West Macs Monster 128km with Scout Stenhouse
Scout’s 128km run traversing the Larapinta Trail – West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory
Ellery Creek Big Hole to Hugh Gorge 30km
The beginning. The beginning of a running journey I had been waiting to embark on for quite some time. Our first time to the West MacDonnell Ranges was 4 years ago nearly to the day, during our travels around Australia and there was an instant connection between me and this country. I was beautifully brutal, it was raw and extremely unforgiving. I knew what I was coming up against, but I was naive at the same time; I trained for this, I had amazing support, I was ready!
The first 30km was dreamy. Flowy single-track trails, laced with rich red rock and wildflowers. I was in a trance, eating and drinking my way to the mountainous ranges in the near distance.
Hugh Gorge to Birthday Waterhole – 15km (45km accumulative)
After a quick pit stop to refill my bladder and revel at the sight of the bowl of snakes (somehow I didn’t pack any of my own!), I was on my way down the first of many gorges.
Exiting Hugh Gorge had to be done by either a water crossing or scramble along the rocky ridged banks. As I was preparing to swim, a fellow runner, Critty, insisted that I follow his lead and watch his hand and foot holds. I was a little apprehensive as the last time I seen Critty I followed him in the wrong direction. Not only that but I have a fear of falling and if I was going to fall in any place, this would be one of them! His calming encouragement led me across and before I knew it the next challenge smacked me fair and square. Razorback Ridge.
A steep climb along the ridgeline with the most spectacular, yet confronting views. I could not believe I was out there, taking it on. What was even more confronting was that I still had many steep climbs and ridges to traverse, many insanely not runnable rocky gorges to navigate, and I had lost all appetite. I was feeling extremely nauseous, frustrated, and scared.
8 hours into the journey I arrived at Birthday Waterhole and unwilling forced down a cup of Oriental Noodles.
Birthday Waterhole to Standley Chasm – 18km (63km accumulative)
Going into this run I had 3 goals.
1, to finish, 2, to finish in 25 hours or less, 3, watch the sunset from Brinkley Bluff. Leaving Birthday Waterhole I knew only two of these goals were going to be somewhat achievable, goal 1 and goal 3, which I had to get moving if I wanted to reach.
My running had turned into a shuffle, one foot in front of the other, whilst I tried to take my mind off the vomiting and keep my sights on the bluff. All I wanted to do was curl up in the riverbed and cry. How was I ever going to achieve these goals.
I pushed on – “I can do hard things”
I didn’t make the summit for sunset, instead I marveled at the iridescent colours of the Bluff as the sunset hit it like a ball of fire. I was happy with that.
Not having eaten and having just tackled a big climb, I shuffled into Standley Chasm with the energy absolutely sapped right out of me. This was the first time I had seen Ben all day, it felt so nice to hear his voice. He had laid everything out that he thought I would need - blankets, jumper, a thick woolen buff, and a buffet of food. Unfortunately this all you can eat buffet challenge was an unsuccessful feat. I was feeling colder and colder by the second and I wanted to withdraw. But before I could even consider it, Ben was walking me back out on to the trails.
It was 10pm and this was the last time I would see him for 12 hours.
Standley Chasm to Mulga Camp – 24km (87km accumulative)
Approaching Mulga Camp aid station, after a grueling night up, along, and down the high route, I sent a message to Ben on the Garmin Inreach at 4:17am that read “I think. I donee” if my poor sentence structure and grammar is anything to go by, I was done.
The High Route. Grueling doesn’t cut it. It honestly felt like hell only with ferocious freezing winds. There was rock scrambling which made for type 2 fun during the night and there were many times I questioned if I was even going in the right direction. I was feeling delusional, I still had not eaten and was only just managing to keep fluid down. Each step became an arduous burden, robbing me of hope and sapping my morale. As I slowly moved forward, I cursed at the wild rocky terrain yet respected it more and more.
I arrived at Mulga Camp at 4:45am where I was donned with a shiny silver cape, multiple blankets, and a hot water bottle. As I sat in the aid station volunteers car with another 128km runner, Annie and her pacer Isla, I was planning my escape, so much so it was called over the radio. I was withdrawing.
I did not want to do this anymore. I came here to run. Walking was feeling extremely demoralising. I was unbearably cold, I could not get warm, and I STILL HAD NOT EATEN ANYTHING. My strained drained body was utilising its final reservoirs of energy in a desperate quest for warmth.
Two hours passed by. The sun had broken the horizon and Annie gathered the courageousness to push on. I untucked myself from the warmth and comfort of the car, walked over to the volunteer and told him I too was going to get to Simpsons Gap. He served up a cheese toastie and the GO card would not be handed to me until I at least ate half to which I managed to do, just.
There were a few factors to regaining the strength to leave Mulga Camp, messages from Dad and Ben on the Inreach and of course Annie, Isla and the volunteers. I felt so fortunate that I crossed paths with them when I did. The volunteer especially, he was honestly my saving grace. I left Mulga Camp at 7:00am, with another jumbled message to Ben “I will walk to simp N leaving now”
Mulga Camp to Alice Springs Telegraph Station – 41km (128km accumulative)
I managed to get a trot on. It wasn’t pretty. The cheese toastie sloshed around in my stomach like the next victim ready to withdraw. Nevertheless, amidst this symphony of discomfort, a bittersweet sensation enveloped me. The sun brought with it a sense of hope as it cast its radiant rays upon my weary form, and it wasn’t long before sunscreen replaced the layers of clothing. It’s astounding how quickly things can change, for better or worse.
Shuffling into to Simpsons Gap, a long 16km from Mulga Camp, I scanned the aid station desperately for Ben. It took me 12 hours to do 40km and I just wanted to be in the comfort of his calming presence. I sat down in the chair, asked for another cheese toastie and told him I could do this.
During the final 25km my feet, swollen to an unbearable extent, had succumbed to the relentless strain of the wild rocky terrain. They felt like blocks of wood but mostly I couldn’t feel them at all.
By now the 65km and 25km runners were passing by. Between the cheers and thoughts of wishing my legs worked like theirs I surrendered myself to a newfound cadence of hiking strides. “Great work”, “You got this”, “Nice strides!” formed a motivational symphony that drove me forward. And then I seen Annie and Isla. I was so proud and thrilled for her.
After an arduous journey spanning 32 grueling hours, conquering 128 kilometers with relentless ascents totaling over 4,000 meters, I finally crossed the finish line, feeling overwhelmed with a torrent of emotions, a kaleidoscope of triumph, exhaustion, and profound satisfaction.
We did it!
The result was not what I wanted but it was everything I did at the same time. I defied my limitations and discovered strength and endurance within me that I never knew existed. Embracing discomfort is easier said than done and I now have a better understanding of my own potential.
West Macs Monster to some would have been just another ultra, it was that for me too, but after reflecting on my journey the past week the kaleidoscope of emotions keeps on turning. I feel proud yet disappointed but mostly I feel a bit lost.
Preparing for endurance races takes a lot of self-belief, support, and discipline. My day-to-day life and weeks revolve around a training schedule, it becomes a part of who I am. My friends and family continuously checking in on my progress, how I am feeling and what they can do to support me. Now that it’s over my world seems quiet, there is no schedule, no alarms, just a repetitive chorus of “what’s next”.
Thinking about what’s next feels like a painful break up. I’m not ready to let go of my time on the Larapinta Trail. The memories created, the friendships foraged, and the lessons learnt are all etched into my heart. In all my years of adventuring I have only felt this way one other time and that was after returning from PNG and the Kokoda Track.
If you know, you know.
So, when the time feels right, I will be ready to embrace the next adventure, knowing that the Larapinta Trail will forever be a part of me, guiding and inspiring me along the way.
Also, I’m still trying to get my head around the Centralian “first sun rise” and “second sun rise”, we heard this quite a few times. Isn’t the “first sun rise” just first light?
Images by Scout Stenhouse