Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pomona King of the Mountain

In Roman mythology Pomona was goddess of fruit and nut trees and she is associated with abundance. In geography, Pomona is a small town about 150km north of Brisbane. It takes its name from the principal island of the Scottish Orkneys and also shares its name with a small suburb of Los Angeles where Hollywood producers used to trial their new films. The theory was that if the film flopped in Pomona, it would most likely flop nationally. Thus California’s Pomona was deemed the testing ground for Middle America.

Queensland’s Pomona also has a connection with the movies. It is home to the Majestic Theatre, possibly the world’s only silent movie theatre. Every Thursday night for the last thirty years, proprietor Ron West provided an organ accompaniment to Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik. West has retired now but the local council has kept on the lease and are providing a new impetus for this wonderful old institution.

The Majestic is one of two things that Pomona is famous for. The other is the King of the Mountain race which happens every year on the fourth Sunday in July. Tomorrow Sunday the 23rd is the fourth Sunday of this year and is thus the occasion for the 2006 race. It has taken place every year since 1959 (it started as a pub bet as to whether it could be done in under an hour) and although the length of the run is barely 4km, what makes it unique is the fact that course goes up the 400 metre precipice of nearby Mount Cooroora. Cooroora is an extinct volcanic plug that overlooks the town and dominates the local landscape.

Woolly Days has done the King the Mountain race once. That was in 2001 and it was a horrible mistake. I have long been familiar with the area especially the nearby town of Kin Kin where I have some close friends. As a runner, I was often encouraged to take part in the KOTM event but had never agreed. Then one foolish night in the Kin Kin Country Life Hotel after one or two too many schooners of VB, I finally said yes and entered the race that year. Before I could sober up and retract, the entry forms were thrust in front of my face and I had to hand over the $65 entry fee. The steep cost of entry alone should have been a warning. This was well in excess of normal ‘fun run’ prices. In fact it is deliberately priced to scare away the occasional runner.

I had only four weeks to prepare. I was reasonably fit having done many a 5 or 10 kilometre race but had no practice running up hills. Living in Brisbane I didn’t have easy access to the mountain itself so my training regime involved running up the side of the small but steep hill on Ivory Street next to the Medina Hotel at the Story Bridge. I started with five circuits and by the time my training was finished I was up to 15 circuits of the hill.

I went up to Kin Kin on the Friday night of the weekend of the race. As I drove through Pomona, the bunting was up and the grassy square of Stan Topper Park was transformed into a fair ground. Thankfully it was too dark to see the mountain looming ominously above. My stomach churned and I quickly put the town behind me. I met my friends and we made a bee-line to the Country Life Hotel. Most of the conversation that night was about the race and how I was going to do. Some had unreasonable expectations of my winning; I was more concerned about finishing and if possible avoid finishing last. The party moved on from the pub to someone’s house in nearby bushland. In the spirit of Pomona, the goddess of abundance, Woolly Days got hog-whimpering drunk as well as consuming a large amount of herbal jolliness. This was later to become a worry when someone asked the throwaway question “was there drug tests in the race?”

I was genuinely concerned that this might be the case even if I could only be accused of having taken performance distracting drugs. The other question I was asked was equally important: “have you been to the top of the mountain yet?” I had to admit that no, I hadn’t. I immediately decided that a Saturday morning recce was in order. I found a moment of brief sense enough to call a halt to proceedings and cleared my head somewhat with a 1 kilometre walk on a clear night back to the property I was staying on.

I got up mid-morning Saturday and drove down to Pomona after breakfast. The festival was hotting up, there were lots of people milling around and I could hear people directing events with megaphones. I ignored all this and drove through town to the start of the walking path that led to the mountain itself. I parked the car and walk about 800 metres to the base of the mountain. Worryingly I seemed to be going down as much as up in the early stages. It occurred to me that this would be an uphill climb on the way back tomorrow and I would need to make sure I had some energy left for this exertion. Then I got to the mountain. It looked more like a cliff and almost immediately it got difficult. There were concrete steps drilled into the rocks as well as a chain. Then the steps disappeared and then the chain disappeared too. I was scrabbling up bare rocks. Half way up I had to stop. I was sweating profusely and dog-tired. I scrambled up another 100 metres but my legs were turning to jelly. I had to stop again. At last, the chain reappeared to help me climb these monstrous rocks. After several more fitful efforts, I finally got to the top. I felt a mixture of elation and utter fear.

The view was extraordinary up here, down south towards Eumundi, east towards Noosa and the long beach on the North Shore, north towards Gympie and west into the rugged endless interior. But dear o dear, what effort it took me to get there. I was totally spooked. Tomorrow was going to be a very long day indeed. After a lengthy rest, I was finally rest for the descent. This was difficult in its own way. Gravity was not working with me, and determined to get me down faster than I would have liked. I gingerly inched my way down and was inordinately glad to be on "terra firmer" at the base of the mountain. I was not surprised that I didn’t see a single soul going up or down. No-one in their right mind would attempt this willingly. On the bright side, a check of the watch showed me that like the pub bet, I could do the run in under an hour.

The rest of the day passed without incident. Unlike the Friday night shenanigans, I deliberately kept a low profile on the Saturday night and went to bed relatively early. I didn’t have a great night’s sleep, the memories of the climb up that dreaded hill kept coming back to haunt me.

The Sunday arrived and I was a bundle of nerves. I pushed and prodded at my breakfast plate without making much of an impression. The race time was 3pm but entrants had to be there at 2pm to register. A friend gave me a lift down to Pomona after midday and I left the property to cheers of good luck. The rest of the crew would come down to watch the race itself. I was dropped off in a town which suddenly had ten times its usual population of a thousand people. The central streets were roped off. The fun run, the real fun run, had already taken place and it was sensible enough to skirt but not actually tackle the mountain. I registered and found out there was only 60 entrants. I got a sheet which told me the terrifying 439 metre height of the mountain. The start and finish were at Stan Topper Park and the run to and from the mountain would take a different route to the one I took yesterday.

Butterflies increased as time slowly progressed to the start time. Kids played in the bouncy castles and took donkey rides without concern. The racers had to marshal around the start point and then came an unexpected and unwelcome development. Each racer was introduced by name and had to run a little catwalk of 20 metres or so while the announcer introduced them. Thus I found out about the calibre of my fellow competitors. “Heres (name forgotten), a New Zealand commonwealth games hopeful”…”here’s (name equally forgotten), a Champion British fell runner” “heres (name etc) an Australian under 17s 5,000 metres record holder” and then near the end “here’s (Woolly Days), er we don’t know a lot about (Woolly)…he could be a dark horse” loud applause rang in my ears as I wanted the ground to rise up and swallow me. But as I warmed up, I saw one other person that looked a little out of his class. Here was a guy dressed up in a half cat half kangaroo costume who was introduced to the crowd as “Feral Foulpuss”. He may have looked silly but he had done the run before. I asked him how he got to the top of the mountain in that gear. He told me that he has a mate at the edge of town who minds the costume for him while he does the main part of the run in more traditional running attire.

Finally the starter’s gun rang and we were off. For the first time in 48 hours I relaxed and concentrated on my running. To my surprise I was well able to handle the early pace and was tucked in halfway up the field. We left the town behind and cheers gradually died out as we moved into the forest. It was still noisy as an overhead helicopter circled the route and marshals barked instructions into their walkie-talkies. We got to the start of the mountain and to my pleasant surprise no-one was running. Some were walking, some were scrabbling but everyone was taking this lump of rock seriously. Around the same point as I had my crisis yesterday I needed to take a break again today. I kept going until about 150 metres short of the summit, I had a severe breakdown. I needed to stop for at least a minute and saw most of the field hurtle past me. As I started up again, I had to stop and admire the leaders going past me on their descent, as graceful as gazelles, sure-footedly picking their path and defying gravity with their death-defying leaps down the treacherous rocks. I made it to the top and allowed a moment’s elation grip me. No time to admire the view today, it was a quick turnaround for the descent.

It was on the way down where the locals made up the time. While us newbies carefully trudged our way down they seemed to know exactly where to land on each step and most of them bounded past me. By the time I got back to the bottom, I was alone. But I was not last. As I shepherded my resources for the last kilometre run, I could hear the heavy breathing of someone coming up my rear. That person had a tail! It was Feral Foulpuss. I was determined not to be beaten by a stock cartoon character that was half mammal, half marsupial and totally ridiculous. I redoubled my efforts but could feel he was making ground. But then he had to stop and put on the rest of his costume and I knew I had him beaten. I came out of the forest and into the crowded town. People stood and cheered. I was cheered by name by people I did not know “Well done (Woolly), not long to go”. And sure enough I turned into the straight and saw the clock over the finish line. It was ticking towards 40 minutes. I found some unknown reserve of energy to cross the line in 39 minutes and 40 seconds to great applause amid the promptings of a frenzied MC.

I was found by a friend who immediately thrust a can of VB into my hand. I turned and saw Feral in all his glory hopping over the finish line. He wasn’t last either. There were another 10 or 11 stragglers. The last (and oldest) competitor crossed the line in 55 minutes. I found out that the winner, a New Zealander winning for the fourth time, had clocked a sensational time of around 24 minutes. The result of my achievement and that single beer sent me spiralling into la-la-land. After a quick change and a medal ceremony I wandered into the packed Pomona pub where I proudly wore my ceremonial t-shirt and my finisher’s medal. It was one of the proudest days of my life. I told anyone willing to listen to me that I would be back next year. I wasn’t and still haven’t been back. But some day I will return to Stan Topper Park on the fourth Sunday of July and celebrate the monarchs of the mountain with the goddess of fruit and nuts in the town of the oldest silent cinema in the world.


Anonymous said...

We were at Mt Hotham last year for the snow season and it was spectacular. I advise people to visit Mt Hotham.


Anonymous said...

VB??...why VB and not Fourex??..he he