Race Report

by Gary Carlton (2002)

This is an article I wrote for the West Australian Marathon Club newsletter about my recent efforts at the Six Foot Track. I hope your readers might find it interesting and informative. Regards, Gary Carlton.

I recently travelled to Sydney and then the Blue Mountains, with the support of my wife Geraldine, to run the Sixfoot Track (ultra) Marathon. I thought other WAMC members might like to read of my experiences in the Club newsletter.

The Sixfoot Track is an old bridle trail that was cut through the Blue Mountains as a short route from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves in 1884. The original intention was to upgrade it to six feet wide to enable it to carry horse drawn coaches. By the 1930's, lack of maintenance had resulted in the track no longer being suitable for bridle use. Whilst compiling the 1937 military map of the area, Major Clews chose to apply the name Six Foot Track, referring to the original tender specification for a width of six feet.

The track was reopened in 1984, following reconstruction work. Much of the route is through World Heritage listed national park. This year the annual Six Foot Track Marathon, which also started in 1984, attracted 640 entrants, 575 starters, 540 finishers of which 519 were within the cut off time. It quickly separates the merely fit from the seriously fit. The original field in 1984 consisted of seven entrants and seven finishers.

The Sixfoot Track length is somewhere between 46 kms & 47 kms (apparently) or there about. I have read numerous articles and advertisements that mention the track's length and they all vary. Even the accuracy of the distance trail markers along the route is questionable. The reason could be because it is a mountain trail made up of steps, downhills, uphills, flats, river crossings and about 50 metres of bitumen at the finish. This would make it difficult to measure.

The track takes about two to three days to walk for an experienced, leisurely bush walker. The Sixfoot Track Marathon race has a seven-hour cut off, after which your finishing time is no longer officially recorded. There are also cut off times at different points during the race. If you don't achieve them you are told to quit (similar to Comrades (ultra) Marathon in South Africa). It is necessary to have run the equivalent or better than an official four-hour marathon to qualify for the race.

The race starts at the historic Explorer's Marked Tree near Katoomba at 8.00 am on the first Saturday in March. The starting point is a two-hour car trip from Sydney. Vehicle access and parking at the start is congested and restricted. For a mere $10.00 per entrant and a further $10.00 per family of spectators, bus transportation from nearby parking facilities with return trip to and from the finish is very attractive. Most entrants choose to find local, overnight accommodation before and after the event. We stayed at Blackheath just beyond Katoomba.

We are extremely fortunate to have a very good friend, Stephany from Brisbane, whom my wife Geraldine and I met in South Africa at Comrades. She was also running the event. Stephany arranged with friends of hers, the Westlake Amateur Athletics Club from Newcastle, to warmly host and assist us with accommodation, transport, hospitality and logistic advice about the event. They always have a significant contingent of runners who take on the Sixfoot Track Marathon each year. We are extremely thankful to them.

The race start, at the Explorer's tree just outside Katoomba, is crowded and the atmosphere is electric. It would have to be one of the biggest social events for Australian ultra running, as participants mingle amongst the other different clubs' colours.

Despite being named the Sixfoot Track there are many times when the track is only one person wide. The early stage of the race quickly becomes one of those times.

The start is divided into two waves, fifteen minutes apart, with about three hundred runners each wave. Elite runners and previous Sixfoot finishers are able to start in the first wave. Generally it is the course novices or entrants without sub three-hour marathon credentials who have to start in the second wave. This is frustrating and at times dangerous when you consider you have a steady stream of slower runners ahead of you on narrow mountain trails for 46 km. I saw a few foolish frustrated runners come to grief trying to pass slower runners on steep and narrow sections.

An alternative at the start could be to divide the competitors into categories according to their qualifying time, taken from the previous twelve months, or the previous year's Sixfoot Track finishing time. This would also be much safer.

The start quickly becomes a bone jarring survival course down vertical steps cut into the rock and clay down to Nellies Glen. This section is always slippery and crowded and eventually restricts most runners to a cautious walk or jog depending how slow the competitors immediately ahead of you are travelling. I saw one runner take a tumble here trying to pass on a single file section. I quickly lost sight of Stephany as she flew done the hill with other younger and more nimble downhill runners than myself.

The steps then open up to a dirt track for a few kilometres. After having negotiated other runners, rocks, steps and a very steep downhill (the other runners being the only early challenge I was comfortable with) I was finally back into my comfort zone. I soon caught up and passed Stephany and her young entourage. It was great to be able to open up and feel like I was running again. This feeling was often suppressed by the sudden onset of steep slippery downhills that were dusty, uneven or wet.

Having to wear hard plastic orthotics at all times to control my flat feet, excessive pronation and archilles tendon problems, I always have difficulty with unstable down hill running tracks. This event was no different.

The route became quite scenic again, now that I didn't have to watch my every step. The camaraderie of the other runners was always present but more so in these relaxed sections. We ran through paddocks, over fences and stiles and generally through some very pleasant undulating country. I used these sections to make up some time and pass some of the slower runners and others that passed me on the tricky downhill sections. At times the track was again rocky, unstable, steep and narrow. The steep uphills were to my advantage, as I am better suited to uphill running.

At about the 8 km or 10 km mark (various conflicting reference data again) we came to the Megalong Road crossing. This is one of the few spectator points along the route. Geraldine was here to wish me well and swap my normal glasses for my prescription Steve Monaghetti look alike sunglasses. (A distinguishing and trademark piece of my running apparel) We were also out of the early morning misty haze and the sun was shining brightly.

I felt great as we generally had a reasonable surface to run on and I was relaxed again. I enjoyed the run more in this section for the next three kilometres. Unfortunately this was my biggest mistake of the whole event. I did not concentrate enough on watching my footing.

While casually striding along in true roadrunners style my right foot clipped a raised rock (I think) and I reluctantly decided that flying was a lot faster than running. I enjoyed the brief moment until I hit the ground horizontally. I quickly realized I needed a bit more work on my landing.

As my head and chest hit the ground I heard a cracking sound. I felt my race might be over because I feared my glasses had broken and I would not be able to see the track well enough to finish. The next thing I remember were the voices of two runners who were running behind me. "Are you OK mate?" a male voice said as they unselfishly helped me to my feet. A young lady seemed shocked as she said something like " You're in a mess. You don't look very good."

I instinctly felt my head for my glasses. They were there and not broken. I placed them back over my eyes. Thank God, I thought. I can see. I can stand up. I'm OK. I can finish. My answer to the Good Samaritans was: "Thanks, don't worry, I'm fine. It looks worse then it really is." The male voice said: "Let your eye clot and then clean yourself up in Cox's River. I took off like a rocket again. Well, at least I thought I did.

As the blood and sweat combined to drip off my cap and into my eyes I decided I would have to concentrate more on watching where I was putting my feet than worrying about my injuries if I was to finish. I was also concerned that the race marshals would decide to pull me out of the race if they saw me struggle, looking as messy as I did.

The two runners, who helped me, stayed just behind as we exchanged banter over the next three or four kilometres. The male said, " So you came all the way from Western Australia to do that." "Yeah, I wanted to leave my mark on the Sixfoot Track" I said. His response was, "Well you have definitely done that."

As I examined myself I realized that I had no doubt left my mark on the Track. There was skin off my head, shoulder, knees, elbows, and hands. My right arm ached and my right side felt numb and hot. There was also a badly bleeding cut just above my right eye. I pulled my cap down low and looked forward to the cool Cox's River crossing.

Just before the Cox's River there was a shallow creek. It was amusing to see many runners looking for stepping-stones or shallow places upstream to cross. The Cox's River is generally waste deep and you are going to get very wet soon anyway. I waded into the middle of Cox's River and discretely tried to clean the blood off.

As I jogged up the bank on the other side I caught the eye of a race marshal. I heard him calling my race number to another official. His next words were, "He doesn't look too good. He's in a bit of mess." I didn't hear any more because I decided it was time to put those hours of training to the test. There was no way anyone wearing heavy orange overalls and work boots was going to catch me in the bush anyway. I took off like a rocket again.

The race marshals are from the NSW Rural Fire Service, a joint beneficiary with the Six Foot Track Heritage Trust from proceeds of the event. Both are very worthy recipients of the proceeds from the event.

Immediately after the Cox's River the first big climb commences. It is a climb that raises 430 metres up to Mini-Mini Saddle over 4 km. Most runners, except the elite or inexperienced, choose to power walk these steep sections. My long legs gave me the advantage on the uphills again as I passed many runners.

Sadly, however, my fall had taken its toll. My ribs also stated to ache and most times it was more comfortable to run with my right arm hanging down and by my side. I later found my arm, ribs, legs and eye had very bad bruising and I had two cracked ribs. The pounding downhill from Mini-Mini Saddle to Little River hurt also. I sprained my left ankle in this section. Stephany flew past me again with another group of younger runners. I briefly told her of my fall but assured her I was OK and would have no trouble in finishing.

There were a few moments of relief as I crossed the cooling water shallows of Little River. This was short lived as the climb up to the top of the hill called the Pluviometer began. This section also rises 436 meters in height over about 4km. Power walking was definitely the way to go, which soon saw me passing walkers and most runners. The energy you save by briskly walking steep uphills far outweighs the few seconds you might gain by running. In most cases in the later stages of an ultra event, unless you are an elite athlete, running is slower up a big steep hill because you have to stop and walk to recover before getting to the top. I caught up with and passed Stephany again. Finally I reached the top of Pluviometer but still had 20 km still to go.

The temperature had warmed up by now and eventually hit 27 degrees. This is not an unusual temperature to train in Perth but most of the competitors aren't from Perth. There were many comments about how hot it was. I carried a drink bottle in my belt, as did most others.

There were about 16 aid stations along the route but not that regularly placed. They were well manned and well stocked with drinks and snacks. We took drinks from these and filled our drink bottles up to carry us over the drier sections. I didn't linger at these, as I didn't wish to arouse too much attention. I was still receiving comments from other runners like: "Oh my God. What happened to you?" "You look awful. Are you alright?"

The next 10 km was along an undulating section, but still quite hilly up and down at times, known as Black Range. The scenery was not as picturesque as previously but still pleasant bushland. The trail kilometre markers were always inaccurate and only helped to confuse our arithmetic. I chose to ignore them.

At about the 37 km point we crossed Caves Road and began the next torturous section, the downhill to Caves House along a narrow single width track, in the bush, below the road. Although it is meant to be the downhill, it is still full of steep ups and downs over the next 8 kms. It is more like a roller coaster. This was the time when I had to dig deep to push my pain and discomfort aside. I had to finish looking good. (If that was at all possible.)

Then I saw the roof of Caves House below us. We were nearly there I thought. That was my second biggest mistake of the event. I was only there if I managed to survive the very steep descent down the Mount George fire trail, a steep, loose, rocky trail with a cliff sharply rising up on you left and a sheer drop to your death or serious injury on your right. This section of the race fell about 400 metres over 2 km. The width was once again only one person wide. (So much for the six-foot wide track again.)

My leg muscles were screaming during this downhill section, as I tried to stay on my feet and not have to call on my life insurance policy to pay off my debts. Some of the runners I had worn down and passed on the previous 45 kms, returned the compliment to me in the last ten minutes of the race as I, and others, politely hugged the cliff face to let them pass. I had the stamina but was just waiting for the opportunity to really run. I looked forward to a big long bitumen finish to even up with them. This wasn't meant to be.

The last few hundred metres were on a steep, well-worn and slippery paved path. I had to compete with tourists and spectators who were going uphill in groups to view the scenery and the runners. The bitumen finish was only 50 metres long after a hard left hairpin turn.

I finished in 5.59.45 approximately mid field (not my goal time but at least more than an hour within the cut-off time) to the words of my wife Geraldine "You look a mess. I was worried about you. I thought something must have happened."

If this wasn't bad enough the officials ordered me off to the first aid room.

After standing in a queue for a few minutes too long and then watching the ambulance officers tend to broken bones and administer oxygen to runners collapsing on the footpath on the way to the showers I decided first aid was for dead people. I left and joined the Westlake's group, as Geraldine assessed my injuries and procured medication and bandages from the ambulance officers. Being a Nursing Director she was well qualified to do so.

When I was finishing the race I was convinced that because of my weak ankles I was a roadrunner and not built for trail running. I vowed I would never run a trail race again. But as the hours, days and weeks have passed I now believe that I can run Six Foot better. So who knows, maybe we will go be back again soon.

The race is definitely very challenging and a special event in very beautiful scenery. It is obvious why so many runners return to run the course year after year. It is also obvious that one of the reasons that so many runners return is the people involved in the event, both the course marshals and the other runners.

It was very kind of all the members of Westlake's who showed their concern and compassion to me after my bad fall at about the 13 km mark of the event. I have no doubt that had it not been for the sympathy and support of the two runners, immediately behind me at the time, who helped me to my feet, the remaining 33 kms would have been even harder.

For WAMC member's interest, the major cuts and wounds have nearly healed and my two cracked ribs only really hurt when I laugh or cough after a 20 km to 30 km training run. I have to be fit for the Perth 40 Miler that is coming up in about a month.

Gary Carlton