10 Days in November
By Phil Essam
This short story tells of my involvement in the Australian 6-day race this year. An experience that I class as one of the best of my life. It might not follow chronologically, but it records my thoughts on different things that happened during the event!
It was early on Friday 14th November when I got out of bed to go to Melbourne Airport and pick up George Audley. George is a 67 year old Ultra runner from Western Australia who has earned a Top 5 place in the Westfield, ran across Australia in the Trans Australia race only two years prior [and got no recognition] and has run in the Australian 6-day race over 10 times. A true champion of the sport.
Thoughts on the drive to the airport drifted back to Cliff Young's Memorial Service on Wednesday and the times I had been on the track with Cliff. I feel honoured to have shared those times!
Well, I eventually found George at Virgin Blue instead of Qantas and conveyed him back home! We talked about the race and running over a few cups of tea before returning to the airport to pick up Andy Lovy from America. For those that don’t know Andy, he is a Vietnam Veteran who has run over 170 Ultras. He is also a Medical Doctor and an all round Top Bloke [that's an Aussie complement Andy!]. Andy eventually got through Customs and we returned home after having some of America's number one export [McDonalds] on the way home. We then got organised at home that afternoon before putting on a Traditional Aussie BBQ that night for our guests. We were also joined that night by South African runner, Brian Collings and his wife Laura. Brian got lost trying to find us, but eventually found his way! Apparently my instructions were wrong! Well everyone was soon getting on well and talking the universal subject that we all know! Ultra running! We also enjoyed the South African beer that Brian brought along.
Next day we loaded up the car and were heading for Colac shortly after midday! [including my wife and daughter] We soon found our way to Memorial Square and caught up with old friends and acquaintances. Ultra running is like an extended happy family who might not see each other all the time, but we keep the friendship going no matter what! It didn’t take long to have the tent set up. Andy and I talked tactics and discussed the layout of his clothes etc. We discussed the plan and the importance of drinks/food, little and often. We also discussed a variety of drinks and food as ultra runner’s taste buds soon disappear into space once they are competing! I was also going to be helping George Audley when I could during the event. George was going for a 6-day Age record and certainly had the credentials to do it!
That night we all headed to the Arts Centre for a Reception put on by the Colac Otway Shire and the 6-day race committee. The reception was very well done and was certainly an improvement on previous years. Conversation was aplenty and more stories were swapped about happenings of the past year and hopes for the race. It was that evening that I first noticed how fit an athlete Graeme Watts from Queensland is! If anyone was going to trouble Kourcerek from Czech Republic it was him. That night Bill and Bev Sutcliffe put us up in their caravan for the night. Thanks people!
The next day dawned and Memorial Square resembled a miniature city. Workmen were everywhere, all the tents were in place, fencing was being erected, the food demountable was in place and it was taking shape! More preparations with Andy and we were soon ready to go.
I also had a second job for the race. I was going to be looking after Internet publicity and Melbourne publicity for the race. In hindsight - no one should have two jobs for an Ultra event of this magnitude! Fairly hard to be in two places at once. The internet publicity was going to involve faxing the results to Kevin Tiller on a twice daily basis and he would update www.colac.ultraoz.com. Shortly before the start I was at the Administration building when I gathered from Bill Sutcliffe that he was hoping for more updates during the event. I very quickly made my web site available to the Gents from the Colac PC Users Group and left them to figure things out! They ended up doing a Great job during the event and I hope that the 6-day race committee do register their own domain and establish a proper web site for the race. With supervision from the Committee the Gents from the Colac PC Users Group would be ideal to maintain and update the site. The site would be a Global drawcard and communications portal for the event which wouldn’t be expensive. It is the only thing missing now to make the event truly world class.
11:30 came around and all the runners were ready for the pre race ceremonies. The Powers Twins ran a lap of honour for Cliff Young before the start and some helium balloons were released into the air! I certainly had a tear in my eye. The tribute was simple but effective. The race was soon underway as the runners started circling the track. After the start I presented a copy of the Westfield Book to Helen Powers and the Twins. It was signed by all the runners and committee at this years race. To describe every moment of the next 6 days would be boring to even the most hardened Ultra nut and this is where the story will digress into a series of thoughts about different areas of the race.
The leaders soon sorted themselves out and the Top 3 became Kourcerek, Watts and Hoskinson. Audley and Timms were threatening though and were ready to pounce if one of the leaders should falter. Andy started off well and was running pretty close to his plan which was good! It was sometime on the Sunday that an older Gent by the name of Don introduced himself to me. Don was from Camperdown and was a Marathon Walker about 20 plus years ago. Don was fascinated by the whole race and wanted to be involved for the rest of the week. Don was soon signed up as the day shift crew for Andy and George for the rest of the week. Belinda and Laura left about 6pm that night and I was all on my own for crewing!
Andy ran fairly well to his plan for most of the week. Up to about Thursday morning I felt that 460km was very gettable but hopefully we would get as close as possible to his target of 480km by the end! I was surviving on about 4 hours sleep a day! 2 hours sleep the first day and then 4 hours the rest of the week! I would stick around each morning until Don arrived and Andy had reached the goal for the day of 65km! [65km is what was required to survive the cut off], I would then disappear for sleep in one of the spare caravans which was very much appreciated! [usually woke to the music starting after lunchtime]
I noticed a few different types of crewing at Colac. There were those runners that didn’t have any crew. They were usually those that had lots of experience and were quite content to look after themselves. There were those runners that had one crew. They would usually make up lots of drinks and food in advance and the runner could choose what he wanted when he came past. Then there were runners that had a proper crew of two or more people for the whole race. It is interesting that all three placegetters for the race had a good crew behind them who worked to a plan the whole time. I think crewing is a vital part of multi-day racing and any runner of any ability would benefit from having a good crew. Personally I found that working by myself in a crewing situation, I wasn’t able to record what Andy was eating and drinking, wasn’t able to keep the tent as clean as I would have liked and it was hard to get the runners clothes dry when it rained! I also found that my usually sharp mathematical mind disappeared by day three and lap calculations became harder and harder! I was mortified on Thursday morning when my calculations to bring up 65km were 9 laps out! Fortunately we picked up the mistake whilst Andy was still on the track and he took it in his stride to do another 9 laps!
This leads me on to one of the big plusses of this year's race. The demountable food kitchen that was open 24 hours a day for runners and crew. Nothing was to hard for the staff who always had a smile on their face. Even when there was a run on Vegemite sandwich requests! It definitely made crewing a bit easier when you didn’t have to make up your own meals for the runners. It also kept the crew well fed at the same time! I believe that the food and drinks were all donated by the local community. Congratulations Colac, please keep this going for future years.
Unfortunately 2003 wasn't to be George Audley's year. He suffered from stomach problems for the first two days and ended up withdrawing. It was a sad moment when George called for me from the tent and asked for the referee! This was George's first withdrawal in ten years and he must be commended for pushing as long as he could! I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of George at Colac or other Ultra races around Australia.
It was about day three of the race when it became obvious that Kourcerek wasn’t going to run 1000km and he wasn't a certainty to win. He was carrying a leg injury of some sort and Graeme Watts was hanging 20/30km off him ready to pounce when the time came! By about day four, Watts did pounce when Kourcerek took an extended break and he never looked back!
Another great plus for the race was the new lap scoring system. The old traditional lap scoring method had been done away with and it was all computerised. Everyone loved it. It was accurate and reliable. The system still involves people to input the numbers as they come through, but there are checks and balances in the system which soon pick up on any mistake. Malcolm Mathews from Melbourne should be commended for his system and I hope that he can produce a windows version of the program that could be used by ultra races around the world.
I think my most emotional moments of the race were the few hours before Andy passed the 65km for each day. On the Wednesday and Thursday morning he passed the mark with three hours to spare, but the time frame would have been closer if he hadn’t have worked after midnight each night! Andy was acquiring quite a fan club during the race. They were from other crews, a local family with young kids, scorers and committee members. It must have been his wit and gentle good humour! I also think that people were impressed by the dogged determination that he showed throughout the race., with constant references to Andy having a heart bigger than Phar Lap. Andy would also help any of the runners who had any medical problems at all! He would have lost half an hour a day due to his willingness to help others - but this did not enter into Andy's mind as a problem.
It was Thursday morning when things started to go astray for Andy. He had qualified for day five but it had been a gutsy effort which took a lot out of him. When Don and George came in that morning, I told them to give him a two hour break (his first since Sunday) and just keep the miles ticking over! I then went to bed for four hours! I came out just after noon to have my bi-daily shower at the local squash club and get some supplies to be greeted with the sad news from Don that Andy was really struggling. I got Don to replenish the supplies and I started feeding Andy the drinks and food lap by lap. Andy complained of a back problem and there was also a leg problem at the same time [I learnt all the medical terms during the week - but will speak in layman’s terms for this article]. I could see that his back was playing up as he was stooping forward quite extremely!
The next few hours were a blur. We tried massage, we tried taping his back, we tried a support to keep him straight. A couple of the runners and one of the massage therapists were telling me to pull him out of the race for his own good. It was heart wrenching to watch the agony that he was going through. Andy and I discussed that he would try and keep it going until midnight and if the miles required were getting to much for the next 12 hours it would be time to call it a day. I remember the early evening when Jen [Medical student from the USA who was at the race doing research and had studied under Andy] exchanged some words and Andy took off like a shot. It was a last ditch, do or die effort and I did mutter under my breath that if Andy collapsed on the track, Jen could do the honours of picking him up! [with a few words added] I did discuss this with Andy and Jen later on and realised that there weren’t any major safety issues involved!
Andy kept on going for a couple more hours, but was getting slower and slower. I think there were a couple more massages in there. [Even whilst Andy was in pain he was able to get everyone around him laughing with his subtle and not so subtle humour - I will never look at a chicken the same way again!]. I was joined by my wife and daughter who had arrived back from Melbourne for the rest of the race. It was great to see them, providing new smiling faces for Andy to talk to and an emotional shoulder for me! It was about 11.00pm when Andy decided that he would have half an hour off the track! This was out of the blue for him and that’s when I had a gut feeling that it was over. Andy came back on the track at 11.30pm and wanted to do three laps and see how his back was. I was down at the bottom of the track when he came around and realised that he was to stooped, to slow and it just wasn’t going to happen. I said to him " I don’t know if your going to hate me, but I’m taking you off, that’s it". He replied that he didn’t hate me and agreed that it was it! We then walked to the finish line and Belinda passed me the quilt as we came past. It was a sad moment, but Andy had done his best. I think everyone at the track that night was touched and inspired by his gutsy effort!
We then got Andy back to the tent whilst the Night Referee got hold of a motel for the night for Andy. He definitely needed a shower and a proper bed for the night! After getting him to his Motel room, I joined my wife back at the track, released the emotion via a few tears and headed to bed for the night!
Friday morning came around and I wandered onto the track at about 7am, tidied up the tent and packed away the food. After the emotion and work of the last couple of days, everything including the race seemed rather flat and I did find it hard to be involved. However, I was able to wander around during the day and gradually talk to more of the crews at the race. I went and picked up Andy later on that morning and he stayed at the track helping people when he could [even if we was moving very slow himself]. The placegetters were fairly well decided by that time. It was great to see that Peter Hoskinson was going to finish his first 6-day race, get a place and prove his detractors wrong. John Timms withdrew on Friday morning with bad blisters which was a surprise to everyone. Belinda and I decided to get a Motel room that night as well. We also joined Andy, Jen and Dana [other Medical student] for Tea which was great.
Saturday came around and there were only six hours remaining in the race. I was able to speak to some reporters from Queensland and Tasmania, who promised to cover Graeme Watt's and Peter Hoskinson's success in their local papers. Another gutsy effort during the week was 78 year old Stan Miskin who completed the 6 days. It wasn’t an Age record, but a very gutsy effort on Stan's part. Stan was looked after during the week by his devoted wife, Elwyn, who tended to all his needs. The gun went off at midday and it was all over. The race had a new Aussie winner. Multi day racing in Australia has two new stars on the horizon in Peter Hoskinson and David Billett from South Australia who finished his first multi day race and the race itself had grown immensely in the past 12 months [which looks good for the next 18 years].
The prize ceremony was conducted very well and didn’t drag on like previous years. Elvira Janosi won the Cliff Young Award for competing so soon after the personal family tragedy that she endured and Brian Collings won the Bryan Smith Award for the fair play, goodwill and sportsmanship that he displayed during the week.
That afternoon, we packed the car and headed back to Melbourne after being at the BBQ for a short time. I had to go away with work the next day for a week, so it was up to Belinda to get Andy to the Airport next day. [I believe a sumptuous Chinese meal and chocolate ice cream was consumed that night after I was gone!] Thanks Andy for giving me the opportunity to crew for you, it was a great learning curve, but there's no need to send that Anatomy and Physiology Exam! Thanks Don for your great help during the week and thanks to everyone at Colac for your help and friendship. Thanks to the Colac committee for putting on a great event!
I believe that 24 hour/multi day racing has a big future in this country. We only have three 24 hour track runs and one 48 hour run at present. Perhaps we need an enterprising sports club to put on another 48 hour race somewhere in the country! Here's to the next few years and what it's going to bring for me and my achievements!
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who errs and comes short again and again . . . who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the least knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
(Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt)
(Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt)