The Six Foot Track Marathon is a race like no other, so popular it sells out in 3 minutes (around 1000 entries, allowing for a good 100 or so to withdraw before race day). It has a strict entry cap and tight qualification standards which mean you have to have run a qualifying race, in a qualifying time in the 18-months before entries open. It also means you need to be sitting at your computer, with a fast internet connection, with your finger hovering over the ‘enter’ button at precisely the moment entries open to win your spot on the start line.
By Sarah Murphy, Australian Adventurer and Trail Runner I fell in love with the race the first time I ran it back in 2010. That day my goal was simply to finish within the race cut off time of 7 hours, and avoid getting caught by the notorious ‘Grim Sweepers’, who follow the race behind 7-hour pace and carry brooms – if you’re caught by them you need to withdraw from the race. It was also the first time I’d run an interstate solo race. I finished that day in 5h:52min and vowed I would be back.
The race itself covers 45km from the ‘Explorer’s Tree’, just out of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, to the Jenolan Caves – part of the Blue Mountains World Heritage area. It traverses the Six Foot Track, constructed in the 1880’s as a short cut to Jenolan Caves from Katoomba. The story goes that once upon a time Tarana was the only town on the railway line from Sydney where it was possible to get a coach all the way to the caves. Not too happy with this monopoly, Katoomba decided they wanted a piece of the action and built a bridle (horse) trail to the caves, bypassing Tarana. The name ‘Six Foot Track’ was adopted in the 1930’s and is said to refer to the original tender specification for a width of six feet.
The track fell into disrepair over the years, and is obviously no longer used by horses, but was reopened following reconstruction work in 1984, which also saw the first running of the Six Foot Track Marathon by just seven hardy souls. It’s been run every year since, except in 2012 when the race was cancelled following severe floods and concerns for runner safety. Over its length, the track has a bit of everything from the steep descending stairs of Nellies Glen at the start, to sweet single track, fire trails and the Cox’s River crossing that can be anywhere from knee deep to chest deep water. I’ve experienced all extremes. There are two long and steep climbs, and if they don’t do you in, the 3km steep descent to the finish line just might. Since that day in 2010 I’ve run the race a further two times, in 2011 and 2015 each time getting progressively quicker. In 2015 I’d finished disappointed with my time. Sure, it was a new PB, but it wasn’t the time I was aiming for, and I definitely felt like I could do better.
Over the past 5 months I’ve increased my training volume (and quality) significantly with the assistance of a running coach. My end game is the Ultra Trail Australia 100km event in May, where I’ll be running proudly in my ioMerino gear, who are also event sponsors. In the meantime, my interim goals were the Tarawera Ultra 100km in New Zealand in February and the Six Foot Track Marathon in March. After a less than perfect run at Tarawera in ordinary weather conditions, even worse track conditions and a dodgy gut, my confidence was down in the lead up to Six Foot Track.
I travelled to Katoomba a couple of days ahead of the race, on a Thursday afternoon. This is my usual approach to ensure I can get in a couple of days of relaxation (i.e. work-free) before the race and ‘acclimatise’ to the surrounds (i.e. sight see and sleep a lot). The weather at home in the week leading up had been unusually hot and humid for this time of year, and I was surprised to find it almost exactly the same in Katoomba. In fact I’m pretty sure it was like that across the entire central and eastern parts of the country! The race day weather forecast had me extremely worried, with an expected maximum temperature of 28-degrees C, 85% humidity and possible storms in the afternoon. It sounded like Tarawera, but hotter. (Conditions at Tarawera were 21 degrees and 93% humidity. And torrential rain). Oh boy, I thought, here we go again.
Friday was time to stretch the legs and take in some of the beautiful scenery of the Blue Mountains. First stop was the Three Sisters at Echo Point, followed by the Leura Cascades and Wentworth Falls, within the Blue Mountains National Park. It was here I had a little mishap trying to cross a recent land slip blocking a trail and ended up ankle-deep in sticky black mud.
One foot in, and mud sprayed everywhere, I’m still not sure how it splattered quite as far as it did. It left my trusty ioMerino gear looking more like a camo pattern and my race day trail shoes caked in thick mud. (Note to self: don’t wear race shoes the day before the event!). A quick trip back to the motel to wash up and scrub the shoes turned out to be good timing as the heavens opened up with the mother of all electrical storms and torrential rain. Sightseeing over.
So with nothing left to do, it was time to collect the race pack, hydrate, eat, and contemplate the race ahead. The race organisers issued a warning about heat stress, which was quickly followed by some words of reassurance from my coach “It’s just 45km…You know the course…You’ve done the training.” I’ve got this. Maybe.
888 runners gathered at the Explorers Tree on the second Saturday in March as the sun rose. It was a balmy morning for the Blue Mountains. We watched the official Welcome to Country, and then the fast runners were off. The race is started in five waves to minimise congestion on the steps descending Nellies Glen. This year I’d been seeded into wave three – starting 15 minutes after the fastest runners.I’ve ‘run’ those stairs five times now, (four times down on 6FT, and once up on The North Face 100 race – now known as the Ultra Trail Australia – in 2013). and I still can’t tell you what it looks like – I’m only ever looking at my feet. Apparently it’s quite beautiful. I can tell you the stairs are rough, uneven and a challenge to negotiate in the dimly lit and damp gully that I swear never sees sunlight. It’s a slow and tedious descent in a long convoy of runners, but once at the bottom the track opens up to fire track in the Megalong Valley where there’s a chance to make up some time.
Between Megalong Valley and Cox’s River we spent a good deal of time in fog, and although the humidity was stifling, it was better than the alternative of hot sun. Approaching Cox’s River at the 15km mark the sun finally made its first appearance, as a guy behind me starting singing “here comes the sun…”.
The official track uses a swing bridge to cross the river, however with a load limit of one person at a time and its 100m length, it’s not feasible for almost 900 runners to cross the bridge. So on race day the rules state we must wade through the river. When I ran the event in 2010 the water came up to my chest. In 2012 the event was cancelled for the first and only time in its 27 year history due to extensive flooding and dangerous conditions. This year it was thigh-deep and refreshingly cool after the hot and sweaty start to the day.
After crossing Cox’s River and emerging out the other side with a shoe full of grit, the first of two climbs starts to Mini Mini Saddle. 4km climb, 440m elevation gain. I was surprised how much of the climb was runnable this year and I was starting to feel like I was vaguely on track for a good time. At the saddle it’s a fast 2km descent to Alum Creek, and just when your shoes are starting to dry out its time to get them wet again. This also signals the start of the hardest of the climbs to ‘The Pluviometer’. Another 4km, and 420m ascent, but unlike the first, I don’t find a lot of this climb runnable. Still, unlike last year, I also didn’t find myself being passed by other runners, passing me like I was standing still.
The race organisers have done a lot of data analysis over the years and have produced quite sophisticated race split calculators which can either predict your finish time based on splits at the major aid stations (Cox’s River, Pluviometer and Caves Road Crossing) or can give you a guide of the splits you should aim for a given finishing time. I’d memorised the splits the night before and was surprised to find myself just 2 minutes behind my goal time at the Pluvi aid station. Even more of a surprise to me was that I wasn’t feeling the heat at all. Could it be that all those stinking hot runs through the Adelaide summer paid off after all?
From the Pluviometer it’s a steady 8km gradual climb along Black Range Road, with aid stations every few kilometres. The aid stations at Six Foot Track are just about the best I’ve ever experienced. Manned by the NSW Rural Fire Service, there are 17 aid stations in all, and literally hundreds of volunteers. The RFS are one slick operation, and it’s one of the things that makes this event so awesome. If you’re into men (or women!) in uniform, this event is for you! All proceeds of the race are donated to the RFS each year, with a contribution also given to the Six Foot Track Heritage Trust for track upkeep. The race generally raises in the order of $40,000 each year.
I was pleased to find that I was able to run a significant portion of the Black Range this year, helped in part by a RFS support vehicle who tailed me and another runner along the fire track for a couple of kilometres. I’m not sure why they were reluctant to pass, as there was plenty of room, but being stubborn runners we agreed between ourselves that we weren’t stopping while there was a vehicle behind us. So on we ran, like sheep being herded, muttering under our breath “seriously dude, just pass!”. The vehicle eventually moved on and we both sighed with relief as we were able to take a short walk break.
‘The Deviation’ at around 34km is always my favourite aid station as it means the hardest part of the race is over. It also means there’s ‘just’ 10km to go. I overheard two runners talking on the climb up to Pluviometer. There was one a first timer, while the other had obviously run it before. He told her to “just hang on till the deviation, then up the pace, then at Caves Road (8km to go) ‘unleash hell’”. I’m not sure what kind of hell he was planning on unleashing, but I did smile to myself as I crossed that road and felt my legs do a little sigh of relief. I remember this last part of the race well and it’s always when I start passing people, although I wouldn’t call it unleashing hell! It’s just 4-5km until the final descent, and that’s the bit that I look forward to all day.
With somewhere between 2-3km to go the trail starts descending. Rapidly. There is usually carnage on that track, runners cramping, runners with stuffed quads, the odd stack and plenty of runners who are just plain stuffed. After 42km of pain, this is my time to fly. Downhill running is my thing and by this point I know I’m just a few kilometres from crossing the finish line. There’s always a photographer somewhere on the descent, and I don’t think I’ve ever managed a decent photo as I’m always looking down with my “crazy trail-stabilising arms”, as running buddy Sputnik likes to call them, in full flight. Passing through Carlotta’s Arch to the sound of cow bells means there is just a few hundred meters to go on the paved switch backs that head down into the finish line at Caves House. I hadn’t managed to look at my watch since starting the descent, but I did know I was going to crack my PB, I just wasn’t sure by how much.
I crossed the line in 5 hours and 12 minutes, flat. Fifteen minutes faster than my previous PB and three minutes faster than the goal time I hadn’t been game to speak out loud. I was not only over the moon with my time, but also that I’d made it through the race without plotting my retirement from ultra running, as I do when the going gets tough on so many events. Sure, I’m scared witless about returning to the Ultra Trail Australia in May, but there’s one thing for sure: come entry day in November this year I’ll be sitting at my computer with my finger hovering over the ‘enter’ button at 8:30am hoping to be one of the lucky 900 runners at the start line on the second Saturday in March 2017.The stats:
Finish Time: 5:12:00
Overall position: 233 of 838 finishers
Gender position: 39 of 234 females
Category position: 12 of 99 F40-49
50 runners did not finish, a further 12 finished outside the official cut-off of 7 hours.
(A final shout out to my running coach and ultra-runner extraordinaire Jodie Oborne from Brendan Davies’ UP Coaching – her training program has made a huge difference to my running, and importantly, has kept me honest, when some days I just wanted to stay in bed! She also ran a cracking time too (4h:55m), and bagged a new PB by 20 minutes.)