Six Foot Track - Race Report

by John Lindsay (2002)

With 5 weeks to go until the Marathon de Sables (MDS), I decided to make the 6 Foot Track run a test of my MDS gear and everything before I board the plane bound for Morocco. I decided to do it as a 12 foot track event, by turning around after running the official race and heading back to the start. But to make it realistic for the MDS, I would carry the full back pack that will be my companion for 7 days through the desert.

Saturday dawned clear and cool, with a maximum temperature forecast for Katoomba of only 20 degrees. Although it was hotter than this down at lower altitudes, especially on the climb up Pluviometer, it was better than some previous years, and that was a welcome relief for a citizen of Melbourne, where this summer we've hardly had a day over 30 degrees.

Olga and I stayed at the Sky Rider Motel, 1.5 km from the start. We selected this motel for its proximity to the start, because not knowing exactly when I'd return and with no mobile access until your back at the start, I did not want to burden Olga with having to get me 3 am in the morning. With only an extra 1.5 km to travel, I figured I'd just run on to the motel after returning to the start line.

So we walked down to the start to check in for the race on Saturday morning. It was so well organised, I was through in 2 minutes. Then the traditional damper and syrup and a cup of tea, caught up with some friends, and set off in the first wave. As a back of the pack runner, it is wise not to be caught at the rear of the pack going down the steps to Nellies Glen, where all except the elite front runners walk, and the line sometimes stops completely. I run better on down hills than up, and am fairly nimble on rough terrain for a nearly 54 year old bloke, so I made it my business within safety parameters to get to the steps as quickly as I could.

I really like the 5 km or so along the narrow track at the top of the gorge just before Cox River. By the time I reach this spot, the pack has established a pecking order, mostly with the faster people passing me after their slow trip down Nellies Glen. However, at this point I usually manage to pass a few people who are less secure of foot on this narrow, rocky and winding trail above the river. I got to the Cox River close to my normal time at 1.48, 27 minutes ahead of cut off.

The river was higher than normal after a wet February. I watched as a smallish lady in front of me went up to her neck in water. I followed in and emerged the other side with the normal shoes full of sand, which took me 3 minutes to empty out.

I knew I was doing better than normal when I was able to run some of the Mini Saddle and Pluviometer - I can't remember doing that before. I got to the Pluviometer cut off 37 minutes ahead of time.

I always hate the Black Range section - it's boring scenery and I am usually in deep trauma when I hit it. But this time I ran all except the bigger hills. I then had a good run down the steep and rocky descent to Caves House, for my best ever finish time of 6.19.

I thought about why I did better this year than previously, despite the fact that at my age my time should be creeping the other way every year. It could have been many factors, not the least of which was the cooler day. However this time I tried something different - running with a gut always full of water. According Dr Tim Noakes, studies have shown that if you run with a gut full of water (as opposed to a partially full gut), it makes a significant improvement to the absorption rate of both water and carbohydrate (Lore Of Running Chapter 4 Page 128).

I feel encouraged by the results of my experiment, as I always have trouble adsorbing enough water to replace what I lose in a hard run. This could be very important for me in the Sahara Desert.

Whatever the reason, I ended the race feeling half decent and with a better time than I expected.

Olga had driven the car to Bindi Cabins and walked down to the finish. After 45 minutes to retrieve my clothing bag, have an ice cream and some hot chips, and talk to some friends, we set off back to the car where I had my MDS pack. The slower pace was welcome and helped me gear my mind and body up for the return leg, which I would run alone through the night.

In the Sahara I'll have to carry a minimum of 3 litres of water on the "dune day", which is one of the killer stages where they can't put water stations due to the terrain. So I set off with 3 litres of water as well as my pack - which was necessary anyway due to the lack of water along much of the course. I had my SafeWaterAnywhere filter anyway in case I needed to fill up at Alum Creek or Cox River.

All up my pack weighed about 13 kgs including water, which takes a bit of getting used to when you run. I ran most of the down hills and flats and walked the uphills. I rested regularly as I was not in a race for a time. In fact it was too hard to see my watch without my glasses, and it was too much of a nuisance to get them out, so most of the time I had no idea of the time.

I had several cat naps on the way. Just the other side of Mini Saddle near the sales yards, I stretched out between the pats of dry cow dung, not noticing the herd of cattle grazing nearby in the dark. After getting up, I was confronted by a larger than normal animal on the road. It did not have the large shoulders and severe facial expression of a bull, but I checked under its belly none the less, and sure enough it was not a cow. I decided against the further inspection that would have determined for sure if it had all its marbles, but I suspect from its overall lack of aggression towards me, it had had an unhappy experience in its youth.

(I gave this to Olga to read and she had a blank look on her face. So for the benefit of those who have not had experience with farm animals, the beast was undoubtedly a male which had been castrated at some stage in its earlier life, which is the "unhappy experience in its youth" I referred to. This procedure makes the animal somewhat docile.)

I gave it a wide berth anyway, and continued on. I reached Cox River which was alive with people sitting around camp fires having a good time. I decided not to wade through the chest deep water with my pack, but instead went a kilometre further along the bank and made my way across the long, swaying, single person suspension bridge.

By this time the moon was out and the Cox River appeared as a long sliver of silver reflected in the moonlight. In the still night air, you could hear the river rushing over the rapids below. There was a sense of magic about it. Growing up in the country as a boy, I have an appreciation for the special feeling of being in the Australian bush at night.

I made my way through the various paddocks and fences, crossed Megalong Road, then continued along the flat and up the final climb through Nellies Glen to the race start line. The 1.5 kms along the bitumen road seemed so easy after the hard climb up the steps I surprised myself by running most of it back to the motel.

I finished at 3.45 am Sunday morning. Total time excluding re-packing my gear at the car at Bindi Flat was close on 12 hours, which is pretty much in line with what I expected.

What did I learn on this run to help me on my upcoming MDS adventure? The single biggest thing I learned is that I've got get rid of some weight from my pack. The pain in my shoulders surpassed anything I felt in my legs and feet. Of course, I thought I was already down to the bare essentials, but somehow I've got to ditch some more stuff. Otherwise I'm pretty happy with how things are shaping up.

Now that a couple of days have gone by, I'm really looking forward to the MDS. However the excitement carries a twinge of fear with it - the ever present risk of dehydration which can see me pulled from the race, the damage the sand can do to my feet in the way of severe blisters, the pain I experienced in my shoulders that will last for 7 days, the lack of sleep due to sharing an open sided Berber tent with 10 others all sleeping on the ground, and of course being out (in my case) for 8-20 hours a day in such harsh conditions, seven days in a row.

Still, as Helen Keller once said " Life is a daring adventure, or it's nothing ". Marathon de Sables is my daring adventure.