Ultra-Trail Australia. Where to begin?
I arrived in Sydney on Thursday around lunchtime and made my way to Katoomba via train from the airport. I had packed all my essential race gear in my hand luggage but fortunately my checked baggage made it to Sydney too. I had been looking out at the airport and on the plane for other UTA travellers but hadn’t seen any likely looking people but then at the carousel I heard someone call out my name. It was Mick, who had sadly had to pull out of UTA but had already booked his flights and a few comedy gigs in Sydney. He had been on my flight but we hadn’t seen each other. We wished each other well for our weekend ventures and went our separate ways.
My first “what the hell am I doing here?” moment came on the train to Katoomba when I got my first glimpse of the Blue Mountains. It suddenly hit me, what a huge undertaking this was! I quickly got over that though, and enjoyed the scenery for the remainder of the trip.
By the time I got to Katoomba, dropped my bags off at the hostel and did a quick grocery shop, it was getting towards dinner time. It was too late to go to the event expo/check in by then, so that would have to wait until Friday. Being the “only vegan in the village” none of the food the others were having was any good for me, so I think I had a peanut butter sandwich on white bread. Mmmm, nutritious!
We were staying in a house which was part of a hostel. I had stayed there the previous year. Wendy and Dej, veterans of 2 and 4 North Face 100’s respectively (the former name for UTA 100) had been staying there for several years before that. It was an ideal location, just 500m from the railway station, within easy walking distance of the main street, and also walking distance to Scenic World, the centerpiece of the UTA festival. It was also great to have a house to ourselves where we could spread out, do all our pre-race rituals and not have to annoy any non-runners who just wouldn’t have understood why we had to be so messy!
Also there was Karen, a frequent flyer on this blog, and a fellow UTA virgin. One more runner, Jonathan, was to arrive the following day. Jonathan and Dej were allocated the downstairs bedroom and us 3 ladies all got a room upstairs to ourselves.
On Friday I had planned to go for a light leg-loosener jog with my race vest on. I’d had to unpack it for travel so I wanted to make sure it was packed so it would be comfortable for the race. There was a laundry list of mandatory gear we had to carry throughout, which was essentially designed to save our lives if we got into trouble and had to wait for a while to get rescued. There were 2 items, a fleece top and waterproof pants, which we would be advised later that day if we would have to carry (this was dependent on weather – with a forecast of 20 degrees and sunshine, it looked highly likely that we would NOT have to carry them, and could instead leave them in a later drop bag.
Karen and I firstly decided to go for a stroll down to see the Three Sisters. Another brief “what are we doing?” moment happened when we saw the sign at Echo Point that signified that this was the 60km mark of the 100km race. We wondered how we would feel by the time we got here the next day!
After the obligatory selfie in front of the iconic Three Sisters rock formation, we decided to wander a bit further along the race route. After a quick toilet stop (mentally noting that this would be a good place for a pit stop during the race – anything to avoid those damn portaloos!) we went past the Visitor Centre and noticed a few cool sculptures along the path. No way would we have noticed these during the run! I saw my first echidna (OK it was a sculpture) and there was also a lyrebird, some lizards and some Christmas beetles high up on a rock – you really had to be looking to notice them! Then we hit the Giant Stairway – another “WTF?” moment – after going down a few steps we decided “sod that, let’s save that for tomorrow!”
After a nice coffee we headed back to the house, I set about packing my race vest and drop bags and Karen went to meet Jonathan at the station.
I’d already planned my drop bags so it was just a matter of ticking off all the items. I’d cooked a couple of sweet potatoes the night before and mashed them with some salt. That was my version of energy gels and it had worked for me in the past. Karen had somewhat unkindly likened the mash in a ziploc bag to the contents of a colostomy bag!
My race fuel consisted of: sports drink (in powdered form), sweet potato mash (in squeezy flasks), nut bars, Lifesavers, almonds, nut butter sandwiches and peanut butter. Dej was horrified that I was eating peanut butter – he hates the stuff! That’s pretty rich coming from a guy that likes to drink beetroot juice on a run! I packed some of each in my drop bags and my vest. As the first drop bag was not until Checkpoint 3 (45km in), I had to pack a bit of extra sustenance in my vest for the first leg.
Other than fuel, I also packed sunscreen for CP3 and CP4 (I expected it would be dark or getting close to it by CP5 so sunscreen there was unnecessary), insect repellent at CP4, and some clothing changes. I had a clean top and arm socks at CP3 and CP5, spare shoes and running skirt at CP4, and clean socks at all the checkpoints. We had to take our checkpoint drop bags to the expo by Friday night.
The competitor briefing which we’d received several weeks earlier had suggested Coles or Woolies cooler bags as good drop bags. I already had them from Heysen, but this being a much larger event, I had decided to try to personalise my bags to make them easier to spot. At Heysen I had attached bright yellow tags, but at UTA they had recommended not to do that, as the tags could become detached in transit. So I had written my name, race number and checkpoint number on each bag, and attached a bright pink ribbon (double knotted) to each handle.
I wanted to go to the expo a bit earlier and I wasn’t ready with my drop bags so I wandered down at about 2:30, fully laden race vest on. It was only about a 3km walk to the expo. Well it would have been, had I not relied on Apple Maps for directions. I should have known better – Apple Maps has steered me wrong several times before! Over an hour later I finally got to Scenic World only to find that the expo was actually at KCC (Katoomba Christian something) which fortunately was just across the road. On the plus side I had walked for over an hour with my pack and it felt very comfortable.
I didn’t have much time at the expo – my circuitous route to get there had left me with less time than I had planned, so I said a quick hello in passing to Sputnik at the iomerino stand and then made my way to Fox Creek Wines to get a souvenir UTA 100 bottle of wine and meet the La Sportiva team including Mick Keyte who is an SA runner who also happens to be my good friend Sam’s brother-in-law, and Beth Cardelli who is a multiple winner of this event.
I completed my check-in quickly (another brief “WTF?” moment when I saw my race bib with my name on it) and headed back to the house to finish packing my drop bags. I checked the event Facebook page for advice about the fleece and waterproof pants, and happily informed the rest of the crew that we could leave both items in our CP5 drop bags. It would then depend what time we left CP5, whether or not we’d have to carry either of those items. The 5 of us then took the complimentary shuttle bus back to KCC to put our drop bags on the trucks, carefully making sure we put the right bag on the right truck! This was it – no turning back now!
I was the only one out of our group who attended the ‘compulsory’ race briefing. I saw a few familiar faces there – Alex, who had run this event last year and who I had also run with a few times in the lead-up to Heysen 105 last year, and Kim, who was with a group of runners who had done the Big Red Run (a desert stage race) last year and had decided to have a reunion of sorts here at UTA.
I was glad I went – it started with a traditional (and very entertaining) welcome. Then there was the ‘safety guy’ who gave us two key messages – don’t overhydrate (never an issue for me) and don’t take drugs (especially anti-inflammatories but even paracetamol). Finally the Race Director Tom Landon-Smith gave another entertaining address to complete proceedings. I quickly legged it to the bus – it was about 7:15pm by now and I hadn’t had time to eat dinner beforehand and really wanted an early night.
After waiting a little while for the bus (not surprisingly, most of the 1000-strong crowd from the briefing wanted to get on a bus!) I got back to the house just before 8. I had asked Karen (when she had left the expo earlier) to put on some pasta for me and it was just about ready as I walked in the door – perfect! I dumped it in a large microwave bowl (none of the ‘normal’ sized bowls were anywhere near big enough for an ultramarathoner appetite!), threw in some bottled pasta sauce and a bit of spinach and pretty much inhaled it! A glass of red wine and some dark chocolate topped off the meal nicely.
There wasn’t much left to do – my finish line drop bag was packed (mostly warm clothes as well as my fluffy slippers which would be a welcome relief to get into!) and my race vest was ready to go. I went to bed around 9:30ish, with my alarm set for 4:30. My alarm was on my old phone, which had no SIM card in it and had not automatically updated the time when we’d changed time zones – so it was still on SA time, half an hour behind! Lucky I’d checked it!
On Saturday morning we were all up early. Dej was in the first (fastest) start group and he was also going to get there early for a warmup with his coach, Brendan Davies. Warming up for a 100km ultra – hardly seemed necessary in my opinion but Dej is a veteran of this event and is the owner of a coveted silver belt buckle (sub-14 hour finisher) so I presumed he knew what he was doing!
After my usual breaky (muesli, Weetbix, chia and almond milk with a glass of OJ), I had one moment of minor panic when I was getting dressed and couldn’t find my running undies. SURELY I couldn’t have forgotten to pack them? I hadn’t packed any other running undies as I hadn’t planned to run other than this one race. I was debating with myself, do I wear non-running undies or do I go commando under my compression shorts? I had opted for commando and then turned around and saw my undies there on the bed – phew! Never try anything new on race day – especially when it’s a 100km race!
I did try something new though. My race kit consisted of my Yurrebilla race singlet and buff from last year (why not do a bit of promotion for a fantastic SA race out on the trails?), and none of my striped arm socks matched that top, so I’d bought new ones which had never been used before. I also wore cycling gloves, a recommendation from Wendy, because there was a bit of rock climbing involved and it would save my hands. Wendy’s suggestion was to wear them throughout. Other than this it was a pretty stock standard kit for me – compression shorts and calf sleeves, trail shoes, black socks and my favourite lululemon running skirt with side zip pocket and a few waistband pockets which are useful for having snacks at hand
I had a few moments to kill after I was ready and I thought I might as well go – Jonathan was in the group before me and had left not long ago. Better to be early than late, although if I was late for my start group I could always start in a later group which was nice. Wendy and Karen were a few groups behind me so they left the house a bit later.
On the bus I put on my sunscreen – it seemed odd to be doing it in the dark but it was going to be a warm day – I wasn’t taking any chances!
At Scenic World I dropped off my finish line drop bag and made a quick pit stop before watching the first start group set off. I met Sonja and Mike, two Adelaide runners who I’d met on a trail run early in the year and had been following on Strava. Before I knew it, Start Group 2 had gone and my group was being called! This really WAS it! Another Adelaide runner, Anna, called out to me. I hadn’t realised she was iny start group. Only days earlier she had been trying to downgrade to the 50km race as she’d had a lot of health issues and did not feel she was prepared for the 100km. Having not been able to arrange a swap, here she was! We wished each other all the best and we were away!
The first 4km was an out and back, on road, around Scenic World. It was a nice way to ease into it and there were a lot of people there cheering us on. Among them was Lucy Bartholomew, a well known ultra runner who I had met a few weeks earlier at a Q & A night. She has run Yurrebilla a few times. She was supporting her dad on this occasion and I recognised her and called out. I don’t know if she recognised me personally but she did call out “Yurrebilla!”
I ran with Hoa for a while, another Adelaide runner who had run the event the previous year. She was planning to run with Bev who was in group 4, one behind us. Bev was hoping to catch up with us. Hoa informed me that Anna was already well in front of us. That would be right, I thought, not even sure if she can make the distance and she’s going to have a smashing run anyway! We saw the first start group running back as we were running out – I spotted Dej and wished him all the best (as if he needed it!)
Hoa quickly picked up the pace and that was the last I saw of her!
Early on, we met the Furber Steps. I was a bit familiar with these steps. We would become reacquainted with them at around the 99km mark when we would have to go up them. All 951 of them. Fortunately, at this early stage, we were descending!
At around 6.5km, I don’t know what I tripped over, but I fell. I grazed my right knee and elbow, and probably would have grazed my right hand too if not for the gloves. There was a bit of blood but nothing too serious. I bounced up and kept going. I could get first aid at CP1 which was less than 5km away. I had fallen over at Heysen 105 too, again seemingly tripping on nothing, but that was at the 38km mark. I think probably I am cautious in the more technical sections but probably a bit blasé in the ‘easier’ bits. Plus, we were in the freaking Blue Mountains – it was hard not to be distracted by the incredible scenery!
In this section too, I saw the only instance of bad blood (no pun intended!) between runners. Etiquette states that if a faster runner behind you wants to get past, you let them. Behind me, on a technical rocky section, someone was trying to pass another runner. The runner in front took exception to this, saying it was not the time or place, there was a long way to go, and there was a wider fire track up ahead which would be ideal for overtaking. The runner behind got a bit shitty about this and while there were no raised voices, it was a little tense. I was thinking, come on guys, can’t we all just get along? The guy behind did end up passing, and I later let him pass me without a word. I can see both guys’ points of view but it really left a bit of a sour taste when trail runners and ultramarathoners in general are noted for their great camaraderie!
A little after this I was joined by a runner called Alex from NSW. He had previously run the event in 16 hours and that was the time I was (naïvely) hoping to do, so I was pleased to stick with him and chat for a while. He went on ahead just before CP1 and we wished each other all the best in case our paths didn’t cross again.
Somewhere along here we encountered the Golden Stairs, our first tough ascent for the day. I have to admit I have no recollection of this – others complained about these stairs after the event, but I just had no memory of them. It must have been that all those seemingly endless ascents and descents blurred into one!
I reached the first checkpoint at Narrow Neck (11.4km) in 1 hour 34 minutes. I put on some more sunscreen and topped up my water and sports drink (I also had a bladder with 1 litre of water in it – I hoped not to have to use this, as the bladder would be a pain in the arse to get out, refill and put back in.) I didn’t need anything else so early in the race, so I was about to get going when someone asked me if I needed first aid. Oh that’s right. My elbow and knee! Fortunately I had forgotten about them in the last 5km since I had fallen! I made my way to the first aid tent where the first aid officer insisted I sit down (I was reluctant as I thought it would be too hard to get going again). Paul Rogers of Fox Creek Wines was also at the first aid tent helping out – it was great to see a familiar face, since most of the people I knew who were in town, were actually competing in the race! My wounds were assessed as non-life-threatening, and cleaned up with a bit of saline. I was given a warm glass of concrete and sent on my way.
The next little section, Narrow Neck, was familiar. I had run this section last year as part of a training run – it was a week out from the Barossa Marathon and I had done my long 20km run on the Friday. Wendy had suggested this might be a good place to do my run. Last year it was so peaceful and a pleasure to run, getting away from the chaos for a while. This year, it wasn’t quite so peaceful (what with all the other runners around) but no less pleasant. It was gently undulating, wide fire track. This was going to be a piece of cake! (Except it wasn’t, and I knew that!)
Not far out of CP1 there was a sign indicating a photographer was ahead. The girl next to me had picked up a sturdy stick along the way which she was using to help her along. (I saw a lot of people do this. Also many people with trekking poles. At many times I wished I had poles or at least a stick!) As soon as she realised there was a photographer ahead, she quickly disposed of the stick – she didn’t want a photo of her using a stick, especially not at this early stage!
I smiled and waved at the photographer. I was tempted to try jumping – jump shots can look awesome and there was Buckley’s chance of my being able to pull off a jump shot in the later stages, however the last time I attempted this i nearly strangled myself with my buff so I opted for a smile and wave instead!
Around this time I was caught by another Adelaide runner, Ryley. I had briefly met him while I was helping out at a checkpoint during the Coastal Challenge ultramarathon back in Adelaide. He has a very distinctive beard so is hard to miss! We ran together briefly but he was in start group 5 (he started 20 minutes behind me) and was clearly running faster than me, so we weren’t together for long. That was pretty much the story of the day, you’d run with someone for 5 or 10 minutes, have a bit of a chat, get each other’s life story, and then one person would go on ahead. It was nice. THIS was the camaraderie I had been expecting!
At the 22km mark we came to Tarros Ladders. There was a slight delay here as only 8 people can be on the ladders at one time. There is an alternative route which is slightly longer and bypasses the ladders. Runners are sometimes rerouted via the bypass when the ladders are busy. When I arrived, I was told that the time to get down via the ladders and the bypass would be about the same, so I went with the ladders. The girl ahead of me on the ladders said when she had last done this descent, the ladders weren’t there and she had to use spikes in the rocks to descend. I thought that was a little harsh – I later found out that it wasn’t during the race that she did it, it was just a training run! (The extension ladders that we climbed down are installed specifically for the event and are not there at other times).
The ladders were kind of fun! I was glad I was going down and not up!
I ended up running with the girl who had been ahead of me on the ladders. Her name was Belinda and she was from the local area. We ran together for a while, then I got ahead for a bit and she caught up. Her husband was running too, in start group 1. I asked her if she was hoping to catch up to him and she sort of laughed and said no, he was fast. He had done the Western States (a hardcore ultra in the US which is really hard to get into) and had also run the Boston Marathon. We chatted about Boston for a while, Boston qualification being one of my main goals for this year. She said the atmosphere was amazing, and crowds lined the streets from start to finish. I thought that would have been nice here (but highly impractical given the environment!) – the crowds at Scenic World on the first little out and back section had really given me a boost!
Checkpoint 2 was at Dunphy’s Camp at 31.6km, accessed by climbing over a stile. More bloody stairs! I reached Dunphy’s in just under 4 hours 15 minutes. I had lost Belinda at this stage. First order of business was to top up my bottles. There was a Scottish guy at the drink station saying “Water here and sports drink over there” (or words to that effect. While filling my bottles I asked him if he got sick of saying that, over and over and over again. (I had volunteered at a drink station before. I DID get sick of it after a while!) He said no, but if I got sick of hearing it, that meant I’d been there too long! Fair point! Next on the agenda, while there was no queue at the portaloos, was a toilet stop – silly me decided to take my race vest in with me instead of leaving it on the ground outside like the sensible people did. I accidentally knocked the end of the hose of my bladder (ie the bit you put in your mouth) on the back of the door – ewww!
After that I went over to where the food was, had a handful of potato crisps, sat down on the ground and got myself organised for the next section, a little over 14km away. I wiped my hands with a baby wipe and then with another I wiped over the drinky bit on my hose. I’d rather the taste of baby wipe than the taste of portaloo! Besides, the bladder was for emergency use only! I got out half a sandwich, and while still eating it, set off for the next leg.
Not far out of the checkpoint I saw a familiar Big Red Run T-shirt. It was Ruby, who I had met at the briefing. This was her first 100km trail ultra – she had entered one previously that had turned into a track ultra because of flooding making the trail impossible to run. Happily, there were no such issues in the Blue Mountains! We ran together for a short while before she powered on ahead. I could see her distinctive red calf compression sleeves ahead for a while and then she was gone!
I soon came to an interesting part of the course, Ironpot Mountain and Ironpot Ridge. This was a roughly 500m in total, out and back section along a fairly narrow, rocky track. As I commenced the ‘out’, I heard a voice calling my name. It was Anna, who had just finished the ‘back’, so was around 500m ahead of me. I continued on, passing the 35km marker and the musicians at the top. We could hear the didgeridoo music and the sticks (I’m not sure if they have a special name) from a little way away and it was great to see and hear them on the ridge. David, who had done the traditional welcome at the briefing the night before, was there encouraging and high fiving the runners as we went through. It was a real lift for the spirits!
Not long after this we hit the aptly named Megalong Valley Road – it was LOOOONG! This is a dirt road, so we had to be on the lookout for traffic. This was where my buff first came in useful, as I could pull it over my nose and mouth when cars went past, so I didn’t have to inhale the dust.
It wasn’t just cars though, there was the occasional crazy bike rider as well! One such crazy bike rider looked oddly familiar – it was Rob, who you may remember from such blog posts as last year’s City2Surf. He’d come down from Sydney to cheer on a number of people he knew in the race. I gave him a high five as he passed me and carried on my merry way!
Somewhere along here I picked up an English guy called Mark who was from Perth. He was struggling, having rolled his ankle, and was intending to pull out at Checkpoint 3. He had walking poles in a drop bag but that was at Checkpoint 5 and he was unlikely to make it that far. (One of the benefits of having a support person is that they can have all your stuff available at checkpoints 3, 4 and 5, so you don’t have to plan ahead what you think you will need at each checkpoint.) Even if he had had the poles he probably would not have made it to the end. He jokingly said that if he pulled out, he might volunteer at the first aid tent at CP3, being a paramedic!
We walked/jogged (mostly walked) and chatted for a while, and then when we came to a point where I felt like picking up the pace for a bit (getting close to the checkpoint) he told me to go on ahead – he had decided he was definitely going to pull out, but would be able to make it to the checkpoint OK. Just before this we had seen a guy with poles on the side of the road, looking like he was in a bit of trouble. We asked if he was OK, and he said his hip and knee were giving him hell and he was going to pull out at CP3. After making sure he would be able to make it to the checkpoint, we had moved on. Not long after that we saw him slowly making his way to Checkpoint 3.
After I left Mark, I jogged for a while and I saw a familiar back in front of me. It was Anna again! She was really struggling and was planning to pull the pin at CP3 where her husband Michael was waiting for her. I asked her if she wanted some company and she said yes, so we walked together up to CP3 at Six Foot Track (46km). If she was going to pull out here,she wasn’t going to end the journey alone! We had been going for 6 hours 40 minutes at this stage.
On arrival at CP3 we were subjected to a gear check – we had to show our waterproof jackets and head torches. Michael was there with Coke (OMG I was SO excited to have some Coke!) and some boiled salted potatoes which he kindly shared with me. I had met him several times before doing events with Anna, as we were around the same pace so I’d often see him at checkpoints waiting for her and he was always happy to help me out. I left them there to go and get my drop bag – at this point Anna was talking about trying to walk to CP4 (‘only’ 11.3km away) and then reassessing from there. I wished her all the best in case I didn’t see her again.
I went to the drop bag tent – on the way there I saw Ryley sitting on a chair looking like he was sitting by a pool at a tropical resort! At the tent I got my bag and sat down. I had gotten over my ‘fear’ of sitting down at checkpoints, realising that it was a necessity (for me at least, maybe not for the elites) in an event such as this. After reapplying my sunscreen and getting out the food I wanted for the next leg, I changed my top. I didn’t really feel I needed to change yet, but my next clean top was not until CP5 (78km – another 32km away) and I didn’t want to take the risk of chafing (which has happened to me in the past in ultras when I’ve worn one top for too long) and I didn’t want to carry the clean top. I kept the same arm socks on though, I really liked the colours on these ones! I filled up my bottles again on the way out and couldn’t resist grabbing another handful of chips and a couple of glasses of Coke. All in all I was there for 17 minutes (runners were timed at a number of points along the course and at some of the checkpoints we were timed on the way in and the way out).
The best thing about the next section was the halfway point! I was on my own at this stage (well there were others around me but I wasn’t specifically running with anyone) and we were on a track called the Six Foot Track. I knew the 50km marker had to be coming soon. My Garmin wasn’t showing an accurate distance, it was somewhere between 500m and 1km under the proper distance. That would be REALLY annoying at the finish line if it only read 99km!
Finally – yes – there it was! The halfway point! I forgot to sing Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ as I had done last year at Yurrebilla, but I did take a beaming selfie next to the sign. 7.5 hours down and I had reached the halfway mark. I knew, though, that the back half would be MUCH tougher.
For a while I ran with a girl called Danielle. I can’t remember where she was from – I have a feeling it was the Gold Coast. She, like me, was a relatively new runner, having only been running for about 3 years. She told me that she’d previously been a heavy smoker and drinker, so this was quite a dramatic change in her life! She also told me that I should definitely do the Six Foot Track marathon, an iconic event in this same area which I have heard a lot of people rave about. Another one for the bucket list!
Another girl I ran with briefly was called Kaz. We were in a small group at that stage, and Kaz was saying she wanted to sing ‘500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers but didn’t want to do it as a solo. So naturally I helped her out! And the people around is joined in! I would have liked to keep the karaoke party going for a bit longer but Kaz was a bit too quick for me so she was gone! I hope she found another singing buddy!
A bit further up the road, I came to the notorious stairway out of Nellies Glen. Definitely not the Stairway To Heaven. Stairway From Hell, maybe! The number of stairs is unclear (I certainly wasn’t counting them) but I later Googled and it is widely estimated that there are around 500 stairs. Now, normally when you climb a lot of stairs (and up until UTA I never had any problems with stairs), you get some respite with a landing every 15-16 stairs. Here, there were no landings, so it was a constant climb. It was, for me, the hardest part of the course. I definitely wished I had walking poles here! (Wendy later told me that she’d seen a whole pile of sticks at the top of the stairs that people had used to help them up. Pity there wasn’t a nice person to take them down to the bottom for the next lot of climbers!) I think from memory there were a few rails here and there (and wherever there were rails, I would use them to full advantage) but really, it was just a nasty, nasty section. To give some idea, it took over an hour for me to get from 50km to 55km. It was a hard slog! Somewhere along that climb I heard a voice call my name. It was Marc, a fellow Adelaide runner who had started in group 6 – he was making good time! He soon passed me and stayed ahead of me for the rest of the day.
Approaching CP4 I saw a girl standing by a tree. It was Sonja from Adelaide who I’d seen at the start. Turned out she had torn her Achilles only 6 weeks ago and was actually happy to have gotten this far in the event! After making sure she was OK to make it to the next checkpoint, I pressed on.
At 57km we were back in Katoomba again and into CP4 in the Katoomba Aquatic Centre. This was a weird checkpoint as it was indoors. So we’d go from some pretty spectacular trails, to a gym in the middle of the town! I was mildly surprised to see Michael there, and even more surprised to hear that Anna had got there ahead of me! She hadn’t passed me in the last leg, so we worked out that she must have left CP3 before me and stayed in front. I had some more Coke and potato thanks to Michael, and sat down on the floor and removed a pesky rock from my shoe that had been annoying me for some time. I reapplied my sunscreen for the last time and topped up my drinks again. Again I was there for 17 minutes and Anna set off about 5 minutes ahead of me, I said I’d catch up. She said she’d only be walking. I didn’t bother with a toilet stop here becauee only 3km away was Echo Point and the nice public toilets Karen and I had seen the previous day. I thought I saw Marc on his way out as I was sitting on the floor but couldn’t be arsed getting up at that stage to talk to him! I also saw Ryley again sitting on a chair looking quite chilled. He was still doing OK.
Not long after this I was running along a path leading up to Echo Point when I could hear cheering and music. I said to the guy next to me, “Is that the finish line?” He said something like “I wish! We’re only at 60km!” But it was the finish line – the first of the runners were starting to come through and we still had another 40km to go. What kind of sadist makes people go so close to the finish line that they can hear it, with almost half the race still to go?
I saw Michael again at Echo Point – support crews were not allowed here but it is a big tourist area so they couldn’t stop people from coming along to watch and cheer. And it was nice. Not only those who had come to watch the runners, but also the random tourists who happened to be there, all gave us a great reception. I saw Anna, she was still ahead of me at this stage. My plan to use the nice toilets was thwarted when I saw the queue out the door. Queue? I was in a race! Screw that! Plus I didn’t really need to go that badly. The tourists on the path were very courteous, they would always get out of the runners’ way. The Giant Stairway was a perfect example of this, it is a very narrow and steep descent and tourists, seeing us coming down, would stand aside and let us through. I actually quite liked this bit. Especially with the handrails to hold onto, I was able to go down there at a reasonable pace!
Near the bottom I encountered a guy on his phone. Turned out his support crew had broken his bladder and were out at one of the outdoor shops buying a new one! So, I guess there’s a good advertisement for NOT having a support crew! I asked him if he was OK for water, I still had my emergency 1 litre in my bladder and said he could fill his bottles from that if he needed to. I thought a broken bladder definitely constituted an emergency! He said no thanks, he’d be fine to get to the next water point which was only about 7-8km away.
Not long after this we were in a beautiful forest. It was a bit dark down there and I was contemplating getting out my head torch. It was around this time that I finally caught up with Anna. It was probably about 5pm by then and we were starting to see some amazing colours in the sky. We stopped to take some photos at a waterfall (I can’t remember which one!) and I said to Anna, “How beautiful is this?” Anna said that was so Aussie, making a statement like that in the form of a question! I’d never actually noticed that before but we do do that a lot, don’t we? I said to her, you’ll know you’re a proper Aussie when you start saying “Yeah, nah”! She said that they have a similar expression in her native South Africa so I guess we’re not all that different!
We decided it was definitely time to don the head torches. I took off my cap and carried it, and pulled my buff up over my head as a headband, so my torch wouldn’t rub on my head.
Around this time a guy ran past us, singing. It was Ryley again! He had left CP4 after me and the extended break had obviously done him good because he seemed to be in great spirits and running well!
A guy running near us said “This looks like a golf course!” That was good news, because that meant we were near the Fairmont Resort in Leura which was the 69km water point. Here there were only basic supplies (chips, lollies and water) and no support crews were allowed, so no Coke and spuds! On the way into the Fairmont we passed some apartments, some people cheered us on through an open window. I called out, “Do you have wine?” The girl said “We’ve got bubbly!” As tempting as that was, it was probably not the best hydration strategy so we politely declined her offer! (I don’t think Anna was remotely tempted!)
After the volunteers helped us to fill our bottles, we were told it was time to put on our hi-viz vests and then we set off. (The hi-viz vests were actually great, despite making it really annoying to get anything out of the race vest, because you could really easily see when there were other runners.)
It was ‘only’ about another 9km to the final major checkpoint, Checkpoint 5. (I say ‘only’ because 9km in this context can be a bloody long way!)
Anna was slightly ahead of me because, after having put on my hi-viz, I remembered that I wanted to put my sunnies and cap in my race vest.
After repacking my vest and putting my hi-viz back on, I quickly caught up, but I didn’t recognise her for a moment because I’d forgotten she’d put her thermal top on. I had opted not to put any warm clothes on at this stage. I still had my arm socks on and was finding it really helpful to be able to roll the sleeves down and up as needed. As we descended it would often get a bit cooler so I’d roll them up to my shoulders, and then as we went back up I’d get warm again so I’d roll them down to below my elbows. My cycling gloves, although fingerless, kept my hands warmish. I had calf sleeves on so my legs were reasonably warm. Plus, it wasn’t actually that cold.
It was slow going to the next checkpoint. From the timing point just before the Fairmont, to CP5, was approximately 10km and it took us exactly 2 hours to get there. Anna was struggling especially on the uphills and we needed to stop frequently for a breather. There was little or no running by this stage! We heard a waterfall and Anna speculated that it might be Wentworth Falls. It probably was, given that CP5 was in the town of Wentworth Falls, but given that it was pitch black by now, we couldn’t see it! I thought back to the 60km mark, when it was still daylight, and thought about how awesome it would be to be able to run the whole race in daylight!
We did manage to run a bit in the bitumen section leading up to CP5. A runner passed us, calling out to me. It was Sylvia, a Gold Coast runner who I had met on a trail run back in January when she’d been visiting Adelaide with her husband for the cycling Tour Down Under. She was still going strong.
The entrance to CP5 was something else! If ever there was a rock star reception, this was it! We could hear the music pumping as we approached and the gathered crowd roared as we entered. For one fleeting moment I thought this actually WAS the finish line!
There was Michael again, and also some unexpected familiar faces! My friend Sam, after having come from Sydney and cheered on his brother-in-law Mick (who by now had long since finished) all day, had been following my progress and had come to cheer me on at CP5! Also there was occasional Thursday morning running buddy Toni who was there cheering on Marc (who had already been through) and Di, who wasn’t far behind us. It was great to see some familiar faces among the crowd!
I went to do my thing with my drop bag including a wardrobe change (fresh top and sleeves) and then one last loo stop, during which Michael filled my drink bottles. I had forgotten to get my last ziploc bag of Gatorade powder out of my drop bag, and I wasn’t going back now, so my Gatorade for the last leg was somewhat diluted! (When unpacking my vest after the race, I found an extra bag in one of the pockets of my vest!)
We were told at this checkpoint that not only did we not have to carry our fleece or waterproof pants, we also didnt have to wear our hi-viz vests anymore (but we still had to carry them). Double win!
I grabbed a couple of cups of Coke as we exited the checkpoint for the last 22km. Just past the checkpoint was a guy having a spew. There was a lot of that out there. At one stage we were playing ‘dodge the spew’ as we made our way along the trail!
The next 12km was a hard slog. We were ticking off the kilometres as best we could with both our Garmins being inaccurate (and when we asked other runners what distance their watches were showing, theirs were often different again!) and hanging out for the markers that came every 5km (each one was met with a minor celebration!)
90km was a big barrier. Anna was worried that she was taking a big risk with her health continuing on, and was really keen to get checked out by the first aid crew at the final stop, an emergency aid station at around 91km. She really wanted to finish, especially having got so far, but wanted some peace of mind that it was safe to do so. After what seemed like an eternity, we saw the 90km marker and one long kilometre later we reached the last aid station. 9km to go. While the first aid guys checked Anna, I sent a quick text to a few people to let them know that we were at 91km and were going to finish but might be a while. Anna was given the all clear to continue, but was told that if she needed to pull out later, the last timing point at 94km (at the delightfully named ‘Sewerage Treatment Works’) was the Point Of No Return. From there on, there was no way for crews to get a car in to pick her up. If she went beyond there, she had to finish.
We were told we had to put our hi-viz back on. I had thought it was weird that they’d told us we didn’t have to wear it after CP5. Especially since there were cars on the dirt roads/tracks we were running on.
We reached the last timing point just before 11:30pm (16 hours 50 minutes in). We were going to the finish. And we were going to get a belt buckle (for finishing under 20 hours) – only 6km to go!
Then there was mud! Or, given the name of the timing point, probably sewerage! EWWWW! We had to squelch our way through it and by the time we got through our shoes were caked in it. Mud. Let’s call it mud. Anna was wearing gaiters which I had decided was something I needed for my next ultra. They are good for keeping rocks and sand out. As it turned out, not particularly useful for mud!
The next 5km was reasonably pleasant. I wasn’t confident running on the narrow trails because even with my head torch I couldn’t see that well, and I definitely did NOT want to trip and fall again! I used my handheld backup light as well as my head torch and that seemed to give better illumination, but even so I was mostly walking. We met a guy called Jack who was from Adelaide originally but now based in Cairns with the military. He had had a fractured fibula a number of years ago and as a result his ankle mobility was a bit limited. What a coincidence that he happened to be running with 2 physiotherapists! We chatted about his injury and the likelihood of improvement in ankle mobility, and also later he sought our advice on recovery (in particular, when to get a massage). Anna offered to give him a free massage in return for him carrying her up the upcoming Furber Steps. For some reason, he didn’t take her up on that offer!
We soon reached the point where earlier in the day (when it was still light), we had passed the 50km runners going the other way as they approached the finish. Now, FINALLY, we were nearly there!
After a few other sets of stairs that we thought were the start of the Furber Steps, we saw the joy-inducing sign that said ‘1km to go’. OK, it was pretty much 1km of stairs, but it was so close we could taste it! We could hear the festivities at the finish line!
It was just under 18 hours when we reached the bottom of the steps. Slowly, and with frequent rests, we made our way up the steps. I did break into song at one point. Appropriately, I thought, it was ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus. Anna was not impressed!
About halfway up the stairs my Garmin died. It had been warning me that the battery was low for a while, but I thought I’d wing it, and I couldn’t be arsed getting my portable charger out of my pack. It wouldn’t have read 100km anyway so did I really want to put it on Strava?
Slowly but surely we plodded up the stairs, using the rails as needed and for seemingly the millionth time for the day, I made a stupid joke about there needing to be an escalator. (In fairness each time I made the joke it was to a different person!)
A volunteer said ‘just a couple more flights and you’re there!’ I thanked him for being the first person today who was not a LIAR! (‘You’re nearly there’ is the biggest lie in distance running. But this guy was telling the truth!)
We got to the top of the steps. Wendy had advised Karen and me before the race, to turn off our head torches as we approached the finish, as the light would affect the quality of the finish line photo. Anna took off her torch, checked with me that she didn’t have a head torch shaped dent in her forehead, and I put the torch into her pack. I turned off my torch and let it drop round my neck, and with my buff on, head torch dent was not a concern for me. We rounded the corner and there it was!
THE FINISH LINE!
WE WERE THERE!
WE HAD DONE IT!
Anna grabbed my hand and we ran across the finish line. Triumphant. Together. It was a really special moment. I’d never crossed a finish line with someone else before and it was a perfect end to what was a very tough but satisfying day. We were each given a coveted bronze belt buckle and a souvenir finisher towel.
WHAT A DAY!
It wasn’t over yet. Anna and I finished just before 1am, in 18 hours 22 minutes. Dej was there to see us finish, after having finished quite a few hours earlier (he had had time to go back to the house for a shower and all!) After grabbing my drop bag, my first priority was getting out of my stinky muddy shoes and socks and slipping into my ugg boots – ahhh! Dej and I went up to the Runners’ Lounge where we met SA trail running legend Terry Cleary (whose day hadn’t gone to plan) and his mate Dave from Darwin who had had a great first 100km race. Terry bought me a wine (thanks Terry!) and after a quick wardrobe change and scavenging all the food that was left from my drop bags and my race vest, I had some delicious hot chips – sooo good! (I stopped short of eating peanut butter from the container, knowing Dej’s aversion! That would have to wait till we got back to the house!)
We saw Kim, who had unfortunately had to pull out at 70km due to blisters. When Terry gave her a lift back to her accommodation, Dej and I went to have a nap on the beanbags while waiting for Wendy and Karen to finish. Dej set his alarm for 1 hour and despite the music still pumping outside and the finish line announcer still going (I have NO idea how she still had any voice left!) we managed to catch a few z’s before heading outside to see Wendy finish.
It was so great to be able to watch her cross the line, I’d missed seeing her finish last year and after health issues since late last year, she wasn’t even sure she’d be able to run the event until quite recently. Dej took Wendy inside to get warm and I waited outside for Karen and another Adelaide runner, Jen. Jen’s husband Stirling had had to pull out after a fall before CP3 and was there at the finish line. Jen had seen the sunrise last year, taking around 24 hours to complete the course. This time she took about 2 hours off that time (powering across the finish line!) and was stoked to receive a medal. Last year, because she missed the 20 hour cutoff for a belt buckle, she had walked away empty handed – thankfully the organisers had seen fit to award medals to all runners over 20 hours this year. Not far behind Jen was Karen, who also finished strongly and announced ‘NEVER AGAIN!’ (Wendy had said the same, but she had also said that last year!) We had all made it!
We stayed in the Runners Lounge for a while to allow Karen, Jen and Wendy to get changed and get some food and drink. We got to meet Race Director Tom Landon-Smith. I told him “No offence, great event but I won’t be doing it again!” Tom’s response was, “I wouldn’t run it!”
Eventually we got a taxi back to the house, seeing the beautiful sunrise as we went. After eating a whole bunch more food, showering and somehow getting my compression tights on, I finally went to bed around 7:30am. An hour or so later I was up again to go to the presentation – one of our SA runners, Howard, had won his age group.
The presentations overlapped with the last of the 100km runners finishing. Those runners got the best reception of all! Among them was Alf, a 74 year old man who had also been one of the last finishers last year. Early in the race, I had run with last year’s sweeper who had told me he’d run the last 20km with Alf, pushing him towards the end to give him an hour to get up the Furber Steps and make cutoff. He did the stairs in 40 minutes. This year he did the stairs in 33 minutes and made cutoff by 13 minutes. I wonder if he’ll be back for more next year?
Sam came back from Sydney to take me for a celebratory lunch, and later that night the 5 of us from the house went for the traditional post-race dinner at the local Thai place just up the hill with Terry, Dave and another Darwin friend Robbie. I find spicy food really helps my recovery! Despite being incredibly tired from sleep deprivation and just overall fatigue, I could have listened to Terry, Karen, Dej and Wendy exchanging trail running stories all night!
On Monday morning, Jonathan having left for an early flight, Dej, Wendy, Karen and I got up early to walk to Echo Point to watch the stunning sunrise. We all wore our UTA T-shirts and there were a few others down there wearing them too, so we exchanged stories with them while marvelling at the view.
It was a perfect way to end an epic weekend!
So, after having said “Never again” after the race, I may be wavering a bit. Maybe I will do the 100 again. I can see myself doing the 50km, and a lot of the other Adelaide runners have also said they’d do the 50 but not the 100 again. I won’t do the 100 again on the training I’ve done. I will need to focus on UTA and not try to do everything. Having said that, I’m really happy with how I went, and can’t really see any way (other than training properly) I could have done better.
UTA is not for the faint hearted. But it is an amazing experience in a stunning location with awesome people. If you’re up for a serious challenge, I can highly recommend it!
Now it’s time for recovery and eating everything in sight -then back into marathon training mode!