West Macs Monster – Ekistica 231km Sonder Monster – Race Report (2022)
Written by Oliver Page
The West Macs Monster trail running festival, by the Alice Springs Running and Walking Club, is held in the Northern Territory just outside of Alice Springs and sees runners traversing the infamous Tjoritja West MacDonnell Ranges. The event challenges participants over differing distances along the Larapinta Trail, the 5km Tele Monster, 25km Simpson Monster, 65km Standley Monster, 128km Ellery Monster and the 231km Sonder Monster.
The Larapinta Trail was completed in 2002 and spans 223km between the Old Telegraph Station and Mt Sonder, passing through major geographical and cultural sites, including, Standley Chasm, Euro Ridge, the Ochre Pits, Simpson’s Gap and Ormiston Gorge. Many of these sites are sacred to the Arrernte people, who have permitted tourists and walkers to visit the site.
In 2021, I decided that I would sign up for the 231km Sonder Monster. Why? I am unsure exactly, other than to say I like to challenge myself and after speaking with Shane Johnstone, I thought that this would be one epic adventure, and a trail I would love to attempt one day. So, I decided that day would be 22 May 2022, and as soon as I registered, I thought what have I got myself in for.
I have been coached by Corrie Johnstone and run with Valetudo since November 2020, both of which have helped me improve my running significantly. I knew that I was in good hands for my preparation for this event. The longest run I had done to date was 100km and I thought it was important to attempt a longer event prior to West Macs. I saw it as the best way to test my endurance, nutrition and overall ability to complete a run longer than 100km. I decided on the Delirious West 100 Miler. This was a good event and allowed me to identify a number of areas I had to work on ahead of West Macs. Key take aways were nutrition, staying upright and pacing.
After a couple of weeks of recovery post Delirious West, training for West Macs commenced. Throughout this training block, Corrie ensured I focused on strength training, elevation and technical terrain as these are all crucial to being able to complete the event. The Larapinta trail is all single track, highly technical and has a significant number of major climbs, and to add to this, I would be running through two full nights with very little rest. Therefore, I needed to be confident on my feet. April was the biggest month covering 590km with the longest training run being 8 hours in duration. By the end of my taper period, I was feeling really strong, fresh and ready to experience what the Larpinta had to offer. My only concern the closer I got to the event was contracting COVID, thankfully I avoided that.
Outside of the physical preparation there was, of course, all the logistics. Thankfully, my amazing wife Georgia is the brains in our family and brings logic and common sense to my planning. I was also aided by a great bunch of experienced and talented trail runners who provided me with a lot of advice, lessons learned and spare equipment. Not to mention, company on many of those long training runs. All of these set me up for success. I learned in Delirious that my very regimented plan for the aid stations was not the best solution, and whilst it is good to be prepared, I realised it is essential to have flexibility in your plan because things always change. Going into West Macs, I felt prepared having come off a good training block, locked in an awesome support crew (Georgia and her good buddy Kate) and developed a flexible and appropriate nutrition plan. We hired a 4WD Camper for the crew vehicle, had accommodation booked in Alice Springs for the duration of our stay, and took all the essential race nutrition with us from Perth (luckily, I had excess baggage for that). Equipment wise, I had all mandatory gear outlined in the race rules, and with some help from some friends I had spares. I found the most beneficial spares were: trail running poles, shoes, headlamps, hydration bladders and bottles, and power banks.
By race week, all the prep was done, and I could do no more except get to the start line and commence the epic adventure. We arrived in Alice on 18 May and spent time over the next day or so doing the final preparation: race registration, mandatory briefing, and resting up as best we could. Friday morning came round, after a surprisingly good night’s sleep, and we hit the road early to make it to the Sonder Monster team photo at the Mount Sonder lookout. From there, we drove to the base of Mount Sonder (the start of the epic Sonder Monster) following the convoy of support crew and race organiser vehicles. It was here that the nerves truly kicked in, and I just wanted to get started. Under the race director’s guidance, all participants started up their spot trackers and bang on 9:00am we were off and running.
The start of the race was a 16km out and back up Mount Sonder with 740m elevation gain in the 8km ascent and a technical downhill trail, all topped off with stunning landscape. What an intro to the Larapinta Trail and scene setter for what was to come! If I didn’t know what I was in for, this leg certainly introduced me well. Going through the first aid station my awesome crew topped me up with fluid, handed me pikelets and pizza and sent me on my way. The plan had to be to take it easy during the day, whilst it was forecast to be 25 degrees in Alice, it was warmer out on the trail with little to no shade. So, even though I felt fresh, the need to be conservative was paramount to be able to make it to the finish line within the 60-hour cut off.
Keeping it cruisy throughout the heat of the day, I pressed on through the relatively flat sections through Rocky Bar Gap, Finke River Water Point and onto Orminston Gorge where I next saw the crew. This was the first real support I received from Georgia and Kate who loaded me up with fresh fluids, gels and lollies as well as some much need solid food to take with me. Ginger beer and Coke were the other key elements at the aid stations giving me a break from tailwind and water. Stepping off after 10 minutes, I commenced my journey into the afternoon/early evening. After the trail had left the grasslands of the West MacDonnell ranges it increased in technicality and required more concentration to ensure I remained on two feet and did not do myself a mischief. As the day drew to a close, the land changed colours from bright red earth to dark maroon, and I saw one of the best skylines I have ever seen as the sunset behind the ranges. As campers set up for the night, I donned my headlamp to commence my first night under the NT stars, and what a sight that is.
The trail got tough, really tough, and I had to have my wits about me as I entered Waterfall Gully under the beam of my headlamp. I found myself having to negotiate boulders the size of cars and fallen trees from recent floods, all the time watching every step so I didn’t fall 2-3m off of the boulders. My motivation was truly tested, and I had to dig deep to keep going. Perseverance and positive thoughts of seeing Georgia again got me through, getting into Serpentine Chalet Dam was such a relief. A good meal of pasta, top up of the essentials and off on my way again – it would only be another 21km until I got support again at Serpentine Gorge.
The rest of the night my morale remained high enjoying what the Larapinta had to offer and seeing my crew at regular intervals. Leaving Ellery Creek Junction, I would not see Georgia and Kate for approximately 63kms, equating to A LONG HARD TIME. So, I was loaded up with tailwind and gels and set on my way. Today was a tough day, not because of lack of sleep, but due to the technical terrain and a long day in the sun. Hugh Gorge was particularly tough and it never seemed to end, my patience was tested and I had to dig deep to keep motivated. Whilst negotiating one of the many water holes I slipped and fell. I was unscathed; however, I broke one of my key pieces of equipment, my trail running poles, which I paid for dearly as I had one of the biggest climbs of the event still to come – the climb to Brinkley Bluff. This was an epic climb, by Australian standards, and never seemed to end as the track wound its way up. I thought I had made it to the top of and that relief soon passed when I saw the trail descend into another valley and climb back out again, only higher this time. The final part of this climb was more of a scramble up a rock face and, I must admit, I was glad I negotiated this in the day light, it would not have been fun at night at all.
Getting into Standley Chasm I was cold and battered and my feet required some attention. Seeing the fire burning and my awesome crew was, again, a huge lift to my morale. Sitting down I scoffed some hot food, drank ginger beer and changed my shoes. I looked after my left foot bursting a couple of blisters and dressing them, but my right foot needed the care of a professional, SJA paramedics were there to assist. After what seemed a long time, and me stiffening up and getting cold, I had to get going again. I had the most difficulty getting going at Standley Chasm, uncontrollable shivers and legs that felt as though they had been splinted. The Larapinta took care of that with a nice climb out of Standley Chasm, I was soon warm and moving somewhat freely.
The second night required a couple of no dose to maintain concentration as well as an internal dialogue to tell myself that I wasn’t running in circles, and no there aren’t people in the middle of nowhere doing squats, and those faces in small rocks that are talking to you, they are not real. What a laugh that was, both at the time and to reflect upon. When I entered the second last checkpoint, I knew, in the grand scheme of things that there were only a few kilometres to go. These were still going to be tough and when Georgia said to me “I am running the last leg with you”, I did not argue. Having her there talking to me and keeping me alert was amazing and a great help. I didn’t say much to her, Georgia did all the talking, but to be able to share that last leg with her added to the whole experience. Coming into the last aid station Kate was there again letting me know what was on offer. They had everything you could think of, but all I wanted was ginger beer. None on offer!!! But then a kind volunteer gave me some of their personal supply – so refreshing – and I was ready for the last 5-6km. This seemed to be the longest Park Run I have ever done and getting closer to the Old Telegraph Station all I could hear was the commentary and music. I remember I just kept asking, “How far away is the finish?” …right up until the moment I crossed it.
Crossing the finish line of the West Macs Monster Ekistica 231km Sonder Monster has been my biggest running accomplishment to date. It is an event to remember; it’s tough, arduous, mentally and physically taxing and rewarding all at the same time. I have a newfound appreciation for trail running and what it is all about for me. It’s not about the time I finish in, or what position in the field I finish, it is about the adventure, how far I can push myself and experiencing what this diverse world has to offer.
I could not have finished the 231km Sonder Monster without the outstanding coaching of Corrie Johnstone, the support of the Valetudo running community, and most of all my crew, Georgia and Kate.
Corrie set me up for success ensuring I was in as good a condition as I could be both mentally and physically and had a good nutrition plan that was tested throughout my training. The Valetudo Running community trained with me most weekends, provided advice from their lessons learned on various events, suggested nutrition and equipment ideas and supported me throughout the event.
My Crew, I cannot thank enough for their support. Their beaming smiles and raucous laughter motivated me time and time again. They knew what I needed and when I needed it, and they kept me going when times were tough. Finally, my wife, Georgia without her unwavering support throughout my training and the event I would not have made it to the start line let alone the finish.