Saturday, 14 May 2016

Ultra-Trail Australia 100km

Short Report
13:43:03 = sub 14hours = one SILVER Buckle
Long report (warning VERY long report)

In August 2013 I had entered the Sydney Oxfam TrailWalker event (post somewhere on here). As a team we completed the event in something over 21hrs. So it was indeed a TrailWALKER. Since then I had been mildly interested to see how a solo 100km event would go and whether I would enjoy it more. Over the last few years I had done a couple of trail runs (Coastal Classic & Six Foot Track). The original plan for 2016 was to do Mt Solitary in April and then consider The North Face 100 (TNF) or the Ultra-Trail Australia100 as it had now been re-branded for 2017. However a mate and colleague Terry (of Oxfam fame) convinced me to do another event (Oxfam, Port IM, the list is expected to grow over time) when he entered. It took me 2 mins to put my name on the waitlist. Then sometime in January/February I got my place. So what with the bike races I had planned for February that gave me 12 weeks to get ULTRA ready.

The training went pretty well. I broke a few rules and ramped up the KM's almost over night and went from 20-30ks pw to 45 to 70-90s. I then held that for 10 weeks until tapering. I did end up seeing a physio towards the end as I was having trouble with my right knee. More strengthening was recommended - the same exercises from post breaks my leg in 2008. Clearly I had stopped them too soon. The hope was that the requirement to swing my leg over rocks, like was required in Mt Solitary Ultra wasn't required in the UTA. Or more than that the slight niggle didn't develop into a debilitating or race ending issue.

Training was mostly done solo. HURTSquad was out because my knee didn't like pace work and the pace work wasn't fitting into my training plan and probably more to the point I didn't want to turn up knackered and look like a tool. So lots of hill work was required. I rep'd a lot of my local hills for hours at a time and also turned to using the stairwell at work. My office being on the 28th and 29th story of the Glasshouse building. In the end I think that really helped, albeit it wasn't nearly enough to compensate for the number of stair reps that were required on the UTA course.  

Almost all my training was done road running. I did two trail runs in total one being the MT Solitary Ultra (run by Running Wild) and the second a 30 odd k jaunt through LaneCove National Park and up the Great North Walk Trail.

Race Weekend
I had been preparing my gear for weeks. The requirement to or rather ability to get your gear check done ahead of time meant that I was getting ready well in advance of the race. It also meant that my gear changed through that time and the process. Best of all was the new rain jacket I got for my birthday (end April) which saved me 1kgs as I didn't have to lug my mountaineering gore-tex around. LHS replaced w RHS. 

Especially as when my jacket was checked at CP3 the lady remarked that it was the smallest rain jacket she had ever seen?!?!?

My bags were packed the night before. Check-in and bad drops were required the night before so travel was to be done on the Friday. Terry had offered to drive so all was set. The final preps were done Friday morning. Dropped the kids off at day-care and went for a 3km leg loosener. I then had some paleo breaky from About Life, grabbed some bananas and salad for lunch and was all set. Despite it being a run I still had an entire Mountain Equipment duffle bag full of stuff. Clothes for before and after, my running gear, rucksack and three cooler bags for Check Point (CP) 3, 4 and 5.

Drove up at lunchtime and had an easy journey in. I had a room in the CMS which was literally throwing distance from the start and finish line. The room was a 4 bunk room there were two others staying in the room (Neil and Morgan). Terry was intending on sleeping in his swag in his car. Conveniently enough he parked right outside my room to drop me off and then kind of just stayed there - perfect.

We had a look at the Scenic World, checked-in, wondered around, dropped our drop bags off, wondered around, listened to the pro's and the race briefing, smashed down the buffet at 19:30 and then turned it in. The views from the Scenic World were great and we had a good look as we knew we weren't going to be stopping to take in the views much the next day....

Rise and shine time was set for 5am. For the 6:20 or 6:25 start time. Yes that was how close our room was. I had my alarm set for 4am so that I could get some food down early. Didn't need it in the end as I woke and checked the time at 3:59. 1 up and go, 2 bagels and back to sleep - all consumed in my bed. On waking I smashed some coffee, had time for a shower and was all set with plenty of time. At the last minute I grabbed a spare plastic bottle form Terry and stuffed it in my bag. The night before I had discovered a leak in my bladder. I had covered it with some trusty duct tape, but reckoned it was better to be safe than sorry. Plus an empty plastic bottle doesn't weigh anything. I also had my new butterfly lacing to try out that Neil had showed me the night before. As a nine time finisher (i.e. Every year it had run) I (and Morgan) quickly tried to suck up as much information and as many tips as possible. 

Race Day
The first group went off at 6:20, I was set to go at 6:25. I heard the start from the nearby errr portaloo, yes the race start was so well set up that even with 1300-1400 starters set to go within a c45 period, I could do that. 
Our wave set off and it was a few k's of out and back on the road before descending the Furber steps and on to the trails proper. The out and back allowed the pack to seperate out a bit and it was surprising how much it did and how much the group 1 had done so, given the groups were seeded. I was towards the start of my group by the time we started descending. Over took people on the descent and we were off. The weather was crisp and cool, felt like it was going to be a good day. I had the previous nights race briefing in my head. Not too much water, no ibuprofen, but what about constant eating and drinking a little bit. Don't drink until you are thirst vs once you are thirsty it's too late. All very confusing. I kept sipping at my bladder. I could feel that my pack was a little wet which meant the duct-tape wasn't working 100% but the bladder was holding water so should be all a ok.

I started munching on some energy jellies as we crossed the landslide. It was indeed slow going (as we had been warned). Then up the golden stairs. The sun was rising on a beautiful day. Once up the stairs the run along the top fire trail (Narrow Neck I think) was beautiful the views were fantastic. I really seriously considered stopping for a photo, I didn't. I was having fun. All was going well and picking up places. I was happy that I was eating regularly and sipping my water regularly. 

CP1 - Narrow Neck (11.4km) 
CP1 came and my bladder still had plenty of water. In fact my bladder held 3L which I later found was a lot more than most took with them on the race. I took a couple of cups of liquid (water and electrolyte) and a few sweets. There were those who were filling their bladders. As I had heard the day before some had started with no water and were filling up at CP1 for the next 20k to CP2. Didn't stop long and was on my way.

On the way to CP2 we got to the Tarros ladders. There was a queue (the alternative route was offered, but I wasn't going to miss the ladders). I noticed that Neil (room mate, who had started in group 1 (and previous sub 14 finisher) was just a few people ahead of me. I stopped to take a few photos while in the short queue before descending the ladders.

I caught Neil with a k of the bottom of the ladders and had a quick chat. I was feeling good so I pushed on. 

CP2 Dunphys Camp (31.6km) 
As we emerged from the forest for CP2 the views were great. It was the nicest looking check point I had seen. Really pretty in a little forest glen. I went to the loo, which pleased me because it meant I was keeping hydrated. I took on more water and electrolyte. My bladder still had water in it so I didn't refill. The next aid station was CP3 where I could get my first drop bag and it was in 14k. I grabbed a fruit bun and butter and scoffed that on the way out. I remembered Darchy's advice to try and eat real food if possible. I had already been trying that with my supplies I was carrying. From experience I knew that later on I would probably get dehydrated and not want or be able to eat the more solid bars I had so was trying to get them down early leaving the gels for later.

Out of CP2 and off I went. Was tracking well. We had to tackle IronPot ridge on this segment which contained a little out and back along the ridge. We also had the pleasure of hearing the didge being played. On the way back along the ridge I was feeling bouncy enough to jump up onto the top of the ridge and run along that rather than squeezing past people on the path.
Dropping down from IronPot ridge was seriously steep, it was hard going as the ground was neither sound under foot not loose enough to scree run. Neil reckoned his butterfly lacing technique will have helped me here. The route was pleasant enough through to CP3 a bit more open with grassland in between the trees, bits of farm land etc. One annoying bit was seeing the double back on a bit of course but then taking a good few k's to come back to the other side of the field.

CP3 46k
Coming into CP3 - Six Foot Track I was feeling ok. I was perhaps a bit dehydrated. But given this was now the same distance as Mt Solitary I was feeling vastly better than at the end of that....That said I was just over 5 hours in rather than the 6:30 at the end of Solitary. There was a gear check on the way into CP3 (rain coat and head torch). I then went to find my drop bag. I took a chair in the tent and got myself sorted. I changed my t-shirt, sun visor and socks. Despite having my calf guards over the tops of my socks and mini gaiters on my feet were still black with dust when I took my socks off. Apart from that and a bit of peeling my feet look ok (considering). I loaded up on gels, took some of the bars out to make more room for gels. In hindsight this was a sign I was already quite thirsty. I filled my bladder and took on some coke, water and electrolyte. I also had my vegemite bagel in hand and ran out of camp. I tried to get the bagel to go down but my mouth was too dry. I wanted to make sure I ate it because a) it had calories, b) it was real food and c) it had a lot of salt - not that I needed salt to protect from over hydrating.....I had to keep taking water on to get the bagel down. I gave up with one mouthful left. I was pretty much now that the trouble started.....

I had realised I was thirsty/getting dehydrated on the way into CP3 but also didn't want to gulp down too much liquid as with all that sloshing around wouldn't that slow me down or prevent me from running? Wasn't the key lots of little sips etc? So I carried on taking water very regularly. I was belching and generally not feeling very chipper. I didn't want to run any inclines and just wanted the famous Nellies Glen to start, as at least then there would be no debate on run vs walk. That was definitely a walking hill. Plus I felt I would be able to take on more water while not moving so quickly. I hit Nellies or rather it hit me and hard. I felt awful. I was hating it and not knowing what to do. Energy was down, mood was down, I was so thirsty but couldn't seem to solve that. More gels? More energy jellies to suck on whilst sipping water. It went on and on and I slowed several times thinking I could actually be sick. Each time I felt bad I saw someone else who I thought "mate I feel how you look" but then I went passed them when they pulled to the side and I thought "nope, they must be worse than me, keep going".

When I arrived or left CP3 I was in 111th place. When I arrived at CP4 (c12k's later) I had lost 27 places. By the next water station 10k after that I had lost another 13 places.

I considered whether I could do this, would I give up at the next check point. Could I admit defeat, could I keep going. I wanted a hug from Em, I wanted a little Henry 'duddle'. Going into the next checkpoint (CP4) I felt tears coming as I pictured Em being there. But there was the cold hard pragmatism too, I needed to fix this, I needed to sort myself out and I needed to get it back on course. I reckoned I would fair better on my own (at the checkpoints), without anyone to shout out or get frustrated at. I needed to HTFU and get myself sorted. It felt like I dragged myself to the top of Nellies Glen and crawled over the top. I didn't its not that steep at all. My running was more like trotting now but I needed to keep moving at a pace quicker than walking or I wouldn't have "run" an ultra - it would just be another TrailWalker. All thoughts of sub 14 were out the window. All thoughts of ultras being the new safer mountaineering I had potentially been looking for were also banished. I was almost laughing at my stupidity in getting carried away before I had even attempted to run 100k let alone 160k/100m.....I was no ultra runner. I was just someone out of my depth and getting my pre race dreams shattered. 

I was never doing this again, anything like this. Why was I doing this now? What benefit was I gaining at the moment. Darchy had said to enjoy myself - I WAS NOT ENJOYING MYSELF. But I also remembered what Justin had told me. Whilst Darchy had given me some practical advice, Justin had gone for the mental advice. Words akin to "you will have dark moments, then darker moments, but you will come through the other side". Jesus wept, there were going to be darker moments? But I was going to get through them.....or so Justin said.

As I ran up the road to CP4 at the aquatic centre I was forming a plan of what to do when I got there.

CP4 Aquatic Centre 57.7k  
I grabbed my bag and some drinks and sat on a chair and stared straight ahead. At one point there was a guy sitting a few feet from me staring straight back, with what I assumed was the same vacant expression. Nothing was said, not even a knowing look or nod. I went back for more coke and electrolyte. I had some watermelon and then some more and then some more for good measure. More coke, more electrolyte. I decided I needed more electrolyte out on the course. I was regretting only having one liquid supply. Then I remembered the crushed plastic bottle. So out that came and I filled that with electrolyte and stuffed it in my bag and took another cup for good measure. I tried a hammer gel, threw it straight in the bin. They are ok(ish) when fully hydrated but rubbish when not. Every time I had one of my SIS gels I furiously drank them down. A few jelly sweets as well, anything I thought I would eat. The bagel stayed in my drop bag and I also ensured I only had gels with me. Not that I had had that many recently. I was there for a total of 11 mins but it felt like longer. 

Out and off I went again, a bit of liquid and I....well I wouldn't say I was feeling better but I wasn't ready to give up just yet. Surely it wouldn't or couldn't remain this hard or get harder. We were on the top now no? Wrong. The next 10 or so K to the water station at Sublime Point Road was Tough. Stairs up, stairs down, stairs up, stairs down, fucking stairs everywhere you turned. And no water. All I wanted was cold water, ice cold water, ice cold margaritas - that would have worked.... Onwards up and down. I did notice that the views were occasionally pretty good in this section. But I wasn't really enjoying them. The km's were ticking through so slowly, so so slowly. I had heard someone say there was water at 66kms. OK good lets go to that. But it wasn't 66 it was closer to 70 (or at least it felt like that). Took me 1hr50 mins to cover that c9kms. Up and down. By the time I got there I had my bottle in my hand and was drinking the electrolyte. I actually thought it was energy drink at the time but apparently it was just electrolyte. 

Got to the golf course water stop and it was exactly what it said a water stop. No electrolyte. No cups. Just some crisps, mmmm salt let's have some of them. You ever tried eating ready salted crisps with a dry mouth? If not, let me tell you now, it doesn't work very well..... My bladder still had water in it but I filled my bottle up then set off (after changing a sock - I was carrying emergency socks). I then got less that 50 metres and thought this is stupid and smashed the rest of the bottle and stuffed it back in my pack. 

Still don't know what happened really but I started to feel better over the next 9k to CP5 at 78.4km. I picked up 7 places apparently. And I remember over taking people and running all along kings tablelands road. I remember running inclines. I remember looking forward to the next section. Which was down. I normally detested downs compared to ups. Downs hurt physically, ups hurt cardiovascularly. I had done the reverse of the final 22k as the second half of Solitary, so I knew what to expect and that familiarity breed positivity. 

CP5 Queen Vic Hospital (78.4k) 
I grabbed my drop bag, changed socks again and put away my sun visor and took out a buff and my head torch. I also took on lots of fluid. Lots of coke, electrolyte and water. I even smashed a sachet of salt as well. Ensured I had enough gels with me, refilled my plastic bottle w electrolytes and was set to go. This was done sitting in the tent. Chatted to the physio. Was looking foe Eliot, but he was scheduled on at 6 and it had just gone 5. 

Sending estimated times to the Mrs and the family back in the UK
Estimated timings carried with me during race

The other thing in my mind was that of the sub 14 time. Whilst earlier on at CP2/3/4 I had been inside or at the lower end of the range I was now at the upper end of my estimates which meant the sub14 target was slipping away. That thought was mixed with over 3 hrs to cover 22.6k. Surely that was do-able? Wasn't it? I knew the first 10k was largely flat or down, So I needed to make good time to ensure my time on the up didn't rob me of that silver buckle. Hopefully I wouldn't break, which must have been why my estimates showed a big slowing in the next section. I set a good pace and was off. I was determined to not let the down get the better of me or slow my progress.

I was happy to see the first few k's clicking by at 6min k's. All was going well. The sunset was pretty cool over Solitary (no time for photos though - time to keep pushing). Soon the head torch was on and it turned to running by torchlight. This created a very odd sensation of wearing a mask. I could see the light but there was big dark patches outside the light. I started moving my hand around from the dark into the light. The feeling was really weird. I couldn't work out whether I was getting disorientated, was I hallucinating or was everything a ok and this sensation was just a by product of the wind in my face and the sharp contrast of the torch light and the darkness surrounding it? Walking by torchlight was something I had done quite a lot of when mountaineering, but maybe not without other lights or star lights. It was very wierd. 

All the chat in the final stage was of sub 14, surely if nothing goes wrong it should be doable? Unfortunately on the way down my bladder ran dry. Bugger I hadn't filled my bladder nor checked properly how much was left in it. So out came the plastic bottle. Looks like the rest of the race would be undertaken with bottle in hand. 

Most of the downhill k's were accomplished in c6min k's some under, some over. I found the key was getting to the 90k marker. Then it would be 10k to go and the maths would be easier for what was required. Arrived at it with 2 hrs 3 mins to go. That was over 12 minutes per km, surely that was possible. Then became the game of checking each km against 12 mins. First was 10 mins, that was 5 mins in the locker. Next was 9:50, that was 7 mins in the locker and so forth. I knew the last km included the Furber steps and whilst I couldn't remember how long it took, I knew it was a lot longer than 12 minutes. 

Shot of the head torches on way up to three sisters
At 91.2k there was a water station. I filled my bottle and was off. The down was done with and it was up, up, up. Hence the 10 min k's. I was moving well up hill and slowly gaining or moving away from those around me. Striding purposefully on the ups and running (trotting) any flats downhills or even slight up hills. Got off the fire trails near the old sewage works and then it was onto single track trail. I was trotting along this as well. Not overly fast as didn't want to trip and fall but I needed to keep gaining time. With 5k to go I had 1hr15mins, surely this was all done now. But need to be careful and keep going. By the time I got to the final k and the base of the Furber steps I had 35 mins to get it done. Easy..... Er no. I realised that a I was running on empty. My water/electrolyte had run out and I had a gel 4.5k ago but not much more than that for the last few hrs. Also I had mentally aimed for the steps not the finish and I suddenly started to feel very weak and nauseous. Damn it, always play the whistle. I found myself dragging myself up with both hands on the rails, hand over hand. I even started to ask if I could do this - stupid question, but "weak I was feeling" at that point.

The stairs went on and on, but as with Nellies Glen, I saw people who were worse than me. Stopping to the side, leaning over railings as if to be sick. Finally I saw the buildings at the top...only minutes away. I made the wooden baordwalk and trotted along that. Round the corner and there was the finish line. There was someone else there with me so I stopped. I wasn't racing them. I was under my 14 hr target by 17 minutes. Let's soak this up and go over on my own. The announcer was encouraging me on. I mimed "what for". And ambled up to the finish line looking around before trotting across in 13:43 mins.

Highlights of the race from Ultra-Trail

Post race
Done, it got my silver buckle (and large towel) now for coke. As much coke as I can guzzle. What no coke? Just water or electrolyte??? Some of that, hungry. What have you got? Chicken soup yum. Quickly started getting cold so put on my rain coat to stop the wind chill. Grabbed another water and took my pot noodle back to my room. Within seconds I was shivering and barely able to hold the cups. Made my way into the room as quickly as possible put the heating on and tried to get some clothes on. I also rang EM and got to speak to her and Amy. I wasn't in a particularly good state and couldn't stop shaking. More electrolyte. Needed to get warm. The pot noodle helped but needed more so popped over to the shower block in the hope of a warm shower. Luckily there was enough warm water when just using the hot tap to wash myself. On with the thermals and several layers on top of those and I could feel some warmth coming back into my body. On the way into the showers two guys had asked if I was ok I was shaking so much. But now feeling much better. After sorting out my clothes and some stuff I headed over to the runners lounge for some food. More chicken soup on the way through mmmmm lovely salty chicken soup. I basically ate for hours. In the end I had fish and chips, another pot noodle, a golden gay time and a chicken burger. Along with several large cokes and a few beers to help wash it all down (think I also had an up and go and another chicken soup). 

Post race fueling
The post race vibe was excellent just chatting to random people who had finished the 100 or 50 or who had DNF'd. Neil came in sub 15 and I spent hrs chatting to him and Nick (a friend of his) waiting for others to come in. Terry unfortunately had to pull out at CP5 due to dizziness (Nick had pulled out at the same CP after pissing blood...). Terry joined us in the runners lounge to recuperate. Morgan the other room mate was due in at c2:20 am so decided to stay up to welcome him in. Given the state I was in I thought he would appreciate some help. I was also half planning to watch Saracens in the European Cup Final on my IPad but the wifi didn't have enough bandwidth to get a smooth stream. So had to turn off all notifications on my phone and try to remember to not check it. Went outside when Morgan was due in to find he had just finished but with his arm splinted and in a sling. He had a suspected broken elbow (turned out that it was indeed broken). So helped him with getting his warm clothes and cans of coke etc. Nothing could be done until the hospital x-Ray department opened the next day so he was drugged up and came back to the room to sleep as best he could. So ended up turning in still buzzing at 3:30am.

Back up a few hrs later for breaky and then a hassle free drive with El Tel back to Sydney. A thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding weekend (in hindsight....).

Lessons learnt
- have multiple sources of liquid so you can access water and energy/electrolyte while on the move;
- butterfly laces
- proper 'ultra' style rucksack would be beneficial
- fuelling is key
- toed socks like injinji appear to be the go
- wear longer socks so that calf guards stay connected and reduces the amount of dust getting in
- stay hydrated - for me anyway this appears to mean drinking a lot and not listening to the warnings of over hydration....
- stair work is key. So running the stairwell was excellent training but should have done it more.

In the weeks leading up to the race and two weeks out in particular (family holiday to Fiji) I had finally found the time to read Born to Run. An excellent book that I would recommend regardless as to whether you like to run. I loved it and whilst I had bought it ages ago and knew all about the barefoot running etc (I had transitioned to mid foot striking in 2011 after my Copenhagen IM) I had never gotten around to reading it. Add to that my brother had just done the Boston marathon and getting a photo with Scott Jurek and a photo of Arnulfo Quimare, I was loving ultra running - noting that I was tapering in Fiji and any runs I did do were pan flat. This had me looking up best/worst ultras in the world. Asking my bro if he wanted to do the Leadville Trail 100 or the Western States 100 before I had even done one. The other point to consider was that after Oxfam I was in such a foul mood for days. So I was clearly getting carried away.

So having declared to one of the cameramen c60k in that I was going to tell my wife to punch me in the face if I ever suggested doing anything else so ridiculous. Add to that the title of my Strava entry for the UTA noting "never a f'in gain" how do I feel now the dust has settled? In hindsight the mind has a wonderful ability to forget pain, or at least mine does. I am so absorbed by the UTA and thoroughly enjoyed the experience (in hindsight). The event is a really good one and I would recommend it to everyone. Very well run and a great atmosphere as well as being super easy to get to and participate in. Will I do it agin, almost certainly not, but not because of the event itself but because there are so many other things out there to do. Generally I have one A race per year that I train hard for and this took up 12 weeks of training which meant minimal cycling during that time. For that sacrifice again, to me, it has to be something new and different. Would I do a similar event again. Put it this way I have been on the following websites in the last three days - The Great North Walk (100m), Alpine Challenge (100m) both Australia based, Leadville Trail 100m, Western States 100m and Hardrock 100 all to assess entry requirements and logistics etc. Next year will potentially be the Norseman but that's only a 10% chance. So I wouldn't be surprised if a 100m event pops up in the future, especially when the pain has faded, the wounds have healed but the glory is still with me.

Now to get on with reading Scott Jurek's Eat and Run...

Official race photos:


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