By Kyle Williams
It’s a bone chilling 1 degree Celsius (33.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Snowy Mountains, Australia’s highest mountain range. The brutal alpine wind blows relentlessly across the exposed mountain ridge, making the ambient temperature feel well below freezing. It’s after midnight and I am in the midst of complete darkness, somehow trying to navigate an off-trail route through the blackness, snow grass and endless rock boulders to Mount Stillwell, the last of 21 mountain peaks above 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) within the Snowy’s Main Range.
Accompanied by best friend and adventure partner Jamie Smith, we have been at this for nearly 19 hours now as part of our ‘A21 Ultra Adventure’: A never before attempted 82 kilometers (51 miles) ultra marathon adventure across Australia’s Snowy Mountains Main Range whilst climbing its highest 21 peaks above 2,000 meters (6,562 feet). What Australia’s mountains may lack in elevation, they make up for in sheer brutality of terrain and weather. For the majority of this ultra, there has been no designated running trail. Instead, there has sometimes been a ’blink and you’ll miss it’ footpad: A mostly overgrown, undesignated walking trail about 1 foot wide. Miss the footpad and you end up smashing your way through snow grass. For the uninitiated, snow grass is spongy, densely tufted clumps of ankle to knee deep grass that is incredibly difficult to run on. It’s like running in beach sand – soft, unstable and draining – only worse. Coupled with never-ending alpine winds gusting up to 100 kilometers an hour (60 miles), Australia’s Snowy Mountains provide a physical and mental suffer-fest of the first order.
After 20 peaks, I’m in the hurt locker. My quads feel increasingly heavy with each stride through the unstable snow grass, whilst my hips and ankles feel like they are slowly being crushed in a vice with each passing kilometer. Worse, my mind is starting to rebel. Energy sucking mountain peak scrambles, endless off-trail running, and night time navigation are not usually part of the deal in ultra running. As someone experiencing their first ultra, I surpassed my comfort zone many long hours and kilometers ago. Now, here in the sheer darkness and unrelenting wind gusts of Australia’s toughest alpine range, I confront the eternal question all trail and ultra runners must answer:
Why do we do this?
For those that have never experienced it, trail and ultra running is not just about the ’running’; the physical act of running is actually a ’vehicle’ for testing yourself. The only way to get better at anything in life is by testing yourself. Sometimes in life, you actually NEED to put yourself in a hole and then force yourself to crawl out. Do that and you will experience a level of personal growth that is life-changing. You realize that nothing in life comes easily and the ones who succeed aren’t necessarily the fittest or the smartest in the room. Those who succeed simply share a will to do where others do not. They are willing to work hard, willing to give everything they have, and are willing to suffer.
The act of trail and ultra running in essence then is a true psychological crucible, requiring hard work, suffering, and perseverance to successfully come out the other side. To succeed, you must put yourself in an uncomfortable position. You must be willing to push past your perceived limits. You must be willing to experience ‘The Moment of Truth’ – That point in a race where you don’t know if you can continue, but somehow find a way to keep moving forward.
With these thoughts in my head, my emotions start welling up. I realize that I’m experiencing ‘The Moment of Truth’. I realize, whether consciously or not, I needed to put myself in the hole and this ultra was the vehicle to do so. Now, I must force myself to crawl out of it.
One step becomes two. Two becomes a jog. Then, before I realize, Jamie and I cross the finish line at Charlottes Pass. After 19 hours, 82 kilometers (51 miles) and over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) of climbing, I collapse on the ground from the sheer emotional and mental effort.
I lay there totally spent and elated all at once, with the reality of achieving a world first and completing my first ultra at the forefront of my mind. I faced my fears and somehow found a way through. I feel more alive than I ever have and it simply doesn’t get to feel much better than this. Finally, I understand…
This is why we do this.
All Photos Courtesy of Kyle Williams
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