Monday, 30 May 2016

Ultra Trail Australia 100 - 2016 Race Report

Bib Number 1… no pressure right?

My build up to Ultra Trail Australia 100 had been widely publicised through the newspaper and social media platforms. I’d taken a lot of time away from the sport I love, but it was now time to lace up and see whether I still had what it takes to perform on the international stage against world class runners.

I ran in the Mt Solitary Ultra a few weeks prior as a tune up and got schooled on running up runnable hills by my good mate Jono. I was stoked to see him running so well, but it was definitely a dent in my confidence as usually anything vertical is my strength. He’d also out-climbed me on the steep eastern col of Mt Solitary, so I was clutching at straws to find positives from that race. I was only 45sec behind Jono to take 2nd place so that was good motivation leading into UTA100.

Despite the lay off, I felt remarkably calm and chilled in the build up to UTA. I tried not to buy into the hype of the race too much nor the international competition. It felt like a case of ‘business as usual’ really. I now look back with a smile when I think of how far I’ve come as an athlete in a few short years of racing competitively - I never used to be this relaxed pre-race.

Race morning was warm and I ticked off the usual pre-race things like taping nipples, applying body glide, drinking coffee…  all the good stuff. Though I say things felt like business as usual, I must have been a little off my game as I was standing on the start line with my new fluffy pom pom Outdoor Research beanie on and would have started with it had Liz not called out to me. I mean I would have looked pretty suave running back through the crowds of people at the start/finish, but from a performance point of view I’ll stick with a buff. 

All smiles pre race with Race Director and good mate Tom Landon-Smith.
As soon as we started running along the road at the start I could tell we weren’t running as quick as last year. I’m not a fast starter by any stretch so when I found myself leading the runners along the road it was easy to establish the pace was slower. 

As we went down Furbers I passed Mario Mendoza and Rhett Gibson, not going particularly faster than them but preferring to have an open trail in front of me. Jono followed suit and before long we’d bridged a small gap. It stayed this way for a few km before we started the climb up Golden Stairs. A few guys caught up and then pulled away on the Golden climb, but I felt content to cruise up at my own effort and not be dictated by others this early on in the race.

I spent the whole of Narrowneck running with my Compressport team mate Pau Capell and my good friend Freddy Thevenin from Reunion Island. One of my loves of trail running and racing around the world is the friendships created with guys like Pau and Freddy. Speaking in English and my very limited French we managed to translate that we were all going to be locking horns again at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in late June.  

Cruising along NarrowNeck plateau with Freddy just behind.
We ran along sitting in 3rd, 4th & 5th places behind Mario who was long gone by now and Jono who was just a couple of hundred metres in front. It was great having Jono there to use as a gauge of effort and pace. The pace along Narrowneck felt surprisingly comfortable despite my lack of speed work in recent months. Speed training and my calves aren’t the best of friends, so unfortunately it’s only natural speed I can take into racing.

The single track of Narrowneck has to be some of the sweetest trails on this course and some that I don’t nearly run on enough. Through here the 3 amigos caught up to Jono and we then became 4. It would stay like this through until Dunphys Checkpoint. 

Dunphys was smooth as usual, as I already had Tailwind powder in an empty 500mL soft flask in my pack so all I needed to do was add water to that, and top up my other flasks and Simple bottle. One thing I found was because of my speed at the aid stations throughout the race it enabled me to run a cruisier km as the group caught up.

Iron Pot has become quite the iconic section of the race over the years, most people remember the didgeridoo along the out and back section and often forget the steep rutted out single track that you have to go up to get there. I felt awesome going up Iron Pot which I was really happy about for 2 reasons. The first being that I simply got out climbed by Jono on the steep stuff a couple of weeks ago so I felt like I’d made progress and 2 - I was stoked to have my climbing legs back knowing I had Lavaredo coming up.

Running through to 6ft Track Checkpoint, Pau, Jono and I seemed to have dropped Freddy on some of the runnable fire trail road sections. We were soon 4 again as the Chinese Flyer Yun Yanqiao joined our group. I made a bit of a gap on the guys at the aid station and mandatory gear check. Thanks to Gavin from Tailwind Nutrition for giving us all the heads up on what they were checking, it made for a much smoother transition. It was awesome to see Liz for the first time in the race here, it always gives me a boost. Having my Uncle Ag and mother-in-law crewing as well was pretty special. A quick flask swap and some supplies to get me through to the Aquatic Centre and I left 6ft in 2nd place with no-one behind me.

‘So far so good’ I told myself as I started the run up Megalong Valley Road, whilst still reminding myself that there was still a lot of course to go and to not get complacent. I felt like I was ticking things over really smoothly and I was really enjoying the runnable incline. As you progress up Megalong Valley Road the road basically gets steeper and steeper before the start of the tough Nellies Glen climb. 

As I started to hit the slightly steeper fire trail I instantly felt a twinge in my right calf and a throbbing sensation. I ignored it at first in the hope that it was just one of those funny niggles that would go away, but it was the same calf and the same spot that I’d had a small tear 2 weeks out from the Mt Solitary Ultra so I was pretty worried. I ran another few hundred metres before easing off the pace but it was definitely not going anywhere. Not wanting to think too much about the guys behind me I decided I might as well ease off for a short while and see how things go. A couple of times over the next few km I tried to add a little more effort on the steep but runnable incline to no avail.

At about 52km Pau caught up to me and we had a brief chat, he explained that my mate had some serious cramp problems. I was gutted to hear Jono wasn’t having much luck with his body as I knew how hard he’d trained for this race. As Pau was catching up to me I was thinking in my head that I’d stick with him for a while as I knew his pace must be steady as it took a few km for him to catch up when I eased off the pace. 

As soon as I added a touch more effort the calf throbbing and twitching was back. I backed off instantly and told Pau to run well. It was great to see Pau running so strong, he’s definitely one to watch out for in Italy!

Nellies Glen was as good as Nellies Glen can be when you have a calf that feels like it’s about to pop. I walked more than I ever have up here and took short but frequent breaks to nurse the calf. Not long before the top Yun caught up to me and we had a brief chat. He was looking so strong as he passed me and I could only dream of feeling that good later in the race.

As I passed our house when we hit the road, thoughts popped into my mind of just calling it a day. I felt like if I wasn’t going to be running to win then was there much point in breaking myself and ruining my chances of running Lavaredo. It’s something that I had thought about during the climb up Nellies. A lot of elite guys seem to take this approach now days and call it quits on an off day to then rebuild quickly for another race. It definitely hasn’t been my ‘style’ of racing up until now as I prefer to start what I’ve finished, but I couldn't stop thinking about potentially missing Lavaredo because of a blown calf.

Meeting up at the Katoomba Aquatic Centre with Liz and my crew again, Liz could tell something was up. I told her the calf wasn't great and I knew that she knew that wasn't great as my chicken leg calves have been a hot topic of discussion at the dinner table of late. More so me complaining that they are always so niggly. 

I grabbed what I needed nutrition and hydration wise from her and decided to cruise towards the Fairmont and just see what happens. As much as I wanted to pull the pin I just couldn't do it yet as I felt I hadn’t tried hard enough and given it time to possibly come good. I thought I’d just cruise through to the Fairmont, I’d decided to also inherit a dirty heel strike to minimise the load through my calf. It felt comical how slow I felt I was going, and soon after leaving the Aquatic Centre I was caught and passed by Hoka One One team mate Ben Duffus. To say Ben blew past me like I wasn't moving is a massive understatement. He had the spring in his legs that I wish I had that day.

As we started the descent down Giants I’m not sure how but I bridged a fairly decent gap to Ben & Yun. I put it down to local knowledge and the approx. 10-15 times I’d been down Giants in recent weeks training. I knew in training that the section from Giants through to Leura Forest and then up Fern Bower was going to be a crucial part of the race so I’d trained here often. 

As soon as we hit the bottom together order had resumed and Ben and Yun took off into the distance. Through the undulating single track to Leura Forest my calf was having words to me again. Any time I tried to run ‘normally’ forgetting my heel strike it would pop up and remind me that it was still there and still angry. I walked many inclines through here that I wouldn't normally even consider as uphill. It was through here that my Lithuanian friend Andrius caught up to me. Being the gentleman that he is he asked if I was ok, to which I replied that I was just taking in some nutrition as I didn’t want to let on that I was broken - I’d have no chance of catching him then.

I stumbled (literally) my way up Fern Bower and then through the technical single tracks onto Gordon Falls and then onto the Fairmont. Through this section Ryan Sandes from South Africa caught and passed me too, also asking if I was ok. I told Ryan the truth as by this stage I felt my race was going to be over at the Fairmont. My calf wasn’t allowing me to run any inclines or ‘runnable stairs’ so I figured what was the point. As he moved along I watched him run off and started thinking how stupid ultra running is and wondering why I even bother. I got into a pretty negative headspace and bad thought after bad thought crept in. I knew it was happening and normally I’d snap myself out of it, but this time to be honest I really couldn't be bothered. There was going to be no fairytale ending, I wasn't going to get the win I felt robbed of in 2015.

Running the road section into the Fairmont I remembered this section last year as it was where Dylan and Longfei pulled away from me. I smiled and only wished I was running as well as 2015. As I came into the aid station Liz, Ag and Livy were there. I told Liz I didn’t think I was going to continue. We spoke about the calf and long term plans and that maybe it was best to pull the pin and then re-group for Lavaredo. Liz is great at giving me ‘tough love’ during races and thinking clearly when I might not be, so after I’d spent more than enough time messing around at the checkpoint she told me to get going and that she’d see me at the Queen Vic Hospital to reassess things. As I ran away from the checkpoint I thought to myself ‘Stuff that, I’m not having a DNF next to my name’.

Exiting the trails just before Tablelands Road.
The next few km were still a little wobbly but as I hit Tablelands Road something clicked, possibly literally. I seemed to make a really smooth transition to the road section and my normal hatred for the road was nowhere to be seen. I was loving the road, I was able to run freely and I felt like I’d only run 20km. Why, what, when or how this happened I’m not sure. As I was ticking over the km’s on the road I thought to myself ‘I’m not going to overanalyse it, but how has my calf sorted itself out?’ As I caught 50km runners they said lots of nice things and offered great encouragement. I returned the encouragement where I could trying to say at least hello as I passed. It’s a feature of UTA that I love, the social element of many like-minded people all out there battling the course. 

I came into QVH with a new lease of life. The previous 25km were forgotten and I focused my attention on finishing off confidently and using this as a platform leading into Lavaredo. I told myself not to get carried away and that things may flare up again. I descended down Kedumba efficiently and felt good with my progress. I knew that somewhere between QVH and the Sewage Treatment Works I would catch Mum and Dad which gave me extra motivation. The usual never-ending descent down Kedumba passed quickly and I actually enjoyed the descent, and my knees behaved which made me smile on the inside.

I eased into the first part of the Sublime Point climb knowing not to get carried away and push too hard. I could definitely feel my calf but if I kept the intensity at a certain level things felt ok. I ran far more of this climb than I thought I was going to and when I needed to hike briefly on the 2-3 steeper pinches I hiked with purpose and felt ok. The further up the climb I got the more I smiled as I knew that as I hadn’t caught up to Mum and Dad they were obviously having a good day out. About 400m from the Sewage Treatment Works I saw two orange Mile 27 hats and knew it was them. 

I battled a few emotions as I caught up to Mum. I was so happy to see her enjoying herself, and knowing that Dad had run every step of the way with her was so cool. It’s a memory that I will not forget any time soon.

Seeing these two on the trail was unbelievable, I’m so proud of them both!
The last few km of single track to the bottom of Furbers were fun. I ran a lot slower than I’d like but I was content and confident I’d be able to hold onto 6th place, and happy that I hadn’t broken myself before Lavaredo. Furbers was great and I enjoyed the interaction with fellow competitors as we made our way up this tough finish to this race.

I’ll never get sick of running up this finishing chute.

Crossing the line in 10:01 - I was glad to be done.

It was awesome having family at the finish line and there to support. I had 2 uncles, 3 aunties, 4 cousins, and Mum and Dad out there running over the weekend. I’m so proud of them all for running and also the rest of the family including Liz’s Mum and other Aunty’s and Uncles supporting us all.  
Liz moved ridiculously efficiently all day which was made even more impressive by the fact that she was 29 weeks pregnant. It was awesome seeing her and the bump at the aid stations throughout the day. I’m really looking forward to many more missions with my two girls chasing me around the mountains :)
10:01 isn’t the end of the world and I’m taking the positives that I can from my race as I now build towards the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 119km in Italy on the 24th June. Lavaredo is my all time favourite race and I can’t wait to toe the line with Pau, Freddy, Andrius and a long list of other mates. 

Thanks to Hoka One One, Compressport, Tailwind Nutrition, Vfuel, Ryders Eyewear, Garmin and Simple Hydration for your support. This is the start of big things this year!

Full steam ahead!!

The family photo. From L-R: Cousin Nicole - 22km, Aunty Avis - 22km, Aunty Mitzi - 22km, Aunty Patsy - 22km, Cousins Connor   & Harrison - Kids 1km, Cousin Mike - 22km, Mum - 50km, Uncle Shane 100km, Uncle Glen - 100km, Dad - 50km.

My motivation :)