Thredbo Fun and Fitness Week 2018

I can sum up Thredbo Fun and Fitness Week (TFFW) in just a few words: a brilliant week with fabulous people in an amazing location!

But you know me, I can’t write a 25 word blog post!

2018 was my third consecutive TFFW. I am now officially a regular!

TFFW is put on by the YMCA of Canberra Runners Club and is a week of events (many of them running, but a lot of other non-running activities too) which appeal to people of all ages and abilities, including Olympians and world champions! People come from all over Australia to participate, well by ‘all over Australia’ I mean mostly Canberra and Sydney, plus a not insignificant number from South Australia!

It’s a pretty long drive to Thredbo from Adelaide, approximately 1100km. Consequently, most of the SA contingent break up the drive with an overnight stay in Albury.

You have to be prepared for anything. And by anything, I mean, hot, cold, rain, hail, snow, March flies. To illustrate this point, the day we left Adelaide it was around 38 degrees (and in Albury as well) and the night before we left Thredbo to start the journey home a week or so later, it snowed! Consequently it’s kind of hard to know what to pack!

We arrived in Thredbo on Saturday around lunchtime, having decided this year NOT to do the Albury/Wodonga parkrun (the only parkrun in Australia as far as I know, which crosses a state border!). It was what you might call ‘hot’ in Thredbo, although by reports it was actually only about 24 degrees. The altitude may have made it feel hotter, maybe! Adelaide is about 50m above sea level, Albury about 150m, and Thredbo around 1300m. It’s a bit of a contrast!

The first event of TFFW involves gaining a little more altitude. The Crackenback Challenge involves running (or in the case of us mere mortals, mostly walking) up a fairly steep hill. The race is approximately 2km which doesn’t sound so bad until you find out that there is about 600m elevation gain over that 2km. Most normal people would ascend that particular hill via the conveniently located chairlift. Now where’s the fun in that?

We have some pretty steep hills in the Adelaide region, and even some hills that are almost as steep as that, but I am sure that the high altitude adds an extra degree of difficulty to this event, especially considering it’s held just a few hours after most of us arrive in Thredbo! Still, nothing like jumping straight into it – no time to get settled in!

This year was the 50th anniversary of the Crackenback Challenge so a top field of athletes had assembled at the bottom of the chairlift, along with a few ‘legends’ of the event who were the official starters. At the time of writing I don’t know exactly how many participants there were in 2018 but the number 66 rings a bell.

We were off and running!

Well, maybe not running. I might have run the first few steps. It’s not what I would call runnable. The leaders were running though!

There’s not really a lot I can say about this race. You just have to put one foot in front of the other and hope you don’t go so slowly you end up going backwards. There are a couple of very short flat bits which it’s best to try to run if you can, but other than that, the average person will be walking the bulk of the 2km.

The course is not marked as such, and in fact there is no set course. You can pretty much go whichever way you want, as long as you get to the finish line. Straight up, following the course of the chairlift, would be the shortest option but I don’t think I’ve seen anyone successfully go that way. The shorter the route, the steeper it will be. If you want to flatten out the gradient a bit (good luck with that!) you’ll add on more distance. It’s all part of the fun!

Last year a few of us did ‘Crackenback’ a couple of times during the week, just for ‘fun’. I do recall during this year’s event, thinking to myself (and maybe even saying it out loud!) “I’m never doing this again!”. By that, I meant, never again until next year!

My previous pacesetter, David, was in his usual spot just in front of me. As long as he stayed there, I would just be able to follow him. There are a few points along the way where people take different routes and it’s hard to know which is the right way to go! (At one point one of the other South Australians, Harry, went a slightly different way. I wasn’t convinced that his way was the best way, but he later pointed out to me that I’d passed him twice, which would tend to suggest that his way was quicker!)

I did end up passing David about halfway up, so I had to find someone else to follow! Everyone was going around the same pace, and I even managed to pass some people while walking! Everyone was pretty much horizontal. (I’m told by people who were up at the finish line, that the eventual winner, stair climbing champion Mark Bourne, was about the only one that was vertical by the end!)

Even though it felt quite slow, for me it ended up being a marginal PB! I was pretty happy with that. I don’t know what position I was in, at the time of writing only the top 10 male and female results have been published. I was probably somewhere around mid pack. My Strava time was 35:12, compared to 36:03 and 35:40 in 2017 and 2016 respectively.

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Smiling because I was almost done!
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Getting a bird’s eye view of proceedings!

The presentation took place in the local pub, and it involved a bit of a panel discussion with the aforementioned legends which was really good to listen to. And I won a bottle of wine in the barrel draw – kicking off the week in style!

On Sunday I went for a hike up Merritts Nature Track with Karen, Daryl and David, approximately 4km with the same elevation as the Crackenback Challenge (essentially we started and finished in the same place). Merritts was quite the tough climb, including more stairs than I remembered! After a coffee at Eagles Nest (the highest restaurant in Australia) Daryl and I went back down in the chairlift to participate in the traditional 6km fun run, while David and Karen ran back down via a different track.

It seemed pretty warm for the fun run, although it probably wasn’t any warmer than last year! It was actually my slowest time for this event, a good couple of minutes slower than when I first did it in 2016, although I did manage to stay under 30 minutes. Maybe I should stop doing a 4km uphill hike before doing the fun run! And then next year someone will suggest doing Merritts on Sunday morning and I’ll be like “Yeah, why not?”

A little later in the day Karen, Daryl, David and I went to the swimming centre for a few laps (Karen and I were planning to do the aquathlon later in the week and David had told us that swimming at altitude is very different to swimming at sea level, so we thought it would probably be best to get accustomed to it!) and most importantly a few goes on the waterslide! (Access to the swimming centre and the waterslide was included in our chairlift pass – I only made it down there once but it was a great option to have!)

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Just a big kid!

On Monday most of us went to do the ‘Big Walk’ – a 30km loop starting and finishing at the top of the chairlift. This was the first time for the week that I actually went UP on the chairlift! There were 10 of us at the start, but David took off pretty quickly so we didn’t see him for the rest of the day! Karen and Mandy were also a bit too quick for the rest of us, so for most of the day it was 7 of us, and the great thing was that I got to walk and chat with all of them at one time or another (we were out for about 6 and a half hours including a few breaks for food). The flies were less of an issue than in previous years (probably because it was quite cool and windy) although I did manage to get a few March fly bites during our lunch stop! And I didn’t see any snakes this time!

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Proof that I CAN actually do a selfie!
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This feels a bit “The Hills Are Alive”!

After lunch, we were checking the weather forecast and decided we needed to get moving – thunderstorms were coming, and we needed to make it back to the chairlift before then, as the chairlift would be closed in a thunderstorm or high winds.

By the time we got back to Rawsons Pass, we put our rain jackets on (Sue’s idea being that if she put her rain jacket on, it definitely wouldn’t rain! It didn’t work!) and not long after that the rain started. It wasn’t super heavy but there was a bit of thunder. We definitely picked up the pace a bit after that! We were walking on a very slippery metal walkway (slippery at the best of times, and even more so after it had rained!) so running was not an option! (Daryl managed to fall over on it twice even though he wasn’t running!)

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Hastily making our way back to the chairlift in between thunderstorms!

After what seemed like an eternity we made it back to the chairlift to the sight of Sally waving her arms frantically – we had 5 minutes before they closed the chairlift! So much for a post-hike coffee at Eagles Nest! I looked back behind me, Harry and Marg weren’t far behind and I called out to them to hurry up. We all got onto the chairlift and it was definitely the fastest ride I’ve ever done on that chairlift!

There was some talk of stopping for a coffee at the coffee shop but we opted instead to go straight back to the lodge. And it was a good thing we did, because we hadn’t been back more than a couple of minutes before the heavens really opened!

On Tuesday Karen, Daryl and I went to nearby Jindabyne for a bit of shopping, and while we were there we headed down to watch the Australian Waterskiing Championships for a while – that was pretty exciting to watch! We made it back to Thredbo in time to watch the Invitational Mile which is always a fun spectator event – it’s a handicap event and they run sweeps to make it even more interesting! I drew two women in the sweep, Elizabeth and Elisha. Elisha was looking pretty good but then former Olympian marathoner Marty Dent (who started off scratch!) passed her and I reckon with another 100m he would have ended up finishing first! The invitational mile was followed by the fun run mile which last year wasn’t really a mile (I think maybe 1.3km) so I’d convinced Sue and Mandy to enter because the barrel draw prizes were pretty good! They were cursing me apparently because this year it actually was a mile! I walked the first 2/3 of the run and then decided to jog the last bit. I ended up winning a T-shirt in the barrel draw.

Wednesday was a big day. It started with the women’s run and the men’s run. I really like this event, partly because it is a beautiful course (approximately 4km), partly because it is SO well marshalled (getting lost is pretty much impossible) and partly because the way it is set up, with mostly men marshalling the women’s race and vice versa, everyone gets to run if they want to! It’s a yacht handicap, so you have to estimate your finish time, with the runners with the slower predicted times starting first, and the idea being to finish as close to the ‘zero’ mark as possible. And of course you can’t wear a watch! This year I was about 30 seconds too fast – I’m actually pretty hopeless at this kind of thing and this was probably one of my better efforts!

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Before the Women from Snowy River run!

After the women’s run, a group of the girls, plus David who didn’t do the men’s run, did the ‘Run to the Resort’, following the Thredbo Valley Track, a shared walking/MTB track going from Thredbo Village to Lake Crackenback Resort. (I actually think it goes further than that now, but that was as far as we were going!) Harry, who was marshalling both the women’s and the men’s races, wanted to go as well, so I said I’d wait for him and we could meet the others at the resort. We ended up starting about an hour and 20 minutes after the rest of them, so we didn’t catch up with them, but they were well and truly settled in at the cafe at Lake Crackenback when we arrived! It’s a nice run – about 19km from our lodge to the cafe, and the path is really good to run on, and most importantly, mostly downhill! (That’s why the mountain bikers like it!) We didn’t encounter too many MTBs and most of them were going our way, but most of them were very courteous! (Harry came up with an evil plot which involved asking MTB riders if they were on their own – ostensibly to make sure we could look out for anyone else behind them – only for one of us to mug them and the other to steal the bike! We never quite managed to pull it off, though!)

I managed not to get lost at all along the way, which was an improvement on when I ran this trail last year – the trail is very well marked! It wasn’t until we got to Lake Crackenback itself that we lost the trail and ended up on the road, but that was only about the last kilometre. And then we saw Sally waving to us and we knew we’d reached our destination!

After a very well earned Coke, a few of us wandered down to the lake where there were a bunch of kayaks on the shore, so we decided to go for a little paddle!

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Perfect way to cool off after a big run!
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That’s a paddlin’!
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And that’s just a little bit silly!

That evening was the official TFFW dinner, which most of us in our lodge went to. It was a great night, with another panel discussion and some very entertaining speeches (and some fairly expensive wine!)

On Thursday, while another group went off to do the Cascades run, I went off to do the 10km Dead Horse Gap hike with Karen, Daryl and David. It was another tough climb – the third time for the week that I walked up a hill when there was a perfectly good chairlift available! It’s a beautiful hike though, the snow gums are simply spectacular! (We did miss out though – the girls who went to Cascades saw a dozen brumbies! I’d never seen a brumby! Unless Wild Brumby gin distillery counts?)

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Snow gums – wow!
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More wow!
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And yet more wow!

Later in the day I finally made it to the bobsled track for the first time this year. Our chairlift passes included 16 bobsled rides and I intended to make the most of it! On my first ride I took back my Strava course record. At the time when I originally set the CR (last year), it wasn’t even a segment, but then someone went and made a segment out of it AND had the audacity to beat my CR!

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First bobsled ride of the week!

Then it was time to get ready for the aquathlon – a 200-300m swim in the lake followed by a 2-3km run. No-one quite seemed to know what the distances were! I had brought my tri suit as had Karen, although most people seemed to be swimming/running in bathers. Neither of us particularly fancied doing that!

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With David and Karen, all psyched for the aquathlon!

The lake was quite a pleasant temperature, and being a freshwater lake, was mercifully not infested with jellyfish, unlike my usual swimming hole in Adelaide!

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I’m in there somewhere!

We swam from one end of the lake, around a red buoy, around a yellow buoy, and then to a large buoy which signified the exit point from the lake. I’ll happily admit that as a swimmer, I make a very good runner. I was well back in the pack (which sounds a bit better when I reveal that a lot of the swimmers in the event were actually elite NSW swimmers, who happened to be in town for the week for training). Now I have some issues seeing with my goggles, which are very darkly tinted, ideal in sunny conditions but not so good when the sun isn’t too bright. As I approached what I thought was the red buoy, it started talking to me, and I realised that either I was hallucinating, or what I THOUGHT was the red buoy was actually one of the marshals, who happened to be a fellow South Australian, Jeff, wearing an Arsenal hat! I wasn’t the only one who made that mistake though!

I quickly got back on track and eventually found my way to the edge of the lake where I  ran out and put my shoes on (no socks) and hit the Pipeline track for the run!

The run was pretty uneventful – for me at least! I would have had to be one of the last out of the water but I was able to overtake quite a few people on the run. Probably all the elite swimmers! I don’t know how many were in the event, what position I finished in, or what my time was (I was wearing my Garmin and I ALMOST managed to get it right!) but I am happy with whatever it was – especially because a large black snake made an appearance on the track not long after I had gone past! Good thing I wasn’t a bit slower!

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Aquathlon finish line!

The prizes in the barrel draw were great! I won another bottle of wine (and I think David did too)! Karen won some socks so it was winners all around from the South Australian contingent!

Friday was probably the highlight of TFFW, the Veterans Run, also known as Eric’s Run, after a former TFFW regular and huge contributor to the SA running community. This run is organised by the SA crew each year, with probably the best barrel draw prizes (I may or may not be biased) including wine and a ridiculous number of T-shirts! (And by ridiculous, I mean that everyone got to go up twice and there were STILL shirts left over!)

I had done the run twice and this year I was one of the marshals. Tradition dictates that if it’s your first TFFW and you meet the age requirements (35 and over for women, and 40 and over for men) you run in the event, and all those who don’t run, are the marshals. Every year the marshals dress up to a particular theme and this year it was ‘Let’s Get Physical’. The guys were resplendent in bright orange Corporate Cup T-shirts (some spares from the barrel draw!) and matching headbands knitted by Mandy, and the girls went all out with bright colours and leotards and legwarmers!

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Let’s Get Physical!

Sally had come up with the idea of doing a group warmup, to the tune of ‘Nutbush City Limits’, an idea she had got from a winery fun run a few months back. Marg and I were the aerobics instructors and we managed to get the majority of the runners involved!

I then had to run to my marshalling point, just in time for the first runners to come through. It was a challenging run course – lots of hills and quite a few steps! The way it works is, as the last runner goes past, the marshal at that point follows them, and at each marshalling point they ‘collect’ the marshal from that point. That way, the marshals get to experience the course (which changes every year) and are back at the Village Green just after the last runner.

After the barrel draw came one of the nicest traditions, where all the SA crew (plus quasi South Australian Ryan, who this year was eligible to run the event for the first time, having previously been one of our marshals) gather at Eric and May’s bench by the river for bubbly and snacks!

After this a few of us went back to the bobsled – Marg, Mandy, Sally, Harry and myself. Sally required a bit of convincing but ended up loving it and getting back in the queue like the rest of us for another ride! The second ride was quite eventful – as we were being towed up to the top of the track, Marg, who was just in front of me, had got out of her bobsled and was signalling at me to do the same! I didn’t know what was going on, I assumed there had been some kind of pileup on the track, so I threw myself out of the bobsled (easier said than done!) only to find that there had been a snake on the track, which by the time I found out what was going on, had sensibly made its way back into the bushes! (It’s OK though, as we were repeatedly told by the bobsled attendants, it was ‘only a copperhead’!)

There were storms on Friday night, which played havoc with the tennis finals, and there was also some talk of the following day’s Kosciuszko Classic possibly being called off. Last year’s Classic was run in pretty challenging conditions, and I couldn’t see it being worse than that, so I was optimistic! I definitely wanted to run it if it was on! I hadn’t been up Kosci on this trip, and even though it was unlikely I’d be able to see anything from the top, there was no way I was coming up to Thredbo and NOT going to the summit!

The plan was that TFFW organiser and Kosci race director Phil would go to the bottom of the chairlift at 8:30 and make the decision then, and announce via Facebook if it was cancelled. Most of the people at our lodge had decided that they weren’t going to run it even if it was on. There were only 4 of us planning to go up – the usual suspects, Karen, Daryl, David and myself. Karen had said that if it was called off she was going to go up anyway at some stage during the day. I planned to do the same!

With no announcement by 8:40 we assumed it was all systems go, so the 4 of us went to the chairlift where the crowd was gathered. Phil said he was going to wait until 9 to make the call, at which point he decided we would proceed up the chairlift to Eagles Nest and reassess from there. Before we left to start the 4.5km walk to Rawson’s Pass, he did a head count – there were 17 of us. (I’m not sure if he was including himself there). We would reconvene at the Kosciuszko Lookout along the walkway, and make a final decision about whether we would go ahead (although it could still have been called off at the last minute if the weather turned ugly!). With no storms on the horizon and no rain, the only concern was the cold winds which could result in hypothermia if people weren’t suitably dressed. Phil said all along that he reserved the right to call the race off at any point if he deemed it unsafe, which we totally understood – I was just grateful that we had got this far!

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4/5 of the South Australians at Kosci – David, Daryl, Karen and myself trying to keep warm on the long hike to Rawson’s Pass!

A few people turned back at the lookout, including South Aussie Peter, and also Marty and Elisha, who had both been in the Invitational Mile and Elisha had finished in the top 10 in the Crackenback Challenge. That left just 3 women in the 13-strong field for the race – I liked my chances of a podium finish!

We made it to Rawson’s Pass and all congregated in the toilets – the only shelter in the place! I asked “Are we going to leave our shit in here?” to which Kosci record holder Rob replied (something like) “I think that’s where you’re supposed to leave it!”

Phil organised for each of us to ‘buddy up’ with someone else, to make sure that we all made it back! My buddy was Rhys, who is a fellow South Australian and we are around the same pace, so it made sense for us to team up! Rhys was wearing his Adelaide Harriers singlet over the top of a long sleeved top, which made me decide at the last minute to put my SARRC singlet on over my T-shirt – I couldn’t let Harriers be the only SA club represented on the mountain!

While hanging out in the toilets (as you do!) one of the two other women in the field (ie the one that wasn’t Karen), Michelle, was having a few issues with the cold – she couldn’t quite manage to undo the cord on her hood to be able to take it off! While discussing the effects of the cold, Rhys suggested to Michelle to eat a Mars Bar (or maybe it was a Snickers, I forget!) to keep warm. (One of the other runners had a bag of fun size bars and was handing them out to those who wanted them.) I wasn’t going to eat a Mars Bar but I did have a Cool Mint Clif bar in my pack. I had planned to eat it afterwards, but what Rhys said made a lot of sense (and he is experienced at being out in the mountains in the cold!) so I thought what the hey, I might as well eat it now, just before the race! (This particular variety of Clif bar also contains caffeine – double whammy!)

A few of the other runners, Karen, Daryl, David (ie the rest of the South Australians) and one other man whose name eludes me (because at the time of writing the official results have not been posted) had set off early – that is traditionally an option for those who are mostly going to be walking, to save Phil et al waiting too long for them at the top of Kosci!

Our ‘official’ start time was 11am but Phil had told us to start whenever we got to the start line – not to hang around getting cold! As long as we all started at the same time, and then told him what time we’d started, he could work out the times based on that.

We jogged the 3km to the Snowy River to start the ascent to the summit. The 3km was all downhill, so the astute readers may have worked out that the Kosci Classic is pretty much ALL uphill. But compared to Crackenback, it’s a walk in the park!

On the way down, I was running with Ryan and we heard this noise behind us which sounded EXACTLY like a car (not something you see often in these parts!) – turned out to be just a HUGE gust of wind!

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Some of the other runners running down to the start

After my now traditional splashing of the face with Snowy River water (the water was surprisingly not all that cold – maybe something to do with the air temperature!) we lined up on the start line for the ‘official’ start line pic (thanks to some random passer-by for taking the pic!)

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The ‘official’ start line pic!

And then we set off. Rob was off like a shot! I was ahead of Michelle for a little bit, and then before long she passed me.”OK that’s it” I thought to myself, “Second place it is!”

But it wasn’t too long before she started walking and I passed her. We went back and forth a few times like this (Rhys was also around the same pace) before I decided to take a punt.

“So… how competitive are you, Michelle?” I said to her.

I can’t remember her exact words but the gist of it was, on this particular occasion it was just all about finishing.

So I made the suggestion to her about a dead-heat finish, which she seemed pretty happy with!

After that, I was a bit more relaxed in my running – all we had to do was get past Karen (who, having started early, probably would be slower than us anyway, but if we passed her then that would put it beyond doubt) and first place was ours!

As we approached Rawson’s Pass, I thought I heard a car behind us. I turned around, expecting to see nothing, but sure enough, it WAS a car! It was a ranger in a ute, I never quite figured out what she was doing there, but I assumed she was just keeping an eye on things, as the conditions were quite hazardous for the unprepared. Rhys later told me that when he saw her at Rawsons, she told him that she had measured the wind speed at 90 km/h and 5 degrees Celsius (which would, with wind chill, be effectively minus 5 degrees Celsius).

At Rawsons, I decided to ditch my gloves, putting them behind a rock so they hopefully wouldn’t blow away!

Every now and then Michelle would start walking, so I’d walk a bit. Last year, and the year before that, I’d managed to run the whole thing. This time, there was really no need to push it too hard. (Rhys, on the other hand, was determined to run the whole thing, having never done this before).

We passed Karen, Daryl and the other gentleman, and along the way we also encountered a number of very well rugged up hikers. I hated to tell a large group of tourists on their approach to the summit, that they probably weren’t going to see anything!

Not long before we reached the top, we encountered who we presumed were the top 3 men in the race, Rob, Ryan and Chad. We didn’t know what order they’d finished in but clearly Phil was serious when he said we weren’t to linger at the top for long – cross the line, quick photo, and straight back down to put some warm clothes on!

The finish line came as a bit of a surprise – partly because the visibility was so poor that it was kind of hard to see! You also come around a corner and there it is, so even on a good day it kind of sneaks up on you! Rhys was just ahead and then Michelle and I crossed together. At the time of writing I don’t know what my ‘official’ time was but according to Strava it was 34:10, EXACTLY the same as last year (to the second!) which was surprising considering I did have a few walk breaks this year unlike last year!

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Finished!

We had a few happy snaps (including the obligatory “I’m the highest person on Australian soil at this moment” one) and then were sent back down the mountain.

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Top of the world!
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Highest person in Australia!

Then it was back to Rawsons, put on ALL OF THE CLOTHES and then a leisurely walk back to the chairlift, back down to the village, a quick ride on the bobsled (no snakes today!), a quick bite of lunch and then the presentation! It seemed quite appropriate that there were only 2 mugs for the women – for the purposes of the photo Michelle and I ‘shared’ one! I got to take it home but she would have got her mug eventually! And at the presentation I found out that Ryan had had his first win in the Kosci classic, with brother Chad in 3rd and Rob ending up 2nd.

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Ready for the long walk back!
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Last bobsled ride for the year!
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The top 3 women in the Kosci Classic 2018!

That was the last official event of TFFW. Many of those in our lodge, with bad weather predicted for that night, had taken the opportunity to leave on Saturday. The rest of us stayed Saturday night and started the journey home (over 2 days, with a night in Echuca to break it up) on Sunday. Thredbo farewelled us in style, with an overnight dusting of snow. Now snow in Thredbo is not unusual (it is a famous ski resort, after all, and there are patches of snow up on the range all year around) but it IS the middle of summer so you don’t often have snow FALLING at this time of year!

AND I saw my first brumby on the drive back down the Alpine Way as we headed for Echuca!

Thanks to all involved in organising another brilliant week – see you all again to do it all again in 2019!