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.
Upon returning to the start of the out-and-back section I commenced a long descent where I started to push the pace. For a long time I had considered my downhill running (from the perspective of speed and strength rather than technical ability) as my greatest weakness but in the past year or so I feel that I might even have turned it around to become the strongest aspect of my running. As the gradient shallowed out and I approached the aid station at approximately 28 km I looked ahead to see Ash just pulling out. He turned back, looked at me in surprise and then took off. I was back within approximately 30 seconds of him.
Ash was running extremely light, wearing no shirt and carrying no hydration. I had set out carrying water and gels to get me through part of the run, but having utilised the aid stations to that stage I performed a stocktake and determined that I had enough to get me through to the finish without any more stops. I calculated that this saved time would give me an advantage over Ash.
I used the image of a jackrabbit in my mind, initially frozen in a set of car headlights before darting off in fright as Ash darted off ahead and started to rebuild his lead. But around the 32-km point I turned sharply to commence a steep 1-km climb and realised that Ash was once again back within 30 seconds of me. I gained on him up the hill and started the descent close behind. Around 34 km into the race Ash slowed to a stop, and when I checked if he was alright he mentioned that he was cramping, as he started to stretch out his legs. Glad that it wasn’t an injury I continued past into first place.
I hate running out front with the feeling of being stalked, and my first thought was that if I kept running along at the same pace Ash might catch up and I could push for the win closer to the finish. But having seen Ash’s earlier leg speed I decided that would be poor tactics, so instead I picked up the pace in an attempt to win the mental battle as he suffered while I pushed on strongly. After 35 km we passed back through the sports ground, and I would later be told that within a minute of me were Ash, and Dan Beard just behind him in 3rd place.
The final 15 km would include the second major climb of the race up towards Steavensons Falls. Every time I considered walking I wondered whether the runner behind me would run the same section instead. With that pressure on myself I only walked a couple of relatively short sections of the climb. I topped out of the climb and started traversing around the hill with fantastic views of the surrounding area.
I descended to the falls and then started running past a multitude of runners from the shorter distance events, also headed towards the finish. I ran back onto the sports ground and an event official tried to send me back out towards the falls thinking that I still had 15 km remaining.
I ran across the finish line and was initially announced as a finisher in the 10-km event. I headed over to race director Brett Saxon, who also directs the You Yangs race that I have previously completed, and informed him that I had just finished 50 km. He congratulated me on the run, we discussed the timing for the race presentations, and I thanked him for putting on another great event, well organised and following a great course.
Dan ended up crossing the line seven minutes back, with Ash holding on to 3rd place. It turned out that I hadn’t needed to worry about the runners behind me, as they had walked most of the way up the hill.