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!

Andy

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