“I just want to ask, is it really worth it?” Kristy was leaning forward, her eyes had that quizzical look, like she was vexed by a problem she just couldn’t answer, or maybe it was just disbelief.
“YES, of course it is,” I replied, forehead drawn into a crease, head drawn back, chin down, emphasis on the “Yes”. The tone of my voice alone probably indicated my level of incredulity that anyone would even question whether it was worth all the pain and drama of the Oxfam Trailwalker. This darned walk had consumed me for six months. It had been the subject of many ‘discussions’ between Paul and me.
I don’t know how many times I heard, “I’m not interested in walking 30 kilometres”, or “Jan, you do everything at 100%”, or, “When are we going to do something together?”
Between January and June this year I walked 512 kilometres in training; 27 walks averaging 19 kilometres per walk. During that time I walked most of the Oxfam track twice. One weekend I walked the entire track over three days. In between I was doing strength training and Pilates to build up my upper body strength to use trekking poles over 100 kilometres; to build my quads to support my two dodgy knees; and to build my core strength.
Paul was right, I do throw myself into my projects, and since my first training walk in January, the Oxfam Trailwalker had devoured virtually all my spare time. The whiteboard had been resurrected and had taken up station in the lounge room again. A3 printed maps of the walk adorned one side. In my defence, the other side was taken up with holiday planning for later in the year.
By event week estimated times for each leg, estimated break times, and gear lists had replaced the maps, but not the holiday planning.
On the Thursday night, the eve of the Trailwalker, I was also thinking how much I was looking forward to the event being over so I could get my life back. I had left work early that day, nerves were overriding my ability to think straight, but I hadn’t realised just how nervous I was until later that evening. I had two ice cream sticks that I could redeem for free ice creams. I had to head over to Angela’s place to drop some paperwork off and thought I might pick up an ice cream for Paul and me; a nice pre-event treat. I had the darned sticks in my hand and had stopped to do something on the way out of the house (perhaps take my brunch coat off, I really can’t remember now) and the sticks disappeared. A trivial event was blown out of all proportion and resulted in my giving Paul a serious reaming out. I realised in the car on the way over to Angela’s that behaviour wasn’t going to get me the relaxing night I had planned for, and Paul certainly didn’t deserve the treatment I doled out to him.
That night my sleep was fitful; I lost count of how many times I woke up. At 4.20am I turned off the alarm on my phone so I wouldn’t wake the pug, and climbed out of bed. I wasn’t nervous anymore. I wasn’t even tired. I was just focussed on the event. I had my mantras and positive affirmations in my head; I had my food rations measured and packed in my bum bag, pack and backup supplies in my box; my spare shoes, socks, clothes and batteries were packed; my phone batteries (all three of them) were charged; I’d put new batteries in both my head torches; Abba was waiting to keep my tempo and mood up when I got tired; as a standby, my heavy metal songlist was loaded to keep me awake in the early hours of Saturday morning (call it blind optimism but I had no plans for the wee hours of Sunday); the full track was loaded onto the GPS; the first aid kit was restocked and I had extra plasters in my pack; my gloves were ready to go; and my knee braces were on and waiting to be pulled up to support my patellas.
I didn’t bother with any plasters or taping. I knew my shoes were good. Over the course of the 500 kilometres I had walked in the lead up to the event, I had checked and tested all my gear thoroughly. Early in the piece I decided that boots were not an option. Incredibly, I had always walked in good hiking boots, but for this walk, covering the amount of distance in the time we were targeting, boots were just not suitable. My heels are ‘knobbly’ and 10 or 15 kilometres is OK in boots, but much more than that, especially in hilly terrain, is hell on my heels. I had ended up with some quite impressive blisters early in my training. So I had settled on Hoka One One trail running shoes. They have huge soles making them incredibly stable over uneven ground, and are as light as a feather (well, as light as a pair of really light running shoes, and much lighter than leather boots). Hoka One Ones, without doubt are the best shoes I have ever worn. They are also the ugliest shoes IN THE WORLD! Lucky they’re so darned good otherwise I wouldn’t be seen dead in them.
For all of my preparation, I haven’t even gone into the details of the planning that Paul undertook to be ready to support us through the event, but that was a logistical exercise to which he brought all his military training to bear. Our house was littered with boxes, packs, folding chairs and table, tarps, tent, sleeping bags, stoves, cooking gear, and importantly, warm weather gear for the support crew.
The forecast was for a clear and cold weekend. It would be colder on the D’Aguilar Range. We’d be warm walking through the night, but Heather and Paul would be very cold camping out and waiting for us to arrive at checkpoints three, at Lake Manchester, and five at Bellbird Grove picnic area on Mt Nebo.
Now, at 5am on Friday 19th June, 2015, there was nothing more to do but get on with it.
We made it to registration and everything went relatively smoothly. Angela couldn’t join us for the first section. Early in training she had been notified that her university exam would be Monday, 22nd June (the day after the Oxfam weekend). However, a couple of months ago her exam date was changed to Friday 19th June, the day of the event. At the time I was experiencing a wane in my motivation and confidence. Self-doubt had crept in. I can’t remember why, I think my knees had probably hurt on a training walk and I was questioning my physical and psychological ability to tackle a challenge of this magnitude. I was therefore privately hoping for our event to be shortened to the 55 kilometre walk.
But Oxfam want to maximise the number of teams competing in the 100 kilometre event, so they bent over backwards to help us out and the plan was that Shannon, Mark and I would register all four of us at the start, and Angela would join us at checkpoint one. Damn, I was doing the 100 kilometres after all!
Around that time, one of my colleagues at work had said to me, “Don’t worry about it, you’ve got this.” I don’t think Amanda realised what a crisis of confidence I was facing at the time. Training is the key, and it wasn’t long before I regained my motivation and my confidence and I continued with my mental and physical training.
So now here we were, Shannon, Mark, and I, in the cold early morning at Bellbird Grove picnic area, registering with less than the expected complications, kissing Paul good bye (well I don’t think Shannon and Mark actually kissed Paul but I did), and walking to the bus to be driven to the starting line at Maiala picnic area on Mount Glorious. We arrived at Maiala at about 7.30am so we had an hour to wait. During that time Shannon taped Mark’s knees and I found whatever slivers of sunlight I could to try to stay warm during our wait.
Then the time came and all the walkers congregated at the starting line. We hung back because we didn’t need to rush. We expected to have to wait a while at checkpoint one for Angela to arrive. There were around 370 participants starting in this tranche. There are two start times, 7am and 8.30am. We had the later start time.
We headed down the bitumen to turn off onto Joyners Ridge Road and the first downhill nine kilometre section of the walk. My biggest concern was for us to pace ourselves. After all the training over distance, the first 10 kilometres would always be the easiest, with high energy levels, and on this section, nine kilometres of downhill. It would be difficult to resist the temptation to really step it out. However, this was an endurance event, and the goal was to be there at the 100 kilometre mark. We made good pace.
During training there is a four kilometre section of the track that is not open to the public (being private property), instead we had to walk up a trail called ‘side break’. This was the steepest section of all, a kilometre long, with an incline of about 1 in 3.8 (an increase in altitude of 270m). On our very first training walk on this section we had met a lot of people on the side break. One girl was just sitting down and crying. It would have been a demoralising start to her training. It is a really tough climb, but it is only a kilometre, and when it was really steep, and falling backwards was a real possibility, I just leaned forward and went up on all fours.
Thankfully, the four kilometre section that replaced that short side break was not nearly so steep, and we made good time, arriving at checkpoint one at about 11.50am. We had averaged about five kilometres per hour.
This was the first of the bush checkpoints. There are six checkpoints on the Trailwalker. Three are bush checkpoints where the support crew are not allowed access. We had been to this site a couple of times during training, a broad expansive area, an intersection of four fire trails. Today it had been transformed. On the right on the way into the checkpoint was a line of porta-loos. Further along were plastic chairs and water tanks. To the left, marquees for food, first aid, and registration.
I headed straight for a porta-loo and we found a few chairs and sat down. The procedure is that all team members must check in and check out of checkpoints together. Oxfam run Trailwalker events in most of Australia’s capital cities, and across the world. They are very good at this, and strict. We were not allowed to check in until Angela arrived. Shannon was texting and we knew she was somewhere on Mt Nebo Road. We sat to wait. Shannon administered to Mark’s knee strapping while both boys ate the peanut paste and jam sandwiches on offer in the food tent. I hoed into my fourth banana for the day and put another one in my bum bag for later on the trail.
Angela arrived and at 12.24 we checked out and headed for checkpoint two. 15 kilometres down, 85 to go. We were all in good shape. Angela may not have done the first 15 kilometres, but arguably she had worked harder than us, sitting an Accounting exam and then having to rush straight up to Mt Nebo to join us for the remainder of the walk. 85 kilometres was probably exactly what she needed to walk out the stress of pre-exam study and pre-event training and prep.
The first seven kilometres of section two is relatively easy, coming down off this part of the range to Branch Creek. We continued our good pace, five kilometres per hour. A ten minute ‘pit’ stop and we took the left path and started the five kilometre slog up to checkpoint two. This is the toughest part of the trail. Most of this second half of section two is uphill, some of it very steep, almost as steep as the line break short cut that we had trained on in section one. This slowed us down a bit and we covered this last five kilometres at four kilometres per hour. I prefer walking uphill than down, Mark doesn’t, but he sucked down a couple of sports gels and powered up to checkpoint two. Angela and Shannon just powered on, unlike Mark and me they are supremely fit.
We walked up and into checkpoint two, arriving at 3.37pm, buoyant and still full of energy with over a quarter of the trail behind us, seven hours in and 28 kilometres done. This is the second of the bush checkpoints. We were still towards the back of the pack with our extended stop at checkpoint one and they had almost run out of food. I was OK, they still had heaps of bananas and muesli bars, and Angela and Shannon got into the cup a-soup. There was also chocolate! I ate my sixth banana for the day, stashing my seventh in my bum bag along with a muesli bar.
Our original plan was to walk through most of the checkpoints, but we stayed here for 24 minutes. We were enjoying the breaks, and it gave the boys a chance to get some food into them. We were all feeling fairly relaxed, and comfortable with the slip in our schedule.
Section three is the easiest of the entire trail. Sections one and two are rated at level five; this section is just a level three, possibly because it is primarily downhill. While I understand many people’s preference for walking downhill, for me, uphill is substantially better. While walking uphill taxes the lungs, downhill walking places far more strain on the body. The force of gravity means that you are less in control; generally you strike the ground harder and therefore your body is jarred much more. My knees are usually at their worst when I walk downhill. And falling on a downhill section is far more prevalent. Only a few weeks earlier, as we were doing our night training walk on this section, Angela had come down hard, ripping her hand open, and severely bruising her knee. We were only 10 kilometres into our walk that night, but to her credit, she toughed out the next 30 kilometres despite her bleeding hand and swollen knee.
This time, we took the trail with a little more care, maintaining an overall pace of four kilometres an hour, a much more controlled descent. After 5pm the sun had set and we were treated to a spectacular red sunset. We donned our head torches, and continued down to Lake Manchester where Heather and Paul waited with our dinner.
The trail was still quite crowded around the western side of the lake. Our pace slowed to three kilometres per hour, negotiating the six short ascents and descents around the lake in the dark.
There is no mobile reception, but luckily Shannon had sent a text through to Heather before we ran out of signal, and he had brought a two-way radio set so he was able to sporadically communicate with Paul.
I observed the difference in the generations. Shannon was regularly checking his phone throughout the walk. I, on the other hand, focused on walking, using my poles to maintain stability and support my knees. Perhaps the fact that Shannon didn’t use poles meant he was free to employ his hands differently. Oh, the confidence, stability and strength of youth!
At 8.24pm we arrived at checkpoint three. Paul and Heather had been joined by Missy and all three were waiting for us. Dinner was ready and soon after I sat down Paul handed me a cup of Danielle’s pea and ham soup. I had decided to ask Tracey to whip me up some of her famous brew but Danielle had been to hand and offered her services. I had settled on pea and ham soup because I figured it was high carb and high protein, and would be something I could eat down quickly. This was a thick, rich brew; good rib-sticking stuff, and I wolfed it down.
Our scheduled stay at checkpoint three was only 30 minutes. As with checkpoint two, this blew out, and we left checkpoint three after nearly an hour, checking out at 9.22pm. When I stood to leave my right calf muscle had tightened significantly and was quite painful after cooling down, but my knees were still in fairly good shape.
We took a little time to get out of the checkpoint. A communication mix-up meant that Mark’s thongs had been left in his car, so his strategy for the creek crossing was now out the window and his choices were to walk through barefoot or to just get his boots wet. This must have been a fairly significant psychological set back, and he was physically starting to suffer. Mark had had some issues keeping food down on our last long walk. He is a big unit and needs a fair amount of nutrition to keep him going.
He hadn’t said anything, but at checkpoint three he was starting to feel quite ill. Like the rest of us, he had worked hard to get to this point and he still wanted to complete the 100 kilometres.
We finally checked out and headed off on the final 55 kilometres of the trail. The last four sections are grade four in difficulty. Not too hard, not too easy. But this section is challenging in that it has about 17 creek crossings. We don’t actually cross 17 creeks, it is the one creek that we follow along the aptly named “Creek Road”. I had walked this section a couple of times and had determined to count the creek crossings. On each occasion I had lost count at around 13.
The creek crossings start about seven kilometres into this section. Before the turn off onto Creek Road I had taken my first dose of pain killers. It was more of a preventative strategy. I was just trying to stay on top of my pain management. My right calf muscle was well and truly warmed up and not giving me any trouble, but I was in no doubt about where my knees were; while they were no worse than a training walk, I wanted to make sure my knees didn’t divert my attention from the task at hand. At the same time Mark had started struggling. Our pace was good, four kilometres per hour; this first six kilometres is mostly ‘undulating’ with few sharp ascents or descents. At this stage I wasn’t concerned about either Mark or me.
At the first creek crossing Angela and I donned our Indian sandals. These are sandals that I bought in Uttarkashi in northern India in 2009 and 2010. I paid about 1150 Rupees (around $15 each pair). They are not pretty, but they are thick rubber-soled sandals with a lot of grip, and a lot of Velcro to adjust to your foot. Add to this the fact that to protect our feet we wore them with socks, they are a truly stylish and fashionable look, even better than my Hoka One One shoes!
In 2001 Queensland Senator Ron Boswell used the campaign slogan “He’s not pretty, but he’s pretty effective”. That slogan was an equally apt description for my shoe selection for the Trailwalker. While at every creek crossing there was a queue of walkers trying to step their way across on stepping stones, we just walked straight through. Our strategy was quicker, and far less prone to ankle damage from falling off rocks. At one creek a group greeted us with astonishment and not a small measure of admiration at our strategy. It was a good one.
While the night was cold, I was wearing a fleece jacket and fleece gloves, our wet feet weren’t cold. The wet socks actually seemed to insulate our feet against the cold.
In the meantime, Mark was deteriorating fast. He was now vomiting, wasting a perfectly good burrito that Missy had fed him at checkpoint three, and unable to keep anything else down. I walked along with him, feeding him mouthfuls of Gatorade. At one stage he took down a sports gel to give him some energy to continue through the crossings, but he was now clearly distressed and it was becoming obvious that he would not be going past checkpoint four.
At this stage we started passing other walkers suffering more than Mark. One walker lay by the side of the trail under a space blanket. Another walker, a nurse, had tended to her as she lay there, and following the event protocol, her partner sat with her, while another team member had headed off to a trail marker to call in help.
We were now in the first of the uphill sections after the last creek crossing. We had stopped to change out of our wet shoes and socks and back into dry footwear, and for Angela and me to take a pit stop. Soon after, an ambulance passed us heading back down from checkpoint four to evacuate the walker under the space blanket. We knew that there was one more long, quite arduous hill climb leading up to checkpoint four and I was concerned at putting Mark through that in his depleted state. I toyed with the idea of hailing the ambulance, but figured they would refuse to take Mark when they already had a patient on board. The ambulance passed us again, heading back up to checkpoint four, followed by a SES vehicle.
I stepped out and hailed the second vehicle and explained our situation. By now it was 1.40am. The SES volunteers were amazing. They immediately got Mark into their 4WD and started the evacuation process. The procedure was to call the Oxfam base station and get direction. Their gut feel was that they would be directed to take Mark back to checkpoint three.
At 11pm, before the first crossing, I had texted Paul to prepare him for a call from checkpoint 4, at 11.17pm I told him I expected Mark to pull out; now I called him to confirm that Mark was on the way out and that Oxfam would call, directing him to either checkpoint three or Jollys Lookout to pick Mark up. I then called Shannon to tell them to stop and wait for me (they had already done so and were just around the next bend), and then I left Mark in the care of the SES and headed off to complete the last, and arguably toughest, 4 ½ kilometres of this section.
The last six kilometres had taken us nearly 2 ½ hours. I knew what lay ahead, the final, relentless, 1.3 kilometres up with a climb of 210 metres. I dropped my head and focussed on making it to checkpoint four. I covered that distance in 22 minutes, and by the time I got to the top I was wet with sweat. I was sure I was ahead of Angela and Shannon, but doubt crept in as I waited at the top so I called them. When I took my fleece gloves off to use my phone the inside of my gloves were wet with sweat, such was the vigour with which I had tackled that hill. To my surprise, Angela and Shannon were still coming up the hill, by now just 20 or 30 metres down the trail.
We arrived at checkpoint four at 3.07am and at check-in I discovered Oxfam’s free trade coffee milk chocolate, and saw a couple of small cans of lemonade. Whether I needed it or not, I felt like a sugar boost. The wonderful volunteer gave me both cans of lemonade and encouraged me to take a good helping of chocolate; needless to say I needed little encouragement on the chocolate! I gave Shannon one can of lemonade and proceeded to wash down a couple more pain killers, once again, more preventative than symptomatic treatment, and a handful of chocolate with the other can.
We had taken up position under a gas heater and next to a group of young men. One of the men was bemoaning sitting in the middle of the bush at three o’clock in the morning and missing out on watching the US golf open. I similarly opined the fact that my husband had forgotten to record P1 and P2 of the Austrian F1 for me. It was light hearted banter more than serious ranting, but while I was off in to the loo I believe the conversation turned to the gluten free noodles that one of the group had cooked for the men and the similarity between eating those and shards of glass!
We saw Mark again at checkpoint four. He was wrapped in a blanket, waiting to be driven out to Jollys Lookout where Missy was waiting for him. The Mitsubishi 4WD club had volunteered to ferry people in and out of the bush checkpoints as required. It was one of these club members who had brought Angela in to checkpoint one to meet us, and another was about to drive Mark and a couple of other walkers out of checkpoint four.
We stayed at checkpoint four for about forty minutes, and at 3.48am we check out and headed towards checkpoint five where we would again see Paul and Heather, and breakfast would be waiting for us.
Within only a couple of hours I would be longing to see Paul, but the first part of this section was easy going, mostly undulating downhill and we made a good pace along South Boundary Road. An hour and a half in and we had covered six kilometres. A couple of hours earlier I had privately hoped for a coffee at checkpoint four, but there were no vendors there. I knew that there would be a vendor at the junction of South Boundary Road and Hellhole Break but I hadn’t mentioned it as I wasn’t sure whether they would have the soy milk that Angela drinks. Better not to raise expectations only to have them dashed.
We saw the lights ahead of us, and Angela headed straight to the coffee cart and asked. Yes! This stoic barista, standing out in the middle of the bush at 5am, in her knee-length quilted jacket, beanie and scarf, with her baby warm and sleeping in the adjacent tent, had soy milk! So Angela shouted me a coffee and we sat on the ground across the trail from the barista and enjoyed one of the best cups of coffee I had drunk in a long time. I proceeded to shout out to other walkers as they passed to let them know the quality of the coffee. I succeeded in drumming up some business for the lady, and possibly intimidating some fellow walkers. After 15 minutes we were back on our feet, rejuvenated both physically and psychologically (testament to the power of a cuppa) and heading along South Boundary Road.
It wasn’t long before the coffee had worked its way through our system and we had another pit stop. It was light, and we headed off down another branch road, worrying slightly less about our modesty now, but nonetheless trying not to pee in the line of sight of fellow walkers. I am fairly conscious of this nowadays after being led up a path in the Indian Himalaya by a fellow traveller. Against my better judgement I had followed her only to have a group of local villagers round a bend in the track to see us squatting in the middle of their road! I felt more guilty than embarrassed at the time, though it must have been a sight, encountering my then fat white arse, and Rajma’s skinny brown one exposed for the world to see.
But now, on the side of this Australian mountain range, squatting was a little more problematic; my knees were starting to give me a lot of trouble. It only hinted at the trouble I might encounter ahead, but at that time I had no perception of how much I would suffer over the final 30 kilometres.
My last specialist appointment in December last year had left me in little doubt about the parlous state of my knees. An active lifetime of obesity had taken its toll and I knew I was staring down the barrel of at least one knee replacement. However, the sooner that I had the replacement, the shorter the expected lifespan of the prostheses. So I had set my goal at keeping my original knees until I was 60.
During that consultation, Michael had also advised me against persisting with the Trailwalker if my knees started giving me trouble. But you simply don’t invest that amount of your life to pull out if there is any way possible of continuing; we both knew that if that scenario arose I would be reaching for my pain killers and not my phone.
My knees had been quite good for the first 45 kilometres. When we stopped for dinner at Lake Manchester the biggest problem I had was my right calf muscle. Once it cooled down it hurt quite a bit, but warmed up soon after we got going again. A couple of hours into section four and I had taken my first dose of pain killers. I was in mild pain and remembered all the advice I have received previously; pre-empt the pain and take some drugs so you can stay on top of it. So I had been proactive with my pain management.
At checkpoint four, 63 kilometres and 18 ½ hours in, I had taken another dose. Once again, my knees were a bit sore, but manageable; nothing worse than a moderate training walk and we had left checkpoint four at a good pace. I don’t know whether the pace made matters worse, but now I was suffering, and by the time we hit the hill at about 72 kilometres in I was in a lot of pain. I’m usually very good on hills, but I knew I was going to struggle up this one, which was a bit sad, because it is actually my favourite hill on the entire track.
The fact that I have a favourite hill is probably another reflection on my personality, but that is another story. This hill is about 1 ½ kilometres with a 170 metre altitude gain. It’s just a nice continuous, relatively gentle uphill. It’s a climb I have previously enjoyed immensely, and with my history of hill climbing, Shannon said that I would kill this one. Instead, today it was the killer, not me.
By the time I got to the top, and knowing that over the next couple of kilometres we would encounter the steepest downhill sections of the trail, I took another couple of painkillers. By now it was about 6.45am and we were 74 kilometres in with only 3 kilometres to checkpoint 5, breakfast, and more importantly, Paul. My pain had started out in my left knee only. Nowadays the pain usually drills through from the outside of my knee to the inside. By now my left knee had stabbing pain coming through from the outside, but my right knee had also started. I was close to tears.
The rope on the steep downhill sections was a godsend, not because of the steepness of the descent, but because the ropes afforded me the opportunity to take the downhill backwards. Walking straight down any hill was out of the question. I had adopted my ‘duck waddle’ where I turn both my feet outward, minimising the bend of my knees. By now the tears were involuntarily streaming down my face, but I was wiping them away, trying, and failing to hide my distress.
The gentle decline along the bitumen down into checkpoint five was unexpectedly painful. I was feeling fairly nervous, and trying not to cry too much. I was sure that if I made it to the checkpoint, being able to sit for a while and give my knees a break, have a cup of tea, and see Paul would be sufficient to steel me for the rest of the trail. Once we left checkpoint five we had only 23 kilometres to go.
It was about 8.24am when we checked out of checkpoint five. We had rested for nearly 45 minutes. Paul had handed me a cup of tea and a mini muffin; once I’d finished my muffin I had promptly grabbed another.
Sitting down was fine. Certainly me knees were aching, but by the time I had a cup of tea and a pee I was feeling rejuvenated. Sadly that didn’t last. My knees have always suffered on the downhill, but today, for the first time, they were suffering on the uphill as well. They started hurting from the moment I embarked on the uphill stretch on the bitumen road out of checkpoint five. This didn’t bode well for the rest of the walk.
It’s about a kilometre of downhill from Mt Nebo Road to Enoggera Reservoir. That was arduous. Normally I would call the walk around Enoggera Reservoir a moderate undulating walk. Certainly not hard! But if I thought getting down to the reservoir was hard, this morning the track around the reservoir was one of the most tortuous and painful experiences of my life.
By now I was crying freely. On the steeper sections, every few steps the stabbing pain through both my knees would leave me breathless and I would just have to stop. On the hills I was walking straight legged because bending my knees was just too painful. I kept telling myself that child birth was probably a lot worse. When I need to challenge myself, I usually turn to my decision not to have children, telling myself that I have already taken the easy way out, so it’s time to harden up a bit. Now I was drawing on every tactic in my arsenal to keep me going, quietly chanting my mantras through my clenched teeth, and trying to focus on the walk and not the pain.
We crossed Enoggera Creek a little after 10am. I knew there was a relatively flat bit coming up, about a kilometre long. A few weeks earlier when we had walked around here this next section had been under water. We had walked bare foot through knee-high water. This morning I looked forward to this section for relief from the relentless up and down hill grind around the lake.
At 10.45am I took another three pain killers. I was trying to stick to minimum dosage four hours apart, but that just wasn’t cutting it. I didn’t know it at the time, but Angela was monitoring my drug intake.
We were about 86 kilometres in and on a relatively flat section. I was telling myself if I could just make it to the dam wall then all I had was the uphill to the road and the downhill through Silvapark Estate to the Cora Mulling Park where I would see Paul again.
I turned to Angela and said, trying to be light hearted, “When I was summiting Kili the terrain was similar to this, but it was really hard because I couldn’t get into a rhythm at that altitude, and I couldn’t see much because of the fog. I was so frustrated and angry and I turned to Heinrich and asked, ‘Where is this f***ing sign?’, so Angela, I now need to ask, where is that f***ing dam wall?”
Angela pointed to our left, “It’s over there Aunty Biddy.”
I nearly sat down and cried (some more), I so wanted it to be just ahead of us, but there it was, across the water to our north. There was still some distance to get to the wall. I guess I knew this. I’d done this walk a couple of times before, but I was just counting down the ups and downs. By now my pain levels were probably at 5 or 6 out of 10 on the flat, 7 to 9 on the uphill, and 9 to 10+ on the downhill. I wasn’t having much fun.
In reality we were just three or four kilometres from checkpoint six. But there was still the sting in the tail as we had to negotiate the uphill away from the dam, and the downhill into Silvapark Estate. I made it to the bitumen and was heading down, my duck waddle perfected, and on the phone to check in with Paul when I dropped one of my gloves. The 10 metres or so to walk back up the hill when I noticed the missing glove almost had me thinking to leave the bloody thing on the road, but I turned and retrieved it anyway.
One of the wonderful volunteers was down at the corner, and when she saw me head back up to retrieve my glove she sang out that she could do it for me, bless her. The volunteers and staff were absolutely amazing!
By now we were just a kilometre from the checkpoint, and Paul, Heather, and a pee. In reality, as much as I wanted to see Paul, by this time I needed a pee even more than I needed moral support. We arrived at checkpoint six at about 11.30 am and I headed straight for the loo, then a chair, a snickers bar, and another banana.
20 minutes later we were back on the track with only about 12 kilometres to go. This last section was the one I knew best; I had walked most of it seven times during training, and I can’t remember how many times I had walked this ground while training for Kili. The first part is relatively flat and I started out buoyant, albeit in pain. Having Paul along was just wonderful. I don’t usually talk much when I hike, but listening to Paul and Shannon and Angela chatting away lifted my spirits.
But I also knew that I had a very sharp and steep uphill followed by an equally sharp downhill section coming up. This hill was one I had bounded up in training. While it is steep, the steepest ascent of the whole trail, (about 1 in 5 gradient), it is only about 470 metres long. Today I looked forward to this with a deal of trepidation.
Even after the previous 18 kilometres of torture, I hadn’t expected things to be this bad.
The pain took my breath away. Today this little stretch took me 13 minutes. I got to the top and all I could think about was the steep 300 metre downhill that was the next section of the trail. As bad as the uphill was, I knew the downhill would be worse. Paul made me sit and rest on the big log that sits to the right of the trail.
We started down Highwood Road, and before long I was again gasping with pain. Any movement of the knee resulted is stabbing pain. It was excruciating. I think it must have been excruciating for Paul, Shannon and Angela too. I was no longer crying, I was sobbing. About halfway down I finally told Paul I didn’t think I could go on. It was 12.45pm.
Paul’s response filled me with dread, but also spurred me on to the bottom. “Rubbish! When did you take your last lot of pain killers?”
I responded that I had taken three tablets at 10.45am, two hours ago.
“Right, take some more now.”
“How many should I take?
“Four. We’re not in a hurry. Do you have your head torch with you?”
“Cripes!” I thought, “it’s only lunchtime, I can’t possibly be out here until dark!”
But I downed the drugs, sucked in a couple of deep breaths and made it to the bottom of this downhill. I knew I would just have to take each up- or downhill section as it came and just try to make it to the end, sometime before nightfall. I didn’t have my head torch with me.
We were now on a short bitumen uphill section of Highwood Road and I was astounded that I was able to do it with greatly reduced pain, and relatively quickly compared with the previous 750 metres. We sent Shannon and Angela on ahead, and Paul and I proceeded, chatting and cruising along at three to four kilometres per hour. Perhaps it was the fourth pain killer, perhaps the relatively less steep slopes we were now tackling, or perhaps just having Paul by my side, but I now knew without doubt that I would finish, and not only that, I would finish by about 3pm.
Even the climb up the Honeyeater track (the longest of the entire track) was bearable. Those were kilometres 97 to 98 finished. Only the downhill of the Summit track down to JC Slaughter Falls was left. I had known since embarking on this challenge six months earlier that this would be the most challenging part of the entire walk. This leg was one of the longest downhill sections, albeit, a relatively gentle gradient, but we would have walked over 98 kilometres by the time we got to this section.
We got to the top of the Honeyeater trail and crossed the road. By now I was feeling intensely guilty about my slow pace. We were going to finish as a team, and Shannon and Angela were waiting patiently for me despite their extreme tiredness. I was tired too, and I had almost taken a few steps sideways after leaving the Gap Creek Reserve so I had sucked down a sports gel to give me a boost for the final few kilometres. My energy levels were really high, but the pain had sapped a lot of my strength and probably the underlying tiredness meant the guilt was also weighing on me.
I took a few breaths and steeled myself for the downhill.
It was horrible.
The last 1.7 kilometres took nearly an hour. 3pm came and went, and I began to wonder whether we would finish by 4pm.
Gavin and Heather joined us for the last few hundred metres. It seemed to take an eternity, and while Paul and Gavin talked, I focussed on getting one foot in front of the other down the final descent into the recreation area. As I neared the finishing line I was tired and frustrated. I snapped at Heather who was photographing me, but my dear sister forgave me.
We crossed the finishing line at 3.33pm and surprisingly I overcame the almost overwhelming desire to cry. Our official time was 31 hours and 3 minutes. That was nearly four hours quicker than the time I had registered, and about an hour longer than our target. I had said I would be happy to finish in 30 hours and really happy with 28 hours. Now, I was just happy to finish.
Will I do it again? Definitively, “No”. My fitness levels were good, and I coped well with the endurance aspect, but I simply couldn’t risk my knees. However, Paul suggested, and I have agreed, that we will do the 55 kilometre walk next year together.
On Sunday, I was walking around the house in my nightie and brunch coat. I put my hand in the pocket of my brunch coat and pulled out the two ice cream sticks.