Ultra-Trail Australia

Date: 18 May 2019
Distance: 100km
Time: 24:42

ali_pottinger_pic

At the finish – thanks for the pic Ali Pottinger!

It is not ideal to go into an event unprepared and exhausted. Juggling too many things meant a frantic last minute finalising draft chapters of my thesis to be reviewed while we are away in order to optimise time. Trying to remember what to pack in a very short timeframe did not help the stress levels. We left Palmy at 3am on the Thursday morning of 16 May for the drive down to Wellington for our flight at 7am. Allowing only two hours for the trip, I was holding my breath that something wouldn’t happen to prevent us from making the flight in time. Like a house or some such being moved (as often happens during night time) causing a hold-up and blocking the highway for an extended period. Fortunately, we had no issues, caught the shuttle bus from the long-term parking as we stepped out of the car, and made the flight to Australia on time.

From the airport in Sydney we caught another shuttle to the car rental company (Ace). Navigating our way around Sydney to find a supermarket was okay (less of a challenge than I thought it would be), but I realised that we were both already exhausted and half braindead just to get to that point. The millions of things to remember just adds to the stress (What did I do with my passport? Where’s my phone? Did we remember to pack shoes?). Driving for two hours to get to Katoomba was probably not such a bright idea straight after the two hour trip to Wellington, as well as the flight to Sydney, but we paid the extra fee to have both our licenses on the rental so could take turns.

With some sustenance for the road, part of our race food already sorted, and working phones (part of compulsory gear), we were on our way. Katoomba is a tiny village (population of about 8000) in the heart of the Blue Mountains. During this event the little town gets flooded with 6600 runners in the 100, 50 and 22km events. This excludes the participants in the 11km event, all the families and supporters of runners, plus 800 volunteers. Where everyone found a place to sleep is beyond me.

After checking in at our motel (G’day) we got our compulsory gear together and drove to the event HQ at Scenic World up a narrow windy road. It was buzzing with people and cars and buses, and finding a spot to park was near impossible. Driving is not really an option, and making use of the free shuttle buses is highly recommended. But, remember, we had just arrived and trying to figure out what goes for what is another steep learning curve, especially on fried brains.

We eventually found a spot to park, and walking (quite far) up a steep hill (this should have been a sign) we bumped into Ali from SQUADRUN. With all the thousands of people around I was quite surprised to see a familiar face.

Arriving at the gear check, we got into a bit an altercation with the volunteers. Turns out our Aussie mates are of the opinion that Horizons Regional Council hi-vis vests are not up to standard, and we were forced to buy the event-branded hi-vis vests at Aus$15 each. There’s just no way we were going to drive back, wait until the next day to try and find a shop that sells hi-vis gear, before heading back to Scenic World for gear check and registration, and race-briefing later in the day. To be fair, the reason why they wouldn’t accept our vests was because the council’s didn’t had the ISO number on the tag. And when it gets to big corporate events like this, volunteers are not empowered to use their own brains and discretion. Rules are rules. Understandably. When you start bending the rules for one, you open Pandora’s box. Nonetheless, I was peeved.

As if this wasn’t enough to put a damper on things, Gerry also forgot to bring his fleece top to gear check. Again, because there is a million things to try and remember when traveling to another country for a trail race. The volunteer (of course he did) suggested we buy one from the expo as well, but once we were outside the building and walking through the outside expo, it dawned on me that he can use the (luckily) oversized fleece top I was wearing (because obviously the gear needs to fit). Back to gear check, and unfortunately there was another problem: The compression bandage Gerry was going to take along, which we bought at Farmlands and was meant to be used on horses, was not “heavy duty” enough. Whenever something doesn’t look familiar, it doesn’t make the cut. So he had to buy that (at Aus$10) from the expo as well. By that stage we were well and truly not in a good place with this race. Granted, we started that same day at 2am in Palmerston North NZ, and was in Katoomba Australia at 7pm trying our level best to get registered, so were a bit on edge by then.

Back to gear check, we finally had everything signed off and was each issued a certificate that allowed us to register. What a performance.

Apart from all the usual stuff (polyprop/wool/thermal top and bottom, seam-sealed top and bottom, beanie, gloves, whistle, emergency/space-blanket, bandage, food, 2 litre hydration capacity (not a drop less), fully charged and working phone), we also had to have waterproof matches and fire starters (which they supplied), two headlamps, a fleece top, compass, map, hi-vis top, timing tags for both your hydration pack and the bib, course description and emergency instructions. And while I already have “my mouth full” of it (I am all for compulsory gear, by the way) I find it a bit ridiculous that something like a compass is on there. How many people even know how to use a compass! Yeah, yeah, trail runners should know this shit, but when an event becomes as commercial as this one, chances are that 90% of the field would enter without giving anything, much less orienteering and navigation, a second thought just to be part of Australia’s “most challenging, stunning and prestigious 100km trail running event”.

And then there is the case of the compression bandage, which apparently was meant to be used in case of a snake bit. How? I have no idea. Do you put it on the bite? Above the bite? And how tight? It all becomes a bit of a farce when your hi-vis (which are obviously up to standard) is not good enough, or you get forced to take stuff along that you might not know how to use. I guess you’ll figure it out when you get there? Or maybe someone else will know?

And on top of it all, this happened – a gross printing error on all the thousands of event Ts. I assume there weren’t time to get it fixed before registration. But then I posted this on Instagram before taking the time to think it through. Not that anybody cares, so I don’t know why I’m feeling guilty for doing it.

tshirt_fauxpas

Back at the motel, we were still trying to figure out how we would get to the event, as driving was clearly not an option. Luckily, there were event shuttle buses taking participants and their support crew to and from Scenic World. Unfortunately, it was a 1.2km walk from where we stayed with the exception that they came past our place on race morning. On the Friday morning we made a trip into town to buy a couple more foodstuffs for the run. Since we don’t have a support crew, we relay heavily on the drop-bag scenario, which the event supplies. We started packing helpings of food for us both to eat every half an hour, again aiming to consume 300cal/hour for Gerry and 200cal/hour for me. The trick is to try and anticipate how long you’re going to take between drop-bags to know how much food to place in each. We always end up with too much, eating race food for days after an event.

We walked the 1.2km and caught the bus Friday afternoon for race-briefing and elite Q&A, to see what we were up to on race day. The shuttle buses functioned smoothly and effectively. I was surprised that so little international elites were present (compared to Tarawera). Only six on stage (male and female combined for both the 100 and 50km events) of which three were Aussies, one Kiwi (Fiona Hayvice who came fourth), a Spaniard (Emma Roca who came third) and one Polish (Marcin Sweirc who won), all in the 100km event. Once we were in the midst of the run, it dawned on my why not more internationals were taking part – it is not a “normal” run. Rather it resembles a gym session involving a million stairs, which I find quite unnatural for running. So, from a natural/normal running point of view, going up and down stairs is a challenge, but not fun “running”. Going up and down mountains and rocky terrain is a different story – you can follow gradients that suit your leg length or feet size or whatever.

Race briefing was … well, you had to be there. Learned nothing, and couldn’t wait for it to be over so we could have dinner and go to bed.

On the walk back it was cold, as it was after dark already. For dinner we had pre-cooked rice from Coles which I spruced-up with tuna, corn, cucumber and greenpepper. At about 10pm we were in bed. With a starting time of 7:54 for the “party wave” (Group 7), we at least didn’t need a ridiculous’o’clock wakeup call.

On race morning, we woke up to a beautiful day. No wind! And also warmer than the night before, even though it was shortly after dawn, and I could cope with just a T-shirt and technical long-sleeve for the start of the race. At the bus stop, we chatted to a few other runners while waiting for the bus which was meant to come past every eight minutes. We were under the impression that it was about a kilometre walk from where we would be dropped off to the start of the race, but luckily we were dropped right next to the cable car which took us over the abyss to the other side at Scenic World. The logistics of transport between Scenic World and Katoomba town centre were great.

Normally when approaching a mountain one would imagine you will reach the base with the mountain towering majestically high above. Not Katoomba, and definitely not Scenic World. It is located on top of the mountain, so you start (and finish) high and look down into the valleys and over the ridges to see where you’ll be going. It is a beautiful place and obviously very popular with tourists.

The way the seeding for the start groups work is that unless your marathon time is 4:28 and under, you will be part of the back of the packers, so to speak. We could potentially have made start Group 6 (4:03 to 4:28 marathon time) or even Group 5 (3:52 to 4:03) at a push, and if we trained some, but I assume the congestion on the stairs and ladders would have meant a longer holdup.

A few cut-offs were in place for this event, and I was somewhat worried I might not make the first two. After 11.4km the cut-off was at 10:34am, which means the fast runners who started at 6:20am get 4:14 hours to complete, while the party wave only had 2:40. The second cut-off at 31.6km was at 14:49 allowing 5:55 for us in the last wave to complete. There’s also two congested areas in the first leg, and one in the second, with stairs, ladders, and narrow technical areas causing hold-ups and queues. Luckily, none of this was much of an issue for us (we were very close to the back) and we made the cut-offs easily.

The Blue Mountains comprise of eight protected conservation areas – five core national parks and three attached national parks – and is listed as a World Heritage site. Sandstone, gorges and escarpments make up the landscape, that amongst others host 91 species of eucalypt. Two restricted species of pine – the Wollemi and the Blue Mountain pine – are both examples of ancient, relict species with Gondwanan affinities. This truly is a beautiful place and I wouldn’t mind going back for a week-long tramp in the area.

Rumour has it the event has 10 600 stairs, and 4400m elevation. Not sure how the stairs were counted, but they vary from about 10cm high to 40+cm high, so don’t think ordinary 15cm household stairs when you think about stairs training for this event. Some are hollowed out, some are slippery, others are carved out of the rock/stone, and still others are made of concrete or metal. They come in all shapes and sizes.

START to CP1 (11.4km)

The first 2km out and back are run on Cliff Road which is more or less all the way uphill for 2km, followed by 2km downhill. This was the first of a few stretches on sealed road totalling, I would guess, about 10km. The idea is probably to spread the field somewhat as shortly after this out-and-back section runners encounter the Furber Steps for the first time at about 6km, going down. This would be the same steps we would finish the race with a day later in the final kilometre of the 100. I’ve read somewhere that there are 996 stairs, but the event also has the UTA951, an invitation only (30 participants) event where you only run 1.2km mainly up the Furber Steps. So I’m assuming there are 951 stairs. These stairs are a mixture of wood, stone, concrete and metal.

After a few twists and turns through the forest, we passed the landslide area which is quite rough underfoot before yet another set of stairs (Golden Stairs) takes one to a gravel road on Narrow Neck Plateau going up to CP1. There are five checkpoints and two emergency aid-stations on course. The latter were meant to only have water, but they also had banana, watermelon and mandarin and some other food, as well as toilets and wonderful volunteers.

Compared to Tarawera, the aid-stations were less of a “party” or themed, but the volunteers were all super friendly and helpful, and everything ran smoothly and effectively. We knew beforehand that if you want soup, coffee or tea, you had to take your own cup. But I did not realise that the race was actually cup-less. We had our collapsable NRT cups for coffee etc, so it wasn’t an issue at all (just a surprise). I probably didn’t read all the thousands of pages with information and rules properly.

We were going okay, made the cut-off with 45 minutes to spare, and there wasn’t much of a holdup or congestion (maybe five or so minutes) at any of the serious technical or stair sections, or the landslide.

CP1 to CP2 (31.6)

The second leg to CP2 at Dumphy’s Camp was about 20km, so besides my front flasks I also carried about half a litre in my bladder. Gerry did the whole race on just his front flasks (600ml each) but did take some extra water on the second leg just incase.

About halfway through this leg, we reached the Tarros Ladders, another of the congested areas, allowing only three participants at a time on them. We opted to take the 350 metre detour, as the alternative was to wait six+ minutes. What’s an extra 350 metres when you are already doing 100. And I’m glad we did, as it was a beautiful part of the track.

The downhill through the single track bush path was quite steep in places. The whole race is rather technical, stairs for Africa, very steep ups and downs, slippery areas, rocks, tree roots, ladders – it has it all.

CP 2 again had water, electrolyte, fruit and baking. We spent about 10 minutes and made the cut-off with 25 minutes to spare.

CP2 to CP3 (46km)

From there we meandered through some farmlands, sometimes on gravel roads, other times on grass through paddocks.

Up another hill, we reached the out-and-back section on Ironpot Mountain that’s on a ridge where we were being made welcome by a super enthusiastic volunteer at the split, as well as a local didgeridoo band on the ridge. Even though it is only 250 metres, it is quite technical and rough underfoot.

Back at the friendly marshal, we started on a ridiculously steep downhill, where you basically slide, roll, fall or dive from tree to tree.

Shortly before the check point, there was a random gear check where we had to produce phones and thermal tops.

CP3 (Six Foot Track) came at 46km where we also got the first of our drop bags for more clothes and a few extra items of food. We sat around for a bit (30 minutes), had some Coke, filled up our water bottles, before pushing on in the last bit of daylight. We managed to cover the first 50km in 9:20, which meant a 24-hour finish should be well within reach.

CP3 to CP4 (57.3km)

But then darkness fell, which was nothing other than a mind-fuck. All you can see is the endless nothing of darkness and the small area lit up by your headlamp. Taking into account that we are a month away from Solstice, the days are already much shorter than the nights, which means that most of the participants will cover quite a bit of the course in the dark. Which sort of defeats the purpose of the beautiful setting.

From there on it was an endurance night-march. There is no way of orienteering yourself against any of the landmarks, and you miss out on all the attractions. Once it was fully dark, we were in Nelly’s Glen which is another super steep climb up the mountain on lots of stairs which was wet and muddy. We passed a few runners going up, and near the top the beautiful full moon started to appear.

CP4 were at the Katoomba Sports and Aquatic Centre at 57.3km inside a big hall where we could change into dry and warm layers and leave wet clothes, cap, etc, in our drop bag. This is also where we could brush teeth as I remember from our last long session that a clean pair of teeth is quite a luxury. A friendly lady offered to buy us hot chips, but the supplier unfortunately ran out. After about 30 minutes, we were heading back into the dark, cold, foggy night. It gets more and more challenging to step into the cold after spending time in a warm tent or building with hot food, lots of friendly people and just generally a welcoming space. No wonder about a third of the field pulls the plug somewhere along the way.

CP4 to a WATER POINT (69.4km)

From here to CP5 was about 21km with a water point in-between. After a few kilometres through urban walkways, one of the biggest descends into the valley is via Echo Point and the Giant Stairway, past the Three Sisters. This would have been a spot with spectacular views was it not dark. The stairs are right next to the cliffs with shear drop-offs and it all looks seriously scary and dangerous at night time. Not knowing what your surroundings look like or how far it is to get to the bottom, didn’t help. We just trucked on and at this point we had basically given up on running in any form or shape. Not that these stairs are very runnable in any case. I was too knackered and my muscles too sore to risk tripping and flying into the abyss.

The relentless uphills and downhills continued and this quarter of the event turned out to be the hardest by far. At the emergency aid-station (with about 30km to go) we were bantering a bit with the volunteer who gave us all the grief at gear-check. It was about midnight by then when he suggested we might make it in time for breakfast, and I still jokingly suggested the lunch might be more realistic. Lots of laughs were had and we “wasted” quite a bit of time there.

WATER POINT to CP5 (78.4km)

More stairs and more hills and descends took us past the Laura Cascades (which we couldn’t see, apart from being aware of cascading water), when we eventually made it back on a sealed road (Hospital Road) on our way to CP5 at the Queen Victoria Hospital.

At the checkpoint we sat down for a bit, collected our drop bag with food, had coffee and watched as other runners trickled into the marques tent. Most people looking a bit at a loss for words, somewhat broken and trying to find a spot under the gas heaters. We all have similar rituals, limping and stumbling between coffee/soup pots, foodstuffs, toilets, and heaters/fires, fiddling with drop bags and hydration packs. One bloke just sat there staring blankly in front of him. A volunteer put some coffee in his hand, but he looked seriously “out of it”. Maybe he was just in a deep contemplation or zone where it was hard for any outsider to get through. He hardly moved, did not say anything, just sat and looked at the ground in front of him. These are the true ultrarunning moments – the shared knowledge captured in one look. No need for words. Just a glimpse and we all know what it is about. The rawness of being so vulnerable and feeling exposed to your core.

After a long time (45 minutes) we realised the road is not going to be covered by itself, so got up to leave the warm marques and step back into the cold, foggy night. Only about 22km to go (with an emergency aid-station in-between).

CP5, past an EMERGENCY AID STATION (91.2km) to the FINISH

The first 15-odd kilometres were on a dirt road and had four major uphills and downhills. This should have been runnable, but my mind was only willing to cope with walking. I didn’t realise that such a long stretch was going to be on gravel road, as I kept thinking we’re just going to start running before having to negotiate another set of stairs, so why bother. Should have studied the course/map, but we hardly had the time to get ourselves to the event, let alone worry about all the rest.

A few other runners could be seen up ahead or behind us. Occasionally someone would pass, but the walk was mainly a calm, quiet affair. The nighttime was magical in a zen kind of way. There was no wind, no rain, no nothing, just the dead quiet of the night. At some point I heard something hopping away which sounded to my untrained ear like a kangaroo. It sounded too loud/big to be a wallaby or pademelon.

I was quite surprised by the fact that we didn’t see any wildlife, apart from an abundance of bird life (being quite noisy, we heard more than we saw). I’ve also discovered that Australia has a bird that sounded just like a timing mat! At some point earlier in the day I could clearly hear the constant, uneven, beeping of timing chips being picked up by timing controllers, but it turned out to be birds.

Something that struck me in the dead of night was that I did not feel scared or threatened once. Everything was calm and quiet, even my edgy nerves.

At dawn we were back on the trail as the bush burst to life with the calls of millions of birds. We passed the 5km to go, 4km to go and eventually the 3km to go markers, when suddenly a couple of brush turkeys were waddling on the path in front of us. We also saw a bird that looked a bit like a female Lady Amherst pheasant, so I’m wondering if it could have been the shy lyrebird?

A very light drizzle started to fall, but the thought of having to take out my raincoat, was overridden by the fact that we were so close to the finish. I just couldn’t be bothered and decided to rather get wet.

Finally we were on the Furber steps once more for the last kilometre going up the 951 stairs. Once at the top it was only a few more metres before we were greeted by Ali and the super-supportive runners and supporters hanging around the finish line. Such a wonderful reception and to once again get home to a familiar face was very special.

With a medal around my neck, and a towel around my shoulders we ambled over to the drop-bag area hoping to get our drop bags. Unfortunately, we could only get the first two and had to wait two hours for the third one to be delivered. Luckily there was an indoor recovery zone for athletes where we could have soup, tea, coffee, fruit, chips, etc, as well as soft seats and showers. We were wet and cold and keen to get home for a shower, so waited impatiently for the bags to be delivered.

Finally we could get the last drop-bag and caught the bus back to Katoomba central city. Dirty, wet, cold and with all our gear and drop-bags, we stumbled off the bus in the persistent light drizzle from where we had to walk the 1.2km back to the motel. Unfortunately, this involved more stairs going through the subway underneath the highway, as well as some more inclines and descends to get back to the motel.

It was close to 12pm on Sunday by then, so we had a shower and a 15-minute nap before heading back to town for food and bubbly. We decided to get our laundry (and all the wet and dirty gear) done while still at the motel, so Gerry walked back and forth between the laundry and our room to get it all washed and dried. Not to spoil a decent nights sleep, we opted to stay awake during the day, but by 9pm I was out as a candle. The bubbly might have helped.

Overall the event is very well organised. The bus shuttle service worked a treat, but for future reference, it would make sense to stay closer to the bus route. Especially for afterwards.

The course is really tough and mostly uncomfortable to run. Who wants to run more than 30km (my guess, based on a stair depth of 30cm average and 10600 stairs) of a 100km event on stairs?

The fact that we (as the 7:54 starting group) only had 9.5 hours of daylight, was something that didn’t cross my mind before we started. Even if you finish in 15 hours, which is a very decent time for this course, you end up doing a third in the dark. I appreciate the fact that earlier in the year might be a fire hazard (is this the reason for the time of year?), but it remains somewhat silly to miss at least half the the course due to it being dark.

In terms of course marking, it could not have been more thorough. There were markers, arrows, and ribbons all over the place. Not to mention marshals at a lot of turn-off points. Even in the dead of night, you cannot get lost. Which again raised the question about the compass and map – is it just so the organisers can tick another health and safety box? And don’t get me started on health&safety. This is a slippery slope (to my mind) as nobody needs to think for themselves anymore. There will be a warning cone. Or rather, there will be a million cones. Cones have become a health hazard – I’ve seen people tripping over cones! Soon you’ll need signs, surrounded by cones of course, to warn people there are cones. We get so bombarded with hi-vis, we don’t notice it anymore.

Will we do it again? Most likely not, except maybe to run the 50km event as that was the part we did in the dark and therefore missed out on the scenery. But, probably not, simply because there’s so many other events out there.

And to top it all off, exactly 24 hours after we finished I was in the thick of a shitty, fat cold. I might have caught the germs on the flight over already, or any of a million other places we were during those few days. But the days following the run, I was quite sick, especially with an already broken down immune system. Generally feeling miserable, our recovery time exploring the sights of the Blue Mountains was somewhat spoiled.

And thinking back on the run; aid stations have elements that are pretty horrific in terms of germs. Watermelon, as an example, is peeled and chopped into pieces (at some aid stations. Others left the skin on to handle the fruit) and everybody just dives in with filthy, sweaty hands (from hand-railings, toilets, high-fives, the list goes on), handling more pieces than the ones they intend to eat. Nevermind the fact that I have witnessed runners with soaking wet caps dripping sweat all over the food! It is beyond gross. And yet we still eat the food, dig into the bowls and share the sweat and germs around, ‘cause that’s part of ultrarunning.

What a strange sub-culture we are. 🙂

 

 

4 thoughts on “Ultra-Trail Australia

  1. Thanks Wouna. Another great read of your latest 100km Ultra adventure run. You guys are mad. You know that eh?!

  2. Pingback: Cape Egmont Half Marathon – Jog around the Blog

  3. Pingback: Tauranga marathon – Jog around the Blog

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