Continuing my slightly disordered race reporting of late, this is a report of a race from mid-April. Having rediscovered enjoyment in my running of late, and with it satisfaction in reflecting and blogging about the pursuit, I think I should now be able to return to orderly journalistic endeavours.
After deciding that I would not race the mountainous 75 km Ultra SkyMarathon at Mount Buffalo, with the 100-km TNF100 following just a month later, my race-day mantra was “hold back”.
Prior to the race I had a chat with Landie Greyling (who would win the women’s race), having caught up with her for a run in South Africa just a couple of months earlier. I mentioned that I was planning to take it easy, so she suggested that we could run together as she would also take it easy. We were definitely using different relative levels of easiness on this occasion, so perhaps I should have said that I was planning to take it extremely easy.
The race starts with two steep early climbs, so following my race mantra I walked every single step. On the gradual ascent I had dubbed “climb 2.5” I allowed myself to use a run/walk strategy before cruising down the hill into the aid station at the bottom of the long climb up Mount Buffalo. I ran some of the gentle sections of ascent, walked the rest, and by the time I approached the top of the mountain I was feeling extremely good. After a loop around the top I started the long descent, returning back along the exact same route.
Still feeling strong and knowing that I could easily fly down the hill I repeated my mantra frequently and held back on the pace until the last couple of kilometres, when I finally let myself pick up some speed. I returned to my run/walk strategy for the reverse direction of “climb 2.5”. The second-last climb on the return starts with a seemingly vertical wall, but it was the length of the climb remaining that seemed never-ending as I had miscalculated the ascent and kept expecting it to finish based on the readings from my watch. When I finally reached the top I lay down and stretched out my back on a picnic table, before taking in the view and then commencing on my journey.
After losing some of the motivation required to maintain the running volume for ultras, I decided that I needed a bit of a change. Therefore I signed up for the Athletics Victoria winter XCR season, which is comprised of a combination of cross country and short road races. I will start the season slightly out of shape and without any training towards shorter distances, but will now focus my winter training to set new fastest times on shorter distances I have never (or rarely) raced before.
My previous cross country race took place while I was in primary school, with a distance of 3 km. Strangely I ran a loop of the park where that race was held just yesterday.
My first XCR race took place at Lardner Park, offering two 4-km cross country loops with a number of ditches and a fence jump. Despite being an off-road event the vibe was very different to the trail races I am now used to. In trail races runners will normally congratulate someone overtaking them. In contrast I noted how aggressive other runners were when overtaking or turning corners.
I arrived in the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba feeling underprepared for a 100 km race. Therefore I set out running to feel with no specific target time in mind, but thinking it likely that I would struggle towards the end.
The weather at the start line felt milder than expected and an easy first 4 km of road running provided a good warmup. The race is known for its stairs and we descended the Furber Steps, which we would ascend many hours later to finish the race. At the bottom I followed a conga line of runners as we followed a contour along the base of the cliff, but as we commenced our first stair climb up the Golden Stairs I overtook the runners directly ahead of me and found myself in empty space so that I could set my own pace.
The North Face 100 2015
The North Face 100 2015
The North Face 100 2015
I ran easily past the first checkpoint and arrived at the famous Tarros Ladders. A temporary construction for the race each year replaces the metal spikes that normally allow the descent of this 17-metre cliff, so I queued behind other runners to make my way down. After passing through checkpoint 2 I tackled the steep climb up to Ironpot Ridge and during its short out-and-back section I was able to greet a number of other runners that I knew. Following checkpoint 3 I stepped foot on Six Foot Track – home to the most famous trail marathon in the country – for my first time. A long gradual dirt road climb took me to Nellies Glen, and the stair climb back into Katoomba. I was feeling really strong and overtook many people on the climb, before hitting the tar at the edge of town and continuing to push the pace on my way to checkpoint 4 at the aquatic centre. Mentally I was trying to convince myself that the 57 km loop completed was a great warmup for the trail marathon remaining, once more looping out of Katoomba.
My race along the Hillary Trail in New Zealand took place over 2 months ago, but it took me time to find the motivation to write about it. After a good early-year race at Two Bays, and with some good training in my legs I had arrived expecting to do well. However, in ultra marathons sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
A pre-dawn start provided some great running by headlamp through the forest, and rerouting due to a washed-out trail provided some extremely technical early sections. The first half of the race contains the bulk of the race’s climbing but it also contains some stunning views. The vistas on the climb out of Karekare were amazing and I briefly considered pulling out my camera to snap a picture, but it was tucked away and wrapped in two zip-lock bags, and I was focussed on time. In hindsight I should have stopped to take the photo, as the few minutes wouldn’t have really mattered.
The Hillary – Night running
The Hillary – Coastal Views
By the time I dropped into Piha at the 45 km mark my legs were a lot sorer than I expected. I took off once more but I was starting to struggle and my pace decreased. I started feeling twinges indicating the onset of cramping, and around 63 km into the race I stretched my foot out during a descent only to have my calf cramp. I put down the leg in a way to alleviate the cramping calf and then my quad cramped. I fell to the ground in an agonising cramp that I was unable to stretch out myself.
I arrived at Wilsons Promontory with two key objectives in mind. Firstly, I needed an enjoyable run after having lost some motivation in the two months preceding it. Secondly, it was important that I minimised damage as I had a 100-km race at The North Face 100 only two weeks later.
Wilsons Prom is one of the favourite parts of my home state, and an ideal trail running destination, so I expected it to deliver on my first objective. In order to ensure that I didn’t run too hard I had decided that I would stop at the lighthouse (37 km into the run) for a picnic lunch.
Starting in the dark with a road climb to the Telegraph Saddle carpark, I then stepped off the paved surface, and would remain on a combination of trails, beaches and gravel roads for the remainder of the run. I turned off my headlamp not long after starting the amazing descent towards the campsite at Saddle Cove. The beautiful run through temperate rainforest on soft trails in pale light conditions was magical, so despite running slightly faster than intended I was enjoying myself too much to consider slowing down.
As I ascended from the cove I encountered another runner stopped to take a photo, and offered to snap one of him. Soon enough there were four of us standing around like a bunch of trigger-happy tourists. We set off once again discussing that this was a run, not a race.
I continued to the stunning views of Refuge Cove and practiced my sand running with a long stretch along Waterloo Bay. I first glimpsed the lighthouse from a few kilometres away, feeling amazingly fresh and strong, but upon arriving I sat down at a picnic table as planned.
On Saturday I will run my furthest race of the year so far at The North Face 100, in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. In this case the 100 refers to kilometres rather than miles. After this race I will focus on some shorter races during the southern winter.
The competitor briefing proclaims that “this is one of the most amazing and challenging running courses around”. It is well known for containing a significant number of stairs, but with around 4000 metres of climbing I expect it might fall short of being one of the most challenging courses. Hopefully it delivers on some amazing views.
This coming weekend I will complete my second race for 2015 just outside Auckland, New Zealand. The race runs through the Waitakere Ranges on the west coast, following the 75-km Hillary Trail for the most part. Despite a highest elevation of just over 350 metres above sea level, the race manages to squeeze in 3,700 metres of ascent.
The Hillary – Course Map
The Hillary – Route Profile
The race is part of the new Skyrunning Oceania series, which features 8 races across Australia and New Zealand. In just a month’s time I will race my second race of the series (and the fourth race overall) at the Buffalo Stampede, but that is something I would rather contemplate once this current challenge is behind me.
After being refused entry to Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve (read about that here) I needed a backup plan for my run. After a week in the Winelands region of South Africa I was booked to stay that night in Cape Town as I would fly to Johannesburg the following day. Therefore I immediately started to plan a run up its famous flat-topped mountain.
In the late afternoon I parked my car at Cecilia Forest, which provided me access to gravel roads that wound there way up to the top of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens. I would use different routes for my ascent and descent, and I tried to remember my preferred direction from previous runs. I climbed up Nursery Ravine, and reached the “top” realising how much lower I still was than the peak. As I started on a circuit around the top some low cloud started to move in, and I decided that it would be wise not to waste any time.
As I headed towards one of the best viewpoints on my route I removed my phone from my pack for a photo as the cloud had cleared for the moment. Then when I was a scant few metres from stopping for a photo I was enveloped in cloud once more. I climbed up to the high point at Maclear’s Beacon, before making my way to the top of Skeleton Gorge for my descent. The descent was slippery at the top, but definitely preferable in my opinion to the loose rock at the top of Nursery Ravine.
After three days of running in Jonkershoek Nature Reserve I planned out a couple of runs in the adjoining Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve. Setting out from the town of Stellenbosch for my first run it would take me almost as long to drive to the reserve as it would have taken me to run there from Jonkershoek.
After driving the long circuitous route to the reserve entrance I arrived early, heading through open gates before they were manned for the day. When discussing my planned run in the reserve the previous week with one of my running mates he had suggested that I carry some warm gear with me, as it was in the same place that he had almost become hypothermic when a cold change had swept through on a run there. As I set out it was particularly grey and overcast, and his warning was clear in my mind, but I was well prepared for bad weather.
My route would take me from the main parking area at Nuweberg along a contour to the overnight Boesmanskloof Hut, before climbing up a valley to my high point for the route, with a downhill finish. The overcast weather was a pleasant change after some warm days, and the run to the hut was quite easy. It was a nice climb to the high point of the route, but just after passing it I heard what at first sounded like a dog’s bark. Looking around I sighted a baboon standing on top of a rock surrounded by its troop. I was unsure whether the sound was aimed at me as a way of warning me from their territory but I thought it best to continue running, and the “barks” continued until I was well away from their resting spot. After a couple of shorter climbs I reached a road that wound downhill back to my car.
After travelling to the Winelands of South Africa to celebrate the wedding of some great friends, I decided to stay in the area for another week to indulge in some wonderful running and delicious food.
Staying in the town of Stellenbosch for a few days it was only a short drive up through a valley to reach the entrance gate to Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, so I went out there three mornings in a row to check out some of the trails it offered. The valley ends with a steep ravine, hemming in the lowest part of the reserve on three sides.
For day one I climbed straight to the end of the valley, past three waterfalls before the steep climb to the top. From the top I could gaze back in the direction of Stellenbosch, or forward into the adjoining Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve that I would run later in the week. I had considered a point-to-point traverse between the reserves but skipped it due to the added complexity in transport. From the top I followed the contour above the valley towards the west, gaining a view of the ocean below and the Cape of Good Hope to the south-west, before descending back into the valley. It was a beautiful run, but tough in parts due to overgrown trails often featuring sharp plants that continually scratched my legs.
Day two started with a climb directly from the trailhead, following a much easier route than the previous day, so I was able to slowly run the entire climb. Upon reaching the contour trail above the valley floor I started by heading in the opposite direction to my eventual destination. I ran until I reached a ravine featuring a waterfall, plenty of shade and some comfortable rocks, where I sat down to enjoy a relaxing snack. Then I retraced my steps, climbed to reach a viewpoint into another valley to the east, and then climbed even more to the highest point I would reach in the reserve. Then I made my way to the top of the route I had followed up the previous day, and descended the loose and rocky ravine as the day continued to heat up.