While I had always planned to save myself for the Skyrunning World Championships in July, 2016 hadn’t exactly been going to plan with DNFs in both the Ultra Easy and Buffalo Stampede. So, Ultra Trail Australia (UTA) would be my last chance to test myself in a 100km race before heading over to Spain. Of course doubt was starting to creep in; could I still push myself like I use to? Was it really my body or was it my mind that had been spent? With this lingering in the back of my head, I spent the 5 weeks between Buffalo and UTA focusing on developing my weakness on the flatter, more runnable terrain. It wasn’t going to be enough for me just to finish; on what would be my fourth run at this event, I needed to push myself harder than ever before…only then would I be satisfied. In my last race on the UTA course I could hold my own with the top runners on the stair cases, but would watch them disappear off ahead in between. I wasn’t going to let that happen again, as I knew I’d need to keep in touch with the leaders to find that extra little bit more within.
Hence, when we set off in rather pleasant conditions (as opposed to the usual near freezing temperatures) along the 4km ‘road warm-up’ I made sure to tuck myself into the top 10 and keep the leaders in sight. However, on the following descent of Furber steps I let them pull away (as I never mind giving up a minute or two going down the stairs if it leaves me much fresher legs for later). This meant I had already lost sight of the front runners by the time I reached Federal Pass at the bottom, but I knew they could be too far ahead. During the short stretch of the Landslide I took my only tumble of the day (after making the silly mistake of following a photographer off to the side of the track!), but other than that I was just trying to hold a steady pace on my way to the Golden Stairs, which lead to the first Checkpoint.
I came into the 11km Checkpoint in 10th place – exactly where I wanted to be – while Yun YanQiao came flying past just as I was leaving. For most of the relatively flat stretch along Narrow Neck I just kept pace with Yun and slowly but steadily we started to reel in the runners in front of us (in hindsight this wasn’t really a sustainable pace, but it was nice to see that my speed work had paid off!). We passed Jordi Gamuti Baus and spent periods of running with Andrius Ramonas and Rhett Gibson while I could see Ryan Sandes up ahead. However, I finally dropped back a little bit before Yun caught up with Ryan.
During the descent off Narrow Neck (including the famous Tarros Ladders), Jordi came steaming past, revealing in the more technical running. When I caught up with him again, on the dirt road at the bottom, we had a brief conversation bonding over our desire for more of the rougher stuff! I ended up coming through the Dunphy’s Camp (31km) still in 10th place but could now see at least 3 running in front of me, and passed Rhett almost immediately after exiting the checkpoint.
The Ironpot Ridge section is always a highlight of this course. The distinct sound of didgeridoos permeates through the bush creating a uniquely Australian atmosphere. It also is the only opportunity to see for myself how far ahead the other runners are and how they are faring. Mario Mendoza was so far ahead that he must have already descended off the ridge, but I could see that I was only 3 minutes behind the chase pack consisting of Scotty Hawker, Pau Capell, Jono O’Loughlin and Freddy Thevenin. This was good; I was feeling good and hoping I might be able to pick up another place before the Six Foot Track checkpoint (I did, though I was surprised to see that it was Freddy, who seemed to be going through a bit of a rough patch).
Checkpoint 3 (44.6km) is another (of many) highlights of this race. For about a kilometer before the checkpoint I could hear the excitement of the gathered crowds, however I wouldn’t stay for long, doing the mandatory gear check and swapping my bottles and nutrition with my crew (thanks Dad!) as quickly as I could. I left the checkpoint looking forward to Nellies Glen, which somehow always manages to serve as a pick-me-up after the flatter running along the valley floor.
It was on the way up Nellies Glen that I passed both Ryan Sandes and Jono, the latter suffering such severe cramping that I found myself baulking at the sight of his calves constricting with each stride. There was nothing I could do for him but offer words of encouragement and wish him all the best.
Coming into the Aquatic Centre checkpoint (55km) I could see Andrius just up ahead and Yun just leaving the checkpoint, but I managed to overtake Andrius through the checkpoint and set my sights on chasing Yun. With Andrius hot on my heels, we set off in pursuit through Katoomba and along the Cliff Top Walk.
By now the day was starting to warm up a little and for the first time ever at this event I actually took my gloves off (I get unusually cold hands and coming from Brisbane I’m still use to running in mid-20 degree Celsius temperatures). Of course, this lovely weather meant that the Cliff Top Walk was particularly busy with tourists appreciating the regions breath-taking beauty. Among all the exclamations “excuse me” and “runner coming through”, I caught up with Yun and then Scotty soon afterwards. I was feeling really strong at this stage and was starting think about the two runners ahead of me.
Although I had pulled away a bit along the Cliff Top, both Scotty and Yun caught up with me while I took my time descending the Giant Stairway. However, as soon as we hit the bottom I was feeling good and picked up the pace a bit through Leura forest and ascending up past the waterfalls. However, this feeling didn’t last and Yun caught me once I was back up onto the Cliff Top Walk, and then the struggle really started to set in. This was exactly the sort of moment that I’d been mentally preparing myself for; 65km down, 35km to go, Yun and I both hurting, both pushing, neither wanting to be the first to slow. We passed Mario at the 70km mark (he was walking back to the 69km water stop) and kept on pushing. Alas, after several (stair filled) kilometers of this, I could feel that I was on the wrong side my “red line” and let Yun pull away. I even took the opportunity to stop for a pee just to make sure he was out of sight so that I could return to my internal bubble. I had to trust that I would be thankful for this decision when I later started to climb out of Jamison Valley.
On the run into the Queen Victoria Hospital (78km) I was passing many of the UTA 50km runners who were all cheering and giving me updates on Yun and Pau. The atmosphere at the checkpoint was so amazing that I was completely unware that I overtook Yun as I ran through. I could tell I was becoming less respondent whenever anyone asked me how I was feeling, as I focused all my will power and energy into forward progress.
I was picking up on the long descent down Kedumba Pass, but Yun still came flying past halfway down, clearly on a mission to improve on his third placing at this race in 2015. I let him go, backing myself for the climb out of the valley, but also remembering how much I struggled through Jamison Valley in 2014.
I felt relieved when I finally reached Jamison Creek and could begin the climb to the finish. From there on there was no point conserving myself; it was all about giving everything I had left for the next 13km. Unlike 2014, I was mostly running, but just like 2014 I was hurting. There were plenty of 50km runners on course so I would keep focusing on catching the next one, and then the next one, and then the next one, all while they cheered me on. By the time I reached the 91km water stop I was getting reports that Yun was 5 minutes ahead of me. The last time I had seen him, he’d been flying down Kedumba and currently I was struggling and faced with several hundred more meters of climbing. I didn’t expect to be seeing him again.
The next 4 km leading to the Sewage Works (95km) were a slog, and I was hiking more than I wanted to be, but despite the not too steep grade this was still faster method of progression for me as my legs no longer wanted to run. I was throwing every mental trick I knew at the climb; counting to ten, running tree to tree, reminding myself I’d done this climb before in a similar situation, reminding myself how many times I’d run the distance left before, ect.
After the Sewage Works cramps started to pierce both my calves. But the course also flattens a bit until the Furber steps, so walking wasn’t an option for me. Making do with my altered gait (due to both feet being locked in place by the cramps) I kept making my way, meter by meter, towards the finish line. The faster I ran the sooner the pain would be over.
At the base of the Furber steps I received reports Yun was just up ahead (75 seconds). To be honest I thought these were lies to try to get me to push hard to finish, but that didn’t matter as I was going to give those last 951 steps everything I had anyway (hiking up steps is my strength on this course, so I no excuse not to!). To my surprise, a couple of hundred meters further on, I spotted Yun…and I was moving faster. Knowing I could no longer run properly, due to cramping on every step, any sort of sprint finish was out of the question, so I had nothing to lose by throwing everything I had left at these final few hundred stairs.
I was lucky enough to catch Yun at a point on the stairs wide enough to pass. From then on there was no looking back and no relenting. I assume the atmosphere along the finish chute was amazing (as it always is), but I was unaware…I was solely focused on each stride being as fast as I could make it. I collapsed across the finish line in a series of spasms and cramps in a time of 9:39:25 (nearly 20 minutes after Pau, who had had an amazing run all day). Two and half minutes later Yun finished, also completely spent.
Of course I am ecstatic to have continued to improve both my time and placing on this course, and I feel very satisfied that I dug deeper than ever before. This race served as a reminder that although there are some races which can seem effortless, often in order to reach one’s potential on the day involves being prepared to hurt. It feels fantastic to have had a good run after a fairly lackluster start to the year. But, the perfectionist in me sees so much room for improvement in this race. But that will have to wait for another year.