The view from the top of Mount Feathertop was spectacular. Especially after a non-stop climb of 1404 m over 11 km for the first 2 hours of this epic race. But you have to expect such a climb when you want to be on top of the 2nd highest mountain in the Australian state Victoria. But that was just the beginning…
After a 5 hour drive from Melbourne, we arrived at the Harrietville Campground, in the middle of the Victorian Alps, in the evening the day before the race. My wife Victoria was with me, and supported me the whole time.
This is where the run was located in Australia:
After setting up our tent, we headed down to the race briefing. Paul Ashton, the race director, explained the course and gave instructions where to be especially careful. We caught up with our friend from South Australia, who I met the first time at my Heysen 105 adventure a few weeks back.
Back at the campground, we put out our tent lights at about 11pm. The next day the alarm clock went off at 4am. It was ice cold, about 2º C. I gulped down breakfast and dressed up for the big race. We just had to walk a few metres from our tent to the start line. At 6am, about 60 runners started to conquer the Razorback.
The Razorback Run hosts a bunch of different routes to run: 22k, 42k, 64k, and 68k. I signed up for the 68k route with 3363 m difference in altitude (according to my GPS). Since all of these routes where somehow intertwined and mingled, I saw a lot of other runners during my race. I found pretty cool, since it made this race not so lonely as other ultras.
This is the route of the run, with a few details highlighted (click to enlarge):
And this is the profile, showing very loooong climbs:
The 42k, 64k, and 68k, all had to run the same first 14 km to the summit of Mount Feathertop. After just a couple of hundred metres on a road, we started to climb via a single trail called Bungalow Spur from about 508 metres up to the top of Mount Feathertop at 1922 metre above sea level. Since I started my last ultra a little bit too fast in the beginning, I intentionally wanted to slow myself down, at least for the very first climb. I succeeded, and made it in about 2 hours to the mountain top.
On my way up, right before the top, I saw Bryan Ackerly, a 42k runner, coming down with a bandaged knee, blood dripping down his leg, hobbling down the mountain. He later had surgery due to his fall, but was reported to be fine after that. He was not the last, but the most serious victim to the rough surface of the Victorian Alps. I heard a lot of other stories where people stumbled and fell, collecting countless bruises and cuts.
I underestimated the race. I’ve never been to the Victorian Alps, never ran on their trails. I thought it would be comparable to the Swiss Alpine 78k I did in 2011 in the Swiss Alps. Since I ran the 78k in under 10 hours, I thought it would be totally reasonable to expect a finish of under 10 hours at the 68k, too. Far from it! The 78k was a 30 km road run, followed be 10 km ascent, 10 km running in high altitude, 10 km down, and 20 km through villages and forrest back to the finish. But this 68k was just 10 km up, 50 km in high altitude, and 10 km down. There was nearly no way to catch a break during the run, like an easy road or a flat path or something. Rocks were everywhere, and I had to focus 100 % all the time on the narrow single trails. That was challenging!
We had a little summit party on top of Mount Feathertop. I took selfies with Ben Hockings, Dej Jamieson, and other SA runners and enjoyed the fantastic view. We climbed down only 150 metres and entered the Razorback itself. The Razorback is a 10 kilometre long mountain ridge connecting Mount Feathertop with Mount Hotham. It was fantastic to run! It was the most difficult part of the race, but it was also the most fun, due to the great single trail and the fantastic view.
Right at the end of the Razorback, Victoria waited at the checkpoint near Diamantina Hut, 23 km into the race. I took a 10 minute rest to fill up food, to reapply some vaseline against chafing, and to put on sun blocker. “Wait, sun blocker?” I hear you saying. Yes, sun blocker, because it got hot. And yes, we started at the campground with temperatures close to 0º C, with a forecast for the day of 2º to 9º C. Paul actually reminded us in an email a few days before the race to pack our winter cloths, due to the forecast. But the sky was clear, and the sun was burning, and right after 9am I wished I would’ve put on a singlet instead of a t-shirt. In the afternoon it felt like 25º C :(
At this point in time I was 1st male on the 68k course, with the 1st female already 25 minutes ahead of me. Right before the checkpoint, I passed David Jennings, who passed me again in the checkpoint. He looked tired already, so I let him go, confident to pass him again the next kilometre or so.
The checkpoint volunteers informed David and me that the path up to Mount Hotham was blocked for some reason, so we had to take the road. When I left the checkpoint, I saw David a couple of hundred metres ahead of me, climbing up the road. I just wanted to follow him, when I saw Paul, our race director, running down Mount Hotham, shouting “I found a track! I found a track!”, and he was really happy to tell me that I could now climb Mount Hotham. I wasn’t so happy about it, since I wanted to follow David, getting back in lead. I guess I was a bit harsh to Paul, since he still remembered this situation in the evening. Sorry, Paul! I agreed to follow the race directors advice, having in mind that David was already looking more tired than I felt.
There was no track. There was some kind of trail in the grass, but it vanished as soon as I was in the trees. I made my way cross country to the top of Mount Hotham, swearing a lot about trees, bushes, rocks, and whatever came in my way, having in mind that David was probably already on the other side of the mountain. Finally, 200 metres before the top, I saw the track again and was able to follow it to the other side.
None of the routes of the Razorback Run was marked, meaning that you had to find your own way. Mandatory gear was a map of the area and a compass. I used a GPS device, in which I mapped out the whole route before the race. Usually, I take a wrong turn twice or thrice in every ultra I do, but not so this time. Technically, I stayed on the 68k track all the time. This time, I did much worse…
The 68k route is basically a back-and-fourth route, where you run the same distance twice in both directions. At the end of the 68k route, at kilometre 27, there is a 16k loop; before and after that loop the route is identical. Now there were only so few crossings where I had to decide whether to turn left or right, and I knew about the crossing of the loop very well. Anyhow, I managed to turn left instead of right, and so I took of to run the loop in the wrong direction.
I only found out after 4 kilometres already being in the loop. It was km 31, right in the middle of the race, when I ran by the Red Robin Mine, and I immediately realised that it was on the wrong side. That explained why I didn’t catch up with David, and that explained why another runner behind me vanished so suddenly! Boy, I was pissed! A few thoughts at this point:
- You are disqualified!
- You could run back and start the loop over from the beginning, in the right direction!
- You expected Red Robin Mine to be a lot bigger!
- Give up!
- Call Paul and ask what to do!
- Don’t give up!
- That would be funny and awkward if the other 68k runners were turning up right now from the other direction!
So I tried to call Paul, but I had no signal, because I was in a valley. Then I evaluated my options:
- I can’t go back. Not because I didn’t want to do 8 additional kilometres (I already was 4 km in the loop, so running back would mean another 4 km and then starting the loop in the other direction), and not because of another 400 metres of climbing up and down. No, but because I did not have enough food for that. I always pack enough food for the way to the next checkpoint, plus a little bit more in case of an emergency in case it takes me longer than I thought. But I didn’t have enough food with me to do another 2-3 hours of running and climbing plus keeping some food for an emergency. I found it just too risky.
- Giving up was stupid. Even if I were disqualified, I could finish the run on my own terms.
- Continuing the loop in the wrong direction seems reasonable. Even if that means having an advantage – I don’t think I had one, since I did the same distance and same climbing – Paul could’ve given me a penalty time or something.
I continued the loop in the wrong direction, hoping for the best. A few kilometres further, I ran into the 1st female, Jacinta O’Neill and explained, why I ran in the wrong direction (awkward moment!). Soon after that, I climbed up Swindlers Spur, where I ran into David and explained, why I ran in the wrong direction (awkward moment II!). I told him about my “detour” over Mount Hotham, but David said not to worry, since he followed the street for too long and ended up in the village instead of Machinery Spur, which gave him a detour on his own.
During the loop I dropped down to 1200 metres above sea level, just to climb back up Swindlers Spur, until I eventually reached the top of Mount Hotham (1861 m) again. During that climb, I passed Maurice Maffei, who suffered from belly pain. I just stopped long enough to be sure that he could continue on his own (which he could; he recovered later during the race and finished just a few minutes after me) and climbed further.
Phew, that was steep! At one point it was 340 metre over 1.8 kilometres (19 %), steepest ascent of this race. I was glad that I trained at Mount Macedon (20% ascent) the weeks before, so I felt prepared for this.
I ran back Machinery Spur and over Mount Hotham, where I lost the track again (again!) and ran cross country to Diamantina Hut at km 48 of the race. Paul was there, and I immediately told him that I ran the loop in the wrong direction, and asked him if that means I was disqualified. Paul just shrugged and said that it’s all good and I shouldn’t worry about it. Relief! I just love the Aussie “No worries!” attitude!
Victoria helped me to fill up water and food and chased of dozens of nasty flies. They were all over, I got my fair share of extra protein due to not keeping my mouth shut. Again I took a 10 minute time out, before I followed the Razorback back in opposite direction.
Here my subconscious self must have decided that this race wasn’t challenging enough already, so it “solved” that problem for me. I remember a woman asking about the next section of the Razorback. There are just 2 ways to follow, one leading around the first knoll after Diamantina Hut, and the other leading to the top of that knoll. Paul answered in the briefing, that she should take the way around, since the one up the knoll is very strenuous. But, Paul said, she could take whatever way she wanted.
When I ran the Razorback the first time, I remembered Paul’s advice and went around the knoll. Guess which way I took on my way back? Yeah, right… Victoria even saw me climbing up that knoll, and tried to call me, but I didn’t hear the phone. D’oh! The descent on the other side was awful, steep and rocky and not very good to follow at all. Damn you, subconscious mind!
During my way back over the Razorback, I was looking forward to the descent to the campground. The descent was only 12%, and I figured I could run it a bit faster if I still had good legs. Normally, I would climb down slowly and carefully, so I wouldn’t shoot my legs for the rest of the race. But this section was the very end of the race, so I just could give it a try. If it didn’t work out, I could still walk and hobble down the mountain.
That was the most awesome descent I ever did! Most of the time I was really fast, only stopping at larger obstacles (trees in the way etc.) or where the path was very steep. That was soooooo cool :) 4 km before the finish, I passed Ben Hockings, who’s legs were shot. He said he could only walk, but he crossed the finish line soon after me. My “flight down” inspired him and gave him energy, he told me later over a beer. Perfect :) I did the last 9.6 km with a descent of 1207 m in only 1:13 hours. I should do that more often!
After 11:12 hours I crossed the finish line, where my wife was already waiting for me. I was really shot for the rest of the day, muscles all stiff, but recovered pretty good during the night. I had just one large blister on my heel and a sunburn at a few places, that’s it.
(“Are you sunburned?” – “Yes, I’m Sun-Bernd. I’m a very positive and optimistic person!” – “What…?!” – “Ah, you mean sunburned. Yes, I’m a little bit sunburned, too.“)
Jacinta O’Neill became 1st female and winner of the 68k in amazing 10:09 hours, more than an hour faster than me. I became 1st male, but I just had 3 other male competitors on the 68k route, so it’s not at all about the place here.
I had an amazing weekend! Thanks to my wife for supporting me before, during, and especially after the race. Thanks so much for the fun company to the whole SA running crew. Thanks to everyone who “Razorback High Five!”-ed on the Razorback! Thanks to the organisers and sponsors for a great run!
Here are a few other blog posts and videos about the race I enjoyed reading and watching:
- Razorback Run by Chris Oliver – you get a good idea of what was going on that day when you watch this video
- Razorback Run 42km Race by Isobel Bespalov – blog post by 1st female of the 22k race (Izzy, that was awesome!)
- Razorback Run – 2013 by Anthony Traynor – very enjoyable blog post about the 64k race
Check out the photos: