prove to be difficult, but you will be able to get a marching rhythm and stomp up this thing. Here, I am now taking extra note of the snow poles, which have small numbered silver plates at the top of them. They are providing more than my Garmin.
The reward of this climb is Derrick Hut and the open view of Mount Hotham. To me, seeing Mount Hotham within reach signaled the achievable end. Once I got to Hotham, it meant the start of the Razorback back to the finish. I had no forethought about any other part of the run, other than running along one of Victoria’s most famous tracks.
Up Swindlers Spur, I began receiving text messages from my wife Melanie, who had decided to meet me on Mount Hotham. This wasn’t in the plan, but I was glad she had decided to. She let me know she had food, water and coke. Yippee. I stopped every time to exchange texts, and was passed by a few runners including Clare Weatherly, who must have thought I was nuts to be on the phone while participating in a trail run like this. Isn’t that one of the joys of being out here, to avoid things like text messages and phone calls?
I let her know to meet me at Loch Car park and she replied she was already there helping other runners. That made me really happy. Happy she got a chance to come up and see the view, but more so that she was there for others too, and got to feel some of the run, more than just a spectator.
From Derrick Hut to Mount Hotham is a bit of a blur. I don’t remember it being particularly painful, I think because aid was in sight. The wide track that merged with Machinery Spur Track was undulating as you pass the ski lifts, snow making machines and signs of all the ski runs I had been on.
Got to the Car Park, and Mel was there giving some electrolyte to another two runners. I see Zak has gone through and I don’t see him again from that point. I arrived almost along side Jacquie Hansen who had seemingly left Matt (Golden Wombat), behind again. I had a swig of coke, refilled my bottles, got told to “eat and get going”. Perfect crew my wife. Jacquie and I ran the short stretch over Hotham summit and onto Diamantina Hut, albeit with a slight off road detour thanks to my map reading skills.
We run a small section on the Great Alpine Road into Diamantina Hut where the aid station is. I hear my race number being checked off and I see the sadist standing there in his high vis, trail boss vest. I ask him whether he has ever done this thing before; because I’m not he sure he was aware of the DAMN MOUNTAINS. We joke about the crap course and crap view. Mel has leapfrogged me to the hut, checks if I need anything and tells me the Razorback Ridge I’m about to run is spectacular. She has been there talking to Paul and other volunteers. I’m pumped. From Diamantina Hut you can see the track meander along the Razorback for maybe 2 kms.
It looks undulating and follows the contours of the ridge. Some small climbs sure, but nothing like we have been through. Jacquie tells me this section to the finish took her 2.5 hrs last time she ran it. I would be happy with that. I’m at Diamantina at 8 hrs, so that would give me around 10.5 hrs. I seem to have recovered okay, and am still running pretty well considering. Race Director Paul Ashton says I can go up Feathertop again if I want!
I take off along the Razorback, which is beautiful single track with some tricky narrow sections flanked by big drop offs. You need to still be alert along here, and if you were tired, then it would still be easy to do an ankle or worse still tumble a few meters off the edge.
After approx. 2 kms of some technical trail, the Razorback opens out a bit into unparalleled single track with incredible vistas on both sides. You really feel like you are running along the spine of the high country. The terrain has been blackened by bush fires, and at times it is an eerie feeling running along there alone. Jacquie catches quickly and passes.
The 8 kms along the Razorback to the junction with Diamantina is exhilarating. It is pretty much all runnable. The trail in parts has been eroded into a deep gouge with loose rocks, but clearly new tracks have been formed on either side with a much smoother run. Maggie Jones and I pause up the last little climb, hands on knees, take a breath and continue. Passed the junction with Diamantina Spur and it’s back onto trail we covered at the start. The big loop is complete, and it’s all down hill from here. We received some great support by campers at Federation Hut who look set up for the night. The Razorback was fairly busy, and at that time, between 2 -4 pm, I estimate I passed about 15-20 different hikers.
At the top of the Bungalow Spur walking track, Maggie, who had pulled away, was sitting down strapping her knee. Big smile from her, one that I had seen all day, even up those torturous climbs. “It’s all downhill from here”. I ask if she is okay and she tells me she is just prepping her knee for the descent. Crikey, she must be planning to fly back down to Harrietville. I leave her to finish and head down. I’m hoping this is like any out and back trip you do, and it feels quicker the way home. My knees are killing me, my quads feel painted on and the little stress thingy I have had in my right foot is back. I’m trusting it won’t let go as a previous bone scan 2 weeks ago showed it wasn’t broken. Fingers crossed.
I have reset my Garmin and it’s showing I’m heading down at 5.30 kms. Cool. I spend the next 10 minutes trying to do math’s. I think I’m still on track to finish under 11 hrs. I have to nick off in the bush for a pit stop and see Maggie tear past. I won’t catch her and she’ll pull away, finishing 4 minutes in front of me. You can see the valley peek its way through the trees and the finish is close.
Once you exit the trail, the bitumen road back into town takes forever. I make the turn into the main road and walk past a couple walking their dog. He’s drinking a beer and says, “In 200 meters mate, you can have one of these”. I start running again. Small incline up the road and right turn into the lane to the finish at the caravan park. I can see my wife behind the finish gantry, which says 10hr 48min. Happy with that. Mel takes a photo or two and I collapse in the shade about 2 meters from the finish. Mel and Eliza Allen, who ran a great marathon it turns out, fetch me water.
WOW. That was the hardest run I have ever done, EVER. It started tough and didn’t let up. From about the 12 km mark I was in pain. It was also the greatest run I have ever done. I felt I had to battle the whole way, and tested myself on a very hard course. Could I finish? Could I dispense with all those excuses we try and come up with in our minds to justify a DNF? 64 kms and 10 hrs is long enough for your mind to become fragile. It’s long enough for you doubt yourself and your body. And it’s most definitely long enough to ask yourself, “Do I really want to hurt this much for another few hours”. This run provides the opportunity for all of those questions and I’m glad I answered them the way I did. It is these reasons that make this the greatest run I have done.
Paul Ashton is not a sadist. The planning that has gone into establishing this course is so clearly not about just the route. Paul has given runners the opportunity to truly test themselves, whether they are Blake Hose destroying the 42km in 3.57, or 64 km winner Tom Brazier in an amazing 7.34, or old blokes like me 3 hrs behind. A terrific run, conducted in great spirits and the most magical of places.
Thank you Paul and team for a brilliant weekend. Thank you Melanie for being the best crew ever. Thank you Simon, red t-shirt, Jacquie, Maggie, Zak for your company.