The Engine Inside

Originally featured in Outer Edge magazine.

On a beautiful autumn weekend earlier this year, Brendan Davies ran 100-kilometres through Australia’s Blue Mountains faster than anyone had done before. Outer Edge caught up with the Australian trail running marvel to discover how he, a humble teacher and relative newcomer to the sport, developed the weaponry to run faster than Kilian Jornet, the pin-up boy of world ultra-trail running.

Brendan Davies during the 2013 TNF100-kilometre race in Australia's Blue Mountains
Brendan Davies during the 2013 TNF100-kilometre race in Australia’s Blue Mountains.

Of all extraordinary feats achieved in sport, nothing provokes incredulity quite like the efforts of boundary-breaking endurance athletes.

Australia’s breakout ultra-trail runner and winner of May’s 2013 North Face 100 kilometre epic, Brendan Davies, astounded everyone with a display of sustained speed over a punishing route through New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. His time broke the record set by renowned Spanish endurance phenomenon, Kilian Jornet, a feat that instantly vaulted him to a place among the world’s best. Jornet was recently described in the New York Times as  “the most dominating endurance athlete of his generation”. Brendan eclipsed his 2011 record by three minutes.

The manner of Brendan’s victory was so startlingly abrupt and unexpected that the significance of his performance didn’t have time to galvanise into something mainstream sport media could recognise. Ultra-distance trail runners such as Kilian Jornet and South Africa’s Ryan Sandes, like the Californian climber Alex Honnold, are famous outside the narrow confines of their niche communities. Brendan Davies doesn’t enjoy anywhere near their scale of acclaim. Brendan is so far from the glow of  popularity afforded to the likes of them he’s Pluto; way out in space, far away from the limelight.

In Outer Edge’s estimation, Brendan taking out Kilian’s record was like the Socceroos knocking Brazil out of the World Cup. Ultimately, it was a shame Ryan was afflicted by a cruel stomach virus that forced his retirement well before the halfway mark of the 2013 event, because even a fully fit Ryan would most likely have had his hands full with Brendan hitting the form he did.

With the status of Ryan as a benchmark, it would have been a lot easier for the mainstream media to understand Brendan’s performance. The fact he finished nearly 30 minutes in front of the superb Vajin Armstrong and Andrew Tuckey in second and third, and broke Kilian’s record, confirmed the significance of the achievement; but doing it while also defeating Ryan would have been something else.

Six years before the adulation that came with winning The North Face 100 so convincingly, life for Brendan was very different.

It was around that time he looked in the mirror and saw a podgy dude looking back. He’d spent the previous decade eating pies and knocking back stubbies with his mates.

“I didn’t really do a thing in my twenties, I was a typical university student, drinking beers and having a good time and after that I focussed on my career, got married and became complacent with my fitness,” he told Outer Edge soon after his victory in the Blue Mountains.

“There was an actual moment; I remember it well – I saw a photo of myself and thought, ‘I’ve got to do something about this weight!’ so I joined the Woodstock running club,” he remembers. “Within two years I’d lost 25 kilograms and been selected for the Australian 100-kilometre team.”

Despite being mildly interested in running as a kid, and being aware he had some talent as a distance runner, he didn’t think to investigate the boundaries of his ability as a younger man.

“I’m a naturally curious person, so it’s strange I didn’t have a crack back then,” he says. “Perhaps I was just focussed on getting my career sorted first and it crowded out everything else.

“Now I’m always looking to try new things. With running, there are so many types, so I started with basic road running – but I started to bottom out with my times, so I added some trail running to mix it up and really loved it,” he adds, with a sense that he’s recounting the key plot points of a grand plan.

“I started running along trails in the Blue Mountains and, after being selected in the Australian mountain running team thought, ‘Okay, I’ve been selected now’ and began to take it seriously. We were looking to buy a house and I suggested that we look at the Blue Mountains. We moved there and discovered a really cool community of trail runners.”

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Beth Cardelli: Blazing a trail

Originally featured in Outer Edge magazine.

The Blue Mountains, like many world famous wilderness tourist attractions, are extensively criss-crossed with walkways and viewing platforms. Despite this, local trail runner Beth Cardelli has little time for sightseeing.

“The views and all that are often spectacular,” Beth says, “but the course directors who design the races want to make you work for it; they want you to feel pain a little bit as well,” she explains cheerily when asked about running while surrounded by nature’s best. “Great trail run courses are usually set up by course designers who are runners themselves, so it’s often a deliberate challenge between you and them, and you can definitely sense that when you’re running.”

It’s an interesting combination – like staging a flogging on a scenic cliff-top. A juxtaposition of torturous hill climbs along muddy, rivulet ridden, ankle bending trail routes winnowing into the distance; and spectacular natural beauty. Where most people go to look at views, trail running course designers go to look for hills – most probably rubbing their balled fists in front of their faces, grinning and cavorting maniacally when they find them.

Beth training in Australia's Blue Mountains
Beth racing in Australia’s Blue Mountains.

Trail running courses are no afternoon picnic. They usually start at around marathon distance and go up from there, some as long as 200 miles. The most common distances for ultra-long trail races are 100 kilometres and 100 miles, although some crave much longer challenges. At the time of writing, ultra-long distance trail runner Richard Bowles is aiming to be the first to run the centuries old Bicentennial National Trail horse track from Healesville in Victoria to Cooktown in Queensland’s far north, a distance of 5500 kilometres – almost the entire longitudinal span of Australia.

For the time being though, Beth opts to pursue the more traditional distance races. She won the 2012 North Face 100 kilometre race in 11 hours 18 minutes – not bad for a race that’s equivalent to two-and-a-half marathons back-to-back over rough wilderness goat track rather than sealed bitumen.

“I just do it for fun really, I work full time so that takes priority, I just run in my spare time when I can,” she says. “I don’t have an organised training schedule. I just have a rough plan in my head where I say, ‘I think I’ll do a long run this weekend,’ and then just keep going during the week, doing a couple of tens here and there and just hope for the best really.”

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The Natural

Originally featured in Outer Edge magazine.

A mass of chattering eight-year-olds guided by a gnarly looking crusty blonde dude with skin the colour of aged oak run down the beach with lifesaving caps tied in neat bows under their chins. They head straight in without hesitation; duck diving under a vicious shore break before popping up out the back, one-by-one, easy as penguins.

Like prodigies put in front of a piano to recite Beethoven, kids who instinctively love the ocean quickly learn to enjoy its thrills – indeed, they often end up exploring it for the rest of their lives.

Lachlan Tame, a 23-year-old paddler from the mid New South Wales coast, joined Avoca surf club as a five year old. In 2011 he broke through to win the Australian Open single ski championships then doubled up, winning it again in 2012. His confidence buoyed, he decided to have a crack at national team qualification for the K1 200 sprint and the gruelling K1 1000 paddle races at the recent Olympic kayak selection trials.

“I had a bet with a mate I’d make the Olympics,” he says with a grin. “I didn’t make it, but he needed the five bucks, so I figured it was a win/win.

“I was focusing on the 200 metres which takes about 30 seconds, but I’d also been training for the surf race which is about four minutes, about the same as the 1000 metres, so I just gave that a go too,” he shrugs.

Almost as an afterthought, he remembers another detail about sprinting one kilometre in a kayak without waves to run on. It’s an important point, one we end up discussing at length: “It hurt. It hurt a lot.”

The K1 1000 is renowned as an exquisitely painful race; one of those events where the body becomes so loaded with lactic acid it loses all semblance of orderly conduct. The brain seems to lose interest in anything but immediately stopping. Of course, it’s typically halfway through a race, so stopping’s not an option. The brain counteracts the willful disobedience by flushing the muscles with more of the stupefying acid. The pain level thereby increases until the end.

Athletes preparing for this type of race undergo a training program that’s designed to mimic race conditions – namely reproducing the body’s exposure to lactic acid over and over again. In this way, the body adapts and learns to tolerate the pain, increasing its lactic acid tolerance threshold. It’s said the very best athlete’s – people like 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps for instance, have an extraordinarily high tolerance to giddying quantities of lactic acid. Some are born with an ear for music; others are born to deal with acid.

Lachie Tame-1

Lachlan, or Loccy as he prefers to be called, says his best attribute is his natural competitiveness. Rather than be daunted by the pain or the pressure of big-time competitions, he says he quite enjoys the experience of racing.

“I’ve got a good attitude to racing,” he says bluntly. “You’re there to race and win, but you’ve got to be comfortable in yourself and relaxed and not freak out.

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Skiing across borders

Originally featured in Outer Edge magazine.

On a clear day the snow-cloaked mountain peaks near Gulmarg in northwest India rise into the blue sky exactly like the Alps near Lugano in Switzerland or those of Squaw Valley in California.

This simple epiphany struck American freestyle skier Lel. C. Tone as she paused to survey the world from 14,000 ft, propped up on ski poles and with goggles pushed up on her head on the slopes of the Kashmiri Himalaya.

“To the east was China and some of the bigger peaks, to the west was Pakistan and it kind of overwhelmed me, suddenly realising how far from home I was and how skiing had pretty much brought me here and opened these doors,” she explains during a break between her many gigs.

She’s just starred in Warren Miller’s latest epic Like There’s No Tomorrow, squeezes in a bit of helicopter-ski guide work in Alaska and to round it off, manages to be an avalanche patroller in Squaw Valley.

Lel spent her first ten years living in Lugano during the 70’s and early 80’s when her family moved there from the States, and was put in skis as a two-year-old with the rest of the kids in her pre-school class.

“It’s amazing to look back on your life and consider how things pan out,” she explains patiently, probably recounting the story for the millionth time.

“From those humble beginnings at school in Switzerland, who new it would end up defining my career?”

Lel’s career description is unlike any you’ve heard about before. Part of her routine involves throwing sticks of dynamite from a helicopter to blast new and safer ski routes. It begs the obvious question, “Do you light the dynamite with a match?”

“No,” she replies, “with a cigar.”

Like one of the new American settlers who made their way to the Klondike during the late 19th century gold rush – except sitting in the wide open bay of a helicopter rather than astride a pack-mule – Lel Tone tosses fizzing sticks of TNT into the hills like some form of modern day Calamity Jane. A Yosemite Sam-style ski route blaster with a cheroot clenched between her gritted teeth.

Lel chuckles at this wishful characterisation and promptly sets the record straight.

“We use Dyno+AP rather than gelignite or TNT, it’s an emulsion explosive and while I’ve done a bit of heli-bombing we mostly place charges, which means sort of crawling around on ridges in very high winds with zero visibility throwing them by hand.”

LTNT_India_Lel_Lyns

Lel has dedicated her life to snow. She moved to Lake Tahoe in 1995 and has been a professional ski patroller at Squaw Valley since then. In 1999 she added heli-ski guiding to her resume, choppering powder- hungry clients to virgin routes in the Alaskan ranges. She’s an American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIRE) level two avalanche instructor and a board member of the American Association of Avalanche Professionals. There are few people in the world who combine her born intuition on skis, with the thorough respectful understanding of the permanent snowpack mountain environment she’s developed over the years.

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The Paddle Guru

Originally featured in Outer Edge magazine.

Many years ago, when the Easter Offshore music festival raged through what was then the relatively sleepy surf-coast hamlet of Torquay in Victoria, Australia, local paddler Tim Altman had something to do with the land on which the festival was held. We were junior members of Torquay surf club down from the city doing our mandatory beach patrol duties. Tim was one of the club’s senior gun paddlers. The girls – it’s always girls who hatch these schemes – wondered if we could get through security and into the rock-star chill out area using nothing but judicious name-dropping and haughty attitudes.

There were three checkpoints, we made it through the first two and approached the third. We could see Lenny Kravitz strolling about not far off. The side window was rolled down in response to a rapping knuckle from outside. A huge mug loomed from a great height and peered inside. “Who are you?” the massive face enquired. Who indeed. No one had planned for this; we hadn’t really expected to get this far. “We’re with the Altmans,” was the hastily blurted response. “Who are the Altmans?” came the crushing answer. The jig was up, our chance to sample the fabled delights of backstage rock-star shenanigans was ruined due to an outsourcing of security. He obviously wasn’t from the surf coast – any local security goon would have known who Tim Altman was, he’d been paddling the ocean swell around there for years.

In the passage of time between then and now, Tim has gone on to represent Australia as an elite paddler at various World Championships and more recently, with his competition days largely behind him, worked as the paddling coach at the illustrious Mercantile kayak club in central Melbourne.

Around January this year, Tim’s mate Jeff Sweeney mentioned that participating in the Molokai World Championships was on his ‘bucket list’ and asked if he’d be interested in joining him. Jeff’s enthusiasm was so infectious that, helplessly seduced, Tim said yes without much hesitation.

“All serious ocean-going paddlers want to complete the Molokai trip,” Tim tells me.

The Molokai has an almost spiritual aura linked to its heritage links with indigenous Hawaiian culture. For centuries Hawaiians have used ocean-going paddle powered craft to commute between islands. The Molokai race is a direct tribute to indigenous Hawaiian ancestry – a homage of sorts to those who first paddled. It’s a massive race, spanning 52 kilometres from Molokai Island across the Kaiwi Channel to Oahu. The best paddlers in the world take three and a half hours to finish. Those who aren’t among the best are advised to think carefully about entering.

padguru

Tim hadn’t raced or trained properly for years, so was naturally cautious. He always found competition fun – it had, after all, been a large part of his life – but he liked to paddle well, and new he’d be very competitive once the race began. He wasn’t sure if he’d find this enjoyable or not. Other aspects of Tim’s life, especially his keen interest in yoga and meditation, had led him towards a life philosophy far removed from the urgent, results obsessed ultra-competitiveness that characterised his time as an elite paddler.

“The Molokai isn’t something you approach half heartedly. You’re basically heading out into the open sea where there can be strong unpredictable currents and dreadful weather. Often you completely lose sight of land and literally feel you’re in the middle of the ocean,” Tim tells me.

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