Friday, March 21, 2014

Maroondah Dam 50k - Race Report

The lead up to Maroondah Dam 50k on the 16th March was almost the exact opposite to my last race in November. Instead of being relaxed during the week, then stressing on race morning, I spent the entire week worrying about gear, hydration and strategy, then woke on race morning excited and ready to race. My main cause of concern had been the weather forecast. Rain and 17C was expected earlier in the week, but as we got closer to the weekend, that was upgraded to scattered showers and 19C, so I abandoned my plan to wear a pack, and stuck with my hand-held bottles. Nevertheless, I was still a bit disheartened by the weather. I had been training in the midday heat for the past two months, and a nice hot day would have been helpful to my race.

It was an hour and a quarter drive in darkness to Maroondah Reservoir Park, and I arrived early as usual just as they had finished setting up, picked up my race number and left my drop bags in the bins for the 20k and 35k aid stations. I did a long, half hour warm up and stretch, then chatted for a while to Andy Turner (3rd at 30/50 Challenge), who was not running due to injuring his ankle in a buck's party incident the week before! But like the ripping bloke he is, he had come out anyway to support his mates Brad Fuller and Simon Marcus (2nd at 30/50), and also offered to help me out at the aid stations. At 7:20 the bus departed the picnic grounds to take us to the start location at Dom Dom Saddle. We arrived 10 minutes before the 8:00am start, and I had another little jog to keep warm before Race Director Brett Saxon of Trails+ briefed us. The AURA President was in attendance, as this race doubled as their National Trail Championships, but I resisted the urge to go up and say hi so I could get to address him as "Mr President".

Then, we were away up the hill for the first out and back section, and I straight away put in a little push to keep me with the lead group. I had planned to race aggressively for the first time, as I wanted to see how long I could match it with the lead guys, and how much a faster start would affect me later in the day. There was no way though I was going to attempt to stay with Stu Gibson, and I watched him glide away effortlessly from us, with only one other unfortunate soul (Matt Bailey) interested in giving chase. The rest of my initial group included Victorian trail guns Toby Wiadrowski and Dan Beard, Wodonga ultra champ Kevin Muller, and a Salomon pack wearing runner I later identified as South Australian Mick Keyte.

4th early at 4k, followed by Kev Muller, Dan Beard, Toby W,
& Tom Gamble in the distance
photo fstop5

As soon as we got to the first steep drop, Kev, Toby and Dan shot away, bombing down the hill like true trail runners, while I embarrassingly picked my way down, and possibly put myself in contention for the "trail running's worst descender" award, if in fact they hand such a thing out at the end of the year. Luckily, there was a climb soon after and I pegged back some distance on the trio. As I approached the turnaround at 5k, I was able to see all the leaders come back towards me - Stu Gibson cruising way out in front, his pursuer Matt still in second, then Dan, Toby & Kev, all looking comfortable.

In 3rd at the 7k mark
photo fstop5

As soon as we hit the climb on the way back to the start, I quickly gained ground as we all started hiking, my Sundays spent death marching up Arthurs Seat finally paying dividends. About halfway up the hill I passed Kev, then near the top caught Toby and Dan, then as the fire trail leveled out again I started running and put a little gap on them.  Dan quickly caught me as we started running downhill again, and we ran together for a little while before he started to pull away. I was a little surprised at this point that Toby wasn't with him, as I knew he was a fast starter, but having not seen his name in any race results lately, I figured he was either underdone or coming back from injury.

The scary looking course profile

I rounded the corner back at the start point at the 10k mark in 4th place, and set off in pursuit of Dan, but he was quickly out of sight so I concentrated on keeping a solid pace ahead of the runners about 100 metres behind. The next 10k of the course was a loop around Dom Dom Saddle, with most it a gradual downhill before a sharp rise up to the start again. Despite my best efforts, I was passed though this section by a tall, lean runner who was moving well (Tom Gamble), and then Mick Keyte about a kilometre later, putting me back to 6th. After they were both out of sight, I ran with clear track behind and in front of me for a few kilometres, leading to several of my many "am I lost?" moments for the day. I never really felt comfortable through this section. My troublesome achilles tendons were both hurting, and the pace I was running felt way too fast, but I was determined to "hang it all out there", and let the cards fall where they may.

At the climb at the end of the loop, Mick came back into view, and I nearly caught him again before the course flattened out, but as we came back to the start I stopped at aid to refill my bottle and grab a couple of gels, and he slipped away again. After Andy helped me re-stock, I crossed over the Maroondah Highway, and settled in to the big 6k climb of the race. I had identified this section of the course as a key part of my day, so it was time for head down, bum up, and get to work.

nearly catching Mick Keyte at 18k...

...but then he started running again so bugger that.
photos fstop5

It didn't take long to reel in and pass Mick, as I pushed hard up the hill sometimes running, sometimes hiking, and before long I could see Tom Gamble up ahead as well. About three quarters of the way up I was still feeling good, and I gradually made ground on Tom, eventually passing both him and Matt Bailey in quick succession to put myself in 3rd place. Dan was now in sight about 100 metres up the hill, and at this point I started to get a little ahead of myself, thoughts of a podium getting the adrenaline flowing, and I was breathing and working harder than I should have been. On a little downhill, Tom flew past me, but then the course headed uphill for the last 1k section of the climb, and I crept closer once more, as Dan slowly came back to both of us.

As we reached the top, there was barely 50 metres covering the three of us in 2nd, 3rd & 4th, but we had only just reached the 25k mark, and there was plenty of racing to go, with a steep downhill coming up. I slowed for a moment to down a gel, feeling the effects of the effort, and before you could say "wait for me!", Dan and Tom were gone, not to be seen again. They took off down the fire trail and were out of sight so fast, I spent most of the next kilometre wondering if I had made a wrong turn until I picked up the course markings again. The next 7km were neither here or there for me. I ran alone, with no one in sight in front or behind me, frequently thinking I was lost, and often realising my effort had dropped, and having to refocus and pick up my cadence again. It's probably the one part of the race I wish I could do over, although it was a beautiful part of the course, the tall mountain ash trees surrounding me on all sides.

Who cares if you're lost when you've got this all around you?
photo fstop5

After what seemed like forever, I ran past the 32k aid station still feeling OK, but almost immediately after fell into a low patch that lasted nearly 5km. My legs felt gone, but I kept turning them over, trying to push forward as fast as I could. I had my fourth gel for the day, and had another few swigs of my electrolyte, but nothing was happening for me. Then, on a short downhill at about the 33k mark, out of nowhere Mick Keyte came flying down past me, moving so quickly he looked like he had just started the race. I was a little surprised, as I thought I had a big buffer, and when I had passed him 10k ago, he hadn't looked like he was travelling that well. But he was clearly running a smart race, and had saved himself for a strong back half.

We headed uphill for a testing 2k climb, but there was no way I could stay with him. He was running strongly, and disappeared off into the distance pretty quickly. So, I was back to 5th, not feeling great, and no idea how far behind the chasing pack was. I was particularly concerned about Toby and Kev, who I knew would be finishing strongly. I gradually turned the corner though, and by the time I arrived at the 37k aid station I was starting to feel a bit better. I had a drop bag waiting for me containing 600ml electrolyte refill, a couple of gels, and a precious 200ml can of coke. Andy was there as well, and refilled my bottle while I quickly drank the coke, and stuffed the gels in my spi-belt. The aid station was manned by top ultra runner Dan Langelaan, who had most recently run 2nd at the Coburg 6 hour event. Great to see top runners giving back to the sport when they are not racing. They told me I was only two minutes down on 4th, but it didn't much concern me, as I knew I had to run flat out to keep ahead of the chasers, and if I caught someone who was fading, well, that was just going to be a bonus.

First I had to contend with the last hard climb, a one kilometre march up to the top of Mt St Leonard. The coke had reinvigorated me, and I was able to hike well up it, reaching the top feeling good, before the trail basically plummeted back down the other side of the mountain, dropping 900 metres in 10k. It was by far the steepest descent I had ever encountered, and it was all I could do to stay on my feet for the first 2k. Eventually, it leveled out enough that I could run, but it was still pretty steep, and the pounding that my quads took I was still feeling days later. I was running scared though, and I let my legs go, constantly looking back to see if I could spot anyone. At one point I spotted a runner ahead of me, and I put in a surge, only to eventually catch up with a lady wearing a hydration pack out for a Sunday jog. Finally I reached the bottom of the hill, and the creek crossing at Donnelly's Weir at the 46k mark, where Steve from fstop5 photography was taking some pictures. Steve told me I was in 4th place, but I knew I was in 5th, and just figured he had missed Stu, whose speed could only be captured by special cameras developed by NASA.

The creek crossing at Donnelly's Weir
photo fstop5

The creek was refreshing, but I was pretty cooked by this stage, the jarring descent having taken a fair bit out of me. I gave myself a bit of a breather for about 500m, then put my head down for a final push, running hard up the last little climb to the dam wall. As I crossed the wall, I had a little peep back to make sure no one was sneaking up on me, then enjoyed the beautiful view across the reservoir. Then it was down some steps to the picnic ground, and through the park to the finish line where the kids were waiting to give me the customary high fives.

The now-traditional high five with the kids

As I crossed the line in 5th place, in a time of 4:36:25, I felt really happy. I had run hard all day, way out of my comfort zone, and it had been good enough to get me within 12 mins of 2nd place. Stu Gibson of course, was in another world, smashing the course record to win in 3:45:03. Tom Gamble ran a great race for 2nd in 4:24:35, Mick Keyte finished like a train to grab third in 4:26:14, and Dan Beard was 4th in 4:29:45. In the end I had about 7 mins to spare over Toby Wiadrowski, 6th in 4:43:21, although as I suspected, Toby was not fully fit, and almost certainly would have run second at his best. Kevin Muller came home in 7th in 4:45:30, probably also with other races on his mind. Andy's mates Brad and Simon were 8th and 10th respectively. The ladies event was won by Kellie Emmerson in 5:09:09, with South Australia's Hayley Teale 2nd, and Isobel Bespalov 3rd.

Full race resuts at:

Stu Gibson, winner and CR in 3:45:03

Tom Gamble, 2nd in 4:24:35

Mick Keyte, 3rd in 4:26:14

Dan Beard, 4th in 4:29:45

Yours truly, 5th in 4:36:25

Toby Wiadrowski, 6th in 4:43:21

Kevin Muller, 7th in 4:45:30

Kellie Emmerson, 1st female in 5:09:09

Hayley Teale, 2nd female in 5:13:22

 Isobel Bespalov, 3rd female in 5:31:13

Photos: fstop5

In summary, I don't know if I could have gone any better by running a different race. A hot day may have helped, or maybe not going quite so hard on the big climb, or focusing a bit better between 25-30k. My achilles tendons make the downhills really painful at the moment, and as soon as Rollercoaster is done, I will be more diligent about the strengthening exercises. The course itself was in beautiful surroundings, although being predominantly on fire trail, the lack of single track probably counts against it a little. At the moment, with my injury issues, and awful descending skills, it is certainly not a course that suits me. The organisation of the event was faultless, and the atmosphere and camaraderie on the day make it obvious why Brett Saxon has such a loyal following of runners for his races.

Stu Gibson, receiving his trophy from Brett Saxon & Mr President (far left)

Kellie Emmerson, with Brett & Mr President

Thank you to Steve from fstop5 who took most of the photos used in this report, and provides them free of charge on his website. The Victorian running community is extremely lucky to have someone like this, where usually obtaining race photos is an expensive exercise. Thanks also to Andy Turner for helping me out at the aid stations, and all the wonderful volunteers who make these events possible.

My next race is the Rollercoaster Run on Mt Dandenong on March 29, which gives me only 13 days break between races. I have never raced so close before so it will be an interesting exercise to see how well I can perform.