The Ultra Anniversary.............
Exactly 12 months ago I lined up under the historic Belair sign embarking on what was to be my first Ultra Marathon. That day changed my life, thrusting me into the ultra world.
I learned a lot that day; not just about running, but about myself emotionally and spiritually.
Current form is questionable as the lead up training being heavily hampered by a new job taking a huge amount of time to get going, and also an ongoing issue with my belly going bad on me during all my long runs.
If I was going to make it today, the belly was going to have to play the game. Some weeks ago, this single item stood out as a major red flag. The issue with being under prepared with training wasn't a major concern as I did the same thing last year, but if the belly was going to act in the same way it has for the last 9 months, it would probably result in my first ever DNF.
So in the week before the race, I'm off to see Stephanie Gaskell at Nutrition Strategies, who is not only an elite ultra marathon runner in her own right, but a specialist nutritionist. Who better qualified to attend to my problems. Steph kindly offered to work with me on the bigger picture with the charity run to Melbourne in support of Crohns Disease as her business is so closely aligned.
An hour later, and a whole new outlook on nutrition planning (against all the rules I've been working with to date) I'm off to the grocery store to stock up on my pre event and on event fuel sources.
The day comes by quick. I used to be so much more prepared but I've become a bit complacent lately. I arrive just over an hour early, just in time to see one of my clients set off on her first trail ultra. Having an almost identical preparation to myself last year I'm sure she's going to have a tough but successful day ahead. "Good luck Grace" and she's off.
Now it's my turn, standing on that same spot, but now registered in the group A, I was feeling a little like an imposter when looking around at some of the faces and knowing their ability. But too late now, I'm in and the slower group start waves are long gone. "C'mon Matt, you've got this. You've done this one before so you know what you're up against"
I set my drop bags down and double check it's all laid out in the easiest format to 'grab and go'. Shortly after, Wayne, a long term friend and another of my running clients, from Sydney arrives also for his first trail ultra. Looking well prepared but anxious it's obvious his mind has been spinning for days. Following Wayne's progress over recent months I'm convinced this is the only time I'll see him until the finish line.
"10 minutes until start" I overhear from a conversation nearby. Wow, really? I thought we still had ages; as I double check against my watch...... So it is.
Fuel belt on, food, water, a quick pic with Wayne, watch is on, "HOOOOOOOOOOT" and off we go to the air horn.
"Right, here we go. Take it easy. There's a little bit of climbing to kick us of for a few km's then we go down." Downhill will remain to be my strength. "Conserve on the ups Matt"
I settle in to my watch rather than watching the crowd in front knowing this field are much stronger than I am. If I get caught up in their 'wash' I'm in trouble.
30 minutes and I'm in to the first 5km drink stop. "Ok, feeling comfortable. Let's pick up a little time on this downhill for a few km's before the 15km's of incline approaching."
Time to get some food in.... 20g carbs for now just to keep on top of things. Must get up to 40g by the 1hr mark.
Whilst it's a bit of a climb, we are all well rewarded for our efforts with the stunning view of the entire city covered with nothing but blue skies. This is why I run trails. This right here is enough to take the mind away from the daunting miles yet to be covered.......
Before long, whilst allowing myself to soak up the amazing views of the Adelaide Hills I come into the first main checkpoint at approximately 21kms. "Ok, 2:18, I'm way out on last years time and feeling good." A little worked due to the heavy climb, but reasonably ok considering it's highest peak in South Australia. A good friend of mine who's offered to support both Wayne and I for the day greets me there with my changeover bottles and my drop bag with the food for the next leg. "Thanks Greg" and off I go. I remembered spending about 3-4 minutes there last year so I was determined to keep each of these aid stops to under a minute.... 49 seconds and I'm out of there.....
A Few km's ahead I see the familiar bright red hair of Grace. "Oh no, I shouldn't be seeing her this early in the race. Something is wrong!"......... I slowly pull up next to her, to find her quite emotional and clearly in huge pain. I offer what support and advice I can at such a time but shortly after I push on. While I'd like to see her complete this tough task, I'm convinced here that today is not her day. I find later that she forced out an amazing 10 more kilometres before pulling out. I'm sure every one of those extra steps will be burned into her memory for life......... Well done Grace, we'll see you there next year.
From memory, there's a small amount of descent and climb just ahead before HORSNELLS GULLY......... There's 3 sections of this race that I remember most from last year, and this is one of them. A long steep descent, before the nasty climb back out. "Time to rock the downhill so I've got some time to play with getting back out of here." I pass a fair number through the technical, rocky single track thinking that today may result in my first real stack. Thankfully I reach the bottom unscathed.....
The climb is as remembered. However I manage a load better than I last attempted. (I begin thanking Steph right here). Something seems to be going the right way for a change. Not to mention stopping to take a photo bomb of a wandering koala along the now wider track helped take the mind away from the near 45 degree incline.
I need to be out of Horsnells in under 4hours if I'm to have a shot at a sub 7hr time knowing the trek ahead. Hitting the top at 3:56 gave me some relief, and more to the point that within seconds of reaching the top and it returning back down again I'm back into a solid rhythm. This is great!!!!! (I thank Steph yet again)
OK, so it's downhill now until the 38km aid station. Let's get some time back. Pace is good, belly is good, quads a little fatigued from pushing hard on the downs but they're manageable. I stick with the fuelling plan and push on.
I come into the 38km checkpoint feeling exceptionally better than last year. I have a distinct memory of 'struggletown' at this point last year, so to be running a steady pace right now is a huge uplift. Sub 7 is definitely there. YES!!!!!!
Greg kindly greets me at the aid stop, helping me grab my food for this final leg, a quick swig of ginger beer to help keep the belly on the right level, and off I go with Greg telling me that Wayne is only 2 minutes ahead. "Really?" I thought he'd be at least 30 minutes ahead. He must be struggling because he is clearly a stronger runner than I am. I suspect he may be saving something for the end as I know he's studied these maps in depth. This aid stop costs me 1 minute 4 seconds so that's ok.
Back into rhythm straight away but I know this section is about to get warm. Last year in almost identical conditions, there was something about the climb along the western face of the mountain that seemed to make it feel 10 degrees hotter. A few minutes and I come into the always entertaining 42km drink station, famous for outrageous costumes and Coca-Cola as the preferred beverage. Not on the plan as I'd been convinced to follow the agenda to the letter, I'm almost forced to take on some coke as they're basically out of water. "Oh no, this is not what I wanted to here coming into the hottest part of the race, and the next stop is 7kms away." (That said, the mere fact that they have a drink stop here is amazing due to it's remote, UPHILL location, far from any car access, so thank you especially to these hardworking volunteers)
I decide to suck it up and put in what I can through Morialta. I know this section well as I've run more than a dozen times. "only 14kms to go. I know if I push up this hill, I can afford to expel what energy I have knowing the long descent after is a strong point of mine.
Just as the top of Morialta becomes in reaching distance I see Wayne walking up one of the last descents. I yell out from 50m behind o let him know of my presence. We share a couple of words before he decides to push on up the hill taking his lead to around 100-150m before pulling back to a walk up the final climb. I decide to reserve a little here given the last little incline is steep but short. There's no point burning what I have on such a short hill when it may only gain me a few seconds. Let's save that for the 6-7 km descent.
We hit the top......... YES. I know from here I have only one more challenge..... The infamous BLACKHILL!!!!
Last year I decided to take it easy on this decline as a means of saving myself for the excruciating final climb, but this year I decide to work with my strength and punch out some low 5min km's. (I know these aren't fast in real terms but at this stage on tired legs it's a solid struggle). Again I think of how Steph's planning has clearly paid off....... How is it that I can still run this pace when last year I had nothing?????
I run out of water about 2km away from the drink station. I see a couple of emergency volunteers carrying their own personal water bottle and half hesitate to ask for a splash, but pride keeps me from doing so and I push on.
Greg....... what a sight for sore eyes. I wasn't expecting to see him until the end. I'm in and out, topped up and water soaked over the head in less than 40 seconds. "Let's get this bastard outta the way"
Last year it took me nearly an hour to get from here to the finish, and I know I finish really hard and strong on the final descent last year so with 6:10 on the clock, I'd better work hard from here to secure a sub seven....... Chanting "Sub 7....... Sub 7......Sub 7" and random points on the up.....
There's 3 parts to this sucker......... the never ending 30degree climb for a few kms, followed by a steep 45 degree mental tester, followed again by some further rolling hills that catch you out when you first think that you've got to the top. I'm not sure what bit is worse, but in all they add up to one major hurt fest after 50kms in the legs. "C'mon Matt, a few minutes of pain and then you're on the down"
The final 3kms is one of my favourite trails to run locally, and I always make habit of no matter how I'm feeling to just suck up everything I've got and let loose down a tight, winding single track. It's a mix between knowing there's no more climbs, the finish is within crawling distance and the mere fact that it's an awesome section of the trail. I hit the entrance to this track next to another runner, and I mumble as I pass by "OK, 3 to go, time to suck it up and let loose"
If there's anywhere I'm gonna stack it, it's here. Legs like jelly, quads burning like I'd put deep heat in my undies, but no time to look at the watch due to the winding, tree lined descent. "sub 7........ sub 7........"
I come to the familiar steep rocky section that until now thought it wasn't runnable. Leaping from one boulder down to another looking 3-4 steps ahead I pass 2 runners murmuring something how I was crazy (which is a compliment in my eyes, lol) all the while thinking if I stack it here, there's no way I'd be avoiding a trip to the hospital. Yes, I've rock-hopped down avoiding a broken ankle or worse.
Here's the final few hundred meters on the access road to the final line. I hear the crowd which gives the buzz I need to burn to the end. Pushing beyond the barriers, everything burning, I empty an already dry tank. The bubbly character of Karen over the PA is reeling me in as I push through at low 3min pace (of which I knew it was a strong finish but didn't realise so strong until reviewing the Garmin), and there's Sadie to slide the hard earned medal over my dripping head. 6:50:47!!!!!!!!!! YEEEEHAAAAAA. I did it. I can't believe it!!!!!
Greg immediately comes up, I'm sure saying something encouraging but to be honest I heard nothing. There could've been a marching band there and I'd have no idea. I found a clear spot, and flopped down flat on my back, while Greg kindly grabbed me some refreshments.
I get up a few minutes later to have Wayne cross the line on his first amazing adventure. What a moment for him. I can see he's hurting but deep down in awe of what he's just accomplished. Well done Wayne, that moment will be with you for life!!!!!
Yurrebilla 2013 was everything I'd hoped it be, when only a few weeks ago I was dreading even taking off due to the recent issues. This event is amazing on so many levels. The terrain is terribly challenging with the volume of ascent and descent per kilometre in the higher range of difficulty compared to most ultra's, but the vibrant culture that has been instilled to this event over the years brings with it an experience that all runners need to be apart of at least once in their lives.
I'd like to thank Greg for his amazing support throughout the day, the organisers for their flawless coordination and to no end Stephanie Gaskell for not only getting me through this, but ensuring a huge PB at a time I half considered pulling out.
With this now behind me, and the confidence I can solve the belly issue, Yurrebilla 2014 will be a whole new game!!!!!!!!!!!!!