Sunday morning I left early, and headed to the race start at Belair Railway Station, arriving just in time to see the second (Group B) wave depart at 7:30. Runners at Yurrebilla are sent off in 3 waves at hourly intervals, with the fastest (Group A) runners departing last, which limits the time volunteers are out on the course, and allows greater interaction between runners of all abilities.
Group B ready to roll
I hooked up with my brother TJ to offload the crew bag, gave my niece & nephew a big hug, and TJ headed off to drop his kids off with my parents and Sully, who would all be there at the finish. I then checked in, dumped my drop bags, and had a look around while warming up.
My hopes for a top 10 finish had faded in the last couple of weeks before the run, as they continued to announce some high profile entrants on the race Facebook page. There was former TNF100 winner Stu Gibson, top Victorian trail runners Kevin Mannix & Toby Wiadrowski, and leading endurance athlete & coach Andy DuBois, who writes what I consider to be one of the best ultra running blogs out there - mile27.com.au.
Still, as I stood on the start line for my third ultra, I was feeling surprisingly relaxed, confident in my preparation, and sure of my race plan. And when Race Manager Sadie Cranston sent us away on the stroke of 8:30, I was quickly into stride and on the back of the leading group.
Soon though, the heavy artillery in the race powered away off into the distance, and I settled into a position about 15th behind two other runners, as we headed downhill for about 1.5k, before heading up the first minor climb. At this point our small group joined the one ahead of us and I made maybe the most important decision of my race. Not happy with the slowing pace, I asked to pass, and swung around the 5 other runners, and continued to climb quickly but within myself.
After the first climb, there was a downhill of about 6k, including a longish road section that took us down into Brownhill Creek, and on this section I was passed by three tall eager beavers, using their long loping strides to fly down the hill. Although I ran three low 4 min k's through this part, I held back, just running easily down to the 10k drink stop, where I topped up with water, and then went to work.
The next section I had identified as the most crucial of my race - a long 8km climb up to Cleland Wildlife Reserve, where I would use my relatively fresh legs, and my hills training to bank some time. I felt great through this whole climb, and quickly picked off two of my beavers, before catching the third at about the 14k mark, and then ran well up to the drink stop at the 15k mark where Sadie informed me I was in 9th place. I filled my water bottle, popped an electrolyte tablet in it, and crossed onto Mt Barker Road to continue the last 3km of the climb along the road section.
Still feeling good at the 14k mark
As I crossed the road, I could see 7th & 8th place running together up ahead, one of whom I recognized as elite female runner, Steph Gaskell. I was still feeling great at this point, and ran a couple of sub 5 min k's, even passing a cyclist as I made steady ground on the two ahead. Shortly after I turned off the road into Cleland, I caught Gaskell, although her companion had seemingly dropped her and was nowhere to be seen!
We started a tricky little descent down into the park, and Gaskell offered to let me pass, but I politely declined, seeing how easily she was skipping over the rocks in her grippy, minimal trail shoes, while I was trying not to trip over my own feet. I held back a bit to give her a bit of space, and before long we reached the bottom of the descent, and headed up the hill towards the 20k major aid station.
Trying to keep up with Steph Gaskell in Cleland
I passed Gaskell almost immediately on the climb, but as soon as we hit the aid station, I stopped to restock from my drop bag, while she ran straight through it as she was running with a hydration pack. I took off pretty quickly after her, but made my first major mistake. Stupidly, I had chosen to freeze my drink bottles, and the one I grabbed was still frozen solid, but thinking it would melt quickly, didn't worry about it.
For the next 12km Gaskell, and I traded 8th position, but my biggest worry at this point was my water which was not melting as quickly as I had hoped. I was only able to top it up at the 27k drink station because it was still too frozen to mix electrolyte, and I wasn't getting enough hydration to help digest my gels.
Finally, by the 32k drink station at Woods Hill Rd, the ice had melted, and I refilled my bottle and dropped in my electrolyte tablet. This delay in getting electrolytes into my body was to prove near disastrous towards the finish, but more on that later. Meanwhile, Gaskell ran through the drink station, took back 8th, and I didn't see her again as she powered through the field for a Female Category win, and a brilliant 6th overall. What a runner!
The next section of the race was a steady downhill run to the 37k Morialta Cottage aid station, including a road section past the Scenic Hotel in the picturesque town of Norton Summit. I didn't enjoy much of the view though, as it quickly became apparent I was in a bit of trouble. For the first time in a race I was having stomach issues. Normally I have a very strong stomach, but I think training on minimal nutrition, then taking a gel every 5k with insufficient hydration had caused a mini rebellion.
TJ had my drop bag ready when I hit Morialta Cottage, but I took my time there, staying three minutes while drinking some coke and trying to get myself together. Poor TJ had to jump quickly out of the way as I twice emptied the meagre contents of my stomach near his feet. I then made another error. I wasn't silly enough to take the frozen water again, but as I still had half of my last electrolyte mix, elected to carry on with just that rather than fill and make a new batch, reasoning I would be able to fill up at the next drink station.
Eventually I took off, and the next part of the race is the highlight for me. Even though I wasn't feeling great, I kept rolling at a reasonable clip, pushing myself forward, knowing that I would come good. At my first ultra in January, I had hit a bad patch and fallen in a heap, and was determined not to let that happen again.
It was a truly magnificent part of the course as I descended down into Morialta Falls, then began the long climb back up towards the Deep View Lookout drink station, with beautiful views looking back over the gorge. About half way up the climb I heard a runner approach from behind, which wasn't surprising given my recent travails, but surprising that it was Andy DuBois, who I had assumed was somewhere up ahead. I moved aside to let Andy past, marveling at how steady, rhythmic, and in control he looked at this stage of the race. Pacing himself beautifully, as you'd expect from such an experienced runner.
Looking back over Morialta Falls
As I reached Deep View Lookout at 42k, I was in for another surprise. My water bottle was empty, but they were unable to let me fill it as they were running low on water. I could have a cup though. So I drank some of the offered coke, then poured the cup of water into my drink bottle which half filled it. Again I made an error. Instead of breaking a tablet in half and getting some electrolytes into me, I ran on with just the water. The next drink station is only 3k away I said. I'll take some then I said.
I didn't much care though. I had turned the corner, and attacked the rest of the climb with purpose. Running everything runnable, and power hiking the pinches until I came over the hill and started the long downhill run to Montacute Road. I had made the decision before the race that I was going to trust my quads on all the downhills, and not baby them, believing that the trashing I had given them at Arthurs Seat 2 & 3 weeks out from the race had hardened them sufficiently. So I let go on this section, striding out and letting gravity take me down, passing another few early group runners, and hoping any chasers would be running a little more gingerly at this point.
I was at Montacute Road before realising that the Fox Dam drink station at 46k had either not existed, or I had flown past it with such a head of steam I hadn't noticed it. No matter. As I turned on to the road, I knew it was only another k until the final station, and I cruised strongly down the hill, clocking a 4:47 split before arriving at the base of Black Hill at 49k. I stayed a couple of minutes drinking some water, and then mixing some electrolyte, before heading up the hill and into a world of pain.
The hill was pretty steep, with lots of hiking and only a few runnable sections. I was pretty tired and sore by this stage, but a possible top ten finish kept me motivated to keep driving forward until a minor complication developed. About three quarters of the way up the hill, both legs started cramping in the calves. I kept trying to stretch it out, but then the muscles at the front would cramp, until just short of the summit both legs seized up and would carry me no further. Fortunately an early group runner I had just passed was able to stretch my left calf to a point where I could stand, and I hopped over to a tree to steady myself while I dealt with the right leg.
I managed to hobble over the summit then tried to relax my legs as much as possible as I began the final 4k descent. Apart from the cramping I didn't feel too bad, and should have been charging down the hill, but the cramps made the descent almost comical. Every few hundred metres I would have to brace myself against a tree to stretch, then when I was nearly at the bottom while navigating some rocks, both legs seized again and I found myself lying face down on the rocks unable to move!
Finally though, rocky single track gave way to fire trail, I crossed a small bridge, and a couple sitting in deck chairs rang a bell to announce my arrival to the finish line. I ran carefully along the final section, then a huge smile came over my face as the finish came in sight and I heard the cheers of my family. The announcer confirmed me as tenth place finisher as I crossed the line in 5:37:35, and the hug I got from my 80 year old Dad made me feel like I was 15 again.
The video my brother TJ took of the finish
I high fived my brother & hugged my son, and my sister and her husband were there as well, and their kids were wearing the "I Love Frankston" t-shirts I had bought them on their last visit to Melbourne! Coming home to run this race and run it well was incredibly fulfilling and emotional for me, and the only thing that would have made it better was to have my partner Allie and daughter Indiana there as well. I guess I'll just have to bring them along next year!
With my son, and nieces and nephews
It was a well organised race on a tough, beautiful course. Stu Gibson won in 4:41:31 (course record) from local Nick Muxlow, while Toby Wiadrowski finished third. It was much harder than I had imagined, and I was elated to run as well as I could have hoped. From an inglorious ultra debut in January, I feel like I have come a long away and I have the motivation to keep improving.
What Went Wrong
- Electrolytes - I wasn't disciplined enough in getting these into me, and paid the price at the end. Next race I am going to premix all electrolytes and will only drink plain water when convenient. My strategy of alternating didn't work. Post-race the severe cramping continued painfully for an hour in every muscle of my legs until the 2 litres of electrolyte I guzzled settled them down. Hopefully that will reinforce the lesson.
- Flexibility - I didn't think well on my feet when things went wrong. There were electrolyte drinks available at the stations, why didn't I just drink them when I couldn't make a mix?
- Gels - One every five km was too often, particularly with not enough hydration. Next race I will switch to one every 45 mins.
- Training - my 42km quad trashing / climbing sessions on consecutive Sundays 2 & 3 weeks out from the race before tapering perfectly conditioned my legs. I was really careful in my weekly mileage increases, which allowed me to stay relatively injury free.
- Race Plan - although I went reasonably hard early, apart from my back & forth with Steph Gaskell early in the race, I was only passed once from the 10k mark. And that was at 42k by a very experienced runner.
- Mental - Reading the top runners blogs over the last 6 months it was encouraging to learn that they all face issues in their races. When I hit my hurdles, I accepted them, and kept moving.
Yurrebilla Trail 56k Website - South Australian Road Runners Club
The 30/50 Challenge is on November 16th from Rosebud to Portsea on the Mornington Peninsula, quite close to where I live.