Down Under 135 - A Pacer’s Report
Down Under 135 is one of the Southern Hemisphere’s gnarliest footraces. Well that’s what the website says… I haven’t run enough races in the Southern Hemisphere to either confirm or dispute this claim, so I’ll take the race organisers word for it. For what it’s worth, I think they’re right, actually I think they are understating it. When a race consists of close to 10000 metres of accent and decent over 217km (135 miles) and a cut-off of 54 hours I’d say gnarly doesn’t quite capture the difficultly of even just finishing this race.
2019 marked the third running of the race that begins near Baccus Marsh, about 60km west of Melbourne, Victoria. The previous two years resulted in a combined total of 10 finishes, a completion rate of less than 25%. The list of those that have completed the event is almost as impressive as some of the names on the much longer DNF list.
So there’s a bit of background for those unfamiliar with Down Under 135. I have no doubt it will continue to climb the ladder of must do ultramarathons in Australia.
I’m writing the race report from the perspective of a pacer. Something I’ve never done before, heck I’ve never even crewed for someone else before. My great mate Jimmy Morrison asked me last year if I would pace him at DU135. ‘Sure no worries’ I thought and anticipated that my biggest challenge would be not seeing my beautiful wife and three sons for a few days. Fast forward to the day before the race and I’m sitting in an incredible eco-house just outside of the small Victoria town of Blackwood with eight other people; three race entrants, Jimmy, Liz and Phill, Liz’s pacer Frosty and two crews of two. Jimmy’s parents Bob and Annette are the super crew they’re as invested in the race as anyone else in the house, maybe even more and they’re crewing for Jimmy much like they have numerous times before. The last two are Liz’s crew (they did their apprenticeship last year under Bob and Annette for Liz) and hey are ready to rock and roll, taking this crewing business super serious. To say I was impressed is a massive understatement. I knew at this moment that there was no way Jimmy or Liz would be without anything they needed at every checkpoint.
8am on Friday 3rd of May and the third running of Down Under 135 starts with a now three year old tradition, the cracking of a stock whip. The 31 entrants for 2019 head off into Lerderderg Gorge. For me this was the hardest part of being a pacer. I had to sit around for who knows how long and wait for Jim to reach O’Brians Crossing before a pacer could join him. Jim only had one pacer (me) assigned at the start of the race, so joining him with 100 miles to run wasn’t the plan…
I’ve know Jimmy Morrison for close to 20 years, we were soldiers together in our early 20s, which as it turns out these years would be something we’d reminisce about once the fatigue and delusion set it, more about that later. The requirement for a crewed runner was to have a pacer with them for the last 63km. Once this was established, Jim wanted me fresh for the last 63km. Now there is no disputing that Jimmy is much better ultramarathon runner than me, but I’m not sure I needed a 154km head start…. So Jim’s plan was to run with Phil and I would then join them for the last 63km…. As we all know ultra marathons very rarely go to plan.
So during the next 14 hours I travelled around with the super crew, Bob and Annette. As a side note these two could be a contract race crew and I would happily pay them a small fortune, they are incredible. I did manage to get back to the accomodation for a couple of hours and squeeze in 45 minutes sleep. The rest of my time I was waiting at checkpoints trying to keep my energy levels high but not over eat incase I was called upon early. After a brief water bottle refill for Jim at the Square Bottle Aid Station we headed to O’Brians Crossing and settled in to wait for Jim and Phil.
The first three or four runners came through O’Brians, some stayed and ate, others breezed through and pushed on to Blackwood which was a major aid station with a huge variety of food options. Jim and Phil came through much earlier than expected and were in and out of O’Brians in no time. They were both feeling good and the plan of sticking together was working well. Sweet! I wasn’t needed at least for another 12km.
Fast forward about an hour and Jim and Phil roll into O’Brians. Jim is searching for something that he can keep down. GI distress has kicked in and food and water wasn’t staying down. Then he gave me a look, one that I had seen 100s of times before in our younger years, but usually after about 15 schooners (which I know wasn’t the case this time, Jim is now 5 years sober). The look that says ‘Darce time to pull your weight mate.’ He simply said, “Come for a run with me.” So I scramble out of my trackies and puffer jacket, made sure my pack is sorted, threw down a mouthful of awesome vegan soup and we headed out at about 10:15pm, into the darkness under our headlamps…. and street lights…. and car headlights… Ok so that bit was the only part on road, all of about 800 metres. Then we were just under headlamps, there was no moon at all and I was feeling nervous about keeping pace with Jim for potentially 150km.
My nerves quickly settled when I realised that we didn’t need to run 5 minute kilometres for the next 150km. Jim’s guts and his plan to hike the hills and jog the flats and downs meant that I was going to be able to keep up with him for as long as needed (I hoped). We had 16km to the next aid station and the first part of this section was quite runnable. Which is what we did, in between stopping for spew breaks and to confirm we were heading in the right direction. Jim still couldn’t keep any water or food down so we maintained a steady pace that would keep Jim moving forward and not lose time back towards the cut-offs. If we tried to run faster Jim would lose what little he had in is stomach. Then we hit some decent elevation, just as the rain was starting to increase. We were at the base of Mt Wilson and we had to get over the top and down the other side. We could see two headlamps up above us and it gave the perception that this hill wasn’t too bad… rookie mistake.
I had to keep reminding myself that I was on fresh legs and had a runner with me that hadn’t been able to digest any food or water for more than three hours, yet he stuck with me as we bush bashed our way from one piece of pink tape to the next. Vision in the rain wasn’t great and through the off-trail section there was a lot of back and forth to find each marker. They were only about 50 metres apart at the most. As we got near the top of Mt Wilson we couldn’t find the next marker. After looking for a few minutes we were then joined by three solo runners, including the 2018 winner. Jimmy eventually found the next marker while I was about 100 metres off in the wrong direction, so far I felt like I’d nailed my pacing duties….
The decent down Mt Wilson into the aid station was crazy! A super steep climb down, without a defined track on wet fallen logs and mud. As a group, the five of us made it there somehow without more than a few scratches and muddy backsides. It was now that I had a better appreciation for just how hard Jimmy had fought through that dark patch to make the checkpoint.
At the aid station the medic was straight over to him and immediately had concern for him given he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for the past four hours. He was also extremely cold at this stage. Like any good pacer in this situation I headed straight for the food and a seat by the fire. I also noticed a bottle of ‘Firestarter’ on the table which was cinnamon flavoured whisky. This however was not for runners and pacers… Jim put some dry clothes on, got some soup into his guts and climbed into the back of the crew vehicle for an hour of sleep and warmth. Not knowing what to do and having no place to go, I returned to the fire, took my wet shoes, socks and gloves off and created a bit of a Chinese Laundry beside the fire to dry my gear. I spent the next hour by the fire listening to the adventures of other runners and their crews as they came and went. The legends at this aid station were first class. Every single person that came into that aid station got the royal treatment and it was great to see how willing to help everyone was at 3am on a wet, cold morning. The aid station volunteers all seemed so upbeat too, I wondered if the Firestarter had anything to do with that.
4am hit and Jim was up. Fresh shoes, socks and a bit of rest had made a huge difference. I grabbed my dry and smokey socks, shoes and gloves and we headed off towards the halfway mark. The three or so hours that followed will be a time I never forget. We hiked the climbs and ran the flats and downs like it was the first 20km of the race and we did it in various states of consciousness. We told stories about our time living in Darwin together that cannot be repeated in print, we strategised about how we get Jim to the end within the cut-off and we had about a 6km section where neither of us spoke or looked at each other and even now we still don’t know if either of us were awake during that part, another sign that I was a good pacer.
As our headlamps started to fade, we wondered if we’d make it to daybreak without having to change the batteries. The pointless discussion about changing them or not went on for far too long. In the end we decided that we should just change them to be safe. So in the dark with one very dim headlamp trying to change the other became a far more difficult task than it ever should have been. All we could do was laugh as we had specifically discussed this exact situation prior to the race and how we would avoid it. Once we finally had our batteries changed and turned our headlamps back on it was like a whole new world. I’m not sure how long we’d be running on park lights only for but the whole trail opened up under the new beam!
The goal was to get in and out of the turnaround in under 24hrs from the start. We were able to get there, eat a bit, get an update on our friends, sling a bit of banter with the aid station and then head back out. 7:40am and we were out. Perfect, we were well on track and most importantly we were feeling good.
The return leg began the same way the last one finished. Now under daylight we had a whole new view of the terrain and course. We employed a few run walk, march, sing and count strategies to keep moving forward at or ahead of goal pace. We were keeping a close eye on the time to see what runners were coming the other way and whether they were going to make the 108km cut-off or not and we were keen to see where Liz and her pacer Frosty were at. In the meantime we pushed on and had some deep and thoughtful conversations. Mainly we discussed Game of Thrones ending theories and what it would be like to have Valarian Steel hiking poles, you’d be surprised how long this conversation went for. It didn’t conclude as we were interrupted when Liz come down that track, we calculated that she would be right on the cut-off limit. We stopped for a quick chat and quickly discovered that Mt Wilson had taken it toll on Liz. Her knee was blown to the size of a rockmelon after taking a couple of falls and it had slowed her down considerably. You won’t find a tougher runner than Liz and she was determined to push on until someone forced her to stop.
Jim and Liz said their goodbyes and we powered on. We were moving much quicker than we needed to and banking some time without going to the well, everything was on track. We got through the last part of that section and back into the aid station at Nolan’s Creek Picnic Ground. Gee things look different in the day. We decided 10 minutes was a suitable rest time, so we restocked packs ate some food and had a good yarn to Chris Wright, a Victorian ultra runner that had been given the keys to the DU135 social media accounts for the weekend. We also met up with Derek, a former race finisher. He was was there originally to pace Liz, however due to her injury her race ended early. Derek was keen to have a run with Jim but I was still feeling good and having a great time so we got Derek to chill out for a least one more section. Jim and I headed off up Mt Wilson for the second time.
We now had an appreciation for what we had come down the night before. We’d decided to name it ‘The Dawn Wall’ but under the proviso that I was Tommy and Jim had to be Kevin. (If you haven’t watched The Dawn Wall, do yourself a favour and see it). Not sure why we didn’t give it a Game of Thrones title instead… We hiked up The Dawn Wall with Chris Wright running around with his camera taking pics and talking a bit of crap with is. It was surprising how easily he fitted into our rubbish conversations for someone we’d never met before! We hit the top and started the decent on the other side. We then continued back through this section towards Blackwood Caravan Park, the checkpoint where I’d initially joined Jim some 15 hours earlier. We just had to run through the remains of a ‘bush doof’ from the night before, past the Showgrounds, up the short bitumen road and we were there.
Over this last little bit Jim and I agreed that I’d take a break here, get some rest and rejoin him for the last few parts of the race. We rolled into Blackwood and Derek was raring to go. We also heard that Phil had stoped here to have a bit of a sleep in a tent, but when someone went to check he was gone. You’ll need to read Phil’s race re-cap to get the full story. Derek and Jim headed off pretty quickly and I jumped into the crew vehicle and went back to the house for a shower, and an hour of sleep.
Fast forward a couple of hours and I was back out at Square Bottle checkpoint with the super-crew waiting for Jim and Derek. Liz had also joined us now with her insanely swollen knee. We sat by the fire and kept warm while having a good chat with the other crews and the medic. It seemed like there was going to be quite a few runners coming in together. As the runners started to filter through, some simply filled bottles and pushed on while others went for a sleep. Jim and Derek arrived much quicker than expected and they had powered through the last two sections. I had a brief chat with Jim and asked how he was and if it would cool if I joined him at the next checkpoint, which was Loh’s Lane. We agreed on this and he and Derek headed off just after the sun had set. In hindsight this is where I think I made may major error as a pacer. Given the timing in the race, the distance left to cover and the upcoming terrain it would have been a better setup if both Derek and I had run with Jim through the next couple of sections.
I waited at Loh’s Lane with Bob and Annette, again around a camp fire. They were trying to get a bit of sleep in the car, but I’m not sure either of them got any sleep over the whole three days. While sitting around the fire I heard rumours of a bed in a sleep station that was not being used. This was my queue. If I was going to do the remaining 10-12 hours with Jim, I’d definitely serve him better if I was as rested as possible. So I jumped at the chance and climb into what can only be described as the worlds most comfortable camper trailer and I got two good solid hours of sleep. It would have been more but some bloke that had been running for 40 hours non-stop thought he needed the bed more. The jury’s still out on whether or not that was the case, but being the good bloke I am, I gave up the bed and headed back to the fire. Shortly after that Phil came into the checkpoint. Still his happy positive self but in desperate need of some sleep. He managed to score the caper bed next and got his head down for about 40 minutes. This turned out to be a master stroke for him.
Jim and Derek hiked into the checkpoint sometime near 12:30am on Sunday Morning and I could see by the look on Jim’s face that something had happened. There was a bit of fanfare and the medic was involved as well as some event staff. It turns out Jim had lost his footing on a narrow section of the track and taken a fall down the side of a cliff. Discussion indicated that is was about a 30 metre drop down to a small, unstable ledge that he has stopped on. Jim described it to me later as that feeling of having absolutely no control and as he was sliding down the cliff he was trying to grab whatever he could to stop himself going over. This was a major turning point that would impact the rest of the race.
Jim had sustained and pretty big knock to his head and face, he’d snapped one of his poles in the process (turns out they weren’t made of valarian steel) and was visibly shaken by the event. After a bit of a rest at Loh’s Lane Jim calmed himself and was given the all clear to progress to the second last checkpoint, Hogan’s Hut. I stepped off with Jim to give Derek a break and we started making slow progress. Jim was still on track to come in under the cut-off and we had a time goal to get to Hogan’s which would allow him to have 30-45 minutes sleep there before the final push. First though we had to get up and down some gnarly, rocky terrain before hitting the main fire trial. I could tell by Jim’s approach that he was super cautious now and the fall had had a big impact on him. We had a number of discussions about it and how he was feeling. Jim still pushed on and we were able to run/walk to the next checkpoint. We’d even got there earlier than planned which would allow Jim to have a longer rest.
We arrived at Hogan’s Hut and were told Phil had just left about 2 minutes prior. Liz’s crew were at Hogan’s Hut to help out and were fantastic. They rugged Jim up, changed his bottles, got some food into him and helped him get 30 minutes sleep in a chair. I grabbed a coffee, and some stuff that was yum but had no idea what it was, got myself sorted to head out for the last 27km of this insane but truely awesome event. Jim had time and we had a plan. He was going to finish this race that only 25% of entrants do.
Jim woke, got some dry socks, put his raincoat and pack on and we were ready to set off for the final push. One more checkpoint and then the finish line. At this stage though Jim was still shivering and some bruising had started to come out on his face. The event Medical Director was at this checkpoint and she wanted to give him only check before releasing him. She also pulled me aside and told me her concerns. The situation was that we were heading into rocky and difficult terrain and a big chunk of what we had left to do was in a dry creek bed. As there had been consistent light rain through the night the rocks in the creek bed would be extremely slippery. If Jim was to fall or his condition worsen the rescue options were really limited and the risk to Jim was significant. It was agreed that Jim would go back into the checkpoint tent to try and warm up more and get a few more minutes sleep and then a decision would be made. Jim got his head under the blankets and tried to sleep. I was hoping this decision wouldn’t rest with me, my role was to get Jim to the finish and I knew he would be tired, cold, fatigued and moving slow but I hadn’t anticipated accounting for a potential head injury. I thought if Jim can sleep for another 30-45 minutes and be good, he can still make the next cut off and the finish. Provided he was medically able to continue, he was still in the game.
After about 15 minutes of trying to sleep (which I think was more contemplation than sleeping) Jim popped his head up, gave me a look and the ever so slight shake of his head. The medic looked at me and said is he done? I indicated that I thought so and she she had already written up the paperwork to pull him from the race. The risk was too great. Jim’s DU135 for 2019 was over, he was unable to continue from Hogan’s Hut just 27km from the end with about 10 hours before the final race cut off time.
The medical vehicle drove Jim out of the checkpoint to a waiting car and he was taken back to the house. It was a really somber feeling and one that I had a hard time processing so I can only imagine the thoughts going through Jim’s head after 42 hours and 190km over some of the toughest but coolest terrain I’ve seen in a trail race. In the end I think common sense prevailed and there’s always next year. The big ‘what if’ is still out there had the medic allowed Jim to continue. Maybe he would have finished and received that awesome feeling of accomplishment which lasts for a few days, but maybe something else could have happened and running would seem so insignificant by comparison.
What we do know is that 2020 DU135 is on again and another opportunity presents itself.
A huge congratulations to the team that put on DU135. As far as I know there is really nothing like it in Australia. The race distance, terrain and cut off times seem to be perfectly calculated to make finishing the race a major achievement. They are hard but not impossible and I think the event caters to a broad range of ultra runners, not just the super fast front of the pack people. It appeared to me that it is more about will and desire to push through the fatigue and dark patches that determines who makes it to the end and who doesn’t.
Photo: Chris Wright