When I first decided to do The Stampede I did it under the guise of using it to see if I really was cut out for the whole trail running thing. Yes, I’d done a few races already, but I hadn’t done an event that was truly made for mountain goats and what I considered a genuine trail run. So as I stood on the start line there was a certain amount of fear for what lay ahead. Would the ascents bring me undone? Were the crazy descents going to be so steep I’d be left crawling backwards to the base of the hills? And quite simply, would I have the legs to get to the finish?
The months prior had seen very little in the way of hill running. I live in the middle of the city and don’t have the time to train in the Blue Mountains every weekend, so I had to be content with getting myself as fit as possible and rely on a good engine and relative speed to counteract the lack of mountains. It’s not ideal but a reality I had to accept. Thankfully, the race started at a relaxed pace, with all the guys that were expected to be in the mix immediately at the pointy end. Quickly we started the first climb and I felt good so lead the way. Initially it was fine, but as the terrain became increasingly steep I had to make way and let the stronger guys through. Once conquered we commenced the descent and I managed to move briefly back to the front. But as soon as we hit the steep part of the downhill I quickly discovered that road racing flats aren’t ideal on a clay and mud descent that’s steeper than anything I had ever encountered. The true mountain men skipped away as I slid on my bum and maintained a slow, controlled fall to the base. Vajin too was quite tentative, which made me feel a little better.
Arriving at the next climb I was a little behind already and within a couple hundred meters of power walking with my hands on my knees, I saw the leaders disappearing into the distance. It was demoralising! My calves, Achilles and quads were doing it tough and I found myself in 7th place and questioning my ability to complete the race. But some encouraging words from my mate Joel Fitzgerald kept the spirits up. He basically said “Come on Byrnie, get those chicken legs moving!” The descent that followed compounded things further and I couldn’t even see the leaders in the distance.
Reaching the Buckland aid station I figured my chances of winning were out the window. The leaders were already several minutes up the road and I felt pretty bloody average. But I figured I should stick it out and pay respect to the guys ahead and just suffer my way up the mountain. So off I went. As each kilometre passed I felt increasingly good. I managed to catch a couple of others ahead of me and we went back and forth as we climbed up to Keating Ridge and then rolled down to Eurobin Creek. Here I filled up my two bottles with water, had a couple cups of Coke and then set off up Buffalo. It was a climb that I’d been dreading. All the talk in the weeks prior had been about how epic this would be and that it’s on Buffalo that the race would be decided. So, with that in mind I began the grind.
The climb starts steep and I tackled it with a mix of walking and running. Then it becomes increasingly runnable. This is where I started to get my Mojo back. I felt as though I was actually a runner and not just a hiker that did the occasional jog! The kilometres started to tick over and I clawed my way up the field, eventually passing the legendary John Winsbury half way up and finding myself in second place. A quick stop at a stream to wash my face and the mud off my hands and the slog continued. Ahead was Vajin, an athlete I had bucket loads of respect for. He’s a legend! So every time I passed a spectator I would ask how far ahead he was, in the hope I as within a respectable distance. To my shock, the replies to my question became increasingly encouraging. At first it was two minutes. A little later, 90 seconds. Reaching the top I was told less than one minute, so I knew I was in with a chance of catching him. The gap was coming down and I felt fantastic!
Leaving the last checkpoint and heading on the out and back loop from Chalet I was pretty excited. I hit the stairs and descended well, before reaching the climb and powerwalking my way up. Here I caught sight of Vajin up ahead. He was walking up the stairs and knowing the gap was continuing to decrease I thought we were going to be in for a dingdong battle in the closing few kilometres. That’s when I heard voices in the darkness….quite literally.
I wasn’t losing my mind or succumbing to fatigue, I had arrived at Chalwells Galleries, a small cave we had to climb through before heading for home. From within the darkness I could hear Vajin politely asking if he could pass. The response: “Sorry!” As I popped my head in I could see him standing there, with half a dozen people in front of him, squeezing their way out the other side. There was nothing anyone could do. So what do trail runners do in this predicament? Well, we had a quick chat and realised that he wasn’t able to take the trip to France for the World Champs due to race commitments, and I sure as hell was keen for it! Therefore a gentlemen’s agreement was made and we called it a truce, deciding to jog to the finish together.
In hindsight I couldn’t have asked for a better finish. From the beginning of my trail running campaign, I’ve always said the reasons why I did it were twofold. Firstly, there’s the challenge that the terrain and distances present. But most importantly, I really like the people involved in the sport. They are all so supportive, friendly and community spirited. It’s about sharing the experience and encouraging one another, and I love it! With that in mind I’ll be back in 2015, hopefully with a few more mountain miles in my legs and maybe tackling the longer option.
A huge thanks has to go out to Sean Greenhill from Mountain Sports. He was responsible for getting me into this ridiculous pursuit and is always very encouraging. Add into the mix top blokes like Marcus Warner, Brendan Davies, Andy Lee, Wes Gibson and Andrew Tuckey, all of whom have given me tips and advice about training. Finally, I probably would have arrived at the start line a burnt out husk if not for Drew Arthurson giving me some training guidance.
Chamonix – Here I come! Woohoo!