Despite being an Australian ultra runner I have run relatively few of my ultra races in Australia. Ignoring my run at the Great Ocean Road Marathon in 2013 (technically an ultra since it is 45 km in length) I had completed two ultras in Australia, both on trail at the You Yangs 50 km. Both times at You Yangs I had snuck onto the podium by finishing third.
Marysville is one of the towns that was devastated by the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, with the fires destroying all but 14 out of 400 buildings in the area and claiming the lives of 34 people. As I drove up with my running mate Matt, following a stunning and winding road through beautiful forest, we also appreciated the ramifications of this single point of egress as fire raged towards the small town.
As the race started we set out from the town’s sporting ground and I fell into second place as one runner (who I would later find was named Ash Bennett) quickly raced to the front. He set a pace faster than I was willing to run at such an early stage so I let him slowly pull away ahead of me. As we headed towards the outskirts of town a pack slowly formed up so that by the time we took a turn to follow the Taggerty River as it winds its way out of town there were 6-7 of us running together, with Ash out ahead. There was plenty of chatter in the pack as we gradually climbed up the valley, but the pack started to splinter as the gradient increased and I found myself in 4th place.
Just after 13 km into the race we took a turn away from the river and started a steep, major climb. Apart from a couple of short running sections I power-hiked up the hill and by the time I reached the top of the climb I had passed into 2nd place. I then started the out-and-back section that provided the additional distance over the marathon event. At the turnaround I timed that Ash had opened up a gap of 2 minutes, with about three runners behind me within a minute and then the remainder of our prior pack strung out further behind.
I ran the marathon distance for the first time in 2006 at the Melbourne Marathon. It then took me over 4 years before completing my next marathon. Then in the 3 years following my second marathon I completed road races covering the marathon distance or longer on 23 occasions. But it took me 8 years to run the Melbourne Marathon for a second time.
Back in 2006 the Melbourne Marathon followed a point-to-point route, starting 42 km south-east of Melbourne and following a fairly straight line into the city to finish just south of the city centre. Since then the route has changed to start in the sports district of Melbourne and to finish at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The race has previously finished with a lap of the hallowed turf, but unfortunately this year would finish in the parkland just outside the ground.
I arrived at the start line in 2014 having not run further than 26 km since my previous race at the end of August, but I lined up alongside the 3-hour pace bus. When I found out that they intended to run a positive split by crossing halfway in 88:30 I decided that I would set off behind them, but expected to finish ahead.
In the early kilometres I struggled to settle into a rhythm, frequently checking my watch as I seemed to be running either too fast or too slow. It was only after looping around a section of the Melbourne Grand Prix track, and starting the descent towards the beach that I felt settled with my pace. I tend to find that I have a pretty good idea of how a marathon will unfold at around 17-18 km in, and it was at that point that I noted I was running ahead of 3-hour pace and felt comfortable that I would cross the line prior to that barrier with some time to spare. From that point on I rarely looked at my watch, and about 19 kilometres into the race I passed the 3-hour pace bus.
In January this year my name was drawn in the lottery for UTMB. That lottery draw set the focus for the entire 2014 running year. I filled out my calendar with other running events, but everything else was a sideshow, with UTMB the main event.
Bienvenue en France / Welcome to France
Prior to departing Chamonix at 17:30 on August 29th the furthest I had run was approximately 164 km and the longest I had run for was 23 hours 9 minutes. I would eclipse both of those figures during my circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif.
Just 10 or 15 minutes before the race started the intermittent showers that had sprinkled down for the previous half hour finally broke, but not into clear blue or even overcast skies; rather they broke into rain. Hence I shuffled amidst a throng of other runners across the start line wearing my waterproof jacket. The first kilometre involved a combination of jogging and walking as the 2,300 runners funnelled through a lively crowd encroaching on the roads of Chamonix.
We left the town and started along the trail towards Les Houches, a flat first 8 km following the valley, and my jacket came back off in the humidity caused by the rain. The first climb and descent (almost 900 metres up and 1,000 metres down) to reach Saint-Gervais managed to spread the field, although I almost expected to arrive at a finish line rather than an aid station based on the speed at which many people flew down the hill.
Shortly after finishing my first 100-mile race in Leadville I decided that I would run a few more, and so I put together a bucket list by adding three more races. Last year I was able to check Western States off the list, and this year it will be Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
UTMB is a 168-km race that follows the long-distance Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail through the Alps. As a hike it takes 7-10 days, while as a race it has a cutoff of 46 hours. The route starts and finishes in the town of Chamonix in France, crossing into Italy and Switzerland before returning to Chamonix. It features 9,600 metres of ascent.
I ran the You Yangs 50 km trail race back in 2011, securing my first ever podium by finishing in third although I had arrived to complete a training run. Setting off easily I slowly picked up the pace as I went, gaining places and eventually realising that a podium position was a real possibility.
I returned to the race in 2014, once again as a training run. However this time I was arriving on the final day of my 6-day running week with 154 km already completed. As I had been doing with all of my trail runs over the previous month I would carry the full mandatory gear list for my upcoming race at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). While I would be unlikely to require the two torches I was carrying along with spare batteries for a race starting at 8:30 AM that I would complete around lunchtime, it was about helping me get used to carrying the pack and would assist in determining the best places for carrying certain items.
While I should be used to it by now, I was still surprised by how many people shot off in front of me from the start. Even at a training pace it was unlikely that 20-odd people within a small field would finish ahead of me.
Pre-Race (photo courtesy of Tara White)
Running the Flat (photo courtesy of Bin Wong)
Running Downhill (photo courtesy of Bin Wong)
Course Markings (photo courtesy of Bin Wong)
Running Uphill (photo courtesy of Brett Saxon)
I set my own pace, passing a number of people on the first notable climb when I continued running as most slowed to a walk, and then passing more on the second major climb. The course follows a clover leaf pattern, passing back through the start/finish area a few times throughout the race. With 15-km, 30-km, 50-mile and 100-mile races also taking place you would often encounter other runners either heading in the same direction or occasionally in the opposite direction, which I really enjoyed. Despite the potentially confusing nature of the route, it was brilliantly marked and extremely simple to follow.
The thought of running a fast time for a 100 km road race has popped into my mind over the past couple of years. As a target it rates a lower priority than my trail running goals but it persistently remains in the periphery.
When I realised that I would be in Australia during the running of the Gold Coast 100, a 100-km road race held in Queensland the peripheral target returned into focus. But luckily reality stepped in before I got carried away. Whilst I have run great times over the marathon and half marathon this year my mileage has been too low to allow me to convert that speed into a good time over ultra marathon distances. In the end I decided to attend the race, but without big targets in mind.
When the race started with first light I took off at my target pace of 4:48 min/km. That is the pace required to achieve a sub-8 hour 100-km time, and the target I would like to conquer at some point. I had decided to use the race as a gauge of my ultra marathon fitness, setting my starting pace and seeing how long I could maintain it.
It isn’t really possible for me to write the race report of someone else’s race when I wasn’t even present. This is actually an acknowledgement of an amazing performance by a great running mate. Kirsten will not brag about his own performance, so I will do it on his behalf.
I started running with Kirsten just after mid-year of 2011 while living in Johannesburg, South Africa. We were both members of Fourways Road Runners. In addition to Thursday time trials at our own club we would meet up on Tuesday afternoon for a warmup run prior to the time trial at the Rand Athletic Club (RAC). We started adding in weekend runs and races, and then Wednesday became our mid-week long run with routes such as the Bryanston Half and later the Four Peaks Challenge. The runs and the mileage continued to build up.
All in all I have run literally thousands of kilometres alongside, and often behind, Kirsten. His impressive pace meant that I was often running hard to keep up, and I can credit much of my vast running improvement since 2011 to Kirsten and our other running mates in Lindsey and Campbell.
Mielie Marathon – Fourways Runners
Golden Gate Challenge – Day 3 Post-Race (photo courtesy of Caroline Lee)
Pick n Pay Half Marathon – Approaching the Finish
Golden Gate Challenge – Day 3 Start (photo courtesy of Caroline Lee)
Mielie Marathon – the Fourways boys at the finish
Kirsten has also been present at some of my best running moments. In 2013 he ran alongside me for a new best time over the half marathon distance, and the finish-line photo shows that he was as happy at the result as I was. A couple of months ago we ran together down Avenue Foch as I completed a new marathon best in Paris.
McCarthy Half Marathon – Approaching the finish line
When I passed through the 10-km marker during my race at the Paris Marathon a couple of months ago I noted that it was the third-fastest I had ever run the distance. When I passed through the 10-km marker during the Como Landing Half Marathon it was the fastest I had ever run the distance by a full minute, with a plan to repeat that performance once more and then hopefully to put everything remaining into the final 1.1 km. But first let me rewind.
As I neared the end of my 12-month journey around the world I started looking at races taking place in Australia. When I finalised my return date for the middle of May the Como Landing Half Marathon taking place a week later was the perfect fit. I had run my best time over the distance in early 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa on a course that my Johannesburg running crew would call flat, but that most road runners would call monstrously hilly. In that race I had comfortably achieved my target of completing the race quicker than 4:00 min/km pace by recording a time of 1:22:30. This time I would target a time of under 80 minutes.
I arrived early for the race, and during my warmup run I noted that the course wasn’t perfectly flat as I had expected but featured a couple of small hills, including one in the final kilometre. As a person who enjoys hills I decided to take that as a positive since it would provide a slight change in the muscles that would be engaged.
It started to drizzle as race time approached and by the time we ran across the start line it had clearly increased beyond drizzle to a fairly heavy rain. I settled directly into my intended pace and tried to determine the number of people ahead of me, but with 7-km and 14-km races starting at the same time it was not possible to tell which of the runners ahead of me were in my race. Shortly after 2 km the rain had ceased but one of my shoe laces had came undone. I was interested to note when reviewing my GPS watch data after the race that I had managed to stop from race pace, tie my shoelace and return to race pace in under 15 seconds.
I passed through the 10-km marker in approximately 37:50 minutes, and after 12 km we passed the start/finish line to commence an out-and-back section of the course. When I noted one of the runners ahead of me turn around to complete the 14-km course I thought that I was possibly in 5th or 6th place. I could see the next runner ahead of me, with a gap of possibly 200 metres.
My running targets for 2014 are based around two races, with the first of those being the Paris Marathon, where I would attempt a new best time for the marathon.
I arrived in Paris a couple of days before the race and met up with Kirsten, who was part of my Johannesburg running crew. We headed to the expo to collect our race packets and spent some time wandering fairly aimlessly around Paris in the lead up to the race.
My target was to run a time under 2:50, although in the back of my mind I did have a stretch target of completing the race at a pace under 4:00 min/km, which would require a time approximately 75 seconds faster. Requiring an average pace of just under 4:02 min/km to achieve a sub-2:50 time I planned to set out at exactly that pace from the start. Kirsten has his main race for the year at the Comrades Marathon in June, so he was planning for an easy day out by sneaking in under 3 hours.
An easy train ride to the start and a not-too-early start time allowed an uncomplicated start to the day. Kirsten and I were also joined by Fiona, another member of our Johannesburg running club who stayed at the same hotel. We caught the train to the Arc de Triomphe, dropped off a tog bag, and headed to the start area. We were standing on the Champs Élysées with Napoleon’s monumental arch of triumph behind us and a gentle downhill leading towards the glittering gold-topped obelisk on the Place de la Concorde.
The gun went off and despite the 10 traffic lanes being occupied by runners the 50,000-strong field made for some early challenges in maintaining a steady pace. I separated from Kirsten but after a kilometre or so we were running together again and crossed the Place de la Concorde and started along Rue de Rivoli. The early pace was perfectly on schedule, ticking off each kilometre at just over 4:00 minutes.
One of the guys staying with me at the HATC in Iten was a Canadian who happened to be the sponsor for the Rift Valley Marathon. Therefore I found myself heading out to the race to run a half marathon on my final running day in Iten. I had the course profile described to me as being relatively flat but with a dip and then climb at about the halfway point, and I decided that I would attempt a fast time. On arrival we found out that the route had been changed from the previous year, featuring a single lap rather than two loops of 10.5 km.
After a lot of speeches and talking, little clear communication and great patience the race eventually started. I am not sure exactly how late it commenced since it was never clear at what time it was scheduled to start.
I set out at a pace of around 4:10 min/km, which in most countries would result in a finishing position within the top 2% of the field. After 500 metres there were only two people behind me, both of them also foreigners. After a few days of heavy rain the dirt roads and paths we followed were muddy and slippery, and some times it felt closer to a trail race than a road marathon. On a fairly rocky downhill path I used my trail experience to overtake the race sponsor and continued to push the pace.
Approaching the halfway mark the course started a significant downhill. When it continued for more than two kilometres I realised that I would be facing a very severe climb in the second half, and it didn’t keep me waiting. It appeared that the course changes might have reduced the boredom of running two laps, but adding some significant climbing. Just after the halfway point we bottomed out of the descent and started a steep ascent. I quickly realised that any targets I had in mind prior to the race were clearly no longer valid.