After following previous FKT efforts on Goldfields Track by George Mihalakellis and later Ross McPhee, Simon Austin, and John Robertson, the idea of attempting to establish a female FKT for this route had been in the back of my mind for a while. Through the long weeks of Melbourne lockdown, limited to one hour runs in a 5k bubble, running Goldfields Track became one of my daydreams for what I would do after travel was possible again. With a long weekend and offers of support from Jonathan Ennis-King, Kerryn Graham, Rach Brick, Karen Smith, and my husband Laszlo Frazer, the weekend of March 6, 2021 became the weekend I would get the chance to make this lockdown daydream into a reality.
(Note: I’ve tried my best to recall events accurately, but with such a long run (and the sleep deprivation that goes with that), it’s possible some details may be out of order or incorrect.)
Part 1: Bendigo Station to Vaughn Springs (0-73 kilometres)
I ran this section solo, with vehicle support from Jonathan and Laszlo.
Jonathan drove me to Bendigo station from our nearby accommodation just before 6am on 6 March, 2021. After a quick photo and starting tracking on the Garmin InReach, it was 6:04 and I was off!
With clear skies and mildly cool temperatures, the weather conditions at the start were pretty much ideal. The streets of Bendigo soon gave way to unpaved track and dawn arrived after about an hour. The early morning sunlight sparkled on the trees and waterways that lined the trail. I was moving at a steady, relaxed jog and feeling good about the day ahead.
My one misgiving about the distance was that my right foot was still slightly sore after running Hut2Hut (106k over two days) two weeks ago. I had been keeping it taped up and stuck to just a few short runs since then, so I wasn't completely sure how it would hold up over the full route. 200k was farther than I've ever run in one go before. The full distance seemed a bit surreal and overwhelming, but I was able to stay focused on my first major objective--getting up and over Mt Alexander.
I met my crew at road crossings every few hours. The first few (at around 18, 24, and 33k) were quick stops to check in and restock on nutrition and/or water. I had a box in the car filled with a bunch of Gu products--watermelon chews, campfire s'mores stroopwaffles, and gels in about a dozen different flavours. My strategy was to eat at least one of these per hour while out on the trail, and pick up more substantial snacks (peanut butter sandwiches, watermelon, coke) when I met my crew.
The climb up Mt Alexander started in earnest around the 33k mark. The towers at the top looked closer than I expected, but the trail skirted around the mountain a bit, rather than heading straight up, so I still had a few kilometres to go. It wasn't an overly steep climb, but the sun was beginning to heat up and I was glad to see my crew pulling up just as I arrived at the summit carpark (around 38k) shortly after midday. We filled my hydration bladder with water and ice (so nice for keeping cool!) and I walked out of the carpark with a slice of watermelon in hand.
The next section of the track was quite rocky and technical, winding its way down the other side of Mt Alexander. The kilometres passed relatively quickly, and I quietly celebrated to myself as I crossed the marathon mark and headed into ultra territory. I was about 1/5 of the way through now and feeling like the journey was well and truly underway.
By the next time I met my crew (around 48k), I was tracking ahead of my predicted splits and beginning to think that a finish in under 40 hours might be a real possibility. Still, I had a long way to go and didn’t want to get ahead of myself. Anything could happen in the next 150+ kilometres.
The original plan was for Jonathan to begin pacing me from Chewton (around 57k), but it was only around 3:30pm, so we decided to wait until Vaughn Springs (73k), which I reached at about 6:15. It was a lovely area and several families and children were enjoying themselves on the giant slide in the park. I was tempted to join them, but I was in mission mode and wanted to keep my momentum going, so I elected not to join the queue.
I picked up night gear here (thermals, head torch, spare battery) and stocked up on enough nutrition to get me through the next 40k. The plan was for Laszlo to drop the car off at Twin Bridges Picnic Ground (near Daylesford) before getting a taxi and then taking the train home to Melbourne. They had dropped some water at the Chocolate Mill (around 95k) since there didn’t appear to be any reliable water sources through this stretch.
Part 2: Vaughn Springs to Twin Bridges Picnic Ground (73-112 kilometres)
It was a bit of an uphill coming out of Vaughn Springs, so I walked as I ate my peanut butter sandwich and washed it down with coke. Soon, the temperature began to drop and the sky faded to a deep orange. I put on my thermals and turned on my head torch, settling in for the long night ahead. I was glad to have Jonathan’s company and we chatted as night set in.
Around 8pm, Laszlo contacted me to let me know there had been a problem getting his taxi. Apparently, the taxi company was overwhelmed with demand due to the long weekend, so he was stuck in Daylesford. Rather than try for a later train home, he decided to stay with the car and provide vehicle support for us through the night. The extra unexpected support was such a morale boost for me! We arranged for him to meet us at the Chocolate Mill a bit after 10pm.
The track through this section twisted and turned, often with sharp drop-offs to gullies on one side. I imagine the views would be spectacular during the day, but in the dark, I was more concerned with making sure neither of us tripped over the edge. Every now and then we heard the loud thump of wallabies crashing through the surrounding bush. I couldn’t help but feel amazed that they managed to navigate the steep rocky slopes and thick brush so confidently, especially in the dark. We also spotted several possums—sometimes just a pair of eyes glowing in the light of a head torch, sometimes (thanks to the narrow trail) so close I felt like I could almost reach out and pet them.
I did get a bit bogged down through this section; the twisty trail slowed my pace and my foot was starting to get sore enough that I decided I would need to take some sort of action. Having company was a big help in keeping me positive and moving steadily forward. I also had a couple of Revvies (caffeinated energy strips) to help keep up my alertness. I changed shoes when we met Laszlo at the Chocolate Mill (switching from Altra Escalantes to Altra Superiors), hoping that something with slightly more cushioning and support would be easier on my foot. That was enough to get me through the next 15 kilometres, but I decided I would need a more extended stop at Twin Bridges to troubleshoot.
Part 3: Twin Bridges Picnic Area to St Georges Lake (112-159 kilometres)
At about 25 minutes (as best I can tell), this was my longest stop of the run. Kerryn, who would be pacing me from here, had brought hot water and prepared instant noodles for me while I got to work on my foot. We put a warm jacket on me and I sat in the passenger seat of Jonathan’s car, where I removed and replaced all the tape on my foot, leaving a mess of used tape, trimmed corners, and paper backing on the floor. Jonathan brought me a bag of ice and I sat with it on my foot as I scarfed down the noodles. Instant ramen has been a guilty pleasure comfort food since childhood for me and the combination of noodles and hot, salty chicken broth was exactly what I needed right then. Once I finished the soup, I coaxed my slightly protesting foot back into my shoe and got ready to set off.
The tape had done the trick for the time being and my foot seemed to be holding up as Kerryn and I made our way along the trail. We had planned a stretch of about 20 kilometres without further support so that Laszlo and Jonathan could drive ahead and get a few hours of sleep in the car.
I didn’t exactly feel sleepy as we pushed on through the night, but I did at times notice the feelings of unreality and brain fog that can come with a very long effort and sleep deprivation. Fortunately, Kerryn’s cheerful energy was infectious and helped keep me positive. She also gave me regular reminders to eat and provided a soft flask full of coke which I sipped on periodically. We reminisced about almost three years ago when she had paced me at the YouYangs 100 miler, enjoying the experience of running around in the woods at night, feeling like slightly naughty children up past our bedtimes.
We tried to divide the remainder of the run up into manageable chunks—I would run approximately a marathon with Kerryn before switching pacers at Creswick, when I would only have about a marathon left to the finish. I’m not sure what it says about my mental state (or my life choices) that this way of dividing things up actually made the remaining distance sound less intimidating.
We had a quick stop at the car at Wombat Station (131 kilometres) around 6am. Laszlo was still asleep and Jonathan came out to help us restock supplies. The trail was gradually smoothing out and opening up as dawn approached, so progress slowly sped up. Through a wide section of trail, I noticed a few small, fuzzy shapes that were difficult to make out at first in the low light. They looked a bit like birds, but I wouldn’t normally expect a group of them on the ground like that.
“Is that a family of baby birds?” I asked Karen.
As we pulled closer, I realised that what I was seeing was much more mundane-piles of cow poo. I wondered briefly if this meant I was about to start hallucinating, but I didn’t see anything similar for the rest of the run.
As we continued, the sky gradually took on the soft, rosy glow of dawn and before long we shed our thermals and head torches. Based on my pace, I was beginning to hope that I might not need to get them out again for a second night if I could keep moving well this morning. Dawn had me feeling energised and the trail gave way to country roads around the 136k mark. The roads meant I could pick up the pace and do a bit more running, but unfortunately, my foot was not so happy about the harder surface and increased pounding. I was still moving at a good pace, but I could feel that my gait was starting to be affected.
We reached Dean just after 9:00, and I made another quick stop to re-tape my foot. I had given up on following any specific pattern with the tape and just tried to wrap the foot tightly and reinforce everything that was already there. My foot and ankle were a mess of blue elastic over a layer of caked-on trail dirt and it felt at that point like the tape was the only thing holding my foot together—but it held. Honestly, it may have been mostly placebo effect, but it was enough to keep me moving. The final kilometres into Creswick passed pretty quickly. Before I knew it, we were approaching St. Georges Lake, where Kerryn’s pacing duties would end.
Part 4: St Georges Lake to Mt Clear (158-190 kilometres)
We arrived at the carpark around 11:15 to find Jonathan, Rach and Karen waiting for us. Rach took over as pacer and Karen gave Kerryn a lift back to her car while Jonathan continued with vehicle support. I was close to 100 miles in now and had just over a marathon left to go. If I could keep to 5k an hour (including stops), I would be on track for an 8pm finish.
The trail began to wind through the woods again, which was nice to look at, but slowed my progress more than I wanted at this point. I filed this area away, along with the giant slide, the gullies near Hepburn Springs, and the Chocolate Mill, as a place to revisit another time when not in a hurry and fully awake. Quite a few hikers and cyclists were out enjoying the trails with us and in some of the nearby creeks, we spotted visitors panning for gold. Not many asked what we were up to, but Rach did get to tell a few people that I had run all the way from Bendigo.
The track was well marked and Rach and I both had access to a GPX of the track, but there were some points where I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was running in circles. The day was warming up too and I was starting to overheat. Rach came to the rescue with a partially frozen soft flask which we fastened to my wrist with a buff. I had switched to tracking my activity on my phone so I could recharge my watch, so for a while, I didn’t have as much immediate feedback about my progress. I was in a bit of a daze and starting to feel bogged down when we met Jonathan near White Swan Road (172k) just after 2pm. When he told me I had only 30k to go and was still tracking well for an 8pm finish, I actually felt surprised. Suddenly, the end was in sight and I felt a new energy. After quickly restocking on nutrition (I was still relentlessly keeping up with my hourly consumption), Rach filled a buff with ice to put on my neck, and we were off again.
As we neared Ballarat, the trail transitioned to smooth bike path. I was still able to do a fair bit of running (well, more like jogging or shuffling) and excitement was starting to build. This was really happening! Around 177k, we ran through a tunnel under the Western Freeway. In my sleep deprived state, the echoes and shadows in the metal tunnel were disorienting and more than a little trippy. I felt like I had passed through a portal and popped out in Ballarat, well and truly in the home stretch now.
We met Jonathan and Karen at Eastern Oval in Ballarat (181k) around 3:45pm. It was a relatively quick stop before continuing through the streets of Ballarat, followed by gentle bike paths that headed out of town. My feet throbbed from over 30 hours of constant pounding, but that was just more motivation to keep moving so I could finish as quickly as possible. With only about 20k remaining, I was feeling certain that I would finish; it was just a matter of continuing forward.
A finish before 8pm was looking increasingly likely, which meant that I would probably be able to avoid the need for thermals and head torch, plus (just as importantly) that restaurants would still be open. Rach and I hatched a plan for food delivery to our accommodation in Ballarat. Anticipation of a huge pile of Pad Thai was yet another piece of motivation to propel me forward.
Before long, the bike path came to an end and we were walking along suburban streets. We were traveling gradually uphill now and I was definitely walking rather than running. Fortunately, it wasn’t too steep and adrenaline was enough to keep me powering forward as we headed into Mt Clear.
Part 5: Mt Clear to Mt Buninyong (190-201 kilometres)
As we approached the car around 5:30pm, we noticed a third person (very tall and wearing a Hut2Hut t-shirt) standing next to Jonathan and Karen. He introduced himself as Ewan and I had a vague memory of seeing him among the crowd at Hut2Hut two weeks ago. He was a Buninyong local who had followed our progress on the VUR Facebook page and asked if he could join us for the final climb. I was happy for the extra company as he, Jonathan and I set off for Mt Buninyong while Rach and Karen drove to the top.
I had stashed a thermal top and head torch in my pack just in case, but I was feeling confident I wouldn’t need them. I was excited and already in a celebratory mood as we jogged, power-walked, and shuffled our way towards Mt Buninyong. From about 195k, I could see the peak and observation tower in the distance, but it somehow seemed farther away than I was expecting. I had already decided that I wanted to climb all the way to the top of the tower when I reached the summit. I kept wondering when the climb would really start and when finally it did, it was over fairly quickly. I considered whether I would want poles (which Jonathan was carrying for me), but I felt fine with just a hands-on-knees power walk. Before I knew it, Rach had come down to meet us and it was only a few hundred metres left to the top.
Part of me couldn’t believe this was really happening. Soon we were within shouting distance of Karen at the top and then, suddenly, I was in the carpark. After a quick photograph to mark the “official” finish (which I timed at 7:49 pm, 37 hours and 45 minutes from when I started), I ran up towards the observation tower. I powered up the stairs, amazed that my lungs and my legs were letting me do this. At the top of the stairs, I finally stopped my watch.
Exhaustion, relief, and triumph all hit me at once. Rach pointed out Mt Alexander, which was just visible in the distance. That moment brought into perspective just how far I had travelled. There were more pictures at the top, followed by staggering down the stairs and then a champaign toast (arranged by Rach and Karen) before heading back to Ballarat for the night.
I can’t thank my crew enough for the encouragement, company, and support they gave me throughout the weekend. This was an amazing experience and I hope to see more women take on this track in the future!