“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide. Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride. Till I get to the bottom and I see you again.” – Helter Skelter
I’m pretty sure The Beatles foresaw the Hounslow.
Mountain Sports puts on some of the best trail races in Australia. In ultra trail running, Buffalo Stampede is the bookend at the beginning of the year and Hounslow the bookend that closes out the year. Sean and Mel have a great event brand and it transfers from race to race, from the wicked Mund event socks on check in, to the firm handshake at the finish.
The 2016 race was, for me, about redemption on the Hounslow course. Having 2 DNF’s hanging over my head in the last 12 months just wasn’t where I wanted to be. The first DNF was last years Hounslow, the second Lavaredo Ultratrail, my big goal for this year. In between there have been highlights at almost every other event harder, faster, stronger. Of course if I wanted to limit myself to cases where finishing was assured I’d do more Ironman. The challenge and uncertainty of events like Hounslow is the attraction.
This year was the second edition of the Hounslow Classic, with a slight change. The wonderful grounds of the Allview Escape acting as the event hub. The Escape was central to 3 loops:
Loop 1: A counterclockwise loop through the Grand Canyon, heading down at Neates Glen and ascending up at Govetts Leap. 21k.
Loop 2: Technically an out and back down – Perry’s Lookdown and up to Lockleys Pylon to the Pinnacles before returning on itself. 31k.
Loop 3: Loop 1 in the clockwise direction. 26k.
Four times the course descends and ascends the wild Grose Valley. There are approximately 1 billion stairs. Of the 68k course, there is probably 58k of single track. In terms of difficulty it’s an order of magnitude harder than UTA100 or the Buffalo Stampede skymarathon. Ultra168 just rated it the toughest ultra in Australia. It’s hard to compare with Lavaredo. I think I benefited from how much that event hardened me up, but there’s still 16k of that course I haven’t yet seen so I will refrain from comment. I guess it is fair to say, however, if you want to experience a level of hard, consistent with some of the bigger overseas ultras, this is a good place to start.
Before the Race:
After last years fail I made a few resolutions. And, well, I didn’t exactly keep any of them. My preparation had most of the same mistakes. Not enough running, not enough trail running, ran the Sydney Marathon, stuck in the house with a sick person, sloppy gear prep. I hadn’t even picked my race shoes, until the day before when I decided to bring my La Sportiva Akashas in from the backyard where they had been left to rot in the dog house the last 3 months post Lavaredo.
At least I had stocked up on nutrition (High5 extreme and gels).
We headed up to the mountains the day before the race (rather than last years 4am race day drive up). On Friday we walked National Pass from from Wentworth Falls up through the Valley of the Waters. That was the bulk of my stair training done! Then an unexpected lunch with my brother and his family in Leura where we just happened to be at the same place at the same time! Afterward, we checked in at the YHA. Then we grabbed some supplies at the shops, bumping into the RD Sean, before heading to Blackheath to pick up my bib. Everything was smooth and seamless and incredibly relaxed.
The 7am start made for a pretty easy preparation in the morning. Basically, I just had to grab my pack and get driven to the start by my wonderful crew, Kira and the Kids! No stress, no rushing.
My plan was to finish. I didn’t have a strict goal, but figured 12hrs was an appropriate number to work with.
Even the start line was relaxed. None of the jostling and squeezing and bad seeding of Lavaredo, just a bunch of people standing around, possibly unaware of the punishment they were about to be handed. Once off, the pace was very relaxed, far more relaxed than last year. I was happy to cruise along at my own pace and not try any set any records. My day got even better with a surprise appearance of my family at Evans Lookout for high five’s.
Last year, despite being sick, I descended through the Grand Canyon like a madman only to be on empty the moment the trail started to head back up. This year I took it comfortably – hard since its an awesome descent – and I found myself behind Salomon Pro Lucy Bartholomew. Lucy had run second in the women’s race last year in about 11:30 so I figured she would be a good pace to work to.
Once the course started to climb, I pulled out my poles. I wasn’t sure they would be a benefit on this course and had at least contemplated leaving them in the hub for later in the day. They worked out fine. Maybe a bit annoying at times on the tighter sections, but for the most part they let my arms do a bit of work and stopped me over doing it with my legs. The net result was I arrived back at the event hub in great condition and ready to refuel and push on. I reflected on just how sick I had been last year, for a brief moment.
By now the day had warmed up (and idiot me without sunscreen) the descent from Perry’s and the climb back up the other side was brutal. I was definitely unprepared for the technical nature of the descent. The climb back up was hot and draining but with my poles I was comfortably grinding it out. Almost simultaneously at the top, I was passed by Lucy and the leaders came by as they headed back down. I was expecting to see them earlier, so that was good, and I was around the sort of pace I figured I should be doing.
I refueled at the turn around, slamming down a coke, chips and snakes (healthy thing ultra racing!). I took my time and sat down for a moment. Shortly after leaving the aid station I felt the need to take on some more solids, so I dug around in one of the pockets of my pack and grabbed out a Hammer Energy bar. I took a huge bite and started chewing. I chewed and chewed but just couldn’t swallow. So I spat it out before I hurled. I then wasted a bunch of water trying to clear out my mouth. Okay, so solids are off the menu.
Things then went from bad to worse. The instant the trail started the short climb up to Lockley’s Pylon both my legs cramped solid. Next thing I’m propped up against a rock unable to move. What now? I downed a gel and some more water and suddenly they started to work again. A few 100m down the trail were some event safety crew who I was able to get some Vegemite from. That hit the spot nicely!
The descent from Lockley’s is even more insane than the descent from Perry’s. I actually couldn’t comprehend how I had made it up with poles in hand. Between the taxing descent, heat, cramps and bad energy bar I had pretty much used up all my fluids. So, I decided I was going for a swim in the river and would refill my bottles. If I’m terribly ill the next day so be it. It’s still better than getting evac’d from the bottom of the valley.
The river was magic. My bottles were full and my shoes squelching but my legs were ready to climb. No cramps, just consistent forward progress. Before long I was enjoying more Coke, chips and snakes. I was looking forward to getting back to the event hub for a proper refill, and eventually strolled it at around 8hrs. Kira wisely slowed me down and made me refuel properly. She popped my headlamp in my bag although I really hoped I wouldn’t need it. I headed off with a 12 hour goal.
Early on in the final loop I had stupidly decided I could “phone it in” from here… I mean I was kind of mentally smashed at this point, so whatever works, right? The games you play with your mind so it will let you play games. As I descended I started singing Helter Skelter. Then I told myself to wake up and not get ahead of where I was. Then a bit more Helter Skelter. At least I was enjoying myself! Somewhere along the way I figured I might be able to hit 11:30. I was working to a 2hr 12k! Unfortunately my Garmin was a tad out of whack 🙁
Finally I arrived at the final aid station. I was so happy!
Four times I had been to the valley floor and returned. Now it was a relatively flat 6k run to the finish. The only real race at this stage was the light, especially since it had fogged in pretty badly.
Before I knew it I was turning back into the event hub.
Mission accomplished. Firm handsake. Caught by my loving wife.
I can highly recommend the Hounslow, but be prepared for hard!