If you’re seeking a relaxing spot on a warm beach with a good book, look no further than a tropical Queensland beach. If you’re keen to plunge down a hill on an adrenaline pumping snow board, then you might go to Mt Buller. If you’re looking to power up some jaw-breaking rocks you may plan an adventurous weekend in the Grampians. And if you’re more inclined to soak up the sun in your fishing boat on the Mighty Murray River, water ski on a stunning lake or step back in time at the Pioneer Settlement, then you might do yourself a favour and visit our beloved Swan Hill.
However, in spite of its misleading name, there is one thing you do not come to Swan Hill for. And that is for hills. I know. We can’t have everything.
After almost six years of residence in Swan Hill – and as an avid bike rider and runner – I could tell you where every ‘hill’ in or even remotely close to Swan Hill is. I have scoured miles of back tracks in the most obscure Mallee locations hunting for the ultimate hill to run. And although they are far from mountainous (and I have to run up them many times to gain the full effect), I thought I’d found a few winners.
However, as I set out for my first off-road ultramarathon last Saturday in Anglesea on a course that would be described as ‘mildly undulating’ in trail running circles, I had to reconsider those hard-sought Mallee inclines that I once pronounced as ‘hills.’ My Mallee mountains were ruined.
Rewind to the elite athlete Q & A session on the eve of the race. ‘It’s a fast course,’ one of the elite runners announced. ‘It’s quite flat,’ I thought I heard him say. Oh, I’ve got this covered. Flat is my friend. My Mallee mountains will get me through a few measly undulations.
As we took off on a dark beach into an abyss of 50 mystifying and unfamiliar off-road kilometres on race day, I was relaxed about my imminent fate. I had survived vicious magpie attacks at least twice a day. What could be worse than a horrid magpie with its claw in my head?
However, it didn’t take long until we were ascending a ramp off the beach that lead us to an endless warren of twisting, dark trails that just kept going up. And up. And up… It didn’t take me long to foretell the future. Hmmm. I thought this was meant to be ‘undulating?’ This is a f%$king hill!
We were back on the beach where we were to run for the next 20km (I didn’t read that fine print either). Who doesn’t love an eternal sandpit? Just like a rendezvous in the sand at Lake Boga, only a tiny bit further.
Did I mention that you go to the Grampians if you want to climb rocks? Well, apparently you can do that in Anglesea too. It wasn’t long before our perfectly smooth sanded beach was infiltrated by rock pools. Vertical. Horizontal. Left. Right. Up. Down. My Mallee muscles could have swam faster.
As I navigated these rocky invaders like a turtle in quick sand, I slipped on a collection of mossy rocks. And as I fell into the arms of one of my quick thinking running companions, I learnt my first bit of trail advice. ‘Green is mean,’ she told me. So in all my apparent ocean running greenness I promptly changed my tact, or lack thereof, and carefully placed my feet in moss free territory from then on. Images of Pamela Anderson on Baywatch gracefully running on the beach with the wind in her hair and the sand between her toes would never be the same. I looked and felt nothing like her.
As I came to the end of the beach leg after an array of rock climbing, multiple laps of the Lake Boga foreshore, the equivalent of 50 Swan Hill Footy grand stands and a bit of a swim (no, it wasn’t a triathlon; yes, we did have to go waist-deep into the sea; no, a shark didn’t eat me), my reluctant knees cried with relief. I’II be right now. My Mallee mountain training will pull me through the final 30km of hills.
It didn’t take long before the ascending assault was upon me like a rabbit in a hunting ground. Up and down. Down and Up. I quickly learnt that what goes up must come down. And what goes down must come up. On the trails, I am not sure which I prefer. There was nowhere to hide. And unlike the tactless smooth Mallee bitumen slants that I was accustomed to, while coming down this unforgiving terrain you actually had to think about your placement of feet. And pick them up. Something I worked out later in the race when the Anglesea dirt shot me face down on one of their supposed ‘declines.’ Thank goodness one of my running allies was there to pick up the pieces. Take me back to Baywatch.
It wasn’t long before we were confronted with our next monstrosity. Yep, this is just like the Pioneer Settlement hill. Times 50. And add another 45 degrees. Yeah, they are pretty much the same. It didn’t take me long to discover that when you are running slower up Mt Everest than your fellow competitors are walking, then you may as well join them in a bit of sightseeing if you want to finish without a wheelchair. Shark bait is sounding good about now.
By about the 40km mark, my Swan Hill quads and knees had packed their bags and were ready to return to their Mallee roots. Fortunately, realisation dawned upon them when we discovered another poor set of quads and knees along the trails that couldn’t even walk. So after a welcome bit of respite and some helpful and encouraging words for our 50km comrade, my quads, knees and I pulled our s&%t together as we rounded the corner to yet another steep atrocity. We powered up the McCallum Street hill equivalent towards the summit in the horizon. If the Jamaican bobsled team can qualify for a Winter Olympics, surely a Mallee girl can conquer a little hill.
However, the High Street crest never came. In fact, I’m not sure that McCallum Street (times 100+) ever ended. I knew I should have done more training on Nyah’s peaks.
At this point of the race – when you resemble an elderly lady with a walking stick – realising your Mallee hills are ‘not in fact hills’ could be likened to finding out you’ve been lied to about the Tooth Fairy. It was like a stab in the quads. It stung. Literally. But like all resilient Mallee people – figuratively speaking – you pick yourself up and you climb those mountains. Life is full of ups and downs. What’s a few extra?
We reached a sign (with approximately a few kilometres to go) and it read: ‘it’s all downhill from here.’ Is this someone’s idea of a sick joke? I now empathised with my Swan Hill running group buddies. I constantly revel in the fact that the session has reached its peak, and therefore all downhill (of course it never is, but metaphorically they are half way).
Or is it genuinely downhill? Is the person who wrote the sign a good-hearted ba&%tard who understands the true meaning of the word ‘downhill?’ We had suffered through many uphill battles that day. So despite my personal running group mantras, my mind went with the latter.
And down we went (the good ba&%tard prevailed). All the way to the glorious, FLAT finish line; the concluding arch that heals all pain and wipes agonising memories within minutes. Thank goodness for my Mallee Mountains.
Little did I know, my ‘real’ ultramarathon was yet to come. Five hours of driving home with three fighting and screaming kids in a confined space was much more demanding – mentally and physically – than any endurance event. Take me back to the mountains!!!
WARNING: If you decide to attempt a trail ultra marathon yourself –within days (sometimes hours or minutes) – dangerous resulting side effects may appear that leave one’s mind senseless. Idiotic hallucinations of running 100km through ‘real’ mountains may surface, and despite sensible reasoning, you won’t be able to resist…
Or for any other great off-road adventures check out Rapid Ascent!