Altitude Training

Altitude Training

“On an island in the sun
We’ll be playing and having fun
And it makes me feel so fine
I can’t control my brain”
– Weezer, “Island in the sun”

Hobart is a beautiful little city, all Georgian sandstone and docks and hills, pubs and bakeries and galleries, reborn as an arts and gourmet destination nestled in the Derwent Valley at the foot of Mount Wellington. Even more so when the weather turns nice, as it has this weekend. The whole place sparkles and the sky is clear. It’s a bit earlier than you’d normally find me up on a Saturday.

“Reluctantly crouched at the starting line,
engines pumping and thumping in time.”
– Cake, “The Distance”

I’m here for the Point to Pinnacle, a race from the Wrest Point Casino to the top of Mt Wellington. It’s a half-marathon, 21km and just over 1200m uphill. The event advertises itself as the world’s toughest half-marathon.

I’m not quite sure what has possessed me to get here. Getting into my middle years I have been, as they say, in a fairly good paddock. I’ve been consciously more active over the last few years, but it’s mostly a sort of incidentally-active rather than hard heart-rate-raising exercise. And even when I was fit, as a schoolboy, I was really only sprinter-fit. Could reel off a few repeat 300s, but even the tamest middle distance races undid me. I liked running fast more than I liked running.

Thankfully, this event isn’t just about running. About half the entrants opt for the walking group. We’ll set off at 7, an hour before the runners, and they give us until 11:30 to finish, before they have to reopen the roads. Four and a half hours. We need to average 4.75km/h to get in under the cutoff.

“Nobody’s gonna see me comin’
Nobody’s gonna hear a sound
No matter how hard they tryin’
No stoppin’ me since I’ve found
My inner ninja”
– Classified featuring David Myles, “My Inner Ninja”

There are four of us: Myself, the Blushing Bride, her sister Bernie, and cousin Catherine. The walk starts briskly and cheerfully; we’re bulletproof. Up through the hills of Sandy Bay and South Hobart, past the University and through Victorian streetscapes. The Blushing Bride is pushing the pace and I have to jog a few paces every now and then to keep up. A couple of the hills are pretty challenging, and flatten off not a moment too soon. We get to the first drinks station at the 4km mark and find that we’ve pulled a fair way ahead of Bernie and Catherine. We decide to wait, which is probably just as well. Once the other two catch up we stick together and chat for the next couple of kms.

At about the 5-6km mark, the first couple of runners shoot past us. We’re still fairly near the front of the walking pack as far as we can tell, and the runners started an hour later than us. They must be making pretty good time.

“The catcher hits for .318 and catches every day
The pitcher puts religion first and rests on holidays”
– Belle & Sebastian, “Piazza, New York Catcher”.

Sometime after the second drink station, between 7 and 11km, “Piazza, New York Catcher” comes on my iPod. It’s a sweet, deceptively intricate song. Not all exercise songs have to be pulsing, motivating, driving things; they can also be wordy, take your mind off the repetition songs. The Blushing Bride is the pro, metaphorically hitting .318 and catching every day. She’s way fitter than me, and in good shape today. I’m the dilettante, and while I might not put religion first, I certainly do rest on holidays. At the 11km drinks station we are still together as a group, and reassure ourselves that we’re past the halfway mark and, in essence, it’s all downhill from here.

I lose myself in more wordy songs — The Black Sorrows, Kimya Dawson, even Tom Waits (how on earth did that get onto an exercise playlist?) — and find myself skipping ahead of the girls. So far, the tactic of getting ahead a bit and resting has proven a winner. A few moments to catch my breath and take it all in are golden.

The main rest stop before the final assault is a place called The Springs. There’s a lookout a hundred metres or so before that, and I comment to the chap next to me that no matter what, by getting this far we have well earned the view. He stares kind of blankly at me, then explains that he didn’t understand — he’s French. I manage to come up with “Je ne parle pas bien Francais, mais bonne chance!” He grins, returns a cheerful “merci!” and heads off up the hill.

“I’m still standing
Better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor
Feeling like a little kid”
– Elton John, “I’m still standing”

In truth, I’m stuffed. We’ve come 14km and climbed 700m. It’s about 10am. There have been enough flat stretches to take the edge off, but it’s been mostly a solid climb. My calves are getting tight and my quads are complaining, but mostly, and a bit unexpectedly, it’s the hip flexors. With every step, the hip flexors. I could quite happily call it a day here, but I know I’d never forgive myself. We spend about 10 minutes at this rest stop, topping up on Gatorade and jelly babies, gathering our strength.

So we’ve got 7km to go, and another 500m to climb. The road traverses the mountain side for about 5k before turning back to the summit. One long unbroken climb. Let’s break it down into 1km legs. Painted helpfully on the road are the distances to the summit, at kilometre intervals. TBB and I make it through the first kilometre well enough, though more slowly than before. The other two are falling behind a bit.

“Oh, it ain’t no fun no more
I don’t know what to say
The honeymoon is over baby”
– The Cruel Sea, “The Honeymoon is Over”

Mentally, the long climb is hard. The road bends gently to the left a few times and from below, the marker posts look like they kind of bend down around the curve. It’s a mirage of course. As the truth of the matter swings into view, I can’t help but curse out loud. We make it to the 5km mark, me in slightly worse shape and TBB starting to get a bit impatient.

“I’ve done all the dumb things.”
– Paul Kelly, “Dumb Things”

From here on, it’s not pretty. We spot a bloke about my size lying on the road and have a bit of a chat to make sure he’s nothing more serious than exhausted. He’s cheerful enough, has a phone and there’s plenty of medical attention available, so we wish him the best and plod on.

TBB is coaxing me on, one step at a time. I try counting paces to challenge myself, only counting my right foot. 100 paces should be 100 metres. I allow myself a 10-second break. Before long, I’m not even doing that well. 50 paces. 30. We get to the 3km mark and check the time. Half an hour to go before the cutoff.

Normally, 10 minutes per km is an easy walk. This is not, however, an easy walk. Bits of me that have nothing to do with walking hurt. My neck from constantly looking up the hill, for heaven’s sake. TBB decides that if nothing else, one of us is going to finish the damn thing (and, correctly, that her encouragements are showing diminishing returns) and strides off.

The last refreshment station is just beyond the 2km mark. They’re packing up, but I seem to have made it before the Bus Of Shame that comes to collect the non-finishers. I press on, catching up to another chap who seems to be having as hard a time as I am. We leapfrog walking and resting, geeing each other up, until even he leaves me behind.

There’s an SES volunteer at the 500 metre mark, egging me on. God, has it only been 500 metres since the 1km marker? I’ve long since ditched the iPod. I somehow expected that I’d get a second (or third or fourth) wind and be able to do the final stretch with something upbeat and triumphant, like The Style Council’s “Shout to the Top”, but … yeah, nah.

“Che gran fatica,
da quando sono nato,
così è la mia vita,
è la mia vita.

Cammino piegato in avanti,
faccio la salita.”
– Bugo, “La Salita”

(or in English: “What a great effort, since I was born, such is my life. I walk hunched forward, I make the climb”).

I feel like one of those floppy marathoners you see in inspirational sports montages as I finally make it across. A quarter of an hour after the official finishing time, but they are waiting around for stragglers and I get my medal and handsome certificate. I can’t even bend down to take the GPS tracking thingy off my shoelaces; one of the volunteers does it for me.

One thing, though: I made it. I effing well made it. And the view of Hobart on a clear day from Mt Wellington when you’ve earned it like that is freaking amazing.

On the bus down I compare notes with some other tailenders. Funny how many of us committed to this thing months ago after (clearly) one too many drinks. TBB tells me later that her bus had to stop 3 times for people to throw up. And on the news that evening, the winner says to the sports reporter “Man, that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a spectacular run though.”

Sing it brother.


  1. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Well done Rob it would have been easy to throw in the towel and think I’ll do more training and have a go next year and stats show unlikely you would have had a go well done you i say ! A win for perseverance
    How did the others who started out with you end up ?

  2. mickey randall says

    Lovely read Rob. Well done on your achievement. A good one at any age. Really enjoyed your use of lyrics to punctuate your piece. Weezer. Cake, The Cruel Sea, Paul Kelly- I like your iPod. Especially taken with Belle and Sebastian, among my favourites. I reckon a few lines from their song “The State I’m In” could have supplemented your recount!

    Oh love of mine, would you condescend to help me
    Cause I’m stupid and blind
    Oh and desperation is the Devil’s work, it is the folly of a boy’s empty mind
    Now I’m feeling dangerous, riding on city buses for a hobby is sad
    Why don’t you lead me to a living end
    I promised that I’d entertain my crippled friend
    My crippled friend

    Thanks for your piece.

  3. Thanks Malcolm,

    Sister-in-law Bernie made it to the 17k mark before being caught up in one of the intermediate cutoff times. Brilliant effort on her part considering how far back she came from. Catherine stayed with her, but otherwise would have made it. My wife cruised in with plenty in the tank after going slow with us for so long.

    And I reckon you’re right about good intentions to try again. My first reaction at the top was wanting to make it half an hour quicker next time, but that started dissipating pretty quickly.

    Mickey, yeah I’m that insufferable guy who always wants to make the dinner party playlist. Nice call on “The State I’m In” too. So of course I made a playlist of all the songs referred to in the article:

  4. Peter Fuller says

    Congratulations Rob. We distance running obsessives are always heartened to find new converts to the cause. It’s impressive when some-one from an acknowledged low fitness base takes on something as challenging as this, and it’s a triumph when you reach your goal.
    The others in your party might take comfort from the marathoners’ mantra:
    “There are three categories of winners in the marathon, first across the line, everyone who crosses the finish line, and everyone who makes it to the start line.” The latter category is because of the implied preparation, and the fact that the runners/walkers have overcome the temptation to not participate. The hardest part of any run is the first step out the door.
    A half-marathon with a 1200 metre climb, is at least as a gruelling as a marathon on the flat, IMO.

  5. Bernie Schramm says

    Great recap Rob, very polite of you to not mention that I pretty much collapsed at the 17km drinks station :) I remember the St John’s ambo volunteers leaving me to run up the road to get the dude you passed lying on the road up ahead.

    Before I did this I thought “why the hell would you want to walk up a mountain you can drive up” but I realise now that you have to work for it to really appreciate it.

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