The Australian Ultra Runners Association (AURA) is the body that maintains Australian rankings and records for ultramarathon events, and seeks to promote the growth of the sport in the country. While looking through their website last year I came across lists that they maintain of the fastest times recorded by Australian runners over a number of distance- and time-based events. That gave me an idea to attempt a fast 100 km road race to see how high up the list I could get.
I had a look at event options and found a flat 100 km race just north of Sydney during the period when I would be back in Australia during the holiday period. The catch was that it was a circuit race, like many of the ultramarathon races that are held. As an improvement over some races that can have circuits as short as 400 metres, the Narrabeen All-Nighter takes place on a 3.33 km circuit following a path alongside Narrabeen Lake. The event had previously comprised both 100-km and 12-hour races but due to numbers they only ran the 12-hour race in 2013, however they would be able to provide me with an official 100-km time. As a summer event the race avoids the heat of the day by starting at 8:00 PM (just before sunset) on the first Saturday night of the year and continues for 12 hours (finishing after sunrise), thereby giving the race its name. The total number of entrants for the event was 70, with 58 individual competitors and 6 teams of 2.
I ended up setting myself a target of 8 hours for 100 km, requiring that I run at an average pace of 4:48 min/km. I had initially considered options for starting out slower and running a slight negative split, but in the end decided on attempting a perfectly even paced race. Therefore I would need to run each of the thirty 3.33 km laps in 16 minutes. Or as I decided to think about it: run a 48-minute 10 km, and then repeat (9 more times).
I flew into Sydney on Friday and popped into an office store to purchase myself a folding table as the race director was unsure whether there would be sufficient table space for those runners who were self-crewing. After staying overnight in central Sydney I caught a bus around lunchtime on Saturday for the 25 km trip north. I checked into my accommodation in Narrabeen and rested for the afternoon. At 7:00 PM I set out for the 1.5 km walk to the start line, carrying my folding table and pulling along a rolling case with my supplies. Upon arrival I collected my race number and neatly set up my table with my nutrition so that I could grab supplies without requiring a complete stop.
After a couple of delays due to a late conclusion of the race briefing and then a problem with the computer for the timing chips the race started at 8:20 PM. Knowing that my intended pace would put me near the lead of the 12-hour race I started from the very front but was surprised by how many people ran out in front of me on the first lap. I glanced at my watch a number of times early in the first lap to judge my pace so that I could fall into my target pace. I completed my first lap in 16:06 and fell into a comfortable rhythm so that I could continue running without monitoring my pace.
I completed the first 10 km in 47:43 and the second 10 km in 47:23. I was well on pace but as I evaluated the state of my legs after 20 km I noted that my legs were feeling more fatigued than I would have expected. However it is common to go through good and bad patches during such a long run so I was not overly concerned. After my 16:06 first lap I had run the next five laps 10-14 seconds inside the 16-minute target pace so I decided to attempt to slow down fractionally so as not to over-extend myself with such a long distance remaining.
After slowing slightly too much for a couple of laps I managed to get my pacing exactly where I wanted it, and my legs were feeling much better as I completed laps 9 and 10. At the end of lap 10 I had completed one-third of my race, I was 32 seconds inside my target pace and I was feeling good. But unfortunately just as the good can follow the bad, the bad can also follow the good. By the time I completed marathon distance during my 13th lap my legs were feeling quite strained. I had completed the marathon around 10 minutes slower than my time at the PE City Marathon (race report here) five weeks earlier on a more difficult course with sections of strong head winds, but my legs were feeling worse.
On lap 14 I struggled to hold my required pace, and as I reached a lamp post that I had been using as an occasional checkpoint with approximately 700 metres remaining on the lap I realised that it was going to be a slow lap. I crossed the line for the lap and had fallen behind my required pace for the first time since the first lap. As I evaluated the state of my legs I knew that I was not going to be able to maintain my current pace, let alone push myself back ahead of target pace. If I continued to complete the full 100 km I would miss my target by a considerable amount, and would then face two full weeks of recovery.
It made the decision to pull out of the race completely logical. I decided to complete one more lap for 50 km, jogging around in almost 21 minutes. After crossing the line at the end of lap 15 I approached the time-keeping table and informed the race director that I would be pulling out of the race. We chatted briefly and he asked when my next attempt would be. I told him that I had only given myself one shot at this target, and that I didn’t have another attempt planned.
It can be tough to evaluate exactly what went wrong during a race if there are no obvious factors such as injury or illness. I had not timed my nutrition correctly, with too much intake early in the race causing a slightly upset stomach, but I had already started to rectify that problem and it was tired legs that were the problem in the end. In the end I completed 50 km in a time slightly slower than I had run in South Africa in March at the Om Die Dam 50 km race, a race at medium altitude and with a much more challenging course. That race had been completed as a training run and the day following it I had even risen early and gone out for an easy 15 km.
I believe that one of the factors that lead to my race going awry was actually that the course was too flat, with my watch recording just 6 metres of ascent over 50 km. Considering that the 8 km time trial I run each week with my running club in South Africa consists of almost 100 metres of ascent I think that my legs did struggle with the lack of variation in muscle usage due to the extremely flat course. Then there is also the simple fact that sometimes we simply have a bad day.
One clear result from the race is that I have decided that it is very unlikely I will run another circuit race at any point in the near future. Even the fairly low number of 15 laps that I completed of the course seemed like a lot and I would hate to think about running further distances over courses that can be even shorter.