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.
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.
For all of those non-South Africans out there let me first start by clarifying that in this country a marathon is not necessarily 42.195 km. The most famous race in the country is the Comrades Marathon at 89 km, with the picturesque Two Oceans Marathon running for 56 km, and the City2City Marathon taking runners for 50 km between the two major cities of Gauteng province. Alternating directions each year, this year’s race started in Johannesburg and finished in Pretoria, making it a down run with the finishing location lower in elevation than the start point. But the race still manages to feature some nice climbs.
I had decided to target a time inside 4:10 for an average pace of 5:00 min/km. My running mate Campbell was under-trained for an ultramarathon but had agreed to attempt running with me for the first 30 kilometres. Our other running mates Kirsten and Lindsey were setting out to achieve a silver medal by running inside 3:45. It was feeling very chilly as the four of us drove to the start but by the time the gun went off it was clear that it was going to be a very warm day.
After a slow first kilometre we picked up to our target pace and the early kilometres were predominantly downhill. At the 16 km mark we reached the biggest uphill of the race, a tough 4 km climb, and agreed that we would take a 1 minute walk at the mid-point. After reaching the top of the climb we continued for another couple of kilometres before meeting up with Jolene (Campbell’s wife) and Hayley (Lindsey’s wife) waiting for us alongside the course. We stopped and greeted them for a brief chat, before returning to the task at hand and running on. We reached another tough climb at approximately the 26 km mark, and again walked for 1 minute at the halfway point. After descending down the other side of that climb we then had to face a slow, gradual uphill that would take us to the 30 km mark. We crossed the 30 km marker in a little over 2:32, putting us less than 3 minutes behind 5:00 min/km pace, and I shook Campbell’s hand for accompanying me through the challenging part of the course.
I performed some quick (or possibly not so quick after 30 km of running) mental calculations of required splits, and then told Campbell that I was still interested in breaking the 4:10 mark. He told me to continue on, and we said a farewell until the finish line. Having lost approximately 70 metres of elevation in the first 30 km, we would now proceed to loose approximately 170 further metres of elevation in the last 20 km.
I always write up 3 weeks of rest in my training plan after running a hard ultramarathon. I force myself to rest for at least the first two weeks and then judge my return to training from there based on the recovery of my legs. Needless to say the idea of entering a 50 km race just three weeks after my first ever 100-mile race was not exactly what I had in mind for my recovery.
But amazingly, just three weeks after completing the Leadville Trail 100 (race report here), I found myself driving up to Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensberg mountain range for a race called the Mont-aux-Sources Challenge. Mont-aux-Sources is a basalt plateau that lies at an average elevation of around 3,050 metres above sea level. The race involves 19 km of climbing (1100 metres of ascent) to the Sentinel Car Park at the base of the plateau, a 12 km circuit reaching over 3,200 metres (including climbing two chain ladder sections bolted directly to the rock wall), and then the punishing descent back to the starting point.
There were two reasons that I was running this race just 3 weeks after Leadville: firstly I had not spoken to a single person that didn’t run out of adjectives to describe the beauty of the run, and secondly it is extremely difficult to secure an entry so to pass it up would seem wasteful. The Mont-aux-Sources Challenge allows 250 runners each year, with runners from the previous year receiving automatic invitations before filling remaining places off the waiting list which currently containing 1500 names.