Running a long way along wild trails teaches you things. That even when you feel awful, keep going, because things will probably get better. That trailrunners are great people. That blisters under toenails really hurt. And that sometimes, you can do more than you ever thought possible. (Stick with me to the end – this is a story with a happy ending.)
Last weekend I lined up for the third time for the UTA100 (formerly TNF100) in the Blue Mountains. That’s 100 kilometres of dirt roads, narrow rocky trails, stairs (endless stairs!), one long, long, hard climb up a mountain followed by a scary, slippery descent, amazing views and er, more stairs.
If you are friend or family member who doesn’t run trail and are therefore already going “running 100 kilometres? You are insane”, let me confirm your opinion. Yes, I’m a wee bit crazy. And so are most of my fellow runners. But there’s something about trail….
I am asked questions about that every so often. Why do you run those sorts of distances? Why do you put yourself through that sort of pain? Do you actually find it fun?
I don’t entirely know the answer. I think it is the challenge, and the reward of pushing through something tough. It’s the people – in training and the race, you’re generally going slowly enough to talk to your fellow runners. You make friends, debate life’s big issues, swap recipe ideas (that reminds me, Sarah Waterstone, I’d love to get that loaf recipe!). It’s being out there, in the bush, away from noise and traffic and buildings, and reconnecting with something that will always be a part of me, as a girl who grew up in the country, even if I don’t consciously think of it as anything as formal as “reconnecting”. It’s getting simple joy from looking at wildflowers and animals and pretty rocks and misty rivers and lookout panoramas.
This was year 3 for this race for me. In 2014 some strike of madness saw me tackle the 100 as my first-ever trail race. I was slow. It took me 24:36. But I learned a few things about myself in that race (that’s the lesson about pushing on even when you are miserable). Last year was a bit better, although I left two essential items in Sydney and my super-star crew, my sister Laura, drove back to Sydney on the night before the race to get them. (Lesson: Don’t be an idiot. Write a packing list.). It was a slog (in case I hadn’t figured it out the year before, I got a repeat lesson in pushing on even despite feeling awful) but I was happy to cut over two hours off my time, and to have avoided cramps, which had been a real problem the year before. Still, I swore I wouldn’t do it in 2016. I distinctly recall a moment in the race where I actually said to myself, “You remember how you feel right now. You remember how bad this feels and DON’T DO IT AGAIN.” But then registration rolled around and somehow I signed up for the 100 again….
And what a different race it was.
As part of the entry, we had the chance to sign up for a one-month trial of a training program called Squadrun. I paid up. I had no idea what a good decision that would be. Squadrun is EXCELLENT. Ali (our lovely organiser) and Kerry (our crazy coach) created a great community of trailrunners aiming for the UTA100 and UTA50; we got not only a training program that was tailored to individual fitness levels and flexible so you could work around life and injuries and work, but a great Facebook group where we’ve covered everything from gear choices to music and poop.
Things were going along much as they had the previous years (although no knee problems this year, which was a bit plus – I owe a thanks to my physio, Nathan, at Northern Sports Physio, and massage therapist Natalie at The Treatment Room for sorting out a few other niggles – and I was really enjoying the Squadrun plan) until about two months before the race. And then work went a bit crackers. I was worried that the need to put in some long hours there was really going to hurt my training. Well it did, but all was not lost. I reached out to Kerry for some advice about what to focus on in terms of training, in order to get through the busy weeks as best I could. He gave me some great advice on several fronts, reassured me that I’d still be fine for the race and gave me some very specific instructions about which workouts to prioritise.
And here’s another lesson I learned this year, and I’m mentioning it partly in case reading this helps other people facing challenges – by getting a “priority plan” from Kerry, I was able to feel I was succeeding. Without that, I would have probably done much the same number of workouts, but felt I was failing, because I would have been measuring myself against the original program. Perception and attitude really make a difference.
And ten days out from the race, something very, very unexpected happened. I did a 5km time trial as part of a training session and went more than a minute faster than I had when doing the same thing just over a week earlier. It was probably also an all-time PB for 5km (you’d think I’d know, wouldn’t you! But given I’ve been training for longer stuff for years now, I cannot actually remember what my 5km PB is. But it’s certainly faster than I’ve done it in years).
How did that happen? Well, it was obviously partly the training plan. But that much improvement in one week? I am convinced that what I was eating was a big factor. For the five weeks leading up to the race, Laura and I had embarked on a healthy eating plan. I was eating better than I had in ages (and as someone with a “digestive issues”, making a big effort to avoiding the foods that don’t agree with me), and having fun trying lots of new recipes.
Finally, race weekend arrived.
Twice I had lined up with an injury and either terrified (2014) or worried (2015). This year I came to the start line happy and hopeful. I didn’t know what would happen this year – with less training than I’d have liked, I didn’t expect any major improvement in time, but hoped I might knock 16 minutes off so I could come in under 22 hours. But even more importantly, my head was in a good space. I’d had Friday night fun at the race expo, seeing lots of my trail running buddies and buying a few things (spending money on running gear is fun J ); I had Laura crewing for me for the third year (it really makes a difference having someone “there” for you); I had a warm bed close to the start line, in a house with two friends doing the race, Don and Geoff, and Geoff’s wife Jocie; and heaps of other Sydney trail friends and fellow Squadrunners doing it too; and the weather was warm. I was just looking forward to doing the race.
Race morning was clear and fine, and not too cold – always a plus. I’m the first to admit I’m a bit of a princess about a cold start! I headed over to the line with Don, one of my housemates, and Laura. We tried to buy a pre-race coffee, but the wait was long and we gave up. Maybe that was a good thing.
Heading up to my wave start (I was in wave 5 – this was a bit of puzzle because that was supposed to be for runners who would finish in the top 54-66% of the field; going on last year’s results that would mean a finish faster than 19 hours. I knew that wasn’t going to happen!) I found a couple of my fellow Squaddies, Fridja and Ian, and it was great to start together. The first few kilometres of the race are an out-and-back on the street; that route took me back past Laura, for a final wave, before the course hits dirt. There’s a long descent down the Furber stairs (trying not to think about the fact that we have to come back up them again at the end of the race!), some clambering across a rocky area known as the landslide, a short bit of running on narrow trail and then a climb up the Golden Stairs that quickly reminds you there’s going to be a lot of stairs in the race (if you want to see what the climb is like, watch this. I found this before last year’s race and it gave me reason to smile through the pain of the climb. Was amused to discover, after signing up for Squadrun, that the very entertaining mad Kiwi in it was my new coach!).
After the top of the stairs comes the first checkpoint, and I was ten minutes ahead of schedule. I was pretty happy about that – the descent down the Furber steps was faster this year, being in a faster start has definite advantages.
From here there’s all sorts of terrain – undulating wide roads with good views (I love the shot above showing me heading up a hill, really sums up what the mountains look like), narrow rocky scrambles, the climb down Tarros Ladders, a few uphill hikes – before the descent into checkpoint two, at Dunphy’s Camp. First mistake of the race here, when I refilled the bladder in my pack here, or rather thought I did – the pressure of all the stuff in the pack on the bladder meant the water line was deceptively high. I didn’t put as much in as I thought I did.
But I had other things on my mind leaving CP2. This leg has a challenging climb and a hair-raising descent. There’s a reward in the middle though. After the long, breathless clamber up the hill to Ironpot Ridge (I don’t know how long it takes, too busy concentrating on Not. Stopping. Not. Stopping.), you do an out and back along the ridge, and along the way the runners pass a group of guys playing didgeridoo and the sticks, and after a very entertaining Welcome to Country at the briefing the night before, it’s a good reminder to appreciate the land we’re passing through. What comes next is a part of the race I just refuse to think about. It’s hairy, but you get there. The course notes are rather understated, describing the two-part sharp downhill as “steep: and “steeper”. It’s sandy underfoot, and steep enough that you can’t really control the descent. You just pick out the safest looking bits underfoot and keep an eye out for trees on the side of the path, in case you need to grab hold if the descent gets out of control! I prized safety over speed on this and quite happily let half a dozen people go past me. I felt really sorry for a couple of people that I passed in the kilometres after that; the hard climb and the steep descent can really take a toll.
It’s only 14km to from checkpoint 2 to checkpoint 3, but there’s enough climbing to slow the overall pace; it took me 2 hrs 40, and I knew with about an hour to go I was running out of water. I was very lucky that not long after that, Don caught up with me. I’d expected him to sweep past way earlier, having started in wave 6 but being faster than me, but found out he’d had some cramping issues. He was running well then, and after running with me for a while and sharing some water – lifesaver! – he pushed on.
Checkpoint 3 (above), at 46km, is the first one where we can see crew, and I was really looking forward to seeing Laura. As she always does, she had everything neatly laid out so I could grab what I needed, alongside the “Go Kylie” banner she made to surprise me back in 2014. It always makes me smile! I filled the bladder (properly this time!), drank water and the liquid from a instant noodle soup, grabbed some more food and put on sunscreen, made a quick loo stop and headed off. Last year I spent 9 minutes at CP3 and this year as I hit lap on my watch, I could see I’d been there for 14.
As I trotted along shady roads and trails, I was saying to myself that it had been a waste of time to apply sunscreen, but in retrospect I think that extra time was a blessing. I came into the checkpoint feeling a bit ordinary and thinking I’d gone too hard in the first two legs and was about to pay for it (I was 45 minutes ahead of schedule by this point – the schedule based on 22 hours that I’d given Laura as a guide to when I expected to hit checkpoints.)
But although I still felt like it was hard work all the way through to the next checkpoint – and Nellies Glen is never, never easy! – I realised that I was still making good time. In fact, after the climb up Nellies, I called Laura to say that I needed her to get a T-shirt out of the spares bag. I’d planned to change at CP4 into long tights and the long-sleeved thermal top we have to carry as part of the mandatory gear, but now I was an hour ahead of schedule, and on a warmer day than the year before; I knew I’d swelter in a long top.
More hot soup, water and nutrition refills for my pack, a change of clothes, new shoes and socks and clean teeth, a hug from Laura and off I went. Very lucky at this point to run into a fellow Squaddie as I left the checkpoint, and we ran together most of the way to CP5. Paul, thanks for keeping me honest. Quite a few times when I would have slowed down you said something encouraging about pushing on, so I did!
It was great to be leaving the Aquatic centre in broad daylight, too. I got to see views that I missed in previous years, running in the dark. The Blue Mountains are truly beautiful and running through them is such a special experience, from the rocky outcrops of Ironpot to views across the valleys.
This year, there was a water station at 69km, at the Fairmont. And just as we were reaching it, I came across one of my tri club buddies cheering on the side of the road. That was a nice surprise. Things like that really do help to keep you feeling happy and mood makes a big difference out there in the night. Thanks for sticking around to see me go past, Cathy!
Last year I had one of my low periods on this leg (the “you remember this” moment!), but this year was much better. Seeing Cathy, running with Paul, and just taking less time to do the leg all made a difference. (One thing has been the same every year, though – this is a really well-organised race and the volunteers do a great job!)
Into CP5. I spent 12 minutes here last year, but this time I was in and out in 8 minutes – and not because I was trying to shave off time. I’d grabbed a hot soup, and started swapping lights and other stuff, when the following happened:
Me to Laura: “What’s the ruling on whether we have to take the fleece?”
L: “I don’t know! I’ll find out.” (I had forgotten to let her know she’d need to check)
L: (rushes back) “You don’t have to take it if you leave before 9pm”.
Me: “What time is it?”
L: “Five to!”
I was outta there fast!
I had two aims for this last leg – the first was to go down Kedumba at under 7 minutes per kilometre. That’s a big hill that comes not long after CP5; it’s not scary-steep like the descent off Ironpot, but on tired legs in the race last year, I was ridiculously slow on that downhill. I’d looked at my watch repeatedly and even though it felt like I was running normally, I was going down at around 9 minutes per kilometre. Coach Kerry had pointed out I wouldn’t need my downhill legs after Kedumba and the descent that follows it – and that he’d come after me with a cattle prod if I went slower than 7 per k. Made me smile and gave me something to aim for. I did a training run on this section with Don about a month before the race and we very comfortably did around 6-minute pace down the hills, which was great for getting my head around the fact that that pace felt perfectly safe. I also had a brand new super bright Ayup headlamp for this leg and that helped too. (Lesson: train on course if you can.)
No cattle prod was needed.
Aim number two was to try to cut my time on this leg by a little bit. It took me 6hrs in 2014 and 2015, and as one fellow runner said, “I just don’t understand how it could take you that long”.
On my original schedule, I’d aimed to cut 12 minutes off this leg, taking into account the faster downhills I was aiming for. And I figured out after leaving CP5 that if I managed that, I might just break 20 hours. But I knew how hard this leg had been before, and I kept thinking the wheels would fall off, that I’d pay for pushing things in the earlier legs, and for the dehydration (I didn’t feel dehydrated, but I knew I was). So didn’t really dare to think about it too hopefully. After that, I was too busy concentrating on pushing it downhill, and then hiking hard up hill, to think about finishing times for quite a while. I had poles this year, which I’d picked up at CP5, and I really think it helped using one of them on the long climbs. (A few more lessons on this leg – if you pop a little packet of Smarties in your pack in case things aren’t going well and you need a treat, squash the box. They rattle like crazy when you run downhill. And if you have to duck into the bushes, remember to turn your headlamp off. Thanks to the lady coming along behind me who shouted out a reminder!)
At one point I did some math (I often do pace calculations in my head to distract me during long runs!) and realised I’d shaved quite a bit more than 12 minutes, but it just didn’t seem real. I kept running, and then suddenly I saw a “3km to go sign”. And then “2km to go”. And then I was at the stairs. Climbing up Furber stairs just isn’t fun. There was a lot of using of hands to help haul myself up, and I let someone past at one point. But even this didn’t feel quite as bad as last year.
As I got to the top and looked at my watch, I realised that if I got to the finish in under four minutes, I would have cut four hours off last year’s time. Deadlines are quite motivating, even on tired legs, so I ran. And made it.
Races aren’t just about times. They are about all the magic moments, and the people you meet, and the challenges you overcome. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that my time made me very happy. I finished in 18:12, a time that I never dreamed of.
I think I’m going to pay for it in toenails. While my legs recovered amazingly well, I had blisters under both big toenails. This has never happened before – I guess I can add how to deal with blisters to the lessons I’ve learned! (That, and the importance of wearing your shoes in really well before a big race).
If you made it this far, well done. You just might have the endurance needed to tackle the UTA100 yourself!