“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.
Written by Sarah Murphy, Aussie Trail Lover and ioWearer.
This could easily have been a conversation on the start line of the Wonderland Run, held out of Halls Gap in the Grampians National Park in western Victoria. At 6am on Sunday morning I sat in my car near the start line. It was dark, freezing cold and pouring with rain. I was about to run 36 brutal kilometres. These are the days I question my sanity.
The Grampians is one of my favourite places on earth. It’s hard to believe I went the first 30-odd years of my life not even knowing the place existed. Since my first visit around 6 or 7 years ago, I’ve been back five times. There is something so magical about Halls Gap, the quaint little town nestled in the shadows of the Wonderland and Mount William mountain ranges, where mobs of kangaroos hop down the main street at peak hour on a Friday night, and otherwise spend their days grazing in the nearby playground.
My first few trips to the Grampians were with friends, where we hiked, mountain biked and enjoyed the sights. I remember thinking how cool it would be to run in this place. Then, finally, in 2015 the Wonderland Run was born, and I was there.
The Wonderland Run Grampians running ‘festival’ is a series of events, held over two days. In 2015 I ran the Fyan’s Flat Fun Run 8km event on the Saturday, and backed up with the ‘Rosea Radness’ 36km run on the Sunday (there is also a 20km ‘Sundialers’ option). I was running the same this year. As I sat at the start line I wondered whether this was one of ‘those’ events that I’d finished and said “never again” but conveniently forgotten how hard it was. I quickly flicked back through my Instagram feed and found a post-run post from last year which said “I’ll be back”. Sweet, can’t have been that bad. Except it wasn’t bucketing down with rain last year.
This year I made the drive over from Adelaide on Friday, arriving in Halls Gap late Friday afternoon, just in time for a heavy rain shower. The forecast was for more rain over the next few days, and snow on the peaks above 800m. Snow? It seemed like a long shot, but I decided to head up to Mount William the next morning before running the Fun Run. At 1200m, it’s the highest peak in the Grampians, and I figured if it was going to snow anywhere, it would be there.
The walk to the summit of Mount William is relatively straight forward, a 2km, 200m ascent up a bitumen road from the car park. It was cold. REALLY cold. Over the relatively short walk to the summit, the scenery changes dramatically, to stunted alpine vegetation and a frozen winter wonderland. Gale-force winds, snow and ice. Plants frozen solid in thick ice. And SNOW! Actual snow, not like the pretend snow that Mount Lofty sometimes has. It was just a sprinkling, but all the same I was thankful for my ioMerino layers keeping me warm. Unfortunately, my fingers weren’t feeling the same love. Stopping for a few minutes to take some photos of the non-existent view and my fingers had lost all feeling, so it was time to make the descent. Quickly. I needed to run to keep myself warm, and run with my hands shoved up my top, pressed against my skin to warm up. It was the most intense and painful defrost I have ever endured. Next time, thicker gloves!
Next was a quick hike up to The Pinnacle, one of the most popular lookouts with views over Halls Gap. Whilst the view from here was nice (at a lower altitude, it was below cloud level), the main reason for my visit was to test out shoes for Sunday’s run. The run passes over both the Pinnacle and Mount Rosea, and involves ‘running’ over huge rock masses, or slick rock. It’s slippery in dry weather, and treacherous in wet weather. Trail shoes like the ones I wear don’t provide much grip on the rock, and last year had been an absolute debacle. So this year I was contemplating road shoes, which would hopefully provide a bit more grip on the smooth rock. Testing both pairs, I came to the conclusion that the roadies were the way to go. I was hopeful that the last 20km once over the top of Rosea weren’t too rocky and technical for road shoes.
After a busy morning, it was time to line up for the Fyan’s Flat Fun Run, or the no-so-flat Fun Run as I prefer to call it. 8km, along Fyan’s Creek with just enough ups and downs to get your heart racing. Like last year, I didn’t really intend to run it hard, considering I had to run 36km tomorrow, but then the competitiveness kicks in, and next minute…
I finished 5th female, in a time of 39:26. I stayed dry.
Then it started raining, again.
I woke many times Saturday night to the sound of torrential rain. It had also rained Friday night, but cleared in the morning, so I hoped the same pattern would repeat. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be the case. And so here I was, at the start line, in the car. In the pouring rain.
We got underway at 7am. There are wave starts to minimise congestion on the trail, but it’s still slow going in a conga line on narrow trails, up steel staircases and over the Pinnacle. 5km to the summit of the Pinnacle and I was still upright. It had been a very slow start, taking an hour to get to reach the top. No point in getting frustrated, and better to stay safe, so I went with the flow. Once down the other side the 20km and 36km courses split, which thins the runners out a bit. Also some nicer trails to run, stretch out a little and make up some time.
The ascent of Rosea starts innocently enough, but gets tougher, colder and more insane the higher you get. We clambered over rocks, up rocks and through crevices. Climbing up a rock, my foot slipped and my leg went down a crevice between two boulders. Ouch. Lucky I was numb. I imagine the views were amazing from the summit ridge, but today it was just a big white abyss.
I’d been with a group of half a dozen or so runners for most of the journey over Rosea, but lost them on the tricky first part of the descent. The gnarly trail eventually gives way to a smoother runnable trail which descends quite steeply for around 5km to the Borough Hut aid station at 21km. I managed to find some speed on the descent, catch a few runners and arrived at the bottom of the hill feeling quite good. We’d had a brief reprieve from the rain while traversing Rosea, but now it started coming down again.
From Borough Hut its 15km to the finish, and I remember really struggling from here last year. Its relatively flat, compared to the first 20km, but I seemed to recall some nasty roller coasters. And they were nasty. And slippery. And I was wishing I was wearing trail shoes. For 15km there was mud, and water, and more mud. And rain. I almost lost my shoes a couple of times in the mud and slid down one hill like I was on skis. Somewhere around 10km to go my right leg stopped working, which made it kind of difficult to run.
Finally over the rollers, there’s a nice descent to grassy fields approaching the 5km-to-go aid station. Well, they were more like grassy lakes, but at least my shoes got a wash. The next 4km went quite quickly, and I emerged from the trails for the final 1km along the bike track back into town. I felt like I was running in slow motion, but I finally knew I was going to crack the 5-hour mark, which had been my goal. The organisers had moved the finish line to the Community Hall, which meant running up the main street to a surprising crowd of spectators given the weather, high-5’ing little kids lining the footpath.
I finished in 4h:57m. 8 minutes faster than last year, and 10th female. I was absolutely stoked, and completed knackered. One of the volunteers handed me a can of coke. I paused to catch my breath, and she came back and handed me an envelope, saying “You look like you could do with a strong coffee when you’ve dried off, so here’s a coffee voucher spot prize.” Who knew that looking like crap at the end of a run could be a good thing? I think it was the best coffee I have ever tasted.
And so now The Wonderland Run is done for another year. A huge thank you to the race organisers from Big Long Run, and especially the volunteers and spectators who endured the horrendous weather to indulge us runners who choose to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and run 36km in the pouring rain, when sleeping in seems so much more sensible. Will I be back again in 2017? Given my love affair with the Grampians, I just might be. For a 36km run, it is extremely difficult and my advice to those planning on tackling it in the future is simple…
“Begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Wise words Mr Carroll, wise words.
- ioMerino Altitude active tee (worn underneath rain jacket)
- Highpoint neck tube, worn as a head buff
- Rapids v-neck long sleeve, carried as part of my mandatory gear
*All images supplied by Sarah and SuperSports.