Contributed by Kevin Matthews, AURA member (WA)
FERAL PIG ULTRA, KALAMUNDA WA, 5-6 Nov 2022
The Feral Pig 100 miler is a beast of an event. Over 4,300-metres of elevation on brutal trail in the searing heat of a WA spring day. The best is saved for last after returning to the start line and then having to face the hardest terrain of the day in the 38k ‘death loop’ normally attempted in the late evening or early morning when you are at your weakest.
I have run Feral twice before, in 2020 I got my ass well and truly kicked but I returned last year and returned the favour, take that piggy!
So it was the best of three times and to give the pig a chance I picked up an injury post Melbourne Marathon in early October, so had run less than 100kms in the five weeks coming into the event, not ideal. I had managed to get to the start line thanks to some dry needling and some seriously strong anti-inflammatories, prescription strength. Unfortunately the little running I had done in the last few weeks was pitiful at best and the only reason I rocked up to the start was the entry money was non-refundable, as I had left it so late, and I had no other plans so a three-day hike on the Bib sounded like fun (?).
As you can see from the Stava extract I had run 6 times since the Melbourne Marathon and I use the word run in the loosest sense of the word. With my tight hamstrings, a result of running fast at Melbourne, I could only run while high on strong anti-inflammatories and even the needles of pain couldn’t release the hamstrings fully. The orange activities are time on my Elliptigo which was the best cross training I could muster without inuring myself. I enjoy my GO time but it’s nowhere near enough exercise in preparation for a Feral assault. The last three runs pre-Feral were pitiful at best and I was lucky to average around 6min/k, while the heart pumped at beats per minute reserved for sprinting, things were not good. The ultimate low for me was my last run pre-Feral, an 11km run in the ghetto that is City Beach where I slowed kilometre-on-kilometre until towards the end I was barely running. I passed two young men collecting from the verge when one of them starts to run backwards with me and asks his friend to video it. He was most excited that he could run backwards faster than this old fella, struggling, could run forwards. The worst part was that my hammys were so tight I couldn’t go any faster and just had to take the embarrassment head on. I remember thinking to myself I had sunk to a new low in my running career. As I mentioned in the last paragraph I had no right rocking up to the start of the Feral but with nothing better to do on the weekend a long hike, with like-minded runners, sounded okay?
Undeterred by my lack of training and negative attitude from the Yelo running crew, in their defence it was ludicrous to attempt the Pig really, I fronted up to the Perth Discovery Centre early evening on Friday to catch the 9:35pm bus to the start line.
It’s tradition before we leave to recite the Feral Pig pledge and once race director Shaun Kaesler talked us through it were away on the two hour bus journey to the start line over 130kms south on the Brookton Highway. The bus is a somber affair as all runners are desperately trying to get as much shut-eye as possible knowing it will probably be their last for a minimum of 24 hours and, for most, even longer. I nodded off a few times and was awoken when we left the highway and started to bounce along an off-road section just big enough for the bus. The clock was showing 11:30pm so we had 30 minutes to kill before the start.
This is the time Shaun gets all the runners into a big circle, everybody turns off their headtorches and we just bask in the silence and tranquility of our surroundings – trust me people, it’s special.
The Feral start at midnight is unique and is a double edged sword, on one hand you have less than five hours until daylight but on the other you are starting a 100mi race already sleep deprived and you know Sunday morning, early, you are going to have pay the piper. Due to the remoteness of the route the first aid station, Sullivan Rocks, isn’t until 41km and it’s really for drop bag pick up only, not hot food as such; and the second aid station, Brookton Highway, is at 74km. That is a long way between aid stations. After Brookton they start to come every 13km or so until the end and this is much more manageable.
The first 20 or so kilometres is very runnable with no real elevation to speak off, I settled into a group of four runners with the Feral pain train of 2021, Cam D’Silva and Andy Thompson joined by our new recruit Neily Rae. Throughout the night runners came and went but the four of us were pretty constant until just after Mount Cook when Andy took off. Mount Cook was as challenging as always with elevation and also it just gets cold and windy near the summit, funny that. Coming off Mount Cook you eventually hit some good running terrain again, the sunrises, and before you know it you’re at Sullivan Rocks, aid station one.
At Sullivans I was prepared with a drop bag, one of only two for me, filled with goodies including 5 Weet-bix and milk. I have learnt from the two previous Feral races that this aid station is really just a place to pick up your drop bag. Nothing compared to the smorgasbord we would be presented with at Brookton Highway thanks to Shannon Dale, the aid station king. I wolfed down my Weet-bix but in the rush to leave I must have repacked or misplaced most of my gu’s. I left Sullivan Rock with very little in the way of nutrition, which was a mistake as the next aid station was another 32km away. The image below is me and Cam at the top of Sullivan Rocks about to get trampled on by the 100km runners and 50mi runners. They do it every year although this year I think we arrived 10min earlier than the previous year so we had a bit of a headstart, ultimately it just delayed the inevitable.
After Sullivans, Cam started to drop off citing an issue with his knee and Neily also faded leaving me with my thoughts and Taylor Swift on the Aftershokz, normal service had been resumed. Cam actually made it back to the Perth Discovery Centre, over 130km, in pain for over 100km of that distance. Bloody amazing effort and together we’ll go better next year (did I just type that?). He is a young man with a big future in trail running and ultra distance running. We’ll run together in February when we both take on the Delirious West 200 miler with his mentor Carl Douglas.
Luckily before I reached Brookton I bumped into Tristan Cameron running with another miler and he had some extra nutrition he was able to give me as well as a water bottle. This certainly made the journey easier. To my credit I gave him some fisiocrem which helped his aching limbs.
Between Sullivan Rocks and Brookton Highway aid stations someone turned on the heat. This isn’t a problem for me as I love the heat – well, I love running in the heat, daily life going about my business in the heat I whine like a stuffed pig. I was probably undernourished and dehydrated by the time I got into Brookton but all this changed as Shannon and his aid station oasis recharged my batteries. As you can see from the image below he knows the way to my heart – bacon, eggs and pancakes swimming in maple syrup, there are no words!
I left Brookton Highway feeling like a million dollars, bacon has that effect on me. The next aid station was Dale Car Park, a mere 13km away. After the first two aid stations spanning nearly 74km, a 13km hop was child’s play. The trail was also special with the spring flowers in full bloom and also the colours from a recent burn-off, stunning. I stopped several times to try and capture the images on my iPhone 11 but to no avail (note to self, time for a new iPhone 14 for Xmas). It’s amazing how the world changes after a good feed and this is a valuable lesson, if you’re feeling like you’re done just eat and drink, a lot! You can then walk it off initially before running again, fully fueled. As I have said many times a diesel van with fuel will destroy a Bugatti with no fuel all day long. Ultra running is all about getting the hydration and nutrition right.
Between Brookton and Dale Car Park I ran alone and just enjoyed the serenity of the occasion and the magnificence of my surroundings. The 13km slipped away quickly and before I knew it I was sitting down at Dale Car Park with a great cup of tea, white with three sugars, thank you Harmony Waite. I had my second, and final drop bag, here and opened it to find a tin of rice pudding, winning. Rice pudding is my go to as it’s easy to digest, is full of all the good things an ultra runner needs and tastes great. Please note I only ever eat rice pudding when racing, as a day to day treat it’s probably not ideal, right? Before I left it was suntan cream time, thanks Heath Watkins, and off I went to take on more trails. Eleven more kilometres before Beraking aid station, another small hop albeit a few nasty elevations in the way. The fisiocrem certainly got a hammering at each aid station, making a massive difference.
Things were really heating up now and I had been running for well over 14 hours. The hill before Beraking doesn’t have a name as such but boy it is long and grinds you down. Shaun mentioned at the start of the event that Beraking seems to be the DNF high point for the miler and I can see why. You’ve run most of the night, and all day, and are now tired, hot and have just faced a monster of a hill. You hit the aid station at 99km into the 163km race knowing you have a death loop (38km) ahead of you as well as over 60km, very easy to pull the pin. I felt good at Beraking as the next aid station, Allen Road, is where I start to enter my happy place. Allen Road to the Discovery Centre is a segment I have run many times and know it like the back of my hand. I knew once I hit Allen Road I could easily get back to the start before the final death loop, the hardest part of the whole event.
The next aid station hop to Allen Road was around 16km, moving from 99km to 113km into the event. Again some serious elevations between these aid stations but the scenery made up for the brutality of the terrain. The temperature started to drop as we neared sunset and I managed to get to the Allen Road aid station just before the sun disappeared. I gorged on chocolate at Allen Road, trying something different to try and boost performance and who doesn’t love chocolate. Fueled on dark chocolate I climbed out of Allen Road and headed back to the start where I had left 18 hours earlier. As I said earlier this is my go to loop and I know it so well, it would be a lot easier running this route with my history on this trail.
Between Allen Road and the Discovery Centre I ran though the sunset which is my favourite time on the trails. The light is just so special at this time of the day and around each corner you are faced with another breath taking image. Colors change by the minute and it takes all my will power not to stop every few yards and take another photo. I have added an image below but I have so many more, I could have probably have finished a lot quicker if I hadn’t kept stopping and taking photos but when the scenery is this good you just need to stop and take it all in. This is why we do what we do after all.
Up to Allen Road aid station I had been mostly running alone but had been yo-yo’ing with Doug Bartlett for most of the day. We both came into Allen Road at around the same time and I suggested we run the last part of the race together. In the dark, company can be a good thing. He agreed but he was too quick and I let him go early although I did catch him as we got to within 4km of the Discovery Centre and we talked about setting off into the death loop together, after a 90 minute rest. At this point we also nearly caught Andy Thompson, who had dropped Cam and I about 80km earlier. We heard him and Harmony, his pacer, a few hundred metres ahead of us but never managed to catch him. He also had a power nap at the Discovery Centre and left with Doug.
We got into the Perth Discovery Centre around 9:30pm, 132km into the event and nearly twenty hours. There was no way I could face the death loop, the hardest 38km of the whole event, without some rest. Doug and Andy also tried to get some sleep and I scurried off to my car, got changed into some pyjamas and dove into a sleeping bag. I set the alarm for 11pm and tried to sleep. Normally I drop off to sleep very quickly but for some reason I couldn’t get comfortable and lay there thinking about what lay ahead of me. This is the hardest part of Feral, lying in your car with the opportunity to drive away and end the suffering or starting on the death loop knowing you’ll be out there for probably around nine hours. Two years ago I left at this point, driven home by Adam around midnight, albeit I was pretty broken. Last year I breezed through the aid station and left after a quick pot noodle, chasing a buckle finishing time. It was one for the pig and one for me, this was the decider, it all came down to my next decision.
After working with Rob Donkersloot from Mind Focused Running, there really was only one option. Change of clothes, change of mental attitude and into the night I would go, unfortunately at this point alone as Doug and Andy has already left. It would have been better to run with them but I felt they were both running quicker and I didn’t want to hold them back. It was me, my Shokz headphones and Taylor Swift again, the deadly duo reunited. I walked to the aid station letting them know I was off into the death loop alone when I saw Neily Ray get some work done on his feet. The last time I saw Neily was exiting Sullivan Rocks, a lifetime ago. I was going to wait for him when Shaun informed me Tristan Cameron had just left minutes earlier. Company was too good to turn up, I left the aid station and chased Tristan down which didn’t take long as he was playing with his light about 100 metres down the trail. This was good news, we agreed to run (hike?) together but in all the commotion I had forgotten to grab any water or food. I had an 8km hop to the next aid station with no nutrition or hydration, great? Again Tristan had more than enough for both of us so it wasn’t a problem.
The death loop (or DNF loop) is a real nasty piece of work. You have to run normally at night and after running a 132km warm up with a midnight start the previous evening. You’re tired, very tired and probably worse and you know you have a really long night ahead of you, and early morning. Last year I ran most of it and still took nearly 8 hours, this year there would be little running. Tristan and I just broke the loop down into four separate sections, what I recommend you do with any ultra distance event. Don’t concentrate on the finish, which could be days away, instead aim for the next aid station. Get there and then reset with your next goal being the next aid station, leap frog your way to the finish, one aid station at a time.
For this loop we had just over 9km to the Camel Farm aid station, then a similar distance to Jorgensen park, Kalamunda, before returning the same way via the Camel Farm, to the finish. The first 18km was the hardest as we climbed from the Discovery Centre to Jorgensen Park. Once we go to Jorgensen Park we could turn and roll home. We staggered to Camel Farm where we stopped for a cup of tea albeit no sugar, sacrilege, and some cold sausage rolls. As we sat there mulling over the next section Neily Ray came into sight and the duo became a trio. The three of us would finish together and the company made the journey so much more enjoyable.
We left the Camel Farm to take on the hardest section of the death loop, the 9km to Jorgensen Park. There are two massive climbs within this section on just about un-runable single track. Add to this we go lost on a descent following an old trial on the Gaia app, and when I say old I mean old, I reckon the last people on this trail would have been early settlers! We eventually made the summit at Jorgensen Park to an oasis of an aid station. Hot food, hot tea and great company. The only problem was we were all so tired myself and Neily actually nodded off in our chairs. It was time to get moving or we’d never leave. The mental boost from knowing you are on a descent to the finish and with a full stomach, cannot be under estimated. Now every step was a step towards the finish line and mostly downhill. It got even better when the sun rose albeit it brought rain with it for good measure. Undeterred we kept moving forward and breezed through the Camel Farm on the way back, not even stopping, we could smell the finish.
I have no photos of this stage bar the two images below. The first the three of us at Mundaring dam at the top of the stairs, all smiles, and the last one at the finishing line. I was just fatigued to take out my phone and take photos, and if you know me that is a big deal. This race destroys you, it’s as simple as that.
Mission accomplished. We staggered home from the Camel Farm and even broke into a trot on a few occasions. Overall just over nine hours for the last 38km and I’m happy with that. Tristan and Neily made it bearable and I’m sure we’ll all sign up again. In the end we finished in 32 hours 19 minutes and change. Given the build up to this event it goes down as one of my greatest achievements. A week before the event I was struggling to finish a 10km, to complete the Feral was a miracle and a testament to Rob Donkersloot and his work on my mental strength. No more talk of DNFing just enjoying the moment and reminding myself that this is what I signed up for and enjoy it.
He’s got a point you know.