Tollefson, Krar, Wardian, Jessup. How awesome is it to get to line up at the start of an Ultratrail World Tour event with the big guns of the sport? To score a wave one start (bib #38 no less!) was something I had been chipping away at since 2015 when I took on UTA for the first time. Two silver buckles later and I was finally worthy.
Now, before I go further, I need to give a huge thanks to my son, Ned. His 11th birthday coincided with race day and he shared it with me so graciously. Thanks Ned, you are more amazing than I could ever be.
Like last years UTA, I have slightly overlapping goals for 2017. I MUST finish Ultratrail Lavarado which is only four weeks after UTA. This is my second shot at Lavaredo and I most likely won’t get another chance. I only really entered UTA because I had a priority entry after volunteering last year and I fancied a long run ahead of LUT. But then, with the whole wave one and bib number thing driving me on I now had no choice but to do my best to honor the opportunity.
When race week arrived I dialled back my training load to 50%, had a couple of rest days, and promptly got sick. It’s become almost a tradition that some sickness always seems to come home from school the week of a race. Lucky it wasn’t much more than a head cold and come Friday as we drove up to the mountains it was all but gone. I made race check-in just before 1pm, and then we checked in to the Fairmont. Given it was Ned’s birthday on Saturday and the family was watching me race all day, I felt it was appropriate to stay somewhere decent.
As we drove up it was also wet. It rained a bit, then some more, and then, it just kept on going into the night. Things weren’t looking much better for Saturday either. UTA organisation stepped it up a notch and between Facebook and the race app the message got out very clearly about carpark closures, checkpoint access changes and finally major course changes. They also live streamed the race briefing to avoid pressure on the event hub. I have to say they made good decisions and never looked back. Superb work!
The course changes for the 100k amounted to the removal of the Ironpot Ridge out and back in the front half, which on one hand is a shame because of the indigenous celebration and unique geography, but then, I kind of welcomed it, because it always felt like a bit of an add-on in any case. The back half however had major changes. Kedumba Valley was off limits, so the course turned into an out and back to the Queen Vic Hospital. The route between the Aquatic Centre and the Hospital was pretty much the same as the 2015 edition when the Giant Staircase was off limits. This section was largely an out and back with the final 5k dropping down at Leura Forest, following Federal Pass around the base of the Three Sisters, and then climbing Furber Stairs.
The changes meant the number of stairs and amount of technical single track on the course basically doubled, making the back half of the course particularly tough. A sunset blast down Kedumba and ascent out of the valley on firetrails in the dark wasn’t on the cards this year.
So there I am toeing the line with all the big guns. As 6:20am approached I realised the rain was easing. I quickly switched my rain jacket to the outside of my pack so I could get it off easily once I had warmed up. The countdown hit zero and we were away. I was really worried that wave one start pace would be insane, but in the middle of the pack it was pretty comfortable. Even the guys at the pointy end weren’t that far ahead at the first turn around.
The rain had stopped by the time we approached the descent of Furber stairs and I figured if I didn’t get my jacket away now it would be a pain for the next few k’s, so I quickly ripped it off and started stuffing it in my pack. My water bottle flopped out on the ground. I stopped and picked it up, and it flopped out again. I’ll explain this in the gear section, but lets just say “I am an idiot”.
Anyway, back to the business of the race. The stairs were dark, wet, and slippery. I was more than happy to play it conservative like most people around me, and everything flowed nicely all the way through to CP1 at the top of the Golden Stairs. Wave one is so much different to Wave two. No traffic, no surging, everything just orderly and controlled.
Out along Narrowneck, the other benefit of Wave one was apparent. Instead of playing a game of catch and pass I was comfortably running with others my pace. It makes such a difference and you end up covering the same amount of ground so much more efficiently.
By now the day was had turned out stunning – the sky was blue, the fog in the valleys was lifting, and there were rainbow unicorns everywhere. A small wait at Taros Ladders was fine in these conditions.
The morning rolled on, CP2 came and went, the Megalong Valley absolutely spectacular. Before realising it, I was heading down to CP3 at Six Foot track averaging 6min/km since the start. It was at this point last year my stomach shutdown. This year I couldn’t have felt better. Normally CP3 has a bit of a party atmosphere where you get to see you support crew for the first time. This year the wet ground meant it was closed to supporters. It didn’t bother me too much and I quickly refuelled and pushed on for the climb up Nellies Glen and through to the Aquatic Centre.
The 50k mark came and went, about 5k earlier than my watch was indicating, which I figured made sense given the removal of Ironpot Ridge. At this point the massive doses of caffeine went to my head and optimistic Matthew came out. I decided this was UTA Lite (see below… it wasn’t) and if I was to ever score a daylight finish this would be the year.
The stairs up Nellie’s Glen and the last section to the Aquatic Centre hurt me a little. It wasn’t major, but it took me a while to get back into stride and rhythm. Kira said my arrival at CP4 was the best she had seen from me. I felt happy, comfortable and I even slowed her down a bit as she rushed along at my usual pace to get me out the door. It was awesome to see the family and I felt super confident about the back half of the course.
___now for a rant___
The organisers were very clear in their request for people not to show up at the Aquatic Centre early, and yet there were way too many crews set up too close to the dividing ropes. Completely over the top spreads blocked access for so many crew who actually had runners in the checkpoint. It’s an aid station and this was the front end of the field. I hope some of you enjoyed me dripping my caffeine infused, foul smelling sweat all over you – it probably burnt a hole in your clothes. There is no reason to be in the checkpoint more than 20 minutes early, given all the information in the live timing system. Its no place for giving your runner a fully-fledged picnic. Bottles, gels, a little food if they need it, and wish them well on their way. I’m pretty sure I saw someone with candles just to help lift the ambience a little. This also happened at CP5. Please people, if you do arrive early, stay at the back until your runner arrives and give other crews space to service the fewer than 10 runners who are actually in the station at any given time.
Leaving CP4, I found myself running along with one of the female pros, Gill Fowler. Normally I struggle getting going again at this point of the race but just like the rest of the day so far everything seemed to just keep going great. I was having so much fun I barely stopped at the Fairmont water stop, just a quick top up.
Now things got even better. The pros were coming back from CP5. Tim Tollefson (eventual winner) was storming along in the lead. We gave each other a huge cheer. A few k’s later I passed Rob Krar as he was climbing some stairs, same deal, Mike Wardian too. The three North Americans were all absolute top sports.
Just as I was nearing Tablelands Road out to the hospital, Female Leader, Lucy Bartholemew came by. She was clearly having an amazing day. I realised how good my day was going as passed a bunch of other fast runners who were all no more than thirty or forty minutes ahead of me.
The run down to the hospital went quick. I was moving so fast, Kira and the kids passed me in the car. I was going to arrive at the aid station ahead of them. Ned jumped out of the car and came running alongside me with a bottle of Coke like a champion. But I had to tell him to wait. It turns out I wasn’t actually at the aid station. There was a sneaky 3k out and back down to the gate on Kedumba I didn’t know about.
In the scheme of things this section is pretty easy fire trail and not too steep, but between finishing off my nutrition and my memories of storming up this section with my last bits of energy in Mt Solitary and the Kedumba Half, I mentally retreated a little. The delusion of a UTA Lite faded and I accepted that this was very much the real deal.
Back at the aid station, I refuelled comfortably (once again refer to rant above) and pushed on. I was by now still moving well, but definitely slowing. The leg back to the Fairmont felt like forever (I was actually quicker by a few minutes than the outbound!). At the Fairmont, I got a bunch of high fives from the family and sat inside the water station for a moment. By now I was starting to struggle to balance my nutrition. I couldn’t handle any more liquids and the thought of gels made me feel sick. And the chips weren’t plain salt but some other disgusting flavour. So I stashed some lollies into my pack and pushed on.
The truth is, for the most part I was moving pretty well and balancing my efforts to my body’s ability to put out energy. Mentally, however, I was just getting more and more worn down. There were now big sections where I was alone and unsure if I was going the right way (the course wasn’t totally out and back in this section) and the stairs and technical single track kept coming. By now it was dark, and compared to Kedumba in the dark it was especially challenging in making sure your footing was good and you were also looking ahead at the course direction. Occasionally a runner would catch me and I wouldn’t be able to latch on.
The last 5k took an eternity and at one point I sat down at a picnic table for a moment to take on a gel. It probably would have been a good place for a few of those aid station crew with some candles and their nice spreads! Steadily the 4, 3, and 2k to go markers were ticked off, and there they were: the Furber Stairs.
It was probably my best night time Furber ascent ever. Nearing the top another runner flagged me by. I thanked him and congratulated him and pushed on. Sneakily, he latched onto me without me realising. As I entered the finish chute, took off my head lamp, and soaked up the atmosphere, he suddenly kicked past me.
I finished with a best position of 80th (~top 6% of the starters) and a time of 12:37:23. Fifty-two spots and over an hour faster than last year. The course was certainly faster, but not by an hour. To get the same position as last year (132nd) I would have been about twenty minutes faster than last year. I think this is easily my best result ever, in any event, and something I did without risking my opportunity at Lavaredo.
After spending half of the race assuming the changed course was easier, I thought it was worth doing a quick analysis. I have compared the 2017 results with the last two years (my other two UTAs).
In 2015 19% of the starters picked up a silver buckle.
In 2016 13.5% of the starters picked up a silver buckle.
In 2017 15.7% of the starters picked up a silver buckle.
Silver buckles alone don’t really tell a full story. Using my results from the last three years, there are a few interesting sectors to consider:
1. Leaving CP5 to the finish
2016: 3:24:38 (One sec slower! Same course as 2015)
2017: 3:27:52 (Wet weather course)
2. CP4 to CP5
2015: 3:03:54 (Same course as 2017)
2016: 3:24:43 (with Giant Stairs)
2017: 2:55:17 (Same course as 2015)
Based on my performances the final leg of UTA 2017 was roughly equal time-wise to going down Kedumba. It’s worth noting, however, this year I was stronger and in a much higher position. You can see the time added in 2016 with the Giant Stairs between CP4 and CP5, which is in line with my twenty minute time increase estimated for that year. Also note that my times between the Fairmont and CP5 in 2016 and 2017 were virtually identical.
2015 2016 2017
1 8:50:13 9:20:14 8:52:00
80 12:28:26 13:01:37 12:37:23
132 13:15:55 13:43:00 13:25:18
147 13:23:59 13:49:21 13:31:05
(my results are in GREEN)
What does this mean? I don’t really know, but my take is:
1. The return leg along the cliffs is harder than going down Kedumba.
2. The Giant Stairs added a fair bit of time, although 2016 also got hot which would have had an impact.
3. The number of silver buckles (in % terms) in 2017 was very similar to 2016, both being significantly less than 2015 (this trend is similar when bronze buckles are considered too).
Personally I really enjoyed the 2017 course. It was definitely not UTA Lite, and to be honest a chunk of the 2016 slower pace could be attributed to heat in the middle of the day. Running down the Giant Stairs at lunchtime is a really bad idea anyway given the high tourist numbers. It doesn’t add anything to the experience and detracts in a lot of ways. I also thought the out and back really added to the event. Participants otherwise never actually get to see the top guys out there racing. I would have no issues with this course being permanent given its reasonably wet weather proof.
Gear and Nutrition
Since UTA 2016 I have changed almost everything in terms of gear and nutrition. Some changes were possibly made way too late in the day. The main changes include shoes. In 2015 I used Hoka ATR’s, in 2016 La Sportiva Akashas. Both these are quite maximal shoes and both had some fairly noticeable drawbacks. This year I went with Saucony Peregrine 6’s. They were easily the best, most comfortable, and functional shoe I have used in an ultra. Tons of grip, light, and just enough cushioning. I picked them up for roughly half the price of my previous shoes figuring I would give them a go.
I also changed my pack to a Camelback Ultra Pro vest on the back of a good review at The Long Run. Its lighter and way more comfortable than my UD pack I used the last 2 years although I am not sure it will be big enough if the full UTA gear is required (wet weather pants and fleece).
The new pack wasn’t totally without issue, or should I say user error. I had done the grand total of one run with it and had never filled up the bottles or even tried to take a sip from them prior to the race. I hadn’t figured out how to best get the bottles into the pack – hence me dropping them twice in the opening few k’s – and it took a few goes to effectively drink from them (squirt don’t suck). Soft flasks are so much more comfy than hard bottles over very long distances.
For the race I also carried an empty 1L bladder to make the minimum capacity requirement. It wasn’t super hot and the two front bottles were sufficient to make it between aid stations.
This year I ditched the poles (although I would have used them up from Kedumba on the last leg). I also ditched the Compressport top for a loose fitting TNF BTN shirt. I was also going to wear TNF BTN shorts but they chafed me a week earlier so I went with some compression shorts (they still chafed me).
Nutrition was a mix of Endura Gels and High5 Xtreme. The Xtreme particularly is like jet fuel. Both were amazing, although I think ten hours is about as much of the High5 jet fuel as I can handle. Kira’s lovingly crafted Nutella sandwiches mopped things up in aid stations. I barely slept after the race I was so hopped up on caffeine.
Excluding my Ironman training block (which was very bike focussed) this has been my biggest training build up for an event. By most peoples ultra training standards, my runs aren’t particularly long, far, or steep. I do try and make them purposeful.
This year’s focus has been:
- Running without nutrition to improve metabolism of stored energy.
- Cadence of 180. The cadence of 180 developed out of my annual last minute marathon preps. I learnt quickly I could go my fastest, most efficient and fatigue/injury free at this turn over rate. An article I read at the beginning of this year confirmed my theory. I also ensure every time I would run 5k in previous years, I would run 10k this year. The net result is I have a really dialled in, super efficient 5min/km pace at 180 cadence. I can also maintain it comfortably in a few different forms so if I start getting tired on ay I just tweak my stride a little. In terms of the race this translated into even kilometre 98 being completed at a cadence of 172.
Because of all the various family activites throughout the week, my training has been something like: one or two 60 minute bike sessions on Zwift, one x 60 minute fast flat trail run, one x 45 minute road run with a hill, two x 90min+ trails with hills. Maybe a stair session or hill repeats if I feel like it.
This training load seems to work for me. I am happy and injury free and generally don’t need huge motivation to go for a run. After all, the main reason I run is to enjoy it.
Oh and I almost forgot… I made a prerace VLOG. Rain made a mess of videoing up in Katoomba, but I will try and make a post race/pre Lavarado VLOG sometime soon when I am in Italy.
Wrapup and Next Steps
So from here I look ahead to Lavaredo. I have no doubts Lavaredo is going to be tough. Its mountains are far, far, far bigger and the altitude will hurt. I will finish as long as I remain patient and balance my nutrition.
In November I’ll run my first 100 miler; the inaugural GSER100 in the Victorian Alps. GSER is going to be something else again. For that I am going to have to come up with a very different training, nutrition, and race execution approach. 2017 is only going to get harder from here.
In terms of the quality of UTA, in 2015 I felt a little underwhelmed, but it has gotten better every year since and is now outstanding. The level of professionalism, organisation, and buzz surrounding the event has stepped up a notch. Well done AROC and the entire team of volunteers.