Six Foot Track - Race Report

by Andrew Taylor (2003)

At 45k, the Six Foot Track Marathon sounds little different to a road marathon. The 1500m of ascent and and 1800m of descent make it an ultra. Not that I'd know - I'm not an ultra-runner. I hadn't even trained for an ultra. There are no big hills convenient to where I live in inner Sydney and gravel-strewn rocky trails are also scarce in the urban environment.

I have run the race once before, last March, finishing in the middle of the field in the respectable time of 5:29. I'd only taken up running 9 months previous to that so I was looking to go an hour faster and break 4:30 this year. I'd missed sub-3:00 by 23 seconds in last September's Sydney Marathon so I can manage a decent speed on the road but have trouble with target times.

591 of 643 entrants make it to the start, A good number have come from interstate, a few from overseas. Like last year its very cool for the 8am start, maybe 12C ,and I shiver as I wait. You begin with a descent off the plateau of the upper Blue Mountains quickly losing 400m of altitude down narrow slippery irregular rocky steps. The race is staggered into 3 waves to reduce congestion but if you do not want to walk the stairs, you must sprint 200m down a rock-strewn slope to the start of the stairs. Oddly I've been placed in the third wave which is largely new runners. It still requires a terrifying run down the slope to get good position. Someone falls behind me but can't even look around. A few runners beat me to the stairs but they all take them more aggressively than me. I run the stairs, don't slip and can't feel any damage to my legs.

Others aren't so lucky. Apparently one runner Was badly hurt in a fall. At the finish I see a runner with an arm in a sling and others sporting various bruises and abrasions.

The running now becomes pleasant. The trail widens and flattens out as we leave the rainforest for the eucalypt forest of the valley floor. I start passing runners from the second wave who've started 15 minutes earlier. The forest is full of bird calls. I hear a distant Glossy-black Cockatoo a threatened species and we run through the middle of a Bell Miner colony. I try to recall a primary school poem - all I can manage is one verse "And, softer than slumber, and sweeter than singing, The notes of the bell-birds are running and ringing."

Near 9k we cross open farmland with some short hills. Some runners are walking these hills but this may be more prudence rather than necessity. A woman about my age passes strongly. This has me perplexed. Only one or two women should beat my target time and they should be in the first wave. Decide my pace must be OK and don't try to follow her.

The trail narrows and descends for the next 6k. The surface becomes rocky and some care is needed. I was worried that I'd be delayed by runners from the second wave in this section. Fortunately they are spread out and all make passing as easy as they can. Squeezing past is still a little hair-raising. For a while I run alone through the bush.

At 15k you cross the Cox's river. Last year it was chest-high on me and some were swimming. This year its much lower. Recent rains have not removed the effects of many months of drought. I scramble across on some rocks a little upstream with dry feet. At 1:20 I'm 3 minutes ahead of my target split and in good condition.

This is where the race really begins. I gulp down two cups of sport drink, pour water over my head and start up the hill to Mini-Mini Saddle. The track will be wide dirt fire trail for the next 12k. The sun is out and its warmer. In the next 4k we climb 400m. I pass quite a few people walking. Some offer encouragement. My plan is to run all the climbs but by the 3rd kilometre I have grave doubts. Training hasn't prepared me well for this - not only the length of the climbs but also the loose gravelly surface seems to require a different running action to running up footpaths in inner Sydney. Drinking at an aid station gives me a few seconds relief and then with some effort I manage to run the last kilometre. There are signs of cramp in my quads on the last climbs.

Cruelly in the next two kilometres the track loses 200m of the altitude just gained. The surface is loose in places and I'm not feeling great. I'm sure I won't be able to run the next climb. At the bottom there are three crossings of a shallow creek. Some runners plough through but I rock hop and manage to keep my feet dry.

Now comes the infamous climb to the Pluviometer - you gain 400m height in 3k. I settle into a slow steady rhythm and feel much better. Some of the people I pass look OK - walking strongly and mixing in some running but others look in serious difficulty. I glance back at one walker and notice he is from the first wave. It had the 100 runners with the best previous times and started 20 minutes before me. This is a great morale boost. I decide I can run the entire ascent. Again the last climbs are difficult with sign of cramp in my legs.

The Pluviometer aid station at 26k is a great sight. This event is a fund-raiser for the Blue Mountains bushfire brigades and their members staff all the aid-stations. These volunteers have had 2 difficult summers of protecting life and property. They must enjoy the day as there is humour and enthusiasm at every aid-station. A female firie pours a jug of water over my head. Its 2:39 and I'm only 1 minute ahead of my target split but I'm in decent condition.

The course keeps ascending for the next 8k but the climbs aren't steep and there is some relief from flatter sections. I'm told there are excellent views if you look back. It clouds over and there is a slight breeze and suddenly I'm feeling good and I start pushing the pace for the first time in the race. I calculate that I could break 4:15. A few more short climbs bring me back to earth. I realize that 4:30 is still a challenge.

After 34k the course undulates with couple of sharp climbs. The sun is out again and these climbs are on the warm side. I know if I can run these, I can run the entire course which I really want to do but the worst of them is just too steep for my legs. My right leg is on the verge of cramping up entirely. I walk for a minute over the steepest section and start running again a bit sadder.

One more climb has me at the caves road crossing at 38km. Its the first road crossing since 8k and there are quite a few spectators here. No one I know, but all yelling encouragement which I really need. The firies hand me my last drink and urge me on. I drench my head with water, swear to myself and give it all I've got. I sprint across the bitumen onto the walking trail. My split is 3:48 which exactly on target.

The next km is good running, the surface isn't great but its mostly downhill and my pace is good, under 4:25 seems possible. But then I hit the last climbs - not big but its now a struggle even to keep running. There are some runners from the first wave reduced to walking even on the flat. Somewhere here I overtake the women who passed me at 9k. She yells something encouraging and I look back and try to return the favour, reminding her she must be in contention for a place.

I ignore the last aid station. The next 2 km are fairly flat but I struggle to maintain a good pace. I can't have much time to spare and push as hard as I can. With 2.5km to go the trail heads steeply downhill, dropping 400m to the finish. Running this at full pace is excruciating and dangerous. The trail is loose dirt covered by large rocks. I pass some people walking this slope gingerly and one person inching his way down backwards. These are good runners from the first wave whose legs have failed them agonisingly close to the finish. My legs complain with every stride but keep working.

I'm still not certain about sub-4:30 as I hit the last km. The trail is now narrow gravel with worrying drops to the right if you slip. I concentrate and keep pushing. Suddenly I'm on the cement path which switchbacks down to Caves House. I can see the finish below and look at my watch and know I've done it. Suddenly I'm feeling no pain. I surge down the switchbacks, sprint to the line and its all over in 4 hours 27 minutes and some seconds.

Monica and Tom & Zoe are waiting for me. Because of the staggered start, Monica doesn't know I've broken 4:30 until she my huge smile. As I stand around the drinks table rehydrating, Corallea Edwards, the women who I passed at 40k comes over and offers congratulations. I ask where she placed - 2nd female and the F40-49 age group record! Not sure how she missed being seeded into the first wave.

Monica has grabbed a table not far from the finish with snacks and drinks ready. Before I can sit Zoe (4) drags me off to show me semi-tame Water Skinks and Water Dragons she has discovered on a nearby rock face. Definitely my daughter. We relax and clap the runners in. After a while results for the top 100 or so runners are posted - I'm 37/591 overall and 7/175 in my age group. I'm really pleased with this - its a good field with some runners travelling a long distance to compete. A sub 4 hour marathon is an entry requirement.

The award ceremony starts immediately after the 7 hour cutoff. As this time approaches people cluster near the finish, many with cold beers in hand. Each successive runner is greeted with louder cheers. Inside the last minute two runners appear high on the switchbacks. Everyone shouts encouragement up to them, they pick up speed and make it with 15 seconds to spare. 535 of 591 runners finish before the cutoff.

The winners were Paul Arthur (3:32) and Dawn Tiller (4:23). Paul was clearly an extrovert and gave a nice little speech. Dawn seemed shy and refused to speak but she's won 5 times previously so maybe she's said it all before and maybe she had to chase one of her three young children. Her husband was somewhat occupied because he is the race director. The second place male was Trevor Jacob in 3:42 a M50-59 age group record which is somewhat humbling if you are 10 years younger than him and much slower. I chat to him later, a really nice bloke.

We took the kids for a leisurely bush walk in the late afternoon and the day finishes with a large dinner in the Caves House restaurant accompanied by the odd James Squires Pilsener.

I didn't get to meet Phil Murphy but apparently he ran a PB. Hopefully he'll post an race report too.

I was unhappy with first go at the Six Foot Track but breaking 4:30 hasn't brought closure. I reckon more appropriate training could knock some minutes off my time. I may have another serious go next year. If you were thinking of coming to Australia for a race, I reckon this is the one.