Sweeper Report: Alpine Challenge

In January I will run the 64 km Bogong to Hotham, which shares significant parts of the route followed by Australia’s toughest 100-mile race, the Alpine Challenge. I decided that the race weekend for the Alpine Challenge would provide me a great opportunity to head up to the area, hopefully perform a bit of a recce for Bogong to Hotham, and give back to the trail running community. I would join fellow sweeper Clare for a 60 km loop including Mt Hotham and Mt Feathertop. The section is known as Mortein Alley (after a brand of insecticide), since it generally constitutes a considerable portion of the drop-out rate within the race (i.e. people drop like flies).

I headed down to the starting line to watch the runners set out at 4:30 AM, but then was able to return to sleep as my leg of the race would only commence after the sun had risen and then set once again. In the afternoon I headed over to Pole 333, one of the old telegraph poles in the area where our loop would start and finish. I set out for a solo run to see a bit of the Bogong to Hotham course, heading back towards the oncoming runners. I encountered some confused runners as I went but made sure to comfort them that they were headed in the right direction, and it was in fact me that was heading the wrong way. I chatted with a few runners, some tourists out for a hike, and one of the aid station volunteers further along the course. The last section of my run as I returned was particularly challenging, as the dipping sun shone brightly in my eyes to cause sun spots while the trail was already in shade. When I returned to the aid station I put on some warm clothing to wait.

Alpine Challenge - Pole 333 Aid Station
Alpine Challenge – Pole 333 Aid Station (photo courtesy of Clare Weatherly)

Just after 11 PM we set out for our loop, 2.5 hours after the last runner had departed. I was carrying VHF and UHF radios, while Clare carried first-aid, spare food and warm gear. We set out rugged up as the temperature and wind had been cold while waiting at the very exposed aid station, but by the time we reached the river below we started to shed layers before commencing the climb to Mt Hotham. We arrived at the aid station, located in a hut on the mountain, where we were updated on the status of the runners ahead of us, and were given a SPOT tracking device that would allow us to be followed by race headquarters. As we followed the road away from the aid station, Clare pointed out that we would be taking a turnoff following huts on both sides of the road, and marked by a large sign. There was “no way” we could miss the turnoff, but shortly after we turned around and tracked back almost a kilometre to the turnoff we had missed.

As we descended along Bon Accord Spur we spotted a small snake on the trail (an indication of how mild the night was), and soon after spotted three headlights in front of us. We had caught up to Vanessa, James and Tamyka, and would now stick with the back-markers for the remainder of our time out on course. We took stock of everyone, and all were still moving well as we continued towards the town of Harrietville. The sun rose and we took a fairly long stop once we arrived in town. Tamyka took off earlier, and we commenced the long hike up towards Mount Feathertop with Vanessa and James.

As we reached an out-and-back climb to the top of Mount Feathertop James was finally forced to take the decision to withdraw. He had been suffering for many kilometres with his knees, both of which had been taped by his crew, and he realised that he would be struggle to descend the steep sections on the return. His day was not yet over, as he would face a 9 km hike to reach an extraction point. As we set off towards the summit with Vanessa, Tamyka breezed past on her way down. After struggling to hold food down between Pole 333 and Mount Hotham, she was back on track and looking strong.

Clare and I enjoyed the great views from Mount Feathertop, chatting and sharing food with a hiker, while Vanessa started down. We then started the descent along the ridge, and continued the very steep descent down to the river below. As we started the final climb towards Pole 333 I started to become concerned about the cutoff. We had spent a lot of time with Vanessa and we were very invested in seeing her finish.

As we arrived at the end of our loop (Vanessa still had roughly 25 km to go) I was greeted by race director Paul Ashton. He immediately made fun of our missed turnoff at Mount Hotham, which I earlier suggested to Clare had possibly gone unnoticed having occurred in the middle of the night. While Vanessa continued on, Clare and I returned to base and sat down for a meal. I was there at the finish line to watch both Tamyka and Vanessa cross the line. Next year I hope to watch James cross that line as well.

Alpine Challenge - Tamyka Crossing the Finish Line
Alpine Challenge – Tamyka Crossing the Finish Line (photo courtesy of Kate Ablett)

On Monday I enjoyed a drink at the local Bright Brewery with Tamyka and Clare. We agreed that all three of us would sign up to run the Alpine Challenge in 2015.

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