Blood, sweat and lava dust on Mt Rinjani
One day after Catherine and I had decided to spend a month or two in Bali between relocating within Australia Catherine stumbled upon a photo on Instagram that mentioned the Mt Rinjani Ultra. A check of dates confirmed we would be in Bali when the race was on and I quickly decided that if there was an ultra nearby then it would be criminal not to do it.
I was slightly disappointed when reading it was only 52km but then intrigued that the winning time last year was just under 15 hours. Ok it had 5800m of vert and went to an altitude of 3720m but even still 14 hours? I was in for a shock and the most testing race of my ultra career!
The warm up
The first 10k of the race involves a 2000m climb and is by far the easiest section of the course as I would eventually discover.
The race kicks off at midnight with a sea of bewildered locals wondering what all these people are doing dressed in sports clothes and carrying packs and head torches in the middle of the night. The Indonesian national anthem is sung just before the start and the tune will be stuck in my head for the next few hours!
With a 3,2,1 go we are set off and the pace at the start was quick but comfortable. I settled into the front pack of ten or so runners as we ran up the gently sloping path. This isn’t too steep I thought to myself, should be able to run a fair bit of this.
Within a mile the path changed to a steep path interrupted by massive tree roots every 10 metres or less making running practically impossible. It was out with the hiking poles and I settled into a rhythm of hiking as fast as possible without pushing the pace too hard.
The climb became steeper and steeper and sandier and sandier and the thought of running down this many hours later was a little concerning. I immediately pushed this thought out of my head. One of my main goals for this race was to stay present, to no matter what happened keep the mind focussed on the now. I wanted the race to be like a focussed running meditation. So any thoughts other than what was happening in the present were quickly washed aside in my mind. How long I could keep doing this for remained to be seen.
We continued climbing and after almost 2 hours broke through the tree line and we could finally see the night sky. Corresponding with this the climb gets even steeper but I could just make out the crater rim up in the distance so I knew that the climb would soon be over. Little did I know then that anything resembling a comfort zone would end the second I started the descent. Before long the first major checkpoint is reached in a little over 2 hours.
The first descent – 3km and a 600m drop
As I headed down the path it came to what looked like a sheer drop/dead end. I turned around and headed back assuming I had missed the path only to be corrected by volunteers that the sheer drop was indeed the correct route. I peered over the edge and sure enough there was a path about 2 metres below and a few rocks to clamber down to get to it. It was one of those climbs where you aren’t sure whether to climb down facing into the climb or away from the climb. I opted to slide down on my bum taking it carefully as a slip would result in a fall down a slope that I couldn’t see the bottom of!
Safely down I continued only to find the path was broken up in very regular intervals in climbs that you needed two hands to lower yourself down. This continued as the route dropped down to the crater floor. There was very little runable trail. I ran for 20 metres then slowed to lower myself down a steep drop and repeated again and again. Eventually the path levelled out. When I say levelled out read it’s steeply down hill but doesn’t have any steep sudden rocky drops so is somewhat runnable.
Finally the crater lake came into view and there was some flat running around the lake to the next checkpoint. Well there would be if the path along the lake wasn’t strewn with rocks making it just about impossible to run!
The climb to the summit ridge up
So after having descended 600m in 3km we now have to climb back up 600m in 3.5km. This climb started of relatively easy and actually runnable. Unfortunately it didn’t last and it starts to steeply zig zag up the crater wall getting steeper as it goes, culminating in concrete steps that eventually lead out to the crater rim from where the summit ridge starts. I felt really good in this section, passing a few people especially on the more runnable parts and was feeling quite strong. In any race you have good and bad patches – I was going through a good patch but I knew things could change so just enjoyed it while it lasted without getting carried away with myself.
Even though it was dark the moon shone enough light to make out the crater lake and the summit above and even in the dim light it looked impressive. I was looking forward to seeing the panoramo reveal itself as the sun rose.
The summit climb – where the fun starts
Checkpoint 4 is at 2600m in altitude and signals the start of the ridge ascent to the summit. The summit is another 5.2km away and another 1200m of vertical to climb. In reality the amount of vertical was significantly more than this.
The climb started gently luring you in to a feeling that maybe it isn’t that bad after all. But very quickly the path turns steep and becomes very loose – a mix of sand and small rocks. This means every time your foot lands you sink half a foot or more down. If you pause at all you’ll most likely continue sinking. Pause long enough to catch your breath and you’ll be back to where you started.
I’ve run scree slopes before so I know what to expect and just stuck my head down and got on with the job at hand. It can be very slow going and frustrating but there is no point getting frustrated as frustration doesn’t make anything easier. It’s not going to make me go any faster and isn’t going to add anything positive to the experience so best just not to get caught up with the idea of frustration.
This is the part of the race I really enjoy. That part where it starts to hurt, where the comfort zone has well and truly ended and you need to look inside and see how much you are prepared to deal with when things get tough. If I thought things were tough now I was in for an even rougher time ahead.
After what seemed like a long time the path turned to something more solid – it was not runnable as it’s very steep and at over 3000m of altitude but at least I’m not sinking half a foot with every step. Maybe that’s the hard bit done? I soon learn the altitude must have been affecting my brain as that was just the warm up.
Before long the trail turned steeper and softer, each foot sinking in further and sliding backwards further. The only consolation was the sun was just thinking about poking its face above the horizon. A deep red/orange band grew across the horizon before my eyes as the sun slowly climbed from its overnight slumber. It was mesmerising to watch and took my mind away from the struggle of the climb. Eventually the curve of the sun broke through the orange band and began to light up the earth beneath. Watching this from around 3500m in altitude with an unobstructed view over the ocean and the island of Bali was breath taking. I paused to take a few photos even though it meant sliding backwards!
The half of me that wanted to just sit and watch the spectacle lost out to the other half that knew I was in a race and had to get moving and I drew my focus away and got back to the job at hand. I wasn’t far from the summit from what I could see but it is always further than you think.
The climb got steeper, I slid more with every steep, oxygen got thinner and my resolve to stay in the moment was increasingly tested. I did not want to look up to see how far there was to go but found myself fighting the urge with almost every step. Realising that all looking up would do is deflate any sense of gaining ground I resisted as much as I could. Every now and then my eyes won out and I looked up. Every time I did my reaction was worse, it never made me feel better so why did I bother? After this happened two or three times I’d had enough and made a real mental focus not to look again until I knew the summit was very very close. I pushed on taking in the well wishes of trekkers who had hiked up from the crater rim at Checkpoint 4 to watch sunrise. After what seemed like an eternity, after I felt like I had been hiking up this scree slope for half of my life I finally reached the last 50 metres or so before the top and I allowed myself a glance up with a small grin knowing I was just about there.
The summit was cold and windy so I didn’t hang around. I was told I was 11th overall which was nice but completely irrelevant as there was still a long way to go and I didn’t care about race position anyway.
The descent from the summit
What goes up must come down and now came a 5.2km descent of 1200m. This, believe it or not, was fun. Running down scree is not as bad as it looks. The scree slides forward with each stride so instead of losing half a step with each stride you gain half a metre or more with each stride as your foot lands and slides forward. Of course you need to be careful not to overdo it and start tumbling down the mountain. I relished the ability to actually run and enjoyed the descent despite slipping on my butt every now and then and kicking up a large amount of dust and sand that would flood my shoes despite wearing gaiters.
I was following another runner and he pulled away from me when it got really steep and I reeled him in when it flattened off a little (all relative when you are running down a slope that drops more than 200m for every kilometre!).
We finally reached Checkpoint 4 again where I stopped to empty out the ton of scree in my shoes before setting off for the next leg.
The cruel out and back part 1 – The descent – 3.8km and 1030 metres descent
This was the steepest descent of the whole course. I headed down full of confidence and feeling strong. The route was steep (the whole course is steep – there is nothing gradual about any of the hills) and as I descended I noticed that I am starting to slip over more and more especially on the sandier sections. A Frenchman named Pierre catches me and we run together for a while. He is faster on the more steep descents and I am faster on the less steep (but still very steep!) trails.
He let me go in front again and as the trail became sandier and sandier he must have been laughing loudly at my attempt to run downhill. I was falling over with comic regularity – the tread on my trail shoes had been worn down with all the road running in the month in Bali beforehand. Bali isn’t exactly a running mecca and sourcing a new pair of shoes was never going to happen so I had to make do. At this moment I was really wishing I had brought a new pair with me from Australia before coming to Bali.
If I fell over once I must have fallen over twenty times or more. Every now and then I didn’t get up, just used my arms to push my butt down the sandy trail until it evened out a bit and I could stand up again before falling over again. I had grazes all over my knee, legs and forearms but fortunately nothing more than a flesh wound. Despite all this I had managed to pull away from Pierre. I’ve no idea how but I did feel pretty strong running when I wasn’t falling over.
The turnaround checkpoint was at the end of the last bit of road that porters could get to before the trail commenced. It was very exposed to the sun which was making its presence felt even at this time of the day (around 9 am) and the last section seemed to go on forever.
Reaching the checkpoint I was in a really positive state of mind and focussed on getting back up that climb and finishing this race off. How quickly that was to change.
The cruel out and back part 2 – the climb – 3.8km and 1030 metres
I took my time at the checkpoint to get things organised. I had a ton of sand in my shoes and socks so I took them off. Whilst I did that the first aid volunteer made a fuss of the blood streaming from my knee so cleaned it up and covered it with antiseptic. The volunteers were fantastic fussing over me offering everything they had – note to self – oranges go down really well as does coconut water!
Once I was patched up and topped up I was ready to go and face this climb. I set out feeling full of energy and confident I was ready for the climb ahead.
This feeling of energy deserted me pretty quickly as I headed back up. By the time Pierre caught back up to me I was back to just focussing on getting the job done. The sun was out in full force and it was hot, dusty and with little shade. As we continued the climb I stared to feel worse, a slight ringing in my ears appeared and I knew what this meant. I had this before at last year’s GNW and I knew that unless I took action what would follow is eventual collapse with heat stress. The ringing indicates a lack of blood flow to the brain due to my blood vessels dilating to try and expose as much blood to the surface in order to cool down. This makes it harder for my heart to pump blood to my brain.
I took stock – I could head back down to the previous checkpoint from where I could DNF and get a lift back to the start. If I continued on there would be almost no way to get me out of trouble stuck (being carried out by 4 porters is about the only option). I wasn’t keen on DNFing so I needed to find a solution. It was the start of heat stress so I needed to cool down. How? I had no water – only sports drink so I couldn’t pour water over myself to keep cool and the next checkpoint from which to get water was at the top of the climb. Ok so now what – think … ok slowing down will decrease body temp, resting in the few spots of shade would also help. If I could go slow enough and rest often enough I might just be able to hold the heat stress at bay until I could get more water.
With that plan in mind I continued on grateful for the company of Pierre who was suffering as much as I was. We set small targets, one shady spot to the next and kept each other going. The climb twisted and turned and you could never just switch off and walk or you’d be on your butt before you knew it. So in a way that was good as it meant you had to stay focussed or you would fall over.
At one stage I wasn’t feeling great so lay down for a minute with my head lower than my heart to get the blood flow back to my brain. Bit by bit we climbed higher and higher and whilst never feeling great we both felt confident we could get to the top. It took well over 90 minutes to cover those 3.8km but we finally made it and struggled back into checkpoint 4 looking forward to the relief fresh cold water would bring.
To our disbelief they had run out of water at the checkpoint. Not only that they had run out of everything else as well. Fortunately there were some people selling drinks at the checkpoint (it was a big camping area for trekkers) and Pierre was generous enough to buy me a coke (I didn’t bring money – why would I need money?). Coke wasn’t what I was after but it was cold and I knew a cold drink would help my body temp go down and it’s saved me a number of times in ultras.
The descent to the lake
We headed off together down the far more gentle descent of 600m over 3.5km, still very steep but compared to the last 15k of the course it was easy. I continued to stumble my way down hill losing ground on anything slippery gaining ground on anything runnable. This side of the crater was cooler and I began to feel much better. There were a lot of porters on this section and almost every one of them looked at the amount of blood covering my legs and asks if I am ok. Here they are carrying 30+kg of load in 2 straw baskets suspended from a piece of bamboo resting on one shoulder walking up a 600m climb wearing flip flops and they are concerned with a bit of blood on my knee!
Towards the bottom of the descent there was a runnable kilometre and I was surprised how good my legs felt running into checkpoint 3 at the lake.
Finally water. I gratefully accepted a bottle from the volunteers poured half over my head and drank the rest then asked for another. None left came the reply, that was the last one! This was getting a bit ridiculous. I topped up with some Pocari Sweat (Indonesian Gatorade) and set out for the last climb of the day a 3km climb of 600m of vert back up to the crater rim.
The climb to the crater rim
I was feeling strong and was hoping to push the final climb. This lasted until the climb cleared the shade and the sun became a factor again. It was now early afternoon and the sun was at its hottest. I could feel myself heating up and slowing down. Before long Pierre caught me and again we resolve to climb together to the top. The climb became steeper and steeper and involved using both hands to climb up rocks.
We stopped every now and then to take photos as the view of the crater in the lake is spectacular and it gave us a chance to rest. Eventually we reach the top and the checkpoint and ask immediately for water to be told there is one bottle left! Pierre and I take a sip and leave some for the next competitor. I’m not exactly sure what position we were at that stage, around 12-15th I think and to run out of water so early is poor organisation.
The final descent
So now we had 10km to run and 2000m descent on a sandy slippery trail full of tree roots. We did some quick calculations and figured we might be able to break 16 hours. We headed down the hill with that burst of energy that comes with knowing you are on the last leg. I felt that I just may finish this race in one piece. I haven’t thought of the finish for a long time – the race is so technical and demanding you need to focus on one section, one step at a time. If you start considering the next leg before you’ve finished the current one it can be very demotivating but with just one descent to go the finish line is tantalisingly close but still work to be done.
As the trail turned sandy Pierre must have been laughing hard on the inside (or on the outside and I couldn’t hear him with all the sand in my ears!) as I stumbled and fell my way down the sandy trails. At one stage I sat on my butt and just slid down – it was quicker than standing up and falling over again.
When it wasn’t that sandy I was running well and pulled away from Pierre. Finally the sand gave way to a firmer trail but the hazard of the sand was replaced with giant tree roots that invited you to trip over them. This slowed things down considerably and ended any chance of sub 16 hours. It was just a number anyway so I dismissed it from my mind and just focussed on getting down each section as quickly as possible. This section descended through a forest so the scenery didn’t change and it felt like I was on a treadmill, albeit one covered in tree roots and going steeply down hill. Using every last shred of mental energy I have left I focussed on one bit at a time and don’t think about how much further.
After what seemed like a long time I reached the last checkpoint which did have water. With only 5k to go it’s a bit late but I relished having some cold water to both drink and pour over me.
The final 5k continues on in the same way but I am passing more trekkers, porters and competitors in the shorter (21k) race who all applaud my effort. I must have looked a bit crazed covered in blood, volcanic ash and sand from head to toe!
Finally the trail ended and I ran on to the dirt track that signals I am just under 2ks from the finish. Finally I could run, even though it still descended, running downhill is something I am good at – running down sandy slopes with tree roots in shoes that have no tread not so good! I picked up the pace and resolved to finish the last section off as quick as possible. Just ahead I see another runner who hears me coming and picks up his pace.
What to do? I’m not interested in sprinting to finish 13th instead of 14th – who cares, but I am interested in running as hard as I can to the finish. So I decide just to continue at the pace I am going and if I pass him so be it . Unfortunately for him I was running close to 4 minute ks which was a lot quicker than him so I passed him and ran the final 800m towards the finish.
With the finish line in sight I allow a flood of emotions to finally be released and I realise again why I do these races. This race tested me like no other. The sheer steepness of the climbs forced you to be mentally switched on the whole time, there were no easy cruising descents or nice hiking climbs you could just switch off and let the rhythm of the movement carry you on. If you switch off then you fall over. Over 16 hours of focussing on almost every step takes its toll and mentally I was exhausted. The heat and altitude added another dimension of difficulty and the lack of water available was something that could have made the difference between finishing or not.
I crossed the finish line and Catherine went to give me a big hug and kiss, I stepped away, but not before she gave me a kiss well done – I stank, I was covered in blood, ash, sand, dirt and sweat so it was not pretty!
To say I was happy to get to the finish line in one piece is a massive understatement.
This was tougher than any race I have ever done by a long way. Even the UTMB was easy compared to this. The summit ascent was the slowest 5km I have ever covered in an ultra, closely followed by the 90 minute 3km climb from the turn around point.
I spent most of this race outside my comfort zone and loved it. That’s why I race. Facing up to the challenge the race throws at you and finding a way to overcome it. But that said, there is no way I’m doing that race again!