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Buffalo Grand Slam – Bright, Victoria – April 2018

Mid September 2017: In my FB feed, Ultra Trail Australia say they are releasing entries for UTA100 shortly. I gave this a nudge in May 2017 and was happy with my result. The thought of registering again and being a part of the spectacle that is UTA100, trail running through the Blue Mountains and burning up the furber steps excited me.

I have nothing lined up on the horizon. I’m still reflecting on how my body failed me with the limp to the finish at the Coastal High 50 earlier in the month from a dodgy hammy. I needed something…

I test the waters, search to see what other events were coming up. MRUM (Margaret River Ultra Marathon) was gaining traction amongst my trail running buddies. Discussions with Vanessa concluded this wasn’t possible.

‘Buffalo Stampede’ – ‘Grand Slam’ A 3 day sky run in Bright Victoria. 137km, 9,300 elevation, approximately 50% non finish rate. I think I found it!

A race like this can’t be run on it’s own, so I was fortunate enough to have the company of Ben to come down from Brisbane and support me on this epic adventure.

Day 1: 19.4km sky run

The race started in Howitt Park, on the river behind the Bright Brewery at 8am in the morning. Dozens of runners were registering, warming up and checking kit before huddling into the start chute ready for launch. The Buffalo Stampede weekend is made up of three races. Runners can choose to run 1, 2 or all 3 races over the Friday to Sunday. Only a small group of nutters, 30 of us in total had registered to run the three day 137km event.

Gun goes off and there is a frantic rush to find your place on the grass to get some rhythm. I quickly remind myself that most of these runners are taking on today only, so I hold back and pace myself. For the first 3km’s, runners snake along the river bank and through a caravan park as families are bbq’ing their bacon and eggs. We eventually make our way out of town then hit our first climb, Mystic Mountain. The pace drops to a hike on the climb. This is a steep and technical single track, winding up to the top, where thrill seekers hand glide and parachute to take in the magnificent scenery. The black diamond trekking poles come out and I think to myself, if this is what it’s going to be like over each race, It’s going to be one hell of a weekend!

At the top of Mystic, I take a moment to catch my breath and appreciate how beautiful this country really is, then make my way to the other side of the summit to take on the downhill. I’m wearing Salomon speed cross 4 trail shoes, tried and proven for me on many training runs and races. But something was different today. These downhills were a whole other level. The tread was struggling to grip and on every downhill step the toes were bashing against the front of the shoe like I was kicking a brick wall barefoot. This didn’t feel good. It distracted me often and I took several falls.

Climbing up to Clearspot was a reprieve…initially. Until I quickly realised how steep and long this climb really was. The Brisbane trails are speed bumps compared to these Victorian mountains! A slow and continual grind is all you can do on these hills, suck it up and tough it out.

The top of Clearspot did not dissapoint, being around 1,000m above sea level and on a sunny day like today you could relax up there for eternity. This was the turnaround point. The climbs you did to get here were the downhills and the downhills were the climbs for the way home.

The final climb down Mystic to Bright was agony on the toes. ‘How am I going to run tomorrow and Sunday in these shoes, I won’t be able to make it!’ Was all I could think of. This slowed me considerably, affected my form and attitude.

I finish the race, rip my shoes off and no surprise, black and blue toes. After a dip in the icy waters of the Bright river, I do the unthinkable, visit the La Sportiva sponsor tent and by a brand new pair of trail shoes for 100+km of running over the next two days.

I sit at the pub with Ben and Nigel, watching them both enjoy an ale or two while I’m on a lemon lime and bitters, prepping myself mentally for 75km’s tomorrow, with unworn shoes in a box.

Day 2: 75.4km sky run

We are back in Howitt park, ready to take on the same two climbs as yesterday, except we are not turning back so early. Mt Buffalo is calling us! The 75km sky run is again an out and back event, running out to Mt Buffallo, circling a lake and through Chalwell Galleries then back to Howitt Park. I set a goal of finishing in around 13 hours, meaning nightfall would of hit and I’d be taking on the last climb in the dark.

It’s a cold and drizzly Saturday morning and we are asked to run with our wet weather gear. Gun goes off at 6am and we are off again along the river bank and through the caravan park. There is no scent of breakfast this morning, it’s too early and too wet for the holiday makers.

So far so good with the La Sportiva trail shoes, a small hotspot on the right heel, which I’m hoping doesn’t turn into anything scary. The race is going well and I’m feeling strong, I leave the Eurobin checkpoint around the halfway mark at the bottom of Mt Buffalo after some food and a chat to Ben.

It’s getting cold at this stage and Ben remarks, ‘I’ll meet you at the top!’ As I set off on foot and he makes his way to the comfort of our heated hire car.

This is the biggest climb of the day at 10km of climbing, but not the hardest as that was yet to come. A 1/4 the way up I stop to see Christian Warren, last years winner of the Grand Slam. I immediately think, ‘I’m not this fast, and he’s definately not this slow!’ His shoe is off and the foot isn’t looking good. He is mildly hopeful to continue and with another two runners stopping to help, there was nothing we could do other than wish him the best.

Finally the summit is reached and the temps are near zero. Ben is bravely waiting there with a smile and ready to help with whatever was needed. He said I didn’t look too well and after some self analysis I realised I was flat and a little spacey. After a few minutes I knew I had to keep going as the body temp was dropping and I was still only running in a singlet and shorts at this time. I take in some food and set on my way.

There was a 6km or so round loop at the top of Buffalo through the Chalwell Galleries that runners would navigate before returning to the checkpoint and starting the long descent back down to Eurobin. I made it back to the Buffalo check point with a smile, I was feeling much better after some flat running and fuel in the belly. Ben and I debated for a while whether I should put thermals on underneath the raincoat. We eventually agreed it was a good idea and I’m glad I did. Not long after leaving the mountain, reports came in of snow on Mt Buffalo and gale force winds across the top of Clearspot, where I was headed.

25km’s later, I make it to the bottom of Clearspot, with a 6km climb to the top of the summit. Bright is massed with pine plantations and I’m amazed at how these trees are planted on near vertical faces and cut down for the mill when mature. Unfortunately for runners there was no shelter from the reported 130km’s gale force winds and sub zero wind chill on this climb as the plantation was recently cut down, we were totally exposed to the elements. The rain was horizontal. Clearspot was not so Clearspot today!

Luckily I managed to keep my body temp relatively in check, although my entire face was numb and my fingers were frozen, they just wouldn’t work. It was that slippery my feet were continually sliding back down, using more of my energy resources to gather my balance and picking myself up after kissing the mud many times. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reach the summit.

Top of Clearspot, photo credit Buffalo Stampede

The amazing volunteers are braving the elements and turns out they have only just rebuilt their shelters after it all been blown over by the winds. I make it to the 65km checkpoint, there are runners in cars with heaters on, wrapped in space blankets trying to warm up, wind is howling across the top of the mountain, the rain is non directional and coming from every angle. Body is numb and battered but mind functioning well. I try to grab one of my 500ml Salomon flasks and give to a volunteer to fill up, but the hands aren’t working, my fine motor skills have vanished. I try to speak to ask for help, but the face is frozen.

A volunteer asks if I want some hot chicken noodle soup. ‘You have hot soup? YES PLEASE!’ I manage to force a smile. I am asked if I have gloves and I should be wearing them. Well let me tell you about that 🙂

10 minutes after leaving the Eurobin 50km checkpoint around 2 hours earlier, my iphone in the kangaroo pouch of the Salamon pack is ringing on repeat. I think to myself ‘I’m kinda busy right now climbing Buckland!’ But it keeps ringing and ringing. I take my gloves off to reach around, they fall in a large puddle of icy water in front of me, bugger!

I answer, it’s my 8 year old daughter Maya.

Maya: ‘Daddy are you ok?’ I admit it was great to hear her voice. Me: ‘Yes honey, why do you ask?’ Vanessa grabs the phone: I’ve read on facebook they have cut off runners and people pulling out and it’s really cold! Where are you we’ve been trying to reach you?’ Me: I’m okay Ness, I haven’t got far to go, i’m feeling really good.’

I play it down so as not to alarm them.

Back at the Clearspot checkpoint, I cuddle a hot soup in my hands and allow the steam to rise over my face, I embrace the warmth. Shortly after I’m on my way for the short but steep 10km down-up-down run to the finish.

Climbing Mystic for the last climb of the day, it’s getting dark and the headlamp is still in the pack. About 100m from the top a couple of brave soles are standing in the cold cheering on runners giving them encouragement with only a few short km’s down the other side to the finish. As I take my final step to the top I look up to say thanks for the kind words then realise it’s Ben and Nigel, I’m thrilled to see familiar faces.

Nigel: ‘Shit man it’s Jamie didn’t think we’d see you here yet!’ Me: ‘It’s been an interesting day out here boys, what do you know?’

They give me a run down on the events and I’m off to finish strong with 5km’s to go down Mystic.

A little under 13 hours and I’m through the finish chute in Bright.

It’s cold, wet and dark. a few minutes later we thank everyone, say our goodbyes and Ben and I head to our accommodation to warm up and prepare for the marathon tomorrow.

Recovery each night done right! Ice bath and comm games.

Day 3: 42.2km sky run

It’s an early start as we had a 1 hour drive to the top of Mt Buffalo. It’s only a marathon I keep saying to myself as I put on my race gear and slide into cold and soaking wet shoes, the La Sportiva’s have held up well so far! I feel surprisingly well and moving quite freely as we prepare to leave the warmth of Wombats Retreat, our accomodation for the weekend. It’s raining steady as Ben makes the drive up the mountain dodging rocks and debris on the road from yesterday’s weather.

Start of 42km. Photo credit Buffalo Stampede

Standing on the start line, the organisers give us some welcoming news. The Chalwell Galleries copped a beating overnight from the weather, so the race is now 39km as this area can’t be accessed. Doesn’t sound like much of a reduction in distance but I crack a small smile.

We kick off around 7am and straight away the legs are understandably heavy, many runners are dashing around me and I catch a glimpse of their bib colour. It’s blue, they are only running today and are on fresh legs. I feel a little better. After looping back I have a quick chat to Ben and we make our way down the 10km descent of Mt Buffalo to Eurobin. This is all familiar territory now. The quads contract with every downhill step but I’m feeling good.

At the checkpoint I’m in high spirits, Ben has made it there by car and we all crack some jokes, so close to the finish! The weather is pretty sour but nothing compared to yesterday. I take off the wet weather pants but keep the raincoat on and gloves then make my way to Clearspot for the last time, mentally preparing myself for the climb ahead.

The 6km physical effort climbing Clearspot is no different than yesterday. It’s taxing, muddy and slippery, but fortunately the weather although still cold is just a light drizzle. Mentally I’m in good spirits and pass a couple of runners along the way, some of them blue bib one day racers which makes the small victory even more sweet.

10km’s to go! Is all that’s going through my mind at the Clearspot checkpoint. I meet a fellow grand slammer at the checkpoint who is helping out the runners. He couldn’t continue due to the cold yesterday so pulled from the event and was now volunteering. We had a brief conversation and I could see how much he wished things turned out differently for him. I left for the finish feeling grateful I can continue and was able to do so.

Any fellow ultra runner would understand that in the last few km’s of a mentally and physically challenging event, emotions are at an all time high. It’s a moment of reflection, of the training you have put in, the sacrifices you and your family have made, the social life that’s put on hold, all for this moment of crossing that finish line. We seem to find some stored energy sitting in reserve, hiding deep in the tank, saved especially for this time. The pace picks up, the cows bells rung by kids can be heard, the cheers of the crowd, all for you.

I turn left for one last time into Howitt Park with the finish chute in sight. With one last step over the timing mat I hear a beep. It’s over. I’ve done it. Now let’s have that beer!

Day 1:  2:55:28hrs – 19.4km

Day 2: 12:55:41hrs – 75.4km

Day 3: 5:54:44hrs – 42.2km (39.2km)

Total: 21:45:54hrs – 137km

30 registers starters, 13 finishers, 8th place

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