There are many possible ways to celebrate Australia Day. Barbecues and a couple of drinks is very common, and that would follow, but I started the day with a run.
As part of a new series of night trail runs organised by TrailsPlus, the Australia Day Midnight Rambler offered running options from 5 km through to 6 hours. All of the events were based on a 5-km loop, providing a great way to practice trail running at night, which is a very important skill for long-distance races. Opting for the longest option I would set out on January 25th at 23:00 for an hour of running, and then would continue for the first five hours of our national day. The plan wasn’t to run flat out, but to get in a solid six hours of training to end a week that involved good mileage, as well as a new 5 km PB at my local Parkrun.
I set out on the first lap behind a few guys setting the pace up front. Since I wasn’t racing I had decided to run down the batteries already in my headlamp rather than starting with a fresh set, but immediately realised that they were already nearly flat. I pulled out my spare hand torch but generally ran using just the dim light from my headlamp. At the end of the first lap I stopped to replace the batteries before leaving the aid station, now gapped by the runners ahead. I would run almost entirely solo for the remaining 5.5 hours.
I had been hosting friend and fellow runner Tamyka since Friday evening, as she had flown in from Queensland for the long weekend. Our race preparation had involved a few nice runs plus plenty of eating, not all of it ideally suited as pre-race nutrition (including a spicy pizza at lunch). As I thought ahead to the nearing toilet block halfway around lap four I missed sighting a rock and the resulting fall involved some grazing on my right hand and knee. On the following lap I noted the exact rock that had caused my fall, and I glared at it on each subsequent lap.
Since returning to Australia last May I have conducted almost all of my training as solo runs. That has included weeks where every training run has lasted at least 2 hours. It provided plenty of time in my own headspace but had become challenging to stay motivated at times. Having run with a great training group for a couple of years while living in South Africa I have missed the camaraderie (and peer group pressure) that training partners can provide.
Therefore I have started looking for some people to run with in earnest. Last weekend I went out for my first run with the Dandenong Trail Runners, a group of runners who organise regular informal runs in the hilly Dandenong Ranges National Park. Since I generally run in the park at least once a week, and sometimes as often as three times a week, it seemed like a great fit.
A week after my race at Two Bays I joined the group for a “flattish” 20ish km run. A group of 19 people met up in the carpark at the Basin Theatre, and we all set out together. The group would separate on the climbs and then regroup at junctions along the course. A number of people were locals to the area, but there were also others like me who had travelled quite a distance (over 30 km in my case) to be there. At the highest point on the route we stopped for a group photo, which apparently involves a jump that I still need to master. I am easily spotted thanks to the very bright green shirt I was wearing.
Completing my first race of 2015 during the second weekend of the year was always part of my plan. However as mentioned in my pre-race post I had trained for a mountainous race that would play to my strengths. I knew that the largest single climb at Two Bays was less than 300 metres of ascent, and that the total ascent would be considerably less than Bogong to Hotham. The race would be 8 km (and around 3 hours) shorter.
Two Bays – Logo
Two Bays – Course Profile
Standing in the starting chute I learned that we had a few hundred metres before reaching single track, and the conga line that would follow. Therefore, unlike my normally controlled starting pace I took off quickly in order to secure a decent position on the single track, slotting in just within the top 30.
I settled into pace in a line of runners, initially striding along happily but noticing a gradual slowdown. After just over 4 km I made my way past a stream of runners with the repeated chant of “on your right” and found myself with open trail ahead of me. This allowed me to set my own pace without any concern for those runners ahead. Occasionally I would pass, or be passed, by other runners as I focussed on my own run.
My first race for 2015 will be tomorrow (January 11th) at the Two Bays 56 km trail run. I have been preparing for this race for … 1 day.
Bogong to Hotham – Logo
Bogong to Hotham – Course Profile
I was signed up to run Bogong to Hotham on that same day, an iconic mountain run that includes the highest and third highest peaks in Victoria. But earlier in the week weather forecasts started coming in predicting a huge storm that was expected to drop a month’s worth of rain over the state, all within the period of race weekend. On Thursday night we were informed by the race director that there was a risk of the race being cancelled, and it was officially cancelled yesterday. The reason was due to the risk in the crossing of Big River as well as the high likelihood of tree falls due to the combination of bushfire-damaged trees, soft soil and high winds.
Having been up to that area, and knowing the remote nature of many parts of the course I totally respect the decision that was reached by the race director in combination with Parks Victoria. But I had put a lot of effort into training to peak for the race and had already tapered for race day. But luckily there was another race taking part on the same day, in the same state (actually closer to home), and race entries were still open.
Two Bays – Logo
Two Bays – Course Profile
Two Bays follows an out-and-back course along the 28 km Two Bays trail between Cape Shanck and Dromana. Having had no intention of doing the race until a day ago I didn’t know all that much about the race (besides its distance) when I entered my credit card details.
The race website warns of a steep climb rising 1,000 feet over 3 km, but considering Bogong to Hotham starts with a 1,300 metre climb within the first 9 km I am not too worried about that. I can also pack away the mandatory gear (including thermals, map and compass) that I had pulled out, since Two Bays only mandatory gear is 500 ml of fluid-carrying capacity. I guess everything else I need to know I will learn on the day.
I spent a few days staying with a friend in Brisbane who has the envious position of living in a suburb that is surrounded on three sides by forest. Toohey Forest Conservation Park is comprised of eastern and western sections separated by a major road. Continuing through the eastern section of the park it is possible to cross under a highway to reach the Mount Gravatt campus of Griffith University, and then to climb to the top of the peak for views out over the city of Brisbane.
During my time in Brisbane I managed a number of runs in the area, covering many of the trails on offer, which vary from bitumen paths to gravel trails to beautiful single track. The trails wander around a couple of ridges, descend into gullies, and climb to the outlook at Mount Gravatt.
My stay in Brisbane certainly reinforced an idea that I would love to live somewhere with easy access to trails right from the door of my house.
In January I will run the 64 km Bogong to Hotham, which shares significant parts of the route followed by Australia’s toughest 100-mile race, the Alpine Challenge. I decided that the race weekend for the Alpine Challenge would provide me a great opportunity to head up to the area, hopefully perform a bit of a recce for Bogong to Hotham, and give back to the trail running community. I would join fellow sweeper Clare for a 60 km loop including Mt Hotham and Mt Feathertop. The section is known as Mortein Alley (after a brand of insecticide), since it generally constitutes a considerable portion of the drop-out rate within the race (i.e. people drop like flies).
I headed down to the starting line to watch the runners set out at 4:30 AM, but then was able to return to sleep as my leg of the race would only commence after the sun had risen and then set once again. In the afternoon I headed over to Pole 333, one of the old telegraph poles in the area where our loop would start and finish. I set out for a solo run to see a bit of the Bogong to Hotham course, heading back towards the oncoming runners. I encountered some confused runners as I went but made sure to comfort them that they were headed in the right direction, and it was in fact me that was heading the wrong way. I chatted with a few runners, some tourists out for a hike, and one of the aid station volunteers further along the course. The last section of my run as I returned was particularly challenging, as the dipping sun shone brightly in my eyes to cause sun spots while the trail was already in shade. When I returned to the aid station I put on some warm clothing to wait.
Just after 11 PM we set out for our loop, 2.5 hours after the last runner had departed. I was carrying VHF and UHF radios, while Clare carried first-aid, spare food and warm gear. We set out rugged up as the temperature and wind had been cold while waiting at the very exposed aid station, but by the time we reached the river below we started to shed layers before commencing the climb to Mt Hotham. We arrived at the aid station, located in a hut on the mountain, where we were updated on the status of the runners ahead of us, and were given a SPOT tracking device that would allow us to be followed by race headquarters. As we followed the road away from the aid station, Clare pointed out that we would be taking a turnoff following huts on both sides of the road, and marked by a large sign. There was “no way” we could miss the turnoff, but shortly after we turned around and tracked back almost a kilometre to the turnoff we had missed.
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.