I’ve got decent fitness from triathlon so in Marth I thought I’d give this UTA event I kept hearing so much about a crack. But running trails were new to me and I’d never run further than ~35km. And yet here I was lining up to do two marathons in a row + some! 100km was too far for me to comprehend and frankly a little overwhelming. So rather than keep focusing on what I had no experience in doing, I chose to break it down into 10km chunks. 10km is a distance I’m very familiar with, and in fact, when I run less than 10km in training I hardly feel I’ve done anything.
Scroll to the bottom to watch the video of my day or read on as I break the race down as I did on race day.
Ultra trail Australia started out straight away going uphill on a road. There was so many runners, I couldn’t even run fast if I wanted to. It was a very different experience to what I typically sprinting off towards the front of a race. But I did not know what was in store and so was content to just chill and go with the flow/pace of those around me. Soon after we started it sleeted, but thankfully stopped as quickly as it started. However, the howl of the wind was crazy, and with a below freezing wind chill, it made things challenging to get warm. Within a few kilometers we headed down some stairs and single track towards landslide. This involved lots of scrambling and traffic and was far from runnable (yes I made up a word). Both James and my spirits were super high even though it was freezing. As we drew near to the first checkpoint, my leg felt painful. It wasn’t a sudden ouch / snap moment, but a niggle building to a constant pain at the back of my knee. I feel my exposed knees to the cold combined with running down the stairs and hills led to my issue.
This section was mainly fire trail, undulating but can be quick if you wanted. Passing through checkpoint 1 (CP1 – 11km) I dropped my glove refilling my water. Thankfully, I realised my mistake only 50m down the next hill as my hands were getting cold! Figured maybe the little extra doubling back would help me reach 100km on the Garmin since I’d heard the course is typically around 1km short (clearly I was in good spirits to be thinking this way). By this stage, the crowds had thinned out drastically. My hip flexor on the opposite leg to my sore hammy started to ache. I felt like it was due to so much slow running and not actually striding out. I sprinkle in some faster strides which definitely help it feel slightly better. Hammy still just annoyingly aching.
Both James and I continued along the ridgeline running towards ‘Tarros Ladder’. It was super windy and undulating but pretty easy going (run wise). Once we got to Tarros Ladder we waited in the queue and took the opportunity to eat and have a break while we waited the 5-8 minutes for our chance to climb down the 17m high cliff. Once we reached the bottom, the single track was quite technical and made it slow going with traffic + uneven ground. It was quite fun though, twisting and turning along the route, it sure kept it interesting.
You come off the fire trail towards check point 2 (CP2 – 32km), which involves an almost unwalkable scramble up to Foggy Knob. The race continued on open trail, but quickly changed to steep trails that again weren’t runnable as we climbed up to Iron Pot ridge. My focus was on being careful to not fall and felt the burn in the quads staying in control. I was conscious of our pace and that we needed to pick things up to make the 14 hours (and finish at a reasonable time). James and I split up, so I could chase the silver buckle, but more importantly not keep my family waiting too long at the finish. Shortly after heading on solo I called my wife, and was told my ETA was 3pm to the Aquatic centre (CP4) and that they had booked in for that time to scenic world tour.. I needed to get a move on if I wanted my drop bag my wife had!
In hindsight, I probably went a little bit too quick trying to get back on pace. With more blood and oxygen rushing to my legs, my gut said no to eating any more muesli bars. I made the switch to gels, thankfully had planned spring energy for the back half. This section was more runnable with lots of fire trails and open track to checkpoint 3 (CP3 – 46km), also called six-foot track. I continued on from CP3 still making excellent progress on the open trails.
I passed 50km and the enormity of the task I’d set out to achieve hit me. My body was sore. I started to think about the sacrifice others were giving for me to do this challenge and it made me cry. It took all my energy to focus on my task at hand rather than just stop and curl up to have a good cry. I was feeling tired but in reasonable spirits. As I passed people I kept asking other runners 2 questions: 1) have you done this before? if the answer was yes, 2) Where does Nellies Glen start? Before I knew it though I was on the massive climb, and it was super slow from the valley up to Katoomba. Lots of steps and just never-ending. I was feeling pretty tired by this stage and emotional for that matter, but I had no time to stop for a breather. Instead, I kept a decent tempo of walking up the steps and boulders, one foot in front of the other. I was rewarded with reaching the Katoomba Aquatic centre (CP4 – 57km) which is the halfway point time-wise. My race time was 7:20, and it was ~2pm that I left well before my families booking at Scenic World. I still had a lot to go through, and not as much time as I’d have liked.
The track from Katooma towards Wentworth Falls has amazing views! But it was really windy along the cliffs. It’s a popular track in the blue mountains walking trails, along the cliffs from Katoomba towards the 3 sisters. Going down the giant staircase, typically I’d be scared (as I don’t like heights) but I was well and truly cooked by this stage. Just keep moving towards the finish was all I could really focus on. What goes down must come back up… it is a never-ending theme of UTA. After descending into a valley the climb back up wasn’t fun and involved… you guessed it.. lots of stairs! I was entirely over all the climbing. I slipped (thankfully didn’t fall) climbing up the steps and my calves almost cramped each time. But I got to the Fairmont checkpoint (69km).
The course still proved to be very undulating and if you were fresh, quick to run. By this stage my legs were dead.. unresponsive to my desires. My niggles were more than just niggles and it was a huge grind. I still managed an okay pace on flats + slight declines. But any serious gradient positive or negative was a real challenge. There was lots of regular walk breaks as I didn’t want to grind my run form into something from the Lionel Sanders show. The saving grace was the company of Scott, although the gap Yo-Yo’d we kept each other honest towards the end goal of finishing. I reached Queen Victoria Hospital checkpoint (CP5 -78km) with a little over 3hrs till the 14hr silver buckle cut-off. Until this point the <14-hour goal was a hope, but it now became a belief that it was possible if I could just suck up the discomfort and go for it.
After the checkpoint the sun set and yet I still had a way to go running into the dark abyss. The course when straight into a 8km downhill. The quads screamed at me to stop the abuse, yet I was on a mission with 2 things driving me: 1) don’t make my family wait any longer than needed in the freezing conditions, 2) run under 14hrs. It was hard to keep going, but I knew the downhill was free time and to make the cut-off I just need to run through the pain of each step as I launch down the hill. It’s too steep in a lot of places to really let go and still stay in control, particularly in the darkness. It was all quad dominated arresting each step. When the gradient eased, I could run more easily, but for a lot of the 8km it seemed to just be too steep for my weary legs and yet somehow, I made it to the bottom.
What goes down needs to go up, yet there’s was still more descents still. Super inefficient is all I could think. My hammy was really hurting, but I didn’t want to go this far and fail the time, so I pushed as fast as my body would allow trying to bank as much time for the final 1km. The last 4-5km was super sketchy on single track and trails in the dark. I was worried about rolling an ankle or tripping as my legs are toast. I didn’t think I could catch myself if I stumbled. I got to the last climb at Furber steps with 30mins to go. I knew I’d made it. I heard someone hard breathing coming up behind me, the first person to be moving faster on course than me since I left James around 10hours earlier. I offered to let Gretchen pass; she was on a mission but she contented herself with chasing me up the steps. The company was welcome as I started processing the events over the previous 14hours. The freezing cold, views, highs and lows, emotions, the pain and the success. Gratitude overwhelmed me for having the opportunity to undertake such an event. I finished in 13:48 inside the silver buckle cut-off.
Belief is a power thing and half the battle. So much of UTA is mental challenge rather than physical. It’s amazing what the human body is capable of. As long as I kept moving, it seemed that I could just keep going (provided you fuel accordingly). My body ached a lot around 45-50km but it didn’t really get worse, aside from my hamstring which post-race I know was actually injured and not just a niggle.
I can’t run with any real intensity and eat solid foods (although I already knew this). In hindsight it was interesting to see the turn point when I went from running in no zone – zone 1, up to zone 2 how my gut processed things.
Warming up well and keeping the body warm. If I had a do-over I’d have used something to keep my knees covered while I warmed up and started racing. I honestly believe this is the major contributor to my tendonitis, in that I was pounding down steps and hills in the freezing conditions with my knees totally exposed. I’ve never had this issue before and have done many runs with steep descends. To feel the issue before reaching 10km all points to not being warmed up well enough, as its definitely not overuse (although I’m sure by 100km overuse played a factor in why it got so inflamed post-race).