Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Roller Coaster Run 43k - Race Report

Heading into the 43k Roller Coaster Run 13 days after Maroondah Dam I felt very relaxed. With such a short turnaround, I had put no pressure on myself to perform, and if I could just sneak into the top ten I would be happy. The aim was to just go out and have fun, and whatever the result, I could feel satisfied with my racing season and enjoy my break. It was almost like an end of year party feeling for me!

Roller Coaster Start

Right up until the day before the race, I was still feeling the effects of The Dam, but on the morning I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to run. In fact, I'd probably never felt so eager to get out on the course. All remnants of fatigue in my legs had vanished overnight, and not even discovering that some of my drinks (coke of course) had leaked in my drop bags overnight could dampen my spirits. A restock of the bags, a quick shower, tinned spaghetti on toast, some freshly brewed coffee in my travel mug, and I was set to go!

At 5:20am, I jumped in my car for the hour drive up to Mt Dandenong, and popped my favorite "Deep Forest" CD in for the journey. Anyone whoever sat on hold for Microsoft tech support in the early 90's would know it well. It's music I really enjoy listening to before a race, as it tends to relax me. As I approached the summit, I was pleased to see the race start area shrouded in mist. It gave an ethereal feeling to the place, and while it affects the view over the city, I love running through beautiful tracks surrounded by fog.

The Roller Coaster Course

The 43k course is two loops of a 21.5k circuit around the mountain, with the Start/Finish line at the Sky High Restaurant. There is also a more popular one loop event which usually has about 400 runners, while about 100 people do the two loops. Over two loops there is roughly 2000 metres of ascent/descent. The majority of the first half of a loop is downhill, apart from one significant climb - the infamous Dodds Track - while the second half of a loop is the climb back to the start point. My target was to run approximately 2:05 for the first lap, and about 2:20 for the second, which based on last year's times would have me finish about 8th.

Course Profile

Sky High Restaurant - the Start Finish location

The event is held by the "Big Long Run" team, who also direct the Two Bays Trail Run in January. Like Two Bays, Roller Coaster has a theme, which I believe is a big part of its popularity. BLR sure know how to market an event - almost as well as they run them, which is saying something. While Two Bays is a beach/Hawaiian theme, the gimmick for Roller Coaster is a circus/carnival type feel, with volunteers and  competitors alike all getting into the spirit by dressing up. And no I didn't.

The one loopers were sent away at about 7:20, while the ultra guys started 10 minutes later. Straight away course record holder Damon Goerke disappeared down the hill and into the mist, while a group of us stayed in relative proximity for roughly the next 5k. There was Dan Beard (4th at Maroondah Dam), Robert Zwierlein (recent Razorback 64k winner), Sam Maffet & Stephen Rennick (3rd & 4th at Two Bays), and my mate Andy Turner.

Cruising in 5th early at the 2k mark (Dan & Rob in background)

There was a fair bit of chit chat early (most of it by Rob) as introductions were made, and at one point as I cruised down the hill next to Sam, I remarked "I don't think we'll see Damon again". Little did I know Sam was packing some heat! Everyone seemed comfortable with the pace, although as we ran through the Doongalla Aid station Sam had started to slip away. Shortly after though, we turned into Dodds, and as the climb got steeper, he gradually came back to us. By the time we hit the part which is too steep to run, we were all back together hiking, and I was surprised how good I was feeling.

At 6k, we crossed over Basin-Olinda Road, and while there was about 500m left to climb, it is runnable from that point, so despite my original plan of running conservatively, I decided to make a move. I gave a little push, but was still doing it easily, and by the time I got to the top of the hill, no one had decided to come with me, and I had a decent break.  Not wanting to waste the effort, I bombed the next downhill to try and get out of sight, and for the next 12k ran alone as I tried to keep an even effort.

In 2nd at 12k trying to pinch a break

For most of that time I was looking over my shoulder, expecting Dan to come flying down the hill and pass me, but once I started up the long Singleton Tce track I knew I was safe from most attackers for a while as it was perfect grade for me - just runnable. About half way up, I checked the time, and realised that I was going to complete the first loop way quicker than I had intended, so I backed off a little to conserve energy. The last part of the loop is the highly technical Trig Track, followed by a very steep climb, and no sooner had I turned into Trig, Sam Maffet came cruising by looking very strong.

Sam said he had forgotten I was in front of him, but was kind enough to inquire how I was feeling, also remarking at the same time how he'd saved plenty for the second lap (psych!!). But I wasn't going to be goaded into a chase! I let him go, and took the climb up to the turnaround pretty easy. As I approached the Start/Finish, I could hear course announcer, top ultra runner David Eadie (2011 Ultra Runner of the Year) call me in third position, also commenting that the two loop runners coming through at the moment were top ten pace for the one loop. Later on when I checked my splits, I realised my half way time of 1:55 would have placed me fifth in the 21.5k event!

I changed my bottle and headed back out for lap 2, and as I went down the first descent, the chasing group were coming in to complete their first. Dan was still there with Rob and Stephen only a couple of minutes behind, so I tried to push the pace a bit, but the effects of Maroondah Dam were starting to catch up with me, and the downhills were pretty hard on the old legs. As I neared the bottom of the mountain, I could see a runner behind in a green shirt eating up the ground behind me, but it wasn't any of the guys I was expecting. His name was Jonathan Jones, and I hadn't heard of him before, but at the presentation afterwards it seemed like he was fairly well known. As a relative newcomer to the sport, this happens to me quite a bit!

At about 26k in 3rd, not feeling great!

Whatever the case, he was moving well, and looked strong. We exchanged a couple of pleasantries, and I momentarily tried to stay with him, but I was having a bit of a low patch, and he dropped me pretty easy. So I was back to 4th, which was a little depressing for a moment, as I had started to think about a podium, but I quickly reminded myself that I was already exceeding my modest expectations for the race, so refocused on getting myself back up the mountain as quickly as possible. It was mainly uphill from here on in, which was easier on the legs, and I was able to run pretty well for the most part, hiking strongly when required as I came good again.

As I hit Singleton again, I knuckled down harder than I ever have before in a race, determined not to get passed again. I forced the legs to move faster, grinding my way up the hill, only hiking one brief section. As I got near the turn-off to Trig, I caught a glimpse up ahead of Jonathan's green shirt, probably only 90 seconds in front. I didn't have much left though. The effort up Singleton had pretty much flattened me, and while I did my best along the technical track, Jonathan moved away a bit more. By the time I got to the final steep climb to Sky High, I had given up hope of catching him, and I figured that there was a big gap back to fifth, so I took the last 500 metres pretty easy. As I got near the finish, one of the marshalls told me "Sam caught Damon". "Fuck, really?" I responded. That was a big shock, as while Sam had good form, to take down a runner of Damon's quality was a massive effort.

I cruised to the finish in 4th place feeling pretty elated with the day's work, and rapt with my time of 4:07:04, which would have placed me second last year, although admittedly the course was lightning fast this year and conditions were perfect. Sam did a great job to beat Damon home for first and sneak under his course record as well in 3:49:23. Damon was second in 3:55:00, and Jonathan ran a patient, smart race to grab the last spot on the podium in 4:04:51. I had nearly 12 minutes to spare over Rob who was 5th in 4:18:51. Full race results are at:

My splits reflected the way I felt throughout - Too fast at the start, eased through the second quarter, hurt in the third, then came home well in the last.

Afterwards, I was feeling surprisingly subdued considering that it was probably my best race ever. I had planned to have a nice long break from racing, and focus on getting ready for my first 100k - Surf Coast Century in September (yes, changed my mind again). I guess I just didn't want the season to be over. Felt like a waste when I was racing so well, and at 45 years of age I'll likely never be in this kind of shape again.

Well as luck would have it, several days after the race, Andy Turner posted on FB that he was looking for a 4th person to share accommodation and hire car expenses for The North Face 100 on May - Australia's premier ultra marathon. A quick text to Allie to get approval, and I quickly staked my claim for the spot. To run this race as my first 100k is in at the deep end for sure. The mandatory gear list is huge, and I have never carried that sort of weight before, apart from the fact that I don't care for heights, crowds, or the cold, all of which TNF100 has in abundance. But I am hugely excited to run. This event transcends the sport in terms of profile, with even people who have never run a yard in their life having heard of it.

It will be a rush to get ready, but I am pretty fit and race hardened, and 155k of hills over the four days of Easter should top me off, before a gradual 26 day taper. I recovered really well from Roller Coaster, much better than I did from Maroondah Dam, and racked up 100k last week barely feeling it. I can't wait!