Despite the late start to my preparation due to injury, I had managed put together a couple of quality weeks in the lead up. Nowhere near the volume of last year, and I certainly didn't feel as fit as I did last year, but I had decided that instead of lean & mean, this year I was going in fat & happy. My biggest week was 110km, where the previous year I had topped 150km a couple of times. But the biggest change was bringing the 15km tempo road runs back into my program. These fast, hilly runs kept my turnover high, primed my quads on the hard surfaces, and left me free to focus on stairs during my weekend long runs.
I had decided that this year I didn't want to fly the day before racing, so I flew up Thursday night and stayed in Sydney. This gave me the opportunity for a magic morning shake out run around Darling Harbour, The Opera House, The Rocks and Botanic Gardens. This, combined with a delicious breakfast at Portobellos, put me in a great frame of mind by the time I hopped on the train at Central and headed to Katoomba late morning.
Friday Morning at The Rocks, Sydney
I arrived at the motel about 2:30pm, and got all my drop bags ready before going down to register. Two of my last year's travelling companions, Andy & Dave, arrived just as I was about to leave, so I hung with them for a bit while they unpacked, enjoying having some company after 24 hours of "alone time". Registration was busy with plenty to see at the expo, but I made a point of not hanging around this year, and as soon as I had my race pack, it was straight back to the motel. I think it's easy to get caught up in the hype of these big events, and while you want to enjoy the atmosphere, you need to be conscious of how much energy it takes out of you.
Arriving at Katoomba Station
The rest of the evening was pretty cruisy, we headed up to the main street of Katoomba for some pasta, then had a couple of beers watching the footy, before a final check of race kit, and a suprisingly good night's sleep. I woke before the alarm next morning, still feeling relaxed, but focused for the day ahead. There was a part of me that was still worried whether my groin injury would hold together for 100km, and I think that played a big part in keeping my expectations low. Add in the rushed preparation, and I was thinking a sub-14 buckle would be a good result, and if I got near last year's 12:44, I would be rapt.
We got to the start line half an hour before I was due to head off in the first wave at 6:20am. This gave me plenty of time for a nice long warm up, which was just as well, because it was bloody freezing. I positioned myself a bit further back in the chute this year, determined not to get too carried away on the fast 4km road start, thinking the whole time "relax, relax, relax". And when RD Tom Landon-Smith sent us away, in a move that will shock anyone familar with my racing style, relax is exactly what I managed to do.
We completed the out & back on the road, and started the drop down the Furber Stairs, and I found myself running easily behind U.S. star Amy Sproston. I had worked hard on my stair descending, and keeping pace was no bother. I could probably have gone a little faster, but the pace was comfortable and I didn't want to get in the way of one of the race favourites, so I gave her a bit of room and just enjoyed the early part of the race, especially the bit of rock hopping through the Landslide.
The big climb up the Golden Stairs I passed a few without spiking the heart rate, but noticed a problem which turned out to be my only real issue for the day. My socks, which I had run 100's of kms in the same brand with no problems, had got wet and were slipping down at the back, leaving my heel rubbing on my shoe. While it didn't really bother me until the last 15k, I lost a lot of skin on both heels, and the wounds took a month to fully heal.
The next 10k along the Narrowneck firetrail I was careful to take it easy, as this was where I had fallen last year, and just cruised along, so I was surprised to catch up to Andy halfway, who was complaining about his broken headphones, and Stephen Rennick, who was having early stomach issues which is never a good sign. Andy took off pretty quickly shortly after, but I ran with Steve for a while, and another good runner from Melbourne - Simon Ferraro. The pace got a little uncomfortable after a while though (Steve runs a 2:40 marathon), so I eased back and let them go.
Cruising along Narrowneck
After hating it last year, I really enjoyed the techy approach to the Tarros Ladders, and then the fun descent and climb over the ridge. Then it was another stretch of firetrail before we hit CP2 at Dunphy's Camp (31k) where I was quickly in and out before starting the climb up to Ironpot Ridge. I had caught Steve again, who was having a really rough day, and we hiked up together before getting to the out and back section where the marshalls were basically screaming at us to make sure we turned left. I couldn't understand why they were so agitated until I heard about the controversy later on with the ultimate winner Dylan Bowman and two of the other internationals missing this section, and receiving a time penalty. Again, I had hated this section last year as the effects of my too-fast start hit me, but this year I loved it - bouncing across the rocks, then slip-sliding all the way down the descent. It was at this point I think I realised I was going to have a much better day, as I remembered how bad I had felt at this spot last year.
I hit a bit of a flat spot on Megalong Valley Road, and got passed by about 4 or 5 people coming in to the Six Foot Track CP3 at 46k, but I didn't let it bother me, and restocked from my drop bags before continuing on my way in 59th place. My time into CP3 was 4:42, which was 2 minutes quicker than last year, and the first time during the race I had been under my previous year's splits. I felt pretty good coming out of the CP, but shortly after, as I started the gradual climb up Nellies Glen Road, my stomach started to feel a bit off (probably from the caffeine gel), and my groin injury started to ache considerably. Fortunately a year wiser, instead of pushing through, I backed the pace right off, getting passed a few more times, and hiking some of the steeper pinches. By the time I arrived at Nellies Glen, I was feeling much better, and hiked really well up the stairs, passing a few people and reaching the top in great shape. I caught Steve again, and we ran the last part of the track and the road section together before arriving at CP4 Katoomba Aquatic Centre, 57km done.
Through Nellies Glen
I had changed up my nutrition plan from this point onwards, and replaced one of my normal electrolyte bottles with a 600ml coke, and had some greasy roast chicken wrapped in foil. I left the Aquatic Centre in 6:10, which was 7 minutes quicker than last year, and as I sipped on the coke and ate half the chicken as I ran down the road, my energy levels were great, and I was ready to rock. Leg 5 is the heart of the course. Certainly the most spectacular and inspiring views, and the leg where you can lose or make up huge amounts of time depending on how you have managed the first half of the race. Last year, it had been a total sufferfest for me, but this year I can honestly say I loved every second. I ran solidly and evenly though the whole leg, but still for the most part able to keep myself in check.
Who knew it could be so much fun?
At about 73k, my Garmin died, but I no longer needed to look at my watch to know I was having a day out. I had dropped Steve, who continued to struggle with his stomach, and on the last big climb of the leg, caught up with Andy who had been managing leg cramps and stomach as well. I offered salt, but he had already had some, so all I could do was give some words of encouragement and continue on. But finally the admirable restraint I had exercised all day gave out, and on the road drop into CP5 I pulled the trigger, arriving at Queen Vic Hospital in a rush, booking in and out within a minute, tucking my last bottles into pack, and on a mission. I left CP5 in 8:54, 43 minutes quicker than the previous year. I had run leg 5 in 2:44, over half an hour quicker than last year's 3:20.
My plan was to bomb the whole of the Kedumba Pass descent (11.5k, 1000 metres), and then just try and hang on for the last 10k, but half way down, the effort finally told. My quads gave out, the skin off my heels started to make each footfall quite painful, and my stomach called it quits. I had to slow right down, during which time Steve and a couple of others came flying back past me, and I couldn't take in any more calories. There was no way a gel was going to stay down, and sports drink and even coke was too much of a risk as I didn't want to throw up with the final massive climb ahead of me. So I decided that it was water and salt until the end, and just kept an even pace down the steep dirt road until I was able to get some water at Jamison Creek.
Low on energy, the hike out of Jamison Valley was hard work, but arriving at the 91k emergency water point in daylight was a great boost to my spirits, and I started to come good again, even able to run some of the less steep sections. And when the fire trail turned into single track and I wound my way back towards the base of the Furber Stairs, I was able to run nearly all the rest of the way. I gave it everything for the last climb up the stairs, and passed about 3 or 4 people, before rounding the final corner and crossing the line in 11 hours and 49 minutes.
Special appearance by Steve's legs
I was incredibly happy with my day, running nearly an hour quicker off much less training, with the experience from last year proving the difference. I recovered much better as well, proving that I can run a hundred without totally destroying myself. I'm not sure if I can lower my time by much, if at all, but the beauty and brutality of this course will keep me coming back for more, and it will be my main yearly target for the forseeable future.
I came 45th overall, and was 19th Australian across the line. My category placing for Male Masters (40-49) was 12th.
From 2016, the race will be known as Ultra-Trail Australia, finally establishing its own identity as it moves out of the shadow of its former naming rights sponsor. As the only Australian leg of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, expect it to further cement itself as THE ultra race on our calendar. See you at Katoomba next May!