How to run Ultra Trail Australia 100km
When I first ran The North Face 100, as it was known back in 2015 I would never have guessed 3 years later I would be lining up for my 4th race in the Blue Mountains and 7th official 100km ultra race. I had a goal for this particular run to cross the finish line under 14hrs. In 2017 I came agonising close, too close being only 1 minute over the 14hours so this year I was going to claim my silver buckle, I could not come home with another bronze. I didn’t want that to happen. I couldn’t let that happen.
Ultra Trail Australia is held each May in Katoomba, Blue Mountains. As a voluntary participant in this race you run through some of the most spectacular landscapes – Narrow Neck, the Megalong Valley, Six Foot Track, Kedumba Pass, Furber Steps (all 951), Kings Tableland, Golden Stairs, Tarros Ladder, clifftop tracks, Federal Pass and the Jamison Valley. The 100km event has about 4400m of total climbs and descents and almost as many stairs. Its a race that exposes your weaknesses and humbles your soul; she’s a beast on a good day and absolute hell on a bad day.
The inner talkings of the mind
One of the main questions people ask of ultra endurance runners is ‘what do you think about for the hours that you run?” In all honesty, not much. I use to have what was called ‘monkey mind’ an over active mind where conversations would ping pong from one side of the brain to the other and end up a scrambled mess causing confusion, stress and unnecessary energy trying to make peace with the craziness upstairs. This year was different; this year my mind was calm, I had been dabbling in the practice of meditation and little did I know this practice came into its own during the hours out on course.
The one conversation I do remember having with myself during the race was ‘bring yourself back into yourself.’ This sentence I muttered out loud when I could consciously hear my breathing, when my breathing no longer had purpose or rhythm. These were the moments when I became conscious and aware of what I was doing and more importantly how I was feeling. Days leading into the race I lost a little trust in my body; my TFL was tight, my neck and back were sore, I was sure I was getting a cold and the day before I felt a wave of nausea that I thought I was going to be sick. On reflection I was extremely anxious and nervous and the body was outwardly showing the signs of the inner workings of my mind.
Breath not my legs did the running
Someone once told me that we don’t actually run with our legs, just like the four wheels on our cars don’t drive the car; the power of the car and our body comes from the engine and my engine is my breath. My breath allowed me to run without an active mind; it allowed me to channel the thoughts to one point and if I kept the focus on the in and out breath, any distractions such as hurt, stairs, hurt and more stairs would dissipate in the power of breath.
State of mind
My pre warm up race workout was in the company of my coaching team & coaches; UP Coaching, Brendan Davies and Kellie Emmerson. Actually this was a bit of a surreal moment; here I was warming up with Brendan and Kellie who both could quite possibly win this race (& they did) in a carpark at 6am in the morning before I was myself to run 100km. Moments like this don’t happen everyday. As well as warming up our bodies we were given the opportunity to nourish our minds with kind thoughts of trust and belief. Brendan’s parting words were reminding us of how lucky we were to have the opportunity to run and run in such a speculator environment. At this time I did feel like the luckiest and most fortunate person in the world. It was at this moment that my mindfulness for this race really came into its own.
Goals don’t have an expiry date
I had met with Kellie the week of my race and she asked the question ‘do you have a race time in mind?’ Without too much thought I said – 13 hours and 20 minutes. I don’t know why I said this exact time, it just felt right and more so it felt achievable. It wasn’t until the day before the race that I put together my race plan noting down when I expected to reach each of the 5 checkpoints and visually saw how this time had to be achieved; I had to be on it from the sound of the horn at my race start time of 6:27am.
It was only as I completed the final 1km did I then believe my goal time was about to be realised; I had bloody done it, I had run UTA in under 14hrs and I was about to collect my silver buckle. It was at this time too that i said to myself ‘goals don’t have an expiry date’. When I first lined for this race at the ripe old age of 40 having not long started running I said I always wanted to run this race under 14 hours – this was my goal and I was adamant I was going to achieve it. After 3 attempts I could have well given up on my goal but that’s not how I operate, Im a stubborn soul with untapped determination and I was doing to keep running this race until my goal was achieved. It was too at this moment that I also believed, anything is possible.
I finished UTA 2018 in 13 hrs and 22 mins.
Experience counts for everything
The past year I have trained smarter, not necessarily harder than any other year. I have ascended and descended a ridiculous amount of mountains and most importantly I had won GSER 181km race in November which gave me greater belief that anything is possible. Experience for me at this time of my running career counts for everything. I am by no means a natural born runner nor am I a natural born racer but both are being strongly developed each race I participate in. I am still learning to race not just run races; this is difficult if this quality does not come naturally to you. I am still in my mind, taking ownership of my space in the endurance world and I am still to shake the imposter syndrome which I know affects more than just me.
My experience in running not just the UTA course for the past 3 years assisted me in reaching my goal. Before 2015 I hadn’t stepped foot on a trail so four years on and I am feeling at one with the trails around me and feel more comfortable being isolated than I do surrounded my people in the big city in which I live. I feel so alive and strong in endurance races and races such as this make me smile and help build confidence to help me become a stronger and more competitive racer.
The power of now
“How are you doing, are you having a good day?” The conversation I had with two ladies as we hiked Kedumba Pass passing through Jamieson Creek on our way to Leura Forest for me around 90km in the 100km race. These ladies were running the 50km and had been out on the course for over 12 hours, their response was simply ‘this is shit’. I quickly reminded them of the worse places they could be such as at work, cleaning the bathroom or rounding up the kids for school. Unfortunately I think they thought those options were pretty good in comparison to what they were doing. At this point I just smiled and told them to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, there minds had shifted to the negative and I could tell my overly enthusiastic positive, not to mention coca cola infused mindset was not going to assist them to a more positive mental outlook.
I refused to let myself fall into the negative black hole that can quickly engulf you in a race. Sure there are moments where you just wish for the race to end, I had this at the 78km mark wondering why the hell wasn’t this race an 80km race but knew I had to keep positive in order to keep going. I was happy to be where I was, I was happy my race was going to plan and I was happy I was hurting, hurting meant I was trying and hurting told me this meant something to me. Despite the time out on course, these races go pretty darn fast so all you have is the power of now to keep you accountable and moving forward. Don’t look back at what didn’t happen and don’t look too far forward at what might happen; control the now and this will pay dividends.
Working with pain
If you know me and racing then you know I suffer extreme chaffing on my back from the packs I wear which are filled with mandatory gear. This race I was determined to be able to have a shower after the race and not to have a train wreak appear on my lower back which generally has people gasping when they see it likening the chaff to a scene from a horror film. Having taped up my back like a mummy I was 99.9% sure I was going to experience no issues this year, well that was the plan anyway. Lucky for me feet issues have never come into play when i race, I don’t experience burns or blisters on my feet well not until this race. About 70km in the race I could feel a uncomfortable rubbing/burning feeling on my left third toe and quite easily i could have let this cripple and take over my race but mindset is everything. During Oscars Hut2Hut I experienced severe chaffing on my back which was one of the most painful injuries I have ever had; this practically bought me to my knees and had me wailing in pain and fighting back the tears as every step rubbed deep into the already open wound. I reminded myself of this pain and realised what I was experiencing on my toe was superficial, it really was nothing and to suck it up, carry on and keep on running.
The ouch factor was also experienced pretty early into the race I was running/scrambling the Landslide section and at full speed whacked my head on a tree – this serves me right for not turning my cap around so I had better visibility on the single track trails. Being a little concerned with the impact I was worried for a moment I might be experiencing some concussion so I repeated to myself my name, home address, the date and what race i was running. At this time I had to trust I was repeating back to myself the correct information!
Almost the perfect race
I look back on this race with rose tinted glasses; its not every race that over 90% of your race goes to plan. I had a goal, I had a plan and lucky for me on the day I was able to execute it. I fuelled with gels every hour, on the hour without fail although towards the end around the 75km mark a little nausea crept in and I found myself running and dry reaching and telling myself I just need to consume 2 more gels and that was it, you were almost home. My nutrition, my clothing, my race plan was working – I put it out there and the universe listened, she bloody listened, thank you.
You can’t go into these races without a plan and you can’t go into these races without adequate fuelling. During the course of the 100km race I consumed:
- 6 Shotz gels
- 7 VFuel gels
- 16 salt tablets
- 1.5L coca cola
- 1L Nuun electrolytes
- 1L water
- 2 pieces watermelon
- 1/2 mandarin
I approximate that I burnt around 6,000+ calories over the 13 hour period.
6 Memorable moments
- Pre race warm up in the Scenic World carpark with the UP Coaching crew including Brendan Davies and my coach and mentor, Kellie Emmerson
- Sharing the start line and trails with new trail friends especially those from Victoria Ultra Runners
- Finally being strong enough to run up Narrow Neck
- Smiling the whole time up Nellies Glen and not experiencing any cramps
- Almost flying up Furber Steps knowing I was about to collect my silver buckle (apologising to other runners for being overly enthusiastic at this point of the race but I just couldn’t hide my excitement)
- Not having to put on my hi-vis jacket or carry the mandatory fleece due to reaching the last checkpoints within a reasonable time frame
Love for the trails
Its the small things that count when it comes to this race. I am well aware not everyone achieved their goals this year but my advice is, never give up – if you believe it to be true, it will come to you. I am excited by what the future continues to hold for me when it comes to endurance running; I may not be the fastest or the strongest but I am enjoying rising to the challenge to be the fastest and strongest that I can be and one day that might just count for something when I cross the finish line.
My love for the trails are as deep as those who support me; my family and life partner Zac. Thank you all for smiling as much as I do when I cross the finish line – right now I wear my silver buckle with so much happiness and wear it for Craig who I share the trails with, I know you were looking down on me and pushing me to finally achieve my goal. We did it.
Until 2019 UTA……the mountains hold a piece of me in their shadows and now I am now committed to each year to go back and say hello.