Ultra Trail Australia 100 - DNF22 May 2018 | running ultra
I had resisted UTA for a while. It was a “big”, “commercial” event. However it was in an absolutely stunning location - and it did provide a logical challenge as I looked to step up to the 100k distance.
I entered the waitlist not too long after entries opened and soon enough had my entry. I still wavered - looking at the dates under which you could transfer or relinquish your place. Eventually I booked accommodation and it was looking more real. I had planned my ‘test’ run down in the Vic alps a few months before hand - and I ran that out feeling the 100k was a good achievable goal.
Training continued well for a period - with the usual work and life stressors and pressures. At least the Australian heat was tapering and my appetite was returning for another long run.
Unfortunately three weeks before UTA - I managed to roll my ankle badly at indoor soccer - felt the ligament pop, and spent the next few weeks in a severe taper and very uncertain if I could toe the start line at all, let alone make it to the end. Fortunately my reliable Clinic88 sports therapist gave me confidence that the ligament should be healing just in time, and with straping it should be OK albeit weak. I booked in for a final appointment and straping the morning we drove up to the Blue Mountains.
After an easy drive with Denise up to the Blue Mountains, we checked into our airBNB in Bullaburra (about 15 minutes away from the start) and made our way into Katoomba for a late lunch and walk around. After lunch we headed down into the event centre by Scenic World where the UTA22 was still underway. On our way down we stumbled upon the first of a few friendly faces, with my now ex-colleague Grant and his wife Mary. Grant was a bit of an inspiration as I started my trail and ultra running journey - about 20 years my senior, and someone who would gracefully and humbly take part in ultra runs - all at a time where the concept of taking on more than a mountain marathon blew my mind.
We briefly sussed out the location and surroundings for tomorrows start before making a beeline back to our accommodation, so I could organise myself, and return for the check-in and briefing. The scale of the event was massive. I’m used to a small smattering of runners, a trestle table and a gentle low-key hum of anticipation. This was off the charts, with food, shops, and a thrumming hall of people. I hung around for the briefing, for long enough to get the relevant medical warnings and recommendations, and then I was eager to break from the crowd and relax before the big dance.
On race morning I was up early - not nervous just doing the usual rituals of getting ready and trying to not disturb my support crew (Denise). I had slept well and we pulled away before 6 to ensure I could get to the 7:06 start wave 4. There was a large throng of runners preparing for the 50 or 100k events. Our wave eventually came up - and we were off. A 5k out and back to thin the group out before we headed down into the valley. The event had a crowd cheering runners on, and as usual it didn’t take long to start making race day friends as we easily cruised along the singletrack towards the Golden Stairs.
This was the first climb of the day - with fresh legs, early sunlight and an easy pace - it indeed felt golden. Soon enough we hit the top - and started our run out along Narrowneck and through Checkpoint 1 at 11k. The views along Narrowneck were stunning along easy fire trail. A few more conversations with friendly folk before we ducked down onto the rock ledge and the temporarily constructed Tarros ladders. There was a few minutes wait here - and a fun little descent. Straight after the ladders, was a lovely flowing singletrack to wend our way down of the ridge. I decided at this point (something like 18k) it was time to pull out the wizard sticks. They were definately useful as I was careful of my injured left ankle and wanted to keep the pressure and strain off this as long as possible.
In no time - we popped out into a sunny clearing and checkpoint 2 - at 31km. I stopped here for a very brief top up of water and a toilet pit-stop. I bumped into Damien - a Canberra runner I’d never met but are both Strava friends - it was his sixth or seventh time competing in the 100k. We took off together and had a chat for the next few k’s as we headed towards Ironpot ridge. Some trails are deceptive in their steepness - as we got to bottom of the ridge the incline looked stupidly steep. It was. Fortunately it was relatively short and we were all rewareded at the top with a didgeridoo ringing out to a steady rhythm of the sticks.
Coming off Ironpot ridge was a steep dry slippery slope that my poles and their sharp tip worked brilliantly to keep me stable on. The run continued through some private land, down and up a gully before joining up to a gravel road and into Checkpoint 3 and a compulsory gear check. The day by now was pretty warm in the sun, and with the first checkpoint with supporters, there was quite a hum. I retrieved my drop bag, necked most of a coke and some fruit, changed one of my socks, and left pretty promptly.
I was still feeling pretty good heading up along the six foot track to Nellies Glen. Reached the half way marker and knew this was where the real challenge of the day started to kick in. Soon enough the gradual incline turned into the relentless steps and climb back up to Katoomba. I started to struggle here - despite liberal use of my poles for assistance, the steps were long, steep and seemed to go on for ever. Mentally I had started to throw in the towel. A few times I had to stop and let others behind power up - whilst I caught my breath and let my heart rate drop. Eventually I hit the top - hallelujah! As the trail continued around the top of the valley I felt nauseous and temporarily lost another few places as I heaved my stomach into the growth to the side of the trail. Feeling better, perhaps due to the reduced effort now Nellies Glen was dealt with and after a good heave, but unfortunately not the last time I would be struggling to hold it together.
Entering the Katoomba aquatic centre for Checkpoint 4 I found Denise and started a long rest. I had some soup and coke and continued to sit on the fence about continuing. I was only 57k in - felt spent after just that one climb up Nellies Glen - but still felt like I had something more in the tank. Evenutally before the 4:30pm threshod where a fleece was mandatory, I changed into my wool tshirt and threw on my high-viz vest and summoned the energy to at least make it to the Fairmont hotel and the 69k water point. As soon as we left I rejoined a runner I had met at the very start and we both realised in the valleys the day was getting cold. Despite starting off cold and stiff, it didn’t take long to feel OK jogging out through the parkland and down towards Scenic world. Before long I was out along the cliff tops looking across to Mount Solitary and the superb late afternoon light across the Blue Mountains. This, if nothing else, is why I pushed myself out the door of Checkpoint 4. Along amonst the tourists there was some encouragement and the odd moment of magic - such as the ladies Dancing to cranking tunes on an expansive lookout across the Blue Mountains, who were providing moral support to all who went past.
Soon came the big descent into the valley - down, down, down the steps, until it was near darkness and the head torch had to come out. The descent into the depths of the valley only meant one thing. A slog back up and out. Through this section the back end of the 50k run and the pointy end of the 100k run were moving towards Furber steps and their finish line. It was a sobering moment of how far it was to go, but at this stage I was still in the game.
Then - we returned to the steps and the climb out of the valley. This section was relentless, steep and very hard going. At times I struggled to control my heart rate, at other times the effort was causing a return of my nausea from earlier. The remaining stretch to Fairmont was difficult. It was dark and at times cold - the legs were screamingn and the stomach was quivering. The mental fortitude was evaporating as the mind fast forwarded to the finish line and the time and effort it would take to get there. For the second time in the day I threw in the mental towel, and decided I would pull the pin at the Fairmont hotel. I just had to get there - and it was a grind of what felt like neverending steps up and occassionally down.
Finally the road arrived, and the smell of a ‘finish’ line beckoned. I arrived feeling OK but happy to be able to stop. I was both relieved, dissappointed in myself and satisfied at the same time. I had gone farther than before, on a long 12 hour day out, when I wasn’t sure I could run at all on my ankle. At the same time I was dissapointed that my voluntary collapse of willpower had robbed me of the sense of achievement only a finish line could bring. I had racked up my first DNF.
I still knew I could complete a 100k event, and that if I knew the course and wasn’t injured I would have had a much better day out. I learnt a lot and started immediately thinking when my next 100k run would be. I needed to prove to myself I can transcend above the barking dogs. I learnt that I could still run when I thought I couldn’t and that I couldn’t run when at I thought I should. A process that can repeat many times but is driven mostly by experience and a liberal dose of grit. I am building both and still enjoy the long days out in magical places with likeminded legends.