Run Larapinta Stage Race Experience by Emily Gannon
Written By Emily Gannon
From the moment the promo footage of the Rapid Ascent Run Larapinta Stage Race popped up on my Facebook feed 18 months ago I was hooked. I had to do this event. It was the spectacular images of the rugged Australian Outback that captured my attention first. I’d never been to the Northern Territory and certainly never laid eyes on a landscape like this. The mere thought of running through this terrain gave me goosebumps.
The familiar feeling of nervous excitement kicked in when I looked at the race stages. With two options to consider, it was the longer Malbunka Course that got my heart racing.
136km over 4 days. It would be tough. I’d completed a 50km event before but had never backed up these kinds of distances. And then there was the heat to consider. There would be no easy way to train for Alice Springs temperatures in wintery Hobart.
I watched the website avidly and as soon as entries for the 2018 event opened I secured my spot before that niggly thought of “Can you really do this?” overtook my burning desire to have a go. The adrenalin rush on seeing the confirmation of entry was real.
I was going to Alice Springs.
I was going see parts of Australia only accessible by foot.
And I was going to explore it in a way that I love – trail running.
I downloaded Hanny’s Training Plan and tweaked it to be realistic to what I was able to commit to. Motivation levels were high. But of course, life being life, things are never that straight forward.
The pressures of other aspects in my life increased in intensity and my already modified training plan quickly became unachievable. This personal challenge to complete all four long stages of the Larapinta Event began to add to the mounting stresses in my life.
In order to deal with this I chose to focus on why I had entered in the first place – to see the spectacular scenery that the Promo footage had promised. I wouldn’t be fast. Maybe I wouldn’t even finish. But I would stand on that start line each day and give it my all.
Photo credit: Matt Hull
I continued with my regular exercise regime as best as I could and increased my running where possible. A good week saw me running about 30km in total and attending 2 Bootcamp style gym sessions, a ritual I’d been in for a number of years. Definitely not the lead up that was recommended and the re-emergence of injury added to my woes. Whenever I thought of Larapinta I pushed aside all thoughts of the event being a competitive one. I am a naturally competitive person and this was not easy to do.
This would be a running holiday. It would be a week to focus on me and what I love to do.
Fast forward to August and I was on my way. I’d still never run more than 25km during training and had never backed up long-running days. But I’d covered some pretty tough terrain in the runs I had done so knew I had the endurance to complete one of the long stages. But could I do four in a row? I had no idea what the answer to that question was. I’d spent a lot of time in the past two months learning how to manage my niggly back injury, and having also had ITB issues in the past I was very focused on taking care of myself during this event. My roller, a tennis ball and muscular recovery gel were the first things I packed.
The first thing that hit me when I exited the plane at Alice Springs was the bright sunlight, closely followed by the heat. It felt amazing on my skin after months of Tasmanian winter. I got my first glimpse of the countryside as the bus took us to our accommodation. Rocky hills rose out of nowhere in all shades of orange, brown and red, meeting a bright blue sky. Clouds were noticeably absent. In fact, I don’t think I saw a single one in the entire 5 days I was there.
The silvers and dusty green colours of the gum trees contrasted perfectly against the warm tones of the earth. This was the Australia that people in the rest of the world think of when they picture Australia in their minds. This is an Australia that most Australians have probably never seen.
I couldn’t wait to get out there and see more. But I was also terrified at the enormity of the days to come.
We had the best part of the day to relax and organize our gear before registrations and the official event briefing. The first leg was a 19.5km “warm up” session through some of the trails around Alice Springs. The course overview described a medium effort, non-technical course that would provide a good introduction to the days to come. I pushed away the knowledge that this introductory run was nearly as long as the longest training run I had done and focused on the fact that I was here. I’d made it to the start line and I just needed to pace myself, look after my body and enjoy the experience.
The first Stage began at 5pm. I was glad that I could avoid the intense heat of the day for this first run. All the Malbunka runners gathered at the start line. Obligatory photos were taken, quick adjustments to packs were made and before I knew it we were off. The course delivered as promised. Easy running with enough undulating terrain to make it interesting. I took it gently and got to know a few of my fellow runners as we made our way around the course. Watching the sunset as I wound my way around that first stage was the highlight of the evening. It was beautiful and the realization of where I was and what I was doing began to sink in. The kilometers disappeared underfoot and I finished in the dark, feeling great. That first stage really helped settle the nerves and clear my mind. I felt ready to meet the Larapinta.
Photo credit: Matt Hull
It had been made very clear to us that Stage 2 would be the toughest day on the trails. At 41km it wasn’t the longest day but the trail increased in difficulty with the last 10km reported to be very technical, difficult terrain. I had no idea what to expect and my pack felt heavy as I loaded it with the mandatory gear, including 3L of electrolyte and enough gels, energy bars and snacks for what I was anticipating to be up to 9 hours of effort.
It was an early start, the bus leaving from our hotel at 5:50am. I felt good and was excited to see the spectacular start location at Simpsons Gap, a 25minute drive west from Alice Springs. The sun had risen by the time we arrived. It was overcast and cool, even by Tassie standards. I was grateful for this as I was keen to avoid as much of the heat as possible. We made our way down to the feather flags stuck in the sand between two huge, red cliff faces. Even in the grey morning they were a sight to behold.
After a quick briefing (again reminding us that this was a stage we should not underestimate) we were off. I quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm and was extremely grateful that I felt fresh and strong after last night’s efforts.
I was conscious of the time limit on today’s stage. I had to reach the 28km Checkpoint within 5 hours. Having no idea of the route and knowing that in trail running a kilometer might take 6 minutes, or it might take 26 minutes, I hoped this first section would be fairly easy going.
I was covering good ground, running alone, following the National Park arrows which were periodically dotted along the trail. I felt great. I came across a sandy river bed, flanked by a large cliff. At the end was a billabong. A real billabong! Surrounded by gum trees, this small pool of water was only missing the Jolly Swagman. I was spellbound.
It seemed highly appropriate to eat my Vegemite sandwich at this point so I paused to have a snack and take a few photos, completely mesmerised. The voice in my head reminded me of the cutoff times so I quickly got moving again. My path quickly became difficult and I was scrambling over bigger and bigger boulders. I felt a bit uneasy about this but pushed on. I saw other footprints so thought I must be going the right way. But the uneasiness increased and I realised I hadn’t seen any blue arrows for a while. I pulled out the GPS map which we had to carry on our phone. I appeared to still be following the trail, but I didn’t trust it. I had a horrible suspicion that the real trail was probably following the ridge line high above me.
I decided to turn back. I hadn’t been at the back of the pack so I would surely meet somebody soon. As the billabong came back into view I spied a group of hikers making their way down the ridge. My gut instinct had been correct. I cannot describe how relieved I was to see them and I certainly let them know this! The lesson was learned. I had been totally distracted by the billabong and paid no attention to where I was going. This trail was not marked well enough to ‘vague out’. I had to be more vigilant.
I’d lost about 20 minutes so now I was really anxious about the 5 hour cut off time.
I started moving again, picking up the pace. The remaining distance to the checkpoint was mostly runnable and I caught up to, and passed a few comrades on the way. I was relieved to make the checkpoint with about 45 minutes to spare. This was a bit close for comfort. I’d never been that close to a time limit before. But there was now no time pressure to finish so I could relax and go as slow as I needed to in order to get to the end in one piece. I topped up my electrolyte, took on some food and headed off to conquer the last 14km of the day.
Getting lost at the billabong had shaken my navigational confidence and I was keen to continue as part of a group from this point on. I soon found myself running with 3 others. It was reassuring to find out that I wasn’t the only one who had taken a wrong turn today and we were all happy to stick together.
The last 10km lived up to its reputation. It was hot. It was brutal. But it was oh so beautiful. The rocks got bigger and sharper and the track was hard to follow in places. Steep ascents and steeper descents just kept coming. It was fantastic! I loved every second. This was a piece of the world that so few will ever see. It was largely untouched. Perfect.
And here I was with 3 new friends. People I’d never met before. Sharing stories; laughing; encouraging and taking care of each other. This is the essence of trail running. This is why I love it.
We finally made it down the last of the hairy descents to a well formed Parks track which allowed me to stretch out the legs and run to the finish. 41km and the toughest day on the trail completed. Wow!
I was exhausted and desperate for a shower but elated at what I had achieved.
Despite my fatigue I still had to restock my running pack for the next day, pack my suitcase in preparation for a change in accommodation and complete my mandatory rolling and stretching regime to give my body every chance to be capable of moving the next day.
An inspection of my feet that night showed they were starting to take a battering. I’ve lost toenails before in long events and this looked like it wasn’t going to be any different. One toe looked particularly worse for wear and another showed potential to go the same way. The wonderful volunteer doctor took a look at them and taped them up. I hoped that would be enough.
If Day 1 was the warm up and Day 2 was the ‘Real Deal’ then today would have to be considered a ‘Recovery Run’ at a mere 30km with no checkpoint cutoff times to worry about. I wasn’t moving too well when I got out of bed. Everything was protesting from the waist down. I slowly loosened up as I prepared myself for the day and to my great relief was moving reasonably well as I made my way to the bus for the 5:30am departure. We had an hour long drive to the start line at the Ochre Pits.
My plan for the day was just to get to the end. It was not an overly technical day with one main climb to cross the ridge line before heading back down for some mostly flat trail to the finish.
My pack was loaded up again with the mandatory 3L fluids required for the stage. There was no vehicle access on this section of the trail so we needed to be fully self-sufficient. Water had been flown in to the checkpoint at the 20km mark so was limited in availability. We were heading into really remote regions of the Outback. This was a true adventure.
We started the day running through the Ochre Pits, a place where indigenous people had traditionally gathered the colourful soft rock for use in body art and rock paintings. We ran and rock hopped between the high red cliffs that towered above us. Large green cycad palms punctuated the gorge, the palm leaves feeling smooth and tough, almost synthetic; built to withstand the harsh elements that exist in this environment. The area had a prehistoric look about it and if a dinosaur had popped out of a dark corner I would not have been surprised.
From here it was pretty easy running for an hour or so as I travelled through Waterfall Gorge, buddied up with another new friend. The area was completely dry and I wondered what this place would look like in the Wet Season. A decent climb soon followed which zigzagged to the top of a ridge. It was getting hot by this stage and I focused on keeping up my fluids and following my nutrition plan. My taped toes and body felt good.
The view from the top of the ridge was starkly beautiful. An endless nothing. Hills and mountains rolling on for as far as the eye could see, in every direction. Shades of brown, orange and red dispersed with the dehydrated green colours of the spinifex and other hardy plants which somehow survive in the dry, rocky earth. I felt small. Insignificant. A dot on an ancient landscape. It was a humbling experience and one I will never forget.
I could have lingered here for ages but continued along the ridge and began my descent. I am not a downhill runner. I really struggle with technical downhill sections. The rocks were sharp, unavoidable and I found it difficult to pick a path through. I wished I was one of those who are able to confidently plunge headfirst down a mountain.
My confidence was taking a battering. I was thinking that I would have been better prepared for this event if my training had included visits to building sites to run up and down piles of broken bricks from demolished houses. By the time I got to the bottom my feet were sore and I was worried about the state of my toes. I had about 9km to go. It was easy terrain. Mostly flat and not too rocky. It should have been cruisy but I found this section the hardest part of the entire event. My feet hurt, my legs felt like lead, it was hot, and the thought of another gel, energy bar or banana and peanut butter sandwich was really unappealing.
A fellow runner pulled me through this dark patch. We ran together for most of that 9km and he distracted me from all my negative thoughts as we chatted our way through the entire section, sharing stories about our lives and interests. I am so grateful for his company. Before I knew it the finish line was in sight and I was so glad to see it. Three days down, one to go. I felt a huge sense of achievement getting this far. Now the end was in sight. Could I pull this body through the last day, the longest day?
It was an exceptionally early start to prepare for the final day on the trail. The bus left our accommodation at 5am for the 25 minute drive to the start line at Redbank Gorge.
Unlike other mornings the bus ride was largely silent. Some trying to get a few extra minutes sleep, others mentally preparing themselves for another tough day. Nobody was in a hurry to disembark when we reached our destination. We all remained seated, procrastinating for as long as possible. Eventually the driver apologetically kicked us out into the dark morning. It was really cold, maybe 1 -2C.
For the first time I decided to start running wearing a thermal.
Our first challenge for the day was a climb to the summit of Mt. Sonder, the Northern Territory’s 4th highest mountain at 1380m above sea level. We began at 6am, before sunrise; a steady procession of head torches winding our way up the mountain in the darkness. I heeded the advice that an experienced runner and previous Larapinta participant had given me at dinner the night before – don’t burn all your energy scaling the mountain. Take it slow and steady. Conserve strength for the rest of the day where the trails are flat and easy running. With this in mind I picked a hiking pace I was comfortable with and enjoyed the climb. Watching the sun come up over the mountains that morning was magical.
As I continued to climb the leaders of the event began flying down the mountain in their descent. It was inspiring to watch these athletes as they nimbly and confidently flew down the steep, rocky descent. There were plenty of High-5’s and words of encouragement exchanged as we crossed paths. It was one of the highlights of the entire four days.
I reached the summit of Mt. Sonder in about 90 minutes and the views were breathtaking. I paused only briefly to check in and have my photo taken before starting my descent. I was worried about the cutoff times again today.
Photo credit: Matt Hull
I used the descent to try and practice some downhill running and was pretty happy with the rhythm I fell into. However, it did not take long before the long descent was aggravating my feet. Two toes were in pretty bad shape after Day 3 and the medical staff had again fixed them up. I also had some uncomfortable blisters. I had bandaged up my feet as best as I could, was wearing 2 pairs of socks and had taken a chance in wearing a pair of my roommates shoes which were half a size bigger than mine.
About halfway down the mountain I tripped and fell, hitting my knee on a rock. Whether it was a result of trying to run downhill without the experience, a signal that I needed more fuel or electrolyte, or I was just distracted and fatigued I don’t know. Luckily there was no major damage done and the pain in my knee wasn’t affecting my ability to run. On a positive note, it redirected the pain centre of my brain away from my feet and they didn’t bother me for the rest of the day.
I was grateful to finally reach the bottom of Mt Sonder where I refilled my water flasks and shared a laugh with the wonderful volunteers at this station.
The next 12km was easy running. The trail reminded me of the sandy and gravel paths that I train on at home. It was nice just to pick a comfortable pace, zone out a bit and give the brain a rest from technical trails and difficult navigation. I was amazed at the capacity my body had just to keep going. I’d run over 100km and still had gas in the tank and a willing body. Mentally I felt amazing. When I reached the 26km checkpoint and was asked how I felt, “Invincible” was the word that immediately sprung to mind. I was going to do this. Nothing would stop me now. Even if I had another fall and had to crawl to the finish I would make it to the end. This realization gave me such a boost that even the prospect of one more mountain climb didn’t dampen my spirits.
I slowly worked my way up to the top of the last summit. I munched on cold salted baked potatoes which the hotel kitchen had so nicely made for us on request the previous night. This was not normal running nutrition for me but I was confident my stomach could handle it and I was completely over the sweet snacks that had been the main source of my diet for the last 2 days. My digestive system had started to suffer the consequences of too many gels and the savoury flavor of the spuds felt like a real treat.
After descending from this last hill I knew it was all easy running to the end. I had been warned that the last 12km was relatively ‘boring’ running and would feel like forever. True that it did not hold the beauty of the 125km that had come before it, but that was ok with me. I could see the finish line in my mind and just putting one foot in front of the other was going to get me there. Seeing the sign marking 3.5km to Glen Helen Lodge, our accommodation and finish line for the event gave me a huge adrenalin boost. This combined with the caffeinated gel I had forced down 15 minutes earlier propelled me to pick up my pace.
The last small section back to the finish was on bitumen. The road surface felt so soothing on my mangled feet after all those rough, sharp rocks. In my normal life, I never choose to run on road, but I have never enjoyed a patch of bitumen as much as this one. I wound out my legs and felt like I was sprinting up the rise to the intersection that lead to the hotel. My heart was bursting out of my chest with anticipation as I rounded the corner to enter the grounds of the Lodge, ran down the stairs to the river and followed the sandy shore to where the blow-up arch was waiting. A winner’s banner was being held across the finish line. This was an unexpected and thoughtful touch by the organisers. Whilst my finish was far from a podium-worthy time I was a winner in my own eyes and to be able to run through a white banner, whilst it may seem insignificant was hugely relevant to me.
Photo credit: Matt Hull
The emotion I felt when crossing the line is indescribable and I wasn’t prepared for it. Anyone who has achieved a personal challenge, whether it is a 5km Park Run or a 100 Miler knows what I mean. With tears in my eyes, I was enveloped in a massive hug by one of the new friends I had made that week. Onlookers cheered and congratulated me. People who had been complete strangers five days ago but with whom a special bond had been formed through shared experience.
I had done it. I had completed the Larapinta Malbunka Four Stage Trail Event. I had overcome the challenges in preparation, injury, and self-doubt. I truly felt invincible. Capable of anything I dreamed of.
Times and placement didn’t matter. Being a person who has always analysed the results tables and been overly critical of personal performance it was a liberating feeling not to care about how fast I’d run or if I was the very last runner home.
Two weeks later and I am still on a high from my achievement. This sense of accomplishment has a way of filtering through into every aspect of life. I still feel invincible and I will carry the memories of my first adventure into the Australian Outback with me for the rest of my life.
For more information about the Rapid Ascent Run Larapinta Stage Race visit their website.