Shona Stephenson enjoying the soft technical trails of Run Larapinta
Run Larapinta Stage 1 and 2
Run Larapinta excited me to race it the minute I heard about it. I had been to the Larapinta Trail about 14 years ago for my honeymoon which was a real coincidence that I was coming back and completing the circle at the end of my relationship with my husband. I’d closed a chapter of my life with him, mediation was 6 weeks before and I was now free to plan my own adventures. I was so keen to explore more of the trail 14 years ago but lack the confidence to venture past the tourist sections of the Larapinta trail. It was time to reflect, be positive and rejoice for the life that I’ve lived over the past 14 years and see how far I’ve come as an athlete and as a human.
I’d already ticked off the stunning, jaw dropping highlights of the Larapinta Trail including Stanley Chasm, Telegraph Station, Ormiston Gorge, Mt Sonder, Ochre Pits, on the 223km Long Trail and I was so thrilled to have the chance to come back and join all the highlights together. Run Larapinta will cover 133km of the Larapinta Trail. It is still a 100km short of the full distance due to athlete and event crew/volunteer safety. The desert is not flat out here, it consists of many mountain ranges and jagged gorges, so vehicle access can be limited. Rapid Ascent decided to pick the best trail running sections and the sections with the best vehicle access for water stops or in a case of an emergency. I was delighted to stay in hotels with swimming pools between stages. This was what got me really hooked, I was keen to have a soak and chill after the event with like minded ultra runners. I looked at Run Larapinta as a real adventure running holiday, a reward for getting through a tough year of separation, I’d come so far and it was time to celebrate, have a 133km party and express my happiness with every step I took.
I always get asked when talking to people about my Ultra Trail running and the first question they usually ask is. “ Is what you do like that event where that woman was horrible burnt in the desert?”
I think it is important to say that I only race events where reputable Trail Running Companies are organising the event. Competitor safely comes first for me that’s why I was comfortable with racing through the desert with Rapid Ascent. Rapid Ascent is a great events company, they put on the amazing Surf Coast Century, Trail Running Series in Victoria and many other Mountain Bike and Adventure Racing Events. I knew these guys would look after me and all other runners whilst out competing in the desert which was another reason why I chose to race Run Larapinta. They held a mountain bike stage event the week earlier, which they’d organised few years now, they have experience with holding events in Alice Springs and I think was the main reason why they were the first event company to have the privilege to organise an event on the wondrous Larapinta Trail.
The conditions looked amazing for the runners for the next 4 days (except me). 20 degrees Thursday, 21 Degrees Friday, 24 Degrees Saturday and 28 Degrees Sunday. We were even treated with a desert thunder storm on arrival into the Alice. The sand was just a bit damp, air temperature was cool, making it a perfect racing surface and air temperature for trail running.
- Wow what a finish line!
Chifley Alice Springs Resort Stage 1
Alice Springs Resort to Telegraph Station
Start Time 5:30pm.
Water Stop 14km.
Before the start, we were lucky enough to have a welcoming speech from the Local Aboriginal Elder, inviting us into his land and wishing us all safe travels. He told us not to move any of the stones that we will see out on the track. They were all placed there for a reason. He wanted us to respect his peoples country and look after one another. It was a great honour to have him give us his blessing for the event.
John the race director for Run Larapinta also gave us a briefing. The emphasis was placed on us to look after ourselves and each other. The access is not the best, especially on days 2-4. If we fall over or injure ourselves we may be waiting a long time for help due to the remoteness of the trails that we will be covering. In some cases the best option may well be to, “Eat a few concrete pills, get up, harden up, and continue and finish the stage because there is not way to get vehicle to the trails where we are going. So be careful and look after each other.”
We all left the Alice Springs Resort as a group of nervous Long Course Malbunka Runners, camera men, race officials, supports crews, friends and family across the main road and set up under the Rapid Ascent Flags with the Trail Run Magazine, quad chopper filming the historic start of the first ever event on the Larapinta Trail.
After the countdown we were all off the running off on a dirt track along the side of the road before quickly ducking away from the main road and into the desert. Paul (VIC), Joe (NZ) and Craig (VIC) setting the pace early. After a few hundred meters, the boys were way too fast for me so I pulled up and eased off the pace. I was a bit nervous about how to approach a stage event. I chilled out and started to enjoy the view. I turned the corner, crossed the road and headed up the dirt path and I was caught by a little local aboriginal boy on his miniature motor bike. He sped along next to me giving me words of encouragement, “Go go go!” Before, accelerating and doing a big fat donut about 100 m ahead of me with a massive grin on his face, he then returned to me, flying along to give me a high five with some more cheers. I could hear him doing the same this for the other runners behind me. Seeing and hearing him having so much pure fun bought a smile to my face.
I turned right and headed up the first hill and I was caught by Fiona (WA), who was then caught by Anthony (QLD). We all cruised along together enjoying the moon and the rainbow coloured sunset over the West MacDonald Ranges. Wow! What a way to start this race. This was mint trail running country. The tracks were beautifully kept. Not a stick or stone was out of place. The soil was like running on velvet. I gave it a nick name of “Outback Velvet.” The Elders walk these trails at night cleaning them, maintaining them and keeping them in the pristine condition we were enjoying tonight. I was blown away at how stunning they were. The trails were “Japan Clean.” Now I understand why the elder expressed that we were not to move a stone. Every stone had a purpose and this trail running garden he created was spectacular.
Fiona, Anthony and I snaked around in a group over rolling hills, down and up the desert twilight switch backs, swapping places a few times marvelling at just how stunning the scenery was. We then popped out onto 800M of road and my legs took off like I had no control over their speed, sprinting down the slight decline, turning right, back onto the track, trying my hardest not to run too fast on the 1st Stage.
I somehow managed to create a gap between myself, Fiona and Anthony. I cruised up the hills and was caught by Anthony who then passed me before the 14km water stop. I decided to run straight through the water stop, not needing to refill and turned on my Ay-Up on in the darkness under the clear desert star lit sky.
I rolled onwards and upwards chasing Anthony and now catching the short course runners for a few more kilometers enjoying this whole experience. I then heard the music, spotted the pink, blue, white neon lights of the big rig trucks of the homestead. I followed the sounds of disco beats and fairy lights to the finish line and was so happy to finish in 1st place and 5th place overall in the long course with Fiona only 1 minute behind after the first stage. My time was 1 Hour 42 minutes for the 19km.
I then met up with local Australian Mountain Running representative couple Emma Kraft and Brad White after they both won the first stage of the short course in their last hit out before they headed off to Wales for the World Trail Running Championships. We had a great chat about all things trail running while they gave me a lift back to the hotel because I was so busy chatting to them that I missed the first shuttle bus.
Time to hydrate, eat, recover, foam roll, self massage and get some sleep before tomorrow’s 41km event.
Run Larapinta Stage 2 Start line at Simpsons Gap
Lasseters Stage 2
Simpsons Gap to Stanley Chasm
Start Time 8am
Water Stops 14km and 25km
We were all dropped off the shuttle bus at 7:30am at Simpsons Gap awaiting the start of stage 2. Not many of the runners slept the night before and we were all wondering what the 2nd stage had to offer us. It was pretty cold at the start, maybe only 10 degrees and predicted temps would only reach about 21 degrees.
After a stiff, shuffle of a warm up and chit chats we walked to the start line in the creek bed in front of Simpsons Gap between the Rapid Ascent Flags. At 8am we were off and running, all a little bit slower than the night before. It was a fast turn around from only finishing racing 11 hours earlier. I woke up many times and ate through the night, making sure I would have enough energy for not just today but for 3 more days. I thought of the first day instead of just running 19km it was like running 60km. Adding the two days back to back together.
We were all called to a startling at Simpsons Gap, between the flags and the count down went off and we were all off and running along the trail that snaked along a narrow single track lined with fluffy grasses, slightly climbing and forever rolling over small hills. My legs were tired from the night before and my left strained hamstring that I injured competing in a family and friends sand dune long jump competition was not responding properly which then meant I was not lifting my feet and in the race to stay ahead of Fiona I left foot kept tripping over small grasses, hiding rocks and landing foot out on my front, face first in the bushes at full hamstring and arm extension. Ouch!!!!!! Ouch Ouch! Ouch! I fell over 4 times in the first 17km. Each time expecting Fiona to catch me totally out of sorts on my stomach, with a hamstring that is barely hanging onto my bone, face first in the sharp spinafex grass. I was lucky that I had just enough gap to fall over and recover before anyone witnessed my clumsy mistakes. Each time I fell I cursed myself for being stupid, thinking about racing rather than being in the moment, not having the correct focus. I learnt that fluffy grasses meant danger. Shame it took me 17km to work this out.
The trail was like a twisted snake, curving along the the land past Bond Gap, Arenge Bluff, and into the water stop at Mulga Camp. I pulled my head in and decided that it was best to stay out of tripping trouble and in the moment. I counted, blew out my air in my lungs. I was struggling a bit with my breathing too. It was really cold and my lungs were having a bit of a spasm, I was having trouble breathing. I was just waiting for the air temperature to rise so I would feel better. My asthma was shocking. (When I am having an attack my trachea goes from 3.5cm in diameter down to 2.6cm. No wonder I have problem breathing. It usually take me a few hours in every race to warm my lungs up in cold conditions.)
Soon enough I warmed up, climbed up over the ridge line at Half gap and Spring Gap. I tripped again in front of Chris Ord from Trail Run Mag. It was weird seeing someone else on the trails. I really was isolated, totally out on my own with no one with me. So seeing Chris pop up at Spring Gap startled me a bit. After regaining my composure after pulling my hamstring yet again, I was happy to see Chris there. I was getting complacent before he popped up and started running fartlek intervals to get ahead of me and take a shot before sprinting off again. We sped off together chit chatting, and I was happy to having someone else to focus on, pace off, run with for a while before he soon dropped off the back of me on a descent just before the 2nd Water Stop.
At the 2nd water stop at the 25km we had an out and back section, I found the volunteer enjoying some zzz’s, and had to wake him up before turning back the way I came from and I spotted Fiona only 200m behind. We said some hello’s and I knew it was time to push. I execrated on up the sandy trail, spotting a big Brown Snake crossing the path into the grassy bushes. Great! Now brown snakes in the bushes, what fun. Shit! Don’t trip over again and fall on one.
I followed the pink ribbons and blue arrows up a creek bed and swore I was lost many times. Out here the creek beds are used as tracks. Following creek beds seems so foreign to me and just prayed that I was going in the right direction especially with Fiona so close behind. I followed foot prints in the sand and I just hoped that it was not the cow prints that I saw the dung from that I was following. We do anything to avoid creek beds in Sydney, Brisbane, Japan, Europe, but here in the desert they are dry and the best path to follow. I followed the foot prints and looked hard for shoe prints of the boys ahead of me. Just when I was about to turn back and retrace my steps I’d push on for 5m and spotted a blue Larapinta Trail Arrow. I also spotted a trusty Inov8 Roclite Tread in the sand. I knew I was following the right route, I just was not sure who I was following. I pushed on rock hopping, scrambling, acknowledging that my left hamstring was not flexible at all when clambering over creek boulders towards Fish Hole and I just hoped it would last the full 4 days.
I found a trail and followed my nose as instructed by race Director John at the race briefing that morning, forever climbing slightly until I saw Craig the marshal at the Tangentyere Junction. I veered to the right and started the climb up the “Alternative High Route,” towards Millers Flat.
Who said Run Larapinta will be flat? FAR OUT! This climb was straight out of only something that I had experienced in Japan or Europe. It was a steep, rocky, hot, rugged, scramble. There was no point trying to run it. It was pure hands on quads, hands on rock, hamstring pulling, mountain hiking, rock climbing, scrabbles, pulls up the 700m climb in only 2km. I was climbing up a jagged ridge, worried about hand placement on the rocky ledges knowing that a snake could just be sunning itself on the ledge. In the past I’ve disturbed snakes on rock ledges before while trail running with PT clients. I scared a snake off the ledge and it got such a scare that it jumped off the rock ledge and over my poor unsuspecting PT clients head to my horror! My past experience has made me pretty nervous climbing this rocky out crop especially after just seeing a big fat brown snake.
My right hamstring started the cramp up under the extra strain it was under due to my left hamstring’s lack of range and power. I had to keep an eye on the trail, as it disappeared as I climbed up the mountain, behind loose rocks and alpine shrubs. I was out of breath and out of water, thinking that this last 8km would not be that hard. The temperature was rising and this ridge was dam hot. I decided to break a Hammer Endurolyte cap into my mouth and lick the last remaining drops on the inside of my water bottles to help the electrolyte dissolve. My cramp disappeared straight away. Phew! Bloody lucky!
I finally reached the top and marvelled at the view. It was stunning! I could see for hundreds of kilometers 360 degrees in every direction. Wow! The clearness of the view is totally unlike anything I’ve seen for about 14 years. There is no moisture in the air, no clouds, no pollution so I could see what seemed like forever. Beautiful, ochre landscape of the legendary West MacDonald Ranges and the Outback Desert stretched out into infinity. Not a trace of human population could be seen. This place is pure wilderness.
Whoop, whoop! I’m at the top. It’s all down hill from here with a bit of a gradual climb then a little hill and then the finish. Easy I thought. Wrong!
I ran along the “Alternative High Route”, ridge line just loving the scenery. I was totally blown away by the colour, clearness, plant scenery, bird life. I spotted some short course, fluro runners up ahead and used them and a homing beacon, guiding me the correct way. I soon caught up with them, smiled as they took many photos of their adventure together.
The trail followed the ridge line down with rugged, loose boulders and bush stairs. I soon switch from two limb running into all four downward scramble, catching and chatting to short course runners who were kind enough to step aside for me. This type of descending was so much fun, my legs and arms were going everywhere, it was more of a controlled fall rather than a walk or run down the mountain. The trail followed the boulder creek through the middle of a gorge, that resembles a lost world lined with cycads. I lost the track a few times following my natural instinct to always look for a trail out of the creek bed. My previous experience was not helping me get through these sandy gorges. After about 50 m I soon discovered that I was just to move though the guts of the gorge.
The creek bed was a mixture of soft sand and massive boulders. I was either sand running or boulder hopping, forever worried that I was following the wrong line and missing the route out of the gorge. Different landscaped have a different trail running language to tell. I had to learn this new language quickly. I track read, follow warn paths, a slight change in colour of the rocks can indicate where the path more traveled, meaning the correct path to follow. I had to stop countless times and check my course, fearing that I was lost in the desert, I still had not learnt this language properly yet. My lips were now parched and I was licking the inside of my empty water bottled now for over an hour. I was becoming de-hydrated, if I was not already dehydrated. I was still trying to eat a gel a hammer in every hour but without water it was making me feel a bit sick. I was also getting concerned about my race tomorrow and the following day. I was careful not to burn up out here. I was happy to slow down and stop to checked for foot prints ahead of me and looked for a marker up ahead I was always reassured of my course.
I popped out onto Millers Flat and totally took the wrong turn, following the first blue Larapinta Trail marker that I discovered. I came to a group of walkers.
“You’re going the wrong way”. One walker informed me.
“I’m following the markers”. I said now pretty exhausted and a bit delirious.
“There are markers for the Larapinta Trail going both ways”. The guide enlightened me. “Where are you going?”
I was so stuffed and at my limit that I could not remember. “What’s that way.” I asked pointing towards Stanley Chasm.
“Stanley Chasm”. The guide said.
“How far away is that and what’s that way?” I asked pointing in the opposite direction.
“4ks away and Jay Creek is that way. Four Runners have gone that way and it’s the wrong way.” The guide warned me.
“Fuck! Okay I’ll head to Stanley Chasm. That’s the finish line. Thanks heaps.” I thanked them counting my lucky stars that I’d run into this group of walkers at the junction. I felt instantly guilty that I was going the right way when 4 other runners went the wrong way. I was so worried about them. I was so hoping that the boys Paul and Joe were okay and that they were following the right course.
The guide was kind enough to walk me back 50 m to the junction and point me in the right direction. I thanked him for his kindness and I then ran through Fig Spring and looked at the puddle of water and wished that I had water purifier tablets on me or a filter. I was pretty close to drinking the water straight from the puddle I was that thirsty.
I had only 3 ks to go and I just imagined I was running up Mt Coo-tha with Bubble my trusty Kelpie and Steve my love of my life and gorgeous partner. The car is just up ahead I imagined. Steve is there waiting for you. Bubble is just ahead clearing the track of snakes for you. There is a cold drink in the car. It’s all so close. I climbed the fittingly named Gastrolobium Saddle, now in shut down mode, run, walk, run, walk. I was conserving my legs for the next few days careful not to use up all my glycogen in my muscles .
I made it to the top of the ridge only to face another descent straight down another water course into a gorge. I again hoping to see a route out of the creek bed but soon accepted my fate of more boulder hopping, rock scrambling, soft sand running through the hot heat sink of a creek then straight up a step of orange ruff cut stairs which indicated to me that I was getting closer to the finish line. The walls of the gorge shot up vertically into the blue sky above, like shards of towering opaque, glossy, ochre crystals. The trail sent me up and over the red cliffs on my hands and knees crawling, up the stairs.
I’d been without water for almost 2 hours now. I was feeling the effects of hydration lack of food. Use the fat, burn that fat. I thought to myself. Bloody hell! If the finish line is not in exactly 1.5km I think I am going to scream. Where is the finish line? The trail was so technical that it was adding minutes, hours on my predicted time faster than anything I’d run before. My watch indicates that is it just here, yet I’m in this maze of red mars like rock and could not see a way out. I descend a step of orange bush stairs, hoping that I was getting closer. I spotted a walker watching me hop down the rocks.
“How far to Stanley Chasm?” I ask.
“About 1km.” He informs me with a smile.
FARK! I say in my head!!!! I thought the end was flat! I don’t remember seeing all these ups and downs bush stairs on the profile map. I then think back to my trip 14 years ago and tried to remember what Stanley Chasm looked like. I think my brain was so stuffed from dehydration that I could not focus or remember anything.
I ran on searching for the finish. Searching for my way out of this maze. I pushed on up the cliff with my hands on quads, cursing the race director, I swear these cliffs were not in the profile. But when I thought back to my trip I do remember this area being extremely jagged with a massive vertical gain over a short distance.
I spot some well fed middle age grey nomads at the bottom of the stairs. Sweet! I must be close to the main tourist attraction in the area. I descended the stairs, turned to the left, ran along the creek bed, pulled myself up over a railing and around some boulders and I spotted the Run Larapinta Flags and ran across the finish line. Wow, what a stage! This was my kind of racing, pure toughness, adventure, amazing trails and, world class views.
“Bloody hell that was hard. I’ve been without water for almost 2 hours. I hope everyone else is okay. John, is tomorrow easier?” I asked as I sat down and drank 2L of water in about 15 min adding in enduroyltes. My body just lapped it up. I was relieved to hear that tomorrow will be easier and more predictable with food and water consumption. The stage 2, 41km took me 5 hours 30 min.
Race Set Up
Inov8 X-Talon 200
Inov8 Race Ultra Elite Calf Guards
Inov8 Race Ultra Elite Shorts
Inov8 Race Singlet
Inov8 Race Ultra Elite Vest
Hammer Head Sweats Visor
Hammer Heed 3/4 scoop in 500ml….I usually aim for 500ml every 2 hours
500ml water with Hammer Every 2 hours, meaning with the Heed I am drinking 500ml every hour.
Hammer Endurolytes 1 cap every 30 min
1 Banana Hammer Gel every 30-1 hour depending on how I am feeling.
1 Hammer Bar for Breaky Apple Cinnamon.
Wow what a finish line!