In my last post, I spoke about crewing trail runs, so I thought the only logical follow up post would be The Alpine Challenge. This was by far my husbands hardest race to date, and also the hardest race I’ve had to crew. So strap in everyone, because for a race so epic, this post is also going to be epic (sorry!).
The Alpine challenge is a race in November that starts and finishes in Falls Creek. It has 4 distances, of which Brody was tackling the longest – 160km. It tackles 6 major climbs including Mt Feathertop, Mt Hotham, Mt McKay, Spion Kopje, Mt Nelse and Victoria’s highest mountain – Mt Bogong. This accumulates to over 7000m of elevation gain. This absolute monster has the tagline of the toughest mountain trail run held in Australia, and was Brody’s first attempt at the 100-mile distance.
I think Brody decided about 18 months in advance that he wanted to tackle this event, but even then, it took months of going back and forth of whether or not he was actually going to do it. Once he’d finally pulled the trigger and registered, we booked annual leave and began having hundreds of conversations about the logistics.
It is safe to say that any race of this size and magnitude have a huge number of things to consider, plan and organise. Everything from the best training strategy, who we should ask to crew, how to get there, where to stay, how much leave we need to take vs how much we have. Every tiny aspect has to be thought out and planned (as this was an interstate race) in advance and Brody has many skills but planning is not one of them. So I became his idea backboard, every thought about the race he had, he bounced off of me….. every single one, for months.
This was possibly the most challenging aspect of the entire race, surviving the training and planning aspects of it. So spouses beware, when your partner mentions wanting to run a ‘bucket list’ or ‘big ticket’ race, prepare yourself to know every detail and help planning all of the nuances.
But back to the actual race weekend:
Brody’s aunt and uncle have a house in Bright so we arranged with them to stay there a couple nights before and the night after. We also worked out that the crew team would include our friend Sally, as well as Brody’s parents. Brody, Sally and I would take one car down (Car One) and Joy and Ian would take another (Car Two).
We made it there on the Thursday, and the race was Saturday/Sunday. First regret for the weekend was how we spent Friday. It was consensus (from Car One), that it would be a good idea to visit every checkpoint, to avoid getting lost on race day. This turned out to be WAY longer than anticipated, unnecessary and we were all absolutely exhausted by the end of the day. We would have been much better to play tourist for the day, suss out a few of the harder to find checkpoints and check out a bit more of the area. Lessons for next time: don’t drive 250kms on windy mountain roads the day before having to drive 250 kms on windy mountain roads.
Friday night involved race briefing, registration and gear check at Falls Creek with a very nervous Brody. Then it was back to Bright where we went through the plan for next day again, made sure everything was ready to go, and then went to sleep (or tried to in between the epic snoring from the other room).
Car One was up at 4am to get Brody to the start line; fun fact – big races start at unfortunate times. It was an amazing atmosphere with so many nervous runners setting off for an alpine adventure, with both the 100km and 160 km races starting at the same time.
After a short race briefing, some last-minute racing to the toilets and very little fanfare, they were off…
Sally and I decided to get our day underway and made our way to the first checkpoint. We were exhausted from Friday and the early morning, so we had a strategic nap in the car before we started the hike to the first checkpoint. Did I not mention that to some of the checkpoints you have to hike to get to them?
We parked with the other devoted crew members, and then hiked the seven kms to the first checkpoint carrying any gear Brody thought he might need. We arrived a good while before Brody might have got there and begun ‘the wait’. We snacked, we cheered on other runners, we waited… and then our man came!
He was 20km in by this point and looking kind of ok. When he checked into the checkpoint I overheard the following exchange with the volunteer and thought we might be in for a long day
B – “this is the hardest thing I have ever done”
V – “yeah it is pretty tough race, it gets worse before the end”
B – “no, that was the toughest 20k I have ever done, I hope it gets easier from here”
V – “oh…. Umm”
The plan was for a quick shirt change (he had started in a long sleeve thermal as it was so cold and early), get some food in and get him back on the course ASAP. But he needed to sit down and take a few moments to recentre himself. I know that he was already beginning to have second thoughts about what he had gotten himself into. After about 5 – 10 minutes he realised how much time he wasted and got out of there, before realising he hadn’t changed his shirt. The next section of course included two more of the big climbs, two river crossings and about 30kms before we would see him again.
Our plan was to wait at the checkpoint as checkpoint one was also checkpoint three. As we waited though, we began to freeze, it was a very exposed spot with nothing to do and no shelter to sit under. So after holding out as long as we could, we eventually just got too cold and made the decision to walk back to the car. Seven kms later we were back at the car and warmed up with some tea from Sally’s thermos (kudos to her for a brilliant idea!!). Lesson Learnt No. 2: Pack warm tea for checkpoints, don’t plan to stay at checkpoints if you can’t easily get in chairs and things to do.
In between the car and the checkpoint was a lovely alpine marsh, some serious hills and some pretty rough track. After a short stay at the car to warm ourselves, and a walk through the marsh to ‘use the bush facilities’ we started to worry we would miss him if we didn’t start the trek back, so back up we went.
When Brody did eventually come back into the checkpoint, he was about 50km into the race and I wish I had a photo. His hair (which can only be described as a lion’s mane at the best of times) was out and in fine form, his vest was still on, but his long sleeve shirt was off (he was overheating in the valley), and he’d found a long stick to hike with. He honestly looked like a wild man who’d been lost in the bush for a month. I ran down 100m to meet my jungleman. He was in serious struggletown…
So began the start of the same question… “What should I do? Should I drop?”
My answer.. “I’m sorry my love, I can’t decide that for you..”
He also tried to ask the others, but they too would not make the decision for him. With this race, you have to decide by the 80km mark if you’re going to drop your distance, from the 160 km to the 100km, and it was clearly weighing on his mind already.
Its heartbreaking watching your loved one go through this.
They’ve trained every day for months and months, only to be in so much agonising pain both mentally and physically. When Brody asked me what he should do, there was no way I had the right to tell him what to do. I encouraged him, told him that I loved him, and said I would be proud no matter what he decided. I told him to listen to his body, push as much as he wanted, and this is what he did.
So after hiking 28kms for the day, and being up since 3:30am, Sally and I finally made it back to the car at about 3 pm. We were sore, exhausted and ready to go back to the house. However, the house was an hour and a half away and Brody was only an hour or two away from his next checkpoint; so it didn’t make sense to go back. This brings me to Lessons Learnt No. 3 stay as close as you can to race, so you can pop back home to recharge your own batteries.
So instead we made our way to the next checkpoint. By this point it was late afternoon, and Car Two met us for the next couple checkpoints. The idea being that they would then take over for the night shift. As mentioned in my previous post, they always pack lots of food and I remember going to town on a huge packet of chips, where the salt was very welcome.
As Brody came into the Checkpoint Four (65kms in) it was clear he was getting more and more wrecked, was in a world of pain and wanted to throw in the towel but ever the trooper, he decided to keep pushing forward. He got a bit of a lift in his spirits when he saw his parents and I know he really tried to be positive and look alright, so they didn’t worry, but I don’t think anyone was fooled.
Dropping to the 100kms was obviously still very much on his mind but a few of his friends had been through Checkpoint Four 10 minutes before him and they said if he could catch them then they would stick together through the night and get the race done as a team.
I don’t think I realised what this would do to Brody in the state he was in, obviously such a kind gesture was not lost on him and he broke down and cried a bit when I told him, he was truly touched that they were thinking of him. So he determinedly marched into the encroaching darkness with the hope of things turning around and catching them.
We decided to surprise him between Checkpoint Four and Five as it was at Checkpoint Five he would have to make the decision on whether to drop to the 100km race or not. When he shambled up to the car along the side of the road it was clear that things had not turned around for him.
As both cars were there he let us all know that he had decided to drop down to the 100km race and was going to try and finish it. He was devastated and apologised a number of times for “dragging us all of the way out here, only to fail” but promised that he would get the 100km race finished and wouldn’t DNF it. I think as discouraged as Brody was, he knew he made the right decision. I hated seeing it though.
Brody tromped off into the alpine fields, and the encroaching thunderstorm, and Car Two went off to meet him at the last checkpoint before the finish line. We were well into the night by this stage and Sally and I were completely exhausted, so we drove to the finish line instead of attempting the long trip home (through the dark and in bucketing rain making it was impossible to see any road lines).
We thought we’d have a sleep in the car… LOL. I think Sally managed to snatch a bit of sleep but I was too sore, tired, emotionally drained and definitely a little delirious by this point as well. It didn’t matter how exhausted I was, I could not get comfortable, and I could not sleep. When Brody messaged to say he was almost there, we got out the car and met Brody’s parents at the finish line. At this point, it was between midnight and one am. Where we had to stand in the cold, stare into the darkness and wait to see his headlamp, little did we know that he was lost in a bog about two kms from the finish line. Eventually we saw a light appear around the corner and the shambles left of my husband began the slow 200m trot down to the finish line.
The finish line was a little disappointing if I’m being honest. It was the middle of the night, no one was around (except the one person who enters the finishing times in and gives you your medal) and nothing was open. So the usual stalls, cheering and crowds were non-existent. So Brody had only us to cheer him down the hill and celebrate as he crossed the line.
He was wrecked.
It was a mixture of emotions as he finished. I don’t think he realised just how tough it was going to be and was mentally and physically completely spent by the time he crossed the line. To say he had nothing left in the tank would be a serious understatement.
When your partner doesn’t finish a huge goal that they set out to do, it can be the hardest part of crewing. Having just completed (arguably) the toughest 100km trail run in Australia, he was still disappointed, upset and a bit ashamed. He also said he felt silly for having all of us travelled that way for him when he couldn’t get the run done. This is almost gut wrenching because none of us thought that at all! We all wanted to be there for him, he could have pulled out after 10km and it still wouldn’t have mattered!
Once Brody got his medal, we found a room with couches (why couldn’t we find this earlier?!) and a bathroom with showers. He couldn’t walk, he could barely talk, and was absolutely spent. I helped walk him to the bathroom where I showered him and helped him get changed after. Once with the others again, we all climbed into the cars where it was back to Bright to all collapse.
The recovery from this race was HUGE, it took him more than a week to recover any sort of semblance of physical normality and emotionally much longer to get over it. If you ask him now I am sure he will tell you that it was a great race, he is glad he did it and is proud of his efforts. But he is my husband and I see through his polite white lies, he still has an axe to grind and wants to get back out there and settle the score. And when he does, I will be his crew chief, I will support him through the months of training and organising, and I will be there at the finish line when he smashes it.
I would love to finish this massive blog with an equally massive thank you to my amazing in-laws for making the trip over with us and to our amazing friend Sally who supported Brody and who was there by my side the whole time. I definitely could not have crewed that one without you all!
And to my superman, I still can’t believe he finished that race, you make me so proud. Physical strength aside, the mental strength he showed was amazing. He’s done a few 100km races since then but nothing compares to the Alpine Challenge.
Like lots of you out there, who have partners that have gone back to give a race another go, I’m sure my husband will do the same and one day will finish what he started all those many months ago.