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Thursday 10 October 2013
Kokoda Challenge 2013

Kokoda Challenge Race Report


It’s not that easy getting four 50-plus-year-olds to run 96 kilometres on hills under twenty hours.  Just ask the Caboolture Road Runners teams from 2011 and 2012. It was in their footsteps we were attempting to follow, it was their efforts we were trying to better.  2013 was going to be the year we were going to write our club’s name in the record books. Things didn’t go exactly to plan, though.  Our team of Bernard Stringer, Peter McKee, Peter Ferris, and me - the newcomer, were to have a lot of challenges on the way to the start line.


From before the start of the year we were beginning to ramp up the training.  Peter Mc and I were getting up at stupid o’clock every Saturday to run on the hills towards Moorina and even to Rocksberg, as well as running a half marathon or so one other day of the week.  Bernie was ramping the training up to 100k per week in preparation for the cruise he was planning, and Peter F was training in the hills in South Korea.  Bernie struck a snag, however, when after a solid two months of hundred kilometre weeks while on his holiday, he comes ashore to run the Wildhorse Criterium, and stubs his toe badly while wearing Vibram Five Fingers.  Anyone who has even casually looked at VFFs will realise that there isn’t a lot of toe protection in them.  Bernard decided to switch to more conventional shoes and was almost immediately struck down with a hamstring problem.  Although he tried to remain optimistic, after more than a month off he resigned the team towards the end of May and we called up our reserve, Carol Wingreen.


In the meantime, Peter Mc and I were finding more and more interesting hills to train on, culminating with Thornhill Chase - an intimidating two kilometre slope rising more than 300 metres from the end of Caboolture River Road up to the apron of Mt Mee - Dayboro Road.  It is great training, there are some strenuous bits for running up and some ridiculous bits for walking up.  In no time at all Peter and I had it cemented in our training program.  We ended up building up to two passes of the worst section of the hill - the Kokoda Challenge is a test of walking strength as much as running ability.  Then, just as we’re starting to feel really confident, Peter injured his foot on one of the perilous descents.  It’s a disaster, mere weeks before the event and only a fortnight after Bernie had to pull out.  We are tempted to put in a call to our reserve reserve, the redoubtable John Breit (of Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon fame) when Bernard announces that he’d cured his hamstring woes by changing back to Vibram Five Finger shoes!   Although he had been really, really (I mean blimey!) fit before his injury, Bernie had lost a bit of ground over the enforced two months layoff period and needed to scramble to get fit again.


Meanwhile Carol - two time veteran of the Comrades Marathon, and Peter Ferris, with a formidable six finishes of the Six Foot Track marathon in the Blue Mountains, continued to train solidly.  Carol, being a first time entrant to the Kokoda Challenge, was a little stressed that her trail running, headlight and backpack wearing inexperience would bring her undone.  She needn’t have worried.  I was finishing off my training on my own, scaling the monster hill at Rocksberg two and three times in a session.  Thankfully the weather stayed fairly fine and dry for us as it would have made our preparation that much harder.


It was decided that our crew would be Peter McKee, John Breit, his mate Craig (who came along partly because he’s joined to JB by an invisible umbilical cord, and partly because he wanted to laugh at our pain) and Carol’s husband Garry.  We all gathered in the one spot for the first time the morning of the race.


I’d looked closely at the checkpoint splits for previous Kokoda Challenges, and worked out when we’d need to be at the different checkpoints in order to finish under the current race record.  We had basically decided that we weren’t going to linger at checkpoints for longer than ten minutes, and the usual adage of “Walk the hills, jog the flats and downs” applied.  After a couple of speeches, and a fusillade of .303s firing into the dawn sky, we were off.


Conditions were perfect for the race.  The day was cool but not cold; the footing was dry but not dusty; I was with good mates and we were out to have some fun.  From the outset, once we’d passed the crazies who put themselves in the lead group without doing any training, we were in the top twenty teams.  I texted through to our crew when we were at the intermediate checkpoints: there are thirteen timekeeping checkpoints throughout the race, we only get to see our crew at four.  From the texts they could roughly estimate our expected arrival time and save minutes for us with smooth gear changes and bottle fills.  We pulled into Polly’s Kitchen in thirteenth spot, way ahead of our predicted schedule.  I can only conclude that last year’s slippery conditions made for much slower times over the first thirty kilometres of the course.  In and out of Polly’s in ten minutes after changing shirt and backpacks, we had our first worry climbing the hill known as Page’s Pinnacle.


Carol and I were marching the hill together at this point, with Bernie and Peter F coming along behind.  For some reason Peter hit a flat spot on this ascent, and Carol and I waited what seemed to be ages at the summit for the boys to arrive.  While waiting for them, I ate an energy bar and washed it down with a couple of swigs of Staminade.  This was an unwise move as it turned out.  The sudden intake of carbs caused a minor stomach upset, and when Bernie and Peter got to the top of the hill, I was feeling a bit queasy.  Nonetheless, we continued on to our next crew checkpoint at Numinbah Hall.


On the way, while running through the Environmental Centre at Numinbah, we started crossing paths with school teams in the 48 km Jim Stillman Cup.  Along with their counterparts in the 96 km Stan Bisset cup, these kids were universally polite, friendly, and upbeat; and enthusiastic about the mammoth task they were undertaking.  We drew a lot of admiring high fives and “Well Done”s while we were going past them.  That always gave us a boost.


On to the Waterfall Circuit through the Numinbah Forest Reserve I started feeling a bit rough.  I cut out the gels and took sparing sips from my camelbak, trying to minimise the harm until I began to feel better.  Instead of picking my way through the creeks trying to keep my feet dry, I began lumbering through the middle, stopping to drench my hat to ward off a sick headache I was getting.  Bernie was my company here, he kept me diverted with tales of how he was in a boy band and met his wife at the ripe old age of sixteen.  The man knows a lot about perseverance, as I would find out later.  Eventually we came out at Numinbah Hall right on eighteen hour pace.  I cut the now wet strapping off my ankles, changed shoes and socks, and headed off after a cup of tea.  Fifteen minutes for the checkpoint, mostly thanks to my feet.


We had no trouble getting back to the Environmental Centre.  I’d had my pack refilled with water, and had wound back the gels a bit.  The trail was not churned up by the passage of thousands of feet as it was in wetter years, and we were making pretty good time.  The new hill from the Environmental Centre to the Army Land checkpoint is the biggest on the course, with around 500 metres of elevation gain over three kilometres.  At this point I was back to feeling good, but the hills were certainly making forward progress a struggle.  Carol was storming up the hills like a trooper.  All she said was phrases like  “What a hill!” and “That was a tough one!” - never complaining or faltering.  Peter Ferris was also going gangbusters, cheery disposition on full, drawing on his wealth of experience to keep marching.  Bernie, however, was starting to fade: the break in his training was starting to show.  There was never a problem, but it was obvious that he was feeling the pinch.  We tended to run in two pairs, mostly because of the width of the tracks, and when I was with Bernie I asked him how he was going. “Doing it tough!” was the about the most negative thing heard from him all day.  He responded to every flat section or downhill with a jog, and he never stopped walking up the hills:  Like I said before, the man knows a lot about perseverance.


The view from the top of the hill at Beechmont was nothing short of spectacular.  After an hour and a half covering only five kilometres through thick bush, we suddenly burst out into open grazing land and stared at the amazing vista behind us.  We were still slightly ahead of eighteen hour pace.  The four of us were still together, still all moving well, and all looked like completing  We reached the Army Land checkpoint at about 5:10, just as the light was starting to fade and it began to cool down a bit.  I changed into yet another dry shirt, we grabbed our safety vests and headlights, a quick spud and some ginger beer and we headed out for the longest leg of the race.


The five kilometres that followed the checkpoint were downhill.  We jogged down miles of soft gravel road on Army Land, wondering when it was going to end.  At the bottom of the hill there was a few fords over creeks; the first ones we could cross with dry feet but I waded across the last one, not wanting to twist an ankle on the precarious stepping stones placed near the edge of the causeway.  From here we slogged up the long hill to Sid Duncan Park.


Unlike my previous runs on this course, Sid Duncan Park was no longer a crew checkpoint.  Also unlike my previous runs on this course, it wasn’t hovering around forty degrees below zero and blowing hundred miles per hour winds.  After a tense few moments when I couldn’t find the signs directing us to the rest of the course and asked an official who told me to follow the signs, we eventually found the route and continued on our merry way.


The Belliss Road checkpoint whizzed past at the end of a very long, very steep downhill, and just before a short but maddeningly difficult scramble up a rutted and rocky cliff.  Coming at the 78 km mark at 9:30 PM after fourteen hours of trudging, it is one of the most challenging hills on the course for its size.  We made it over the top and descended into the arms of our crew at Nathanvale Drive at 10:15 - nearly five hours since we’d last seen them.


We all decided to carry on with our wet shoes and socks, as there was just a couple of hours left in the race for us, so after topping up our bottles and packs, grabbing a bite to eat and some fresh batteries for the lights we set off for the last sections of the course.  It was just as well that we didn’t dally any longer to change our footwear, as within a kilometre of the checkpoint we found ourselves wading across a couple more creeks, too tired and wobbly to risk the precarious stepping stones that were placed in the water.  Another team in the Kokoda Challenge passed us in this section, but we weren’t stressed as they were down a man and we were doing our very best anyway.  The night dragged on: we knew we were all going to finish and do it under the previous record.  There were few other competitors around, we had the track mostly to ourselves.


Bernard was stoic here.  He must have been hurting badly, a disappointing outcome of his enforced layoff. Carol and Peter remained upbeat and chatty.  I ran much of this section with Bernie, encouraging him and reminding him that we could jog on the flats and on the downs.  Eventually we started to hear music and partying through the bush, and finally we came to the velodrome and crossed the line with our hands clasped over our heads in victory.


The finish came seventeen hours, fifty five minutes, and fourteen seconds after we’d started.  We had hit every checkpoint under or on eighteen hour pace.  Tenth complete team overall, we were also the first mixed team, the first over fifties team, and the new over fifty record holders, slicing more than two hours off the previous mark.  Do you love it when a plan comes together?  We did.


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