We arrived in the Blue Mountains on a warm autumn day with the sun in the sky and a plethora of active-wear clad runners roaming the streets. It was hard not to feel the excitement in the air for Ultra Trail Australia
Coming from humble beginnings in 2008 with only a few handfuls of runners and pocket full of dreams, Ultra Trail Australia (UTA) is now the 3rd largest ultra running event in the world, with over 7000 runners taking on the challenge. For me, this was my first time at UTA and first time taking on the 100 kilometre distance.
The idea of running 100 kilometres started about 3 years ago when my girlfriend and I met a man in the Grampians who was training for the Waterous Trail 100 miler. He was doing a casual training run from Halls Gap to the top of Mt Rosea (not an easy feat). This sparked that childhood competitive desire that launches many ultra running careers; asking questions like “Let’s see how far we can run” or “I bet I can run for longer and faster than you can”. Although these questions aren’t necessarily humble in nature, they do ignite the motivation needed to undertake the colossal task that is an ultra marathon.
Coming back to January 2019, training for UTA 100 begun. At this point, the furthest I had run is 42.2kms.
Training with my esteemed ultra running friend Josh, I quickly learnt that hills and stairs must be my friend if I want to complete UTA 100. Fortunately, we were living in Hobart at the time which allowed for easy access to the mountains at all times.
Despite consistent training on a lot (I mean a lot) of hills, my longest training run was only 42 kms with 1800 metres of vertical gain. Josh assured me that this is good and longer runs aren’t necessary at this point. However, I remained sceptical about the pure maths of the situation. 100km – 42km = 58kms. 58kms being the difference between the furthest I had previously run and how far I needed to run on UTA race day… this didn’t seem right.
Ultra Trail Australia Race Day
Let’s fast forward to May 18th, race day. Gear has been checked over meticulously (this is rare for me). Legs are feeling fresh minus a small niggle in my left knee. It’s 6am, we are at the Scenic World and ready to get started.
Being in start group 3 and having to wait 36 minutes after my friends begun at 6:20am was a challenge. The nervous energy built and it was difficult to stand still until the start gun sounded.
The first leg is all about keeping your cool. It can be difficult to avoid getting caught up in the excitement of the the first few kilometres. Despite wanting to let loose and fly, I managed to keep my pace between 5:30 and 6:00 min/kms for the first few kilometres.
Awe inspiring views were constant over the first 3 legs. I can assure you the best way to block out the pain and fatigue of running 100 kilometres is to be surrounded by the panoramic vistas of the blue mountains.
The first mental hurdle I faced was Nellie’s Glen at the 53km point. It was here in the shadows of the sandstone cliffs where I first asked the the question “what the hell am I doing here”. With each step it felt like a pound of lead was added to my shoes, and I was not the only one who felt like this. I passed multiple people, stooped over half way up the glen, looking like they regretted a decision or two. Alas, I pushed on as it was not the time to entertain thoughts of giving up.
From here, it was relatively smooth sailing. I kept a cruising pace, not too slow, not too fast. Heading into the final checkpoint I was almost feeling elated. I had this false sense of satisfaction, thinking the hard work was all but done. After a few sips of coke, a few salt and vinegar chips and a caffeinated gel, I was ready for the final leg.
The Last Leg
Before race day, my friend had told me that I should try push it down Kendumba Pass if I still had any legs left. I thought, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Eight kilometres of down-hill will be a welcome reprieve after all that running. I’ll roll on down the hill and before you know it I’ll be at the base of the Furber Steps..In hindsight this was very naive thinking. However, it’s this type of thinking that kept a smile on face throughout the race.
Unfortunately, my dream of cruising the downhills of Kendumba did not come to fruition. In fact, I was passed by at least 10-20 people on this section (note to future UTA runners: train for long downhills on fire trail). At the time I intellectually knew long downhills would trash my quads more than long uphills. After reaching the bottom of Kendumba pass, I knew this fact on a far more emotional level…
The Head-Torch Fiasco
Once I reached the 91 km emergency water station, I was craving some uphill running (I never thought I’d say that). However, this was the point of the race where my smile indeed turned upside down.
Only 500 meters past the water point, my head torch decided that in longer wanted to participate in the race. This was not ideal. Fortunately due to UTA’s extensive mandatory gear list I had a backup emergency light (PETZL E-light).
Note: It turns out my PETZL Reactik+ head torch died because my charging cord had broken somewhere between Melbourne and the Blue Mountains. It’s actually a great head torch. Remember to check that your head torch is charging, don’t just assume!
To add to my woes, I had managed to smack my foot against a few rocks earlier in the race. This had resulted in a relatively painful right big toe. Some simple math will tell you that a dim emergency torch plus a toe that is very painful is not a good combination. This is because I could not easily see the rocks and roots in on the track, managing to smack my foot 3 or 4 more times. This resulted in the picture below and a few expletives which I will leave out.
After crawling through the final 8km a snails pace trying not to smack my foot again, I was ready to finish the race. After unintentionally conserving energy throughout the final leg, I was ready to let loose on the Furber steps. I had renewed energy and managed to finish the steps in 16 minutes 17 seconds. I was pretty happy with this as it was the only timing section in which I beat my friend Josh (he finished 2 hours before me..).
With the finish in sight, I thought I would be happy to get the race over and done with. Surprisingly, I didn’t want it to finish. I was already keen to go again and do it faster, much to the bewilderment of my wonderful girlfriend/number 1 crew member.
I finished with a time of 14 hours 59 minutes 47 seconds. Just snuck under 15 hours!
In summary, my first 100km ultra was an overall success and I am already planning the search for that elusive silver buckle next year!