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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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!

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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.

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