Driving the Triton down the Highway for the twelfth return trip to Adelaide this year ‘Holy Grail’ by the Hunters and Collectors came on in my Spotify playlist. Great song, usually gets a good workout during September with the AFL finals on but on this trip down to Adelaide for the Heysen 115km I was able to relate it to running a race.
Yep, the Heysen race crew isn’t the biggest army but we were sure as marching to our own version of the Holy Grail. For some, finishing the Heysen is their version of the Holy Grail, others have a goal time in mind, want to set a course PB or are trying to beat as many people as possible. No-one really cares about each other’s ‘Holy Grail’ though. There’s no rewards for anyone on reaching their Holy Grail that actually reflect the significance of their achievement. Several months of training, several hundreds of dollars on equipment, maybe some coaching, the exorbitant entry fee, all rewarded by a medal and a picture at the end.
So what’s the point? Wouldn’t sitting on the couch achieve basically the same influence on society (which is zero influence)? Heck, if you invest all the hours and money spent on training and equipment into volunteering, or working in a job, there’s arguably more productive uses for the community than attempting to run 115km. I’m not sure the ‘its about the fun you have’ line really cuts the mustard in such a long event. It might be about fun if you’re playing basketball in the street or doing a short trail running race. And yes, there might be fun times in a marathon, or an ultramarathon, but it’s certainly not all fun. So again, what’s the point?
What if you consider running a race, or playing sport as a form of territorial battle of yesteryear. You know, back when people were living in caves and ‘sport’ was probably trying to battle the other tribes to gain control over the biggest cave for your friends and family. A show who’s boss type of thing.
That’s when things start to get a little bit more interesting. Instead of just running along in search of the Holy Grail for your own selfish desires there’s the sense that runners are actually looking to demonstrate on behalf of their family and friends, what their ‘team’ is capable of. Inspire their kids type stuff. A type of performance that brings pride to the familial group. You can go to work, slave away for months on a project, meet various deadlines, conquer enemies against the odds and march across whatever finish line it is (maybe it’s a big court case win, the sale of a large property, or the finished construction of a house). Unfortunately, for lots of workers though these efforts, which can be just as, if not more often, more gruelling and all-consuming than an ultramarathon go unrewarded. Papa Kym (AKA Dad) worked at the one company for 37 years, probably had more highlights than I’ll ever have in my career but if I sat down with my siblings and tried to recount all the big wins he had at work we heard about we’d have nothing. Not a single thing. Yet, we have great lives because of all the effort he and our Mum put in to make sure we had a good family life.
And so here I am, going to run 115km along the Heysen trail in an effort to reach my own Holy Grail on the back of their efforts. That to me, is the point of attempting these endurance events. I try not to take my own personal involvement too seriously, as a singular entity it doesn’t really mean much. But when I consider that my effort is like my own job and it’s only possible as a result of having a well-functioning family well then that’s cool and gives it a little more meaning. I might not be battling for supremacy in an Ancient Greek war but I am battling to continue pushing the Darcy name forward.
I was definitely nervous at the start line and didn’t really know what to expect. It was 6am, still kind of dark and very humid. My game plan was to take it easy for as long as possible, make sure I finish and if I could run somewhere between 10.5-12 hours I’d be satisfied. When the race started it felt like I was in a repeat of the Adelaide Marathon for there was immediately a group of three at the front (including me) and then a big gap to the pack. In the group was last year’s winner Jarrad Allen, a very good and consistent performer over the 100km distance and Brett Goldfinch, regular competitor from other events throughout the year so I was pretty confident I should be able to run with these guys. Their pace felt a little faster than I thought it would be and my heart rate was a bit higher than normal given the pace. This could’ve been for two reasons: 1) it was a race, I was nervous, the humidity was high or 2) I had tapered very aggressively in the last week and a half because my shins had felt very sore and ‘stress-fracturey’ like so maybe I had lost some conditioning to the 4:20/4:30 pace we were running at.
After the first hour we rolled through Kuipto Forest in a time that was a little quicker than I had planned for but most of the trail had been relatively good condition until this point. I refilled my water and kept to my plan of eating a little bit every 40 or so minutes. I was already dripping in sweat from the humidity which meant I would need to be very careful I don’t over do it. At times through the next ten or so km’s I started to feel OK and thought maybe the sluggishness at the start was just running off the carb load heavy-ness. Jarrad had moved off in front and out of sight by this time too while I had worked a little bit in front of Brett but I wasn’t too concerned with placings at this stage, I was still just trying to focus on my own race. Coming up to 24km I knew the next aid station was close so was getting ready to see my Team Darcy support crew (Mum & Dad) for the first time. The trail had been following a pretty good fire track for a bit coming out of Kuipto Forest before a Heysen Trail marker indicated to turn left onto a small singletrack. I jumped onto this and thought it was kind of strange at the time seeing as I thought we were near the aid station but maybe this is just a shortcut. We were explicitly told by the organisers to follow the Heysen Trail markers unless otherwise signed, advice which for the first 24km had been working perfectly. I kept cruising on this little single-track and heard my watch tell me I was heading ‘off-route’. This didn’t concern me too much as this has happened a few times on little single-track sections and it rectified itself about fifty or so metres later. Sure enough, the Heysen trail popped out on to a road and I thought ‘oh yep, mustn’t be far off that second aid station now’.
Kept cruising down the road for bit, finishing my water and my Gatorade off, having some food thinking when this road hits an intersection there’ll be the aid station probably. The road went downhill, I was feeling good and then I saw an intersection ahead. You beauty. Except not you beauty. No aid station here, had to just make a right turn and keep following the road. I started to get concerned. I was pretty sure the aid station was around 24/25km and I was now in the 26km range. If it got to 27km and I still hadn’t passed it I would stop to pull out my phone and have a proper look. I don’t like fiddling with my phone during a race because when you have sweaty hands it is freaking impossible to use the touchscreen and there is nothing more infuriating than trying to get technology to work when all you want to do is keep running.
I got to 27km, made the call to pull out my phone and yep, had definitely missed the aid station. Shit. That little Heysen trail single-track had been my un-doing and now I was well beyond executing a simple turn-around and go back option. I called my Dad, let him know what I’d done and was pretty speechless. I’d tried to do the right thing, put my trust in the course markings over the technology but had been too confident that I would just happen upon the aid station. I was embarrassed by my failure. I was 80% sure I wanted to keep going and just fuck the whole thing off and use it as ammunition to worry about my own race but there was that 20% in me that wanted to do the right thing and go back and run the course proper (even though it was literally probably a 50-100m difference in course length between what I had done and what was actually the course). I restrained myself from verbalising my anger too much because part of me may have been angry in the course marking but also part of me was angry at myself for not being more on top of things and double checking. I told my Dad to let the aid station event crew know that I had passed through and was told that I may be disqualified from the race. This didn’t sit well with me but I also knew that the people giving that advice were just volunteers and weren’t really qualified to say so. At this point Brett had caught up to me and I thought chatting with him would be a much better alternative than stewing it over in my head. He’s a nice reasonable guy and I thought that because he was somewhat removed from the emotions I’ve just experienced it’d be good to get his perspective. His instant reaction was ‘not to worry about, you’ve done the same km’s just keep going’. He also said ‘there was definitely no sign there’ and he almost did the same thing. This was just what I wanted to hear because I was focused on my own race first and foremost, but next, I was focused on beating the people around me and if Brett, as one of those people, didn’t care then that was all good. I let him know too that there’s a good chance I might be disqualified so wouldn’t stress about me being in the race but he didn’t seem to mind.
So there I was, back on the Heysen trail now aiming for the 35/36 km with no water or Gatorade trying to recalibrate my outlook on the race. I thought I did OK on this next section and was beginning to relax a bit, due in part to not caring too seriously about the actual race anymore. One of my main takeaways from my uni days was the way the Boss of the Course used to say ‘It’s an absolute joke’ in a thick English accent when someone or something had done something that was inexplicably poor. That saying was going over and over in my head of the organisation and helped settle me a bit and go back to trying to enjoy my own 100+km experience.
At the 36km aid station, Mum and Dad finally got to put on the Team Darcy show we’d planned for and had the full spread out on my esky lid. A quick change of bottles, grabbed some more food, exchanged some comments and then I kept going pretty smoothly. I was taking it easy for the next bit of road running along Nangkita Road and then eased off considerably through some paddocks. I was over 3 hours in by now and had gone long off without any stimulation so pulled out the phone, whacked some AC/DC on and got shuffling at a quicker rate. The course winds it’s way though some very overgrown paddocks at this stage and it was kind of interesting but also kind of not. I wanted to run, not feel like I was Farmer Joe in the middle of Kansas out in his corn.
John Csongei popped out of the paddock at this stage. John’s someone I’ve run against in the past and has documented a few of the races this year as part of his Youtube channel. Again, he’s a nice guy, so it was good to see him out on the course. He let me know that he’d spoken to the Event Organiser and I was all good to keep running in ‘the race’ despite my error. That was nice to hear that he’d had that conversation on my behalf (I though I could’ve got Mum and Dad to do that but also wasn’t too fussed) and it gave me another opportunity to vent any lingering frustration. He told me ‘Jarrad was just up the trail by about ten minutes, there’s plenty of time, take it easy’, but I was pretty focused on running my own race.
Aid station 43km, Mount Compass. There was the biggest crowd of people I’d seen all day here for it was the 70km start. I had my head down though and just got what I needed from Mum and Dad, told them I’d been listening to music and was feeling OK but felt I was playing catch-up with my fluids. I’ve never been to Thailand or North Queensland but it felt as humid as I Imagine those exotic destination are. I’ve always been a big sweater and it was my downfall in Five Peaks earlier in the year (where Jarrad also beat me) so I was trying to ensure I didn’t crash and burn by drinking as much as possible each time I saw the Team Darcy support crew.
There was a long climb out of that aid station and my rhythm wasn’t as strong as it was heading into the aid station. Fortuitously, Chad, friend of the blog and regular appearer at times of my discomfort, sent through a text to say him and his fiancee Emily had missed seeing me twice already this morning but that I was smashing it and to run my own race. I took the ‘run my own race’ advice and eased right off the pace I was trying to hold. I wanted to ensure I finish my first 100km event and running 50km on hilly trails in just over 4 hours, in humid conditions, with only 2-3L being consumed was not a good recipe for that to happen. The course took me in between some rolling cow paddocks and the stillness in the air along with the cows and their excrement made the air feel quite unpleasant and like shit to be honest. The misty low cloud that had been hanging around was starting to lift though so maybe the day was starting to turn in my favour.
Mr. Csongei made another appearance right before aid station 58km and thought I’d reeled Jarrad in because he hadn’t seen him yet. Truth was, I had definitely not and Jarrad was a long way in front. But again, I was just trying to run my own race. At aid station 58km Team Darcy had grown in size by two, my older sister Emma and her partner Dylan had come along and that was great to see them. I had another good chat, got what I needed and then hit the next section which I knew was going to be the toughest.
I had done a reccy of the next 25km’s with Chad a week and a half ago and found the mixture of cow paddocks and single-track through conservation park very difficult. I backed off the pace and effort along way here which is good for making sure I was going to finish but bad for moral. The km’s move by so much slower when you’re walking up and down steep hills. I was now beginning to move into new territory for the furthest distance I’d ever run but doing the calculations in my head of how far I still had to go at the pace I was holding meant I still had another 6 or so hours left…When you’re already a little bored and realise you have 6 more hours left of doing the same thing that’s a little tough.
My easy pace through the 60’s, into the 71km aid station (where no crew was allowed) and beyond had meant that Brett and a couple of other 100km’s runners had passed me. That was OK, I was struggling and was just trying to get to the 83km. I was starting to cramp a bit and my left knee was starting to hurt too. Add to this, my stomach felt like there was a lump of food that wasn’t going anywhere and I was now encountering the out of comfort zone experience I had sought. Running races for me are usually not a matter of ‘can I do it’ but ‘how fast can I do it’. This race was definitely a ‘can I do it’ experience and it was nice to have what felt like a new experience in running.
Rolling into the 83km aid station Team Darcy had grown by three this time! Rob Stillwell had joined in with his two kids and it was great to see them and the rest of the support crew. It was pretty clear to me that I was not doing too well and was just trying my best to get it done. Stillwell mentioned that Chad was floating along down the track somewhere and that he was keen to run with me (he’d actually suggested this in his text message earlier but I didn’t read it properly). I was more than keen for this and set off over the next 10km to the next aid station keeping an eye out for Chad at some stage. More paddocks came and went, more people in different events passed by me and I just kept trudging along playing my own game of ‘Spot the Chad’.
I came in to the 93km aid station and Team Darcy had grown by another two!! Chad had finally appeared along with Emily so we were game on now! If I could make it to 100km I’d be happy and with Chad walking and shuffling beside me there was almost no chance I wouldn’t make it. My mood picked up a lot through here as I got to chat with Chad about how it was going, the good’s, the bad’s, the what I’d do differently etc. My contempt for the Heysen Trail was also starting to show a bit too. The trail passes through some nice landscapes but the trail itself is not more than just a mixture of cow paddocks, back roads past people’s houses and occasionally in their driveways and bitumen roads. Hardly anything spectacular. Chad dragged me along to the final aid station at 99km which was actually at 100km on my watch. A nice achievement and one I was proud to share with the Team Darcy support crew. Chad attracted the ire of the event’s aid station crew who enquired as to what he was doing running with me. To the letter of the law (event rules), pacers are meant to carry the full mandatory gear (rain jacket, space blanket, snake bandage…) or their runners will be disqualified. Chad’s line of ‘I’m just hanging out’ did not deter them but I already had my defence lined up… to the letter of the law I followed the course and got screwed up. I also paid $330 for this race and had received a bus ride as my only value so far. Plus, Chad running with me is doing more for my ‘safety and support’ than those fuckers would ever be able to do and the thought that anyone running along the Heysen trail in an event where you are no more than 5 minutes away from another runner or in phone reception needs enough equipment to survive a few hours by themselves beggars belief. But yet, these rules still exist for ‘my protection’ despite the fact that if I didn’t have to carry all the mandatory gear I’d probably run a bit faster and have less issues with chafing but I’ve digressed long enough…
Pushing on past the 100km mark Chad and I were making our way along some familiar trails by Kings Beach. I was on track for a 12 hour and bit finish which was nice because while it may have been outside the 10.5-12 hour window I hoped for it was still in between the sunrise to sunset window which was cool too. We rolled up and over the Bluff, got another cheer from Emily and Chad’s sister Tahlia too, and then it was the final stretch along the foreshore to go. It was actually a really nice night in Victor too by this stage, The weird misty fog that had hung around in the morning had cleared and there was a light breeze along the foreshore and a few Victor locals out for a peaceful stroll. I tried to run it in all the way thinking to myself I’ve held up the Team Darcy support crew long enough today I better make sure I get in as quick as possible.
It was not to be though, about 2km’s from the finish I had to go back to walking. A little earlier I thought, ‘oh yeah, I reckon I could keep this shuffling walking business going for a bit longer’ but now I was definitely not in that mindset. The pleasing thing to realise here though is that I definitely got the most out of my body in a running capacity. I could’ve walked a bit more if I had to but walking’s not that much fun. Chad and I put in a solid ten minutes of walking as we got closer and closer to the finish. The final stretch looked short enough to run again so off we we went at around 5:30/km pace and true to form, followed the course marking through the disjointed carpark where the final members of Team Darcy, Port Willunga Brad and his two kids, showed up. It was all coming together in the end… just not as fast as I hoped! Doing a u-turn to make it into the finish line, don’t ask me why, I crossed the line in 12:21 very glad it was over.
Some quick chats with the people who were there to congratulate me was very nice and I was very grateful for their presence. After finishing any race though the battle does not just end there. The noise and atmosphere of the event start to infiltrate every orifice of your body when all you want to do is crawl into a cave and escape your body for a while. I was in the most discomfort I’ve been in before which is cool to achieve something new but also difficult to manage. My legs were sore, especially my left knee (but strangely and almost annoyingly, not my shins which I had worried about for a couple of weeks), I had chafing in a lot of places but my stomach and torso felt very tight. I had been grimacing for the last six or seven hours and I think all the tension I had been holding had taken it’s toll. I couldn’t really relax though so the best thing I could do was keep talking to people hoping my body would get the message that ‘it’s OK now, you can relax’.
I can’t actually escape my body though nor distract myself from my body and it reminded me of this because I began to get the shivers pretty bad from my body temperature dropping. I got changed with the help of my sister, had some hot chips and then had had enough of the finish line village. With the way my body felt, how tired I was and the noise and poor loud music I felt as if I was at a party late at night regretting my decisions to have kept drinking and was now paying the price. The OG’s of Team Darcy, Mum and Dad got all my stuff together and we all bundled into the car to get home. Life wasn’t very pleasant for the next few hours and it was only until 1pm the next day that I started to feel somewhat back to normal. Yeah my legs were still very sore but at least the feeling of nausea and deep tiredness had gone.
And now I find myself a day after the event with ample time to reflect while I let my body recover. I may have answered the question of how did the race go in this report but there remains a few questions that have been on the lips of most people I’ve spoken to that need addressing.
Q: Were you glad you did it?
A: Yeah, despite not enjoying it as much as I’d hoped I am still glad I signed up for the race and completed it. It’s certainly more enjoyable running 20-50km’s races at the current point in my life because after about 4-5 hours I start to get quite bored with running. So now having realised that I like these 20-50km races more than 100km+ I will value those races more in the next year or so moving forward. It was good though to have an experience that was definitely taking me out of my comfort zone and I was proud of the fact that despite not having the best of days I still got there in the end and got a lot out of it.
Q: Will you run one again?
A: During the race I was thinking ‘I couldn’t see myself ever racing a 100km but maybe doing the Alpine Challenge 100 or 160km as an experience is doable’. After a couple of days I still hold the same view. I don’t see myself running the Heysen course again or any courses that don’t mean much to me personally, there are better things to do with my time. But, I remember thinking the same thing about marathons on the road in 2017 and now have a different view on them given this year’s achievements. So, maybe in five, or ten years time, when I’ve lost all my speed and impulsivity with running I’ll be more suited to running 100+km’s. And even then, if that is in say 10 years time I’ll still be in my 30’s which is prime time for these types of events!
Q: What’s next for running?
A: I had this race marked in as the end of my season so from here I will be taking a mental and physical break from running for a couple of weeks. IF the weather is nice and I need to get some exercise in my day I’ll go for a run. But if it’s raining and I’ve already spent all day climbing, riding my bike or bushwalking then I’m not going to beat myself up further with a run. My game plan when I get back into it is to sharpen up my 5-10km speed over summer and then get back into races from February. I’m looking forward to comparing my capabilities next year to what I have achieved this year so will be entering mostly the same races to help keep track of this.
Q: Are you any closer to the Holy Grail?
Q: Care to elaborate?
A: I mentioned at the start of how I thought constructing the frame around my Heysen experience would be better if I saw my involvement as a part of the wider Team Darcy and not just doing it for myself. I was happily reminded of this each time I came into the aid stations along the way and saw my family and friends. I was going out ‘into battle’ along the course thinking that when those friends and family go home they might stop and think it’s pretty cool that they got to see me run. I think my sister Emma has the thought bubble of doing a marathon in her head now as a result. Chad too has been training more consistently than ever and is signing up for two races in the Victorian Alps in the next 12 months. Rob has already completed his own Heysen this year (the Yurrebilla 56km) but the big winners from the Stillwell crew I hope, and the same can be said for Brad, is that his kids might one day remember the time they saw some guy run 100km’s. There’s that saying of ‘treat people how you wish to be treated’ and for me I think I can embrace that in my running and my outdoor ed work by showing kids/young people what I would’ve wanted to see was possible when I was a kid/young people. I’ll take a step back for a second though and say I am aware that while my effort might inspire those around me to do more with their lives, the credit also works in reciprocal ways. I admire my friends and family, some who were there and those who weren’t, for their own ways of pushing outside their comfort zone and I believe the Darcy family, my community of friends and the world if you continue the extrapolation, is at its strongest when we’re all pushing outside our comfort zones with our ambitious endeavours. And when we all do this we all get a little closer to the Holy Grail…not that it actually exists but that’s another story for later…