Race Report – 6 Foot Track for a ‘Back of the Packer’
By Alex McKenzie
On the weekend I managed to finish the 6 foot track with a mere 3 minutes to spare and was asked to write a report from the point of view of the back of the pack to help all those in a similar situation contemplating giving it a go.
I went into this race knowing full well that not making cut-off was very real. Although the common consensus is that the power of positive thinking is the way to go and not think about failure, I took a very different approach. I’ve always thought there is no benefit of fooling yourself, so after assessing all the information, I calculated that I would not succeed without change, and would need to tick every box if I was to succeed, and even that may not be enough to make it. I embraced that failure was a possibility, but if I did everything that was asked of me, I could be very proud of my effort regardless of whether I got to Caves house under 7 hours or not. The disadvantage of this approach is on race day, when it gets tough, you’ll accept failure, I know myself and knew that I would give my best on the day despite not fearing failure.
I have an excellent coach in Darryl Johnson and we mapped out a plan. I lifted my K’s each week with loads of hill work and most importantly loads of time on course. Time on course is critical. I trained on course with the Up Coaching training days 7 times, I also did a few runs that had similar qualities to the 6 foot track. The Woodford end of the Oaks trail was recommended as a nice substitute. I had 8 long runs that were over 4 hours, the longest being 6 hrs 17 minutes for the Megalong mega-mega. This was more running than I would like to do on an ongoing basis, but I was prepared to do it in order to achieve my goal.
Something that ended up being really important was 2 sessions where I concentrated on hiking. This was excellent, it actually got me thinking about walking quickly and some needed practice. This really came into play on race day, just made me aware of my walking pace and keeping it brisk.
Course knowledge helped I was able to map out in my head a very clear plan. The first 26km I mapped out exactly what hills I would walk, and which I would run, I knew where I would push and where I would I recover. I knew rough splits to lots of landmarks.
On Christmas Eve, I assessed my chances of making cut off at about 30%, and that was factoring increased training. By race day I thought I was probably 70-80% chance of making it. The increased training and course knowledge made a big difference.
When I approached this funnily enough I never thought of the whole race at all throughout the entire day, I was very successful in breaking into segments. The course breaks down beautifully into little parts, and with regular cut offs I had mini goals the entire way. I always try and do this with every run not usually this successfully.
Start to Megalong Rd
I self-seeded myself towards the back half of wave 5, although accurate, I regretted it, the descent down Nellies was a very slow conga line. I was frustrated and kept reminding myself a few minutes over a day is nothing, don’t worry. I got to the bottom about 6 minutes slower than my slowest run in training. My advice is to account for this in your race plan. I was probably 10 minutes behind where I expected to be.
For the good guys, race strategy is usually about not going too hard too early. I had decided that I would be hiking the hills regardless and thought this was a chance to push a little. The 4-5km of open fire trail trending downhill was an opportunity to go a decent pace without using much petrol. I really nailed this part of the race, even though I went over on my ankle and hit the deck, no damage done. There is a little up and down through a couple paddocks coming up to the road, originally one of the hills I planned to walk, I was feeling good on the day and ran it. My aim was to get to Megalong rd in 60-65minutes (I thought a little quicker was a chance even likely). I got there in 66 minutes. I had made up most of the time lost down Nellies and I knew Id get to the Cox’s ahead of cut off no drama so was feeling relieved.
At Megalong Rd
Megalong Rd to the River
My favourite part of the race, again I planned to work reasonably hard down to the river. I was looking forward to this part. Once we got to the Vineyards and towards Pinnacle hill, there were a couple places I planned to walk and I really made sure I walked them sharply before the long single trail to the river. I was passing people pretty regularly through this section and was really enjoying a nice descent to the river, felt awesome and was making nice pace and not using too much petrol despite a decent pace. Halfway down to the river I joined a line of 4, we were at pace I was happy with, unfortun
ately this led to complacency and I rolled my ankle. A bit of a lesson, Ive done this part of the course a number of times and knew it well, but in the race, following people, you get less of a look at the track, and I tripped up, rolling my ankle badly. In future I will be more aware of this and be more focussed on where I place my foot. Initially I thought I was in a world of trouble as initially I struggled to walk, but it improved and I was able to continue. My advice if this happens, don’t panic, as long as there is no serious structural issues you will be able to battle through and worry about the issue later. This slowed me up for the last couple Km’s to the river. I thought from Megalong to the river would take me around 55 minutes. It ended up taking me about 59 minutes, solely due to the fall and reduced pace through a quick part of the course. None the less I made cut off. I felt in good shape. I had planned to bank a few more minutes than I managed, I did acknowledge that, but didn’t worry about it.
River to top of Pluvi- KOM stage
This is the race for a back of the packers. It is a fine line between working through it fast enough and killing yourself. If you don’t know the course, this section is essentially 2 huge climbs with a descent in between them. I actually break this stage into 4 sections mentally and focus on each part individually. I had a really clear plan, Mini-Mini breaks into 2 climbs; from the river to the cattle yards is the first section I tackle. This part has a series of flatish runnable parts, I identified those I was going to run, and there are 4 parts that I deemed runnable without taking a long term toll. On race day I only ran 3 of them, one follows a steep climb and I thought a recovery was needed more at this point. I had a real focus on hiking as fast as possible, I hadn’t done this in training, and credit the hiking training sessions for changing my mindset. I got to the cattle yards in 27 minutes, about as expected. There is a flat piece followed by a downhill before a tough climb. I had a scare coming down the hill, my ankle really hurt for this descent, it had been fine on the hike so I decided to worry about it later. This was the only time I had doubts of not making it. The next section of this climb in my view is the hardest part of the course, it is a steep continual climb, no switchbacks means you know exactly how far to the top, and this is mentally tough in my mind. I had one thought keep moving with intent. It is hard going. Unfortunately I saw a few people have their race disintegrate on this section, some I knew, I wanted to offer some mental assistance but knew my words were hitting deaf ears.
At the top of this is a descent down to Pluvi, the famous climb. In the descent between them I was trying to walk the fine line between making good time and recover. I took a cue from Anne Bennett from my training run, which was soon as we hit the flat bit, first step start running, otherwise it drags before you do, I hit the top and ran the very first step, I won a mental battle and went past 3 runners who recovered I noticed exactly what Anne meant, they took quite few hundred metres to start running. I noticed my ankle didn’t hurt and I got a great mental boost. This section I had one goal run every step until the pluvi climb, I achieved this and felt recovered from the climb.
The Pluvi climb, the infamous make or break of the 6 foot track. I had already decided I was walking every step, but walk with purpose. My focus on walking speed paid huge dividends in this section. I walked past dozens of people and just had one thought walk fast. I did this section in good time, 7 minutes quicker than my only timed training effort (I did it with a flat watch once as well). Again I ran the first step at the top for a mental win. I had got to the top and covered this section in a smidge under 2hrs, about what I expected. I was still 6 minutes ahead of cut off. I hadn’t killed myself. I stuck almost perfectly to my race plan.
My plan was less certain from this point as I had no idea what sort of shape I’d be in. I broke this into 2 sections to the deviation and from the deviation to the road. This was always going to be a walk run based on terrain and my condition. My condition was pretty good, my mindset better than I dreamed. I had a mantra prepared for this section I kept repeating show enough intent to be proud at the end. This was again acknowledging the possibility of failure. But I knew if I kept pushing hard with enough intent that I’d be proud regardless this would give me the best possible chance of succeeding. I also by chance heard 2 things that resonated with me, both from coaches, Handy wrote on my Facebook page run the first half with you head, the second with heart. I didn’t think about this until this point, but thought I had nailed the head bit, now to nail the heart bit. The other was simpler from Brendan, grit your teeth and fight. I was mentally ready to do both of these things and was really up the fight. I wasn’t sure I would be. I knew I had to make up a few minutes I was hoping to get on the way to the river.
This section is uphill, but there is plenty of flat and downhill. I had to run every flat and downhill bit, but I also had to run some of the uphill if I wanted to make cut off. The uphill I was run walking and at times my calves were really starting to tighten (light cramp) so I would back off. I was picking targets and running to them. When the calves tightened some of the run sections was super short. But I kept focussing on intent, if intended to walk quick and make short runs I would keep moving forward. I did this well for most of the section to the deviation. Not perfectly, but well, a few times I lost focus and should of ran more, but I did well enough. I knew I needed to make time in this section as the section from Caves to the finish would take longer than the cut off times allowed. I made it from Pluvi to the deviation in 80 minutes, 7 minutes quicker than training, 5 minutes quicker than expected. I reckon this section was the difference in the end. My mantra worked.
The second segment of Blackranges is from deviation to Caves road. This is deceptively difficult. I knew that though due to on course training. My plan was simple here, run the downhill, walk the uphill. The cut off for this section was 6hr10, but I needed an hour for the last section, so “my cut off” was 6hrs. I got to Caves road in 5hr 53, I knew I would make this barring disaster. The black ranges were my race and I nailed it. I had openly said that if I got past Caves road, they couldn’t stop me finishing, and if I finished, the cut off was irrelevant, no one could tell me I didn’t run the 6 foot track. At this point, that was not the case, I definitely wanted to beat cut off and knew I should from this point.
Caves Road to the Finish
The run to finish is downhill, but not that easy, still some climbing to go. Mentally I relaxed here, in hindsight possibly more than I should have. Once you cross the road it is nice section of runnable flat and downhill with the odd set of steps. This is the section I should have went a little quicker on to give myself more buffer, I was having some mild cramping issues but I was in much better condition than expected. I did some maths and realised it wasn’t quite that easy and put in 3 solidish Km’s. So when I reached the final descent I knew I had it in the bag. The last 3 Km are a very steep and rocky descent to the finish, I took this easy, knowing that the only way I wouldn’t make it was a fall, my ankle was really sore for this part, I didn’t care.
The finish for everyone is amazing, for those beating the cut off, it is out of this world. As I came into the sight of the crowd with about 400 m to go I heard the crowd call my name. Once I hit the path with 300 to go, Max and Walter ran me in, I felt a huge exhilaration. The cowbells can be heard for a few KM, but in the last few hundred metres the finish is amazing. I had the added bonus of having the UpCoaching community to cheer me home. The wave of excitement saw me uncontrollably punching the air; it is an amazing way to finish the race. This section took me 63 minutes, if required I could have comfortably done it in an hour. The 50 minutes they allow for the last section is beyond me and I’d say all back of the packers. You need to give yourself at least an hour from Caves to beat cut off.
The race is achievable for those in a similar position to me with a caveat; you have to commit to training hard and preparing well. It is a very brutal race and the chance of not making cut off is real, I embraced this and prepared accordingly. The fact that success is not guaranteed makes it all the more sweet. I encourage people that are interested to give it a go, the feeling as I crossed the line was indescribable and the pride I had in myself was immense.
I made it to caves house in under 7 hours!