Last year at Ultratrail Australia 100 I had one of those rare perfect days. I learnt a lot and resolved to come back stronger and faster in 2016, using the experience to nudge the bar forward a little more. However, I knew there would be a few extra challenges this year:
1. The Giant Staircase down the back of the Three Sisters had been reinstated, adding an estimated fifteen minutes to the course;
2. It was going to get hot; and
3. I was still in start group two, despite my 147th placing last year which should have gotten me into the faster group one (whinge done).
Last year I headed up Friday afternoon, rushed about, did the 100k race and rushed straight home. This year I headed up Thursday morning, camped close to the event area, and took the time to both enjoy everything going on and the mountains in general. I even helped out by volunteering at the start of the UTA951. Ultratrail Australia this year added two new races – A 951 step TT up Furber steps, and the Pace 22. There was also an outstanding expo – I could have spent a small fortune.
All Thursday and Friday morning in Katoomba were windy – so windy I had used large rocks to help hold the tent down, and even then it inverted itself a couple of times. Come Saturday morning the wind calmed and the temperatures dropped. The nice thing about camping near the start is being able to have plenty of time to prep and have a nice calm stroll, but being so cold the warm shower sucked up a bit too much time. I arrived at the start about two mins before wave one started, and quickly set about repacking the thermals, gloves, and rain jacket that were keeping me warm. I was feeling a bit rushed, but got myself to the front of the wave and finally got to chill out for a few minutes.
[Note: You can continue to read everything I have written below to see how my day proceeded, but I reckon the photographers captured my day pretty well – just watch my face change in the pics.]
This year the organisers split waves one and two by five minutes instead of three, and added about an extra km before Furber Steps to try and spread things out a bit better. This was a good move. After a reasonably cruisy start I was making the turn to head down the stairs. The start this year actually felt far less frantic even though I was probably the fifth wave two runner onto the stairs. Unfortunately, by this point we had already caught the tail end of wave one. Are people cheating on their qualifiers ala Boston marathon? Maybe the organisers should give an absolute priority to a previous UTA100 result…
The traffic continued through the Landslide and up Golden steps although I did manage a good bit of clear air in between. The ascent of Golden steps took about half a minute longer than last years snail paced effort so despite the organisers best efforts something just didn’t work out (although descending Furber steps worked much better). I kind of think the ten minute gap to wave three might be the way to go, otherwise you really want to be in the front half of wave one to get a clear start.
Once on Narrowneck, I hit an awesome groove. Space, happy runners, and drop dead amazing views. It really is a runners paradise. Out of obligation, I grabbed a handful of lollies through CP1 and happily marched forward towards Tarros ladder. Even at this early part of the day you could feel the heat in the atmosphere compared to the cold ground surrounding you. I must admit passing wave one runners and thinking I was actually another kilometre ahead of them in real terms.
When I arrived at Tarros ladders there were only a couple of people waiting – although the person on the ladder was kind of freaking out, giving me a chance to catch my breath.
By CP2 and Dunphys camp I had polished off a bottle of Perpetuem so refilled it with electrolyte, grabbed a few more lollies and pushed on. I was feeling amazing and having a great time.
At the Ironpot out and back I was probably in my best position all day. I started to get way ahead of myself at this point – I was nailing it and projecting finishing times and planning which parts of the course I would push hard on. I guess the didgeridoo playing can make you dream a bit.
The descent from Ironpot bought me back into reality pretty quickly. That one, massively off camber corner, when your brain says “be careful up ahead”, well, it gets me every time. Actually it wasn’t really so bad, but I guess it was just the course reminding me who was boss. Still everything was going great through the Megalong Valley and on the last climb before CP3 I passed Mel Robertson who was obviously having tough day.
The top of the climb was pretty much bang on 40k and I put my poles away to switch back to running. CP3 and Kira were only a few minutes away.
Then disaster hit.
Almost the instant I switched from poles to running, my stomach suddenly felt like an inflated balloon half full of water. The rest of my body wanted to move but every step was a painful slosh in my guts. I also noticed I had stopped sweating which concerned me the most. As best I could tell, I was behind on my nutrition (actually well behind) but my body was suggesting I had over consumed. What was clear to me was my stomach had shut down and wasn’t absorbing anything, liquids or solids.
Its amazing how quickly things can go south. Eventually I sat down on the side of the road and had a sulk. Then I reminded myself that plan A for the day was to just roll with the ups and downs. Sitting there wasn’t really achieving anything so I decided to push on as best I could and managed to haul myself into CP3 where Kira was waiting for me. I don’t remember a lot, but I knocked down a Nutella sandwich and some coke and left with a fresh bottle of Perpetuem and a bottle of electrolyte. Kira tells me I was shaking quite a bit.
Progress up to CP4 was tough. The coke and sandwich had helped a lot but I still wasn’t absorbing anything. Nellies Glen took me four mins longer than last year, although I felt like I was “in place” with the others around me. Kira says that by CP4 I was looking better although I didn’t really feel it.
By now Perpetuem was off the menu and I was relying on Coke, electrolyte, lollies and gels. It was so hot, but at least I was absorbing liquid, even if I wasn’t sweating a lot. In my Mt Solitary report I said I hated Leura Forest because it was cold, dark and wet. Today I loved it.
Coming back up from the forest, I was in a group of about five playing snakes and ladders and sharing the duties of cursing the stair. At about 60k in, Kira suddenly appeared on the side of the mountain! Was I hallucinating? Nope she had snuck down to urge me on. The little encouragement was nice as it always is.
Arriving at the Fairmont water point I had gone through both bottles for the first time all day and was really desperate for electrolyte. I had to make do with chips and water. This wasn’t ideal and I know I was slow on the next section, but finally my gut was starting to come good. No more slushing.
I really didn’t have any pace left in me by this point but was reasonably comfortable cruising into CP5. The Pace Athletic Party Checkpoint!
With twenty-two kilometres to go, I had one bottle of electrolyte, one bottle of coke, and a can of Red Bull stashed in my backpack. Caffeine would get me home. I didn’t know if another silver buckle was still on the cards, but I left telling Kira I would hopefully see her at around fourteen hours.
The descent down Kedumba was a nice easy cruise and I had a good chat to Geoff from NRG who was proving to be a minor celebrity on the course. He assured me we were twenty minutes ahead of fourteen hours. The advice was priceless.
My Garmin went flat just before the helipad water station. Damn. I knew I should have turned off the per km lap buzz and light!
At the helipad I refilled my one empty bottle, then guzzled the Red Bull can in my pack. Leura forest came and went as I hit the base of Furber Steps I asked the marshall the time: “7:50”. For a moment I wasn’t sure if they had said 7:15 or 7:50 but either way the Silver Buckle would be mine. The ascent was far-less-worse than I remembered from last year, but soon I could see buildings and hear the bells.
Kira was the first person I saw as I entered the finish chute.
Final time: 13:43:00 for 132 place.
I finished nineteen minutes slower but fifteen places better than last year. I’ll take it as an improvement based on position, as the course and weather affect things so much. Plus, I had a far from perfect day with my stomach limiting me for the middle thirty-five kilometres. Now I just need to sort out my nutrition… Maybe the answer is staring me in the face. Keep it simple and give up on the specialist product.
Next step: My main goal for the year – Ultratrail Lavaredo.
Ultratrail Australia really stepped it up this year. It was a truly great event. The Pace 22 and UTA951 was awesome additions and the expo was great. They even picked up on some little things from last years report – A clearly marked signed at the exit to CP5 stating gear requirements. Top stuff guys!
I did some things different too. I stayed near the start and spent more team ahead of the event in the mountains. My advice stay close, get up there early, do an event and hang around to enjoy everything else going on. And Volunteer at some point over the weekend. Also, the buffet is rubbish.
Ultratrail Australia 2016 proved to be an outstanding overall event. This was the first year the event would have its own identity and absolutely set the high bar which other major sporting festivals around Australia, and internationally, can measure themselves against. The event certainly christened itself in the best possible way.