Contributed by Doug Bartlett, AURA Member
Feral Pig Ultra, 7 November, Perth WA
The Feral Pig Ultra in WA went on my list as soon as registration opened at the start of the year. Before the world changed, I was ready to take on a 100 miler.
As probably a rarity for these types of events, I knew the whole course already. I had hiked the Bibbulmun Track end-to-end in 2019, and every other weekend I was out training on a section of it. The part I knew very well was the last 18km leg out-and-back from Mundaring Weir to Kalamunda. Some would say it is not good to know a trail that well, and I was worried that the many hills and technical sections would psyche me out when I finally got to them (as had happened on another trail at another event). However, I found a way to overcome that worry.
At registration there is the usual chatter of runners excited about the event ahead. I am one of the not-so-excited, and find a corner to close my eyes. It is 9pm and I should be getting ready for bed. Opposite the check-in is a display of the awards: large pink rubber pigs mounted on planks. I give one an affectionate squeeze, and it lets out a disturbed grunt.
After a bit of a wait, we hear the race briefing and then load onto the bus that would take us to the start. Surprisingly, chatter dies away in the bus. I guess it was getting past everyone else’s bed time too. And then shortly before midnight we are at the start: a dirt road in the bush with the Bibbulmun Track leading off in both directions.
A 10 second countdown and we begin, crowding into a single track for a roughly 3.5km out before turning and commencing the serious journey to the Perth Hills Discovery Centre (Disco for short) and beyond.
It is very dark, cold for that time of year, and no sense of direction once we’d left the road. After a little while the lead runner comes racing past having already reached the turn around. I reckon he is doing a sub 4:30 pace. How long would he be able to keep that up? As you’d expect, the runners gradually spread out, and by the time I come back past the road I am on my own somewhere in the middle of the pack with just a couple of lights in the distance.
The first section is a nice 20-odd kilometres to get to Nerang camp site and a water stash. And that’s where I stack it big time. My body is horizontal and about a handspan from the ground before I even realise I am falling. I crash to the dry packed dirt, bang up my knee and scrape my hand. At Nerang I think: “Maybe this is it: maybe it’s all over.” But it doesn’t hurt too much so I wrap up my knee in adhesive bandage and carry on, and it comes right.
Another 21km and I arrive at the Sullivan Rock turnoff, and then head down over the rock as the sun shines over. At this point it is 5:45am and I am way behind my original schedule. I can’t understand how this happened: I know how fast I run on an easy trail like the 41.5km so far, and I should have been here at least an hour earlier. What happened? Did the spreadsheet guru (i.e. me) make a mistake?
At Sullivan’s Aid Station there is a large group of runners getting ready to run the 50mi and 100km distances, due to start in 15 minutes. So I had to decide whether to wait back and head up after them, or make it a short stop and try to get ahead of the larger group. I decide on the latter and after a small feed and drink I carry on. This was probably my first mistake: I had calculated the range of times that I expected to get to each aid station. I was so reliant on having these times right that my mental focus, time-of-day, energy levels were all linked. And so came lesson number one.
Lesson 1: I have all the time in the world. I can’t set time limits because when I’m on a long run and I fall behind I won’t have the mental energy to change my plan.
I ascend up Mt Vincent, get a bit lost where the recent burn-off erased the track, and then find my way down and on to Mt Cuthbert. Time for the sunnies to go on. They have a yellow tinted lens which lights up the trail giving everything a magical aura. It also reveals rocks and roots hidden in shadows.
Sharene passes me. She recognises me by my tattoos and knows me as the glowing skull guy from the Haunted Pines race. I can tell when the fresh runners doing the 50 miler and 100km pass me: they have a stronger, quicker, heavier pace, stomping up rapidly behind me. When I hear them, I stop and pull over, curious to see who they are, what event they are in. Always one of the other distances. No sign of fellow 16-ers. We must have already naturally separated according to running pace. The bib numbers are clever and tell us which event we are in: 1600 series are those on the 100 miler, 100 series for 100km, 800 series for 50 miler, 500 series for 50km.
By the Monadnocks camp site I stop for water and have a chat with Bryan. We’d met on an exploratory trail run a while back, hosted by an experienced runner who liked to find new trails. This same host also had a reputation for getting lost on marked trails, so the whole thing was a grand adventure.
It’s now a long easy runnable trail to Canning River, where the two guys I’ve caught up with here admire the green reflection on the water. On to Canning camp site for water, and then a gorgeous display of wildflowers by Abyssinia Rock like a special rock garden. This trail is putting on a grand show for us.
I arrive at Brookton aid around 10:30am, feeling good at 73.5km but needing food. My wife is there in bright pink, offering me egg and bacon frittatas, black cold coffee, a blue sports drink, and a superhero muffin. I stock up with Nectar electrolyte tabs in water, dark chocolate, more nuts and dried fruit. Although I spend a half hour there I still don’t eat enough (as I realised later).
Lesson 2: Spend the time to eat, really eat.
After Brookton there is a gradual ascent and descent, perfect for tired but strong legs. There is another beautiful section with remnant wildflowers in oranges, pinks, and yellows. I pass the Mt Dale camp site through wonderful forest and then ascend a short steep climb to the Dale Road aid station. It is getting warm but the heat has never bothered me as long as I have water. Two runners are there resting. I’m not sure what distance they’re doing but they looked pretty stuffed. I only chomp a couple of bananas, and don’t know that this is to be another mistake: I should have taken the chance to have a decent feed.
Next is a beautiful white sandy section that I remember from previous runs and hikes, a section that I loved. Suddenly a tall, young runner comes racing along behind me. He is so quick I barely realise he is there before he has passed. Wow! Must be a 50km runner, the group that started an hour after I left Brookton. It is another 10 minutes though before I hear another runner charging up behind. “Has anyone else passed you?” he asks breathlessly as he races past. “Yes but a long time ago.” I was just trying to be helpful, but it was probably not very encouraging. I hear a “Huh” as he races on. Later I hear that some of the lead runners got lost, and the guy that won the 50km wasn’t the tall fella.
I had already sorted out my hydration plan. I knew that both the Nectar tabs and Tailwind worked well for me, and I alternated them. On a warm to hot day I needed around 700ml per 10km. My preferred snack food was mixed nuts with some salted peanuts in one baggy, a separate baggy of dried fruit pieces, and dark chocolate for a treat. After about 100km I was sick of all three.
Lesson 3: Go for variety in food. And stop worrying about how healthy it is!
After a long, long climb that is just too steep to run, you reach the Beraking camp site aid at around 100km. Here I am delighted to meet up with two friends, running the 50 km. These are two of three friends that I’ve been training on the trails with. The third would be pacing with me later. I have a little watermelon and top up with water, again not eating enough. And here I have my first serious mistake: my original plan was to have a nap here, but I’d totally forgotten about that.
Lesson 4: Sleep!
For the run so far I hadn’t put on any music on my phone. I had been ok with just my thoughts. This alone was interesting because normally on a long run I would have been a bit starved for mental distraction. One of the series of thoughts that kept me energised and amused was thinking about the mannerisms of my three friends. “You’ve got this dude,” one would say, and when he was happily pacing down the trail he would sing this little ditty to himself “Doot – duh – doo”. The second one loved his food. “You going to eat after?”, “Where we eat after?”, “I’m hungry” and “I need food”. The third one would wax ecstatic about the trail “Man this trail is sooo amazing.”
We jog on along the trail, coming to another of my favourite sections, where giant grey gum trees spread majestically up into the sky on the way to Waalegh camp site. The other two go ahead and then they appear again behind me, having stopped for water. We head down into the valley and then back up the other side. More great views with orange coloured trunks of gum trees against the afternoon light. And now I know I’m making good ground because I’m not far from Allen Road and the first real hill challenge.
At Allen Road aid station they are under siege by flies. They are the friendliest flies you can imagine. The aid station volunteers weren’t bad either. Anticipating both the serious hills ahead and it being only 16km to Disco, I cut my stop short and again don’t eat enough. I’m too reliant on the food I’m carrying (which as I said earlier, I was already sick of).
And now it is a steep, steep ascent up and then steep down into Chinaman’s gully. But don’t get complacent because then there is another up and up again, and steep down, and so the rollercoaster continues. For some reason I start worrying that I don’t have enough water, so I stop and check, to find I have plenty. Phew!
The sun disappears and I’m way behind my original schedule, but don’t adjust my plan. This becomes another serious mistake in not resetting my expectations, and not working out how I would last a long night ahead.
Lesson 5: Make sure the plan is flexible for days and nights. So that it doesn’t matter what time of day or night I reach whatever point.
I’m still travelling ok, and make it through to Ball Creek, topping up with water and then having a short jog down to Disco at 124.5km. Here at 8:10pm, I meet up with my friends who had finished their race, and there is Chetan ready to pace with me, looking enviously fresh and full of energy. It is so awesome to have friends on the journey. I am feeling ok and don’t recognise how mentally tired I am, and this (plus probably a lack of eating earlier) leads to me making another mistake and not having a decent feed and a sleep here.
Lesson 6: Allow time in the plan to eat and sleep before starting the next section.
There is a long slow walking section now as the terrain and trail are difficult (especially for tired legs and heads in the dark). We drop way down below the weir and then climb up the other side. Eventually there is a flatter section and I try a little jogging, but my energy reserves suddenly drop away like tipping water out of a bucket, and I can no longer keep a steady pace going. I try to eat, but I’ve been sick of nuts, dried fruit and dark chocolate since Beraking.
There is a guy in the 100km race sticking with us, wanting a bit of company, when suddenly he leaps to the side. He shows us a dugite snake that is lying across the firebreak track, right in the middle, supine in the cold night. It is a miracle we hadn’t stepped on it and invited a bite.
I have to stop and sit for a bit before the Camel Farm and I decide the next tactic is to eat a heap of sweet things and try to boost my energy. Camel Farm aid station has loads of chewable lollies and coke, so I stuff my pocket and chow down. Three kilometres later and I’m falling asleep walking along. I almost collapse out of tiredness, and convince Chetan to let me lie down for a nap. I lie down in the hard lumpy gravel, and start shivering manically, suddenly cold. Was it the sugar rush that brought on the sudden tiredness? Shouldn’t the caffeine in the coke have woken me up? Why am I suddenly cold? Why wasn’t anything doing what it was supposed to do?
The brief rest (I barely nodded off) is just enough to set in my mind that I need to get to Kalamunda. And then I make the final, most significant mistake. In a split second, I allow myself to decide to give up. When I get to Kalamunda, I think, I am going to quit. I have no way to change my thought process, to reason through, to think about eating and sleeping. My mental thoughts diverged, and I took the trail more travelled by. There was no shaking it.
Chetan is so amazing: he keeps commenting about how well I am going (walking along at a snail’s pace), and how I could have food and a sleep at Kalamunda. I don’t tell him what my mind had already decided. Of course, the positive side was that there was cheesecake waiting for me. In order to overcome my worries about this section, I had asked my wife to have one of her special cheesecakes waiting for me at Kalamunda.
A large frog sits and looks startled at me as we climb up some stairs about four kilometres out from Kalamunda. Little did I know that the frog was expressing the spirit of the trail: showing me that when I get to Kalamunda I am supposed to sit quietly and enjoy the night. In case you’re wondering: no, he didn’t start talking to me.
And so we reach Kalamunda after 25 and a half hours where I find I’m in about eighth place (out of 40). I sit on the large chair we’d bought especially for this, and my wife wraps me in a blanket and then the space blanket. I try to sleep but my legs are too sore, and my mind set was still on the wrong trail. I have now totally forgotten about the cheesecake.
A rational, awake person would have taken stock: Legs are ok if a bit sore, can take paracetamol for that, no blisters, lacking energy so need to eat, tired so need to sleep, and cold so need another layer on. Once all that was sorted, after only a couple of hours there would have been nothing stopping me from the last 18 km to the finish. This gives me my last lesson:
Lesson 7: Get other people to make decisions for me. Including telling me to eat that cheesecake!
There were a lot of things I did get right, to get this far. I had done enough training in distance, time, strength and effort. I had started and kept on the right pace. My hydration and heat management were perfect, and for over half the race I had the right food. In the end I got to 145km and am fascinated by how many things I can do better next time. Oh yes, on that: the next day I’m sitting at breakfast and my wife, without prompting, says “So next time we’re going to…”!
But despite all that, the main reason I have to give it another go is that all along the long trail I found a fascinating place inside my head. A place that says “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
Pictured: Doug Bartlett at the start line of the 2020 Feral Pig Ultra. Photograph – Supplied.