I’m crouched low, hanging onto the thin vertical slabs of rock with my fingertips. I’ve just begun scaling the granite dome to the peak of Mount Feathertop. Water is dripping from my Salomon flask, distracting me at this critical moment. My heart is pounding. I’m all alone. “I don’t want to do this,” I say out loud. My voice sounds as shaken as I feel.
I don’t look around and I certainly don’t look down. I keep climbing, trying to breathe, keeping my body pressed close to the rock. I have to traverse this sharp angle of rock to get to the next section, and I have no idea what the next section is going to be, or even if I’m really on the trail itself. Up until now, the trail was obvious, but this seems more like some random slab of rock rather than a trail. My reserves are low. My water is in danger of running out. And this trail, this 11 km there-and-back trail, is reportedly full of venomous snakes. How am I going to get myself out of this? I wonder.
Is this where I’m going to die?
The Razorback Run is an event held by Running Wild Australia, and offers distances ranging from 64, 40 and 22 kilometres. That’s right – the 22 km run is the short course. This short course is a run along a ridge-line trail to the top of the second highest peak in Victoria, Australia (Mount Feathertop), in a place know as the Victorian Alps, and back along the same trail. When I first read the description early in January, hungry for a new adventure, I was captivated: (see http://runningwild.net.au/razorback-run-about-the-run.html for more details)
“This classic Alpine run offers three challenging distances in some of the most spectacular country in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. The 64 km Razorback Ridge run takes in the entire length of the Razorback to offer some of the most stunning ridge running and scenery in the Australian Alps, the 40 km Razorback Circuit and the 22 km short course Razorback Ridge—a delightful day out up to the Summit of Mt Feathertop and back along the Razorback.
Set in the heart of Victoria’s high country, the Razorback Run is one of the most amazing high altitude runs that Australia has to offer.”
But then I moved onto the “About the Run” page, and immediately dismissed the run as lunacy for the likes of me. It was this bit in particular that gave me pause:
“Weather Conditions/Experience: The run takes place in an exposed Alpine environment that can be subject to sudden and severe changes in weather. Rain, fog, high winds, sleet and snow as well as hot sunny days can occur during March/April. Do not take this run lightly, runners have died in this region. Hypothermia, dehydration and heat exhaustion are serious risks and all runners should be prepared for any weather conditions.
The 64km Razorback Run should only be attempted by experienced trail runners with good navigation experience. As a minimum, runners attempting this distances must have successfully completed at least one organised trail run over 30 km in the previous 6 months.”
To tell the truth, pretty much every single word in the “About the Run” section frightened me: Self-supported solo navigation; a ten-kilometre ridgeline trail; mandatory equipment because a snake might bite you, you might get caught in a snow or lightning-storm, lost; you must have the ability to navigate an alternative route back in case of emergency. Oh, and fire season. Of course, it might still be fire season.
Then Sally messaged me. Did I want to do a new adventure this year? Yes, of course I did. How about the Razorback Run? I suggested.
Two weeks before the race, I knew I could run the distance. I’d trained up for it on Mount Dandenong. I’d calculated the elevation gain and done more than necessary. I’d done speed work to keep my legs fast, strength training in the gym, hill training. As a veteran of more than fifty trail races, I was nervous but confident in my abilities. Adventure racing had taken me out of my comfort zone many times, climbing waterfalls, belaying down cliffs. I’d felt fear before; it hadn’t stopped me.
But I’d never been to Harrietville, and could not really picture the trail. I’d heard it was beautiful. And rocky. From maps and photos, it didn’t look too bad. Pretty flat but with the elevation gain coming from a big climb right in the middle to get to the peak. I respected the run, but I wasn’t actually afraid of it. I was afraid of the drive, the snakes, the weather, the dark, fire, snow, elevation, pretty much everything, but I wasn’t afraid of the run.
At 7:30 am Saturday morning, the group of us runners stood shivering. We had silently declared the toilet block to be behind the small shack on the Mount Feathertop side of the road (there was no actual toilet block), and people sheepishly made their way behind it with boxes of tissues and averted eyes. We were already at an elevation of 1600 metres; the peak of Mount Feathertop would take me to my highest elevation in my life at 1922 metres. It was my personal Everest.
I studied the sunrise, and watched the colour of Mount Feathertop change from dark grey to glowing gold at first light. It was cold, and I’d layered up in my down jacket and lots of wool to await the race start. I’d traveled up with two friends who were walking the trail, and because I was running, I expected to finish a couple of hours before them. I studied the other runners to see who I might beg for a ride back to Harrietville and hid my after-race backpack under the car as the walkers were taking the car keys with them.
The prior night’s race briefing was playing on my nerves. Paul, the Race Director, had very calmly informed us, in the manner of a true mountain man, that snakes had been sighted on the trail as early as 9:30 that morning. His advice was to make sure our snake bite bandages were right at the top of our packs, for easy access. I had just tested applying my snake bandage for the first time before leaving Melbourne. The process had made me decidedly uneasy. I’d been surprised by snakes before, both in Hong Kong and here in Melbourne, but over time, I’d come to a kind of truce with them; they were there, but I could usually avoid them by the time of day I ran, and by route choice.
It was 7:55 am. We crossed the road as a group, and the countdown to run was brief. There were seventy of us running the 22km course today, about forty more than I expected. The others looked fit, strong, stony characters. Only I was afraid, that was for sure.
Off we ran.
I was puzzled by the first section – instead of climbing along the ridge-back, it ran along a very thin trail on a contour line at the bottom of the hill. It was rockier than I’d expected, and I was breathing fast. My hands were numb, as I’d stripped to a singlet and shorts just before we ran, and the drop to the right led straight down into a deep valley. I tried not to look, tried not to be afraid. But everyone was faster than me, they were bolting around me, faster, much faster than I dare run. My visual system has a new problem – grey shadows in both eyes in the centre of the visual field. I see okay, except on shadowy technical trail where I try to run fast but I can’t capture the rocks quick enough in sight to respond to them.
So I was slow. So slow; so afraid. Breathing too fast and attacking myself for lack of pace. I was fit enough but this didn’t matter. This track – its narrowness, its precipitous drop, the rocks – I hadn’t expected it so early. It seemed like every single runner in the race passed me and I was certain I could hear my walking friends chatting and catching up to me.
Run your own race, I told myself. You’re not racing them. You’re here to see this place. Enjoy it.
But every time I tried to calm myself to “enjoy it” I tripped on a rock, stumbled, swore. I was 4.5km in, when a man came barreling back down the trail towards me. Surely not, I said to myself. But yes, he had already run the whole 11 km out, and most of the way back. And here I was, stumbling along at 4.5km. Jesus. I felt so inept. Well done, I shouted to him, truly impressed. Gob-smacked really, that he could run it so fast.
On I went. I ran when I could, when the trail edged away from the cliff side, but my heart was still going too fast. The thought of snakes had grown huge in my mind. Because now I was running alone, all the others well ahead of me, and there was plenty of time for a snake to come back to sun itself. The trail twisted and turned, into shadow and under tree branches, and I was conscious that any section I could not see could hold a venomous snake that wouldn’t know I was coming. Still I ran, slowly, conscious that I needed to complete the race in 3:30 to quality for the upcoming Wonderland Run in the Grampians.
The sun was up now, and it was getting hot. My watch must have stopped working because the kilometres were ticking over way too slowly. Then the Twin Knobs finally appeared, and some trail where I wasn’t afraid, that I could actually run. Because I’d calmed a bit, I made sure to glance around, take photos. It was becoming clear to me that my target time was completely wrong, that this run was going to take me someplace I hadn’t been in a long time.
Now the rest of the runners were coming back. Most cheered me on, said well done, terrific work, and I responded the same. Some, though, were silent, and when I spoke, they dismissed my comments, blanked me, gave me no encouraging smile. They were lost in their own race but for me, at the back of the pack this time, their silence hurt.
On I ran.
I’d wondered what “the cross” was in the race description. It sounded faintly biblical. It was obvious when I arrived. Someone had plunked a large backpack next to it, and it marked the junction for the way to the top of Mount Feathertop, and another trail that descended to Federation Hut. Ha, I said to myself, I know the way to go, I can navigate this.
Then I looked up at Mount Feathertop and burst out laughing. I’d already been running for nearly 90 minutes. This was like a terrible, awful mirage, this thin trail rising up in front of me along the narrow ridge. No way, I said to myself, no way.
I took some photos; I knew I was going to do this, and I also knew just how scared I was going to be.
I started up. The first bit wasn’t too bad. Not runnable, but certainly climbable. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been for the last 9 kilometres. Still, I felt sick to my stomach. I knew going down would be the hard bit. I tried not to look around. I got to the top of this, thinking, I know it’s kind of two peaks and I have to get to the second one to get to the top. The trail climbed along the centre of this first peak, and though it was scary, I was okay.
It was the next peak that did me in.
I couldn’t see the trail anymore. Just a small cone of rock. The trail could be that bit on the left, I said to myself. That bit right on the edge. Jesus. No one was there but me. Not a single soul. My heart was pounding. I took a step up. My leaking water tube dripped down my leg, and I worried I was losing too much water, that I wouldn’t have enough for the return trip. It was an unwelcome distraction; I pushed the valve closed.
Suddenly, I was so deadly scared. Almost too scared to move. I swore in my head, repeating the same curse word silently, and then aloud. That’s when I said it: “I don’t want to do this.”
There was no one there to hear me, or to help.
I grasped the thin vertical rocks slabs, didn’t look around, stepped a little higher. A little higher. I was certain I was about to slip off and plummet to my death.
And then – suddenly, wonderfully, gratefully – I was at the top! I was on the second peak. I had made it. A smile of joy began to spread across my face.
Then the smile slowed. Stopped. I looked outwards in utter horror. There was a thin – a supremely thin – ridgeline about twenty meters long, and it led to another peak. A higher peak. A peak ever scarier than this last one. My stomach fell to my feet. I was not a quitter. I never gave up. But God – could I do this? How could I do this?
Just then, like a miracle, two runners appeared on that next peak. A bearded man and a fit-looking woman, moving smoothly towards me, like there was nothing terrible at all happening at that moment.
“Hi,” they said. “How are you?”
“Utterly terrified,” I replied.
“Oh no. Do you want us to walk out there with you? We’re not in any hurry…”
“Would you?” I couldn’t believe their kindness. Usually, I am fiercely independent, but I said, “Yes, please, that would be great.”
The woman went in front, me in the middle, the bearded man behind me. They talked calmly to me, told me about themselves, distracted me across that terrible, terrible ridge-line, until suddenly I was across it. Together, they climbed, I crab-crawled and swore, and they helped and spoke to me, and we made it. Like a miracle, like I’d been lifted by angels wings, we made it to the top of that final peak.
I felt like crying, laughing, hugging them. Instead, we took photos, them of me, me of them (I promised not to share their photo on the blog I told them I’d write), of the views. I wanted to linger, to be alone on the summit, but I saw the wisdom in returning with them. One day, perhaps I’d be brave enough to go alone. Today, I was very grateful for their helping hands.
Because as scary as the way up had been, I knew the way down was going to be much worse. They laughed at me kindly as I crab-walked my way down the peaks, staying as close to the ground as possible. I knew it looked funny; I didn’t care. I remember doing the same silly move down a thin trail in Hong Kong, knew I’d make it down alive if I went this slow way.
It worked. First one, then two, and finally three horrendous rocky peaks were done, and we were back on more solid ground. They expected me to move off quickly, as they were walking and I was running, but the terrain made most of my running more like walking, and we were about the same pace. Kate and Andrew and I were together most of the way back, sometimes them in front, sometimes me. I tried to give them space, to run faster so as not to bother them, but they were happy and kind.
Eventually, I pulled away. I had perhaps five kilometres left. My water was running low. The sun was high in the sky and the day had really heated up. The track that had frightened me on the way out wasn’t so scary on the way back, but I could almost feel the snakes around me. It was perfect snake weather, hot and dry, and my eyes nearly watered with the effort of looking out for them. Four hours had gone by. Four gels and two salt tablets.
I continued on the thin trail, until it came to the final section. I was overheating, losing coordination now, stumbling, nearly falling. All I wanted was to get back alive. I could see the cars in the distance, the metal hut, but each turn led to another trail. I felt like I was marching across a desert. I kept glancing down into the valley to the left, worried that my stumbling could trigger a fall and a slide downhill, and disaster. The trail split unexpectedly, one branch going steeply up a final hill, the other the contour trail we’d begun on. Uncertain, I took the lower trail.
A 64km runner came along, reassuring me that I was on the right trail. He was dancing along; I was plodding but still moving.
On and on, 20km, 21km, 21.5. Surely I should be there. My Garmin warned its battery was running low. I swore at it, and told it so was mine, and we had to finish this thing together.
Suddenly, there it was. The final stretch that led straight to the finish line. God, I felt stupid, uncoordinated, like all the people at the finish line were watching my stumbling, slow gait, and judging me.
I gave myself a stern talking to then. I was, in fact, incredible, I reminded myself. I was doing this amazing thing. I kept going, followed some small pink flags and the finish line flag across the road, up a thin final trail, to the final hut.
There, a kind man in sunglasses and baseball cap wrote down my finishing time, as if it were the most unexpected thing in the world, as if it weren’t a huge surprise that I had arrived back alive.
He offered me water and electrolytes, oranges and watermelon. I fought back the urge to cry. To tell him what I had just gone through.
Shortly afterwards, Andrew and Kate joined me at the finish line. I got them dixie cups of water, and thanked them. It was hard to say clearly the gift that they had given me. I would have gotten to that second peak on my own. But my gratitude for their help – for making it a thing of angels wings rather than terror. Well, I’ve had to save my words for now. Thank you Andrew and Kate. You made it a joy.
The Razorback Run 22km in 4:47 instead of 3:30 as I planned. The overcoming of some terrible terrific fear. The stretching of my comfort zone much further than I had intended. The realisation that at age 51, I can still find new things, and new places, grow and challenge myself.
I am full of gratitude and grace and joy that I did this thing. It turned out so very differently than I had planned. But that is what we mean by the word “adventure”, isn’t it?