Well, I’m not sure what makes me turn up year after year. I know it’s the people, but there’s always the small matter of the trail demons from this race using their sharp teeth to gnaw at my soul. And laughing at me.
If you’ve read the other posts, you’ll know that I was gunning for a sub 14 hour time this year. I won’t keep you in suspense- it didn’t happen, but I got closer than ever. Yes Brian, I now have 5 bronze buckles……
I was unusually well prepared and very zen like at the start, until some bloke walked past and snagged his bladder tube on my gear as he walked past. This pulled off the tube and water went everywhere about 60 seconds before the start. Oh well, it couldn’t get worse…..? Yep, Lise Lafferty walked up and said ‘my bladder is leaking, do you know anyone with a spare?’ Um, they’re starting the 10 second countdown……. ‘Lise you have to run across the start line or you’ll be DQ’d, but come right back and see if anyone can lend you something. My friend Gillian brought all her gear hoping for a run, she should have a spare’
‘What does she look like?’
I survey the thousands of people at the start line and confidently say ‘She’s Scottish’
….And we’re off! The first few km are on road, and unlike last year everyone is very quiet (maybe because I stated in Wave 4 last year- less serious, more fun!). They’re also a bit faster and show no signs of walking the hills. I hope this does not come back to bite me later, but I know I have a little bit of extra speed so I’m not super concerned. We settled down into a bit of light banter- it didn’t last long as we saw a runner down after the landslide. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was ultra legend Kevin Heaton. He’d torn something important and was obviously in a lot of pain. One thing you must do in an ultra is to offer assistance needed to ensure the safety of those around you. The other thing you should do is get the hell out of the way if others have the situation under control. As the medical director of the UTMB was right there I figured it was time to stop clogging up the trail. He was later taken out by chopper and had scans, an operation and trip home all within a couple of days. He’s a really interesting bloke and won’t be running for a long time but perhaps that will give me a better chance to talk to him if he can’t run. Yes, look for the upside.
At the Golden Stairs I could still hear Adam Darwin and Joe Hedges chatting, but as expected they were getting away from me. I didn’t lose too many places up there, and trotted comfortably into CP1. Race plan said 1:15- 1:24, I got there in 1:22 and grabbed a couple of mandarins, filled my water bottle and got out. Note- when I write target time of 1:15-1:24 I mean that the average time for a sub 14 hour finish was 1:15, and the LAST person to go through that checkpoint and still make sub 14 hours was 1:24.
The next section down Narrowneck is the most pretty part of the course and possibly the best running. I tried to assume a comfortable pace without talking to randoms too much. In every previous year I’ve spent time meeting new people or talking to friends, but this year I had my game face on and probably didn’t speak to more than 5 or 6 randoms. Good job Adam.
The shoes felt great (Hoka Challenger ATRs) and I got to Tarro’s Ladders in pretty good time. There was quite a lot of people here, and lots chose to do the 400m long way around. I chose to have a rest and eat the 2 mandarins I took from CP1, knowing that this was one of the only places I would get rest today. That was my slowest KM of the whole day 17:52 min/km so I was probably stationary for about 5-8 minutes. To put that in perspective- taking Duncans Pass to go around would have taken nearly that long and I got a feed and a rest. Time worth spending. Being in Wave 2 probably would have cut down the time waiting but I think this is the only part of the course that being in a slower wave really impedes your progress- we had a nice, flowing pace across the landslide this year which is the only other place where you can get held up.
We had a little push across Mt Debert and then down on to the fire trail leading to CP2. I knew that I needed to run as much and as fast as I could along here to eat up some deficit. I wasn’t feeling great but no time to feel sorry for myself, we’d only covered <30km!
In to Dunphys Camp Ground for our second checkpoint at 3:43 race time. My goal was 3:24-3:37 so still no reason to panic, I know I can finish stronger than most people so a quick transition is needed, and don’t get mentally crushed by Iron Pot Ridge!
I filled my bottle, grabbed some watermelon and a couple of snakes then mentally girded my loins for the big climb. It’s actually a series of climbs that seem to get steeper until you hit the big wall of dirt and rock. It’s a delicate balance for me- I’m not good at going up these steep hills, but I am getting better slowly. Just before the race I asked Andy DuBois if I should stay out of heart rate zone 5 and he replied with a very big yes…. so I looked at my watch and saw I was up to 5.4. Bugger, didn’t feel too bad and pushed on. Unfortunately by the time I got to the flattish bit at the top I needed to rest before I could run again….. in retrospect I suspect this was the point at which my race turned.
The out and back along Iron Pot is a great way to see how you’re going against your mates- there will always be a surprise or two in front AND behind. This year I was surprised by Adam Darwin (he should have been further in front) and Tanya Carroll (she has been beating me a lot lately and should not have been behind), but I was able to see that I was doing pretty well, and possibly still in with a chance of sub 14 if nothing went wrong! The descent off Iron Pot is always tricky but I figured it would be easier this year because it had rained recently. Well, the talcum powder dust was a little thicker, and in the last 5 years the trail has become more defined, but I can’t say I flew down there! Crossed a few creeks, handed out a few salt tablets and caught up with Mal, Paul Garske and Bruce Craven on Megalong Rd. As soon as this flattened out I took off the handbrake, clocking a sub 5min/km (OK, it says 5:01 on Strava) and going through the marked 50km point in 6:22 race time. I felt great until the stile to get into the paddock to approach the Six Foot Track checkpoint. Yes, my legs locked up in cramps but I told Kurt Topper to hustle on ahead as we were ‘about 20 minutes off our 14 hour target’.
Into CP3 in 5:51 against a target of 5:24-5:40, so I’d lost another 8 minutes against the average time. My goal was slipping away, but I also knew that CP4-5 was likely to be 10-15 minutes faster this year. I need to keep the pressure up to CP5 because anything could happen!
CP3 is the first where you get access to a checkpoint bag, and I guzzled down the 600ml Coke I had stashed in there, oh it was sooo good! In previous years CP3 had been relaxed, but this time it was swap and fill bottles and get the hell out. I knew that I needed to do the next section in about 1:40 to make the average time, but I was already 30 minutes behind so a quick section might restore some confidence.
Unfortunately it was not to be- drinking that Coke all at once gave me some minor stomach problems, and I couldn’t run the bits I needed to. Kurt Topper played it nice and steady and started getting away from me. Up Nellie’s Glen I was pleased that I didn’t have to stop more than once (this has been a problem for me for years) and it was great to see legend Natalie Watson at the top of the stairs, but I couldn’t talk! I just couldn’t put it together running the technical bits afterwards. Luckily there is a bit of road into CP4 and I came in feeling fairly good, but knowing that the big test was about to start.
Arrival at Katoomba Aquatic Centre in 7:36 meant that I was drifting farther from the 7:05-7:21 times I needed but as mentioned before, I felt there might be a chance to make up some time to CP5. If I’d taken the full set of figures provided by Ian Rowe I would have seen that I was heading for a >15 hour finish. Lucky I didn’t!
I didn’t bother having any noodles here as is my habit, I was getting all the nutrition I needed from Perpetuem. Not wanting to make the same mistake again, I stashed the Coke bottle from my bag into my pack to sip on while running. Rob Mattingly was stuck to a chair at CP4, it probably made him miserable to see me get past him here- we both know he’s a much better runner than me, but if it’s any consolation I didn’t take any pleasure out of it either! The next section is a bastard- on the elevation profile it looks relatively flat and perhaps runnable. In reality it’s a constant grind of up and down stairs, closed in single track and mud puddles. It’s very difficult to get any flow, more so for me as I am quite tall. But this was my chance!
Or maybe not. I passed and was passed by quite a few people on this section and just couldn’t make it happen. Recurring cramps were making me over cautious- pretty difficult to fully commit to a step when you don’t know if your leg will get stuck motionless in the air before it hits ground. I’d had a single Panadol tablet (yeah I know) at about the halfway mark to see what would happen, and it did make my legs hurt a tiny bit less, but did not help the cramps at all. For the amount of stress the experiment caused, probably not worth it. I was just begging to hit the road and get to CP5 and a runner said to me ‘will we get to CP5 in day light?’
I said no because we had yet to go past Wentworth Falls and up Rocket Point Track and it was close to 5pm. Sunset was officially 5:06pm so we’d probably have to use our head torches before CP5.
We finally hit Rocket Point track and got up to the road, where a marshall was waiting to tell us to put on out hi-vis vests and get out our torches. The marshall was kind enough to help me with this so I was ready at the same time as Michael Hanavan and we trotted off together down to Queen Victoria Hospital.
Last year I had needed my head torch shortly after Gordon Falls on this section so I was deeply impressed to get as far as Queen Vic without needing to turn the torch on! Arrival time of 11:07 race time was still way behind my goal of 10:32-10:53, but wow, what a journey! Only 22km to go, 8.5km of that roughly downhill, but I knew that getting under 4 hours for this section would be tough. Remember according to those stats, the last person to do sub 14 arrived in 10:53. Which means the fastest time I could get would be about 3:10, and I’m not very fast at all. Bugger.
It was here at CP5 that one very odd thing happened. Michael Hanavan had left the CP and I filled my bottle and was about to leave when a marshall called out ‘have you got your fleece?’ I replied that we only had to carry it if it was after 7:30pm as per the rules but he insisted I had to take it. So I went back, got my bag and took it with me. I should point out that it was before 6pm! And the only reason I even had access to a fleece is because I had put one in CP4 bag and one in CP5.
I caught up to Michael and we began the downhill run to Jamison Creek. I was very grateful of the company but there wasn’t much conversation beyond ‘I’m stopping for a wee, I’ll catch up’ and ‘it hurts to pee’ so I’ll leave the rest of that out….. by this stage every single step felt like my quads wanted to burst out of my skin. They were revolting and not in an interesting way. My feet were really good though- the combination of 2Toms lubricant powder, Injinji socks and Hokas was wonderful. I still had bashed up my little toes a bit but that’s mainly because I hadn’t wanted to stop to re do my shoelaces tighter. I might try that heel lock lacing system in future.
Once we hit the hills I knew I had to push on otherwise I’d go over 15 hours, and I didn’t want to waste all my effort. Surprisingly I was able to go up hills ok, at only the slight cost of nausea. I felt bad about leaving Michael as he’s always been so nice but I’d expect him to leave me in the same circumstances. I got to pass two people- correction- one person- the other one slightly lengthened his stride and nearly broke me! Yes I’d caught up to ‘Tall Geoff’ Evison. I didn’t have any energy left for speaking and luckily he had earplugs in so we walked uphill in companionable silence for a while.
Of course I’d been doing maths in my head for hours trying to make sure I wouldn’t miss a major time target, but at one stage I lifted my watch up and was about to make a comment on our pace and Geoff said ‘I don’t want to know’, so the watch went down again. I was going to say that we were good for sub 15 hours but as long as I knew that was good enough. We pushed through the old Sewerage works with Geoff leading and once or twice he had me take point- he wasn’t going to allow me to latch on like a zombie as I do….
I was watching my Garmin like a hawk to see how far I could get in 14 hours. The answer turned out to be ‘within 3km of the finish’. Wow. I briefly pushed on ahead of Geoff and a couple of minutes later clipped small rock and went arse over tit. Of course both legs went into spasm and I felt very sorry for myself to get so far without an accident then BAM! Geoff came around the corner and said ‘get up, I’m not leaving you on the ground’ I tried to protest ‘just leave me here, I’ll be fine’ but to his credit he helped me up, bloody knees, blood dripping out of hand and wounded pride. You’re a solid gold legend Geoff Evison!
We walked again for a little bit, me encouraging Geoff to leave me, even while a couple of people snuck past, and then we hit the base of Furber Stairs. Time to suck up the pain and make those legs work again. In the absence of legs that would extend, I opted for full body contact on the stairs. A couple of people got past, but I used my arms to push and wobbled my core to get some upwards action happening. A couple of minutes later I heard Robert Rigg behind me say ‘I did/ didn’t think I’d catch up with you again’. I can’t remember exactly what he said because I was deep in the hurt locker. I’d completely lost the power of speech and the only non physical activity I had going on was counting stairs. There’s 933 stairs here (976 if you count the down stairs as well) and I count them in lots of 100 to keep from going mad. Sorry Rob, I had nothing…….
Not sure if I managed to acknowledge David Brown and Clare Northrop at the top of the stairs, but I spied Geoff who seemed to have slowed down so I caught up and we crossed the line together in 14:45:07. 21 Minutes from the base of Furber seems ok.
That’s a 45 minute PB for me (2013 was 15:28 and 2014 was 16:28) and I’m a very happy man.
So, what could I have done better? Well a sub 14 would have required a 100% perfect race and a bit of divine intervention. I reckon I had about a 98% perfect race, and Divine is unfortunately dead. The fall at ~98km definitely cost me about 5 minutes, and I suspect the cramps are worth 15 minutes. I probably can’t completely get rid of cramps but I suspect that if I train harder they may not be so bad. I felt perfectly well hydrated all day but my wee was a bit darker than normal later in the day. There really wasn’t anything wrong, but I didn’t feel 100%. This is pretty common for me in hard races and I can usually get away with ignoring it. Getting into Wave 2 would potentially gain me a couple of minutes at Tarro’s Ladders. I had pretty bad nausea this year, it’s always present in a long race where you go hard, but this year it was a bit worse than usual. Not enough to make me chunder, but enough to be uncomfortable. Again it’s possible that training harder will mitigate this a bit. Laser hair removal- I decided to take one for theta but didn’t do this early enough and it started to grow back a bit before the race. I may have it done again so I don’t have to worry about chafing in races, but boys be warned- it’s like being stabbed repeatedly in the scrotum with a red hot knife. Yes, I once had a girlfriend who would have enjoyed that. Actually most of my exes would probably enjoy that.
So I’ve still got about 30 minutes of other gains to get under 14 hours, but a big fact has been unveiled- it IS possible!
So in summary
Don’t fall over
Get in Wave 2
Don’t be soft
Yeah, that sounds about right.
I still have to follow up an issue with my lungs. it’s possible that if I get that fixed I’ll be ok. Quick fixes, who knows?
What went right? My nutrition was just about perfect. I had bottles of Perp and muesli bars in CP bags along with Coke and Powerade. This meant that the only thing I had to do was fill the Perp bottle with water and (I think) my CP transitions were super quick. Apart from drinking too much Coke at CP3 I don’t think I could improve this.
Feet- also great. probably should have stopped to tighten laces before CP4-5 as certainty of foot placement would help here but I reckon 8-9/10.
Weather- couldn’t have been better. I got hot for a few minutes then the clouds came back- awesome!
Clothing- double singlet, arm warmers, merino gloves, buff, Patagonia shorts, gaiters all went really well.
Shoes- the Hoke Clifton and Challenge ATR’s have a very flimsy inner sole that can shoot out the back when you run. I bought some Selleys Quick Grip Spray Adhesive and sprayed the inner soles before inserting into the shoe. Worked like magic.
Another slightly odd thing- at a couple of the checkpoints I went to where the bags were kept and they couldn’t find my bag. This was because it was already out and on a table for me. I’m not sure if they did this for everybody or even how they knew I was coming in but it was a bit confusing and slightly annoying. It’s obviously aimed at getting people though faster but I got a bit confused. Probably only cost 10-15 seconds but I’m not sure if this was covered in the race briefing- does anyone know what happened with this?
Finally a special thank you to those who made it possible- my long suffering wife who managed to leave the event 5 minutes before I crossed the finish line- I STILL think you’re awesome!
And to super coach Andy DuBois- you really know how to get an old man moving. I’ve gone from about 85km a week of training last year and going backwards (I was an hour slower in 2014 vs 2013) to a much more achievable volume- around 65km a week- just more closely aligned to the race. Yep, nearly 2 hours off last years time. I still think I’ll have to do a lot more but you really proved that race specific training works.This one’s for you- BOOM!
*Thanks to Doug Richardson and Sam Rossington who I think supplied most of these stolen photos.