This was my first ultra.
Rewind to July last year. I was a bushwalker seeking a challenge to distract me from some woes in my personal life. My friend suggested the Ultra-Trail Australia 100km ultra (UTA100) but I wasn’t convinced – it’s rather expensive and I was uncertain if I had the mettle for such an epic.
October came and I accepted the challenge because the pros list was longer than the cons list … and sometimes you just have to throw yourself into something completely crazy to bring about change. With the money spent, it was now time to start putting some kms under my feet since I’d never run more than 25km before (which I considered epic at the time!).
In April I ignored my PhD and put my nerdy skills to use – analysing last year’s race times and my training logs to estimate my race splits. My primary goal was simply to finish (it’s 100km for goodness sake!), however I thought it would be good to have a secondary goal for motivation. I realised that it was seriously ambitious, but it wasn’t unreasonable to aim to finish on Saturday (i.e. by midnight). It’s trivial to state that my start group would impact on how long I would have to make this goal. When the start groups were released I sent in one of my training logs and was rewarded with a move up into start group 5, which left me with 17 hours and 11 minutes to make midnight. Everything just needed to be absolutely perfect on race day … hah!
Tapering was a bit of a novelty, having never done this before. Some days I found myself with so much energy that I just had to go for a run or swim to let some of it out and I was hungry *all the time*. Overall I was feeling good about my preparation. The Saturday beforehand some friends had me over to watch ‘Desert Runners’, which got the excitement levels up. Then, the week leading into the event, I got sick, worked back late and stressed to meet deadlines before my one month trip to Europe the Monday following the UTA100 (‘who’s brilliant idea was this?’ I asked myself several times that week), I wasn’t sleeping enough and I had all these doubts about whether I’d trained enough/properly or had I merely been lucky to date and my body wouldn’t be up to it. I also got brand new muscle niggles even though I was barely doing any sport and I had no time to go and see anyone. I started to question if I’d even make it to the start line after all! At some point on Friday I threw my hands in the air and headed to Katoomba, everything else had to wait because it was time to deliver on six months of preparation… my excitement levels went crazy :) At 6pm that evening my body reminded me that I’m female .. argh.
Standing on the start line I started questioning whether I’d made a bad call moving up the start groups and I was nervous I’d go out too fast and not make it to the end. My crew’s last piece of advice to me had been to walk up every hill in the first 5 kilometres. *Bang* Go!
The start was soo much better than what I thought it would be. I was worried about being jammed in amongst 200 runners but instead we were all casually (very casually!) jogging down the road, walking up the hills and getting to know each other over the out-and-back starting section. I saw my kayaking buddy from start group 4 coming back the other way and waved hello. The spectators along the side near Scenic World were such a buzz. When I came past the start again I smiled at my support and exclaimed with a grin “3 km down and just 97 km to go”. It was the only time I let myself subtract from 100 until the final stage.
Down the Furber stairs at what seemed like a nice casual pace. I got caught in a few congo lines but overall it was fine. Then I found myself running with almost no one in sight along the Federal Pass. How that happened I have no idea but I was enjoying a bit of space around me! Everything slowed down at the Landslide as anticipated and it was novel to see sooo many people in a tight line tackling the Golden Stairs. I hoped there were no unaware bushwalkers planning to head down the stairs anytime soon. I met a lady who had cheered her partner on in start group 1 and was now trying to go against the flow back to Katoomba. What the? She asked me if I knew another way out and I did. I hit the Narrowneck checkpoint (CP, 10.7km) 1 minute faster than my estimated split. Score, I was on target (yes, I know, it was very early in the race).
The views were sooo clear, I could see all the way to Kanangra and named as many mountains to myself as I could. There were a number of photo spots along this part of the course and it seemed crazy to me that almost every one of these were while we were going up steep hills – i.e. walking! Oh well. I met a lovely Irish lady over from Perth and settled into a steady pace. This was only my second time along Narrowneck and it was her first. She didn’t stay with me for long (she was faster and more experienced). There was a queue at Taros Ladder so I took the alternative path, which I’d never taken before. I really enjoyed this bit. At the bottom I met up with Ruby, whom I had met out on the trails on my last training run. She was looking good. We ran together for a bit but I couldn’t hold her pace. A little further on I met a Belgian guy currently living in Hong Kong. A snake was spotted next to the trail by the group in front of us and so began a long conversation with him about dangerous Australian snakes, whether to fear them and what to do if you spot or are bitten by one. A good distraction from running!
I came into Dunphys Campground (30.4 km) 20 minutes ahead of schedule. How did that happen? I’d done the first half of the course once in training and I’d had a great day full of energy so how could I be 20 minutes faster today when I wasn’t feeling as great and I’d been caught in some congos? Should my alarm bells be ringing? I spotted my kayaking buddy leaving the checkpoint as I arrived, but I tried to put catching up with him out of my mind. I topped up my bottles and got excited about watermelon wedges.
The leg up Ironpot was fantastic (especially since I could allow myself to bushwalk and not run!) and the sounds of the didgeridoo and clapsticks motivated me to finish the climb and meet the group playing them. The out-and-back along the ridge with some technical work was fun. Down off Ironpot I laughed at myself … I hadn’t allowed enough time in my splits for this leg (it’s on private property and only open for race day … and I clearly hadn’t studied the topo!). The single track descended steeply with bare dirt sections and had some steep hills in it. It was still enjoyable to do something new, but I was a little concerned about how long it was taking (the silliness of having a time goal). Lucky I‘d gotten into Dunphys early because this meant I was still on track for midnight. Finally, I hit the road.
All I could think about going up the Megalong Valley fire trail was all the dirt in my mouth from each vehicle that passed. Then I saw an ambulance and paramedic vehicle pass and hoped whomever it was who needed them would be ok. I wasn’t feeling as energetic as normal and I didn’t think I’d eaten enough so I spent the long walk up the valley trying to get my electrolytes sorted back out and injecting as much food as I could stomach. This was a dangerous line I was treading but I was determined not to bonk so early in the day. Why was I starting to struggle? I’d done 40-50km training runs. Was is simply because I was making the comparison with my last run along this part of the course and it was all in my head?
I was delighted to see the turning into the six foot track check point. At the 300m to CP sign there were some spectators urging us to run (we were walking). That little hill looked like a mountain at 46km ;) Ellen was there smiling and giving me words of encouragement. I passed gear check and then decided it was time for a little sit down. I was still craving salt so I had some of my pre-made zucchini slices (grated zucchini, carrot, bacon, herbs, egg and milk baked without any pastry). A water and sunscreen top up and then I was away again. I was still somehow 20 minutes ahead of my midnight schedule.
So far I’d run most of the day by myself but I was suddenly craving some company. Just before I hit Nellies Glen I met another runner who was just a touch slower than me (in that moment) and so I pulled up the pace to chat with him as we walked or ran. His name was Anthony and we ascended most of the Glen together. It really does look like fairies could live there :) Anthony kept offering to let me pass but I told him that I was thankful to take the Anthony bus for awhile. I stopped looking at my watch and concentrated on enjoying my surroundings, getting into a rhythm on the climb and keeping my heart rate in control. I couldn’t keep up with Anthony on the bigger steps so I continued on alone laughing at a conversation I’d had going up this path with a friend last year. Also laughing at the fact that this split took me 20 minutes longer than in my training run. I was now bang on my time splits.
At the top I just had the Scott’s track left to tackle before I’d hit the next checkpoint. I knew from the only other time I’d been along it that it was undulating and isn’t easy/fast so I cut myself a lot of slack. The final section before the aquatic centre felt like I was being tortured by the course setters – you can see your destination but you first need to run away from it, then down a hill and back up another hill! I was feeling tired. This was now the furthest I’d ever been on my legs in one session (running or walking!) – 57km.
As I turned the corner after passing the 300m to CP sign to cross the road and head up the little grassy hillock into the aquatic centre my spirits lifted as I saw Therese & Cameron and their 5 year old daughter Amelia cheering me on! We were sharing a holiday house together for the weekend and they’d come out to lend their support. That was an energy lift. Standing next to them were my mum and sister!!! Mega surprise. They’d driven up to cheer me into the checkpoint and then rushed back home to prepare for another engagement. It meant a lot to me that they’d come up to see me and the energy burst was something else. I bounded up the grass and into the aquatic centre. Ellen had to tell me to stop running when I got inside.
I soaked up some hugs, ate more zucchini slices, drank some coke, got some help getting my gear sorted and swapped my light head torch for my ayup. I’d written on my split cards “Stage 5 will hurt … but IT ALWAYS DOES! You got this! Just got to keep moving”. I’d struggled on this leg on each training run – and those runs were on fresh legs. Ellen’s final words to me as I was about to leave the checkpoint were to just not thinking about running, chill and enjoy the sunset until I hit the Giant Stairs. I put my head up and on I ran. I had a lot more energy now than when I’d come into the CP and really did enjoy the run along to echo point. Time would tell if I could make it through Leura Forest without my head torch (I did).
I put my bushwalking hat back on when I hit the bottom of the stairs up to Leura Cascade so I was a little startled to be overtaken by a number of people (jeez they’re quick). It really affected me and I had to give myself a pep talk. Almost at the top and just as I was doing that little downhill section before the cascades and feeling a little lower on steam I heard my name screamed out through some leaves. It was Cameron, Amelia and Therese again! They’d walked down the cascades and were sitting up high on a rock and cheering words of encouragement to all the runners that went past. This was unreal and my energy levels surged again. I couldn’t stop smiling and the next group of cheerers that I passed commented on just how happy I looked. I made it to Gordon Falls without my head torch. Could I now make it to the Golf Course too? It’s funny the milestones one dreams up.
I found Anthony again soon afterwards. Or he found me… I can’t remember. We went through the Pools of Siloam together and I was exclaiming all the while about the beautiful colours in the sky once we got back up again. It truly was a stunning sunset. I made a comment that the run was worth it for the view and some other runner retorted that we could have driven to the road and walked the 2 mins instead to appreciate the view. Hah! True. I then saw my kayaking buddy so I pulled up to chat with him. He was going through a rough patch and he kept telling me to keep going so I gave up and hoped another runner would pair up with him for awhile.
I hit the road and with full darkness almost set in I put on my safety vest and chose to run the streets by streetlight into the golf course. It was a little confusing to work out where to run on Sublime Point Rd as there were a lot of people walking along it. As I neared the bend in Sublime Point Rd I saw Cameron, Therese and Amelia again! They ran with me for about 20 seconds. Then I was clapping hands with members of the outdoors club I volunteer in, who’d come along to cheer me on. They’d missed me at the aquatic centre (I’d already been through) but still put the effort in to see me. (Thanks!) I was now bursting with energy and as I came into the final stretch before the Water Point (WP) I started cheering the crowd on for sitting out there waiting for their runners to come along. The atmosphere truly was something else. At the WP I got out my head torch, filled my water bottle and left the checkpoint with my hands popping full of salted chips. Yum. (Yes, I was taking plenty of electrolytes.)
It was certainly dark now and I was again running by myself. It’s funny to run in the dark (I’d only ever done 45 minutes in training), you can see the headlight of an upcoming runner long before they arrive to overtake you and vice versus. The runner in front kept calling out to offer for me to pass, however I was still a bit of a distance away. At one point a runner came up behind me and when I offered them to pass they declined and said they’d happily board my bus. I smiled at the use of my term by another. We chatted away but I think it took my brain a few minutes to realise that the person behind me was again Anthony! We’d reversed positions on the bus. We climbed up the stairs to the Conservation Hut with a few other guys and then I was on my own again until almost Hordern Rd. I was really, really enjoying leg 5, which surprised me given my experiences in training. Running next to the cliffs was special and when I hit the Wentworth Falls I turned off my head torch and stood there in silence to take in the beauty around me. The sky was perfectly clear with the Milky Way reaching out across the night sky. I looked behind me as the water cascaded down, ran under my feet and then dropped as part of the Falls. Just magical, and to have it all to myself as well. I was smiling as I turned my head torch back on and continued along the course.
I overtook a number of people as I ran along Hordern Rd and the start of Kings Tableland Rd. In fact, I was feeling sensational. I had a lot of energy still and I was running along quite fine. I couldn’t believe it and told myself just how proud I was of how I was doing. Looking at my watch, it seemed I would come into the QVH checkpoint exactly on my calculated split of 12h30m. I was even tempted to run up the incline of Kings Tableland Rd but pulled myself in as I still had 23km to go. Then as I went to run down after the top of the incline I felt some discomfort in my right leg. The muscle above the inner side of my right leg was a little unhappy. I didn’t really register that this would be a huge problem since I’d already done 15 or so (?) kilometres with it complaining much earlier on in the day. As I was entering the CP I started to worry that my support person wouldn’t be there as I hadn’t actually texted her from the WP as I had promised. A lady overtook me as I was entering and a huge number of people screamed out her name and cheered. Then I heard my name and knew all was ok.
Ellen took my hand and led me through the crowd to a quiet spot near the fence. It was 7:20pm. She then looked me in the face and said that if I got out of the checkpoint within 10 minutes (i.e. before 7:30pm) then I wouldn’t have to carry my fleece. I went into super efficient mode to ensure this would happen. It’s comical now to reflect on this moment – I, a person who goes out on multi-day trips carrying all her own kit (food, tent, etc), thought that having to carry a 250g fleece would make my pack too heavy. I came back from the bathroom with a slight limp but shrugged it off and told Ellen just how good I was feeling. It was time to fill up my water bottles and get away before I had to carry my fleece! As I went to fill up my water and electrolytes I got excited by the coke I saw one of the volunteers pouring. She laughed at me as I downed the cup in one go and poured me another. As I struggled to quickly disentangle my water bladder from my pack and from me, two volunteers came over to assist. I was very grateful.
Out of the CP I told myself to walk up the first bit since I’d just had so much coke. Then when it was time to start running again my right leg seized up. Huh? The muscle must just be cold I thought. I tried to go a bit further but I was limping so I sat down in the middle of the road and started massaging my upper thigh. A runner asked me if I had a cramp. No I said, just an unhappy muscle. Can’t help you with that he said and ran on smiling kindly. At some point I stood up and tried to run again – it was quite a limp. I tried walking but that didn’t work either so I kept trying to run. I found running uphill still seemed to work kind of ok so tried walking down and running up the undulating part of the Kedumba decline. Then it was all down hill and quite steep and I wasn’t managing this well at all so again I sat down and tried to massage my leg free. That was surely the solution! More runners overtook me asking if I was ok. Again I stood up and tried running. It was absolutely excruciating. I kept going hoping it would sort itself out. I have only ever had issues with my left leg, and never like this, so it was strange for my right leg to be having issues. When the pain got too much to bear I sat down again and tried massaging the muscle. I had factored in a bonus 15 minutes into my splits for a midnight finish so I was hoping by taking all these stops I could get my leg back on track. Again more runners asked if I was ok. Again I stood up and ran on in pain. Again, after awhile, I hit the my pain threshold and sat down to massage my thigh – I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on like this and I’d only just made it through the wild pigs gate about 15 minutes ago! A pair of blokes stopped to ask me if I was ok. I said the same thing “I’m ok, just my right leg has seized up and I’m giving it a bit of a massage.”. “Would you like us to wait?” they asked. “No, no. I plan to get up in another minute or so”. “We’ll wait with you then” they replied. In that moment my brain asked me if this is what it meant to run a 100km ultra. That maybe the pain wouldn’t stop until I finished and I had to dig deep and just keep moving step by step towards the finish line. I looked at the guys and said I would get up now. They offered me a hand to stand up, which I was extremely grateful for and completely blown away by their kindness. Midnight was now not even a question. Finishing was what I had to achieve. This was my challenge to tackle. Come on #795!
I don’t remember much of this next bit. The pain was more than I thought I could handle. I was also worried that the extra burden on my left leg might cause it to seize up too and then I might have just needed to take one of the many cars passing with non-finishers back up to QVH (again the dust in my mouth and this time my eyes too since I’d forgotten to pick up the clear glasses at the last checkpoint). So I had to be smart about how I moved. I was here to finish if I could. I rejoiced in every incline and on some of them I smiled. On my first training session through this area with my flatmate (bushwalking) she had allocated a theme song to each hill. I remembered the “She’ll be coming around the mountain when she comes” hill fondly. Many runners passed me and after awhile I sank into a stupor. I still had so much energy but I couldn’t use it! The odd runner ran past commenting on the fact that I looked like I was in a lot of pain. Hah! One passed me and commented that I should have made use of the masseur at QVH. There was a masseur ?!?! I passed the ford eventually. I asked a passing runner if this was the lowest point. I couldn’t remember (very unlike me!). He didn’t know either. I thought it wasn’t. I definitely wasn’t handling this steep downhill at all and was just praying that I’d make it to the uphill section before my body or mind gave out. I was jealous of every person who passed me with walking poles !!!! It’s like when someone pulls out a chocolate bar on day 5 of an 8 day hike when you yourself don’t have any. I would have given almost anything for a set of poles that night as I was convinced they would have helped. The irony is that I tried out a set during training and had decided they weren’t for me. I didn’t like not having my hands free to eat ;) Oh to have been able to reverse that decision!
I was going downhill again and I was convinced there were two creeks between me and the Emergency First Aid station. Again the melancholy set in and I was starting to convince myself that I was nearing my limit – the pain was unrelenting. I would have cherished some company here but I was going too slow. Then a light in the darkness, this decline found me at Leura Creek! Oh I remembered this creek. It was basically all uphill from here. Wooohoooooo !
I arrived at the Emergency First Aid CP and allowed myself to look at my watch again. There was 1 hour and 53 minutes until midnight. For some reason, probably being excited about all the uphill in front of me (who’d have expected that on a 100km epic!), I started thinking about my estimated splits. Sadly I’d left my time cards at the QVH but I remember that in training it had taken me 1h50m to get from here to scenic world. That split was on legs that functioned and I clearly didn’t have this, but, for some reason, I thought I could still possibly make it. I told myself “You’re going to finish. It’s ok if you don’t make midnight, but let’s try”. Again I found myself exiting the checkpoint with my hands cupped and full of chips. I smiled at that big hill leading out of the aid station and munched on those chips all the way to the top of it. Then, unbelievably I mastered the best and most ungraceful limping running gait I could manage and started chowing down the 9 kms remaining. I was happy just to be moving faster than a crawling pace once more. I didn’t notice the fact that I was overtaking people – my whole focus was on making the minutes count. I was still in pain but I just didn’t care anymore – I could “see” the finish line now and I refused not to make it. My only concern was that I was doing myself irreversible damage – I had a month in Europe in 2 days time, including three weeks of bushwalking. I hoped I knew what I was doing. On the ascent I noticed some twinkling lights snaking upwards, which reminded me of Christmas for some reason. It was the head torches of the other participants! It was quite a sight in the darkness.
I hit the sewerage treatment works with 1 hr to go. Oh my goodness – MIDNIGHT REALLY WAS A POSSIBILITY – I was moving at my training run pace! At 4km to go I started to notice the people around me. There were people everywhere just trying to keep their feet moving. I remember seeing a man sitting on a rock near the 3km to go sign with his head in his hands. I put my trip leader hat on and gave the encouraging words I felt he needed to hear. He got up but I feel guilty that I didn’t stay with him to help him get to the end – I hope he was able to join someone else’s bus. With about 2km to go I overtook a larger group and the guy on the back joined my bus. His name was Tom and we crossed the finish line together. I got the impression he wanted company and would stick to the fastest person around him. I could tell he could go faster than me but he chose not to. This was great actually, we chatted all the way to the finishing line. I told him of the goal I was trying to make and he was all for it. I just needed to hit the base of the Furber stairs with 25 minutes to midnight…
We hit the timing point at the base of the steps where a volunteer was rugged up in her tent to protect her from the wind and cold. If the timing area had of been a camera I think it would have snapped a good action shot as I tripped, started leaning to tumble down hill and Tom caught me. Thanks for boarding my bus!!! I looked at my watch – 22 minutes until midnight. Damn it, I’m going to miss it by mere minutes! Why couldn’t I have found this mojo back on the Kedumba downhill?? And so began the final ascent. We got stuck behind some runners and I felt selfish to ask them to let me pass on such a brutal final ascent on the 100th kilometre, so I didn’t. At some point I got past a couple of runners, then I was behind another runner as we came into the final few stair sets. Just before the boardwalk I noticed that it was 11:58pm. I turned to look at Tom and said we’d miss midnight by a minute. Sprint he screamed! My goodness, how was I supposed to sprint? The runner in front of me took off and so did we, my limp-running gait taking me around the corner and to the finishing line as I took in my cheer squad just after the final bend. I crossed the finish line thinking I had just missed midnight, which was a tiny bit annoying but does a minute really matter when you’ve been out for over 17 hours? No! Finishing, now that was something and I was soooo elated and proud of myself! I tried heading back down the running area to greet my friends but the volunteers stopped me. They were trying to give me items, but I couldn’t understand what or why. Turns out it was my finishing items. Hah, that’s right, I did this for a towel and buckle ;) Then my friends found me and one of them told me I crossed at midnight. Midnight and 12 seconds to be precise. Yeeeeeeeah, I did it, I achieved all my goals of the day !!! I was on cloud nine :)
Ellen confessed that she’d lied to me about the fleece. What are friends for? I was certainly grateful. She was a super support person, friend and unofficial coach. I really wouldn’t have entered the event if it wasn’t for her and I can tell you now that I’m really glad I did this. My friends ordered me to put warm clothes on and assisted me to do so (reaching my shoes to untie my laces was beyond me now). It was great to see them all and be a part of the Scenic World atmosphere. Then it was time to go home to eat, shower and sleep.
For those out there who’ve done this sort of thing before/too, the physical finish line at scenic world isn’t the actual finish line is it?
Back at the house I showered, being extra careful not to trip over getting in and out of the bathtub shower. I ate because I thought Ellen would rouse on me if I didn’t (I wasn’t really hungry). Then when I got into bed I wasn’t sleepy. So I turned on my phone for the first time in about 12 hours and read all the messages and emails from friends following me in Katoomba, Sydney and abroad. I replied to all of them and then finally turned off the light at 2:30 AM or so. At some point in the night I woke up absolutely needing to go to the bathroom. I tried to get up and discovered that my body was ebbing in pain and my legs had no intention of walking anywhere. Queue ungraceful bum sliding across the whole house to the bathroom, using a towel to upright myself, and then bum sliding all the way back to bed again! Thank goodness no one saw me. Then followed several hours of falling asleep from exhaustion and then waking up from the pain on repeat. Crazy.
I was up first in the morning for another bathroom stop and to make myself some breakky. I could hear Ellen stirring in the other room so I sent her a message which said “this is a new form of body torture”. I meant it. Never had I ever experienced this after any of my other multi-day bushwalking epics. This was something else! Everything below my waist pulsed a gentle (for want of a better word) pain. Ellen came in and we giggled away at what I was experiencing and compared it to her experiences from last year. Thoughts of my to-do list were far away. I was content and living in the moment. Life was so simple on this day.
I could tie off this report here but I’ll add a short summary of the next few days. I did indeed board a flight to London 38 hours after finishing. I had ensured I was hydrated before boarding the flight and I still had a limp but I was recovering rapidly and my brain was starting to return (it was mush on the Sunday!). A friend had to come over to help me finalise everything in my stressful pack before heading to the airport (thanks) and another friend picked me up since I wasn’t sure I could manage walking my luggage to the bus stop (also thanks). At the airport I asked for a seat with extra legroom on my flights if possible. They asked me why and when I explained they told me another UTA100 runner had boarded a flight to Hong Kong the day before. They were surprised when I asked if he was Belgian, and I was surprised when they answered yes. It was the man I’d talked with about snakes. During the flight I stood at the back for most of the journey trying to keep the blood circulating in my legs. The stewards and stewardesses talked to me most of the journey and I was surprised when I left the airplane in Hong Kong to experience piercing pain in my right knee. I couldn’t really walk! I leaned all over the airport trolley and I think it took me about 30 minutes to manage the 10 minute walk to my next flight. Sitting on the floor of the airport, next to the kids play section, I had my head in my hands wondering if I stuffed up my leg and European trip up completely. Thankfully two friends sent me messages – one recommending patience and the other ibuprofen. I took their advice. When I alighted in London it was in a wheelchair! LOL to see me then. I was met at the airport and assisted to get back to the hotel where I slept soundly. When I awoke hours later I was a lot better and could move my legs again. I was back to my slight limp and minimal pain. Then, only then was I truly at the finish line.
I have finally finished writing this report up 3 weeks later. My legs are back on board and I have been ticking off many European alpine peaks to my surprise and delight.
In conclusion? The next time someone asks me if i’m a runner … I think I’ll say yes :)