Will Thames

swim, bike, run, tech

Ultra Trail Australia 2017

Note: I started writing this days after the event, and then had another go at finishing it three weeks on. Now, seven weeks later, I might finally finish it

As race day drew nearer, and the forecast for the weekend got more and more locked down, I started to get a little worried as to what would happen with the race. Personally, I don’t mind getting even very wet, as long as I can keep moving, I’m unlikely to get too cold in Australia during the day, and the mandatory gear is more than enough to keep me warm even if a cold snap arises. However, I foresaw two problems—the slipperiness of the course, and the creek crossings around the 90km mark when it’s dark and legs don’t quite work well enough to balance across the stepping stones.

With up to 40mm of rain predicted for Friday night, the Catchment Authority wouldn’t permit the race to cross the creeks, and the race organisers had to then rewrite both the 50km and 100km routes to take that into account. In addition, Ironpot Ridge was removed from the course—it’s technical on the top but the descent is very steep and would have turned into an muddy slide incredibly quickly.

Without the last 22km the race would be very different, and I wasn’t really sure whether my desire of sub-14 would be diminished on the changed course if it became significantly easier.

The morning of the race was cold, dark and raining—we parked the car in a muddy field and hoped for the best and walked to the start under an umbrella. The rain stopped about 5 minutes before my start time, and so I stuffed my jacket into my race vest back pocket. I said my goodbye to Peta and was ready to go. The first four km out and back were comfortable as hoped, at which point I saw Peta again and gave her a quick kiss as I went past, as I wouldn’t see her for another 7 hours or so, and then it was on to Furber Steps and down. There was a little bit of a bottleneck through the landslide and beyond, but I just kept comfortable before overtaking people. I should do better at passing people though, often it’s just a matter of asking to squeeze past. Golden Stairs felt good, a little queued towards the top, but not too bad. Once onto Narrowneck it was all cruisy, a quick top up at the checkpoint and then onto Tarros Ladders 10km later. There was a small queue, I figured less than 5 minutes queueing wouldn’t do my race much harm, compared to the worry of stacking it on the alternative route. There were some pretty horrendous stairs after the ladders, and it was here that I realised that all my training on the very well groomed Jacksonia steps wasn’t entirely realistic preparation. I’ll have to write to Brisbane City Council to get them to stop fixing them up, they’re far too nice.

Some more climbing and easy trails later and I was at the second checkpoint. Missing out on Ironpot Ridge shortly after the second checkpoint made for a real shortcut, reducing the distance down to the next checkpoint to about 12km. After the paddocks came the long ascent up Megalong Road, quickly followed by a long descent down again. This year more sections felt runnable, and I was able to maintain a descent jog on gentle uphills, which meant the pace was much better. The long run down started to feel a lot more like a chore towards the end, and I was feeling somewhat glad that I wouldn’t have the 10km of descent down Kedumba!

At checkpoint 3 I realised I had some blisters that were rapidly deteriorating. This was mostly due to the newbie error of failing to clip a toenail. I tried to self fix but it didn’t feel at all sufficient, so had a quick trip to First Aid where they patched me up far better—that blister didn’t give me any more grief after a couple more kms, so a big thank you to the First Aider!

A good few kms running got me to Nellies Glen, where some of the rerouted 50km runners started to overtake—apologies to the 2nd and 3rd places, I knew they were behind me but clearly didn’t quite get out of their way quickly enough, as they did tap me to get past, just as I was about to move (partly I just thought they were impatient 100km runners, hadn’t realised they were speedy 50km runners) From the top of Nellies Glen some more easy running got me to the Aquatic Centre for my first checkpoint with Peta.

I had fairly simple support crew needs this year—two bottles of 3 scoop tailwind swapped at both supported checkpoints. I did patch another blister, the last such patching required, and also changed my socks. But I tried to get in and out as quickly as possible.

From the Aquatic Centre it was on to Echo Point, where Natalie, a friend who’d done the 22 the day before, spotting me passing and made for an impromptu cheer squad. From there we missed the usual fun of Giant Stairway for a run along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk instead. It was much easier and less technical, and barely much more populated. Some minor bottlenecks formed, so it was a matter of passing when possible, and maintaining a good pace. I heard a few complaints about steps as we headed down the Pools of Siloam, but you hear those every year—one day such people will do what I have done and embrace the stairs as the thing that makes UTA what it is. We saw the front runners just after we passed the descent to Leura Cascades, down which they were about to head for their last 7km.

A quick water top up at Fairmont before heading down towards Lilians Bridge (crossing the path of the first female on her return before the descent) and then around the diversion to Edinburgh Castle Rock before returning uphill to the Conservation Hut, then onto Wentworth Falls themselves. A lot of this section was very runnable, as long as you avoid the giant trip hazards, and I made the most of it.

From the falls there was a very nasty section out that made for very awkward passing, heading up to the road where things got easy again—first along Little Switzerland Drive and then the more suburban roads before hitting Tableland Road for the run into Queen Victoria Hospital. Peta drove past and gave me some encouragement “Are you ok? Why are you walking?”—“It’s a hill”. She also passed on my brother’s support, which was great. I hoped Peta would be able to park before I got to the checkpoint—she could, but it was irrelevant because I then found out I had to do a 3km loop before using the checkpoint. As I was out of tailwind at this point, this was quite demoralising. I knew they’d have to make up distance at some point, but it would have been good to be better prepared for when that would be. A 3km run later, and I was back, for refuelling, high viz vest on, lamp on head, ready to go.

Once I’d run back along the road, and then onto Little Switzerland Drive, the two way traffic started to become more obvious. Everyone was fairly courteous, and tried to keep out of each others way. The last bit down before Wentworth Falls was a horrible section but luckily I caught it at a relatively quiet time. It was much more difficult to do even the wider paths with people coming the other way, trying to avoid tripping over steps, while your night vision gets ruined every time your lamp hits a high viz vest. There were a few welcome sections where we travelled a different path on the way back, but for the first few km, these were few and far between. Everything seemed to be much quicker on the way back until Fairmont, mostly because we took a much longer route on the way out. But at Fairmont I was told there were 13km to go. This was an unwelcome surprise, my watch was telling me I had 10km.

The end of the race unravelled a little from there on in. The psychological blow that I’m a little further from the end really took it’s toll, particularly as the timings for sub 14 hours became incredibly tight at that point. Having said that, I remember staying behind someone for a while when I should have overtaken them—I was getting mentally fatigued and struggling to push myself. Much of the next 10km or so was spent trying to keep running the runnable stuff, and push on past people, in both directions.

I gave someone the least comforting advice ever on this run. Coming down some stairs towards me, they said “This is going to be awful going up”—to which I responded “Oh, that’s ages away yet, you’ll have forgotten about it by then”. And then followed up with “Sorry, that really wasn’t very helpful”.

Once down Leura Cascades it was one way traffic again. One of my knees was starting to ache going down ladders at this point, but I knew these were the last downward steps so just had to hope they’d be fine going up—they were.

The 6 or so from the bottom seemed to take an age, but it always does, it’s really a slog uphill to the bottom of Furber Steps. The track was well worn already, and I slipped a couple of times but not too badly, but I felt sorry for the people who’d be following up to 14 hours later after another 1000 people had gone through. I let Peta know I was running later than expected, and then carried on. The km markers kept counting down. At 1km to go I thought I might just make 14:30, but it took a while to get to the bottom of the steps, and then I slipped on the 3rd bottom step. Once started though, I just kept on pushing like a man possessed. It was like my race was just to get me to the bottom of the steps so that I could get to the top as fast as possible. While I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them, I enjoyed that my body was still able to power its way up them.

I overtook 10 people on the step section, the last five of which were probably the ones just before the boardwalk. I did realise as I got to the boardwalk that I wouldn’t quite make 14:30, but really that was just another arbitrary goal post that had moved along the way.

Finishing was amazing as always. People often say that everyone goes through a low point during an ultra where they want to stop. I never wanted to stop. I wanted it to be over, through finishing, but I never had doubts as to why I was there (it was my choice, go me and my brilliant choices!) or wanted to quit (or, memorably, give up Trail running as I did in the 50km event four years previously).

Peta met me just after the final mandatory gear check and buckle and towel handover, and we wandered around looking for the free food. It took a while to find the soup (things had changed since 2014) but it was good to get some down after a 14h31 diet of tailwind. Nutritionally, I think I did great until just before 78km. I probably should have provided myself more tailwind for the event though, or just had some shot bloks for use in emergency (I had emergency bars but I treat them as just that—they’re too hard to eat on the run)

My new beautiful watch probably contributed to some of my malaise. I was confident it wouldn’t over count distance, but it almost certainly did, and made me think I’d got further than I had. This coupled with a lack of regular race distance info (there were signs but because of the course changes the didn’t always have the actual distance run) certainly threw some mental challenges my way.

Congratulations to the race organisers for taking circumstances very much beyond their control and still managing to put on two great races. Thankfully the 100km wasn’t too badly affected, the last 20km were very different but it was still a great 100km race.

Thanks to Hanny Allston and Find Your Feet for so generously making her UTA 100 training plan freely available—I’ve been almost religiously following it, avoiding races that don’t meet the training criteria. I did make some tweaks to suit my needs (move the rest day after a big Saturday run from Tuesday to Monday) but it’s been such a useful resource.

Thanks to Troy Lum at Coach2Run for being my personal trainer, particularly those weeks where my training plan had a Saturday strength session and he rearranged his life to fit my session into his normal day off. Some of his advice has really helped put the training plan into perspective too and made the difference between an awkward difficult session that perfectly meets the plan vs making the best of what’s locally available, which will be good enough and not take 2 hours extra.

Finally, Peta was there for me as usual. Being support crew must be so tedious, she had an early start driving me to the race for 6am, followed by waiting for the start at 6:33, then waiting for me to return 4km later. After that there was lots of uncertainty about where I’d be and when due to course changes, to see me briefly at two checkpoints and then hang around at the end for an unknown period of time until I finished! After driving me to the pub the next day for some important post-race debriefs with some great friends, she then had to put up with my inability to do very much at all the next day (due to legs still not really working). And that was after months of me training, building up to 10+ hours a week. A huge thanks to Peta for supporting my running ambitions, both in every day life and through being support crew.

I enjoyed reading all the messages of support sent during the race afterwards. Peta did tell me during the race that there were lots of encouragement and best wishes, thank you to those of you who wrote messages in support!

I don’t really have any big plans now, even three seven weeks on. I’m hoping to gain some speed for some shorter distance PRs, but my ultra calendar is bare for the rest of 2017, and I have no idea what I’ll be able to achieve in 2018. The day after I was saying I’d never do UTA again, not because I hated it but because I felt I’d done as well as I could after six solid months of training, and I really don’t feel like putting myself through it again. And there are so many other big exciting races that I can spend my running event budget on, I really don’t foresee a return to UTA for a few years. But it’ll always be a special event for me, and I’m sure I’ll have FOMO every year I don’t do it, keeping track of the friends that do!