Pomona’s King of the Mountain race

Cooroora Mountain, Pomona.

In Roman mythology Pomona was goddess of fruit and nut trees and was associated with abundance. In Queensland geography, Pomona is a small town 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 new films. The theory was if the film flopped in Pomona, it would flop nationally.

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 30 years, now-retired proprietor Ron West provided an organ accompaniment to Rudolf Valentino’s The Sheik.

The other thing Pomona is famous for is the King of the Mountain race which happens every year on the fourth Sunday in July. It began in 1959 as a pub bet as to whether it could be done in under an hour. Although the length of the run is barely 4km, the course goes up the 400 metre precipice of Mount Cooroora, an extinct volcanic plug that overlooks the town and dominates the landscape.

I’ve  done the King of the Mountain race once. That was in 2001 and it was a horrible mistake, though it worked out well in the end. I was familiar with the region especially nearby Kin Kin where some close friends lived. As a runner, I was often encouraged to take part in KOTM but had never agreed. Then one foolish night in the Kin Kin Country Life Hotel after several 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 Pomona’s mountain 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 race weekend. As I drove through Pomona, the bunting was up and the grassy square of Stan Topper Park was transformed into a fairground. 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 Kin Kin friends and we made a bee-line to the pub. Most conversation 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 to someone’s house in nearby bushland. In the spirit of Pomona, the goddess of abundance, I got very 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 testing in the race?”

I was genuinely concerned 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 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 with a 1 kilometre walk back to where I was staying.

On Saturday morning I drove down to Pomona after breakfast. The festival was hotting up, there were lots of visitors milling around and I could hear people directing events with megaphones. I ignored all this and drove to the start of the walking path that led to the mountain. I parked the car and walked about 800 metres to the base of the mountain. I seemed to be going down as much as up in the early stages. 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. 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 for the day after.

The view was extraordinary, south towards Eumundi, east towards Noosa and the long beach on the North Shore, north towards Gympie and west into the endless rugged interior. But what effort it took me to get there. I was spooked. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. After a lengthy rest, I was finally ready for the descent. This was difficult in its own way. Gravity was working against me, and determined to get me down faster than I wanted. I gingerly inched my way down and was deeply glad to be on “terra firmer” at the base of the mountain. I was not surprised I didn’t see a single soul going up or down. No-one 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 previous night’s shenanigans, I 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 kept coming back to haunt me.

Sunday arrived and I was a bundle of nerves. I pushed and prodded at my breakfast plate without making an impression. The race time was 3pm but entrants had to be there at 2pm to register. A friend gave me a lift to Pomona after midday and I left the property to cheers of good luck. The rest of the crew would come down later to watch the race. 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. At least there was no drug testing.

Butterflies increased as the start time approached. Kids played in the bouncy castles and took donkey rides without concern. The racers gathered around the start point. 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. I found out the calibre of my competitors. “Here’s (name forgotten), a New Zealand commonwealth games hopeful”…”here’s (name equally forgotten), a Champion British fell runner” “here’s (name etc) an Australian under 17s 5000 metres record holder” and then near the end “here’s Derek Barry, er, we don’t know a lot about Derek…he could be a dark horse.”

Loud applause rang in my ears but I wanted the ground to rise up and swallow me. As I warmed up, I saw another “dark horse” that looked equally out of his class. This was a guy dressed up in a half-cat half-kangaroo costume 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 said a mate at the edge of town minded the costume while he does the climb 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 walkie-talkies. We got to the start of the mountain and I was pleased to see 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. I kept going until about 150 metres short of the summit, I had a severe breakdown. I stopped 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, graceful as gazelles, sure-footedly picking their path and defying gravity with 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 veterans made up the time. While I carefully picked a path down they seemed to know exactly where to land on each step and most 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 behind me. That person had a tail! It was Feral Foulpuss. I was determined not to be beaten by a 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. I was cheered by name by people I did not know “Well done Derek,  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 sprint across the line in 39 minutes and 40 seconds to great applause amid the promptings of a frenzied MC.

A friend 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 effect 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 wore my ceremonial t-shirt and my finisher’s medal with great pride. It was one of the best feelings of my life. I told anyone willing to listen 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.

This story was originally posted on the old Woolly Days blog in 2006.


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