Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Inaugural Blackall 100 – an Ultra hot way to see the Sunshine Coast!

After failing to make the start line of the Glasshouse 100 a couple ago because of a gardening induced back injury, I was keen to put that disappointment behind me in my first 100km ultramarathon race of the year. I’d not been completely idle as I had been sweeper at TNF100, run 270km along the Larapinta Trail in August and a local 90km run along the beach to raise some funds for one of our NUTRs (our local running group, the Noosa Ultra and Trail Runners) who was selected for the Australian Mountain Running team.

The Blackall 100 (with 50km option) is in its inaugural year, and the first Ultra distance running race on the Sunshine Coast. A local race has been long overdue, in an area well suited to trail running. This event took full advantage of the varied terrain and environments in the area making for a very interesting and challenging race.

I arrived at the start very early and bumped into Alun, fellow Welshman and Race Director, who looked like a man who had not slept. Appearances were not deceiving as he had been up most of the night sorting out final details – who’d be a race director?!

Before long I was joined by other NUTRs.  This was the main event of the year for us, with many members attempting their maiden 100km, adding to the excitement and energy in the atmosphere.

Meg, Dan, Me, Tylana and Ian pre-race
This for me is one of the most enjoyable times of a race. So much excitement, nerves, concerns over old injuries, have you tapered enough, or too little, have you trained enough, what if the conditions change.  It is the unknown that makes it so exciting, like waiting for the lotto numbers to be called and hoping that you have chosen well.

Ultramarathons are famous for minimal fuss, and Blackall 100 was no different. A couple of words from the organisers, and before you know it the big cow

Serious Business (Pic: Trail Running Australia)
bell (the signature of this event) was rung for the first time and we were off and running. It was something we were all eager to hear again, as the next time would be when we ring it ourselves as we cross the finish line.

The first few kms are nearly always too fast, especially as it seems wrong to walk the hills when you are still so fresh. Normally I would have stuck to this strategy, but the conditions dictated a change to the plan.  I was not familiar with the first of the three loops of this course, but had run on the second loop twice and knew what was ahead.

The forecast was for temps up in the mid 30s, and that would be at the start of the major hill sections. So the plan for this day was to push hard early while it was cooler and then ease right back in the heat of the day, building up again later as the temperatures eased.
Best support team ever

For the first 22kms it was relatively cool, with occasional light rain and fog – we were running in the clouds. Good news that it was cooler, bad news that we were in 100% humidity. Within the first hour my feet were almost sloshing with the sweat that had run down my legs into my shoes. This was a concern so early in the day. 

There were a couple of technical sections on this run as you dropped into Kondalilla Falls, and then climbed out again. With a layer of leaves on the trail, this was a death trap. I had a couple of “moments” when running fairly briskly on a tight bend, planting my foot to change direction and not getting the traction I was expecting.

I’d figured through at this point I was in about 9th position, and on the heels of Shannon, a very strong NZ female runner who was making the hills look annoyingly easy. I let her go and had to stick to my plan.

After the loop to the falls we passed some of the other runners as they were about to head into the falls, and I was greeted by 2 of our most dedicated NUTRs, Kate and Claude, powering along in their first 100km event.  Cheerful and consistent as ever, they looked in control...and they were.  These two have an extraordinary ability to create a realistic plan and stick to it, without letting the occasion effect their judgement.

There was a road section after the falls, before getting back on to my preferred surface of trail.  I caught up with Shannon here and we had the chance to chat. At the pace we were going I was confident at the time that we would both finish in under 12 hours, my initial goal based off nothing more than a gut feeling and a time that would not allow me to ease off.

The course has a couple of out and back sections into checkpoints, which is good and bad, depending on how you’re feeling. On the way into this one I worked out that I was about 1.5kms behind the leader and Shanon and I were in 7th and 8th place. This was a brisk stop, bit of watermelon, slice of orange, some coke and a handful of lollies. Probably done in less than a minute as I didn’t need to refill the bladder.

Feeling fresh early on (Pic - Trail Running Australia)
It’s a balancing act to work out which is best. My preferred strategy is fill the bladder at the start (3l) and then speed through CPs but have a heavier pack. The alternative is to  just have enough water to get to each CP and refill at each.  My philosophy is that the extra weight will only cost a few seconds per km which is easily regained by a quick CP stop. Also, it reduces the likelihood of running out of fluids and then having to manage your body over many kms to the next stop (which can be race and in extreme conditions, life threatening).

Back on the course and I am delighted to have another NUTR coming towards me, Dylan, another Welshman!  I knew he would be running hard behind me as we both had a similar goal time (although mine was one minute faster!).  We exchange hi fives and encouragement, and then you get your head back on the task.  It didn’t last, “Tall Geoff” was marshalling at the next junction, and he’s not known for being economical with his words. I think I was 200m down the track and he was still talking to me!

This was the familiar part of the course, and I am very grateful for having trained on it. I was well aware that I was running at my normal training pace, which is too fast for a race of this distance, but I also knew that I had about an hour before it started heating up.  It did not disappoint.

Cross training - NUTR style!
I drop down off the ridge from Ubajee Camp onto about 1.5kms of switchbacks to the valley floor. I had near sprinted down here in training, but it’s a different story with 30kms in your legs. I also had a weakness in my ankle, caused by a couple of over enthusiastic Unicycle rides in the previous 2 weeks (this is one of my cross training disciplines of choice, which I will cover in a future post) So had strapped it quite heavily, and was still cautious with it as it was still a long way to go.

On the descent I passed the back marker for the 50km race, who do a different first section and started an hour later. This is always encouraging as you have someone to chase, someone to chat to, and invariably they talk to you like you are superhuman as you’re doing twice the distance they are.

Another highlight as I’m plodding along the creek. I see a couple of clowns in big Afro wigs and even bigger sunglasses, it could only be Deb Nichol and Rob Whingfield (on his first 50km). These guys were amazing, having brought a picnic with them, and with the goal of making everyone else feel great and enjoy the event – mission accomplished!  I stayed with them for a few minutes, enjoying the walk and the company. Thanks guys.

Rob and Deb showing the importance of good race nutrition!

The next few Kms are the most technical of the course. You could feel the temps starting to climb and the sun was breaking through the tree cover, the clouds had been burnt off an hour ago. I ran about 90% of this as I knew that the CP was coming soon and I had a NUTR or two waiting there with cold drink and a warm demeanour.

42kms done
I ran passed the 40km marker in about 3:50, bloody hell, I had been pushing it. I was a little concerned at this point that I may have been a little over enthusiastic. 42kms and the CP looms out of the bush. Three blue shirts, three familiar faces, and when I arrived it was 4 NUTRs.

Jane fills my bladder with ice and water, Meg puts an ice pack on my neck and cold towel on my head, Dan cracks me a coke and I issue a few directions on what I need and what I don’t. These guys were awesome, and I mean that genuinely, not in some throw away Gen-Y way.  Treated like a king but three injured NUTRs who could easily have decided to stay at home in bed, but instead gave their time up to help the rest of us, and in style. They weren’t even crewing for me, they just saw me, got me what I needed and got me back out there.

So the buff was swapped for the full on Legionnaire’s hat, with ice underneath for good measure. It’s times like this that I wish I had some hair on the top of my head – ice hurts after a while! This was the start of 2.5kms of climbing, and it was getting hot, very hot. The ice didn’t last long, but it really helped.  In training I had thought that I could run much of this hill as the sections between switchbacks were very runable.  I did for the first 300m and then resorted to power walking. Far more efficient as it was keeping the heart rate under control, would generate less internal heat, and I was still making good progress.

I reflected how hard this was going to be for those behind me as the temps were like the trail in front of me, only going up.

The beginning of the climb to the Bluff
I continued to make progress through the 50km field, and it was great to bump into another NUTR, Lynda, with a cheery grin (it may actually have been a grimace in the heat, but I like to think everyone was enjoying themselves out there!)  She said that she thought I was in about 4th place, but by my calculations I thought I was in about 7th. Perhaps the heat had taken a few others out of the running?

In training on this part of the course I had planned to run from the top of the hill all the way back down to the creek, some 7-8kms of fairly gently sloping downhill, smooth running single track. That wasn’t going to happen the way I felt.  I walked with limited running to the camp at Thilba Thalba, where there was water available. I was greeted by the park ranger who was remarkably upbeat, or maybe appeared that way because of the handful of 50km runners stopping for water who looked in a bad way...I don’t think I looked any better.

The lookout from the Bluff
I had planned my water use well, so didn’t need to stop other than to regather my thoughts.  Mentally I was still quite switched on, my gut was taking fuel well and was pretty much full of my water with Nuun, but I was feeling light headed, and had the odd wobbly moment.  I reasoned that it could just be a combination of dehydration and the heat, perhaps with a bit of a mild bonk from the intensity of the hill climb. I couldn’t take any more fluids in, but did have a gel, which i very rarely use.  Within about 15 minutes my body was back in order, and although not running fast, I was running, and the downhill was too good to waste by walking!

I caught up with the next runner in the 100kms, and he said he was suffering with the heat, dehydrated and out of water.  I offered to share what I had, but he was happy to limp on to the next water stop, which I thought was about 4kms along the trail at the Ubajee camp, again at the top of a tough climb. He was happy to take it easy to get there, so I continued on.  200m later we come out on to Delicia road, and then it appeared like an oasis in the desert a table with two water urns. No cups, so I lay on the ground under it and took a couple of mouthfuls, the other guy took the time to recharge his bladder.

Having just past the 50km mark, I foolishly thought about the prospect of doing what I had just completed again, only this time feeling like I do now...not a good idea. Instead focus on the next landmark, and that was going back up the switchbacks on a 1.5km climb out of the valley.

Again, given the conditions of the environment and my legs, running was out of the question. It is remarkable how much ground you can cover though with committed purposeful walking. On the way up I met up with some of the 100km runners who had yet to do the loop I had just completed, only they were going to be doing it in much hotter conditions than me.

From the top of the climb it was a rolling fire trail for a few kms to the next checkpoint, so I made an effort to run as much as I could, given that I’d rest when I got there.  I passed a few other 50kms runners, including an inspirational guy, Frank Falappi, whose company I have enjoyed on many occasions. Frank is a former champion cyclist, and now at age 74 is still out achieving incredible feats of endurance. We chatted for a few minutes and he informed me that his lovely wife had entered him into the North Face event in Sydney next year, and he has to do as he’s told!

Checkpoint 4 was busy, not with runners but with volunteers and support crew, and a good dose of blue shirted NUTRs! Treated to a chair this time I was given the royal treatment. Can of coke, pot of fruit in syrup, ice cold towel across my back, ice pack on my neck...the only thing missing was a manicure!  Apparently the next guy in front was only a few minutes ahead and I was in 4th. I still wasn’t convinced, thinking they must have arrived after the front runners passed through.

I had 5 people looking after me here, Dan, Jane and Meg again, and Tara another NUTRs wife and Carol, one of our club who had rolled her ankle 8kms in, but stuck around with bandaged ankle, and walking on sticks helping the perfectly able bodied me! 

Leaving the CP I wasn’t feeling great, but I was feeling 10 times better than when I arrived.  I was at the stage of an event when I get quite emotional, and the amount of support I had received, got to me a bit in the first few kms after the CP. Don’t worry it didn’t last, but only because I saw another runner ahead of me. This was the guy in third place. It is amazing how the appreciation that you are moving forward in the field can help you find new reserves of energy.

We were getting on to quite rough downhill trails, which is my favourite terrain.  I took 
advantage and caught up and then had to dig in to make sure I opened up a decent lead. By the creek crossing I was probably 100m ahead, and could then settle back into a more comfortable pace – perfect as I now had a hard climb ahead of me.

Food and fluids were still going in and not causing any issues. Regular cubes of crystallised ginger with each bit of food seemed to be helping keeping the gut calm, and having Nuun electrolyte rather than just water (my normal strategy) was working a treat.

Arriving at CP5 I was very keen for a break. I sat on the step of the caravan there, in a rare bit of shade, and was offered a water spray to the face. This was very welcome. What a contrast to having 5 people helping you and covering you in icy cold towels, and feeding you whatever you needed, to this. I appreciated the value of a crew more than ever, especially as I was in a bit of a low.

The next section was all new territory to me, and I understood it was a 10km loop of a dam. Sounded easy, water’s flat right?  Apparently not, or maybe it was just because it was about 2:30pm on a sunny day and there was negligible shade, and even a speed bump seemed like a mountain.

Run, walk, and just keep moving forward. The last 1km into the CP is an out and back section, so I was wondering if I would see the leaders, and then reflected on how that would make me feel. Should I push on to try and catch them? I hoped I didn't see them as at this stage the last thing I wanted to do was be racing. Fortunately I didn't see them, they were too far ahead, instead a blue shirted Dan appeared on the road in front of me with incredible enthusiasm and excitement. That’s what I love about these guys, but to be honest, I wasn't in the mood.  When I got close enough I did have to let him know “As great as it is, it’s not really helping”. Fortunately Dan understood that I wasn’t being an ass, I was just tired with 80kms in my legs and was in a “serious” moment!

So the rockstar treatment was resumed, yay! This time Dan was assisted by Jackie (Dylan’s wife) who generously gave me some of his nutrition!  Meg and Jane that also appeared, and I was feeling the love.  Shannon, the lady I was running with earlier also arrived and left before me. I was happy to let her go as to do a quick stop would have done me a lot more harm than good. I needed a couple of minutes to regroup.

On the out and back section I got to see the next two guys behind me, Stephen and Ciaran (who I’d trained with here previously and tipped to do very well). They were 1-1.5kms behind and had to make a stop. They looked in reasonable shape, but no one was fresh!

Coming into CP5 for the second time
All I could do was walk hard on the hills and run where I could. Not an easy task as my quads, calfs and hamstrings had been cramping for the past 15kms (a reflection of the lower recent training volumes). The sun was starting to get low in the sky, and the animals started getting active. A fact I was made aware of as what must have been a 2m, fat and healthy Eastern Brown slithered out of my path. Just as well as I’m not sure I had any evasive action in me!

A relentless hill with many fake summits, just what you need at this stage of the day. The final CP (CP4 from 30kms earlier) came into view and again it was just me and the volunteers. One 100km runner was thinking of pulling out, he couldn’t keep any food down and had 40kms ahead of him.  I employed all the same strategies as I did with a number of people when volunteering at TNF earlier this year, and hope I had convinced him to carry on, rather than feel the inevitable regret and self loathing a few days later for pulling out!

I should have been eating and drinking, not chatting, as Stephen had caught up, so I made a hasty dash off for the last 8kms of the run. I had a horrible thought that he was feeling strong and would just “splash and dash” through the CP and be breathing down my neck. Not a prospect I relished as the cramps were hitting hard every time I put in any concerted effort.  

Little Miss Motivator :)
I passed Deb and Rob again who were well on the way to finishing their 50kms. Great fun chats, and plenty of encouragement, it really gave me a lift.

Of the remaining 8kms about 5 were technical single track. Bizarrely I seem to be able to run on technical trail when my legs were shot, but put me on the road and I was walking!  The technique was to run as if I had fresh legs until they cramped up, then stride out for a few metres and repeat.  I knew that Stephen was behind me, but I dare not look in case I saw him.  You mind plays some crazy games at these stages. At one point I’m thinking I’ll be catching Shannon and looking at 3rd place, then I’m worried about being caught, then I’m justifying in my mind that it’s been a good day either way, then I’m just focused on going under 12 hours.  That’s what I love about this sport, you get a lifetime of emotions in a day.

The primary goal was however to go sub-12hrs. The problem was I couldn’t do the maths to work out how I was travelling. It wasn’t until I was 2kms from the finish and I had about 11:30 on the clock that I worked it out! Basically I was going to cruise home, and just as well because there was only a little running left in the legs. 

Last few metres

Turning into the driveway of the finish venue I’m told that there is only a few hundred metres to go. I ran it all, and as I get in sight of the finish line Dan is there on his phone...he was texting  me to see where I was (an hour later I replied “here, standing next to you!”).

I ran under the finish arch to ring the cowbell in 11:44:xx and 4th place. Second male, so double “chicked” by Shona and Shannon, I can live with that.

On reflection I was very happy with the result. The conditions were far hotter than we had experienced in training, and my preparations were far from ideal for me. For me to get on the podium (for the boys!) is a very unusual and exciting experience. It gives you the desire to want to train harder and do better.

The biggest inspiration for me though was sharing the rest of the evening watching the other runners coming in (some at ridiculously fast pace), and enjoying the war stories from the day. I like to think our running group is pretty tight, but races like this really demonstrated this, not just with the runners, but their friends and families who came along to help out, and those family members who stayed at home so that we could all do what we enjoy. Thanks to all of you for your help, and congratulations to the NUTRs who all exceeded their own expectations, Dylan, Ian, Andrew, Tylana, Leigh, Robbo, Kate, Claude, Lynda, Carol, Amanda and John.

For the inaugural race, I’d say Blackall100 was very successful, with only minor suggestions for improvements. It has a scenic and varied course, with a variety of terrains (most of them upwards!), a great bunch of volunteers, and the friendly atmosphere of a group training run with mates. It’s a tough and challenging event which was shown by the fairly high attrition rate, around 25% in the 100kms.

Demonstrating the 20kg weight advantage I gave the other boys!

I’ll be back next year, and would recommend it to anyone.

Run happy!


"It never gets easier, you just get better" - Anon

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fusion compression running shorts - What's new Down Under?

It's widely accepted now that compression clothing for running is of benefit, particularly in ultramarathon events where any physiological benefit is multiplied over many hours (as covered in previous posts). There are a number of brands on the market where outwardly the only difference is the logo and stitching pattern, but they are not all same.

The biggest difference I have found is in the fit and the quality of the fabric and manufacture. I have recently been asked to try a new brand of compression wear, Fusion.

The brand itself has a strong presence and its roots in the triathlon scene in Europe and with the Noosa Triathlon next week, they will be there to showcase their range of triathlon and running apparel.
The company originated designing and making custom gear for the elite triathletes in Europe, and have expanded to offer their products to the less elite athlete, while keeping with the high end custom design and build quality.

They now share the love with the masses, and provide a range of gear for a variety of sports. I have tested the running shorts, where they offer two versions, with subtle differences.

Fusion PWR Short

The PWR short is very much like your classic compression short, offering excellent support and compression (without being restrictive). I won't go into the compression benefits, as I have covered this in previous posts. 

They have a lower cut around the waist to other shorts I have worn, and yet still feel secure. This maximises the exposed skin area, for increased cooling, in a part of your body which will not benefit from compression.

The manufacture quality is excellent, with all Fusion products being manufactured in Europe (not opting for the cheaper option of Asia). After over 400kms of testing the pants show no signs of wear, or weakening of the fabric. The logos are still bright and the all stitching is as new.  I follow the care instructions which recommend washing with no detergent, so you don’t want to be leaving them in your kit bag for a couple of days before washing! This is to maintain the wicking property of the fabric and these shorts certainly are very effective in moisture transport.

Rear key pockets in both styles of short

The PWR has a key/gel pocket at the back, with a zip, which I initially thought would cause a chafing issue, but was pleasantly surprised that it was clear of the bottom of my backpack.


The Fusion COMP3 Running Short
The COMP3 is if a similar build quality and has two noticeable differences from the PWR. The low cut on the waist is the same, and is slightly longer in the leg.  

Secondly, the fabric is very different fabric to the PWR (see image below). It is thicker and softer with an almost fleece-like feel. I found these more comfortable than the PWR, and was my preference when heading out for a run on a cold morning. They had a similar excellent manufacture quality, and slightly less compression than the PWR. 

The softer fabric of the COMP3 makes for very comfortable running

The COMP3 also has a small key/gel pouch at the back, but without a zip on this model. The lower waistband cut mean that this is below the bottom of a backpack, so rubbing was not an issue.

The moisture transport of the fabric was again excellent allowing easy wicking of sweat, particularly during intense sessions.

My concern with any compression gear from a man’s point of view (it’s difficult for me to comment on behalf of the ladies!) is the placement of seams and sensitive areas. These Fusion running shorts both have a seam “down the front” which could be a potential problem from a chafing perspective. I have been pleasantly surprised that I have not had any issues in this regard, having worn the COMP3 on training runs of up to 45kms, during hot and humid conditions which I am very grateful for! I put this down to the soft feel of the fabric and flexibility in fabric and the seams. I am not so sure that the PWR would offer the same level of comfort over longer distances

The two styles have their own subtle differences with benefits in different areas. I'd base my preference for either style based on the weather conditions and length of the run. Longer colder runs in the COMP3, shorter warmer runs in the PWR.

All in all though Fusion make a great product, and is one I shall continue to wear, especially if they make a version in red!

Run Happy, 

"Victory belongs to the most persevering" - Napoleon Bonaparte

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The NorthFace 100km – a volunteer’s perspective and why you should be at volunteer at an Ultramarathon too.

The North Face 100, in the Blue Mountains, Sydney, is a favourite Ultramarathon of mine. It was my first 100km race, and the even where I have had my best run in an Ultra. I had the opportunity to get involved with this year’s event, not racing, but as part of the band of volunteers who make this and all ultra events work. 
The North Face 100 before the fun started
I was part of a group of about 8 who were to sweep the course, marking the back of the field, helping any stragglers, and keeping the race directors informed of what was happening out on the course as part of their safety protocols.  My role was to sweep the first 28kms of the 50km event to Checkpoint 5, and then sweep the final 22km of the 100km event from there through to the finish line. I had the option of spending all day and night at the CP, or to go away and come back in the morning for my second “shift”.  

I opted to stay at the checkpoint as I had many friends running who I could cheer on, but also to observe how the entrants throughout the field from fastest to slowest perform and behave differently. It was a rewarding experience, the essence of which I hope to share with you.

I won’t go into the individual stories of incredible fortitude, endurance, tenacity and of course madness! There have been many stories already about these from this year’s race, so I won’t bore you with my version of these events.

As a volunteer, you are a representative of the race directors, and I felt it my role to make everyone welcome, and to have a good time, much as you would expect in a hotel or restaurant. This started for me on the night before the race, where we helped with the gear checks at Registration. I was cheerful and cheeky, and eager to help anyone I could. The North Face 100 is well known for having one of the largest mandatory gear lists of all Australian Ultra events, and it does cause a fair bit of forum chat and much grinding of teeth for many entrants who find themselves having to purchase a significant amount of new gear, which in their mind they will never use. I fall into this category, and have thermals and a jacket from my first TNF100 5 years ago which have never been used (but they are well travelled!).
The atmosphere was buzzing.

With the gear check we had to be very strict on all the gear being provided, as well as of the right standard. I was expecting to have to be called names and given a hard time by runners whose gear didn’t meet the requirements. Fortunately, a smile and an explanation that it is in their interest to have it in case of injury which could be in the middle of nowhere in sub zero temps and raining, was enough for most to accept.

You would only need one person falling very ill (or even dieing) because they didn’t have the gear on them after a fall and injury for the future of the event to be jeopardised. This has been highlighted recently as the impact of the fire during the Kimberley Ultra a few years back, has changed race directors’ attitudes to holding events in the bush during fire risk season.

Gear check and Rego done, and everyone happy. The insight for me was the volume of behind the scenes work that is going on. Hundreds of people to coordinate to keep thousands of runners and their supporters safe. No small task.

Excitement and tension building
Race morning was fantastic. The atmosphere is buzzing, and I can enjoy this without the preoccupation of having to race 100kms! No worry if I’d trained properly, or would the injury hold out, or should I put honey sandwiches in my drop bag for CP2 or 3?! As a volunteer you get a lot of the good stuff without too much of the hard stuff.

We’re given radios to keep in touch with race HQ, and with the mountainous terrain of TNF, this was vital. Mobile phones could not be relied on, and in fact neither could radios in some places. 

The final runner in the final group of the 50km race is off, taking on the biggest challenge of their life, the coming together of many months of training and metal preparation. I was well aware of this, and wanting to do what I could to make it memorable, and to make sure they succeeded. 

I following a couple of minutes behind the field, and I’m still given a big cheer from the guys on the PA system as I got on my way. “See you tomorrow” I thought to myself! 
Finally off and rugged up!

With generous cut offs to the checkpoint, I’m under no pace pressure, so take the opportunity to stop and chat with nearly every marshal (mainly made up of local TAFE students) – They all had one thing in common...they were freezing! At least I could move around a bit to get warm. 

The early stage of the TNF has a road section to thin out the field before they hit the single track. These include a few out and backs, so you get to see the other runners. I’m doing my best to cheer everyone along with comments such as “Come on’ve paid for this, you may as well enjoy it”. I thought it encouraging at the time, but reading it now feel it may not have been received as such!

Within the first Km I have caught the back of the field and we’re walking. I wasn’t sure if I should let the back markers know I was there, as I didn’t want them thinking I was rushing them! Sadly the first girl I caught up to wasn’t very happy, with bad stomach cramps. My thoughts were that it could just be anxiety, and excitement from the race day arriving, and that it could just settle once we get into a rhythm. I tried this tactic for an hour, but it was clear this was more than nerves.

My first withdrawal, and we were only 5kms in. During this time I had dropped off the pace somewhat, so put in a bit of an effort to catch the back of the field. It is here that I experienced the real benefit of the radio. I was so far behind the field that the marshals had understandably gone to find warmth. Through my own poor preparation I had failed to notice the difference between the 50km and 100km route.  So 8kms in and I hadn’t caught up with anyone, or seen anyone ahead. I decided to call in with a “navigational enquiry” as I wasn’t sure which or the two staircases I was to take to get into the valley.  A few minutes later and I was on my way, I was already on the right track.
The Blue Mountains at their best - a great place to run

I catch the last runner just off the bottom of the staircase, and no amount of noisy walking, coughing and heavy breathing can be heard over her head phones! I have written about the safety implications of this before, but why wouldn’t you want to appreciate being in the middle of a World Heritage area using all 5 senses?

A few hundred metres further down the track and I can see the twinkling light of a runner wrapped in a silver mylar blanket (yes, the one that so many people complain about having to have in their gear!). This runner has had a seriously bad fall smashing her knee and her wrist. Fortunately another runner came across her a few seconds after the fall and had called in for first aid support. They were on their way, but would be another 30-40 minutes until they arrived as access isn’t easy anywhere in this section. I do my best to keep her comfortable, try to distract her from the pain with idle chat, and from my radio can hear the chat going on, as the first aid team make their way in. 

This was at about 9am, and it wasn’t all that cold, but even with the space blanket she was getting cold. Just imagine if this was 3am, you’re wet with sweat, its 2 degrees and you have an hour wait for help. The reason that the gear is mandatory was right in front of me.

I stayed to give the first aid crew an extra pair of hands before returning to my Sweeping duties. I later learnt (overheard the radio) that she was being taking to hospital with a suspect broken wrist, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if her knee was too.

The First Aiders radioed in before administering any painkillers to make sure that she had no known allergies to the drugs they had. They did ask her also, but they know that under shock she may not be thinking clearly. Another illustration of the importance of completing your medical form carefully during race registration, and also how vitally important it is to only ever run on your own race number (unless of course you’ve had it transferred to you officially before the race). 

Listening in to the radio gave a real insight into what is required to make an event of this size keep working and working well. There were multiple injuries that needed assistance, numerous runners withdrawing for one reason or another (all of whom have to be accounted for), checkpoints that need to be kept supplied with water, lollies and volunteers, as well as updates on the overall extent of the field, spread over 100kms of trails. No small task, and most of which will never be seen or appreciated by the average racer.
The next runner I catch up to is a 72 year old man, running his first ultra, having already got 5 road marathons under his belt. He as suffering badly with cramps in both legs. This was 12 kms could be a long day for him.  He was prepared and I would say keen to withdraw at the 13.5km water stop. I couldn’t have him do this so early on as he had trained hard to be there, and the leg cramps may clear up as they have done for me in the past. We chatted about it, we were still within the cut off time, and if we could continue at this pace could reach the next CP in time to continue. Then we could reassess his position.

With no time pressure I could take in the scenery
The next few kms went well and we enjoyed each other’s company in some spectacular scenery, under waterfalls, through deep gullies and then up on breath taking escarpments. The trouble with this sort of scenery is that it comes with hills, lots of them.  Our pace slowed and it was clear that the cut off was out of reach, but we would try and push through. At the 20km mark I could hear a road nearby, and decided that it was best for everyone if he withdraw at this point, and I radioed in for him to be picked up on the road.

What I admired about this guy was that he took it all as a learning experience to do better next year. He actually came and find me the next day to express his appreciation for me pushing him on as far as I did, and that he’d be back wiser and stronger next year. This was a massive reward for me.

I little further down the track and I was with the back marker again. The lead runners from the 100km event had just started to pass us, looking like they were doing a 5km time trial, not 70kms in! Simply amazing to watch them run so freely, even the uphills!

The clock was ticking faster than the distance to the checkpoint was decreasing and it became apparent that the couple I was with were not going to make the cutoff. Bad blisters, and an underestimation of the severity of the steps in that section had put an end to their race, and there was nothing that could be done about it. I think they were happy to have missed the cut off to avoid making the decision to carry on when physically in a bad way.

So in terms of my formal duties by arriving at the CP, the first half was over and I only had to wait until 4:30am tomorrow for the next leg. What was I to do for the next 14 hours?

Well it wasn’t going to be rest as I had thought may be the case.

The 100km runners are already coming through, so I get involved helping out finding drop bags. A side note here, make your bag distinctive.  Some bags (the blue supermarket cool bags) took 2 people 3+ minutes to find, even when they had been separated into 100’s based on race number.

Sitting each runner down (if they wanted to) I found myself adopting a support crew role. What do you need? Let me refill you bladder, how much, with what?   So many people were polite and said it’s ok, I’ll manage. I had to make myself clear that I knew what they were going through (having been there myself) and that I was going to help if they liked it or not! I must have refilled over 100 bladders and many more water bottles.

The target for many
Through one period it was touch and go if those coming in would make it to the finish in time for a silver belt buckle (for going sub 14 hours), which was a goal for a lot of people. I was able to offer a good bit of help here as they weren’t in a state to think that clearly. By letting them know a simplified version of what laid ahead in the final 22kms and the time they had, seemed to lift spirits and more importantly give them focus and purpose to get back out there and reach their goals.

As the day drew longer the runners coming in changed in their physical and mental state with tiredness and sleepiness kicking in. These guys had been on their feet for over 12 hours and on many it showed. One runner had some muscular pain in his ankle, and was going to withdraw. I had a chat with the now very busy medical staff, and they suggested I give it some “love” as it wasn’t anything too serious.  So while the runner was enjoying some noodles I went to work on his ankle. I’m no physio, but have had enough to know roughly what may help, and did my best. Coincidentally my training partner and physio who had been forced to withdraw earlier was helping some other friends by crewing for them at the same CP. I’ll let her know what I was up to, working on unknowing runner with her second hand techniques.

Whether it was placebo, just the rest, the noodles, or my magic hands (?!), he got up and felt better and continued in the race. It’s a very satisfying feeling to see how you’ve helped someone when they could well have pulled out only to regret it the next day. I know I’ve been there, and it’s not a good place to be.

Would you accept a rub down from this man?!
With growing confidence I ended up “treating” another half dozen ailing runners, including one French guy who didn’t speak any English. Through sign language I worked out that he needed water in his bottles, a cup of tea, and a quad massage – well that’s what he got anyway! He also got a 10 minute sleep under a blanket with a wake up call before heading out again into the darkness in pursuit of a bronze belt buckle for a sub 20 hour finish. 

At this late stage there were a number of tired and minor injury effected runners who were teetering on the edge of withdrawing. I can happily say that each one that I spoke to at the very least kept going, and I believe they all finished. I’ve had Facebook messages from strangers saying thanks for getting them back out there, and one saying I nearly made her withdraw as she was so comfortable with her blanket and tea that it was hard to leave!

The real point I’m making here is that when we’re tired and mentally drained, you don’t good decisions, and you react based on emotions. What they needed at the CP was a chance to recover, a hit of reality, and basically be told what to do! They will have trained hard to be there. They will have a strong drive to finish (else why would you enter?). But these thoughts are a long way from the front of your mind when you have sore feet and feel nauseous!

My strategy was to assume they were depleted nutritionally and probably under-hydrated, so get them drinking something (ideally warm when it was cold at night) and that until this had been addressed they would not be able to think straight. In that time I would have a chat and remind them why they’re there, and that today is only time they can do what they have to do...carpe diem! Not only that, but that all of them had plenty of time to finish the race, even if they were to walk the last 22kms (and many did).

This was highly successful and I believe got them doing what they wanted to achieve. For anyone who has run an ultra you will know that you go through massive highs and lows, and checkpoints can be like the twilight zone, which some people never leave!

The number of runners coming through slowed to a trickle after midnight, so I took the opportunity to have a lie down myself. About 45 minutes under a blanket in a cold, drafty corner of a tent, perfect!
Back markers crossing Jamieson Creek

4:30am came around and I met up with the other sweeper as there were to be two of us for this leg. The final two runners has been on their feet for some 22 hours already and had another 6 to knock off the final 22kms. Which they did. Huge respect for these guys to keep on going, on what must have been one of the longest day of their lives. This probably wasn’t helped by the rest of the sweeper crew running back to meet with us and walk in the final 6kms together, full of beans, bad jokes and fresh legs!
The final runner starting the final ascent

The last section is a climb of 900 steps before a 100m sprint (!) to the finish. To be alongside the final runner through this stage, who I knew was in a world of pain, but he still kept putting one foot in front was awe inspiring. The presentation was just starting when the crowd had to part to let him finish. The only sport I know of where the last racer gets as big, if not bigger appreciation than the winner.

We were invited to join him on the stage as a gesture of thanks. I thought this is the only time I’m going to get on the podium at an Ultra!

Yeah Baby!
So in essence it was an incredible experience, and one I would recommend to anyone who takes part in this amazing sport. I got to see all ranges of success and played a small part in the success of a few – probably more rewarding than actually doing it yourself. I have a deeper appreciation of what it takes to put on an event and will do my best to be even more openly thankful to those who do give up their time to make events work.

Hope to see you out there serving tea, giving directions and offering well intentioned massages!

Enjoy it,