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The Three Hour Run

Bogong High Plains near Mt Fainter
Nothing beats that post-run feeling of breathlessness, sweatiness and accomplishment.  I am very happy to be running again.  Even though it's only been 5km a day this week, I feel unfit, my right arch still hurts, and I have a few niggles (traceable, I believe, to wearing the new insoles), my outlook has swung to positive.

Since there's not much to talk about with respect to my training at present, I thought I would include an article I wrote for the Kew Camberwell Newsletter about a long run I did with Chris Wardlaw on the Bogong High Plains in early 1984.  My club, Kew Camberwell, hired a lodge in Falls Creek for a week or two in January each year, and we spent our time running, eating and playing board games.  Other running clubs did the same and the tradition continues to this day, of athletes training on the High Plains during summer.

Chris, who I've mentioned in previous posts, was a famous figure in Australian athletics.  He had represented Australia in the marathon in the Moscow Olympics, where his performance was possibly compromised by the lead he had taken in opposing, ultimately successfully, the Australian Government's attempt to boycott the Games in protest at the USSR's venture into Afghanistan.  Our paths had crossed at Melbourne High School Old Boys Athletic Club, Monash University and various running events over the previous fifteen years.



Bogong High Plains
When Chris Wardlaw asked me whether I was interested in a “three hour run” the next day, I initially declined.  I had already arranged to travel down from Falls Creek with the rest of the Kew Camberwell crew to compete at Albury, and I hadn’t run for longer than 1.5 hours at a time for six months because of a back injury.  However, I found the idea very tempting because there’s nothing I like better than a bit of a run in the bush.

When I saw Chris later on I asked what pace the run would be and who else was going.  The pace was to be “slow” and he was going with Danny, a local identity and former 2:21 marathoner, and “the only man to ski from Crackenback to Hotham……..and survive”.  I was hooked, and arranged to meet them at 9:00am the next day.  Megan, Ian and Barb were to come the first few miles, before heading off on a different 18-mile loop whilst we were to continue to Tawonga Hut, on over Mt Fainter, and then descend to Bogong Village where we were to be picked up by Chris’s girlfriend.

Next day, the weather was abysmal.  It was raining, foggy and very windy, not to mention cold.  Ominously, the “Crackenback to Hotham survivor” failed to show, but after a quick glance at a map, Chris and I resolved to go anyway.  Also ominously for me, the first two or three miles were uphill, and Barb and Megan, and then Ian, dropped off the “slow” pace whilst I tried not to think about the hours ahead.  The wind was at our backs, somewhat masking the foul conditions, while we batted along at near six-minute mile pace, discussing Olympic prospects (not mine), female marathoner pregnancies, and the rescue of Robbie Morgan-Morris’s training group the previous Sunday in similarly foul weather conditions.

After an hour we climbed over the top of Ben Cooper and then descended on a rocky trail down a valley and on to Tawonga Hut.  The weather was deteriorating.  From the Hut, there was a fire-trail and a narrow foot track leading off in different directions.  We were unable to decide which was correct and eventually resorted to asking a hiker (who was spending the day in his tent!) which we should follow.  He suggested the narrow foot-trail, but said it was difficult to follow.  Off we went, climbing steeply up out of the snow gums onto open plains, where we succeeded in losing the track almost immediately.  The weather was still deteriorating.  We decided to continue up onto the top of the ridge in front of us and then follow it to the right to Mt Fainter where we expected to pick up the track again.

Myrtleford Ski Lodge, where we used to stay when
training at Falls Creek
On the ridge, the weather was appalling.  The rain was now mixed with hail, which because the wind was so strong, was blowing horizontally, visibility was down to 100 metres, and it was freezing.  We continued cross-country along the ridge occasionally having to bash our way through stretches of wiry matted waist-high scrub, all the time getting colder and colder.  We skirted a couple of craggy peaks, hoping we were staying on the right ridge until confronted with a rocky peak with no obvious way around.  We stopped briefly, both now shivering violently and having difficulty talking, to discuss the situation.  The unanimous decision was that we had to get off the ridge.  My guess was that we should head down to the right whilst Chris wasn’t so sure, thinking we may have gone round in a circle when rounding one of the peaks.

We went down to the right.  As we descended the shallow valley the scrub became thicker and thicker, and we were now both fairly badly scratched and soaked to the skin.  We were still above the tree-line and exposed to the elements.  After twenty minutes, not a lot of forward progress, and a number of falls into holes and a creek, another brief conference was held (in mumbles).  Chris was more doubtful about our direction and I was concerned about our slow progress.  We decided to continue, but after another fifteen minutes the scrub was up to shoulder height, progress was even slower, and our physical condition deteriorating.

Chris looked pretty bad – shivering violently, bluey-white, and almost unable to talk.  He was wearing a pom-pom hat and waterproof jacket as protective clothing, neither of which were of much benefit.  I was wearing only shorts, a T-shirt, and a singlet.  I knew hypothermia was setting in and started to examine myself for symptoms.  The extreme fatigue, violent shivering and clumsiness were all there, but I still did not feel disorientated.  From memory, shivering was supposed to stop in serious hypothermia cases, and I certainly hadn’t reached that stage.  However, we were still over an hour away from shelter at best, assuming we were going in the right direction, and I was seriously concerned about our chances of survival.

Another garbled conversation ensued, and in the face of Chris’s increasing doubts about our direction (he trains on the High Plains every summer) and some uncertainty on my part, we decided to try and retrace our steps, at least back to Tawonga Hut.  The prospect of returning to the ridge was not at all pleasant, but at least it would be nice to run again and maybe get the circulation going.  The climb back up was frenzied as we both went as fast as we could, crashing though the scrub, falling over, grunting and cursing.

The Ben Cooper cairn on a fine day
Once back on the ridge, we tried to follow our original course, peering through the fog for familiar landmarks and looking for faint footmarks in the muddy parts.  It was freezing, my leg muscles were feeling strange, and my knee caps and head were aching with cold.  We stumbled onwards, found a bit of a path, but couldn’t pick where we should descend to Tawonga Hut.  Rather than descend into another scrubby valley, we kept on along the ridge and then, “joy of joys”, through a brief break in the fog, saw the blurry outline of Ben Cooper with its distinctive cairn about a kilometre away to our left.

The spirit was willing, though the flesh was weak, as we battled towards it directly into the face of the roaring gale.  Once there, we picked up our track and headed for “Falls” as fast as we could go – not very fast.

All I could think of was getting back to shelter, and as I struggled up hill after hill into the wind, just kept muttering “Hot Shower, Hot Shower” as a mantra, over and over to myself whilst avoiding the thought of the distance and mountains in between.

Falls Creek in winter
Eventually we descended into Falls Creek and arrived at the bottom of the 100 metre sharp hill up to the lodge.  At this point, my legs decided they had had enough and the hill was negotiated very slowly in a drunken stagger.  We had been out for four hours.

Once I reached the lodge, I stumbled through the door muttering incoherently.  Barb pulled off my shoes and wet gear and pushed me into a hot shower where I was still shivering violently twenty minutes later.  After a bowl of soup and other goodies, my body began to revive and the adventure was over.

I visited Chris that evening in his lodge to find him lying flat out on the floor under a quilt still trying to get back to normal.  He confided that he too thought we were “goners” in the middle stages and wondered who was going to survive, the “fitter” or the “fatter”.