Fifth place in a world series event

My journey into the world of elite ultrarunning continued recently, with a 5th place finish at the Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA) 100km race (including 4,400m of vertical gain) on the UTMB world series. It was a ferociously fast race upfront, particularly over the early stages, in some incredibly beautiful, but technical terrain, through the Blue Mountains.

For me, this result felt a bit like a breakout performance. That’s an odd way to describe an achievement by a 36-year-old father-of-three economist, but that is the reality. The UTA result was confirmation for me that I can mix it up at the front on the world stage, and that my daydreaming during solo runs through the mountains behind Arrowtown weren’t all just in my head!

I previously posted about my forays into the world of ultrarunning, I was blown away by the support I received from people. Many of you contacted me for updates about how things were going, so in response I have compiled a race summary below for interested parties! It is a pretty unfiltered account of how things went down.

How it panned out?

I slept deeply the night before the race. Usually I toss and turn, but for some reason everything was calm and chilled. About one minute before my 3:50am alarm went off, I woke naturally.

After devouring a big bowl of porridge, lubing up my feet to avoid blisters, and getting dressed, I was off to grab a shuttle to the race start.

The race itself started just as dawn was about to break around 6:20am. I had muscled my way into the front row of the first of seven seeded start waves to accommodate the 1,000 athletes. As the gun went off, I was shocked by how frenzied the early pace was.

Mates had always told me that ultras are great because you get to cruise and enjoy the views. That might be the case for many, but upfront over those early kilometres I was sitting in about 6th place watching splits as quick as 3:50 per kilometre come up on my watch.

Turns out we were in a bit of a footrace to get in good positions for a decent of the famous 951 Furber Steps. As we reached the steps a few kilometres into the race, the pace naturally slowed as we grasped the double handrails and slid ourselves down metal steps with gradients as steep as most ladders!

Upon reaching the bottom, I settled into a pack of 6 runners, chasing the leader out front, who I was not to see for the rest of the day. The pack I was in more or less stayed together for about 25 kilometres across a combination of technical trails, fire tracks, and up and down clambers across rocks and boulders.

The pace was hot, and at about 30 kilometres as we sped into an aid station, doubts began to creep into my head. The legs were fine, but the engine was beginning to feel tired.

I better not have buggered this race were my first thoughts. I’m stupid to think that I really can cut it with these elite international athletes were others.

But then the little voice in my head reminded me that ultras are bloody long and hard, and that I needed to focus on what I could control here and now. The big one there was eating and not panicking.

Ultras are essentially an eating competition where you happen to be running.

Food is the petrol for your engine and it is amazing what kind of a hole you can dig yourself out of just by chowing down on a muesli bar and sacking a sports gel. During an ultra I eat every 30 minutes, as well as pre-emptively if I ever begin to feel a little flat.

As we exited the aid station, I made a real point of downing a peanut butter slug, having a gel, and a big slurp of my sports drink. Then it was back into some tough climbing along a rocky route out onto a beautiful part of the course called Ironpot Ridge.

This was one part of the race that I really enjoyed. I was by myself, soaking in the surrounds, and was lucky to be serenaded by a didgeridoo. That experience really gave me a pick me up, especially as my mind had relaxed, and I had buttoned off the pace a little bit to let the body recover. As I doubled back off Ironpot Ridge, I realised that I had settled into 4th place. Turns out that some of my peers had also struggled with the hot pace, and had slipped back.

The next 15 kilometres of the race to an aid station just before halfway were reeled off pretty efficiently. There were a few offtrack sections and stream crossings, but mostly it ended up being on a gravel road. My focus was on keeping the body in check, eating, and making sure I was in the best possible shape for the second half of the race.

At about 50 kilometres into the race, we began heading up from the valley floor back to the town of Katoomba about 1,000m above sea level. The forest trail we were on progressively got steeper, until it was back to stairs. At this point, about halfway through the race I caught up on 3rd, who was really struggling. The ups always go well for me as they are something I can’t hide from out my frontdoor in the mountains around Arrowtown.

I was back on track, but still had 50 kilometres to go, and another bad patch was just around the corner for me. Crossing long grass along the tops close to the 60 kilometre mark some of those demons remerged, and I began to question myself. I slipped back to 6th place and struggled to stay on the tail of a runner from Brisbane who had surged forward from 8th place.

We got talking, about what I’m not really sure. But before I knew it half an hour had gone by, huge staircases had been descending and then ascended, and I was heading into a checkpoint at the Fairmont Resort almost 70 kilometres deep into the race.

I sacked a bottle of coke in the aid station, grabbed some watermelon and took off. I was singing to myself by this stage, stoked on life, absorbing the incredible vistas.

I had a nervous giggle as I came across a few signs telling me to watch out for snakes, thinking back to the long snaky grass I had been wading through a couple of hours earlier. I kept singing loud – Foo Fighters, Frozen, old school Eminem. I get a bit kooky out there at times as you are probably realising.

Things were back on track – I was flying and all alone in 5th place. I was also passing runners from the 50-kilometre race, who we were going to share the trail with over the final quarter of our day. They were an enthusiastic bunch and wildly excited to see the elite 100km runners overtake them. Their support meant a lot and really motivated me to smash out the final hours of the race. If these unlikely athletes could do it, then so could I.

At about 80 kilometres, we started a steep decent down a gravel road from the tops of close to 1,000 metres to the valley floor at around 200 metres above sea level. This decent was punishing on tired, sore legs, but at least the kilometres ticked by rapidly, with most in the mid 4 minutes per kilometre.

By 90 kilometres, I knew that I was in for a good finish. I was still 5th, the food was going down well, and I felt confident knowing the big climb out of the valley towards the finish at Scenic World in Katoomba would play into my hands.

The climb was brutal, but I just got into a rhythm and lived off the energy of the 50km runners I was passing through. They encouraged me and boosted my ego. It would be easy to give into the pain I was feeling and slow down, but the finish was getting closer and I couldn’t embarrass myself in front of these people who seemed so inspired by what I was doing.

After brilliant sunshine all day, the rain hit in the final hour of the race. It kind of unleashed my animal spirit. I felt glorious, the soaking rain easing the muscle aches, and keeping upright through muddy sections distracting me from the technical terrain I was covering.

Suddenly I was back near where it all started, at the bottom of the famous Furber Steps. There were now just 951 steps between me and the finish.

Before I knew it I was at the top, listening to Swiss cow bells, and running through the final hundred metres of highfiving spectator lined barriers.

I sailed into the finish grinning from ear to ear. Absolutely stoked that I had just finished 5th in a world series 100km race that included more than 4,400 metres of climbing.

I sat down in the recovery zone in a daze. The mental and emotional fatigue from those past 10 hours of hard racing had taken their toll, probably more so than the physicality of what I had endured.

I called my wife and found three excited small kids still up having watched daddy finish on live video streams. I also began to see all the messages from friends and family back home, who had been following my day, and debating among themselves how I would finish up, with the overriding conclusion I would come through.

Everyone’s support has meant so much to me, and it has helped me process where I am at over the days since the race. I am now looking forward to my next event, with fresh enthusiasm. It’s been a long season, but I have just one more race to go before I will take a few easy months.

I am going to be racing in the Brisbane Trail Ultra 100-mile (160km) event in early July. This event is a going to be a step back to the drawing board in some ways. My key goal is to learn more about my body and nutrition needs over the longer, 100-mile distance. I am not as fussed how I finish this one, so long as I feel strong out there all day. I want to get myself dialled in and in a good space so that I am ready for a serious tilt at a more major 100-mile race next season.

I will keep you posted. Over and out.