For those who are unfamiliar with this event, it is a 105km (ish) ultramarathon along South Australia’s Heysen Trail, from Newland Hill to Kuitpo Forest near Meadows. It is the brainchild of Yumigo!’s Ben Hockings and has been going for some years. This year for the first time there was a ‘half’ distance, 57km, which proved popular with over 100 entrants across the two distances.
My day started at 3.30am after having as much of my gear sorted as possible the night before. I stayed at my parents’ place for the Friday and Saturday night as it is slightly closer than my place to the start of the race.
The day before, I had seen an article on the Ultra168 website which mentioned my name as a possible podium contender – I was shocked (and flattered of course!) I think that did mess with my head a bit because before seeing that I was just focusing on going out and doing the best I could. All of a sudden I was now thinking potential placing!
We had to be at the finish line by 5am to get a bus back to the start. It was somewhat chilly down there compared to when we left town! Breakfast for me was a shake of cereal, rice milk, chia and cacao.
The start line was a hive of activity. There hadn’t been many 105km runners on the bus (most of the passengers were 57km runners) but there were a lot more at the start who had managed to get a ride to the start, negating the need for such an early start! Last minute gear checks and bib collection done, it was time for the race briefing. Beck had lent me a buff which I had planned to use as an ear warmer if it got cold later, but it came in very handy at the start!
The forecast maximum temperature was 31 degrees (Celsius) which was going to make the exposed sections of the course very trying!
Before we knew it the clock had ticked over to 7:00 and we were off! It was going to be a long, hard day.
START TO CHECKPOINT 1 – 17km
The first section was relatively easy, more so of course because I was still fresh! I may have erred by having an energy drink at the start – that possibly made me go out too fast. The other effect of having the energy drink was that very early on in the race, despite the bus making a toilet stop on the way to the start line, I needed another! Maybe that made me run faster too – I knew there were toilets at CP1 (real ones, not portaloos!)
I ran the first section in good time and 1 hour 43 was on the clock when I left the checkpoint post toilet stop and application of sunscreen – average pace 5:59 per km . I seemed to waste a fair bit of time there despite trying to streamline my pit stop procedure after Yurrebilla! As I left the checkpoint I saw Jo Kruk, red hot favourite to win the women’s event, approaching the checkpoint. I was surprised to see her behind me – I would have expected to see her ahead in the distance.
CHECKPOINT 1 TO CHECKPOINT 2 – 18km
From the training runs this was the hardest section I’d seen (bearing in mind that I had missed the CP2 – CP3 training run). Lots of elevation, STEPS, narrow trails, ducking under trees. I also grew to hate the stiles we had to climb over to go through paddocks – there were so many of them! I ran with SA running legend Barry McBride for a little while which was great, and found out that Jo is a slow starter and fast finisher. He wasn’t kidding! As most of the runners slowed to a walk going up one of the early hills in this section, Jo kept running, relentless! I couldn’t see any way that she wasn’t going to win the women’s event!
After a particularly brutal section of the course my pace had dropped when I reached the checkpoint but still respectable at 6:34/km, the time clock showed 3 hours 51 and I’d covered 35km.
Once again I tried to be as efficient as possible at the checkpoint – reapplying my sunscreen, filling up my drink bottles (water and Gatorade) and guzzling some amazingly delicious Coke!
This was also the first point where we could have drop bags – I had put boiled, salted potatoes in each bag so eagerly hoed into those but they didn’t taste very nice (maybe not enough salt… who knows?) so that was the last I had of them! I had planned to supply most of my own nutrition so I was carrying nut bars, almonds, Lifesavers, sandwiches and my new favourite, salted mashed sweet potato in a gel flask. Like baby food. Nom nom nom! I should have put a nut bar in each drop bag but had gone with alternate ones – I REALLY felt like a nut bar at CP2 but didn’t have one. Another lesson for next time!
I got out of the checkpoint quickly but soon realised I’d forgotten to grab a brownie or two – DEVASTATED! Those brownies are legendary! Oh well, too late now – no turning back!
CHECKPOINT 2 TO CHECKPOINT 3 – 22km
This was a hard slog. The temperature was really starting to heat up and there wasn’t a whole lot of shade in this section. Plus it was LONG – 22km between checkpoints – whose idea was that? It was also the only part of the course I hadn’t seen, having missed that particular training run. I had been warned though!
To make matters worse I managed to have a stack at around 38km (still nearly 20km from the next checkpoint) and grazed my knee. It happened in slow motion – as a result I managed to land relatively softly and saved my hands from damage but still when I looked down, there was blood. Oh well, can’t stop now, just gotta keep moving and we’ll deal with that at the next checkpoint! There was a fair bit of running through sand in this section – something I knew I would experience again near the finish! We also encountered a few curious cows – I greeted them and kept moving, trying not to startle them. I didn’t think any of them were bulls but I didn’t want to take any chances!
At the 50km mark I rewarded myself with a couple of energy pills (all legit I might add!) and certainly noticed that they gave me a boost when they kicked in about half an hour later. I approached the checkpoint strongly and reached 57km in 6 hours 58, average pace 7:14, slower again but still within my goal pace (I was aiming for 14-15 hours) and faster than my 56km Yurrebilla time. So all in all, things were going well!
It was a bit weird seeing the 57km runners finish… why did I enter the 105 and not the 57??? I had some fantastic help at this checkpoint from volunteer Annie (who was at every checkpoint from then on) and supporter Shannon who reapplied my sunscreen while I tried to text my buddy runner Kirsten to let her know I was ahead of schedule and suggested that instead of meeting me ar CP4 at 5:00, she could meet me at CP5 at around 5:30/6. There were some technical issues with the phone and there MAY have been some swearing.
I also had the first aid girl take a look at my knee, I said I didn’t want a dressing on it as that would restrict my movement. She put some Vaseline on it to keep the flies out (they were all over it before then – ewww!) I marked the halfway point with a fresh top and I was good to go!
CHECKPOINT 3 TO CHECKPOINT 4 – 17km
This was when it all went a bit pear-shaped. At around 60km (coincidentally also the longest distance I’d ever run up to that point) I got myself a bit lost. Up until that point I had had no trouble following the Heysen Trail markers and the extra markers that the fantastic volunteers had put out, but I came to a field where I was supposed to go ‘diagonally across’. Unfortunately I went the wrong diagonal! No markers, no nothing! CRAP. I walked around the perimeter of the field for what seemed like ages, still nothing! I tried using navigation on my phone but that was useless. I did have brief thoughts of quitting at that point but told myself to HTFU and get on with it. I even contemplated getting out my map and compass (the latter item I had very little idea how to use) and then I saw a figure running diagonally across the field in what turned out to be the correct direction. I chased him down and ran with him for a while, his name was Brenton and he was very familiar with that particular section of the course, having marked it previously. I was back on track!
That little detour made that section probably the least enjoyable for me. There was one other point in this section where I wasn’t sure of directions – at a point where a group of guys were sitting having a few beers. How rude of them not to offer me one, I thought… a hard earned thirst needs a big cold beer, right? I continued straight ahead, up a hill, and couldn’t see any markers, so I thought to be sure I’d go back and ask the guys where the runners had been going. They told me, up the hill. Of course it was up. Barry had told me earlier, when in doubt, it’s always UP hill. I said to them “You’re not messing with me are you?” (I may not have said ‘messing’) and they said of course not, they wouldn’t mess with someone who runs 100+ km for fun! Right. Fun. That was why we were here!
My pace really dropped in this section so I was texting Kirsten back and forth revising my ETA at CP5. First it was 5.30, then 6, then it became apparent I wasn’t going to make it by 6. In the end I should have stuck with the original plan!
Throughout the day I’d been regularly encountering people who were crewing for competitors in the race. Two in particular were Bev, Barry’s wife, who would always offer me something as I ran past her, and Michael, husband of Anna, who I had met on a trail run at the beginning of the year and I seemed to keep running into at events ever since! Michael had offered me an Icy-Pole during this section and I had declined, but on the approach to CP4 there he was again with the Icy-Poles. As I was going to be stopping briefly there anyway, I gratefully accepted – the Icy-Poles were a winner at Yurrebilla and I really needed one now!
I reached CP4 (74km) in just under 10 hours, average pace 7:52 min/km – a significant drop in pace, not really surprising! Again Annie was there with the other fantastic volunteers and helped me get my hydration and nutrition sorted as well as my night running gear which would soon be required. I took my head torch and hi-viz vest out of my drop bag (both mandatory items) and threw in the gloves and hand warmers (just in case – nothing worse than cold numb hands!). I did one last sunscreen reapplication and ditched the sunscreen in my drop bag. Thankfully the temperature was starting to drop and it was looking like being a beautiful evening.
CHECKPOINT 4 TO CHECKPOINT 5 – 12km
It was about 4:50 when I left the checkpoint, trying to text Kirsten with an update but frustrated to find that even with the supposedly superior Telstra network I had no reception. It didn’t matter though because a car drove past me and I quickly realised it was her! Dropped off by her husband, she joined me and my mood elevated immediately!
This was a short and relatively easy section, but I have no doubt that Kirsten’s arrival improved my run from that point. They say ultra running is mostly mental and there’s nothing like having someone fresh to run with, to take your mind off all the crap that goes through your head when you run on your own for long stretches! The 4-and-a-bit hours we ran together seemed to go so quickly, the conversation just kept flowing and I didn’t even have to resort to singing!
We reached the final checkpoint (86.5km by my watch) in 11 hours 35 – average pace 8:03 min/km. We hadn’t lost much pace at all in that section! We definitely ran more than I had in the previous section – I think I had walked more than half of that one. Again it was having a fresh set of legs with me that encouraged me to run/walk when I would otherwise have been inclined to walk/walk!
The fabulous Mal and Merrilyn were at CP5 with their usual spread of food (the pumpkin soup sounded very appealing but I didn’t really want to eat ‘proper’ food at that point – I would have preferred that at the finish! I opted not to have a toilet break here because I thought if I sat down I might not get up again. Besides, I didn’t really need to go. I could make it to the finish – only 18km to go! We had to don our hi-viz vests and we had our head torches ready to go for when darkness fell.
CHECKPOINT 5 TO FINISH – 18km
This section was just magical. The course was beautifully marked with glow-in-the-dark signs that made it impossible to get lost (a good thing given that I am somewhat navigationally-challenged, not to mention the fact that by now I was a wee bit tired!) The weather was ideal – balmy and still.
It was quiet, and we saw very few other runners other than a few behind us at times. Whenever we saw someone getting closer we’d pick up the pace – there was NO WAY I was letting anyone pass me now! We walked/ran (amazingly I still had some ‘run’ left in my legs) and made sure we kept some distance between us amd the people behind. They may not have even been part of the race but we weren’t taking any chances!
I was re-acquainted with one of my least favourite running surfaces – sand! MAN that was tough after 90+ km!
Running through Kuitpo Forest was wonderful. We saw a bunch of roos bounding across the track. The trail was relatively easy, a good thing given that it was dark by this stage and we were navigating by torchlight!
I guess the fact that we were almost at the finish helped make this section my favourite! The last little bit did seem to go forever though… the course was measured to be 102.4km so I had based my time estimate on that, but I knew my little navigation mishap in the field would have added on distance – I just didn’t know how much. When we hit 100km I was still confident we’d get under 14 hours. It wasn’t to be – but it would be close!
Kirsten saw a red light up ahead and said ‘Is that a clock?’ I quickly realised that was the time clock and THAT WAS THE FINISH LINE! I was so excited! We had done it! I picked up the pace and crossed the line to the cheers of the crowd. There is no better feeling! According to the Garmin I had borrowed from Simon for its longer battery life (unfortunately software compatibility issues mean I haven’t yet been able to upload the run to Strava, which technically means it didn’t happen), my time was 14 hours 5 minutes. Just outside my goal of sub 14 hours but I ran 104.87km rather than 102.4km so I’ll call that a sub-14! Average pace was 8:03 min/km – we had maintained our overall average pace from the previous section! I was over the moon!
It was time to celebrate and eat All. Of. The. Food. Spuds with salt. Coke. BROWNIES. I was very excited to open my finish line drop bag and find a pair of ugg boots in there. I was initially scared to take off my shoes and socks but surprisingly my feet were relatively intact and slipping into those ugg boots was HEAVEN!
The only thing that marred my enjoyment of the finish line was the fact that I couldn’t find my car and house keys, which I was SURE I’d put in my finish line drop bag! I checked ALL my drop bags and other people were only too willing to help, Paul very kindly even went back to CP5 and got my last 2 remaining drop bags (they weren’t in there either!) I called the RAA to break into my car (which was parked MILES away from the finish line) so I could get everything out that I needed. While waiting for them, Michael found some tape that would allow Vince to try to get into my car. We made the long trek to the car. Not only had I left it UNLOCKED but I had left my interior light on! A girl called Kate had left a nice note on my steering wheel to tell me she’d turned it off! Luckily I had left it unlocked otherwise I would have had a flat battery as well as no keys! Thanks Kate!
Vince and fellow 105k finisher Arwen very kindly gave us a lift back to my parents’ place, getting there around 2:15am. Mum was there waiting to let me in, as I’d told her about the key situation! After a long awaited shower I finally hit the hay around 3:30, 24 hours after I got up! What a day!
THINGS TO NOTE FOR NEXT TIME
-No energy drink at the start – save that for CP3 or 4. And on a related note DON’T GO OUT TOO FAST!
-More nut bars!
-Buddy runner – ESSENTIAL!
-Learn how to run in a diagonal.
Overall I was really happy with how it went. It was a tough day… many people didn’t make it to the finish. I don’t know if I’ll run this event next year but if not I’ll definitely be involved somehow! It was a great first 100km experience and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who is keen to give this distance a crack!