UTA50 race recap by Gem H
I thought doing the UTA22 in 2016 nearly killed me, so I figured why not do more than double the distance and take on the 50k in 2017?
It was a year ago I made the decision to become an ultramarathoner. Yeah that’s right – a scary goal – but I had plenty of time to train… so I thought.
Since before Christmas I’ve had a bad run of injuries – not any one thing career ending, but enough to stop me in my tracks and go weeks without running. So. Much. Physio.
I made it to the start line without nearly enough training. I’d never done more than 24k in a single run, never more than 28k in a day. Here I was, about to tackle 50 kilometres, with a dodgy hip and temperamental glutes.
While I never doubted my ability to finish, I braced myself for a long, tough day. I knew the course and had a game plan. Despite my inexperience over this distance, I was pretty sure I knew what it would take to get to the finish line.
I wasn’t scared of not finishing – I’m far too stubborn for that – but having come off 5k runs in recent weeks that left me unable to walk properly for days, I was terrified that I’d be running 50k in pain.
In the last two weeks before UTA I was on edge. The tiniest things would make me cry. I had to suck it up. There was nothing more I could do to prepare.
The day before my race I was ecstatic to watch the 2017 UTA22 and witness so many of my friends conquer what has to be one of the most difficult half marathons in the world.
I was a little envious of my friends doing the 22 – knowing I’d done that course in training much faster than I raced it a year ago, I know I could have got a PB. But that wasn’t a big enough challenge and I knew that no result in the 22 would give me the same satisfaction as completing the 50.
As Friday continued we knew the weather would have an impact on the 50 and 100k events the following day. In the afternoon it was confirmed: the last half of the 50 course was inaccessible. This meant the entire route changed, now following the first half of the 100 course – most of the trail I’d never seen before. My initial excitement about a fun adventure and fewer stairs turned to panic as I heard about the horror of ascending Nellies Glen. I cried again.
Then my start time got pushed back, meaning there would be four hours between my partner, Graham, starting the 100k and me starting the 50. The game plan changed once more as I knew it was wiser to stay in the hotel rather than stand in the cold – I wouldn’t get to see Graham start his race. That night I met elite runner Kellie Emmerson who was also doing the 50. She offered to drive me to the start line and I accepted.
In the morning we were almost at Scenic World when I realised I’d forgotten my gloves. I was having a freak out. Kellie was so calm. She gave me her gloves. Many hours later I found out that Kellie had gone on to win the 50 in a record time.
I made it to the start line and felt ok. I saw my friends and we took the traditional pre-race selfies. It was unusual for me, but I couldn’t stand to look at social media. I knew people were wishing me well but the thought of reading those messages was making me more nervous.
Start group after start group set off, and my group of friends got smaller. Had I had a better lead up, I might have started in Group 4 or 5 but there were so many unknowns, I knew it was smarter to stay in Group 6. A little warm up with the last of the UP Coaching gang and I was lining up for the start. I was relieved to get the race underway.
Start group 6 was massive. From the get go it was crowded. We started on road and running was easy but I struggled to get through the crowd, which included many people who walked from the very beginning. I weaved in and out, not running fast but still trying to get into some clear space while we were on the road.
Soon enough we hit the Furber Stairs. It was a relief to think how much easier it was going down the stairs at the beginning of the race instead of up them at the end. There was only one problem – it was slippery and with so many people we were slow to move. There was no opportunity to pass so we all walked one step at a time, all the way down 900-odd steps until we could finally put on a little jog when we hit the trail at the bottom of Scenic World.
Even that jog was slow with few passing opportunities on the single track, and I was conscious of not going out too hard too early so I settled in to the pace of the group.
Within minutes we were stopped again. This time for at least 15 minutes with almost zero movement. It was the queue to start the section called the landslide – which looks just like it sounds: a messy pile of rocks at the side of the mountain. We scrambled over them but it was slow. There was still so far to go so I decided to be patient.
Once the track opened up a bit I passed a few people before we hit the Golden Stairs. There was nothing golden about them. Actually in some parts they could hardly be described as stairs! It was steep, muddy and horrendously slippery. I soaked in the spectacular view (not) of inside a cloud. Going up stairs is probably my biggest weakness but I had deliberately dedicated some training sessions to trying to get better at them. It paid off and I managed to get all the way up, with my glutes doing their job and my hip feeling good. I only stopped when the crowd did, and soon enough we were at the top near Narrowneck – the only part of the course I had ever stepped foot on before.
It had already taken nearly an hour longer to cover that distance (about 8k) than I’d predicted, but knowing those stairs were out of the way gave me some comfort that perhaps it would get easier and I’d be able to get some momentum.
As the trail opened up I started running. I remembered how well I had run the last time I was there, and expected to be able to run at a decent pace for most of the wide fire trail. Suddenly there was a massive concrete hill – they didn’t put that in the brochure! I figured it was time to eat something so I pulled an amazing Pink Lady apple out of my pack and munched away at it while I took tiny little steps up that bloody steep concrete hill. Holy shit. It was worse than Sublime Point but at least it wasn’t too long. At the top, there it was: our first checkpoint – the proper start of the trail at Narrowneck.
I ate some watermelon, filled my soft flask with Fizz, took off my arm warmers and went to the toilet. I only stopped for a few minutes in total but it was all I needed to make sure I was set up for the next 20k.
I ran through the checkpoint gate and down the hill. Finally getting some decent pace. That’s when I realised my left foot was sore. Within a few hundred metres I was struggling to run on it, and that’s when I remembered that it had slid out from underneath me on the landslide, only stopping when the side of my foot hit a pointy rock. I hadn’t noticed the pain at all until I started really running. I tried to turn my foot a bit and land more on the ball of my foot, but that only made other parts of my foot hurt more. I walked.
Walking up a slight incline I could see a guy with his phone out – looking like he was taking a selfie. I ran up behind him and jumped up, pulling a silly face as I photobombed him. That’s when I heard him say “I love you so much” to the person on the other end of the line, and I felt so guilty for spoiling that special moment that I took off up the hill as fast as I could. I forgot about my foot for a little bit.
Walk run walk run. Run the downs. Walk the ups. Oh look – that’s where I stacked it on the night run back in November. Walk run walk run. My fucking foot. Now the right one is hurting. Downhills are more like a shuffle. Walk the ups. Shuffle the downs. Shit – I kicked a rock. My toe hurts.
On a long uphill stretch along the ridge I started to take some photos. It fascinated me that on one side of the cliff it was clear and sunny, and the other side was grey and cloudy. The trail split the weather. Soon the sun won out and I was sweating up a storm. Absolutely dripping. I actually considered taking off my shirt at one point. It was feral. Then I could see the end of Narrowneck and I ran to the end.
I turned the corner and stopped dead in my tracks. It was the queue for Tarros Ladders. The descent was technical and people needed to take their time. The further back in the race you were, the more traffic was banked up. I ate a Hammer bar on the way down, at one point holding the half eaten bar in my mouth as I held onto a rope to descend a few steep metres. And then we stopped again. Everyone was chatting like a group of old friends. Someone suggested a wave so we all jumped on board and I was lucky enough to film it. We might have been stuck and adding to our finishing time but there was no point complaining. I reckon I can say I’m one of only about 50 people who’ve ever participated in a Mexican Wave at Tarros Ladders.
It took 57 minutes to get from the end of Narrowneck to the point where you could choose to go on the ladders or take the alternative track. I figured I’d waited this long, I may as well take the ladders. At this point, my sweat was drying and I started to stink. I apologised to those around me for not considering packing a can of Rexona in my gear. My newfound friends were understanding. We were all in the same boat. Stinking.
For me the ladders weren’t scary at all. I was really comfortable but again, my speed was dictated by the people ahead of me. By the time I got to the bottom of the ladders it had been well over an hour since I’d finished Narrowneck – only 1km earlier.
At the bottom it was slippery as hell. I watched a woman in front of me struggle to keep her footing on some steps. She offered to let me pass but as I could see how slippery it was I said I’d wait until she’d done that bit. We chatted as we slowly took the next 20 metres or so. She told me she was afraid of heights and had had a panic attack on the ladders, and that her heart rate still hadn’t gone down. What had made it worse for her was that some bloke above her on the ladder was yelling at her to go faster. I don’t know why people need to be dickheads on the trail. A bit of patience goes a long way.
When things flattened out I wished her well and started jogging through the single track. My feet didn’t seem to hurt too much with all the grass and leaf litter so I enjoyed that small section.
I scrambled up the rocks and ran where I could. I recognised the landscape from the UTA 100 promo video but had no idea what this part of the trail was called. It was beautiful and at that moment I was happy to be doing this course instead of the one I’d been expecting.
Back on to fire trail towards Dunphy’s Camp and it was a run walk effort all the way to the next checkpoint. It wasn’t overly steep but my feet were killing me. My toes were smashing the ends of my shoes with every step and the side of my left foot was aching. Heel strike, forefoot – it didn’t matter. I walked and shuffled down the hill until I saw the checkpoint. My body was holding up really well but my feet were letting the team down. I realised at this point I was more than half way and had already surpassed the longest run I’d ever done in my life. I acknowledged that my feet were sore and reminded myself that this was normal. I was running an ultramarathon – something was gonna hurt!
At the checkpoint a volunteer handed me a size 3XL safety vest which now became part of my mandatory gear for the rest of the race. I threw all my stuff on the ground and tried to think about something other than how much running I’d be doing in the dark.
I turned my phone on so I could see how Graham was going in the 100. He seemed to be going really well based on his checkpoint times. I called Kelly-ann who was crewing for him and found out he was sick. I called Graham to help put his problems in perspective, and promptly cried about how my aid station had run out of Coke. We wished each other well and bet that each other would finish first.
I refilled my Fizz and my entire water bladder. I didn’t know the course and thought Nellies Glen was coming up and I needed to be prepared. I tried to eat a donut but it was too doughy so I shoved some watermelon in my mouth to make it easier to swallow. Cinnamon donut and watermelon didn’t taste nearly as disgusting as you’d think. It was 4pm and already getting cold and dark so I put my arm warmers back on, repacked my gear so I could retrieve my safety vest and head lamp without taking my pack off, took a deep breath and ventured back onto the trail.
Running down the steep farm driveway wasn’t as fun or as fast as I would have liked with every step sending shockwaves through the sore spots on my feet. I simply hoped I looked like I was running as I passed the photographer! A few steps later and I was walking. Walking didn’t hurt my feet. So I walked faster. I tried to keep under 9 min/km pace and popped a Panadol to see if it would help with the pain.
Suddenly, more steep hills. Once again, this was as steep as Sublime Point! Oh well, I told myself, if you can do Sublime, you can do these hills. Small steps. Stay upright. Tuck in the butt. Focus on form. “Butt butt butt butt” I chanted as I walked up the hills, reminding myself to ensure my glutes pulled their weight. I was proud of them. Woohoo – go glutes!
My little steps weren’t fast but I was consistent. At the top of the hills I was passing the people who had passed me at the bottom. I resolved to walk the rest of the race. Yeah – great idea. Walking is easy. Walking is fun. Keep walking. Oh look, downhill – must run. Hang on… the side of my left foot has stopped hurting – it’s a miracle! Now I could run some flat bits too.
I snapped a photo as the last of the daylight disappeared over the hill. While still walking I put on my safety vest and went to get out my headlamp. Somehow my headlamp got caught in the elastic of my pack. I yanked on it and it came flying out. It somersaulted through the air and crashed onto the road a few metres in front of me. Fuck – please be ok, please be ok. Thankfully my headlamp survived unscathed.
Once my headlamp was on I suddenly got a second wind. I don’t mind running at night and it occurred to me that it wasn’t going to be as much of a problem as I’d feared. Soon I was in a paddock. I observed the humongous cow pats on the ground and thought about taking a photo so I could caption it “this is shit”. But the truth was that my race wasn’t shit. I was actually feeling pretty good.
In the distance we could hear a strange sound. Another runner and I agreed that it must be some kind of strange Blue Mountains night bird. We carried on.
The sound got louder. And it got clearer. We realised it was a human being making that sound, cheering on runners as they came into the next checkpoint! 35k: done.
Oh hang on. Where was Nellies Glen? I guess it wasn’t between here and the previous checkpoint. My bladders were full – both the one in my pack and my internal one. I didn’t need to refill my drinks but I decided it was wise to make use of the portaloo. After that I figured some Oriental cup noodles would be my dinner so I scoffed those and drank the soup. It was unbelievably good. I called Kelly-ann to check in on Graham and she said he was still going. So I moved on. Only 15 kilometres to go – I was determined not just to finish but to finish strong.
Run walk run walk run walk. Sometimes I could run for a longer stretch, other times I’d only run for about 20 metres, just to give me enough speed to “powerhike the shit out of it”.
I downed a fruit pouch. Holy moly – it was amazing. Possibly the greatest thing I’d ever eaten in my life. So. Happy. Right. Now.
I promised myself to stay in that positive head space. I knew my finishing time wouldn’t look great but there was nothing I could do to make up for all the delays in the first 20k.
I was mostly walking with a bit of running thrown in and I started getting calf twitches. It’s the strangest sensation but I knew that cramps could be on their way. I lengthened my stride and purposely struck the ground with my heels until the twitches went away.
The forest started closing in and I figured I’d be hitting the dreaded Nellies Glen in a few km. I was told it was two kilometres of hell and worse than Furber, so I was going to allow myself an hour to get to the top if needed. I started on another amazing apple and focused on how good it tasted. Walking and munching. I’m good. This is good. I’m ready. I made it to the sign for Nellies Glen and took a photo. I considered ditching the other half of my apple but it was too good to waste so I hung out next to the sign and casually kept eating, watching about a dozen people pass me, into the gates of hell.
Apple finished and I pegged the core as hard as I could down the creek and into the darkness. “Stuff you Nellie” I said out loud – and off I went.
I didn’t bother with stepping stones – I just walked through the water. It numbed my poor toes. It was heaven. Up up up.
It the steps were narrow or rocky or slippery I was bear crawling. I was covered in mud but didn’t care. This was fast (for me) and it was easy and I didn’t have to worry about tripping or slipping. On all fours I passed so many people. My butt was in the air. I just didn’t care. From time to time the steps would get bigger so I’d stand up, focus on my form and push way up the next set. People were sitting on the stairs. One bloke was throwing up. Keep going. Crawl crawl crawl. Butt butt butt. Ooh water – numb feet – go again. I kept passing people but it left me with nobody to follow and at times I’d find myself staring at a pile of rocks wondering where the trail had gone, only to discover it had veered off to the side, out of the circle of light provided by my headlamp. It was an adventure!
I was waiting for it to get really hard. That’s when I heard a lady a few metres ahead shout “oh my god!”. I thought “here it is” and I braced myself for the worst. I rounded the corner and there was a volunteer.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You’ve made it to the top of Nellies Glen.”
“You’re my favourite person today,” I told him.
“You’re MY favourite person today,” he told me.
How fortunate that the universe had brought us together at that point.
There were still more stairs and trail to go but my energy levels were high. I was running and it was good. I kept passing people. Just as I was wondering if I was the only person mad enough to be running at this stage of the race – and amazed at my body’s ability to actually do it – I realised I couldn’t see any more pink ribbons. Out of the corner of my eye I spied something white. I shone my headlamp onto it. It was a dreaded wrong way sign which had fallen down. I turned around to look behind me and saw the woman behind me (who was only about five metres away) turn left. I called “have I gone the wrong way?” and THEN she said yes. I just loved how she watched me go the wrong way and didn’t say anything but was clearly close enough to me to answer when I asked. Would she have just let me keep running down the wrong trail? I backtracked those few metres and she was in front of me. I was angry and needed to pass. Thankfully it happened soon enough.
I could hear people cheering and I had reached the road. They stopped me to make sure my gigantic safety vest was on properly (it was falling off my shoulders so I’d tried to tuck it under my pack). Whether they were local residents or official volunteers, the cheer squad through this section was awesome. I could see the lights of the last checkpoint, the Aquatic Centre, up ahead. I was running. My feet were smashed but I was running. I called Kelly to tell her I had survived Nellies and was on my way to the checkpoint. She said she thought Graham was only a few km away as well. Perhaps we would finish at the same time. I kept running and imagined how incredible a scenario that would be, no matter how unlikely.
I ran through the Aquatic Centre checkpoint and kept on running. There were a few hills that I walked up but I was still passing people. I made it to the pedestrian crossing near the park but I arrived just as the bus came along and the volunteer made me stop.
Then something awesome happened: the bus driver sounded his horn “beep beep beep beep!”. He had stopped to give way to me. I went to wave and it came out super-enthusiastically and I had both hands in the air and was jumping up and down with excitement about getting to cross the road – and the whole bus started cheering. It was hilarious and gave me a huge boost of energy. The noise woke up the spectators in the park across the road and they cheered loudly as I passed them.
I went down the steps towards Furber. It was so dark but I knew I was close to the end. I could hear it. I wondered where this path would lead. Why were there more steps? My watch signalled 50k but I still couldn’t see the finish line. I joked to some volunteers that I’d done my 50k, so why couldn’t they bring the medal to me?
I wondered where Graham was up to. I asked a volunteer if they’d seen him (as if they’d know!). I hit the boardwalk. This was it.
I made a mental list of the things I needed to do before I finished: 1) make sure my safety vest was not obscuring my race number so as not to spoil my finishing photo; 2) turn off my headlamp when I got to the finishing chute; 3) run the boardwalk.
I started with number 3. It was hard to get momentum at first but once I got started my legs moved the fastest they had all day. Someone shouted to take my safety vest off completely for a better photo – and so I did. I stopped after the steps and miraculously I turned off my headlamp first go (normally I cycle through at least two rounds of various light intensities and flashing combinations). I started running. I felt fast. I was fast (ok maybe I just felt fast). People were cheering. The announcer called my name. My arms were in the air. I was celebrating. My feet were over the line. I had done it! I have NEVER crossed a finish line with so much energy and absolute joy. I was an ultramarathoner!
I was so glad my friend Christy was able to give me my medal. It was such a special moment.
More hugs from friends, then I got my gear checked, took a selfie and then it was time to anxiously wait for Graham to finish. He’s got his own story about his epic and incredible 100k – and I’ll leave that to him to tell – but watching him cross that finish line with a huge smile on his face was even more emotional than when I’d finished my own race. I was absolutely in awe and bursting with pride for him.
It was a long and tough day. But we did it. We finished ultramarathons with smiles on our faces. Outside of our phenomenal group of running friends, there aren’t too many people in the world who can say they’ve done that.
To Graham, Jo, Brendan, Kelly-ann, Kellie and Darryl: your words of wisdom calmed me when I was freaking out. Every little bit of advice you gave me ran through my head at some point during the race and I am grateful that you took the time to encourage little old me.
To my friends who offered their best wishes and support and reminded me that what I accomplished wasn’t nothing: thank you from the bottom of my heart. The medal is cool, but the friends I have made thanks to running over the last few years mean more to me than I will ever be able to express in words.
To UTA50: see you next year.
Gem H xx