World Mountain Running Championships 2014

“Andorra!”… “Australia!” … “Austria!” … As the race official called out our country names we took our designated place on the starting line in single file behind our team’s fastest runner. However, the narrow streets of the picturesque Italian town of Forno are simply not wide enough to provide all 40 countries with a spot on the starting line and soon athletes started piling up in front of us. Assuming they would be sent back behind the start line, I resisted the urge to creep forward despite now being near the back. This proved to be a poor decision on my behalf and the crowd in front of me was not sent back, even after most took off just before the gun went! I found myself bolting down the flat streets well behind where I would have liked to have been and knew I would have to focus on working my way up the field.

The 12km course for the World Mountain Running Championships commenced with two laps around the quaint town Forno, in which we would squeeze between some classic Italian alleyways. I tried to follow one of the Eritrean runners as he nimbly weaved his way through the bunched up pack, but could not match his incredible bursts of speed whenever an opening appeared. I begrudgingly accepted the fact my flat speed simply wasn’t good enough to make up much ground in these first few kilometres and was telling myself that things would pick up when we started climbing.

The first major climb of the day arrived after 2km and involved a steady gradient up a grassy and rocky track that lead into the next town, Casette. The track was wide enough for two runners to run side-by-side, though at this stage we were still very crowded and trying to move up the field was very hard work. Never-the-less I enthusiastically started picking up places, trying to keep up a decent running cadence. Foolishly, I got a little bit too excited and soon my legs were screaming at me and I was relishing any opportunity to start hiking whenever stuck behind other athletes. To say the least, things weren’t going to plan! I knew the crux of the course was still to come and tried to remain optimistic.

Around four kilometres into race we reached the scenic mountainside town of Casette, which is home to not only beautiful homes and views, but also many staircases. In order to best show off these magnificent stairs the course looped up and then down various sets of stairs before heading up a particularly long staircase out of the town. I was hiking up most of the staircases, dropping back a place or two, but would then regain those positions on the way back down.

The next section of trail was protected by a canopy of trees and hence the track was still slightly damp and muddy from rain on the previous days. After a few ever steepening switchbacks we were onto a set of rock stairs and once I again I found myself hiking. I wanted to be running more but found at the time this was the quickest way to move up the mountain. My teammate Alan Craigie went past me at this point and I tried to not fall too far behind him. Not long afterwards, the slope turned downwards for a while, and I enjoyed the opportunity to open up for a little bit, passing Alan and several others on the way down. Unfortunately, this also seemed to set off a rather uncomfortable sensation in my bowels, but with no opportunity to relieve myself in such a short race, I simply grit my teeth.

I was now at the halfway point of the race and had reached the most technical part of the course. A steep and rocky climb stood before me and I started hiking my way up (my gut was far more settled when hiking!), passing a couple of athletes during the climb . At the top we entered the working marble quarry dug into the Bacino di Gioia, where the course wound along the white-powdery roads.

DSC01231

I relished the chance to once again open up on the long gradual descent into the heart of the quarry, again passing a couple of runners. However, doing so simultaneously had my bowels churning once more! The following series of short but steep ascents interspersed with short flat sections involved a cycle of hiking on the steep ups to ease the churning, followed by triggering it once more  when running on flats. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to make it through the 600m flat loop that was cut into the mountain! The supporting cheers from leading Australian, Nick Wightman, along with my other Australian teammates, Alan, Michael Chapman and Robin Whiteley, as we saw each other passing in opposite directions, served as enough of a distraction to get me though and was also pleased to find that my Hokas were gripping to the wet marble quite well.

Coming out of the mountain, I was onto the home stretch, with supporters beginning to line the dirt road. Michael Chapman came surging past me and I shouted encouragement to him as he flew towards the finish line. Unfortunately, it seemed he had gone too hard too early and I soon caught up with him again, trying to convince him to stick with me. Instead, it was with a Turkish runner that I found myself playing an uphill game of leap frog and we both hiked furiously up the incline.

Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady

Photo courtesy of Gerry Brady

The cheers of some Australian runners kicked me into running mode once more and the incredible support of the crowd helped me dig that little bit deeper. People were yelling, cowbells were ringing and even chainsaws were being revved (if that won’t make you run faster then I don’t know what will!) in the support of each and every runner. As the final couple of hundred meters were counted down on trailside signs, I refused to look back to see where the Turkish runner was, giving all I could in the hope that it didn’t come down to a final 50m sprint with him! Luckily, it did not and I finished in 1:08:35 and was immediately congratulated by Nick before soon being  followed across the finish line by Alan, Michael and Robin.

Photo courtesy of Katie Seibold

Photo courtesy of Katie Seibold

Although the race didn’t go quite as I had hoped, the experience of running through beautiful towns and even a working quarry has still left me with many great memories. Spending a week in Tuscany with my fantastic Australian teammates made for a wonderful trip and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who made it possible.

Ben_Duffus_WMRA_Champs_2014

Pikes Peak Ascent 2014

After spending many hours over the previous week in the gift shop that adorns the summit of Pikes Peak (in an attempt to best acclimatise to the thin air), the day of the World Long Distance Mountain Running championships had finally arrived. The race was held in conjunction with the Pikes Peak Ascent, which rises 2,382m (that’s more than the height of Mount Kosciuszko!) from 1,920m above sea level to the summit of “America’s Mountain” at an altitude of 4,302m, over a distance of 21.44km. For me, along with many of the other international athletes, this would be a new “personal best” for highest mountain summited. The look on the local’s faces when you told them you would be running the ascent but live and trained at sea-level said it all, but I was looking forward to the challenge.

I’ll make a disclaimer now that I will be digressing from the metric system during the remainder of this article. As the race was in the USA, the course was marked in miles!

 

The American team were the (deservingly) hot favourites for the race, so it was no surprise that as soon as the starting gun went off, they all bolted to the front. I was happy to sit at the back of the large, front pack as we made our way along about a mile of road. I didn’t want to go out too hard, knowing that going into too much of an oxygen debt early on would be devastating later, but also didn’t feel as though I really could run too much faster at the time. I was reassuring myself this was simply due to the fact the first half a mile (or so) was flat, and I would feel more at home when we started climbing.

Ben_Duffus_Barr_Trail_Early

Everyone (myself included) seemed to hold their position when we hit the dirt and commenced the steady (but gradual) climb up the many switchbacks of the Barr trail. For the next couple of miles I played a game of leap-frog with one of the South African runners. At this early stage both us were more using each other to help hold a steady pace than thinking about racing each other. We passed a couple of runners going up and were passed by several more.

Around 3-4 miles into the race, the buffed out track widened and became flatter, even including a few sections of gradual downhill. I had planned for this to be a section to be passing people, however it wasn’t long until I found myself being passed by a couple of runners, including the eventual female winner. This was when I started to realise this race would be more about trying to survive than racing.

 Ben_Duffus_Barr_Trail_pikes_peak_view

Around the half way mark, I suddenly saw my South African friend walking up ahead. When he had pulled away from me a mile earlier I had thought I might not see him again until the finish, but offered some words of encouragement as I went past. Soon, the Barr Camp checkpoint (about 3,100m elevation) could be heard well before it was reached and the cheers from all the wonderful volunteers was certainly uplifting.

A few more runners came past, including the second placed female, as the flat section of the course ended and terrain became a little bit rockier (but still a very well groomed trail!). By this stage I had to fight the urge to hike any rocky bits that resembled steps. I knew if/once I allowed myself to walk the first time it would be easier to justify to myself doing so more often. However, I also knew that if the course was a sea-level then I would be able to run every step. So I stubbornly persisted.

As we approached the notorious “A-frame” checkpoint that marks the end of the tree line, I finally broke into a hands-on-knees hike up some rock steps. This was the point which many runners has claimed is where “the race begins”. Although I still felt in control of my heart and lungs, I simply felt as though I had no physical strength and had to use all of my will power to force my legs to continue the relentless forward motion.

 Ben_Duffus_Barr_trail_A_frame

Despite having hiked the whole course to help avoid any hidden surprises, I followed the third female off course just above the tree-line for 50m or so. I quickly realised this was much too steep and loose to be the real trail and looked back to see another runner take the correct path. I quickly called out that we had gone the wrong way and bounded down to the proper route.

With the trees no longer hindering my view to the summit, I could see many runners lining the switchbacks above me. Many of them were walking. I thought to myself that if I could just force myself to sustain a running gait then I would surely catch a few. Like a slow-motion game of cat-and-mouse, I started reeling runners in. Doing so left me with barely enough strength to give a thumbs up to the course marshals, who were ensuring no-one cut any switchbacks.

When I hit the 2-miles-to-go mark I felt a slight mental boost. I had purposefully run this section a couple of times in the previous week, so felt at least somewhat comforted by the sense of familiarity. I could tell I was moving slower than I had on those “easy” runs, but was certainly working a lot a harder. The desire to just lie down was overwhelming but somehow I made my legs keep running. Tunnel vision had certainly set in and all I could focus on was the piece of trail in front of me.

Entering the final mile, I was actually looking forward to the notorious 16 Golden Stairs as I felt stairs were a good excuse to hike rather than run. I passed a couple more runners on these stairs and felt a massive sense of relief when the yellow arch that marked the finish came into sight.

Image courtesy of Anya Inman

Image courtesy of Anya Inman

After a few more staggering switchbacks I crossed the finish line after the toughest 2:39:37 of my life. I staggered away from the finish only to be helped by a medic towards the first aid room, where along with several other runners, I required oxygen to become coherent once more. I felt completely spent, but satisfied that I had finished. My Australian teammate, Harriet Smith, finished just over an hour later and I was elated that we had both made it.

 Ben_Duffus_Harriet_Smith_Pikes_Peak_Ascent

Looking back, it was a humbling experience to be reminded of the respect that the mountains deserve. I relished the experience of a new kind of fatigue, unlike anything I had endured before. I already feel better mentally prepared for the next time I race at high altitudes and more aware of the kind of preparation required. I look forward to the next time I find myself in the mountain ranges of beautiful Colorado and I am incredibly grateful to everyone who helped out with this event, from the WMRA, to the LOC and local volunteers, as well as all those who support me back home (without whom, none of these adventures would be possible!).

Ben_Duffus_Oxygen

Bendigo Bank International Mountain Challenge 2014

As it has done so since 1979, the fourth Sunday of July was host to the Wimmers King of the Mountain festival in the small town of Pomona in the Noosa Hinterlands. There are so many unique aspects to this amazing event that make it so special to me (despite the fact this was only my second time at the race!). The word “festival” is truly justified as people from all over the region flock to the markets, rides, music and entertainment running throughout the day. Various competitions such as the Primary School relay and tug-of-war bring out the fantastic community spirit, while the shorter race options give everyone an opportunity to participate. Even the main event itself, the 4.2km Bendigo Bank International Mountain Challenge, celebrates each and every one of its 100 competitors, individually parading them in front of the crowds that line the streets. Never have I seen the Aussie attitude of “having a go”, be so well epitomized!

 

After taking my turn in front of the exuberant crowds, I took my place on the starting line. Keeping up the traditional trans-Tasman rivalry, Sjors Corporaal and Lance Downie who had finished comfortably ahead of me at the sister race last November, the Kawerau King of Mountain, were lining up beside me.  Two runners bolted from the start line when the gun went off and I found myself at the front of the chasing pack as we started the gradual uphill climb towards the base of the mountain.

Image courtesy of Harriet Smith

Image courtesy of Harriet Smith

On the short, sharp descent infamously named “Heckler’s Hill” (the real ‘heckling’ comes later on the way back!) I moved up into the lead and for the rest of the gradual climb to the mountain base focused on holding a comfortable rhythm. I could still hear heavy breathing right behind me when I reached the little goat track making the start of the serious climb. However, I refused to look back to see who it was coming from, instead focusing on running the sections I had picked out earlier in the week on a training run. However, for the most part the rest of the ascent was a hand-on-knee-hiking-slog, with the intermittent use of chains to haul my body ever closer to the glorious summit.

Image courtesy of Raould Slater

Image courtesy of Raould Slater

After a quick mark of yellow zinc on my arm at the top, it was time for the fun to begin! Hoping off rocks, and swinging off trees, I could see Aaron Knight and Lance Downie working their way up, but due to the way the course splits near the top, I had no idea if there was anyone else between me and them. As I had experienced last year, when I reached the main stream of runners coming uphill, they would quickly heed to the shouts of the wonderful on-course volunteers and move off to the side to allow me to pass without hindrance. Although I was concentrating too hard on my next foot-placing to say thank-you at the time (my apologies for my rudeness), their words of encouragement were very much appreciated!

 

While last year I felt as though my legs had completely given out when I got back down to the base of the mountain, this year I at least felt as though I could still run with what (at least remotely) resembled a normal stride. The gradual decline towards the finish was perfect for just focusing on turning my legs over as fast as possible. Heckler’s hill always feels considerably longer when going up it, but once at the top the streets lined thick with the cheering crowd lifted my spirits ever higher and the last couple of hundred meters where incredibly exhilarating.

Image courtesy of ???

Image courtesy of Darryn Smith

In 23:47 I had defended my title, and soon after crossing the line I turned back to celebrate with the fantastic supporters. While doing so, it was exciting to watch Lance Downie hold off Aaron Knight for second place, with Sam Maffett and Sjors Corporaal finishing not long after. It was such a privilege to once again be a part of such a wonderful event and I can’t thank race director Barry Stewart enough for not only running the day so well, but also for holding a spot for me when I couldn’t commit to whether I would race or not until only a few days prior!

80km du Mont Blanc – Skyrunning World Championships 2014

“This course isn’t a race, it’s an adventure!” I exclaimed to Caine Warburton and Marcus Warner as we sat at 2500m above sea level along the route to Col de la Terasse, looking at the valley below as the clouds were moving in above us. I had arrived in Chamonix a week prior to the 2014 Skyrunning World Championships worried about how I would fare against the best mountain runners in the world. But suddenly, I didn’t care! I just wanted the opportunity to experience more of these beautiful surroundings. It hit me that moments like the one I was currently experiencing were what it’s all really about.

 

As a result, I had a relatively restful night’s sleep before my alarm went off at 2am before the race. I do admit, I felt somewhat out of place slipping in behind last year’s UTMB winner Xavier Thevenard on the start line, yet my nerves remained calm. As the race commenced, the course immediately turned uphill. Personally I found this made it easy to regulate my pace as the gradient ensured I really noticed it if I tried to push too hard.

 

Photo courtesy of Christophe Aubonnet

Photo courtesy of Christophe Aubonnet

It wasn’t long until I found a comfortable rhythm running along with Emilie Forsberg and Caine Warburton. For the most part the first half of the climb was quite runnable. However, it was dark and I was only using a small head lamp to save on weight and so would often hike any remotely rocky bits to play things safe. I ended up just in front of Caine and Emilie but could also hear that Blake Hose had joined our conga line.

 

As we cleared the tree line, Mont Blanc rose triumphantly behind us on the other side of the valley, with a faint blue tinge to her snowy features. As we climbed many switch backs towards the summit of Brévent that faint blue glow turned to a vibrant purple, to orange to red and I had to force myself to watch the trail rather than this reflected sunrise.

 

Photo courtesy of Timothée Nalet

Photo courtesy of Timothée Nalet

Near the top, the path became quite rocky and the sound of spectator’s cow bells pierced the air. As soon as we commenced our first descent in the snow, Caine came flying past me appearing to be on a mission to use his downhill prowess to pick up a few places. I was quite content to keep the intensity low and save myself for later and was one of the few to refill both their water bottles at the first 10.8km checkpoint. I saw Blake also zoom by the aid station tent while I was in there. I figured that pretty much ruled out my chances of running with either of them for a while.

 

The descent continued for a little bit before turning uphill once more. I could tell that those in front of me were pulling away a little bit on the downhills, but I would hold my own against them (or even gain on some) when heading back up. But for the most part I focused on the mountain rather than the other runners, revelling in the simple fact that I was there. I had kept it fairly quiet in the lead up, but only 4 weeks prior I had required surgery on my right knee to clean out debris from a particularly nasty fall. I was less than a centimetre away from badly damaging tendons, which had been a harsh reminder of how fickle these opportunities can be.

 

On the rocky descent to the valley below my patience was tested as several more European runners passed me as they danced down the slope. I reminded myself that it was the final descent that mattered. I would be grateful for the decision later.

 

Photo Courtesy of Christophe Aubonnet

Photo Courtesy of Christophe Aubonnet

This was the first checkpoint at which I saw the ANZ team (i.e., those who were either supporting or racing the marathon on the Sunday). Some of the European Hoka guys were also there since they were crewing for Caroline Chaverot, and seeing so many familiar smiling faces lifted my spirits even more. Jo Brischetto helped me dump my flasks of Tailwind into my bottles (thank you Jo!) before setting off towards what I knew would be the ‘technical’ part of the course.

 

It was on this next climb that earlier my moment of revelation with Marcus and Caine had occured and I had been looking forwards to being reunited with it ever since. Slowly but surely, I started passing some of the runners who had bombed downhill past me not much earlier as we made our way up the rocky mountain slope. I made sure to exercise great caution when on the chains or crossing flowing water since I figured the 10 sec I might save from recklessness wasn’t worth the risk of falling this early into the run.

 

Half way up the climb we emerged at a dark soiled plain with a stream running through the middle of it. Up ahead I could see Caine’s distinctive green and gold Compressport R2 calf sleeves (which was totally my idea!) but there were still several other runners between us.

 

After more rocky scrambling we hit snow, which was actually quite firm as it seemed to have frozen over. I found my Rapa Nui’s were great for hiking up the steep snow and was making up places quickly. Eventually I even caught Caine and offered some words of encouragement. It was only then that I realised I must have been hiking very strongly as Caine told me he was feeling really good. I could see Blake not too far up ahead but he was almost out of sight by the time I reached the summit.

 

Along the top I was just running from marker to marker in the snow, trying to look for a route carved out by the faster runners. At one point I couldn’t see the next marker so continued in the direction I had been heading and suddenly found myself on the wrong side of pile of rocks with no markers in sight. After a minute of panic I ran back towards the last marker I had seen and then suddenly saw the next one further down the mountain. Having realised the foolishness of my mistake, I told myself that I would always make sure I had found the next marker before I continued running.

 

My little blunder had given Caine an opportunity to catch up with me and I was quite relieved to have a friend to run with to aid with navigation. Almost as soon as Caine came along beside me, my right foot burst through the layer of ice and snow and I managed to roll over my shoulder and pop straight back up onto my feet, ready to continue our descent. Caine initially seemed worried but then laughed when he realised I was ok.

 

I thought we must have missed a marker when suddenly the next flag appeared below us on the other side of 5m drop. But the distinct evidence that other runners had slid down the steep drop off made me quickly realise that we would have to do the same. Unsure how best to approach the task, I simply jumped and put my gloved hands under my backside for some protection. It got me down the slope safely though because I was only wearing my Ronhill running shorts I did have a slight graze on my backside.

 

A little bit further along, the descent steepened once more, but this time it continued for hundreds of meters. Things were about to get fun! To be honest, it was obvious neither Caine nor I had any clue what we doing, other than hoping for the best. On the fly we attempted to work out whether it was more efficient/stable to try to run or to ski. I think we both quickly discovered that falling over wasn’t the fastest option! After several near misses with Caine, I figured out that if I targeted the softer looking snow and dug my heels in then I could run with a long loping stride (I figured my Hokas would save my quads from this high impact technique!). Eventually we reached solid ground but I was actually a little sad for that special experience to have ended.

 

As we wound our way along a section of rocky single track, I spotted Jason Schlarb (who I met earlier at the registration) up ahead. I was wondering what we were doing catching up to him while a family of chamois appeared up ahead. This was actually my first encounter with these beautiful creatures and I watched on enviously as they pranced down the rocky slope.

 

The three of us entered the 40.6km checkpoint pretty much together and Caine inquired about our current placing. When the response was “tenth”, I actually didn’t believe them and figured that they must have missed several runners.

 

Soon Marcus Warner appeared on course, shouting out encouragement before a short climb involving chains. When asked as to how I was feeling my response was that “I’m still warming up!” In hindsight that probably sounded a little over confident but it was the truth; I was only just starting to get going! Quickly, I pulled away from Caine going up the chains.

 

The next section of running along the top of the range was one of the most scenic experiences I’ve ever had. The flowing single track didn’t require as much concentration as some other sections, so I could afford to stare a little at the snow covered mountains across the valley. It was yet another special moment the course had granted me.

 

Along the descent into Vallorone, Kilian Jornet shouted encouragement while perched upon a rock by the side of the track. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had run there as a warm up for the vertical kilometre in the later afternoon!

 

Photo courtesy of Timothée Nalet

Photo courtesy of Timothée Nalet

Coming into the 49.1km checkpoint a man held up 9 fingers at me. I knew what that meant. The guy at the last checkpoint hadn’t miscounted! Soon, I was again greeted by the ANZ team and Hoka guys and after quickly refilling my bottles with Tailwind I set off with Caine now only a few meters behind me. Suddenly, the flatness of running through the valley ended when the course turned steeply up the side of a grassy paddock. I couldn’t help but smile; a steep power hike was exactly what I felt like!

 

During one of the more runnable sections, James Kuegler came running in the opposite direction and informed me that there were 4-5 runners only a couple of minutes ahead and that apart from Blake, none were looking too fresh. On the other hand I was still only starting to feel warmed up and for the first time started counting off how many places I might be able to pick up. For the first time I dared to dream of making it into the top 5.

 

As the climb continued I started to reel in the other runners. 8th place, 7th place and suddenly I could see Blake up ahead in 6th. We neared the top of les Posettes and Mont Blanc loomed into view behind it. Beautiful! “Just one more hill left!” I shouted to Blake as we made our way along the rocky track. At the summit I was informed that Phillipp Reiter was only a couple of minutes ahead and I enthusiastically began my descent.

 

I don’t know which was more spectacular at this point: the view of Mont Blanc or the joy of the technical descent.  I kept in mind to save a little for the last climb and descent but I was genuinely surprised at how fresh I was still feeling. I was having so much fun!

Photo courtesy of The Long Run

Photo courtesy of The Long Run

As I entered Argentière, some of the ANZ team were waiting, cheering us on. I passed Phillipp as we ran through the carpark although less than a minute later I took a wrong turn through the street and ever the gentleman, Phillipp was quick to call me back on course. As we left the town, there was a mandatory gear check and I was grateful the layout of my pack made it so quick and easy to show all my gear.

 

As I stopped at the checkpoint to refill my bottles for the penultimate time, Blake caught up with me and so we left the checkpoint together. I soon had a small lead on Blake, which was quickly lost when I made another wrong turn running through town streets (I seem to have a lot of trouble navigating through French towns!). Luckily Blake was close enough that when I shouted out to him, I was able to get back on course by following his voice (in an act of good sportsmanship/mateship he had also briefly stopped so I could see him around the corner).

 

After catching back up to Blake we ran together for a little more, both excited by the prospect of having just one more up and down to go. However, by the time the climb up to le Montenvers commenced, I had pulled away from Blake and could now see Mike Wolfe up ahead.

 

I told myself that this was what I had been saving myself for and resisted to the temptation to power hike and instead ran most of the climb. As I passed Mike, he simply said “Go get them!” I didn’t actually think he was being serious as I figured the guys running for the podium were probably at least half an hour ahead. Instead I focused on maintaining my rhythm and enjoying this climb with such stunning views.

 

Near the top the course became quite scrambly and technical. I was glad for the excuse to hike a little as I was also starting to get thirsty in the heat of the day. I finally took off my gloves that I had been wearing all day, moved my scarf from around my neck to my wrist and opened up my shirt to cool off. I was relieved when I saw the cable car as I knew that meant I would soon be able to grab some extra water.

 

I was content that I could no longer see Mike and was actually feeling quite good after the couple of cups of water at the checkpoint. When I was informed that third place was now only 3 minutes ahead, the fire was lit. It was time to step things up a notch!

 

Photo courtesy of Timothée Nalet

Photo courtesy of Timothée Nalet

I took off along the Grand Blacon Nord with keen intent. Not even the spectacular panorama of the Chamonix-Mont Blanc region could distract me now! Around every corner I was looking out for third and as the Aiguille du Midi cable car came into view, so too did Clement Petitjean.

 

Hikers out on the trail were shouting out encouragement as I hopped along the rocks drawing ever closer. Just before the refuge I finally caught Clement and prepared myself for the final descent. I felt great and I was ready.

 

There was no more holding back this time; only enough caution to avoid any unnecessary mishaps. Not once did I look back. I had practiced this descent a couple of times in the week prior and had visualised a moment like this. Down I flew, loving every step but also hoping that I was pulling away (I wanted to avoid a sprint finish if at all possible!).

 

Even when I reached the cable car carpark at the bottom, I didn’t let the intensity drop. It wasn’t until I was running through the packed streets of Chamonix that I could tell by the crowd’s cheers that there was no one within 100m of me. But now the overwhelming support of the whole town willed me ever faster towards the finish line. I lost myself in those final moments as I made my way through the finishing straight and 10:52:33 of mountain running ecstasy climaxed as I crossed the finish line.

 

Photo courtesy of The Long Run

Photo courtesy of The Long Run

Ultimately most of the joy I was feeling was stemming from the fact I had just experienced over 80km of the most beautiful mountain trails of my life, and felt wonderful for the whole day. The fact I finished in third place at the Skyrunning World Championships simply provided me with an outlet with which to celebrate this. There were hugs and high fives with friends and strangers alike and I proudly draped the Australian flag around my shoulders.

 

It wasn’t long until Blake crossed the line in 6th place in 11:14:26 and then Caine in 9th place in 11:31:32. We were ecstatic to have three Australians in the top ten! This in itself was far more satisfying than any individual result. I hope it also encourages some of the European runners to come try racing Australia…clearly it isn’t THAT flat ;)

 

Photo courtesy of Christophe Aubonnet

Photo courtesy of Christophe Aubonnet

Thank you so much to all my friends, family and sponsors, as without out your constant support, amazing experiences like this one wouldn’t be possible. Thank you also to the Skyrunning Australia and New Zealand Federation for giving me the opportunity to run in this event in the first place. This adventure into European Skyrunning has been a real eye opener for me and has left me more enthusiastic than ever!

Training diary: 7th to 13th June

Saturday 7th June: W/U exercises + 6 hours on Mt Warning + W/D exercises

This was my first long run since having minor surgery on my left knee the previous Saturday (just cleaning out dirt from a particularly bad fall!). I headed out to Mt Warning with the intention of running for 5 hours, but I was feeling so good that I extended it to six so that I could fit in three full creek-to-summit reps. Another encouraging sign that my knee has healed was that it was fine during the technical section at the top. I’ve also discovered that an extra benefit of Compressport R2 Calf sleeves is that they are great for keeping the dressing for my stiches in place!

 Ben_Duffus_Mt_Warning_Triple

Ben_Duffus_view_Mt_Warning

Sunday 8th June: W/U exercises + 5 hours on Pollies including 60min uphill efforts + W/D exercises

I pulled up with a couple of tight spots from Saturday’s run but they all went away after the first up and down of Pollies. I forgot to drink enough in first half of the run so was feeling pretty tired by that point, but I quickly picked up after drinking a little bit extra and finished still feeling strong.

 

Monday 9th June: 90min cycling on Mt Coot-tha + Strength and Core exercises

Not too surprisingly, I had a couple of tight/sore muscles today but felt better after the workout.

 

Tuesday 10th June: W/U exercises + 90min on Mt Coot-tha including 40min tempo + W/D exercises

Despite still having a few tight spots leftover from the weekend, I felt great once I got going. The focus today was on the more runnable hills rather than steep ones.

 

Wednesday 11th June: W/U exercises + 90min on Mt Coot-tha including hard hiking reps + W/D exercises

All the tightness from the previous couple of days was gone thanks to a massage with Mark Smoothy the evening before. As a result I was feeling fantastic and finished still feeling pretty fresh. I also went to Allsports Physiotherapy in the evening for another general maintenance session.

 

Thursday 12th June: W/U exercises + 90min on Mt Coot-tha + W/D exercises

Just a nice and easy run today out on my local trails.

 

Friday 13th June: W/U exercises + 3hours on Mt Coot-tha including 77min hard up/downhill reps + W/D exercises

I was feeling especially good today and actually felt as though I got quicker as the run progressed. Really enjoyed the chance to get back into some fast downhill reps!

 

Ben_Duffus_run_down_Mt_Coot-tha

Total Time Running:  18hr30min

Total Time Cycling:  1hr 30min

Total Ascent:  14 063m (measured by Suunto Ambit2)

 

Other than the few days I had off due to my fall, everything has been going really well since the Buffalo Stampede, so I’m feeling very positive about my lead up to the 80km du Mont Blanc. This was a particularly good week and I was surprised at how good I was still feeling by the end of it. I suppose it’s a good sign that I’m not going into my taper overly tired. As always, my training program was created by Andy Dubois at Mile27 Personal Training.

The North Face 100 Australia

It’s 8.30pm the night before The North Face 100 Australia 2014, and I’m laying out my race kit for the next morning. But something is missing. “Where are my shorts?” I desperately start turning the hotel room that I was sharing with my parents (my dad would also be running the 100k while my mother had volunteered to crew for me) upside down, tipping out the contents of every bag that came near me. “Not sure how they would get in my toiletries bag, bag I’m going to check anyway!”  While I was highly successful at making a mess, my goal of finding pants failed miserably. “They must still be in Brisbane.” Although pants technically aren’t on the mandatory gear list, I wasn’t really fancying the idea of facing the cold morning weather without them! Luckily at this point we remembered that there had been a North Face tent at the event expo, so crossed our fingers hoping that it would still be open and raced back down to the registration area.

 

Fortunately, they were still open. BUT they had sold out of running shorts in my size. It was at this point that Dad suggested some of the women’s shorts. With my ego in check, I tried on pair…they fit beautifully. After establishing that they didn’t make my butt look big, the shorts were purchased and it was settled; I would be running 100km in women’s pants.

 

As is always the case before a race, I hardly slept that night, but still woke up feeling excited and ready to go (40 minutes before my alarm). After downing my Spiz and coffee for breakfast, followed by applying copious amounts of Body Glide (I wasn’t taking any chances with these new shorts!), I was on my way to the start line chatting to the other runners on the complementary start line bus.

 

Having been taught a harsh lesson at the Buffalo Stampede about not going out too hard in ultras, my plan for the day was simple; run the 100km in under 10hours and FORGET ABOUT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING. Knowing from previous years that people tend to bolt off the start line, I made sure I was 3-4 people deep as we waited for the race to begin. During the flat 4km along the road at the start I must been as far back as 40th position at times. Hence I was getting some worried looks from those that knew me when we returned back past the start before heading down the Furber steps. But I felt in complete control and from checking my Suunto Ambit 2, knew I was running faster than the required 6min/km.

 

Photo by Aurora Images

Photo by Aurora Images

Due to inevitable traffic, I was taking things particularly easy down the Furber steps and then along the Landslide. The slightly technical nature of the Landslide combined with being only a meter behind the person in front of me meant that I was focusing on the ground right before my feet. Suddenly, I found myself lying on my back with the person in front now 10 meters up ahead. Startled, I jump back up and hit the top of my head on a thick, low hanging branch. “Well, that explains a lot!” I thought to myself. As I became aware of the fact that my forehead also hurt and my teeth felt as though my jaw had snapped shut. I quickly put the pieces of the puzzle together and glanced behind to check if anyone had witnessed me knock myself out on the branch. Luckily for my ego, the next person was only just coming into view (which was only a few meters back as this was quite a narrow and twisty part of single track). After a quick self-assessment to check that my vision and coordination were still fine, I kept on running, not wanting to focus on this minor incident.

 

As I continued along Federal pass I began to open up a little bit more and started to move my way up the field. Then along came Golden stairs, the first of several stair climbs for the day. I loved the chance to start power hiking and quickly caught several more runners, including eventual women’s third place Fernanda Maciel. But as the stairs ended and I started running up the incline that leads into the first checkpoint, I began to feel tightness in my hamstrings left over from the Australian Mountain Running Championships the previous weekend. I had thought I’d gotten over that just in time, but I wasn’t going to let it deter me.

 

I came into the first checkpoint (10.5km) just behind a large group (that included Núria Picas) in 1.01.15 (25th place). After quickly filling up my water bottle (passing several people through the checkpoint), I was on my way along Narrow Neck running at what felt like a very comfortable but steady pace.  Along the way, I caught up with Surf Coast Century race director Sam Maffett and began chatting as we made our way towards the always fun, Tarros Ladders (Sam would go on to have a great run and finish in 10th place).

 

Photo by Aurora Images

Photo by Aurora Images

Having missed the turnoff to Dunphy’s camp in 2012, I felt just a little bit uneasy running along the Meadlow Gap fire trail that came a bit after Tarros Ladders. Every potential turn off, I checked and then double checked for the crosses indicating not to go that way and would begin to freak out every time I hadn’t seen a course marking for more than 15 seconds. But of course, this is TNF100 and the course was ridiculously well marked, so I found my way to the second checkpoint without any drama.

 

My coach, Andy DuBois, was waiting at the checkpoint with some words of encouragement. I was sticking to my plan and although I was still outside of the top 10, I was feeling great and knew I would be probably catching more people soon. I purposefully didn’t mention my hamstrings, blocking out all negativity (or as some people might put it, I was “in denial”).

 

Next up was Ironpot ridge, which is always a major highlight of the course. The sound of didgeridoos filling the picturesque valley is a very unique experience, but the fact that course runs out and back along the same route meant I would be able to see how far ahead some of the other runners were (although I was focusing very much on my own race, I was still curious!). I could see that there were four runners less than 5 minutes ahead of me, but the others were so far ahead, I didn’t see them at all. But that didn’t matter, as I was still well on track to run under 10hours and was feeling good.

 

I had my first true indication that I was going to run faster than in 2013 when I found that I was running the whole way up the hill along Megalong Valley Road and feeling great doing so (albeit, quite aware of my hamstrings…but I had convinced myself that they would be able to handle it!). I figured I would probably be closing in on the runners I had seen ahead of me along Ironpot ridge and sure enough, as I made way back down towards checkpoint three, I could see runners up ahead.

 

Image by Roger Hanney

Image by Roger Hanney

I love checkpoint three. It’s always a bit of party there and this year was no exception. The atmosphere is so uplifting and the couple of kilometres after it always seem to fly thanks to the high from having just been cheered on by so many people. There was also a mandatory gear check at the checkpoint and this year I had come prepared! While last year I spent a while rummaging through my pack trying to locate the right piece of equipment and then putting it back, this year I was carrying a Hoka One One pack that seems to have been designed for gear checks! As it opens up completely with a single zip, I had arranged my gear so that every single item was readily on display. I could produce anything quickly, and without having to then rearrange my pack when I did it back up. As a result, I overtook another runner through the checkpoint.

 

Kokoda Spirit Racing teammate, Moe, quickly updated me on the other runners as I left the checkpoint and headed off towards Nellies Glen in a very positive state of mind. My favourite part of the TNF100 course was without a doubt, Nellies Glen. I think it is a well-timed opportunity to change from running to power hiking but I also reached Nellies in a hotter part of the day, so the cool change was very much welcomed. On the way up I passed the ever strong and positive Andy Lee.

 

I came into checkpoint 4 feeling fantastic. I was well on track to finish under 10 hours and yet still felt fresh. I couldn’t wait to get into the “business end” of the race and spent a grand total of 11 seconds at checkpoint 4 (which included crossing the hall) — credit goes to my mother for being such an efficient crew (I suppose there is no one else more practiced at feeding me from a bottle)!

 

Photo by Aurora Images

Photo by Aurora Images

Regardless of how good I was feeling, my descent down the Giant Stairway was rather slow. Perhaps is due to a lack of practice on similar stairs but I simply couldn’t travel down the narrow stairs particularly quickly. On the bright side, it meant I could enjoy the wonderful views of the iconic Three Sisters. Furthermore, it meant I felt even better when I hit Dardenelles Pass below. It wasn’t too long until fellow Hoka One One athlete Scott Hawker came into sight on our way up the stairs that lead into the Prince Harry Cliff Walk. It was unfortunate to hear that he was having stomach problems, but I reassured him I had suffered the same thing at a similar point in the race last year and it worked itself out in the end.

 

I actually remember very little of what happened over the next 10km, but I do remember feeling fantastic. By the time I came across Andy DuBois and the Ultra168 boys at the 75km mark I was about to move up into 4th place and was becoming genuinely surprised at how good I was still feeling. My hamstring tightness had only worsened a little bit but nothing else was really hurting yet. It was such a stark contrast to how I felt three quarters into the Buffalo Stampede! Of course, the toughest leg was still to come.

 

I passed Jono O’Loughlin as we made our way along Tableland Rd, but I could hear that he wasn’t going to let me go so easily. I tried to focus on what was in front of me, rather than behind, but I wasn’t pulling away. In the end, I think it was another quick checkpoint transition (thanks Mum!), that got me away.

 

It pretty much goes without saying that I felt considerably better running DOWN Kedumba than I did running UP it the year before and was just hoping my legs would still feel strong when I hit the bottom.

 

And they did…for about 100m of uphill running. Then suddenly, I found myself REALLY wanting to walk up the gentle slope rather than run. I stubbornly persisted as my run deteriorated to a shuffle. By now I was doing my best to block out all memories of collapsing at the Buffalo Stampede with a mantra of “Relentless Forward Progression”. But it wasn’t too long until Jono passed me and by the time we had a short section of downhill, he was pretty much out of sight. I had to force myself to run the downhill…I was too stubborn to walk! I don’t think I was moving too quickly, but at least I was running. However, when the course turned to climbing once more, I was walking pretty much everything. On the occasions there was some flat respite where I would force myself into a shuffle, but simply didn’t seem to have the strength to run uphill. “How could things have changed so quickly?

 

This painfully slow ascent continued until, with 4km to go, out of nowhere, Quentin Stephan passed me, running incredibly well. Instantaneously, a switch was flicked in my brain; I was being chased by a French lion and needed to run!!! And somehow, I was running up inclines that before I was struggling to walk up and feeling good doing so. I spurted pass Quentin and didn’t look back. I had no idea where this energy had come from but I was going use every bit of it!

 

With 1km to go I hit the Furber stairs; nearly 900 steps just to put the nail in the coffin! I was cramping, but I was giving it everything I had and was breathing hard. I refused to look for Quentin, so as far as I was concerned, he was right behind me. I was so relieved when I hit the top and it was only with 50m to go that I finally looked back to check whether a dreaded sprint finish would be required (as had been the case for Andrew Tuckey and Stu Gibson!). I crossed the finish line in 9.56.16, and lay down next to Brendan Davies. I was spent, but VERY satisfied.  I had achieved all I set out to do; run my own race and go under 10 hours.

Photo by Mick Donges

Photo by Mick Donges

Looking back, I am really pleased with how my day unfolded. It was the complete opposite of what I did at the Buffalo Stampede…and that was the point! I can’t be sure why didn’t feel strong on the final climb despite feeling so good just 10km earlier. While the 1000m descent probably had something to do with it, I suspect that it was actually largely mental as I had been telling myself leading up to the race that I would reach 80km feeling good and then see what happened. As a result I may have just not been prepared psychologically for that final climb which was why my legs seemed to just give up, even though it was evident that I still had plenty of energy. I will take a lot of confidence away from the race and feel that I will be better mentally prepared for future ultras because of it. Above all I had a really fun day and I am incredibly grateful to all the event organisers, supporters on the course and to all the other runners and crews who make the race so wonderful!

 

 

 

And I am pleased to say that the women’s shorts worked brilliantly…no chafing!

Australian Mountain Running Championships

Four years ago, I had stood at the same spot, about to endure my first mountain running event at Mt Tennent, just a short drive from the nation’s capital. There was no way I could have known at the time, the effect that race would have on my life. A second place in the under 20 division of the Australian Mountain Running Championships would earn me a spot on the Australian team to compete at the World Mountain Running Championships in Slovenia. In turn, that trip would inspire a passion for the mountains that still burns strong today. This time, I was returning to compete in the open division, no longer a Junior, having spent many more hours playing in the mountains since. But with The North Face 100 (Australia) in 6 days time having been my training focus, I still had little idea of how I would perform.

 Australian_Mountain_Running_championships_2014_Mens_Start

I felt incredibly calm as the count down towards the race start commenced. No nervousness, just eagerness to start the uphill run. When the race began, I made sure I was in contact with the front group consisting of 2012 Australian Champion Jordan Harries, stair running world champion Mark Bourne and previous Australian Mountain running representatives Nick Wightman and Charlie Brooks. The whole race takes place on a dirt road that winds its way up Mt Tennent over 6km. In order to make up a total climb of 1000m, the 11km course starts with 2.5km up the road, followed by a descent back to start before ascending all the way to the top. The first kilometre was a fairly gradual climb and Jordan Harries started to pull away as Nick Wightman and I led the chase pack. But the next 1.5km before the turn around was considerably steeper and Nick began to pull away from me, while Mark and I began a game of swapping places.

Photo by Tom Brazier

Photo by Tom Brazier

 

 The 2.5km of downhill that followed was my chance to really open up. I quickly pulled away from Mark, before catching and passing Nick and Jordan (the Huakas were just eating up the descent!). I reached the turn around/start with a 30m lead and was feeling fantastic. As I began the next 6km climb I could feel that my quads definitely had more lactic in them than on the first ascent, but still felt like I was moving well. However, it wasn’t too long before Nick surged past, looking very strong. I tried to stick with him, but he shortly pulled away. I was telling myself at the time that this was ok as since I was trained for longer races, I still might be able to catch back up in the second half of the climb. In about the same spot where Mark and I had been swapping places on the first climb, we commence the same game of Mark pulling away on the steeper stuff and me catching and passing on the easier stuff. By about 8km in the race, Mark had pulled away properly but I was keeping him in my sights.

 Ben_Duffus_Aus_Mountain_Running_Championships_Tongue

As the race finishes at the top of the mountain and the only way back down is via the same road we were racing on, the competitors from the earlier races were starting to pass us on their way back down. From their cheers of support I deduced that 4th place was probably about 50m behind, but I didn’t look back, I was focused on chasing Mark. Every time there was a slight downhill I would make up a bit of ground on him, but every time the ascent became particularly steep, he would pull away a little more. By now my quads were burning and despite the short distance, I was starting to power hike some of the steeper pinches to mix up the muscles I was engaging.

 

With 1km to go, I told myself that there would be no more hiking as I made a final effort towards making up the approximately 100m gap Mark now had on me. My legs were burning, but I embraced the pain. “Just another Mt Coot-tha rep,” I was telling myself, “You’ve done this hundreds of times before!” The gap between Mark and I didn’t shorten, but the gap between the finish line and I did. As the tower that marks the summit loomed into sight, I took my first glance back to confirm that I did indeed have 50m gap on 4th place, before surging up the rocky road to the summit. I crossed the finish line in 55min 40sec, feeling just a bit relieved that the burning in my quads could now stop.

 Australian_Mountain_Running_Championships_2014_Mens_podium_Ben_Duffus

It was great to reunite with many of my friends from the 2010 and 2011 World Mountain Running Championships and the fact I came away with an Australian Championship bronze medal made the trip even better. It was definitely a great confidence boost going into TNF100 and a reminder of how fun it can be to still dabble in these shorter events!

Training diary: 18th to 27st April

Friday 18th April: W/U exercises + 90min on Mt Coot-tha including 43min of hard uphill/downhill reps + W/D exercises

I was feeling great in today’s session and had a lot of fun going hard on my local hill.

 

Saturday 19th April: W/U exercises + 4 hours at Springbrook and Purlingbrook including 60min stair reps + W/D exercises

Met up with KSR team mate Caine Warburton for today’s run.  I had wanted to come out to Spingbrook/Purlingbrook for a while now as it one of the few locations in South-East Queensland that has a descent amount of stairs to train on.  In previous years I haven’t done any stair training before TNF100, so I want to change that for this year! I felt strong the whole time and felt by the end like I was gaining some more confidence descending on stairs (I have previously felt better ascending stair than descending them).

 

Sunday 20th April: W/U exercises + 4 hours on Mt Warning including 60min of hard uphill + W/D exercises

Today’s run was about getting use to long (1000m+ ascent) but runnable climbs (and descents) since I felt at the Buffalo Stampede that I was quite comfortable on the steep stuff but the long runnable climbs/descents really got to me. I felt really good today which is an encouraging sign.

 

Monday 21st April: 60 min cycling on Mt Coot-tha + Strength and Core exercises

I was surprised at the lack of soreness from the weekend.

 

Tuesday 22nd April: W/U exercises + 2hr30min min on Mt Coolum including 102min of hard uphill/downhill reps + W/D exercises

Today was another great stair training session. I was very consistent in my times for the reps throughout the session and felt like I gained even more confidence on the descents.

 

Wednesday 23rd April: W/U exercises + 90 min on Mt Coot-tha + W/D exercises

Just an easy run today to recover from yesterday’s hard session

 

Thursday 24th April: 60 min cycling on Mt Coot-tha + Strength and Core exercises

I was feeling nice and recovered in today’s session and looking forward to a big few days of training to come.

 

Friday 25th April: W/U exercises + 2hr30min min on Mt Coot-tha including 60min tempo session + W/D exercises

Today kicked off what will be my biggest 3 days of training for TNF100. Overall it was a great session and I really enjoyed moving quickly over a variety of terrain.

 

Saturday 26th April: W/U exercises + 7 hours on Mt Warning + W/D exercises

Again, I met up with Caine and we ran together for the first 4 hours but we probably went a bit harder than I would have done so by myself for a 7 hour run. So the last 3 hours were a bit slower (not by choice!), but I was really happy with it because I felt like I got to go into “ultra-mode” for those last 3 hours. I was very lucky to bump into a local trail runner in my final hour as he helped me to keep working hard when I needed it the most!

 

Sunday 27th April: W/U exercises + 4 hours at Pollies including 60min of hard uphill + W/D exercises

I was very glad to be running with Caine today as he really helped push me after a long outing the day before. Having said that, we still ran much more much conservatively today! Even though the pace wasn’t especially quick, I was surprised at how strong I was still feeling on all the climbs.

 

Thanks Caine for some great runs!

Thanks Caine for some great runs!

Total Time Running: 27 hours

Total Time Cycling: 2 hours

Total Ascent: 16 495m (measured by Suunto Ambit2)

 

This block of training has given me a lot of confidence going into TNF100 for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I actually now have a little bit of stair training in my legs as well as several long sustained climbs/descents. And secondly, I really felt in the last weekend like I found my “go-all-day” gear that never seemed to kick in at the Buffalo Stampede. I’m sure I will need it at TNF100! As always, my training program was created by Andy Dubois at Mile27 Personal Training.

Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon

I could feel the warm ground against my right cheek and the sun on my back. For the first time all day I noticed the sound of birds singing in the distance. Such a peaceful moment was in stark contrast to the prior events that had lead to it. This was the Buffalo Stampede, Australia’s first sanctioned SkyRunning race and I was supposed to be charging up a mountain, not lying down! It would be another 4 hours until I could even stand unassisted, but all I knew at the time was that I was completely spent…and I loved it.

 

The day’s journey had begun before the sun was even up. Rain from the previous day had left the first climb up Mystic Mountain covered in a slick layer of  mud and spotted with puddles that would only appear in the light of my headlamp when I was almost on top of them. For this reason we were all being extremely cautious and let Mick Donges, a man who know the course well, lead the way and I followed closely behind in second place. 50m from the summit Caine Warburton came charging past, making a bolt for the first summit in the King of the Mountain challenge. At the top, Caine, Moritz and I all made a break from the rest of the field, purposely trying to give ourselves some space for the descent down Baker’s Gully. Given the steep and slippery nature of Baker’s Gully, we had figured it would  be safest to ensure we weren’t trying to descent among a large group of runners!

 

Caine led KSR‘s charge down the muddy mountain, while Moritz was behind me. A couple of times I ended up sliding down on my side, but could always bounce straight back up, hardly losing any forward momentum. By the bottom their was already a fair separation between Caine, Moe and I and it stayed that way as we made our way around the flat kilometer at the bottom that lead to the steep climb up to Clear Spot.

 

Photo by Ultra168

Photo by Ultra168

As soon as the course kicked upwards, my hands were on my knees for a long-hiking-slog towards the summit. This is the sort of terrain that I love and I was reeling Caine in quickly. We encouraged each other as I passed but neither of had a lot of breath to spare! I was glad that I had checked out the course earlier in the year as the several false summits would have probably done my head in otherwise. At the top I didn’t even look back to see who was behind me, instead diving straight into the descent towards Buckland Valley.

 

The combination of spectacular views of low lying clouds in the valley below, with being able to open up and run fast down the gradual descent made the approach towards “Warner Wall” one of the most memorable parts of the race. Coming down the “wall” was fast and fun and I past the spot which would be my final undoing blissfully unaware. It was along the flat stretch of road that lead into the Buckland valley checkpoint that Dakota Jones caught up with me and we began chatting as we headed towards Keating Ridge.

 

We were both breathing hard as we made a solid push up the gradual ascent of Keating Ridge. The small gap I made on Dakota running back down was quickly gobbled up when we hit the road again the lead us to the Eurobin Creek checkpoint at the base of Mt Buffalo. Although I thought I was moving quickly through the checkpoint, Dakota ran straight through, being looked after by his crew on the fly. By the time I left the checkpoint (less than a minute later), he was out of sight.

 

Photo by Ultra168

Photo by Ultra168

I didn’t have to worry about being alone for too long as I could see Blake Hose was closing in behind me. When I stopped at a road crossing for a convoy of cars, Blake finally did catch me and we set off up the “Big Walk” in pursuit of Dakota. Near the top after a series of switchbacks, I looked around and couldn’t see Blake anymore. But I knew there was a good chance of him making a surge later in the day, so I didn’t let my pace drop.

 

I came into the checkpoint at the Chalet on top of Mt Buffalo to be informed that Dakota was now 8-9 minutes ahead. He must have flown up the Big Walk! I was just hoping I could reel in some of that time on the way back down.

 

Photo by Ultra168

Photo by Ultra168

For the first time in my life, going up the couple of stairs that lead from the Chalet to Chalwell Galleries, I experienced some cramps/spasms in both my quads and adductors. Having watched Dan Nunan cramp every step of the last 40km of the Kokoda Challenge last year, this had me slightly worried. Fortunately as soon as I reach the top of the stairs the cramping stopped and did not return.

 

Manoeuvring through the rocks that form the Chalwell Galleries was both fun and a welcomed chance to slow down. Returning towards the Chalet, I began to see the other runners heading in the opposite direction. Seeing that Caine and Moe were in 4th and 5th place respectively had me very optimistic for a good result for KSR!

 

As I passed through the Chalet checkpoint for the second time, I noted that I passed through the SkyMarathon course in about 4.27 and was informed I had gained a minute on Dakota. I was feeling good and looking forward to the long descent!

 

A couple of kilometers into the descent I heard Blake coming up behind me. It wasn’t long until he caught me, but we decided to run together and I continued to lead. I may have even *somewhat boldly* suggested that we should work together to catch Dakota.

 

The rain from the previous day had had left a stream of water running down the granite face of Mt Buffalo. I was just thinking how well my Hoka One One Huakas seemed to grip to the wet rock when I suddenly heard Blake crash down behind me. I quickly turned around to run back to help him, seeing that he was clearly in a lot of pain. However, a couple of runners coming in the opposite direction got to him quicker than I did and told me to keep going. I set off hopping that there would be people at the upcoming road crossing that I could send to help him. Fortunately that was not necessary as it wasn’t long before Blake had caught up with me again. The shot of adrenaline seemed to make Blake run even faster and this time he took the lead and lead the way to Eurobin Creek.

 

And that was where the wheels began to fall off. Despite feeling good going INTO the checkpoint, I was shuffling OUT of the checkpoint. The gradual incline of Keating Ridge was taking its toll but I stubbornly tried to keep running. I felt like my hamstrings had packed up and left me! Up ahead I could see Blake was combining walking and running to pull away from me and eventually I realised that my shuffle was no faster than a walk, so I might as well save some energy and start doing the same.

 

Coming down the other side of the ridge I could run again, but I knew I wasn’t moving nearly as quickly as before. I hoped this inability to run would pass but when the sweeper coming in the opposite direction informed me that Blake already had a 3minute lead, I knew I would have a lot of work to do if I was to see him again!

 

Along the road that lead back into the Buckland valley checkpoint I was just hoping that things would turn around when I hit the steep stuff and would start hiking again. Matt Cooper appeared in a car beside me and offered some words of encouragement. These along was more encouragement from my parents and Dave Coombs (who had unfortunately withdrawn from the race) at the Buckland Valley checkpoint had me in a positive state of mind, but my legs just wouldn’t cooperate!

 

The miniscule incline of the forestry road heading towards the climb to Clear Spot felt harder than the Big Walk had. My feet were barely being lifted off the ground and I was tripping on rocks so small that I hadn’t even been aware that they were there when I ran the same path earlier in the day. But I refused to start walking; not until I thought it was steep enough to justify it!

 

Finally, I hit “Warner Wall”. This was my moment of truth. Ever since Eurobin Creek I had been telling myself I would feel good again once I was on steep terrain and could hike again. It was such a relief to start walking, but I still wasn’t feeling any better. “It just needs to get steeper”, I told myself. But as incline steepened, my cadence dropped to a mere trudge. My hands were on my knees, not for added propulsion, but to stop myself from falling over. Another one of the small rocks that had taunted me on the forestry road was my undoing and I tripped, stumbled, and fell onto my hands and knees. With all my strength I tried to stand back up, but I wasn’t strong enough. So I did what I could; I crawled. Like an infant I started crawling up the mountain. Looking back I know this meant I was done, but at the time I had one clear focus: continue moving forward by any means necessary!

 

After about 50m of dragging my tired body up the mountain, eventually I could no longer even push myself forwards with my legs. They were slipping out from underneath me and only my arms were holding me up. But those gave out too and I came crashing down onto my face. After a few moments of getting over the shock of what had just happened, I tried to get up, but couldn’t. I was done.

 

After several minutes of trying to resist the urge to just fall asleep (I figured consciousness was my friend!), I realised that Caine would be approaching. I knew he would stop to look after me if I hadn’t yet rung for help, so I mustered up what strength I could to roll onto my side so I could unclip my pack and access my phone. Thankfully Telstra had reception so I was able to call my parents (who were crewing for me) and get them to come pick me up and alert the race officials of what had happened.

 

Just as I had expected, Caine was the first to find me and I could hear the panic in his voice, but I was able to convince him to go on and I kept waiting. Grant Guise and Andrew Tuckey were the next to pass by and again, while both offered to stop and help, I convinced them to go on. The conversation I had with Brendan Davies, when he found me, went something like this:

Brendan: “Is that you Caine?”

Me:  “Nope.”

Brendan: “Ben?”

Me: “Yep.”

Brendan: “Do you need help?”

Me: “I’ve rung for help. Keep going.”

Brendan: “Do you need water?”

Me: “I’ve got water.”

Brendan: “Do you need food?”

Me: “I’ve got gels.”

Brendan: “Take it easy then.”

Me: “I think I’m taking it pretty easy.”

 

It goes to show just how supportive the trail running community is, that all these elite athletes were ready to sacrifice their own race (despite the many hours they would have put into preparing for it), to help me. I was very relieved when I finally heard my parents’ voices and although they pretty much had to carry me to the car (which isn’t easy on a steep slope!), we got there safely. Within minutes I was planning for next year’s race.

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At the finish line waiting to watch Caine take out second place

Looking back, and after several conversations with my coach Andy DuBois, we’re pretty sure we know what went wrong. I’m not going to list those reasons, because that would be making excuses. On the day I gave it everything I had and came up short. Congratulations to everyone who managed to finish the race; I am truly jealous and plan to join your ranks next year. Thank you so much to everyone who helped to put the race together, and to all those who supported me and were wishing me well on the day.

Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon

As the Queenstown Rafting shuttle bus filled with eager runners wound its way down the twists and turns of Skippers Road, my excitement for what the next few hours held for me grew. Animal shaped silhouettes cast by the rock formations that littered the canyon were the only thing that turned my gaze from the vast mountain range that loomed before us. My year so far had been rather subdued running wise due to an Achilles problem that developed at the end of 2013. Fortunately through the fantastic work of my coach Andy DuBois and the physiotherapist at Allsports Indooroopilly, I was feeling that it should be able to handle the 42km and 2400m of vertical gain/descent of the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon. I could tell that my father sitting next to me was also being thrilled by the beauty of the landscape and I fed off his positive energy to keep any doubts at bay.

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The race commenced with competitors in high spirits after a rousing Haka saw us off. I tucked in behind fellow Aussie Blake Hose as another Aussie, Matty Abel lead the charge from the start line. Within a couple of minutes I had taken my first fall of the day but luckily nothing but my pride was hurt. It was a stark reminder that I would have to sacrifice some of the time I would like to spend admiring the scenery watching my footing instead.

Photo from Matt Wong Photography

Photo from Matt Wong Photography

It wasn’t long before Blake, Grant and I were running single file along a narrow track with steep rock walls on one side and a drop off on the other. Having run the event before, Grant knew what to expect but Blake and I had no idea what we were in for along this stretch of trails that would be inaccessible any other day of the year. Around every corner lay some new spectacular sight and we were both too busy chatting about how awesome the course was to really think about “racing” each other! Given that I had done more hiking than running in the lead up to the event, I wasn’t too surprised to find that I felt most comfortable on the uphills, especially the really steep ones, but was struggling a little bit to keep up with Blake and Grant on the descents and flats.

Despite regularly spaced pink tape marking the course, whenever I was out in front I seemed to always head off in the wrong direction, leading Blake and Grant astray. Inevitably one of them would spot the pink tape, realising we were 20-50m off course and we would then have to scramble up the side of a hill to rejoin the correct route. After enough of these instances we agreed that unless I could see the next bit of tape then I should let one of them lead the way! We seemed to be on a fair rotation of the lead where I would lead on the ascents, Blake would lead the flats and Grant would be the first bombing down the descents.

Eventually the trail ran out and we were faced with a near vertical wall of tussocks lined with course markings leading upwards. The grass made for good handholds as we scaled the steep ridge, making our way towards the water drop at the summit.

Photo from Matt Wong Photography

Photo from Matt Wong Photography

The three of us stuck together until the following water stop a few kilometres later, at which point Blake and Grant ran straight through and hurtled down the hill other the side while I quickly grabbed a drink. They already had a 50m gap on me and despite my best efforts I quickly realised they were pulling away from me. The lack of recent running meant I simply didn’t have the speed to match them, so I put any notion of catching them out of my mind and instead focused on simply running comfortably and enjoying this amazing place. My legs just couldn’t push very hard so I told myself, “you don’t need legs; running ultras is all in head!” On went the internal iPod with the theme song to the Lord of the Rings on repeat as I entered the first of many forest sections that appeared so mystical, I half expected an elf to pop out from behind one of the trees.

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It no longer mattered I couldn’t see Blake or Grant; I was having a ball. A short section of loose scree and dirt was reminiscent of the fun I had the Kawerau King of the Mountain practically skiing down the dirt. At the bottom of this descent I was somewhat surprised when the course then appeared to go around a corner, involving wading through the river for 100m or so. Fortunately this was not another instance of me missing a bit of tape and on the other side there was a ladder up a small cliff which lead to more beautiful forest trails.

After the forest the course turned into dirt roads and I was greatly surprised when several kilometres later, as I commenced the biggest climb of the day that I could actually see Grant only a few minutes up ahead. I kept chugging along at the same intensity as I had been and eventually caught up with him near the top. Further along the undulating ridgeline I could see Blake hoping along the rocks, almost at the summit. Despite still feeling quite comfortable at this stage, I simply lacked the ability run much faster and really had no clue whether I was gaining or losing ground on Blake.

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From the summit, the course followed a fence line down to a bridge crossing the creek below.  It was just before reaching this bridge that I suddenly saw Blake only a hundred meters ahead. Climbing up from the creek on the other side of the bridge I finally caught up with him and offered some words of encouragement trying to rally him to run along with me for the final 8km stretch. However, that wasn’t to be.

The course finished with 5km of flat running beside and through Moonlight creek. The first creek crossing was refreshing, though I must admit; as the number of crossing reached double digits I was starting to stiffen up a little from the cool water! But nothing was going to dampen my spirits and as the finish line came into sight only a kilometre up ahead I was feeling the best I had all day.

Finishing in 4hr 42min, I felt elated to not only have been able to experience this fantastic piece of New Zealand without my Achilles playing up, but to do so in first place. Several minutes later Blake Hose crossed the line to secure an Aussie 1-2, with Grant Guise securing a spot for the Kiwis on the male podium.

Looking back on the fun filled trip that was the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon 2014, I can safely label the race as the most scenic I have ever done. Furthermore, it felt great to be racing again, pain free, and filled me with high hopes for 2014!

Photo from Matt Wong Photography

Photo from Matt Wong Photography

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