Six Foot Track - Race Report

by Bob Harlow (1994)

The Six Foot Track Marathon has grown in popularity since the inaugural race in 1984 when only 7 runners competed. For the each of the last 3 years from 270 to 290 have completed the tough course. It starts at the Explorers Tree, on the Great Western Highway a few kilometres west of Katoomba, and finishes 46 km later at the Caves House, Jenolan Caves, following the six foot wide path originally cut in 1884.

The race is organised and conducted by the Blue Mountains Bush Fire Service, which takes the proceeds from the $35 entry fee. The pre-race pamphlet stated that great care would be taken of the finances, under the control of a new committee, leaving the impression that some problems with finances may have been experienced in the past. An obvious omission from the pre-race information was any suggestion of the undulations in the race, and if any race should include such detail, this is one.

My wife, Carolyne, and I spent the night before the race at the Youth Hostel in Katoomba, an inexpensive and comfortable former guest house a block from the main street. The 9am start allowed runners from Sydney to travel up for the day and allowed me an unusual sleep-in before a long race.

The weather was ideal: clear, still and a forecast maximum of about 23C. Buses took runners from Katoomba to the start, but we drove, joining the throng walking from the highway a couple of hundred metres to the start. The atmosphere was exciting, although the distribution of race numbers was agonisingly slow. Most runners carried water bottles strapped to their waists and some carried bum bags of food. I felt particularly strong and rested. Fellow Canberrans Glen Patterson ("Do you know if there are any good runners here? I'm just doing it as a training run."), John Dimitriou (anxious to complete the race under the cut-off time of 7h 30m) and Jill Reich (hoping to do well in the women's section).

The starter announced that already $7,000 profit had been passed to the Bush Fire Service and he requested that runners walk carefully for the first couple of hundred metres because of the very rough, steep and stony track, before the descent from the top of the escarpment to the valley floor. Ignoring the request the leaders shot off from the gun, with me struggling to maintain balance and control. The descent was down log steps and very steep, muddy slopes. I missed a sharp turn and careered down a particularly slippery section, with several runners following me, before a call from someone who knew the track for us to climb back up.

Towards the valley floor the slope of the track eased and we were able to run. I was able to pass others and by the time we were on level ground the track was wide with a comfortable dirt surface. We soon came to the first of innumerable stiles comprising three or four upright poles on each side of a wire fence. I caught up to Max Bogenhuber, a top M50 Sydney runner, and ran and chatted to him for a few minutes. He told me that he was the only person who had run all eleven Six Foot Track marathons.

The pre-race information stated that there would be drink stations every 5km, Although that was true for the first few stations, they became more and more frequent through the race. Those manning the stations were welcoming and yelled encouragement but they did not appear to have been briefed: several stations had no drinks ready when I arrived. Nor did they point out the direction to run and I once went a couple of hundred metres along the wrong track before being called back. At two of the stations with Coke (starting about two-thirds of the way through the race) I had to ask for it and was given freshly poured Coke from a newly popped can, bubbles and all! I was careful to take two cups of water at every station, plus Coke when available.

At about 8-9km the course started undulating over a series of low hills before it met up with and followed Cox's River. This was the prettiest part of the course, but it was certainly the most difficult underfoot. The track ran backwards and forwards through dozens of gullies and over rocky rises. It was narrow along this segment and steep in places. I felt frustrated that I could not stretch out properly, nor could I fully enjoy the scenery.

As I was gingerly clambering down a rough section at about 15km Glen Patterson overtook me. In reply to my query as to how he was going he told me that while leading the race he had taken a wrong turn and run a long way into some bush, before getting back onto the right track about 25 places behind. At 16km we forded Cox`s River, hanging onto a thick rope. From there we climbed up a steep, wide gravel road for about 3.5km, giving me the opportunity to pass about 5 runners, including regular Sydney ultra runner Kelvin Marshall. This stretch was largely exposed to the sun and I found it hot for the first time. Near the top I walked for a short distance. The descent down the other side was shaded and we crossed Little River at about 25km. By this stage my quads were complaining and I wrongly thought we had finished descents.

From the river we started climbing immediately, at times very steeply, to the top of Pluviometer (the peculiar name of the steep escarpment at this side of the valley). I walked quite a bit towards the top, but still managed to pass a couple of runners. The worst of the climbing was over, and we now had about 9Km of gentle climbing through heavily wooded country with frequent muddy puddles crossing the track. We passed an increasing number of cyclists and runners who had come in from Caves Road to watch the race. For some time aid station helpers had been calling out my position and 1 knew that 1 had come from about 30th at the bottom of the escarpment to 7th place. During this comfortable section I passed a young runner who looked exhausted.

I came out of the forest as several trail bike riders roared along a cross road. Groups of spectators were in sight, and there was Carolyne with a squeeze bottle. She called out that 1 was about 4.5 mins behind the 5th runner. A couple of hundred metres further and I was onto Caves Road, the sealed, undulating road leading to Jenolan Caves. Although my quads were now sore I felt good and pushed hard. After about 5km we turned off onto a track which wound through forest to Jenolan Caves. Carolyne called encouragement as she gave me another drink. Coming to the turn-off I could see the next runner ahead and was confident I would catch him.

I was within about 40 metres of him when the track started descending steeply. My legs were so sore I had no choice but to ease back and he soon disappeared from view. The track narrowed and started winding down into a beautiful valley. The surface was rough and stony (the woman who was coming second to Jill Reich at this point fell and needed more than 20 stitches in her leg). I asked a Bush Fire Service helper how far to go: he answered "About 1km". A few hundred metres further I asked the same question of another helper and the answer was "About 2km". As my legs felt rapidly worse the track crossed a small saddle and there was Caves House below on my left. Down a flight of concrete steps, a sharp left turn and 50 metres to the finish.

There was plenty of fruit available and we were able to use showers in Caves House. A large crowd cheered in runners. By the time I arrived the two Russian runners who dominated ultras during March and April, Gennardy Groshev and Igor Streltson, had set up a stall selling Russian dolls and icons. Glen Patterson had caught Igor but not Gennardy. Jill Reich won the women's section and John Dimitriou was delighted to achieve his target with a time of 7h 15m. This is an excellent if tough run and I would encourage others to give it a go.

Bob Harlow
Canberra, ACT