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Ultra Trail Australia 100km Race Report

It’s September 2016, I’m still coming off the high of completing my first 100km at Surf Coast Century – I’m content, I’m happy, I’m done.

But my friends keep talking about the next adventure, and for the most part I ignore them. It’s something I’d heard of but never taken an interest in, UTA, or some North Face 100 thing.  Then through late September and early October, all I heard was UTA UTA UTA UTA…. then I made the mistake of googling it, and clicking the link for race promo.

I felt it happen. The hair on the back of the neck sit up, a little surge of adrenaline that shoots the most ridiculous messages to your brain. Messages like “maybe”… “what if”… “is it even possible?”… “I wonder….”…. I began to think about it and talk to people. For a fortnight I mused and chatted and thought about it. Then it got serious… I showed my wife the video… I showed by kids the video… I asked her that night if she’d support me through it knowing what a commitment it was, I couldn’t do it alone. The one roll of the eyes and she was in. That was it, I was ready to commit. October 12th, registration opened, I signed up, sat back and sighed. What had I just done…

THE LEAD UP.

To do a race like this is very hard for people like me, as it’s just not my number one priority (I know I’m not alone here!). I can’t wave a magic wand and just train for 6 months alone. It certainly should be a priority and I know that… but the order is Kids, Wife, Work… then running. It’s priority number 4. So running more than 70km a week is a stretch for me usually, 80km is massive, 100km weeks would be less than a handful. I try to get quality sessions in during the week and long runs on the weekend… doesn’t always work but keeps me honest enough. It’s probably why I’m just a mid packer.

And maybe that’s why this race was so special.

I had plans to follow Hanny Alston’s race plan from Find Your Feet, but like many race plans I loved the concept and the structure and I believed in it… but I just didn’t make the time to execute it. No excuses, it’s a choice. I won’t say I couldn’t find the time, the truth is, running just doesn’t rule my world and other things just have to make way. If I miss a session in the morning it’s because I chose sleep. I work sometimes 60-70 hour weeks including travel time most weeks, this needs to change, I’m working on it. If I miss a long run, maybe I have a family function, or it’s mothers day, or kids sport, or we’d like to go somewhere. I don’t stress on the little things, sure it makes it tough if I want to go “next level” but I think I have good balance in my life, so it works for me to roll with the punches. I’m getting better at balancing everything… it’s a rollercoaster just like life, you ride the peaks and troughs and control what you can control. It’s a ‘learned’ skill, and I am ALWAYS learning.

So let’s cut to the chase or this will go on forever. I began my training well through November, then rolled my ankle in December quite badly, not ideal in the lead up to Two Bays 56km event in January. I thought I was fine and ready to go, but the ankle pain kicked in on race day after the 28km mark making Two Bays a tough ultra run which I needed some time to recover from. My training really picked up big time then. Several huge training runs, especially the Lysterfield to 1000 steps training runs where we’d run from Lysterfield up through Belgrave to the 1000 steps, do 4-6 repeats, and return. These were around 40-50km long, and also mixed in some big elevated runs in the Dandenongs.

They were fantastic runs all played a huge part in building some confidence up through March. Also running with previous combatants of UTA was AMAZING, I picked the brains of everyone and anyone I came across… Tegz, Nige, Dan, Matty V…. all happy to offer advice and information. Then early April I once again badly sprained my ankle in the lead up to Maroondah Dam 50km, my last big run before UTA, again hampering my training but I didn’t stress. I just needed to do whatever I needed to be 100% by the start date May 20th 2017. Maroondah Dam running with Trish was a success, a brutal course with 2000+ metres of elevation, and we finished nearly an hour faster than 2016 in just over 6 hours –  and I was ready.

THE MANDATORY GEAR.

Always a talking point at UTA was the mandatory gear. Many of us got sore shoulders carrying all the stuff around for 100km – here is what we had to carry with us the entire journey. Total weight was around 5-6kg for me.

Long Sleeve Thermal Top (polypropylene, wool) –
Long Leg Thermal Pants (polypropylene, wool)
Waterproof and Breathable Jacket with Fully Taped (Not Critically Taped) Waterproof Seams and Hood
Beanie, Balaclava or Head Sock (Buff)
Full-Fingered Lightweight Thermal Gloves (Polypropylene, Wool)
High-Visibility Safety Vest that complies with Australian Standard AS/NZS 4602:1999 – D/N Class for Day and Night Time Wear
Headlamp
Small Backup Light
Mobile Phone in Working Order with Fully Charged Battery
Compass
Whistle
Emergency Space Blanket (or Light Bivvy Sack Equivalent)
Compression Bandage (Minimum Dimensions 7.5cm Wide x 2.3m Long Unstretched)
Lightweight Dry Sack
Water Bottles or Bladders, 2 Litre Capacity
Food Bars / Portions
Ziplock Bag for Personal Rubbish
Waterproof Map Case
Long Leg Waterproof Pants – (DID NOT NEED TO CARRY)
100-Weight (Minimum) Long Sleeve Synthetic Fleece Top – (DID NOT NEED TO CARRY)

THE RACE PLAN – ESTIMATED SPLITS

I had NO idea what to expect from my body or my mind, or the terrain for that matter.

I made up provision race time splits (thanks to Winz for this) to allow for a race finish of 14 hours, 15 hours, 16 hours and 18+ hours. Finishing by midnight was a major goal. Finishing as closer to 14 hours than 18 hours was the secondary goal.

“Fail to plan is planning to fail”

KATOOMBA

I took Wednesday off work to pack and prepare the mind. To prepare the body I spent time at P3 Sports and Recovery Centre in Berwick with an hour in the Compression Boots and an hour in the pools (Cold Pool > Suana > Magnesium Pool > Hot Spa, Repeat x 3), and came out feeling 100% and ready to roll. Our flights were noon on the Thursday, so Thursday morning was the final goodbyes to our kids who were split between my parents who took our youngest and Trish who graciously took on the role of mother hen to our older three. I was quite torn to leave them behind, however the combination of both the cost of getting us all up there, and the difficulty in not knowing if the race would take me 14 hours or 20 hours or more, or if I would even finish…. it was too much uncertainty.

The flight out was easy, and the car hire chick at Thrifty talked us into upgrading to a Kluger for an extra $50.  We arrived in Katoomba and settled with the lads. Shane and Mike decided to kick back and chill for dinner, Nicole and I wanted to use the last of the light of day to explore the town a little. We drive 10 minutes and found ourselves at Sublime Lookout, and that’s when it hit me, the gravity of the situation I found myself in. I had to run 100km in THOSE mountains??!  It blew my mind, I had no idea….

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Friday we woke up, we stayed with Shane and Mike and their families in Luera, and Friday morning we went for a 5km run around Katoomba as a last run before the big dance. We felt great, then we came back to the house, had breakfast and went down to register at the event and check out the awesome Expo. I suddenly started to feel excited and race ready again…

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We also checked out the last 500 metres of the course which were so pretty it was difficult to imagine the pain we’d be in the next time I saw them…

Then that afternoon the event ‘announcements’ started to happen.

UTA Race Briefing

The Race Briefing

The weather forecast looked worse and worse as we got closer to the day, the organisers were absolutely flat out working with emergency services and other authorities to ensure the safety of all runners if the expected 20-35ml of rain dropped overnight.  At the evening race briefing they announced that there was some major course changes to the 100km and a complete course change for the 50km. I was just happy to roll with the punches, like always, I run where I was directed to. If it was well marked, I was happy.

Strangely I slept well that night, despite the constant rain falling all through the dark hours. We woke at 4:30am, got our things together and made our way to the start line.

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Pre Race Pic with Winz and Mike

THE RACE

I sat in the car park and looked down at my shiny new Hoka Speed Instincts that I had decided I’d wear as they ‘felt right’, even though I only managed to pick them up Tuesday. 40 minutes till race time. I suddenly felt it was a terrible decision… “rookie error” I said to myself, so I quickly grabbed my old trusty Hoka Stinsons from the boot and threw them on, left the new shoes in the crew bag for Nicole to bring to each checkpoint if I needed it…. In hindsight, this was a brilliant and very lucky decision.

HOP TIP – Don’t doubt yourself or your equipment. Make a commitment to the gear you plan to use and stick to it. Any doubts will infiltrate your brain and sap energy and focus. 

Wave 1 Elites took off so fast I didn’t even seem to catch them go – then I saw Shane and Mike take off in Wave 2, and it was my turn to step up. A kiss to Nicole, then hugs and high 5’s and selfies with Georgie and Bec and Nicole V and Zara and anyone else near me, and we were off!

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0 – 11km (CP 1)

We started running up a gentle incline on the roads at a relatively comfortable pace, from the start I immediately focused on pushing off on inclines with the glutes, feeling powerful pushing off on each step. Something that would make a huge difference in my overall time at the end. After about 5km we completed the loop and ran back through the start area with 100’s of people there to shout and support and high five, it was just MAGIC. We then dived into out first set of stairs descending to the bottom.

0-10km splitIt was slow going and but quite relaxed and enjoyable. I had Nicole V with me for much of this journey. Sure there were some bottlenecks but already we were able to see some of the breathtaking scenery we were in for, just such a beautiful part of the world. Nicole V and I had trained several times on the 1000 steps, and what actually hurt us in these sections was how laboriously slow it was. We had trained to power up them quickly, but to slowly plod up these technical ups and downs was something I think we both found much tougher to deal with. Passing people that were slow on stairs was something we had to deal with in several sections, there were many strong runners out here but all have different strengths. I must admit there was a few ‘light hearted’ moments when some random tosser would push past us on the edge of the cliff for no apparent reason and think that was just fine and dandy trail etiquette even though there was another 30 people in front of us on single trail…. but hey with 1300 runners out there not every layer is coated with sugar right?!  Some subtle exchanged glances and eyebrow raises between fellow runners with a shrug and a laugh was all we needed to shake it off 🙂

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HOT TIP – One of the many tips provided to me before the race over and over and over, DO NOT WORRY about those first 10km, enjoy them. Matty V and Tegz both preached that too, I listened, and we didn’t stress. It was well known that after about 10km it opened right up from the single trail to fire roads. And it was true.

11km – 22km (Tarros Ladders)

11-22 splitOnce the roads opened up we were finally free to run again, up and down but felt awesome to tick off a few km’s at a decent pace. The first aid station came and went very fast. I didn’t need anything there so early on, I’d already consumed a few gels and drank my water, I knew I would be right till the next aid station at 31km even though it was 20km’s away. This part of the race was cool, we were basically running on top of the mountain and the views were getting more and more spectacular. I felt fantastic and just picked up a good pace that felt really comfortable and started to jog through all the other runners. I checked my pace and I was running 5 to sub 5 minute pace, which worried me as I knew it was too fast, but how fast is too fast when it felt so comfortable?

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20km, 2 hours 20.

And I knew the Tarros Ladders were coming up and expected to have to stop and wait a while in a queue to go down so I thought I’d continue to push it to the ladders when I’d stop and rest and wait my turn to go down. I must have passed over 50 people in this section, and I really enjoyed this part of the race.

When I finally reached the ladder I’d caught Mike from Wave 2 who was running a smarter race than me so I knew that meant I’d gone out a little fast but wasn’t concerned, took a great pic of him going down and within 5 minutes I was down myself and running after him again (didn’t see him till the end though, the legend beat me by an hour!)

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MIKE YOU LEGEND!!  On the infamous Tarros Ladders at 22km

22km – 31km (CP 2)

Then came some more traditional trail sections to run that seemed enjoyable and familiar. Rocky, technical, slippery, ferns flicking you in the face kind of stuff.

You know – FUN!

23-31 split

Unfortunately somewhere running around a tight corner grabbing a tree I managed to accidentally pause my Garmin so I was never sure how far into the run I was for the rest of the day, I was always between 1-4km out, which made judging water stops and aid stations a lot more difficult.

By the end of this section I was in dire need of a check point, for some reason my lower guts were hurting a bit, I’d kept up the gels but I needed something else. I spent quite a bit of time refuelling here, so kind of lost all the gains I’d made in the previous 20km but again, didn’t stress, I was doing what I needed to do. I was not about to run out of a check point forgetting to refuel properly, and all the food tasted good. Chips, coke, cake, all went in, refilled the water bottles and I wandered out of this checkpoint and once again just appreciated the surroundings. We were down in a valley and already on the other side of the mountains. They were pretty bloody spectacular.

32km – 47km (CP 3)

Bestie Nicole V once again caught up with me, which I was thankful for as then I could pace myself properly again and enjoy some company for a while. Love this chick!

32-44The run to this aid station was long but we found our feet and got chatting to some great people and together we ticked off some very long TOUGH hill climbs, eventually bringing it into the 47km aid station feeling good!

HOT TIP – I found this section, although scenic in parts, to be long, straight and laborious. Finding people to run with and chat to through this section helped immensely. If you want one section to be social on during UTA choose this one!


47km to 55km (CP 4 – and CREW!)

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Halfway and feelin fine, yeah baby!

Pushed it along ok after 47km and was happy enough with a little walk run strategy while I waited for some energy to kick in…. got a great boost when I came across this 50km sign too!!

This was a bit of a tough love section, I found a couple of guys to run with again and we kept moving along a bit, and I kept asking how far to Nellies Glen… I’d heard this section was particularly nasty, and it was.

 

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Nellies “RU Fkn Kidding Me” Glen

Once again, a long line of people were trudging up single track steep stairs, and it was TOUGH. I’d describe it as the 1000 steps on crack. I wanted to just power up them as quick as possible activating those glutes, but one step, one step, one step…. so slow, it was just killing me. So slow up the steps was using muscles I didn’t want to use. It started to hurt and I started to get pretty frustrated, especially when one of the guys holding up a line of about 10 runners and WOULD NOT SHUT UP. Kudos to him for chatting away like it was an easy Saturday stroll in the woods, but going up so casually slow was costing me serious muscle soreness, I just wanted him to be quiet and concentrate on going faster, why wasn’t he in the pain I was starting to feel??  I wanted to say something but it didn’t happen, and I didn’t want to be “THAT GUY” to ruin the mood, so I sucked it up. 45-55km

Then I saw Winzar probably 3/4 of the way up, high 5, “both calves are cramping and quads are gone I’m F**ked” he said. Not much I could say but hoped he’d hurry into the next Check Point where the girls could revive him and get him working again. By the time I got to the top of the stairs the damage was done, I’d started to cramp too and I was in pretty bad need of some check point love. I thought the check point was at the top of the stairs, but it was about another 3-4km. This took me AGES, mentally it shot me and cost me lots of time, I was just so desperate to see my crew…

 

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“Fun” with Winz at the 55km Check Point.

I text ahead to Nic all the things I wanted at the check point. I needed to wash my face down it was salty and crusty from sweat… I needed coffee, I needed food, drink, gels, fresh shirt, and I needed to massage the cramps out again so I could run.

I fought hard to get there and fell into a chair, it was SO nice to finally see Nic.

To go into these aid stations feeling so broken, it’s truly amazing what happens when you leave. I went in feeling like the last 50 metre shuffle was all had left to get there….

Then suddenly I left that Check Point high fiving kids, and my head was back in a good place. The cramps were gone, I was still a little sore but felt good again. I left with Winz and we walked for about 500 metres before I left him to gather himself (which of course he did coz he’s a champ, I mean who runs 40km up countless stairs with severe cramp in calves and quads??!)

HOT TIP – I’d abstained from caffeine since the Tuesday (4 days). Before I left Check Point 4 I loaded up with about 5+ spoons of Nescafe Blend 43 and smashed it down. BOOM. Suddenly I felt alive again!  Great tip from seasoned trail pros, and I’ll be using this technique again for sure!

56km – 80km (Queen Victoria Hospital CP 5)

This section was a bit more ‘blurry’. In some parts I felt AMAZING, other parts were a grind, but all the time just moving forward and finding people to run with and trying to keep on top of nutrition while managing the gut pain I’d been nursing since the 30km mark. This section took us back into Katoomba and back past the 3 sisters so we were treated to many, many tourists who were all absolutely wonderful, standing back and clapping and admiring all the runners out giving it everything they had. The coffee kept me up and about for about 10-15km. I felt really strong and positive coming into the 65km water point, got a massive boost seeing Nicole and Kath there for a high 5!

Due to the course modification this was now and ‘out and back’ section so all the lead runners were there coming through which was great to see. The section was enjoyable-ish, with some beautiful scenery and waterfalls… but the end of that was just hardcore.

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I fell in love with this place as I ran past this, and I will return to “The Pool of Siloam”

Everyone this year will tell you, the journey to the 78km aid station sucked big time. The course changes meant the course was running short so they needed to extend the run PAST the aid station another 1.5km loop so 3km in total. At about the 68km mark I became acutely aware of a pain in my left foot under the toes. Every step was hurting. I felt like I just needed to get to the next check point and get new socks on.IMG_5282

To finally get to the check point and have to keep running past it for another 3km loop when I needed aid so bad was just pretty torturous…. and it was nearly dark…. so I pushed on and ground out another 3km and get to the arms of crew chief Nicole. At this stage it was about 5:30pm, I’d been running for 11 hours, but if I’d thought about that I think it would have crushed me.

One Aid Station at a time, 67-79kmbreak it down, little goals, little wins……. I grabbed some noodles and chips and coke and sat down. My feet were attended to, no blisters but the water had soaked my feet and made them feel like they were breaking apart at some hidden seam between my toes. We tried a compede blister aid but it didn’t stick, in the end we washed and dried my feet, put on a fresh pair of socks and I put on my new Hoka Speed Instincts that I’d almost worn from the start. Changed the shirt over, got out the head torch, whacked on the high vis vest and gloves and then one last thing I needed – coffee. I loaded up on more Blend 43 then headed out again for the final 22km. My Garmin km’s were all over the shop by this stage so I just followed the signs. This leg would be entirely in the dark, but I was ready to face it and bring it home. Once again, the check point proved critical.

 

78km – FINISH

As I headed back IN I was now going past all the runners that were behind me. I kind of knew how well I was doing then. I passed hundreds coming back my way, and if I had a dollar for every time I said “well done champ, great work, keep going, you’re a legend, passing on the left, one foot in front of the other, keep ticking them off, don’t stop, you’ll get there…..”, then repeat and repeat…. it was a nice distraction from my own battle.

80-90kmRunning with the head torch was quite a technical challenge, practising night running at length in training was absolutely critical. You are running, sometimes downhill on technical single rocky trail with tree roots, carefully looking down so you don’t step in a deep puddle or slip on mud and go over the edge. If you are too engrossed with your feet landing in the right area, you’re likely to knock yourself out on a low hanging tree branch, or worse, smash your head torch (having a back up in the pack is mandatory and vital). That said, I actually really enjoyed this aspect of the run, it takes your mind off the pain and it’s just moving forward, concentrating and moving forward, and that’s all you do. I felt like I was quick through this section although my splits say otherwise. I think this is more a reflection on how technical the course was rather than being completely zonked, because between 78km and 87km I remember feeling pretty good.

The last 13km were like nothing I could have imagined, it was just stairs going down down down and up and down and up and down and down and down and up.  Having QUALITY gloves on with grip in this section was a real bonus. I was able on many sections to grab the rails and literally slide down the rails with control…

I was slowed to a snails pace by the early 90kms. The guts still sore I had not eaten since the 78km check point so energy was sapped – I’d misjudged the water I thought I had left at the 87km aid station so I realised with 95km done that I was going to run out of water and sucked my last bottle dry – nothing messes with my head more than that, I need water when I run. My mouth went dry constantly, my throat got sore. Worst part about it I could hear the massive waterfalls all around me but didn’t know where the water was or I would have filled my bottles up!

90-100kmAt this stage about 97km I was being overtaken periodically, but I didn’t care, why stress, I’d done the best I could do, this was about just finishing now. I know I was being ‘ticked off’ by other runners but I just admired how strong they were to finish well after what we’d all been through. They passed me by and as each one did I told them what a great job they were doing. Some chatted for a bit and thanked me or encouraged me. Some grunted or spoke no english (awks). That’s life at 98km in a the UTA 100km I suppose.

Then it became a little harrowing. People were throwing up, stretching out cramps, nursing rolled ankles… it was pure carnage. But everyone knew what lay at the top of the steps, so we all began that ascent.

I was warned – “You look up, you see the lights, you hear the sounds… but my lord, they are so far away….”.

The Furber Steps crushed me, as they do most runners, if not all. It took me all of 25 minutes to cover that last km. I won’t make it pretty, I was DONE here. A half dozen times during this km I found myself on hands and knees in the mud crawling on steep stairs to the finish line. “Whatever it takes” I told myself, just keep moving. As people stepped past me on their way up I’d still find the words to say “great work mate see ya there soon”. Or maybe I said “blah blah grunt blah”. One of the two. One guy went past me and offered me his soft flask with about 200ml of coke, “hold onto it and I’ll grab it back at the finish!”  I sculled it within 5 seconds, but he was gone. I was no longer steady on my feet, the lack of fuel in the last 20km had impacted me in a big way.

Not once in this run did I doubt that I would finish. And those dreams of crossing the finish line were about to become a reality. As I climbed off the stairs and onto the ramp to finish down the chute, everything seemed easy again. Suddenly the smiles were big, and genuine, and just so proud of what I’d just accomplished!  I saw Mike on the side, YEAH BUDDY!!!  and I let it out a crazy loud scream, threw a fist in the air. The emotions hit me and I crossed that line and let it out again. I was too tired to cry, but that feeling you get…. oh that feeling!  It was most certainly worth running 100km for.

** MISSION ACCOMPLISHED **

15 hours, 2 minutes, 42 seconds.

Ultra Trail Australia 100km finisher, 2017

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297th place overall (in top 24%)

  • Out of 1,280 runners, 221 (17%) did not finish. 

102nd place in my age group (40-49) (in top 27%) 

  • Out of 381 Males in the 40-49 category, 71 (19%) did not finish. 

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To put it in perspective we climbed higher 3,500+ metres than the elevation of Mount Everest from Base to Summit (3,489m).

To my fellow runners, finishes and those that were defeated on the day, this is a day I will never forget, thank you.

To my wife Nicole, thank you forever and ever. Sharing this with you means everything, without you it means nothing.

For the advice and messages and support in the lead up to the race, when self doubt crept in and the mental battles become larger and harder to win, I’m forever grateful that you took the time out of your life to help me to tick off this enormous challenge.

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I WILL BE BACK!

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