Friday, May 26, 2017

2017 Ultra-Trail Australia 100

This is my UTA100 experience. While I enjoy running, cycling and triathlons, I enjoy the challenge of stretching myself in different ways with those sports I love. So the big new challenge for 2017 was to do a 100km running event.

I’ve been running with my mate Jens for a few years now. We met back in 2013 when I was training for my first Albany Half triathlon and he helped design Tamaras engagement ring. The running back then was mostly casual beach running and has since involved trail runs, half marathons and an ultra-marathon as well. Over the hours of running side by side we’ve discussed previous and future athletic accomplishments and the desire to run a 100km ultra at some stage. It was likely to be the Kep Track ultra, but this hadn’t really gotten anywhere do to other commitments.

So doing my regular running and cycling and during one of our runs Jens brings up the idea of doing the Ultratrail Australia UTA100 run in May, two weeks after the Busselton half Ironman. The opportunity came up to do this run in Katoomba, NSW and it seemed like a good idea at the time. So this of course changed my training plan for triathlon season. Less biking and less swimming (I didn’t mind that compromise) than I had originally planned and a bit more running, particularly trail running and hills. The upside to hills is they pretty much double as interval training, and training with a backpack makes everything easier when it’s not on as well.

This also meant entering a couple of the Perth Trail Series runs, which was a lot of fun and where I met Ash, who instigated the whole thing before dragging Jens and myself on board. So the Yanchep and Swissmurdie events were completed as long course options.

With only 1300 spots available, being on the wait list in order to get a place in the event was something different, but enough places change hands pre-event due to injuries and circumstances that deciding in February to do this meant there was plenty of time to confirm a spot. Once done it was pay some money, organise flights and accommodation, and keep lifting the running kilometres.

Cycling still tried to happen a couple of times a week just to keep some fitness up in a non-impact manner. And due to triathlon season the odd swim also took place. But for running with some sort of minor elevation, Mount Street and Kokoda Stairs in Kings Park, and loops through John Forrest National Park were the main workout areas. Plus some flatter loops throughout Perth in order to get some longer kilometres in. From the way my ankles and knees felt towards the end of the run, more Kokoda stairs may have been needed.

So for a taper it was the Busselton 70.3 triathlon two weeks beforehand and a gentle lead in to Ultra-Trail Australia. Early flight out on the Thursday morning and then the train ride up to Katoomba arriving at 3 in the afternoon before a half hour hike to the accommodation.

This meant we arrived about 330 and just missed the chance for an early registration, but that was ok, there was all day Friday to sort that out. Instead it was check in to the CMS Conference Centre next to Scenic World, dump the bags, and go for a wander up to the KCC Conference Centre 200m away to check out the event expo. The expo had a good selection of gear from the sponsors and others, as well as information on a lot of other trail running events throughout Australia and New Zealand. Hmm, more things to add to the wish list to do in the future. Then with the early nightfall it was time for some carb loading (pizza for dinner) and an early night.

Friday was a relaxing day, breakfast, a quick trip to the town centre to grab additional food for lunch (and a compass for Jens), then back for registration and to peruse the expo again. The day became increasingly wet as it went on and the afternoon was time for the UTA22 and the Furber Stair run to take place. It was good to watch and cheer on the finishers for both these events and it helped to lift the mood prior to our run on the Saturday. This was followed by dropping off the checkpoint bags and a buffet dinner, the final race briefing, and the organisers working their butts off to finalise the changed course on 12 hours’ notice due to the wet weather.

Double check everything for the next day, backpack full of gear, clothing and race number.

Early night, early morning. Get excited.

And it’s still raining, at least it’s slowly getting lighter. So that’s good. Breakfast, stretch, get dressed and meander the 100m from our room to the start line.

Jens, Ash and myself are in group 4, which is a 6:41am start. We start about mid pack not really knowing what we’re getting ourselves in for and off we go for the first 5 kilometres before we start on the stairs down past the Katoomba Falls to the Federal Pass Walking Track.

This has some great soft detrital trail to run on as well as some technical rocky sections and the rain pretty much stops but the morning remains cool to give us some great running weather. Then the course climbs back out of the valley up the Golden Stairs and puts us on the fire trail for the last kilometre before the first check point.  

Narrow Neck Fire Trail gives us about 10km of easy running now on wide gravel access road as we head south away from Katoomba. Apologies to Ash as Jens and myself plod along a little quicker than we should have. But it was just nice running at the time. Eventually we reached the site of the Tarros Ladders where ladders are set up each year for the event instead of just steel pegs in the rock face. And as much as I wanted to see and experience this obstacle, there was quite a wait (about 30 minutes) so instead of the ladders it was a muddy little rope assisted goat track down instead. Then a great little downhill section (and a bit of up) along the ridge line through the clouds. Given this was only 23km in and everything was still feeling good and the line of people had stretched out a little so you had some space, this was probably the most fun I had on the run.

Once off the ridge it was on to the Medlow Gap Management Trail, which is another access trail. This gave everyone plenty of space to run on the wide gravel track and this rolled up and down a little allowing for our pre-race strategy of walking the uphills to be put to good use. It seems like this is the strategy of choice for most people as pretty much everyone adopted the same process throughout the day.

Turning on to the Bellbird Ridge trail took us to checkpoint 2 at about the 31km mark. This was the chance to refill water bladders in the backpack, grab some gels, bars, bananas and fruit bread, have a quick stretch and then continue on our way.

Out of the checkpoint and along more trail before entering some of the valley paddocks and running on some short grass for a bit. And some creek side access tracks. And across more creeks. At least with a little bit of sunshine poking through the clouds the damp socks from the odd water splash were drying out reasonably quickly. The run then took us on to Megalong Road for a bit, with a decent little incline and decline along it before taking us to the third checkpoint just before we joined the Six Foot Track. Just before we enter the checkpoint there is a bag check to make sure everyone is carrying their compulsory kit. Headlamps and high visibility vests must be shown before being allowed to move on. Once we enter CP3 the stop allowed for more nutrition to be taken on board as well as a bit more of a stretch knowing that the next 13 kilometres we going to take us back up and into Katoomba.

By the time we reached checkpoint 3 I had a couple of little niggles just starting to enter my day. Nothing unexpected, but still not required when not quite half way through the distance, especially when you know you’re not close to half way through the time the day will take. Going forward I knew this was also going to slow up Jens, but he said he was ok to wait. Especially after promising Tamara that Jens and I would stay together for safety reasons.

From checkpoint 3 we got to slowly run a little along the Six Foot Track for a few kilometres before the incline picks up enough to turn it into a hike. This leg takes us back into Katoomba and the incline really steepens and turns into a stairway. Slowly working up the steps creates a line of people to which Jens and I join. With the extra length in the legs Jens slowly moves up the line while I hold station a little more. Plus he’s obviously a lot stronger than I am at this point. The trail is really nice though and there are a lot of hikers and campers on the trail enjoying a day out. It was nice to see both the competitors and the trekkers both respectfully giving way to each other along this narrow and steep section.

Once the steep climb is done with we are on the Cliff Walk and on our way to the outskirts of western Katoomba. There is still a bit of a hill and bitumen roads to run for the next 3kms which take us to the Sports and Aquatic Centre for checkpoint 4. This is the big checkpoint for the day, nearly 60km in and my mental halfway point. I meet Jens inside (he’s been there for 5 minutes already) and I take the opportunity to grab some food and drink, refill my electrolytes, grab my checkpoint bag and sit down. I’ve got a full change of clothes and shoes, but as the day is actually quite nice, I just change my socks and relax for a moment and stretch. We’re heading out of here early enough in the day that the fleece top and rain pants are not required gear to be carried for the next 40km. It’s always nice to hear you don’t have to carry any more weight then you already are.

And off we go again. As we run out into the sunshine I give T a call to let her know how we are going. She’s been keeping an eye on the timing screens anyway, so she knows roughly how we’re all doing. But I let her know Jens is in great shape “a mountain goat up the hills to my mountain pig up the hills” (I’m not feeling very light on my feet now), I’m chugging along and sore, and Ash we left behind a while back. A love you and goodbye later and the end of the phone call. I tell Jens to just do his own thing from here as he’s going well, and I settle into a slow rhythm. We get through town and on to the edge of the scarp, finding our way on to the Three Sisters Track. This is a nice trail for running on, avoiding puddles and tourists, with lots of little elevation changes on it. It also helps that it’s early afternoon and the sun is out with a few clouds across the sky. "Oh look, sandstone ripples".

Somewhere in here the leaders of the 50 and maybe the 100 kilometre races are heading back past me towards Katoomba. These guys are certainly quick and a quick sidestep to get out of their way is sometimes required. At least most of them are considerate enough to say thank you. After roughly 11 kilometres, we go through and around part of the Leura Golf Club and make our way to the Fairmont Resort where an aid station has been set up. It’s 65km and over 9 hours into my day. Jens had waited 15 minutes for me to arrive to make sure I’m ok. I am, just tired and sore and after reassuring him and making sure he goes on to ‘enjoy’ his last 35km, I refill my little water bottle and grab a couple of gels and a muesli bar to put in my bag, a couple of bites of watermelon and a fruit bun to eat as I leave the station.

Out on to the Grand Cliff Top Track, and as usual a little line of runners forms. This is good as you get some company, make some conversation with previous and new runners to the event, or just listen to others talk along with the steady crunch of gravel under the feet. Wee descend again on a tight little section of uneven gravel and wood stairs. Half way down we see some people below us in high-vis overalls and helmets and we fear the worse for someone on the track. Fortunately it is just a tour group who have done a bit of zip lining and are packing up. We cross the same creek a few times, climb back up the hill, follow the crest around the south of Wentworth Falls and slowly up and down some more technical step areas before the descent to the Wentworth Pass.

It’s now 5pm and dusk is rapidly passing. There is a steady stream of people passing in the opposite direction and lots of verbal “good job” and “keep it up” from both directions of travel. I think everyone needs it at this stage regardless of which direction of travel you’re on. And this is something that continues throughout the night to the benefit of all. Climb out the other side of the pass and try and get as far as possible before it gets too dark and the headlamp is required. We exit the park and the trails and back on to normal roads for a bit now and the runners are told that the reflective vests we all carry are now required to be worn (otherwise time penalties and potential disqualification will apply). So keep walking, swing the backpack off, find the headlamp and hold it with my teeth. Keep searching through the backpack for the vest and then put the backpack on with the vest over top of everything. Put the headlamp on and by now it’s pretty much night time so the only illumination is your own light and that of those around you.

Down Tableland Road which has one lane closed for the participants (I really can’t call us runners at this stage as there is at least as much walking happening) and the other lane has a lot of vocal motorists. Not vocal like in Perth, these people are cheering out encouragement as they pass. Ahead is a line of lights and reflective vests and I’m sure behind me is the same. In the distance there is a stand of trees with some light, and the increasingly loud sounds of an announcer and music. It’s checkpoint 5. At last.

But I’m wrong.

I’m sure I’m not the only person disappointed to see that while we go past the checkpoint, we have to go past the checkpoint. The turnaround is another 1.5km down the road. That’s ok, 3 kays isn’t far. Down at the turnaround are two very very very bored girls, but they have a little Bluetooth speaker and some music and are trying to dance some warmth into themselves. I’m happy I’m heading back to the lights and a chance for a breather and some water and it’s all back to the finish from here.

Checkpoint 5 is full of life. A good size crowd cheering on the competitors, and a nice tent set up with plenty of options inside. While I’m faffing around one of the volunteers checks in with me to see how I’m going. Maybe I looked a little pale to him, but I said I was doing ok, just tired and sore but about where I expected to be at that time of the evening. I had a couple of pieces of watermelon, grabbed another fruit bun, had a good stretch, drank and refilled my water, and got on my way again. By this time my stomach was pretty much over the days diet so I didn’t have to top up my electrolyte bladder in my backpack. And my food intake for solids and gels certainly dropped as well. It was just the odd bite of something from here on and pretty much just water intake and the odd electrolyte sip for the final 20-ish kilometres.

Out of the checkpoint I had cooled down a little so a small run walk for a hundred metres and then while walking up the hill of Tableland Road it was time for another call to T. This was a nice ten minute catch up where I reassured all was going ok, just slowly and I also got to hear a bit on how her day was going. It was great for the spirits as was knowing there was only about 20km to go once we disconnected.

Back along the roads (thank you to the nice person who left out a bowl of mini Snickers and the like for us) and then down the trail to Wentworth Pass and back up the other side. Continue to dodge puddles and other competitors while also continuing to give and receive positive affirmations about how one is doing. Thankfully I’ve warmed up a little again so I’m not going to try and go through my backpack for something warmer to put on, be it gloves or a jacket. I manage to run just enough to also keep some sort of pace happening when the trail flattens out a bit. It’s just hard to do in any section with steps, especially at night.

From the turnaround point just below CP5, it’s pretty much back to Katoomba the same way we came out. There are some small differences, but at night on unfamiliar trails it really doesn’t make much of a difference to me. But the slow undulating ascent back to the Fairmont Resort water point involves more stairs, boardwalk, single track and is probably nice when you’re not in pain. By now the stairs up are easier than the steps down as the jolting on the ankles and knees are definitely being felt. Up is just using the muscles of the quads and following the feet of anyone in front of you. And everyone is being really courteous as well, when people hear others coming up behind them there is often the question of “do you want to pass?” By now the answer as often as not is “nah, I’m right for now”. But the comradery between the runners is pretty good.

At the Fairmont Resort I top up my water, get told I look like I could use a rest (still not really eating anything solid or drinking any electrolytes since I was here a few hours back), have a drink of water while I stretch, and then get moving again. There are only 13km to go and there are still plenty of people heading the other way. It’s about 8:15 at night, it’s getting cold, and I’m sure they’re even more tired than I am. But everyone is in their own world and doing this for their own reasons. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who decided on doing this just because I wanted to challenge myself.

I run (and walk) back around the southern side of Leura and then back along track we ran hours ago. There are now people going the other way few and far between and then I realise that there are no more heading the other way. The last few who left CP4 before the cutoff have now passed and they have a long night ahead. Then after a little descent to a creek we come across a volunteer who tells us we have about 6km to go and to turn left. This puts us on a new trail past the Leura Cascades and Linda Creek. This is a technical descent losing 200m elevation with a couple of rises throughout. And it’s mostly stairs. Shallow stairs, steep stairs, wooden, rock, gravel and metal stairs. And it dark, wet and slippery. My knees and ankles hurt and I’m trying not to whinge too much in my head, but it’s slow going and it feels like the steps just won’t end. But I’m in a slightly better place than some of the other people I pass (going down the steps sideways due to really sore knees), but not doing as well as a few who pass me.

Follow Federal Pass around the 3 Sisters (not that they can be seen at night and in the cloud) and run walk along the trail, passing over the Kedumba River and then the Furber Steps are upon us. This means there is only about a kilometre to go and I’m happy now. I know it’s a tough last kay, but it means I’m nearly done. I’ve been looking forward to this part of the adventure for a while.

Steps steps steps, and some more steps. And then the timing point at the bottom of the official Furber Step climb. Excellent, we’re on our way. Just keep going, pull yourself up a little with the handrail and about half way up the times section I pass a guy and we have a quick chat. Unfortunately, just after I pass the steps become steeeep and I almost stop. I apologise and ask if he wants to come back past but he says no. Once I get some momentum again I pull away anyway and the steps flatten out a little. There are even a couple of down steps just as a sweet surprise. Then a little flat bit of gravel and I recognise a lookout from the day before when we were watching the end of the UTA22 run. I know there are only about 50 more stairs to go so I start running again. Hooray I’m almost there.

On to the boardwalk and around the second last corner, I see the light!!

One last set of 5 steps to run up and I trip the second last one. Manage to save myself, kind of. Semi-hear the crowd and then it’s around the last corner and the finish ahead. Lights, clapping and cheering, I don’t really notice the announcers, just the finish banner.


I’m done.

100km and 4200m. That is something I’m proud to have achieved. I’ve completed a 100km running event. I get passed a belt buckle for finishing and a towel and told I have one last gear check to get through.

It takes a bit to sort out my shaking hands and take a breath and get the coordination to open my backpack and show that yes, I do still have my thermal top and bottom and beanie with me. And now I can go to the recovery tent and just try and relax. A quick message to Tamara to let her know I finished and then back to the room so I can congratulate Jens on a great effort and sit down for 5 before a shower. After 2000 people have used them over the last 30-ish hours, they’re not exactly clean and fresh, but they serve the purpose of washing away most of the mud and sweat and grime. Then wearing something clean and warm it’s time to go and get something useful in the belly. Apparently not a good idea as I feel a bit nauseous so just water it is. A quick call to Tamara and then I’m off to bed to sleep for a few hours.

Note to self, if ever doing a long distance leg heavy event, don’t get the top bunk.

I wake up about 3 after about that many hours sleep and now I feel a little better. Go into the recovery room and grab a hot chocolate and a coffee and then go out and cheer on those who are completing their adventure in the early morning hours. It’s quite inspiring watching people finish something tough. So after a couple of hours Ash comes across the line and it was good to see and cheer someone on I know. Which also means that it was nearly time to go back to bed for an hour before getting up and packing and watching more people continue to cross the line.

It was great morning weather to conclude the Ultra-Trail Australia event, with people finishing as the award ceremony was taking place. This meant lots of loud clapping and cheering and then it was time to get back on a bus and head home.

The event itself was brilliant, from the volunteers throughout the whole weekend, the townspeople who are happy for 4500 plus people to run around their town, and the event organisers who worked their butts off especially with the weather and having to adjust the course on short notice. So if anyone is looking for a different challenge, it is definitely an event worth considering. And I think the 50km event would be a great one to do in the future so as not to need quite so much training and not likely to break the body as much. Like doing a half instead of a full distance triathlon. I know I missed writing in some of my experience and I hope you'll forgive me. But the challenge is there, I’d just like less steps please J

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