For 6 months I have been doing reconnaissance trips to the Blue Mountains in preparation for my third ultra, the Ultra Trail Australia 50k race. The iconic race takes in some of the Blue Mountains most popular vistas starting and ending at the tourist centre, Scenic World in Katoomba. With my trail buddies in tow we’ve scoured every inch of the 50k course. We trekked up the notorious Furber Stairs 7 times in total. I had planned every aid station visit and knew the splits I wanted to hit. I was prepared!
Mother Nature however had other plans! Bad weather shut the access road down Kedumba and it was confirmed around 6pm that we were doing a completely different course. We were going to do the first half of the 100 course and we were going to start 3 hours later than planned to reduce congestion on the course given the 100k lot were heading out in the morning. No time to panic, only time to review the new course and suss out the new checkpoints. At the end of the day it was still going to be a tough 50k run in the Blue Mountains and stressing about the changes wasn’t going to change anything. Though I had to laugh that having trained 7 times UP Furber we were now going to go DOWN them!!
At this point I need to give major props to the organisers for pulling the impossible out of thin air to get this event running this year! The closures impacted not only the 50k but also the 100k with the back end of their course turning into an out an back along the cliff tops (ouchie!). The course was expertly marked and marshaled despite the last minute changes and was well communicated through Facebook and the UTA app. They did so much work to ensure the race wasn’t cancelled! Thank you guys!
Toeing the start line with my Squadrun buddies, Andrea, Sarah and Craig I was pretty excited that it was time to get running. We were blessed by blue skies when the forecast all week had been for torrential rain – which the poor 22k runners faced the day before. We watched the lead group race off, fast as, and then 5 minutes later we were off. The shortened road section gave us time to stretch the legs and warm up the lungs with some hills that I lightly jogged and walked (coaches orders not to go too hard at the start). I felt pretty good though so jogged lightly within my comfort zone, not getting caught up by the fast guns whizzing past and the group 1 lead pack zooming past on their return. Returning passed Scenic World was cool as we got lots of cheers from the spectators and I was more than aware they were the last we’d see for a while on the different course that offered little in the way of vantage points.
The wind down Furber was slow; I took all opportunities to gain some places here to get away from the less technical runners, as I knew they’d slow down in the landslide. This worked well and sticking with Craig we managed a good pace through landslide with only a little congestion. Then the hike up Golden Stairs was soon on us. Again I love the technical, stairs (hence why I was not the most pleased with the course change to a more “runnable” course). Again a little congestion but it was welcomed given the strenuous climb.
I felt comfortable with the tough climb and reached the top ready to take on Narrowneck’s gravel road. Craig was not feeling too flash at the top of Golden so we parted ways with well wishes and I started the solid 10k slog that is Narrowneck. It felt like it went on forever! I caught up with a couple of Squaddies though and had a wee chat, which was nice but ultimately put my head down and powered on. I was surprised to see Andrea up ahead – that’s him at the top of the big hill as I rounded the bottom. It would take me 20k to catch the bugger but seeing him ahead was a calming experience for some reason. The open area also let me catch up on some texts from super wife who was nervously watching the race online from the comfort of the couch. Though the slow updates were stressing her out a little as she didn't know when the next timing point was until it came up.
Eventually, I could see in the distance a high-vis vest at the top of Narrowneck indicating the ladders were close. Luckily there was very little congestion on the awesome technical section here that winds down to the ladders. However, when I got to the ladders that was a different story. The marshal said a 6-minute wait for the ladders and I counted at least 20 people ahead. On coach’s advise I took the alternate route and I’m glad I did. It was crazy!!! Super narrow, slippy, cliff hugging, trying not to slide off, kind of fun! It reminded me off the bush whacking sections of Tarawera 50k. I was giggling with glee. Having done Tarros Ladders without the ladders I didn’t feel I was missing much by taking the longer way round and in the end I think it saved time and I LOVED the gnarliness of the alternate route!.
The next 20k of the race would be completely unknown to me. There was some amazing single trail heading down from the Ladders and this is where I passed some of the back end of the 100k field. Having started 2-3 hours behind them it was daunting to think that they still had so far to go this far in. But all I had was admiration for them and I let them know that when I passed. Trail running is no place to judge a book by its cover and to be honest it’s none of my business whether they cover 5k or 50k or 100k. It’s their journey and their reasons and good on them!
Soon I was winding down into checkpoint 2 in lush green countryside. I spent sometime here refilling my bladder and going to the loo. I had been contemplating changing my socks as I had some hot spot action on my feet but decided I could overcome it and it wasn’t going to get much worse. Luckily I was right! I’d entered CP2 after running for a while with another squaddie Ashley, but I lost him on my meandering and left CP2 alone. Probably better for me as he killed his run and I wouldn’t have been able to keep up! This is where I also caught up with Squaddie Simon and was given my free high vis vest as we were potentially going to running the last road section in the dark. This was not my intent though so I hauled ass out of there.
The next section was a slow winding uphill on gravel roads and I found it easier to slow jog most of it with a few walking breaks. I made a good few places up here and was feeling quite strong in my body so just kept trucking. There were a few supporters on this section, which was pretty cool as I hadn’t expected to see any for a while. Coming into CP3 I was greeted by a fellow Achilles volunteers, Adrian, who had ran the 22k the prior day. It was great to see a friendly face and get a hug. It’s amazing the way this can perk you up. But I wasn’t there to hang around and just filled up my water flask before cracking on. It was shortly later that I started to feel quite nauseous, I think it was the switch to caffeinated Tailwind at CP3 and the fact I hadn’t found time to put solid food in my body. And of course, as it would turn out from my results, that I was pushing the hardest I had in a race.
It was on the next section up to Nellies that I finally caught Andrea. I could see him about 200m ahead but I didn’t want to shout out as I didn’t know how he was coping and how long it would take me to catch him. So he got quite the surprise when I tapped him on the shoulder and demanded a hug!!
Turns out he needed one too! He’d gotten himself in a bad mindset about the impending Nellies Glen. But together we slogged ahead, run / walking and before we knew it the climb was on us. There’s a good section of single trail that winds up to the stairs, it’s pretty brutal but we kept a good hiking pace, Andrea leading and me encouraging from the rear (and calming the other runners when Andrea’s burst of expletives came out!! Haha, that fiery Italian blood of his!). Soon the steps were on us though and it was here that we started to feel the pain. Andrea cramped in his calves and sat down so I could stretch him out. I’m amazed by his ability to continue on in the pain I could see he was in. But the forward relentless progress method worked and soon we were at the top of the steps and greeted with the lovely steep uphill section to get out of Nellies. A gentle shove in the back from me kept Andrea moving forward as he fought through his calf pain. From there it was single trail action and a mere handful of KMs to the finish!
We passed a fellow Achilles volunteer, Claire, in this next section of single trail. She was doing the 100k and was in really good spirits. But we were on a missing so after a quick hug and good luck cheers we soldiered on into the Aquatic Centre, where we had a dance around the timing mats before heading down the road to the end. This is where I was really struggling, my ITB was causing all to familiar knee pain (Tarawera sad face time!) and I was really struggling on the downhills. I was slower than Andrea could have run but having helped each other up Nellies there was no way he was leaving me. We were in this together. Got to love the trail running bonds you form.
Finally we said goodbye to the road and wound down into the last section of trail at Echo Point. A young marshal saw the pain in my face asking if I was ok, not having 2 minutes to stop and explain how sore I was but how it was all part of the experience I just groaned and smiled and kept on going! Our last stairs and a good few supporters on this section cheering on the guys and with some surprise it seemed the solo girl (me!). One girl shouted out to go kick the boys’ asses! It was quite a nice boost but I was struggling to run nevermind kick ass. But there was no time for that as we rounded the final corner and the crowd came into sight.
At this point Andrea just grabbed me, yelling at me to come on! We linked arms around each other and jet-planed the entire race chute high fiving both sides of the crowd. Andrea was screaming like a madman, I was trying not to fall over / vomit / cry. The last I did as we crossed that line to roaring cheers and collapsed into an awesome hug before receiving our well-earned medals. It's a testament to how hard we were pushing in that last 10k together that I didn't take a single photo!!!
I crossed the line in 6:33:57 - 193rd out of 1460 and 36th female (out of 660) and 21st in my very competitive age group (8 of the top ten females were F30-39) - so I'm pretty bloody happy with the result. Andrea must have dipped for the finish line coming in at 6:33:56 in joint 191st place (how rude!)
When I started training for UTA I wanted to run hard and see what I was capable of, I didn’t think a top 6% of females and top 14% of the field was something I was capable of even with the training I’d put in. I also think there’s some room for improvement which would allow me to continue to improve on my results. Given my love of technical trails I think I need to focus on improving my general running strength and speed. So for now, as sad as it makes me, I think I’ll be hanging up my trail shoes for a while and focusing on the road. After some well earned rest and recovery and time with my loved ones especially my wife who has been an amazing support through this entire journey.
Thanks also to Squadrun for the coaching and awesome Squaddie support and to Fix Physio for getting me strong enough to do this race!