(To paraphrase Eddy Merckx, “Don’t buy upgrades; run up grades.” I followed that advice… to some extent.)
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.
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?
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.)
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…
Nike Pro 3/4 ‘semi-thermal’ tights
CompresSport calf compression sleeves
Injinji mid-weight short socks Le Bent Le Sock Outdoor Light Crew
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!)
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!)
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.
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 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.
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”.
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.
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:
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.
We spent a bit of time around the Start-Finish line at Scenic World before returning to the hotel.
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.
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
Kathmandu gel cycling gloves – protection from rocks and railings
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
I stopped my watch at 35.95 km, though the official record will show that my race ended at 28.4 km.
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!
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.
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:
Reconnaissance! The otherwise excellent UTA Guidebook had an elevation profile that smoothed over significant climbs.
Training! No substitute for steps up and down and up and down…
Training! No substitute for a comprehensive training plan with plenty of variety and recovery.
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’.
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.
Gear: I have enough, it works well, and I have spent so much on the bloody stuff that I have to keep running!
Share the trail: Running with others can make a huge difference to your mental state and chances of completely.