“It’s not a race it’s an adventure” – Sean Greenhill, Mountain Sports Race Director
What is the GSER?
Great Southern Endurance Run is a ‘100 miler’ run (technically 112miles) which starts at the top of Mt Buller and finishes in Bright. Of the two hundred 100 mile runs in the world, GSER ranks as the 5th most difficult and the hardest in the Southern Hemisphere. It has in total 10,000 meters elevation, which to put in perspective Everest is only 8,800m. It’s hard, it’s tough and I was the first female to cross the line in 47hours.
It’s almost harder to sum up this race in a report so enjoy reading my Top 5 memories of GSER (only because I can’t remember much else).
Finishing GSER wasn’t quite what I expected, normally when you finish a race you are fatigued and tired but after 47 hours of running, not sitting down once I was not only fatigued and tired, I was confused, very confused. My last clear memory was seeing the 175km course marker and feeling pretty happy to think that I only had 6km to go but what happened in that 6km is anyone’s guess.
I remember trying to walk through my hallucinations (more about that later), stumbling as I was walking and then reaching road and wondering how on earth I got here and more to the point, where exactly was I? A quick check of Google Maps showed I was in Bright. Not sure what I was doing there but all I knew was, I just needed to follow the green arrows to get to where I needed to be.
Running (OK walking) into the finishing arch was I’m pretty sure a good feeling but for me I was more so overwhelmed. I was welcomed home by my support team and GSER staff; congratulations, hugs, kisses, finishing buckle; blankets and food and beverage offers were quickly bestowed upon me. I had done it; I had finished this epic race. I was both happy and sad. Happy I had finished but sad the journey was over.
Harrietville Checkpoint 146km
The descent into this checkpoint was my most memorable. I had left Mt Saint Bernard where I climbed to the top of Hotham, past the Diamantina Hut then onto the Bon Accord Spur, a 12km descent to the final checkpoint. Here I couldn’t help but smile, I knew that if I got to Harrietville I was going to make it to the end. The descent down Bon Accord Spur was an absolute highlight, I chased down a fellow runner in front of me and with him keeping me honest, I found my wings and flew down feeling strong, free and content. As I neared the bottom of the trail my hallucinations started to present themselves having me see family portraits in the rocks, this is normal right? As I neared the Washington Creek Junction I thought I was going around in circles, this was only the start of future confusion. As I ran into Harrietville I was buzzing, I was as high as a kite and felt very manic but in control. I just wanted to keep going, I had 34km until the end and I was excited, maybe a bit too much.
The volunteers in this race worth their weight in gold and no more so than Deb Sharp who I clearly remember her saying ‘Oh Amanda, your Amanda’ and commenting on how refreshing it was to see someone so happy when running into a checkpoint. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, my appreciation for what I was doing was my driver and it showed. My support team were there to calm me down in order to get food into me and see me take the right track in order to get the race done. As I buzzed out of the checkpoint I yelled out…let’s do this. At this point I vaguely recall a mention that I was now in the lead but this didn’t mean much at the time, the light was on but in reality, no one was home.
“Fuck you, bring it on” this is what I would mutter out loud when the weather turned vile. We were warned of the storms in the race briefing the night before the race and days before I had the weather app refresh every minute to hopefully show something other than thunderstorms. At this point all I could keep telling myself was ‘worry about what you can control and don’t worry about what you can’t’. Despite being a little concerned about the possibility that the alpine storms could bring a premature holt to the race if lives were in danger, it was what it was and all I needed to do was line up on the start line as focused and prepared as I could be.
We were to carry our phones close to us with text messages set with a tone as race control were going to be messaging us when storms were close. “If you are on high ground and lightening strikes with thunder sounding less than 30 seconds later, get down, thrown your poles away, stay down and don’t get up until the storm passes.”
My one request to the race gods was please don’t let the storms hit as I climb the Bluff Summit (27km) – my request was ignored. I questioned at this time stopping to put my rain jacket on, one of the best decisions I made was stopping. As I battled to see as I climbed 1700m+ I reached the summit and had absolutely no time to take in the beauty around me namely because I couldn’t see one foot in front of me. With the cold wind, sleet and hail I moved quickly off the summit to leave the first of the storms behind me.
As I reached the next checkpoint, Upper Howqua (45km) where I would meet my pacer Tom, 3km from this checkpoint I battled it out with the weather gods again. This time I was scared. I didn’t fancy seeing my race end due to a lightening strike and prayed out loud to just let me get to my support team; I have never run so fast but can you really out run a lightening storm right above your head? Yes you can and this time I was lucky.
Running into Mt Speculation (62.8km) something or someone (thanks Craig) was looking out for me. If I thought the other two storms I had been caught in were bad with 3 seconds from lightening to thunder my pacer, Tom and I were in the thick of it. And to make the scene even more dramatic, my poles were buzzing, they were now live in my hands, SHIT I’m about to be electrocuted. Quickly releasing the poles from the ground and out of my hands I literally ran for my life. I will never forget Tom’s words ‘I have never seen you descend so quickly down a side of a mountain’. Lightening strikes will do that to you.
The last storm I was caught in was descending into Mt Saint Bernard (125km) and at this stage of the race; I really didn’t feel like being cold, wet and miserable. This was only the second time in the race where I was a little down. Getting to this checkpoint seemed to be taking an age and despite seeing cars parked on top of the mountain I still had around 5km to go before I would see my crew and get changed into warmer dry clothes.
It came apparent from around the 75km mark that I might need to get use to hallucinations as these were now it seems, a part of my race plan. I first recognised all what not as it seemed as I stumbled along Barry’s saddle to East Buffalo Road checkpoint (94km). Having seen what I thought was an aid station; shed, 4WD and two people manning this station as I got closer this visual was actually two fellow competitors bending down getting supplies out of their packs, something very different to what I just saw. At this point I was desperate for an aid station only to be told I had another 16km before we arrived at one, this news almost broke me.
After leaving Selwyn Creek Road aid station (105km) this is where exhaustion had the landscape turn into a coffee shop, a dinner table scene and roaming polar and grizzly bears. When approaching these two creatures I wasn’t frightened, I moved slowly towards them and as I came up side by side only then did I realise they were actually a rock or a bush. Funny right?
As my mind started to lose further focus the hallucinations became more frequent and familiar. From this point of the race I was never running alone. I had company on the side of the road with people we drinking tea, eating dinner and reading the newspaper in bus shelters. I of course acknowledged them and said hello, only two people on the side of the road who had stopped because of a sore back spoke back (note: these two people did not appear on the GPS tracker so technically weren’t there at all despite me having a conversation with them).
I saw sandwiches in puddles and had dictated out loud a letter I was going to write to the council about the state of the Wet Gully Track as majority of this 34km up and down track was littered with chip packets and babies nappies.
As I passed the 175km marker my hallucinations became close, I now had to stop, as I didn’t want to walk into the shed that kept appearing in front of me. I was walking through some sort of bric a brac market where there were dolls, clothing and books laid out in front of me, it was hard not to tread on the obstacles in my way. It was at this point things started to feel very weird, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t walk straight and I felt scared especially with a drop on the side of the mountain in which I had to keep telling myself ‘keep left or if you go to the right, you will fall off the side.”
At one point I logged onto Facebook to remind myself of the real world…I felt like I was in some sort of dream. In the distance I could see around 10 sets of car lights ahead, to the left glow in the dark leaves and I even stopped to wonder why I was dressed in trail clothing, why did I have red trail shoes on, what the hell was I doing? Momentarily Facebook made me feel normal.
It was at this point of the race that I felt compelled to ring someone for help. Then just like that the trail had somehow turned to road and I found myself amongst street signs, fences and even came upon buildings. I felt safe again. But not alert.
I had prepared myself for the physical challenge of this race and to a certain degree the mental challenge but what I didn’t prepare myself for was the strange altered states of consciousness that brought with it some very disconcerting hallucinations. Thankfully I felt comfortable with 98% of what I saw, the other 2% still leaves me a little frightened.
As brutal as it was beautiful and something you have to see to believe. I had run less than a quarter of the course prior to racing GSER, the parts I had not as yet run were the most brutal; Four Mile Spur, The Cross Cut Saw, Mt Buggery Summit, Horrible Gap, Mt Despair, The Viking and to a certain degree The Twins which is quite appt that I was speaking to my twin as I ascended this part of the course.
To put it in perspective, it took over 10.5hours to run 31km and here I say run very loosely. I had only a small part of my bare skin exposed during the entirety of the race and with bare knees making my way from Mt Despair to East Buffalo Road almost sent me over the edge. The constant bush whacking exposed my knees to a constant battering even at one point giving a blank canvas to leeches who quite happily sucked away on my blood before I flicked the fuckers off.
This race was 80% mental and 20% physical at times and with the wildness of the terrain; over the head height bushes, fallen logs, vertical ladders, boulders, technical ridges, single no track you had to have mental toughness or else the environment would gobble you up and spit you out.
There was no second-guessing this terrain; you had to suck it up and go forth and conquer, well this is what I kept telling myself. I believe part of my brain is still holding onto the brutality of this race, it’s protecting me from the horrors that I encountered instead replacing them with the sheer beauty of the landscape. This race was about running amongst giants, letting nature have her way, respecting her way and with that respect she showed me kindness allowing me to finish what no doubt will be one of the hardest races I ever race.
When the adrenaline wears off
There are so many more layers and stories to this race but I will leave that for another time. GSER was a race that pushed my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits and has left me feeling a little lost amongst company and waking each day taking a deep breath to survive everyday normal existence. This race changed me but I am yet to harness and fully recognise the change.
Thanks goes too….
My family support team; Dionne, Donn, Sophie and Adrian and to my trail running family who I was lucky enough to inherit along the way Dale Chircop (& twin boys) and John Salton. But four people who I couldn’t have done this without are:
Zac my husband and number one supporter. This race was much harder for you than me and words cannot thank you enough for your love, care & attention.
My selfless pacer and overall legend (plus a fellow vegan & DU135 founder), Tom Cullum without whom I would not have survived the night, lightening strikes and technical descents. I have much to learn from you including how to use my poles correctly!
And most importantly Craig Percival for planting the seed knowing full well I would rise to the challenge and staying right by my side the whole race to see me in spirit finish something phenomenal. We did it. We bloody did it.
Luck by my side
Despite ultra running being a solo sport it’s the people in the background that help you start and finish strong. I think myself lucky to be able to do what I do and even more lucky to be surrounded by such a phenomenal team. Thank you.