Race Report – SA Trail Championships

The SA Trail Championships are run every year on the Cleland Trails. There are 3 distances on offer (being a trail race, all distances are approximate) – 6km, 12km and the championship 24km course.

Cleland is a popular spot for hikers and runners alike, with regular wildlife sightings (I’ve seen kangaroos, koalas and even deer) and some pretty challenging sections of trail. Any time from early in the morning to the dark of night, you’re bound to run into someone – from weekend warriors to serious proper athletes. I’ve done it in mornings before work, Sunday Runday, even Friday night group trail runs. I’ve run through there during Yurrebilla Ultra Marathon (during YUM, Cleland is home to one of the best buffets I’ve seen) and I even spent last New Year’s Eve running through there.

Trail Running SA, who put on the SA Trail Championships, also put on social runs on most Sundays when there are no trail races scheduled. I’d run the Cleland 24km loop, pretty much the same as the Championships course, several times, so was pretty familiar with the terrain and the course.  

The first time I ran Cleland was also the very first Sunday social trail run I ever did. We were given printed, very clear, directions (eg “400m along Winter Track and then left on Long Ridge.”) Even so, one of my regular running buddies (who shall remain nameless) somehow ended up atop Mount Lofty (which was in no way part of the run) and tried to call several people for help. Said people allegedly saw who was calling and decided to ignore the calls! I ran with Kim and we did pretty well except towards the end when we took a wrong turn which ended very quickly in a dead end and we got back on track.

Another time I ran with Beck in pretty horrible conditions. Cold, windy and rainy. We were lucky enough to finish just before the big deluge hit. David, who organised the run, was not so lucky – getting back to the Cleland café just after us, he somewhat resembled a drowned rat!

This was my first Trail Championships. In 2014, my first full year of running, I was training for my first marathon and from memory it was only about 5 or 6 weeks away. I’d opted for a long road run instead of a challenging trail course where I might roll an ankle (being extremely inexperienced on trails) and put my marathon plans into disarray. In 2015 the championships clashed with the inaugural Bay-City Fun Run, which I decided to make into an ‘out and back’ to make it into a long road run, again as part of my marathon training.

This year I am also in marathon training but the marathon I am training for is later in the year. I’m also training for a challenging trail ultra in just under 3 weeks. This year, the Trail Champs fit perfectly into my plans!

I spent the week debating the merits of racing it versus using it as a training run. Realistically I wasn’t ever going to be a contender (although many very good trail runners would be skipping this event to taper for the inaugural Hubert ultra next weekend) but I still couldn’t resist the opportunity to race! A training run would mean wearing my big race vest, laden with mandatory gear and a bag of rice for extra weight. I’ve been trying to make up for my lack of training by running some of my regular road and hill runs with the race vest. But I didn’t really fancy doing that at the Championships. Instead, I opted to wear my small race vest just with sports drink and maybe half a litre of water, simply so I wouldn’t have to stop at the drink stations. (That tactic had actually resulted in my getting a placing at the Kuitpo Forest trail race last year).

I was picked up in the morning by regular morning running buddy Max and her husband Ray. I had gone out without a jacket – thinking my rainbow coloured arm socks would be warm enough – but was quickly sent back inside to get something warmer. I was so glad I did too, because it was a tad chilly at Cleland when we arrived about 45 minutes before go time! I peeled off the jacket with about 10 minutes to go.

I didn’t really have a goal time in mind. Mark, one of the fast runners I try to keep up with on my morning runs, asked me at the start what time I was aiming for. I said “2 and a half hours but I have a feeling that is a bit ambitious”. 2 hours would be 5 minute kms (even less, considering it was a bit OVER 24km) and with over 1000m total elevation, anything close to 2 hours was just utterly ridiculous! Anyway, 2.5 hours seemed like a reasonable figure to aim for. Given that it was my first Trail Champs, it was a guaranteed PB whatever happened! 

And without further ado, and spot on the advertised start time of 8:00, we were away!

Having not done a warmup, within the first few hundred metres I seem to recall, I blurted out to anyone who might be interested, “This is awful!” Not a good start when there’s over 24km of tough running to go! However, it soon went from awful to tolerable and then to pretty damn fun! It probably took a good kilometre for my dodgy hip (hamstring tendon most likely) to warm up and start feeling good.

I soon found myself running with Kate and Kay. Kate I have run with a fair bit, including my first ever half marathon (possibly also Kate’s first?) and regularly on a Thursday morning. Kay I used to run with regularly on a Sunday and also for about half of last year’s Barossa Marathon. We were also joined by Leon who is training for the 6 day Big Red Run in June, and may I say the best colour-coordinated man I have ever seen out on the trails, in head to toe blue! (Well maybe not toe – he dropped the ball a bit with the shoes. Let’s say ‘neck to ankle’.) 

We lost Kay after a while (she happily did make it to the finish!) and Kate and I settled into a rhythm as we chatted away.

Early on Kate had a couple of little trips but saved herself like a pro. It was then that I thought I’d better start concentrating on where I was putting my feet. I still find steep downhills very challenging – I tried the zigzag technique to reduce the gradient and that seemed to work.

For the most part.

At approximately 7.5km I think I must not have lifted my foot quite enough and caught my heel on a rock. One could say I went down like a sack of sh*t. Actually I think it was more graceful than that.  Kate complimented me on my roll! I hit the ground with my right elbow, knee and hipbone, rolled and bounced back up to do a quick systems check. There was a bit of blood on my elbow and knee (but thankfully not dripping) and I dared not peel back my skirt and Skins shorts to look at my hip. Miraculously (and most importantly), save for a bit of dirt and a few specks of blood, my lululemon skirt and Skins came out unscathed! And even better, other than Kate and a guy behind us who had previously proved to be an absolute pro on the downhills, NO-ONE HAD SEEN IT!

I had avoided any major damage and prescribed myself a tall glass of concrete (aka ‘HTFU’). We pressed on.

I won’t lie. It was a challenging course. 1000m of ‘vert’ in 24km was comparable to the 4000m in 100km that I will be tackling in just under 3 weeks. The scenery was beautiful, the day turned out absolutely perfect, and it was just wonderful to be out there among friends, enjoying the trails.

The uphills were at times runnable, and at other times either Kate or I would set a landmark and we agreed we could walk until we reached that landmark. For example, “the black tree” as Kate suggested on one occasion. I cheekily suggested she might want to be a bit more specific. There had been fire through there recently. There were a LOT of black trees!

We enjoyed the relief of the flats and the downhills and used the uphills as an opportunity to get some hydration on board. Kate commented that she would have expected to see a drink station earlier than we did. There was a spot just near Greenhill Road, just after 5km, which we thought would have been a perfect spot for a drink station and we thought it was odd that we didn’t see one until 10k. Not that it mattered because neither of us needed anything at that point – except maybe a pair of glasses. Sure enough, I later found out that there WAS a drink station there! That shows how little attention we were paying to our surroundings at that point! 

As we reached the drink stations Kate would stop for a refill and I would plod on ahead. At one of the drink stations Louise, who had been a beacon way ahead in her hi-viz yellow, joined our little party and ran with us for a while. It was around this point (19km – just over 5km to go) that I decided to make a bit of a move.

Looking at my splits, the next kilometre was effectively the fastest (considering it was slightly uphill and the faster splits I’d run were downhill). I was kicking it up a notch!

And then. I hit Doug’s Hill.

It’s not officially called Doug’s Hill. I think it is part of the Birriee Track. It has been unofficially named after SA trail running royalty in Doug Smart. Lovely guy, and very involved the organisation of Trail Running SA events including this one, but that hill? He has a lot to answer for! I’m told that, on a wet day, it’s kind of like trying to climb up a waterfall.

Kilometre 20 was 5:19, just a little uphill. Kilometre 21 was 12:04 with 116 metres elevation. I could see Kate and Louise not far behind me. Kate had earlier asked me, “Is this the steep hill?” I replied yes, it was A steep hill, but it wasn’t THE steep hill. Halfway up Doug’s Hill I yelled out to Kate, “THIS is THE steep hill!” I joked to the guy just in front of me that this would be a good spot for hill repeats. Except, having to go back down – bugger that! (Plus, he pointed out that access was a bit of an issue – a tough 5km ‘warmup’ just to get to the hill! A good point well made.)

I thought I was almost at the top when I said that. Nope! Still more to come! Kind of like Heartbreak Hill! When I realised I was finally at the end, I did a bit of a fist pump. The worst was over. It was all downhill from here! (Except it wasn’t!)

A few more kilometres slightly uphill and we were on the home stretch. From the point I’d left Kate and Louise, I’d been following a girl called Tracey who I didn’t know personally but who I knew was a good runner (and running buddy of Kazu, Yurrebilla runner-up and eventual third placegetter here as well as winner of our age group) I tried to catch her, at one point I did pass her but my lead was short lived. I chased her all the way to the finish and she beat me by a few seconds. It was great having someone to chase, even though I couldn’t quite get there today!

On one of the uphills I was easily passed by another girl. Looking at the results afterwards, I think it was Angie, who had finished in 2nd place ahead of me at Kuitpo Forest. I did eventually pass her and was surprised she didn’t pass me again on the downhill ‘sprint’ to the finish. I ended up finishing in a dead heat with another girl, Bronwen. The finishing arch had collapsed just before we came through so we had to do a bit of Limbo to get over the finish line – easier said than done after a tough 24+ km!

Having not really been looking at my pace at all, and just running by feel, I was pretty happy with my finishing time of 2:35:34. 2:30 is definitely doable and maybe something to aim for next year. Except hopefully this time next year I will be in Vegas, still basking in the post-Boston glow!

Kate, Louise, Kay, Leon and Max all finished not far behind me. I was extremely surprised to see Mick, fellow SA UTA100 athlete and awesome comedian, cross the finish line, fresh from breaking the Guinness world record for the highest comedy gig in the world. At Everest Base Camp. He’d only got back into town the night before the race! Now that’s impressive! (And that was probably the only time I will ever beat him in any race!) 

I also chatted with Andrew, winner of the Heysen 105 last year and who had done really well at last year’s The North Face 100 (now UTA). He had finished 6th in this race – he said the fast guys were just too fast for him! Now when someone like that is talking about ‘the fast guys’ you know they’re going at some scary pace! We also chatted to Simon, a fellow UTA100 virgin who had just marginally missed out on cracking the magical 2 hour barrier. I expect he will do very well at UTA.

I went to the first aid station to get my wounds cleaned up. The first aider was pretty happy with how clean they were so she just cleaned the blood off with a bit of saline and sent me on my way.

Presentation time, and more importantly, random prize draw!

Standing next to me was Micarla, who was in red-hot form having won the Clare Half only a few weeks earlier. She was dressed in street clothes despite having run the event! I soon found out how she had had time to freshen up and change – she had WON the women’s 24k! Nice job Micarla! Second and third places were filled by some familiar faces – Bronwyn, fresh from a great performance at the Buffalo Stampede, and importantly now no longer in my age group (at least until next year!) in second, and Kazu, happily back doing well after a nasty fall in a trail race here in January, in third place. (I later found out that Kazu had also had a bit of a stack out there but thankfully only a minor one this time! See, it happens to the best of us!)

Somehow, I was 2nd behind Kazu in the 35-39 age group! Kind of like Masters last weekend except this time there were actually other people in the age group! I was very happy with this considering it’s a very tough age group (even with Bronwyn having ‘levelled up’ to the next age group!)

Speaking of age groups, I need to give a special shout out to Max who won her age group and was only a few minutes behind me! And this after overcoming a long-term injury! Well done Max, you’re a star and an inspiration!

I was lucky enough to win a prize in the random draw – entry to the next TRSA event, Sturt Gorge on 22 May. My face must have dropped a bit – I’m volunteering at that event, being 1 week after UTA100. As Claire handed me my voucher, she said I can use it for another event seeing as I’ve already got my name down to volunteer. I look forward to running one of the TRSA events later in the year, after the Gold Coast Marathon!

All in all, it was a fantastic, well run event, and I would like to give huge thanks to everyone – committee, volunteers and of course runners – that made it possible! 

I highly recommend this event to anyone. 6km is great both for relative trail newbies and for people who like to run FAST! For those who want a challenging course but don’t think they can manage 24km, there’s the 12k! (Both the 6k and the 12k are also great for walkers!)

I LOVED it (yes, even Doug’s Hill)!