UTA50 – Part 5 – #DoItForDad

This has taken me a while to write the final part of this story. But like the UTA50, it was something I had to complete this year.

Who wants to run around that for a bit?

Quiet contemplation and a 50 km run

On the morning of UTA50 Saturday 18 May I felt relatively calm. The emotions and exhaustion of the week were spent on things more important and profound than a run in the bush. The quiet and strong and dignified manner of Dad’s untimely death set an example; helping me feel that I could overcome anything to finish.

Good morning!

I’d laid my clothes out on the floor in order for a relaxing start, and I had picked through the options and had decided which of the clothing and equipment I was taking.

Just some of what I would be wearing

Chikako had frozen her 1.5 litre water bladder full of BCAA and two additional soft flasks with electrolytes. I worried that they would never thaw out despite the reasonably warm forecast. She made peanut butter and jam burritos (just like a sandwich, only smaller) as real food to chomp on. I loaded up on Shotz gels, Tailwind and the magical, Japanese sour plum-flavoured amino acid and salt tablets. I squeezed one of the extra frozen soft flasks in the back of my pack, put the hotel key in a secure pocket, and we set out.

When will we get to the start?

One of the truly impressive things about UTA is the shuttle buses the run throughout the days of the event. The Start/Finish area is closed to casual traffic and parking has to be booked in advance. But something went wrong this year.

A UTA shuttle bus stop was located conveniently across the street from our accommodation in Leura (partly why we chose to stay there). A long line had already formed by 6:00. As we were starting in the last group at 8:02 we weren’t worried about jumping on the first bus. I was more worried about the ice that was forming on the outside of our packs where the frozen soft flasks were.

Then someone near the front of the queue said that the last bus passed 45 minutes previously, and it only took a couple of passengers. (Buses were supposed to be every 5 minutes at peak times, such as now.) Looking down Leura Mall I could see buses driving along Megalong Street towards the start, but none turned towards us. They were filling up at the Fairmont Resort and then going straight to the drop-off.

Runners ahead of us in the bus line (and starting groups) began to make alternative arrangements; a few started running but most scrambled for a lift. (It is about 5 km by foot to Scenic World, or about 4 km to the Skyway at Cliff Drive.) By the time a bus finally arrived we were near the front of the queue.

Our bus driver had realised the problem and came directly to us instead of returning to the Fairmont. He even had room for the few on the Great Western Highway (from where we caught the bus in 2018) and a couple in Katoomba, but passed the next stops.

I wish I could go to work by Skyway

UTA50 runners from an early start group at the 7 km point under the Scenic Skyway

The bus dropped us at the Scenic Skyway. As we loaded into the gondola and waited to leave, on the footpath below us UTA50 runners were hitting the 7 km mark. Some of the runners looked up and responded to our waving (which they could see) and cheering (which they couldn’t hear). The short hop to Scenic World across the gorge was a delight. If you were truly afraid of heights you could have walked the kilometre or so to the start.

Start line, start groups

The first UTA100 group started at 06:20. The last UTA50 group (my group, “the laughing group”) started at 08:02. Before each start the announcers gave the same encouragement:

“If you need to have a cry, have a cry and then keep running. If you need to vomit, vomit and then keep running. If you need to wee yourself, just have a wee and keep running”

If that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is. The more conventional and practical advice for UTA is this:

“In the first half, don’t be a hero. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.

I reflected on something else. As the start of Group 7 approached I paused to think of Dad, recalling what my sister told me; “Dad was strong to the end.” So would I be.

And we’re OFF! Any notion of a 10-hour finish were replaced by a focus on “finish”. I would be inside the 13:30 cut-off for sure (the UTA50 cut-off is flexible), so there wasn’t much reason to go crazy. My two-pronged strategy was this:

  1. Stay with Chikako – because pairs and groups are more likely to finish. (And you only have to buy one set of photos)
  2. Turn down the pace (aka “don’t be a hero”) – because it’s a long day.

From the beginning I didn’t attack the descents (or the ascents) and fast-walked the steep bits, as evidenced by the slower times at the beginning compared to last year:

  • 2018: 1 km 7:39 – 5 km 37:38
  • 2019: 1 km 11:11 – 5 km 43:47
A gentle start
May 2018
TIMING POINTSPEEDRANKTIME OF THE DAYRACE TIME
952m Scenic World– km/hSat. 08:0200:00:00
984m 1km8,39 km/h1223Sat. 08:0900:07:39
983m 5km4,16 km/h1478Sat. 08:3900:37:38
919m Fairmont Resort Water Point5,46 km/h1708Sat. 11:1303:11:21
836m Queen Victoria Hospital4,19 km/h1753Sat. 13:48 / Sat. 16:2505:46:15
May 2019
TIMING POINTSPEEDRANKTIME OF THE DAYRACE TIME
952m Scenic World– km/hSat. 08:0200:00:00
984m 1km5,74 km/h2010Sat. 08:1300:11:11
983m 5km3,83 km/h2008Sat. 08:4500:43:47
919m Fairmont Resort Water Point4,60 km/h2028Sat. 11:4803:46:26
836m Queen Victoria Hospital3,97 km/h1921Sat. 14:32 / Sat. 14:4406:30:01

At 7 km I looked up at the Skyway, looked at my watch, and felt good about my pace. This was going to be a good day.

Km 9 to 15 – The green hell of the Leura Cascades

In 2018 this section destroyed me. I blame the unrealistically-smoothed elevation guide published by UTA. (I should blame my lack of conditioning.) This year I was prepared physically and mentally.

The 200 m descent on the Giant Stairway demands your attention, especially at my height as some overhangs make for cramped. Top Tip: If you are in front of your friends, don’t turn around to have a conversation with them. Concentrate on the stairs. The bottom seems impossibly far away. The twists and turns and dense foliage mean that you can only see the bottom when you’re very close to it. The sight of UTA Crew in hi-viz is welcome indeed, as was a flat-ish section of trail to switch the legs on again.

The trail rolls along the floor with a few tricky bits, tree roots and rocks, but nothing too taxing. Suddenly, a scream! About 20 m us behind a woman had slipped off the track. She was with friends and they were only 100 m or so from the UTA Crew member, so we kept going. A few minutes later two women passed us, one saying to the other, “I heard a snap, and it wasn’t a stick.” That sounded bad, and it wasn’t the last we would hear about it. (Coincidentally, in 2018 at almost the same place I passed a woman off the track receiving attention after a fall.)

After the Giant Stairway there is 1 km of generally descending trail before the stairs really begin. That is the last of the flat terrain for the next 5 km. The published profile doesn’t do justice to the unremitting ups and downs. I climbed the stairs with flat feet to save my legs, chose a steady pace to save my legs, and tried to save my legs. Chikako kept pace well, pausing only a couple of times.

It’s worth it for this – Leura Cascades And a view of the Turbine spreading my turbinators

Km 15 to 23 to Wentworth Falls

The next welcome sight: Sublime Point. I’d walked these roads and part of the trail to come 2 days before. It felt familiar and comforting. In 2018, I could barely run the descent to the golf club such was the pain in my quads; a forecast of how badly my day would end. This year I ran the descent to the Fairmont (17.2 km) to refill water (Tailwind in one, BCAA and Creatine in the other) and eat. I found a SIM card and removal tool in a ziplock bag and handed it in. Chikako stopped briefly and started before me. I caught up to her about 500 m down the track.

Lots of down, but less steep than before. (Strava segment UTA50 – Fairmont (17.2k) to QVH (28k) indicates only 121 m of climbing in 11 km). The first 100 m of descending is mostly on earth and wooden steps, which can be a trip hazard if the earth level is lower than the wood. In some parts there is enough trail to the side of the stairs if you want to step around them. The ascents were less severe too. It was nice move with relative ease and emerge from the bush into a car park to the cheers of spectators and the mild bewilderment of tourists.

At about the 21 km mark the first UTA100 runner passed us. (In 2018, that happened to me at 25 km.) More descending until the beautiful Wentworth Falls.

Wentworth Falls

Km 23 to 28 – Fire trails and roads to QVH

But first… the climb out of Wentworth Falls is a challenge. The steep section requires selection of foot holes. A few metres later a big chunk of the track is missing and a foot wrong would mean quite a tumble. Clear that and the track widens to a trail peppered with loose rocks.

Eventually the trail smooths out, flattens slightly and becomes runable. We ran a few steps but spend most of it at a fast walk with poles. A rule of thumb from the experts is that if you are walking, use poles.

Fast walk and a drink

We picked up the pace on the road to the Queen Victoria Hospital (CP5) a little and ran to the aid station. This was the furthest that Chikako had been on this course. Chikako’s knee was giving her some trouble, and I suggested that this was the best place to abandon as every step we took from here was a step further from rescue. She persevered.

No hot soup?! The first of the UTA100 runners were coming through, but there was no hot soup? I filled up on coca-cola, muesli bars and took a salt and animo acid tablet and we departed.

Km 28 to 41 – The long way down

The Kedumba Pass is 7.5 km long at an average descent of -8.5%. This is no joke. There is no easy way to prepare for this except to descend with good technique. We walked the bulk of the way.

It’s all uphill from here – Jamison Creek 217 m ASL

Chikako’s knee was swollen like a balloon. Going on might have been possible, but you really need to weigh up the damage that you might do in a remote and dark corner of the bush. She said that she was happy with 41.2 km (nearly a trail marathon) but she could go no further. The first aid officer gave her a check. She moved gingerly to sit by the fire. I gave her our hotel key, told her to put on all of her clothing, eat all of her food, drink her water and be prepared for a very long wait. #ISpeakFromExperience The only way out was by 4WD back out the trail we came down even though we were 9 km from the finish.

Inside the first aid tent was a runner with his ankle disagreeing with his foot. He was telling the FAO “I’m a registered nurse, so if you have any [brand of powerful painkiller] I can administer it to myself.” He should have packed it, then.

I overheard the crew’s walkie-talkies discussing the cut-off time for the UTA50. After some discussion, one of the crew declared that, ‘she is still running, so let her go.’ Intriguing.

I put on my long-sleeved base layer, thermal tights and attached my phone to a battery pack (but I didn’t change the batteries in my headlight). Filled my bottles, ate food and put my shoes back on.

(I also had an argument with my sister on the phone. I misinterpreted her text “halfway” that she was halfway to Katoomba to meet us at the finish line, which put us under a lot of pressure to meet her, when she was actually saying that she was tracking our progress live and noticed that we had reached halfway a few hours before. Mea culpa)

After 45 minutes I was all but ready to start moving, but first I had to reset. I moved to the edge of the clearing, bent down and had a little cry. I was crying from the 41.2 km of running and walking and climbing and descending… and for dad. Chikako walked over to ask if I was OK. “Yes I am! and I’m going to finish.”

41 to the Furber Steps

Poles out, headlight on, start grinding for 2 km of climbing at 10-15%. I was happy with my steady pace. Even the UTA100 runners weren’t that much faster than me, which tells you something about the grade of the fire trail. We cheered each other on; these

I was heartened when I was able to run the brief downhill and flat sections as this meant that my legs were still in good condition.

What wasn’t so great was my headlight. The spot it produced seemed so much weaker than I had trained with, and pathetic compared to everyone else’s lights. The full moon didn’t penetrate the tree cover, but my light was adequate on the open and light-coloured fire trail… for now. (Yes, if I had replaced the batteries with the spares that I was carrying I would have enjoyed the full 200 lumens.)

But as the road narrowed and became darker, I felt a moment of doubt… I could just stop here and be rescued. But that negativity was immediately by the thought, “Dad was strong to the end and so will I be.”

Suddenly the dark track opens up to a small clearing and I see a family of four on camping chairs siting next to an outdoor BBQ setting that looks like a pop-up cafe, the type that would serve cold-brew and cronuts. “You’re at the Sewage Treatment Works. Good on ya!”

The timing point chicane negotiated, beep to indicate that my bid was registered. The trail narrows to singletrack. I was moving over to let UTA100 runners pass.

But I reached a 1.5 m high mound and the way over was not clear. I moved my spot light up and down and side to side to try to find foot holds. After a few seconds I scrambled up and over. As luck would have it my hesitation allowed two UTA50 runners with very bright lights to catch up to me. We three worked as a group; bright lights at the front and rear and my light pointing downwards to fill in a bit, and leaning over to make room on the narrow trail for passing UTA100 runners. Xioating had run a similar pace to us all day, so our paths had crossed several times. She even asked how Chikako was going.

But the true #TrailAngel move was what she did each time we reached any obstacle on the course; she would walk through it and then turn her head to shine her light to illuminate the path for me.

The sight of a UTA volunteer indicated that we were back on part of the course that we had run in the opposite direction half a day ago. The next volunteer was at the base of The Furber
Steps. “Just 851 steps to go,” he said. The Furber Steps were closed to the public for renovation, so did this mean that the course had changed? “Don’t you mean 951 steps?, we asked. “Oh yeah!” was the reply.

“Unremitting” is the word. The Furber Steps climb about 200 m in 1 km for an almost 20% grade. You have to use your hands in some sections so I held both poles in one hand and used the other hand for railings, rocks, anything. There are few landings of any real length; you are either going up or up!

About halfway up I needed a moment. My heart rate was only 165 bpm (that’s only moderately-high for me) but I felt the need for a tactical chunder. I moved off the trail and heaved a few times but didn’t vomit. Feeling better I started up the stairs. Xioating gave me her headlight as she had spare, so I put it on in addition to mine.

And then, as if by magic, the dirt track and metal and stone steps are replaced by pebble concrete. A woman on the side of the course said, “You’re at the top of the Furber Steps. Well done!” I turned left onto a footbridge and three cameras took my photo. I turned right and recognised the road where this had all started 1/2 a day earlier. Back in the start/finish chute I thanked Xioating and suggested that she cross the line ahead of me.

I mustered up enough adrenaline to force my legs to run to the finish line and jump over it. I turned to bow to the course, the volunteers, my fellow runners and the Gundangara People whose country I had run on. Then it hit me. I moved off the road, fell to my knees and wept and wept floods of tears. The week came pouring out. A volunteer noticed me and asked if I was OK (some runners barely make it over the finish line, so she was expecting some broken bodies). I briefly explained my situation.

At the mandatory gear check the checker said that a surprising high number of UTA11 and UTA22 runners were penalised and that another volunteer had to deal with a runner who had no gear, food or water left and needed assistance. Volunteers do not carry spare stuff that you should be carrying! (I will not reveal which item or items or how many items were inspected. Mandatory means mandatory!)

The end…

I walked slowly towards my drop bag (and Chikako’s) and the showers. I broke down a couple of times on the way. The cheers and acknowledgement from other runners and their supporters really helped.

A short run, a jump and a bow. Then the emotions took over.
(Play from 2:13:30 to 2:13:52)

The finisher photo was taken by an ex-colleague Landrie, which was a surprise!

Big thanks to Xiaoting Li for helping to light the way home

It took me 15 minutes to undress for the showers. Getting dressed afterwards was not much easier.

I finally got my hot soup in the relaxation zone, using my folding cup to best effect. Several cups with bread later I was feeling human. And then the woman sitting next to me asked how I was… and the emotion of the week burst forwards again.

Chikako rang to say that she was on her way to pick me up. I filled up on food and staggered to the car. A hot bath was waiting at the hotel.

(Chikako was driven back to our hotel 3 hours after she had stopped at 41.2 km. She vowed to never run trails again and stick to road marathons. Three weeks later she said, “I’ve booked accommodation in Katoomba next year!”)

My run

My splits were steady and showed the slower pace I deliberately set. Note that my rank was 2010 at the 1 km mark and at the finish; consistency! BTW, my Strava suffer score was 619.

TIMING POINTSPEEDRANKTIME OF THE DAYRACE TIME
952m Scenic World– km/hSat. 08:0200:00:00
984m 1km5,74 km/h2010Sat. 08:1300:11:11
983m 5km3,83 km/h2008Sat. 08:4500:43:47
919m Fairmont Resort Water Point4,60 km/h2028Sat. 11:4803:46:26
836m Queen Victoria Hospital3,97 km/h1921Sat. 14:32 / Sat. 14:4406:30:01
607m Sewage Treatment Works3,91 km/h2007Sat. 18:5210:50:31
801m Base of Furber Steps2,84 km/h2008Sat. 20:3112:29:49
952m Scenic World1,79 km/h2010Sat. 21:1213:10:16

The Next Day

It was very difficult to sleep. My legs were uncomfortable in any position and the combination of sugars, caffeine and my body’s restorative processes I only got a few hours of rest here and there. I got up early and put on my merino compression socks, and Chikako and I stumbled down the hill in light drizzle for a hearty breakfast. Getting started was hard, but once forward motion was achieved, walking was relatively easy. Stairs, turning and stopping were challenging, but the satisfaction of moving at all was worth it.

We wondered about the UTA100 runners who were still finishing beyond 24 hours. (The last runner arrived in 28:31:32.)

Later the next day

From the UTA50 Facebook group: ‘My name is Monique. I’m about to have an operation to insert plates and screws to fix my broken tib and fib. I would like to thank my friend Jenny for looking after me until I was rescued.’

Jenny’s 13:11:41 result included the text, “Bonus – 40 minutes – helping injured runner (with a broken leg)”

And thus the walkie-talkie discussion at the 41.2 km water point was explained. #TrailAngels

UTA50 – Part 4 – But first…

Really not prepared for this

Bradley and Ralph
Dear old dad

The day before I took leave my dad had a fall at his home. We visited him in hospital in Newcastle on the Saturday – an 860 km, 9 hour round trip – and had a long conversation. On Sunday his numbers worsened so he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), but by Monday his tests were slightly more promising.

But by Tuesday his condition had worsened. He asked to move from ICU back to a ward. I asked my sister if this was because of improvement or comfort… it was the latter! So we bundled the dogs in the car and raced immediately to Newcastle, arriving at 20:30 Tuesday night.

Too late, as it happened. I went to the ward and into the room. Dad looked just like he was asleep. I walked over and kissed him on his forehead. His hair was so soft! Such a strange and unexpected thing.

I mentioned to the nurse that my wife was outside with the dogs so naturally (I thought) I would swap places with her. “Bring them in”, said the nurse. “If anyone complains they can talk to me.”

It was quite a scene. My sister with her husband and three kids; the youngest in a wheelchair and a full leg cast stuck out in front. My wife and I with our dogs in a stroller. And Dad resting so peacefully. We stayed with Dad for a few hours, never feeling like we had to go.

As we were leaving the hospital my sister told me that as she visited Dad every day he kept his memory and his strength until the end. That thought stuck with me.

Newcastle, Canberra, Blue Mountains

Drove to Sydney for a quick nap at my sister’s house, then a 04:00 Wednesday start to return to Canberra with my wife, two dogs and deliver my niece to the ANU. A brief stop at home to pack the dogs’ things and take them the kennel.

Finally at home for more then a few minutes and for the first time I could think about what I was packing and check everything off in my mind. I had laid out my gear since the weekend but my mental checklist hadn’t been working. While I could buy anything that I had missed at the UTA expo, I hate buying things I already own. By Wednesday afternoon we were back on the road to Leura in the Blue Mountains.

Over 2000 km driven in three days.

Just 50 km of running to go.

UTA 50 – Part 3 – Gearing up!

(To paraphrase Eddy Merckx, “Don’t buy upgrades; run up grades.” I followed that advice… to some extent.)

The vest pack, shoes and pole quiver for UTA50 2019
Sponsorship offers welcome (but highly unlikely)

Gear change

There was nothing wrong with my gear in 2018. Everything fitted in the 12 litre Kathmandu vest pack, everything worked. But over time and through experience and stuff wearing out I wanted to make some improvements.

The first two changes were easy to decide:

  • Garmin Forerunner 935. More features, more performance data, and running dynamics. But most importantly, it has more than twice the battery life of my 235 so I don’t have to run twice as quickly.
  • Black Mountain Distance FLZ poles from Mont, sold by Michael Milton himself!

No such thing as bad weather; just bad clothing

The next equipment consideration was clothing. By virtue of my height, my clothes are huge. Those YouTube stars have rain jackets no bigger than their thumb but they still meet the minimum standard. My Kathmandu Flinders ngx jacket folded to the size of a football. It’s a great jacket especially in moderately-heavy rain, but it’s big and heavy.

The UTA50 mandatory gear list describes a rain jacket thus: “A premium jacket would have a waterproof rating of over 15,000 mm hydrostatic head and a breathability MVTR rating of 20,000 g/m²/25 hrs [sic]…”. But I skipped the last part of the sentence that reads, “…however much lower ratings are completely acceptable.” So a ’10k/10k’ would be fine?

The Outdoor Research Helium II jacket reduced the weight from 385 g to about 130 g and the size of a football to a sandwich.

Even if I was hoping for a 10-hour time that would still be a long event and a night-time finish. So I packed extra clothes including spare socks and gloves, and thermal tights.

New Vest Pack

My 12 litre Kathmandu vest pack had space and some nice features and was inexpensive. I had to hack it with a velcro strap to attach the Salomon quiver for my poles. What I really wanted was a Salomon pack.

But could I find a Salomon 12 litre pack in XL? Nowhere in the world, it seemed. I checked with Mont and Find Your Feet and both were hoping for stock by April 2019… only for deliveries to be delayed until July! I went against my principle of supporting my LRS (Local Running Shop) and bought a Salomon ADV SKIN 12 Set from Wiggle for $150 in a fetching shade of Sulphur/Citronelle.

(At UTA Expo I bumped into Mike from Salomon Australia who gave me the S/Lab shoes [see below] and I told him that I felt a bit squalid buying online. He apologised for having none in stock in Australia.)

Shoes

I was very lucky to win a pair of Salomon S-Lab Ultra shoes as a lucky door prize at Mont‘s UTA information night. My first run with them was quite painful but a change of insole fixed that. They are lighter than my La Sportiva Akasha (most shoes are) and I’ll wear them in shorter races. For UTA50 I stuck with the superior comfort and tread (deeper than my other trail shoes even after 400 km of wear!) of the La Sportivas.

Compared to 2018…

Wearing

  • Nike Pro 3/4 ‘semi-thermal’ tights
  • CompresSport calf compression sleeves
  • Injinji mid-weight short socks Le Bent Le Sock Outdoor Light Crew
  • Uniqlo Dry shorts Kathmandu Zeolite Men’s Active Shorts
  • Uniqlo Airism base layer
  • Nike running shirt
  • Castrelli arm warmers – Strava-branded, Strava-orange coloured
  • Sugoi beanie – map motif Several Buffs (which was one of the mystery mandatory gear
  • Nike Aero cap
  • Oakley prescription glasses with transition lenses
  • Turbine up the nose
  • La Sportiva Akasha shoes (size 14 1/2!)
  • Kathmandu gel cycling gloves Fluoro orange polypropylene gloves – protection from rocks and railings
  • Salomon soft flasks with Osprey straws (The new Salomon soft flasks have a narrow opening, which apart from being difficult to fill, won’t fit Salomon straws!)
  • Bib belt

Carrying

  • Kathmandu Zeolite running vest Salomon ADV Skin 12 running vest with Salomon Quiver
  • Kathmandu UltraCore thermal shirt
  • Kathmandu Flinders ngx Rain Jacket 20k/20k Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket 10k/10k
  • Endura gels, Clif bars, Carman bar (But I forgot the Kyoto Marathon amino and salt pills!) Shotz gels (caffeinated and non-caffeinated); Amino acid and salt pills; Peanut butter and jam burritos (real food!)
  • Spare BCAA and Creatine
  • Wildo fold-a-cup coffee cup and Sea and Summit folding cups
  • First aid kit: compression bandage, band-aids, spare Aussie Butt Cream, Hisamitsu pads, space blanket, spare food.
  • Kathmandu Raven 200 headlight and spare AA batteries
  • Battery pack and cables for iPhone and Garmin 235 935
  • Not taken:  Black Diamond Distance FLZ trekking poles; Kathmandu thermal tights; spare socks; Sugoi gloves
Bradley in full gear ready for UTA50 2019
I’m ready! (I’ll take off the fleece and leave it in my drop bag at the finish.)

Now, to wait for the bus to the start.

UTA50 Part 2 Training… somewhat underdone

(Part 1 was https://templeblot.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/uta50-entered-achievement-unlocked/)

Apart from the odd high-volume weekend, this was the program I followed

Best of intentions

I had plenty of time to prepare for UTA50 since entering September 2018. Among bouts of running I finished Fitz’s Classic 165 km with relative ease and l’etape 170 km (story to come).

Then this thing happened

l’etape took a lot out of me. I climbed col de Beloka without stopping for the second time and climbed col de Perisher stopping only for water, a rider in agony from cramp and my mate abandoning 3 km from the summit. I wasn’t in too much pain but I was fatigued for almost a month. I did some light rides and runs in December to get back into it.

I managed a 30:09 PB at Gungahlin ParkRun on 1 January, which was a surprise on the new course made slower by the new U-turn, but fell apart at the Tuggeranong ParkRun a few hours later, which was unsurprising.

The heat. Canberra’s weather was so hot for so long. It was even hot at night, which is unusual in Canberra, which compromised my sleep.

And my new and very important job was stressful and required some after hours work.

But I did train on Mt Stromlo and Black Mountain to be ready for the Kowen Trail New Year’s Resolution 12k on 20 January. On that day the heat was kept at bay by the overcast conditions. Lovely course and event. I’ll be back.

Got sick?

Then I was hit by a chest infection and asthma. The rule of thumb is that illness from the neck up need not affect training, and many’s the time I’ve started a long ride with a sore throat that disappeared after 10 minutes. But illnesses below the neck can become much worse through exertion and add weeks to recovery time.

And 4 weeks of recovery later I was left with just over 2 months to train.

Training as-planned vs. as-is

According to my coach’s plan, by March 2019 I should have been running 50-70 km each week with 150 km of cycling. And Bikram yoga. Instead my training which sparse to say the least. My Strava training calendar looks like a real training calendar with the week days removed. (It’s actually shocking to see how little I did!)

I did less sessions, slower, longer, almost all on dirt, climbing and descending steep things, walking up and down stairs, using my equipment including trekking poles, and running at night with a headlight. I figured that becoming familiar with the edge cases of trail running would save time and mental anguish in the field.

And then, after a 28 km hilly session my left calf was popping. Dr Google said that it was an Achilles tendon about to rupture. I have never had a problem with my Achilles tendon and I didn’t have time for one now. RICE and heel lifts would have to work a miracle.

My chances of completing UTA50 in 10 hours were now zero. Were my chances of finishing only 50/50?

UTA50 entered – achievement unlocked!

My wife took annual leave to be ready to enter the UTA50 as soon as entries opened at 10:00 AEST today. I thought that she was overly keen as it took a few days to sell out last year. At about 15:00 today UTA announced that UTA50 was sold out. Thank you!

As Chikako was working through the forms I was at work meeting a new Project Manager. He noticed my Garmin watch. I noticed his backpack. We talked about running and cycling. I said that my wife had just entered both of us into the UTA50 and that we were keen to avenge our disappointment. Tom said that he had placed 12th in 2018’s UTA100 in a time of 10:42. Wait, what!

I reckoned that Tom had probably passed me (and Rory and Justin) just before Queen Victoria Hospital. But now that I look at the official timing it seems that we crossed on the fire road after Queen Victoria Hospital: I left CP5 at about 14:00 and he left at 14:35.

He said that next year he hopes to break into the top 10 and be under 10 hours for the 100. I also hope to get under 10 hours… for the 50.

Challenge accepted

So if we were both aiming for 10 hours, why don’t we have a race?

Tom would start about 1 hour 40 minutes before me (and there’s his extra 50 km), but we would each get a race time from when we crossed the start to when we crossed the finish. So our race times would show who “wins”.

Crossing over

But there won’t be slow-motion sprint and desperate lunge to the finish line because with a 1 hour 40 minute gap Tom would finish about 1:40 before me. But at some point we would cross paths. Where?

In 2018 it took Tom about 50 minutes to run the 6 km and climb the 345 m from the Sewage Treatment Works, up the Furber Steps to the finish.

Doubling that time (assuming I’m running at half his pace) gives 1 hour 40 minutes.

So whoever gets to the Sewage Treatment Works first has the advantage.

10 hours?

Based on no experience at all I “aimed” for a 10 hour time at a 12 minute/km pace in 2018. Instead I was on pace to do about 13 hours. It will take a big effort to:

  1. complete UTA50, and;
  2. average 12:00 min/km.

Doable?

Hang on… I started a 50km off-road run in May!

NASA says that missions fall into one of two categories: Missions that are successful, and missions that are rich in learning opportunities.

What a lovely event!

As a location it’s hard to beat the Blue Mountains. Clean air, established trails, enough altitude to affect performance and brutal but beautiful conditions.

Everything was well-signposted, the collection of bibs and bits was quick and easy, the people were nice and helpful, and the expo was full of reasonably-priced gear. The runner’s guidebook was comprehensive and informative (though the elevation profile was deceivingly smooth). I’ve only seen a similar level of organisation and efficiency at marathons in Japan.

IMG_E5470
Such innocence

We spent a bit of time around the Start-Finish line at Scenic World before returning to the hotel.

Safety briefing

We couldn’t attend the welcome to country and compulsory safety briefing in person; we were already in bed. But we watched it on YouTube some time afterwards. David King, a Gundungurra man, told of his mother Aunty Mary King and how she walked the trails that we would be running on.

The medical briefing included an interesting UTA stat: on average each year 2 people are treated for dehydration, but 8 people are treated for hyponatremia, a condition where low sodium levels caused by excess water consumption result in confusion and headaches. The advice was not to drink to a schedule and not to worry about becoming thirsty as it was not a portent of poor performance. By trial and error I determined that 1 litre of plain water in the bladder was more than sufficient, with BCAA and Creatine ‘cordial’ in the two 600 ml squeeze bottles. That’s 1 kg saved.

There was also a strong warning against taking paracetamol or anti-inflammatory drugs: the former would hurt your liver and the latter would hurt your kidneys. And some inflammation processes may aid recovery more than drugs.

The mandatory gear seems like a hassle until you realise that you are on your own. If you must stop you will need to keep yourself warm before help arrives. My pack was weighed about 6 kg including about 2 l of water. A tiny person might fit into a rain jacket that folds smaller than a fist, mine’s nearly an armful.

The weather forecast looked good for dry and cool conditions with light winds; just about perfect, so no need to carry a hi-viz vest; another 176 g saving!

They were serious about random checks of mandatory gear. In the UTA22 several runners were penalised 40 minutes after crossing the finish line, including a runner who had placed in their age range.

Anyone could start after their allocated group, but starting ahead of your group would lead to disqualification. (As it happened, two runners in the UTA50 were disqualified under this rule after they crossed the line.)

Morning of the race

After nearly eight hours of sleep (Wow, I don’t get that much at home!) getting ready was relaxed. I started with a liberal application of Aussie Butt Cream to various bits. I’d set out my gear to make dressing easy; though it took me 15 minutes to choose which of three base layers to wear.

Wearing

  • Nike Pro 3/4 ‘semi-thermal’ tights
  • Compresssport calf compression sleeves
  • Injinji mid-weight short socks
  • Uniqlo Dry shorts
  • Uniqlo Airism base layer
  • Nike running shirt
  • Castrelli arm warmers – Strava-branded, Strava orange coloured
  • Sugoi beanie – map motif
  • Nike Aero cap
  • Oakley prescription glasses with transition lenses
  • Turbine up the nose
  • La Sportiva Akasha shoes (size 14 1/2!)
  • Kathmandu gel cycling gloves – protection from rocks and railings

Carrying

  • Kathmandu Zeolite running vest
  • Kathmandu UltraCore thermal shirt
  • Kathmandu Flinders ngx Rain Jacket 20k/20k
  • Endura gels, Clif bars, Carman bar (But I forgot the Kyoto Marathon amino and salt pills!)
  • Spare BCAA and Creatine
  • First aid kit: compression bandage, band-aids, spare Aussie Butt Cream, Hisamitsu pads, space blanket
  • Kathmandu Raven 200 headlight and spare AA batteries
  • Battery pack and cables for iPhone and Garmin 235
  • Not taken: Walking poles and thermal tights

Breakfast eaten, fluids filled, running vest checked again, finish-line bag packed, shoes on, out the door at 05:00.

The shuttle bus stop was across the road from the hotel. After a short journey the packed bus stopped at a dark and remote place and not Scenic World as I’d expected.

Pre-race

But the lovely surprise was that we were taking the Scenic Skyway the last 720 metres, which was smart. It was about 20 minutes before sunrise, so the driver left the lights off so that we could see the Three Sisters, the waterfall and the mountains in all of their pre-dawn glory.

Floating into Scenic World by Skyway and then to the start line. We had just missed the first start group of the UTA100, but we watched the second group and the first group of UTA50 runners.

We returned to the closed restaurant where we could sit and wait for our time, check our gear, charge phones and grab one last coffee.

Lining up for some events can be an ordeal. Where is my start group? How do I get there? UTA was so smooth by comparison.

Start line

What a happy place! Looking around at the happy faces of expectation, the selfies, the spectator in a Luigi costume. I felt calm and ready.

IMG_5492 (1)
We have no idea what we are getting ourselves into

The MC revved up the runners with the inspirational story of Alfie Johnston, the 75-year-old runner in the UTA100.

Start my watch, acquire GPS signal and… we’re off!

The first 7 km

The entree is on roads, mostly tarmac, 1 km of fairly steep dirt out and back, and suburban streets with welcoming crowds. Chikako and I crossed over twice, about 30 seconds apart. I was happy with 38 minutes at the 5 km mark because 1. I wasn’t going out too fast and 2. I felt great at that pace. (I did worry about the runner next to me wearing ‘barefoot’ shoes who stopped every km to stretch. It was going to be a long, or perhaps very short, day for him.) Descending past the Start-Finish area I found Mario reunited with Luigi among the cheers and volunteers.

Turning towards the Blue Mountains brought the magnificent views of the range. I didn’t stop for selfies or landscapes, but just kept shuffling along.

The first real descent

The Giant Stairway leads 200 m down behind the Three Sisters. No option here but to take care and take time. A woman behind me slipped on a rock step, but fortunately didn’t slide far. (My gel cycling gloves were a good idea.) The thick canopy and twists and turns means that it takes a long time to see the bottom; on this occasion signified by a volunteer in hi-viz loudly encouraging runners.

I was ready for the first trail section and started at a 7-8 minute/km pace. However, within a few metres of the trail starting I saw the first casualty; a woman lay next the the track covered by a space blanket, attended to by two volunteers. I had to put speculation about the cause and how she would be rescued aside and focus on the race ahead.

From the the stairway I was stuck behind a runner using poles (not allowed in the first 12 km) and headphones (not allowed anywhere on course) who burped a lot. A couple of runners called out to pass, but he didn’t hear them. After they got through, he turned to me and said, ‘I nearly spiked his foot.’ I wonder why they have rules about these items.

Elevation profile was all lies, LIES!

50km-course-profile

I was expecting a rolling path for a few km, followed by 200 m of ascent in two stages, which I was expecting to climb strongly. Instead, the descent was followed almost immediately by steep and wet ups and downs of 100 to 200 m. I was reaching the top of the climbs feeling light-headed. I ate another gel, struggled on to the first checkpoint, and wondered how Chikako was going.

At the waterfall I bumped into a mountain biker who had ridden up from the valley. He carried his bike up the steps with a pace I could barely match as we chatted: he had no idea that UTA was on.

UTA50_Leg1_profile
Elevation profile to from the start to 17.5 km as measured by my watch. I didn’t see that coming!

The cyclist in me couldn’t help but call out hazards as I ran like loose rocks or faster runners behind. I even managed to call out a low overhang… and then slam my own head into it.

The tarmac descent to the first checkpoint should have been a welcome relief and opportunity to make up some time, but my quads were starting to protest. This was not looking good for the long descent to come.

17.5 km Water Point

Recover, refresh, refocus. My wee was a good colour and I wasn’t sweating much. I put Hisamitsu pads on my quads, grabbed some snakes and gummy bears and filled my squeeze bottles. I headed out at a slow run, hoping to get some feeling back into my legs.

A South African, a Pom and an Aussie go for a walk in the bush

The trail opened up and made running a bit easier. I ate some solid food and was feeling better. The slopes were less severe and the terrain less technical, but it was still hard work. An 8:30 finish was well out of reach and 10:00 would be impossible unless I could start running at 8 min/km pace and descend to the valley floor at 5 to 6 min/km.

I noticed a runner with a pained expression and asked if he was OK. He said that 3 weeks previously he had broken his pelvis. Somehow he had the strength to outrun me.

A short time later I struck up a conversation with Rory and we settled into a 10 min/km pace. By amazing coincidence, Rory has previously worked in Kobe and lived in Suma. I was in Kobe for a few weeks in February. Every place he mentioned I have been to on one trip or another.

At about the 22 km mark we noticed a drone overhead. Looking back down to ground level, we saw the number 1 bib (and eventual winner in record time) Brendan Davies. Sure, he had left almost 2 hours before we did, but he had covered 72 km! A few minutes later bib 2 Ben Duffus passed and bib 14 Harry Jones followed soon thereafter. We couldn’t but be amazed at their speed.

Then we joined up with Justin, a Brit who’s lived in Texas for 30 years but hasn’t lost his accent. More 100 km runners overtook us as we made room and cheered them on.

Sadly, just before the checkpoint I got a message from Chikako that she had abandoned at 24 km because her legs had exploded. She cheered me on to finish for her.

Queen Victoria Hospital – Food!

CP5 at 28.4km was a welcome sight. Real food, Coca Cola, Hammer gels and electrolyte, and Carman bars. I spent 20 minutes here until I started to feel better. I even managed a few squats. I double-checked my food situation, mixed some BCAA with Coke and started moving again.

As luck would have it, Rory and Justin started at the same time. I guess we were going to do this together, which was good because it would be dark by the end for us. Very dark.

The long descent into…

Justin had run the UTA22 in 2017 so he knew the course from CP5 to Scenic World. His description of the worst being behind us and his encouragement kept me going. I had hoped to be descending quickly for the next 8 km to make up a lot of time, but it was better to stuck together.

UTA50_36km_profile
Far more jagged than the official version. Nice long descent (into hurt world) shown at right

The wide fire trail had some sketchy sections, and with the 100 km runners appearing quickly we had to move out of their way often.

Justin started telling stories of his previous endurance events; only one of which involved his urine turning an alarming colour. I resolved to look at the colour of my wee for signs of impending doom.

I then started getting messages from Chikako and my brother-in-law Chris. My sister and her family were on their way to Katoomba to surprise us. Try coordinating three moving parts when you’re on a steep dirt road with very sketchy mobile phone signal!

I had a few goes at running to test the legs and felt better, but I wanted to keep them fresh for the climbs at the end. My hope of running the descent as I had been training for evaporated.

At the start of the descent I was holding back to stay with Rory and Justin. But about 6 km later my knees and right ankle started to hurt like nothing else. I struggled on for another km but began to drop back. The big and comfortable rock at the side of the road was as good a place to stop for some first aid as I’d find.

But I soon realised that I wasn’t going anywhere. With just two hours until sunset, the prospect of going deeper into the bush just to be dragged out of it again was too much. I bid my trail buddies good luck, took a selfie and switched to survival mode.

IMG_E5499
Rory (left) and Justin (right). If you are ever walk/run through the bush you could do worse than join these blokes

Though the sun was shining, it was getting cold. I put on my thermal top and beanie, ate some food and put Hisamitsu pads on my knees and ankle. I even put on my headlight and switched it to red SOS flashing. As I sat, UTA50 runners stopped to offer help. I wish I could remember all of the names so that I could thank trail angels properly, but I was a bit fuzzy. Sorry.

Within 15 minutes the broom wagon driven by P-plater Chris picked me up. (I must have confirmed his name 5 times.) The drive out of the valley back to CP5 was slow as lots of UTA100 runners were running down the hill and the 4WD kicked up a lot of dust at anything above crawling pace. In the back of the car was another runner, who just so happened to work in the same division and live two suburbs away from me.  What are the odds?!

Meanwhile, patchy phone signal provided bursts of messages in between missed calls. Chikako was stuck at the finish line waiting for a shuttle bus, so I sent Lisa and Chris to pick her up and meet me at the hotel. How I would get back was not clear.

Officially Abandoned

I stopped my watch at 35.95 km, though the official record will show that my race ended at 28.4 km.

IMG_5503 (1)
(Sad face)

I waited in the car until First Aid Officers checked that I could move on my own. I shuffled into the CP5 tent, signed the withdrawal sheet, ate hot soup (thanks Ami, it’s Ami right? Ami?) and contemplated getting some physio. UTA100 runners were arriving every few seconds, scrambling for their spare bags, refreshing, recovering, resetting and then racing out to join the trail.

There were no shuttle buses from CP5. Fortunately, there were a lot of cars moving in and out so I thumbed a lift to the Great Western Highway for 1 km walk to the hotel. As luck would have it I had been picked up by serial runners Georgia and Harry. (Confirmed several times.) The moment I sat down in the back, Harry handed me a Weihenstephaner Pils and a bottle opener. I was conflicted: would the alcohol affect the recovery of my muscles and should I abstain from… I finished the bottle before I got to the hotel. Yes, Georgia and Harry drove me back to my hotel. What gents!

IMG_5505 (1)
Recovery starts at once!

The hotel reception was open and gave me a spare key. I had time for a shower before Chikako and my family arrived. It all worked out in the end. I wasn’t even hurting all that much.

Postscript

I managed to find Justin online and we chatted on the Sunday after the race. He and Rory had crossed the line just under 13 hours, which gives some idea of how much I had underestimated the time I would take. Justin couldn’t find his head torch and had to follow in Rory’s footsteps for about 4 hours.

So, what did I learn?

Here are just a few items from my rich list of learning opportunities:

  1. Reconnaissance! The otherwise excellent UTA Guidebook had an elevation profile that smoothed over significant climbs.
  2. Training! No substitute for steps up and down and up and down…
  3. Training! No substitute for a comprehensive training plan with plenty of variety and recovery.
  4. Weight! I know that I am about 12 kg over my ‘ideal cycling weight’. This is probably 24 kg over my ‘ideal Ultra-Trail weight’.
  5. Altitude! Living at 625 m ASL is already a form of altitude training [Sweat Science; Alex Harrison], but I will spend more time over 1000 m might give me an edge.
  6. Gear: I have enough, it works well, and I have spent so much on the bloody stuff that I have to keep running!
  7. Share the trail: Running with others can make a huge difference to your mental  state and chances of completely.

Yes… we will be back next year.

Hang on… I’m doing a 50km off road run in May!

It’s all dawning on me now. Last September my wife entered both of us into the Ultra-Trail Australia 50km (UTA50) in the Blue Mountains.

Why?

My wife wanted to do a 50km event in her 50th year. Fair enough, however she was convinced that an on road ultra marathon would be boring. So let’s try one of the hardest 50km events in the world!

How?

For weeks before entries opened we discussed it, watched YouTube videos made by successful runners and finally committed to it. Within two days of opening the entries for the 100 and 50 were full. I worried that I had taken a place from a real ultra runner, but my mate Steve said that not everyone is in the elite class and that runners were still arriving at the cut-off time when he did the UTA100.

What?

This is a tough event.On Easter Saturday I ran/walked the Centennial Trail from Hall to Gungahlin for 23km and 472m of ascent. There’s about 2400m of ascent and descent in the UTA50. 472m is probably the ascent in the last 6km alone!

When?

Saturday 19 May 2018. It only seems close because it is.

Srsly?

Yeah. I’ll even reveal my training and equipment secrets in future posts.

Qantas entertainment making the hours fly by

My rare trips to the cinema are now limited to flights! So, what’s on for February 2018 flying to Japan?

On the CBR-MEL leg I got into the mood with a documentary about Japanese sword, kimono and pottery made by traditional methods.

Fun Fact: Mud is involved in the manufacture of all three!

  • Painted on at various depths before final firing to pattern the blade.
  • To dye the silk.
  • Clay. (More a slurry than a mud, but anyway…)

The 10 hour MEL – NRT leg

Battle of the Sexes – Bobby Riggs v. Billie Jean King. Five stars. I wonder if there was a deliberate attempt to balance the story-telling for the two main characters. I felt for Bobbie Riggs at one point. He was a hustler, a loudmouth and a chauvinist pig, but he wasn’t a monster. BJK’s wasn’t shown as a bra-burning ball-breaker. (Margaret Court cops it from all angles… but that’s reasonable given her views that haven’t changed since then.)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (HBO) – You probably owe your life to this woman’s cancer cells. I’ve shared the RadioLab podcasts that have discussed the ethics and the impact on her family. This film starring Oprah and Rose Bryne looks at the family in detail in the context of Rebecca Skloot’s book. BTW, the continual references to Henrietta’s painted toenails is symbolic of the care that she took in herself and others, and that the first that people realised how sick and weak she was when they were chipped.

The Journey (2016) – Described as “a fictional account of the true story of how political enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness formed an unlikely political alliance” at the October 2006 meetings for the Northern Ireland peace process.

They’re a Weird Mob (1966) – Yet another classic Aussie movie featuring Graham Kennedy. But seriously, how could I have not watched this film before now? TAWM probably did more for cultural education than even The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. Fun Fact: Walter Chiari (aka Walter Annicchiarico) spoke English very well in real life.

Casino Royale is too much… for Qantas

Special mention goes to Casino Royale in the James Bond section for its confusing presentation of Casino Royale.

The 1967 film of that name used the tagline “Casino Royale is too much… for one James Bond”. The loose relationship the rest of the canon is illustrated by James Bond being played by David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen (and more), and having had 6 Directors [and far too many drugs].

The 2006 film is the official version with Dame Judi Dench, Daniel Craig and Mads Mikkelsen.

The poster art is from the 1967 film, the title screen features a scene from the 1967 film but lists Judi Dench and clicking play opens with dark streets and an office building in Prague; not Peter Sellers and Duncan Macrae in a pissoir in Paris.

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To coin a phrase, “Casino Royale is too much… for Qantas”.

Fun Fact: Mike Myers cites Burt Bacharach’s song from the film “The Look of Love” that he heard on the radio the way home from ice hockey practice and Our Man Flint as the inspiration for Austin Powers.

Bonus Fun Fact: Casino Royale also takes credit for the greatest number of actors in a Bond film either to have appeared or to go on to appear in the rest of the Eon series: 11.

What entertainment will HND-SYD and SYD-CBR bring?

The eggy, scramble happy ending

There have been so many stories of cyclists abused, injured and killed recently that it may appear to the casual observer that cyclists and drivers are at war. Australia is far from the friendliest place in the world to cycle; however there is a lot of love out there. Maybe Canberra is a bit special with so many recreational, commuting and racing cyclists that the attitude of drivers is more friendly.

In fact, my most recent encounters have been overwhelmingly courteous, such as the Linfox driver who gave me extra space or the Cappello contractors who patiently waited behind me on East Tallegandra Lane before overtaking safely.

I have just bought Cycliq Fly12 and Fly6[v] cameras to replace my old Fly6. Hopefully, I’ll continue to see examples of coexistence; now from two angles.

So anyway… last year I was hit by an egg while riding. This was so bizarre. Who throws an egg? Who carries eggs in a car and then throws them at a cyclist? Continue reading “The eggy, scramble happy ending”

I drove over 1000 miles in a single day in my electric vehicle

Guinness doesn’t have a record for “Farthest distance driven in an electric vehicle in 24 hours”, but it should. Achievement unlocked!

The Tipping Point

tesla_CDF2You hear it all the time – can’t go anywhere in an EV, they’ll never work in Australia, takes too long to charge. However, last week I drove 1635km in a single day in my Tesla. Yes that’s right naysayers: 1015 miles.

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