Six Foot Track Marathon - A Grand Day Out (2002)

by Stephen Schaefer (2002) - originally written for Runners World

It can hurt and it's not easy, but more and more runners are tackling the Six-Foot Track Marathon. The challenge is drawing competitors from across the world for one of the world's beautiful trail runs.

You wouldn't miss it for quids.

A dawn cuppa, a short sprint, walk down a few stairs, and a stroll across the paddocks. Then there's a refreshing river crossing, run up a few hills, and saunter down to finish in an idyllic valley. And you get seven hours to do this!

This year was the nineteenth running (and walking) of the Six Foot Track Marathon between Katoomba and Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains (west of Sydney). Local runner Dominic Boidin has only missed two, the very first one in 1984, and the fifth one in 1988.

Offered the chance to compete in the very first Six Foot, a tired Boidin declined after a busy schedule of competing over four successive weekends. "I wish I'd said yes," he says now, looking back at the tradition the race has built up.

The last running of the Sydney ultra distance triathlon in 1988 kept him away again, but since then he's rolled on every year, running for the love of it and enjoying a great day out in the bush. "Without a lie," Boidin says, "I get to Coxs River and have a swim."

The involvement of the NSW Rural Fire Service since the beginning is an integral part of the race according to Boidin. "They give us water and sustenance, we give them a donation, they're passionate about the fire brigade, we're passionate about running."

Alfred Bogenhuber agrees. "There's nothing comparable anywhere. It's in a good cause and that helps the character of the race. It wouldn't have kept going without it."

Bogenhuber is here from his home in the USA for the seventh time. His brother, Six Foot legend Max, told him about it, so he combines it with a trip to Australia to catch up with family.

Graham Wye ran his first marathon in 1985, didn't do another one for ten years, then started running the Six Foot Track. He's backing up for the fifth time. "It's just fantastic, it really hurts, and the scenery is a bonus. It doesn't get any better."

There's a fine line between pleasure and pain, so the saying goes. When triathlete Michelle Beattie, a world champion in her age group in 1988, and proud mother of one year old Taylor, told a running mate she was doing the Six Foot for the first time this year his reply was succinct. "Oh God, you're going to hurt."

Barry Kenyon knows all about hurting. He competed in the 2000 Australian Ironman after keyhole surgery in 1999 to repair a hole in his heart was abandoned, necessitating open-heart surgery. During the run leg of that race, feeling dizzy and nauseous, he had to stop and compose himself before completing the race.

Kenyon has been training for five years for this race. Every year something has got in the way. This year nothing will. "I have to do it one day," he says, "just to do the damn thing. If I had started every one I'd have my belt buckle (five year award)."

The stories about the Six Foot Track have spread their tentacles across the world. This year runners from Germany, USA, Holland and England are running for the first time.

Surrey athlete Tamsin Manvell heard about the race from friends. "I decided to do it for the challenge, and to see the Six Foot Track without taking three days," she said. "Also our male friends were not up for doing it and we thought we'd show 'em!"

Down from Alice Springs, Anne Kidman did take three days the first time she walked the Six Foot Track. After that she started running so she has returned to enjoy the scenery at a slightly faster pace.

Another local runner, Andrew Lee, is returning for his second dose. A long time runner, Lee had always wanted to attempt the race. With his kids older, the time came last year and he's back for more.

Bill Burridge is the oldest runner in the field at 76. He made an attempt on the race nine years ago and didn't make it. He's back for 'one last shot', before going back to his regular bowls commitment on Saturday mornings.

Perhaps the runner you feel most sympathy for is Victorian John Lindsay. A veteran of four Six Foots, he is in training for the Marathon Des Sables, a seven day race across the Sahara Desert in April.

Lindsay took up running in the late 70's after a Heart Foundation promotion. His reaction to his first Six Foot five years ago is notable. "I swore I'd never do it again, but after the pain subsides, it's a good feeling."

The Marathon Des Sables will be a once in a lifetime experience for Lindsay. It even makes the Six Foot Track an interesting training event, a 'good shake-up' for the big one, as he puts it.

The day of the race sees the return of rural fire trucks heading up the mountain for the first time since the recent Christmas bushfires. This time they're out to rescue runners instead of homes, and are just as welcome a sight.

This is the biggest year ever for the Six Foot Track. Out of the 575 masochists (Oxford dictionary: pleasure in suffering physical or mental pain) who started the race, 540 finished, 519 within the 7 hour cut-off. The race was a cracker in very warm weather, and a few runners had their temperatures further raised by the distraction of a couple of naked bathing beauties at the Coxs River crossing.

Dominic Boidin is terribly tired, but terribly happy. The challenge has given him enormous mental and physical satisfaction.

Perhaps not as much as Tasmanian Tim Sloan, who in winning his inaugural Six Foot has blitzed the field to the point that some onlookers wondered if he'd had a head start. Dawn Tiller has again won the women's race, this time leaving her husband holding the baby.

Michelle Beattie has only been beaten by a handful of women and will be hurting the next day. " The race was just what I expected," she says. "I found it really hard but I just cruised the whole way and tried not to focus on the bad bits. The aid stations were great. Heaps of food, plenty of drink and plenty of help. They were fantastic."

Barry Kenyon's heart has held together. "It was every bit as hard and long as I was told." It's been rough going, but he has done enough to make it.

For the last few kilometres Andrew Lee has been hurting quite a lot, but the momentum has kept him going. He's pretty stuffed, but after a bit of drink he feels better and has time to praise a well organised run.

A new feature this year has been the introduction of a trophy for the 'Mob Run'. Competitors have declared their allegiances for different clubs, and just like in the Olympics, the teams with the most competitors have done well. The inaugural winner is the Sydney Striders club, followed by Athletics East and Billies Bushies in third place.

Anne Kidman's trip down from Alice is worthwhile. "I enjoyed every step of it," she says. " The whole day was really well organised and I chatted to the other competitors as I went along."

Sadly Bill Burridge does not make the finish. There is to be no fairy tale ending for him, but he has done his utmost to meet the challenge.

Tamsin Manvell has run with her friend the whole way and finished together. The cheering from other runners and friends at the finish has been tear-jerking stuff.

With stiff legs and jet lag, she gets off a bus later that night at the Mardi Gras parade, while through the bush John Lindsay heads back to Katoomba, finishing his 'Twelve Foot Track' at nearly four on Sunday morning.

It's been a grand day out.

Stephen Schaefer