Woohoo the return of my favourite run in Australia – only in its second year in 2016 but it had that big an impact on me in 2015 I’m back and I’m psyched! Not your average trail run this baby is part of the Australia & NZ Sky Running series. That means it’s hilly as fuck – well technically it’s mostly stairs but stairy as fuck doesn’t quite work.
The first thing to note is that this year they changed the course and the hub centre and made things 100 times more awesome. The epic centre of awesomeness was Allview Escape, a 20 acre resort in the bushlands of BlackHeath, Blue Mountains. The race starts and ends here and comes and goes a few times more for those that are doing the 68k ultra which took out number 1 in the 5 toughest ultras in Australia rated by Ultra168 (they know their shit)
The change of event centre made this a much more communal event. Which was fitting as this was my first run that I’d really started with a group of mates. Claire, Wayne and Korajoined me and Claire’s kids and mum were our cheer squad. It was great to share the race energy and excitement with some mates. When we went to pick up our race packs on Saturdaynight we hung out and cheered on a number of the amazing and crazy people doing the ultra. It was inspirational to see legends and friends of friends compete in what must be an insanely tough course as it does the 20k loop twice and throws in an extra 28k to boot. OUCH! We watched the top male and female runners come through and cheered on the back of the pack who were coming in for the last 20k turnaround when it was getting dark and a blanket of freezing fog spread across the estate and beyond. The sheer determination and resolution of those that were able to turn around at this point and go back out again for another 20k of brutal torture are absolute legends. As many a top ultra-runner has said, much respect is due to those that go out and endure the elements for twice as long as the elites. Amazing stuff!
But back to the sanity of the 20k race. Last year it was 21k this year it was closer to 19k but a much more enjoyable course this year. The removal of an out and back section meant little bottle necking – though it’s trail so there was of course a little bit of traffic once we left the initial fire trail and hit the awesomely technical single trail that takes you to the canyon rim. The views are spectacular at this point as the sun breaks over the ridge. You can see nothing but trees that are as small as Lego trees as you look down into the canyon, the faint slithers of water break the walls as waterfalls cascade down into the abyss.
There’s some up and down action from the get go as we negotiate the single trail. I’m trying to remind myself that I’m still struggling with injury and this is my first proper test of my knee ahead of Tarawera 50k (my first 50k) and that’s only 6 weeks away. “This is not a race” I chant in my head but alas I’m rubbish at self-restraint when it comes to single trail and away I fly, smashing the downhill stairs with giddy child-like glee. (Oh boy did I pay for this later!)
Before we start our descent into the canyon we pass over the top of a waterfall, I recall with trepidation my race last year when I was absolutely b#ggered on the climb out when I reached the bottom of this waterfall and realised with sheer terror that I still had to climb to the top of it to get out! Ouch that was not a fond memory. Oh what to do, fake a snake bite, pretend to faint from exhaustion, cry woes of a stomach bug rendering me incapable of continuing…. Of course not! Strap yourself in for the ride Mrs the only way is down and then up, up and up!
Going down into the Canyon is one of the most scenic parts of the Blue Mountains. Very few people wander down this far and so we get the beauty of endless single trail, river crossings, cliff overhangs and endless other delights without a tourist in sight. Massive kudos to the photographer that clambers down here. Awesome work! I’m loving on this section and the body is feeling good but I know that the hard bit is yet to come and am conscious to save some in the tank for the climbing.
The climb sneaks up on you, all of a sudden you realise you’re on a steady incline, then come the stairs, the kind that really need inverted commas around them! They’re uneven and precarious and tough. So tough. But as you climb and start to pass waterfalls and watch the vegetation transform before your eyes the pain dulls ever so slightly and you remind yourself that you are bloody lucky to be here and able to see such amazing beauty. (Thank you Achilles for teaching me to live in the moment and always appreciate the beauty surrounding me and embrace my body’s ability to do this crazy sh!t)
And then the appreciation wavers as the body is slammed by the NEVER ENDING STAIRS!!!
It pretty much goes… Ooh look waterfall. Argh quads on fire. Oooh pretty birdie. OMG my hip flexors are trying to detach from my body. Awww wow look at those cool ferns. Sob sob, it all burns… And then it repeats for another hour or so because that climb is never ending! But I did find myself coming to the bottom of the waterfall in a much better state, mentally and physically than last year. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t allowed to stop, so that forced me to keep a more consistent pace and stop me from burning out rather than last year when I’d go hard until my lungs felt like bursting then I’d stop and catch breath. The plan to just keep keeping on worked as my time for the 16k canyon loop was 30mins quicker than last year. Pretty chuffed with myself for that one. Just goes to show what some real training can do for you! Thank you Squadrun.
The best part of the stairs is the final section where you’re up against the cliff wall on the left with the expansive view of the canyon to the right and as you look down you literally realise how far you’ve come. The waterfall flows down disappearing into the forest below and you feel relief mixed with pity for the poor buggers still down there. You can do it guys! Water flows off of the wall to the left allowing for regular fresh showers and visor cooling. .
This time it’s needed as when you finally reach the top you’re no longer rewarded with the cheers of the finish line. You have another 2k to go as you retrace your steps back to Allview Escape. It feels like this section went on for a lot longer than it did. The legs were feeling pretty heavy by now and I was tiring as I pushed myself to continue to run as much as possible, only allowing myself to walk during the steepest of sections. But then you hear those magical cow bells – best invention EVER! – and you’re flying (still only just cracking 6.5min/ks so the flying is all in spirit). The finish line was a brutal grassy uphill that winds around the estate making it even harder is the number of spectators which for me means attempting to run – damn you pride! But I walk a touch so that I’m not in immediate danger of vomiting when I cross the finish line. Leaving myself with just enough energy I negotiate the last few steps of the course (you sneaky race directors putting a set of stairs entering the finish chute!) and Ben Duffus (winner of last year’s race) puts my well-earned medal round my neck.
I was really pleased with my results coming in at 3:20:09 having knocked 30 mins off my time from last year (well technically knocking 48mins off my time but with it being a shorter course we can’t count them all) and placing 17th out of 79 females and 70th out of 199 entrants
This race is by far my favourite in Australia. Despite not being able to walk properly for almost a week following (calves on fire due to those down stairs) it remains top of my race calendar for 2017.
Fan girl alert – I have to mention that as we were queuing to use the loos at the start of the race a lady ushered us into a cabin and said we could use the extra loos inside. We’re their all nervous and excited and who wanders out the bedroom but Lucy Bartholomew, a young legend in the ultra-community and a massive inspiration to me and other female runners. She has had an amazing 2016 but the day before during the ultra she had a very bad day in the office. Battling with stomach issues and not able to keep down any fuel she struggled through every last kilometre of the 68k course and still came in as third female. She asked us how we were feeling and wished us luck then hobbled down to the start line to cheer us on. How awesome is that! Most of us would hide in bed and not surface until our bodies felt vaguely human again but there she was with a beaming smile and heaps of encouragement. At the award presentation later on Sunday Lucy gave a lovely speech giving thanks to the volunteers and other participants that helped get her through the day. Legend!