UTA100km, what an experience! Although I recovered within a couple of days, I am still being congratulated by friends and family wondrous that I have achieved such a feat! I guess it is all relative. We hang out with trail runners who do these kinds of events all the time and look at them in awe as they finish fitter, further and faster than us, but to the general population, anyone who can do 100km in the Blue Mountains is super-human! As such, I’ve felt like a rock star all week!
I’ll admit that my preparation for UTA100 was probably the worst I could have had. A marriage breakdown, illness, a family holiday during peak training week and the huge piles of stress that goes with all of these things had me exhausted. I was worried I’d start the run dehydrated from the amount of tears I’ve spilled in the months leading up to the event, I was sure I’d done nowhere near enough training (to be fair I really hadn’t) and I wasn’t sure my sinus infection had completely cleared up.
Why did I even start? I guess it’s all about the base. I’ve been physically active since my teens, always doing something- horse riding, dancing, walking, fire fighting, weights and trail running. I did have three trail ultras under my belt in the 6 months leading up to the event and even though I can honestly say I probably only managed one short run a week in the 8 weeks leading up to the event, my active lifestyle (I would exercise in some way almost every day) meant that I had strong feet and legs and a strong core, and my years of endurance sport (and enduring tough moments in life) meant that I had a strong mindset. I figured that with the generous cut-off times and my knowledge of the course I could do this, even if I walked it, even if it hurt the whole way. I’m a little stubborn like that.
The week of the run was no different, I had no sleep, my sciatic nerve was pinching (WTF it had never done that before!) and I really wasn’t sure I’d picked the right gear for the event. They say never to change anything at the last minute, but I also knew that what would be most important would be my mind, so I changed whatever my mind wanted to change so that I started the run relaxed and not wishing I had made those changes. Given I was going slow, the demands on my body would be much less than a speedier runner so I could get away with this. I chose 25 year old socks because they were thin, a brand new pack because it felt lighter and cheese and biccies because that is what I felt I could stomach!
One thing I am very good at is race planning. Hundreds of ultra events over several decades has taught me a lot. I had a race plan for a best case 21hr finish and for a realistic 24hr finish. Anything outside those numbers would be dealt with on the day! I started in wave 5 and took the road section very conservatively. This was where I fiddled with straps and hugged my friends and I made sure that I started as I intended to finish- well within myself. Even on the slight rise of the bitumen in the first few km I slowed to a hike to keep my Perceived Rate of Exertion (PRE) under 80% and to keep the burn out of my legs. From this moment on, I avoided getting too out of breath and as soon as I started to feel any burn in my muscles I slowed or stopped. This was the key for me.
I broke the run into sections, between each checkpoint and water point. Mentally this is so much easier than one long run! The first 11km went perfectly to plan, because I had planned on being held up at the landslide and on the stairs, so there was no frustration. I worked to my strengths. I love technical downhill but am painfully slow on uphill and not much better on the flat. I popped down Furber with joy and stopped as many times as I felt I needed to on the way up the Golden Stairs. It is amazing to think that at that point the first section was done!
In order to minimise weight I carefully planned my hydration. I carried only what I would need for each section. CP1-CP2 was the longest section between water stops so I filled 3 of my 4 bottles for this, one with electrolyte, two with water. In the past I have probably over-fuelled and I knew with a hot day predicted to be conservative. Plenty of time for eating later.
I enjoyed the views along Narrowneck and soon arrived at the queue for Tarros Ladders. Part of me wanted to keep moving, but part of me had decided that I should take the opportunity to do the ladders in case I decided I never wanted to come back again! A spot of cheese and biccies on a rock whilst I waited was nice and in the end I didn’t lose much time doing the ladders as I came out at the bottom just in front of the bloke who had been behind me at the top. The conga line over Mt Debert was fun with some light banter with a few fellows and then I met Annie from RMA on the Medlow Gap fire trail. Although this section was the longest, it had the most downhill and so suited me well. I arrived at CP 2 Dunphy’s camp feeling fresh.
I resisted the urge to load myself up with extra water and went with the planned 2 bottles for the next section. I knew it would take me nearly as long to do this section as it had to do the previous section but a re-feed and water was only 14.4km away. I headed out following signs to Ironpot Mountain with a sense of excitement as this was the section of the course I hadn’t seen. Suddenly I looked up and exclaimed! Ironpot did not disappoint! There was another conga line of brightly coloured ‘runners’ trudging their way up a steep slope that I couldn’t see the top of! Only way to get a hill done is to do it. Let’s face it, in 30mins I’d be enjoying the view. Again I was conservative and stopped to breathe rather than pushing through as I would in training or on a shorter run. This strategy had me reaching the top of each hill in great condition and able to trot along the top. I loved the views, the rocks and the welcome from the local Gundungurra people.
Down the side of Ironpot was the kind of trail I love! I passed a few people picking their way down as I slid and strode. I figured a little fun now may lead to smashed quads later, so I didn’t go too hard, but it was fun! Out into the Megalong and I anticipated the fun bits for me would be over. Not only am I painfully slow on what others would consider open, easy going, but lets face it- there are still plenty of hills here! To date in the ultras I have completed I have required an incredible amount of mental strength to finish. Not just because of the distance and time, but because of the pain. I expected the pain to hit me about now. I’d done over 30km, I’d been out about 5hrs, this was when the pain should start and where I would need to drag myself for another 70km to finish. The pain- a leg locking, excruciating pain that took my breath away, that came every time no matter how fit I was, the pain that had almost made me decide to stop doing ultras. It didn’t come. I’m not sure if it was the Thyroxine I’d started taking for my auto-immune condition, or the little bites of protein bar I’d managed each hour, or the slower pace, but for the first time ever, it didn’t come! I trotted into CP3 at 45km very happy!
At this event I was very lucky to have Jim. My running buddy Thuy and I usually do these events self-supported, but our friend Jim had pulled out and still wanted to be part of this fabulous race, so he had offered to crew for us. Happy days, I could look forward to seeing Jim at the checkpoint! Usually I don’t spend much time in checkpoints. I prefer to keep moving forward- usually I need to or I run out of time! Having a crew meant that I took a little time to have a coffee, some food, a chat and a sit down. I’m sure these were all good for me. I was happy to report that I was feeling very well within myself and although I’d done an ultra already, I knew for sure now that I could finish if I kept doing what I was doing. Thuy’s advice had been to take my trekking poles from here. I’m always happy to learn from other people’s experience and Thuy’s advice was sound. I estimated 2.5hrs to CP4 at Katoomba and was very happy that this would get me in and out of that checkpoint before dark.
I was super-conservative on this leg as another great mentor of mine Jeff had said the run doesn’t even start until the top of Nellies. He said to consider that half way. I walked a lot, even bits that were only slightly uphill and I could have jogged. The blokes I had been with up until now pulled away, but they were on a different schedule to me, they were after a buckle and I just wanted to finish. Half way up Nellies I felt hungry so out came the cheese and biccies for a picnic. People were incredulous that I didn’t have wine to go with them- how nice that picnic was! As a result of my little break I was able to move well up Nellies and feel fresh at the top. I trotted off very excited that at half way I was still feeling very good, the pain hadn’t arrived and I was still able to jog along happily enough.
At CP4 I set myself up for a long walk in the dark. I knew the next section was a lot of hills and stairs, rather than letting that worry me, I just got on with it. The first part around Katoomba was still light and it was so fun to see friends at Echo Point as marshals. I loved running down the Giant Staircase as fast as I could, just for fun! In my head there were two sections I knew were going to be tough. The stairs out of Leura Forest in this section and the huge hill out of Leura Falls Creek at the very end of the run. The stairs were first. I didn’t let them get to me this year. Last year on the 50km they knocked me around as I tried to power up them and not get in the way of other runners. This year I took them one section at a time and took time for another picnic of cheese and biccies half way to get me to the top. Hooray- the first of my demons conquered and still no pain!
I had done the next few km in training recently so knew that although there were stairs and rocks and hills and stairs, that compared to the Leura cascades stairs, these were friendly. I arrived at the Fairmont feeling a little tired due to the time of night but confident that now I had done all the hard bits for a while. More cheese a biccies! I couldn’t believe how little I had taken on in fuel. Literally a few rice crackers and some cheese and almost one protein bar. It goes to show just how little our bodies need to fuel a big day of exercise- I could have eaten that much in one sitting on a normal day just out of habit!
Arriving at CP5 at Queen Victoria Hospital is always fun. The music and the lights and of course Jim was there with his magical comfrey cream and a coffee. The comfrey cream was amazing, rubbed all over my feet and legs it stopped any pain or blisters as the lubricant I’d applied to my feet many hours earlier was long gone. This meant I didn’t need to change to a larger pair of shoes and could stay with the ones I liked best. Jim and I discussed how close I was to earning a buckle. Based on the average speed I had been maintaining it was possible, but I knew that the hardest part for me was the last 10km and that I wouldn’t be maintaining pace there. I was OK with not getting a buckle, a finish would be lovely thank you!
My pace picked up down Kedumba and all the way to the dreaded Leura Falls Creek. How nice to be still running pain-free after 80km! It was almost enough to tempt me to try for a buckle, but I remembered my original plan to finish within myself and stuck to the plan. I slogged it out up ‘that’ hill. The water point broke it up a little, but not enough. Another cheese and biccie picnic was required- mentally if not physically! Finally the sewage works arrived and all of a sudden we were dealing with mud! I was stressed that my timing tag hadn’t beeped- what if they didn’t think I’d done that horrible section of hill! I reached around and checked the timing tag was still there just to still my mind!
In the dark and the mud the Federal Pass isn’t my favourite part of the course and the power of the mind became apparent as I started to enjoy myself less along here. I was tired, it was the middle of the night and I didn’t like this bit! At this point I reasoned that even cheese and biccies wasn’t going to help and with 3km to go I should just push on. I did and at the bottom of Furber steps I was tired and ready to finish. I wasn’t worried about the steps, they were nothing compared to the hill I’d just done and in 30mins they would be over.
At the top I surprised myself by having enough in the tank to jog off and over the finish line. At the end of the 50km last year I hadn’t been able to. I was so happy that I’d finished within myself, uninjured and although I’d just missed a buckle, I had actually beaten my best-case time! I was welcomed by some lovely local RMA and then burst into tears of relief. It certainly hadn’t been the toughest run I’d ever done (due to the lack of pain), but it had been the longest.
I swore at the finish ‘never again’! However, we all know that as recovery progresses that becomes ‘what I would change for next time’. I was very happy with my recovery. I was sore for most of the rest of Sunday and into Monday, but I slept as much as I could. Every opportunity I had a nap and I went to bed early. I kept warmly dressed as my body didn’t have the energy to both recover and keep warm. By Tuesday I felt almost completely recovered. Amazing! I guess my plan worked.
For every time I did all the right things and had a crappy run, this made up for it. I didn’t do any of the right things and I had a dream run. No pain, very little suffering and a time that although not fast by many standards was great for me. I guess you take the wins when you get them! I’m grateful for the support of friends and family, the volunteers on course, for Thuy and Jim. I’m grateful for the amazing experience of being able to complete 100km in the bush. I’m grateful to my body for not hurting too much and for recovering so well. It must have been stronger than I thought! The challenges that we often face in daily life are not as easy as running 100km, but if I am tough enough for that, who knows what I am capable of!
The best part about all this is the learning experience. I loved the opportunity to spend 20hrs just listening to my body and what it can teach me. I love that after every ultra I do I am able to bring more back to my Personal Training clients- more insights into mindset, mechanics, fuelling, strategy, injury prevention and management, planning, techniques. You don’t need to be an ultra runner to benefit from what we learn in these big events. For those who think they’ll never run 100km, you don’t have to. Pick a challenge, anything that you think is just out of your reach and then reach for it! Bite off more than you can chew and then chew like crazy! Life is for living- get out there and live it! The more you embrace challenge, the more you will grow and the more you will live. I love it!