The Alpine Challenge

The Alpine Challenge at Falls Creek, Victoria is just that. A challenge in the Alpine. Simples (as those meerkats from Compare the Market say). Since about 2017 I had always been interested in pitting myself against this challenge and seeing how I measured up. With three main courses being offered at the event (60km, 100km and 160km courses) the question was what level of challenge was right for me. Set the bar too high, and I’ll run into it and scone myself on the head. Set it too low and it won’t be worth driving 13 hours over from SA for. Being the logical planner I am, I settled on entering the 60km distance with the idea of running it semi-fast (it’s in the Alpine area so it’s never going to be a super fast course for 60km) and progressing over the years to one day take on the big daddy of the 160km course.

The Build Up

Some people can enter these style of events and are happy with just completing it as their challenge. I’m not one of those. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to the best of my ability. The time and money I’m investing in the race is going to be wasted in my opinion if I don’t rock up in peak physical condition. I put in a solid pre-season of training up in Quorn over January to March that had me almost ready for the race at the start of April. A tune-up race of Five Peaks kickstarted the final phase of training for me that also sharpened my focus on finally getting to actually go out and test myself against the Alpine Challenge. Following this race I was a little bit flat because I didn’t have a nice complete run that I was hoping for. There was definitely some doubt in my mind whether I was as ready as I could be and whether the sacrifices I had put into my training were actually worth it in the end. No-one tells me to do these types of events, or pats me on the back and says I would do well if I entered them. No, I build up my own motivation and convince myself that its worth doing these things. So when a little self-doubt creeps in as I start the 13 hour drive over to Victoria, as to why I’m actually bothering with this race and why have I actually spent the best part of four months thinking about it every day when I could just save some money and time and do something a little bit easier, that’s when you really start to question yourself…

The Why

The reasons that drove me to first get psyched on the Alpine Challenge and then enter it are:

  • It’s an event that is located at Falls Creek, an area I first learnt to ski in and started to develop a real sense of independence with my planning and execution of outdoor trips. On my first time to Falls in 2012 I was pretty shocked at this whole other world that existed that was so different to what I was used to from living in Adelaide. The views and wilderness feeling out on the Bogong High Plains grabbed my attention then and remained vigilant in my mind as one of the best places to test myself.
  • I saw it as the perfect next step in continuing my development to be the best version of myself. If I could successfully run 60km through some pretty serious terrain and feel relatively human-like afterwards, that’s some nice knowledge to have and know that I’m a real outdoor athlete.
  • One day I hope to enter some trail running races in the US I first heard of when originally learning about trail running. They are 160km/100 mile events that are the equivalent to the Hawaii Ironman for triathletes or The Masters for golfers. To even get a chance at entering these races requires successfully completing similar events (i.e. the 160km Alpine Challenge) first though.
Skiing at Falls Creek in 2014

The Event

The 60km course starts and finishes at the Falls Creek Village. It’s roughly 10km’s downhill to start, 10km’s uphill and then 40km of relatively flat running across the High Plains. I was meeting Mum and Dad, AKA my support crew, over there on Friday afternoon before the race to check-in and relax before Saturday Race Day. I was excited to race because I was looking forward to enjoying a whole day out around Falls Creek, something I hadn’t been able to experience since 2018-ish due to Covid and choosing to complete ski seasons at Perisher. I was also excited to show Mum and Dad the Falls area and try and impart on them why I think it’s cool enough to warrant skiing here one day as a family…Lastly, I was almost relieved to finally make it to the race having completed 17 weeks of training, dodged COVID, gone through the travel and logistics of getting over to the race and passing the mandatory gear check. I finally got to just go out and run after all that.

The elevation profile. 10km down, 10km up, 40km flat.

As I walked around Falls Creek in the time just before the race started an idea that developed in my head on the drive over cemented itself further. I really enjoy the ‘real’ things in life and get easily frustrated by the extra things that complicate it. Running is a real simple thing. Entering and paying money for a race, listening to briefings, dealing with masks at check-in, watching other runners peacock around the start line are all things that get on my nerves and distract from the actual thing I’m interested in, the running. I know you can’t hold these events without all the bureaucratic stuff but sometimes I let myself get easily frustrated by it all which ensures I arrive at the start line with the focused attitude of ‘let’s just get on with the show and get running’.

All smiles pre race.

And that we finally did, on what was a cool autumnal Saturday morning. I chose to not listen to music at the start of the race so I could embrace the full atmosphere of the event. Usually I’m like Baby Driver and can’t operate at 100% without some classic rock tunes in my ears but other times, I know if I don’t need music my focus on the task at hand is very sharp. After the first few km’s downhill I’d settled into second place behind someone who looked mid-40’s, had a bit of longhair and had gone out relatively fast for a 60km event so I let him go. I was in my own world, settling into the event when old mate out in front came into view and then ended up next to me for a few km’s. I was in a friendly mood but he didn’t seem too keen on a chat so I ran out at my own pace in front of him for the rest of the downhill.

At the end of the first 10km downhill there was a T-intersection where we needed to turn right but there was no course markings here. I assumed left, went off, and then looked back over my shoulder to see if old mate was following. He wasn’t! He looked at his watch, turned right and I had to call out to him to check he was going the right way, which he was, and had tried to keep it a secret from me the cheeky bugger. I caught up and he asked me if I had the course map on my watch. I showed him my Casio and said ‘nah mate, just repping the old Casio’. I’m simple like that. And cheap. After that ‘turn of events’ I trotted off uphill and slowly pulled away from him, feeling more and more smug as I did but also being careful not to go out too hard and fast.

My strategy for this race was to take it as easy as possible for as long as possible and run within myself. Usually with ultras I go out a little quick and suffer in the last ten to fifteen km’s. I didn’t want that this time. I wanted to enjoy the race as long as possible. While I made my way up the roughly 1100m altitude gain of the 10km uphill section, I considered how when I’m trying a hard climbing project, it doesn’t matter if other people climb it faster, slower, with a better style or whatever it only matters to me if I can climb the thing. For this race then, it only mattered to me how well I did and whether I would be happy with my performance and the day at the end. Having this mindset allowed me to relax as I topped out on the Bogong High Plains after the first couple of hours, still in first and with what looked like a nice day of weather in the Alpine in front of me.

The other way I was approaching this race was after the first checkpoint, 24km in, it was all relatively flat and almost a completely different tempo was required. This middle section then, about 2.5-3.5 hrs worth of running, was all on nicely groomed trails allowing me to run both easy and fast and enjoy the day. I came through the 33km checkpoint with a fifteen minute lead and met Mum and Dad for the first time. They had followed my instructions with laying out the food I handed them (fruit cake, sandwiches, chippies, water etc.) and I felt like a F1 driver in pit lane which was awesome. Usually I just go the one-man band operation and rely on the aid stations stock but I’m very glad I didn’t this time because the $230 entry fee hadn’t covered much in the aid station department… Off I went then, renewed both nutritionally and mentally from seeing my support crew. Being only just past halfway though there was still plenty to go and unlike a game of footy or basketball, you can’t just let time run out to finish the game, you have to finish the run to finish the game.

Dad’s filling the water and I’m checking the course map

The next couple of hours involved a slow gradual decline in performance and track condition (muddy single track had replaced the groomed fire track). The last time I ran on this section of the course was in the Bogong2Hotham race in 2018. During that race I was also starting to suffer around here from heatstroke. I was seeking a little bit of redemption this time and worked hard on keeping my mood positive despite not being able to hold any rhythm in my running on the tricky single track. I broke through this section to arrive at Pretty Valley, 52.5km in and the second major aid station of the course, just over 5 hrs in.

The Mum and Dad pit crew had re-assembled here and I loaded up one final time on water, electrolytes and some food. My lead had grown to roughly 25 minutes but I was now starting to hurt a bit. My ability to enjoy the running and the views was also waning, a natural result of being tired and sore from having been out there for 5 hrs. Like I alluded to earlier, I usually arrive at this point with ten or fifteen km’s to go so it was nice to hit this wall with less than that this time. This is the point where the training and mental tricks really kick in so I went to the bazooka in my artillery to fire me up for the last section… music! On comes Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf and away I went. Next was Sweet Caroline which picked up the positivity of the moment and I was pretty confident I’d make it to the finish with a performance I’d be happy with.

Something I hadn’t planned for though put a spanner in the works. The cold temperature that had kept me from sweating too much had sucked my phone battery and portable charger (a necessary part of the mandatory gear I had to carry) dry and those two tracks were the only ones I heard before my phone went flat. Not to worry, this brief interlude of music re-sharpened my focus on the fact that all I had to simply do was just run what was now 5 or so kilometres to the finish line and I’d be done. So I did that. Across and down through the ski resort (rekindling memories from 2012-2016), I was getting happier and happier ticking off the last few kms. I knew my lead was too big now and had first place in the bag too. I felt like I was ten goals up with ten minutes to go in the last quarter and allowed myself to really enjoy the moment as I finished off what had been just under 6 hours of running, 3 days of packing, driving, preparation, 17 weeks of training, and several years of building a connection with running and the Alpine Challenge.

Yippee ki yay mother fucker, I was done!

At the Finish line.

The Reflection

It’s nice when a plan all comes together. There’s also a linear relationship between the size of the plan and the size of the joy afterwards when the plan comes to fruition. I enjoyed finishing the race and celebrating with a meal with Mum and Dad up at Falls in a very typical Fraser way. A couple of beers, watching and talking footy with a couple of randoms at a quiet pub (same as after my Fed Ultra race) and just relaxing was an ideal ‘party’ for me. The day after the race I headed off down the Hume Highway on a getaway to Melbourne. 5 hrs in the Triton allowed me to process the effectiveness of my plan among other things and I realised:

  • Having a support crew makes life a lot easier. For future races that I care about I should always try and get one organised. I easily managed my nutrition during the day with Mum and Dad there to help.
  • Approaching ultras with the climbing mindset of ‘just focus on how well you run the race’ is appropriate for events that are quite long in duration. Couple this with trying to stay as relaxed as possible for as long as possible and I think I’ll have a few more races where I’m not hitting the wall early on in the race.
  • The event itself is located in a great area but is not up to the standard of Trail Running SA or Adelaide Trail Runner races. I know what to expect a lot more now if I ever sign up for the 100km or 160km distances.
  • I felt aerobically fit enough for the whole race which was a great vindication of my time and effort I’d spent on improving this during training.
  • My leg strength and general foot conditioning could still be improved. I felt I slowed up not because I was tired, or hungry but because my feet were sore from running and falling over slippery bits of grass and mud. I need to train less on groomed fire tracks and more on single tracks for future attempts at this race.
  • About 5 hours is my limit for no music and no coffee or real food. After this time, when I was approaching Pretty Valley, I was starting to get a bit bored and felt like if I was going for another 5-6 hours I’d need something different from chips, fruit cake and electrolyte to keep things interesting.

The Future

I’m enjoying my Melbourne getaway at the moment but I’ve already got my eyes on the next major running goals of course. I can’t sit still for too long. Unless there’s some good sport on TV. I’m going to even out the average transport time I take to get to races by entering a couple of races close to Quorn in late June/July. In amongst them, a ski break of two weeks is also in order to freshen up the psyche and re-connect with an activity I’ve been deprived of for two years. The next major goal for the year though is to try my hand at completing a 100km event. Hypothetically I think I could complete one all within daylight hours which would be a nice feather in my outdoor athlete cap. Imagine saying you could run from sunrise to sunset no matter what the terrain or weather? That’s a pretty cool thought in my head. It’s also part of the grand plan of one day completing a 160km race too.

Lastly, to wrap up the loose ends from the race, I finished in a time of 5:56 which was 38 minutes in front of the old mate who looked mid 40’s. Turns out his name was Brendan Davies who is or was one of Australia’s top trail runners. I would’ve shat my pants if I knew it was him when he was the long haired bloke hiding turns from me. Just goes to show though, my efforts at staying focused on my own goals and plans of being a simple ‘Outdoor Athlete’ with a Casio on my wrist and not worrying about any peripheral noise ensured I had one of the best days of the last few years.

Post race. First, second, third (Left to Right).

8 responses to “The Alpine Challenge”

  1. Craig McAuley Avatar
    Craig McAuley

    Well done mate. On the prep work, completing the course and coming in first, thinking through it all and ways to improve on your next long distance challenge. It was great to read your blog, made me just about feel that i was there with you. It was great to have you at our place for a few days. Why do i feel this is just the beginning of a long distance trail running career. Good Luck

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Craig, I appreciate the comments and the hospitality that I was offered at ‘Hotel Gwyn’. I hope it is too

    Like

    1. Craig McAuley Avatar
      Craig McAuley

      Hotel Gwyn always happy to have you as a guest.

      Like

  3. Fraser – well done with both the race and the read!!! your commentary on Falls Creek brings memories back of our family (minus your mum I think) skiing there is the 60’s!! Your planning and execution, both physically and mentally were clearly flawless. The critiquing showed you were realistic about yourself. Your support crew – well I must give them a clap and thumbs up otherwise I suspect I’ll miss out on a nice red next time I visit. 😁😁
    Hope your recovery is quick and look forward to hearing/reading about the next one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Uncle Ian! Mum really enjoyed being back in the North East of Victoria as much as I enjoyed the success I had!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice stuff Fraser!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] good balance between chasing my personal ambitions and honouring prior commitments. Since racing in The Alpine Challenge my life has had a different vibe than that of the start of the year and to bring you up to speed […]

    Liked by 1 person

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