Sunday, 17 April 2016

Mt Solitary Ultra 2016

Every time I go up to Katoomba, which is quite a lot, I look out from my bedroom window each day and gaze at Mt Solitary. The mountain stands prominent on the south side of Jamison Valley, alone, solitary. Depending on the weather its exposed sandstone cliffs can reflect the suns rays, or it can be concealed in cloud and mist which descends and wafts through the valley. Mt Solitary is mesmerising in so many ways and to be able to traverse it in a race is just truely magical, but at the same time the mountain reminds you why it stands supreme and alone.
Course Map. Running Wild NSW
It's been what has seemed forever since I last raced Running Wild's Mt Solitary Ultra, 2011 to be precise. I've been over it plenty of times on training runs but for one reason or another something else had got in the way for me to race it. 2016 was different and I wasn't going to let the opportunity pass. This race also marked the belated start to my trail running season for the year.
Course Profile. Running Wild NSW
Mt Solitary Ultra is a 45km race held by Running Wild NSW. It's a 100% trail run which tests runners on all types of Blue Mountains terrain. Starting at the old (haunted?) Queen Victoria Hospital it is a short uphill start to the run, along a well maintained fire trail before the long descent down into Jamison Valley via Kedumba Pass. Along this fast descent I was unsurprisingly passed by plenty of faster guys. I watched their larger legs stride out and it was no use sprinting to keep pace. About half way down towards Kedumba River the course veers off the fire trail onto a technical single trail which rolls, drops and snakes its way down to the river.  The guys with bigger strides really slowed down on this technical stuff. I joined the conga line and bided my time until an opportunity arose for me to overtake.
Some of the Berowra Bushrunners; Karin Burgess, Zaid Mohsen, Brian Cardelli & me. (L-R). Karin Burgess
At Kedumba River the race route crossed directly across the river. Usually on training runs I make a slight detour to an old fallen tree whose wide trunk makes a natural bridge across the water course which allows me to keep my shoes dry. As this is a race however, such luxuries cannot be afforded, so I crossed the shin deep water and said goodbye to my dry socks in the process. After crossing Kedumba River the single trail heads up in varying grades ranging from gentle incline to "stick your tongue out and you'll touch the ground" steep. This was the opportunity to start making up some places. I'm comfortable with the route up and know the sections to push hard on and which to conserve myself. I slowly picked the guys off, one by one. By the top I guess I'd made up about ten places. This climb seemed to have seeded the field and there wasn't much movement in overall position for the rest of the race. On the tougher sections of the ascent I reflected upon struggles encountered by the mountaineers in the previous nights viewing of Everest (2015) and put into perspective what I was encountering.

The mountain mist that had been around prior to race start still hadn't burnt away by the time I'd reached the "log book" and instead of a gorgeous Blue Mountains view there was just a wall of white. Missing out on a view wasn't so bad as it was a day for racing, not so much a day for sightseeing. The log book marks the top of the big climb, but not the top of Mt Solitary. From here it is a series of small rises, each bigger than the last as the trail skirts its way in and out of the cliff line. The trail is overgrown with plenty of rugged mountain vegetation which you have to endlessly negotiate. It makes running along this part of the trail more of an awkward dance than a straight out trail run. Occasionally as I came around a bend I'd be greeted by hikers who would offer words of encouragement as they stepped off the trail to let me pass. They sure picked a bad morning to be on the trail as 200 runners were about to interfere with their hike. I'm sure the novelty wore off well before the sweepers passed them. 

The descent of Mt Solitary is lots of fun. I love climbing over the rocks and using my whole body to negotiate the route. There are a few areas that are a little sketchy, but I know the tricks and know which rocks to jump down onto. It is more a process of controlled falling. At the bottom of the descent, under the presence of Ruined Castle, the trail follows the old abandoned railway line around to Scenic World. It sounds more glorious that it is. All evidence of the railway is gone now, but the trail is fairly flat with sweeping bends that make it very runnable. Along this section I opened my stride and enjoyed running beneath the sandstone cliffs that ring this western end of Jamison Valley. Towards the end of the old railway line the trail is interrupted by a large landslide. It is a labyrinth of debris and I always have the feeling of taking a different route each time I cross it. To keep me on course however I eyed out the pink tape which marked the "official" race route and blindly followed it.
On the way up Furber Steps.
Once through the landslide I could start hearing the cacophony of foreign voices which accompany the tourists at Scenic World. It also marks the gauntlet of directionless individuals intent on disrupting my running pace. It was easier to negotiate the vegetation on Mt Solitary than it was the projecting selfie sticks and backwards walking, talking tourists. With frustration rapidly increasing I refocused my energies on ascending Furber Steps, all +900 of them.  The tourists here were less ignorant of what was going on and they generally stepped aside to let me pass. As Furber Steps is an out and back section of course it allowed me to see where I sat in the field and how close people are in front and behind.
On my way down Furber Steps.
At the top of Furber Steps I ran over the checkpoint timing mat before presenting my snake bandage at the mandatory gear check. After a quick refuel it was a much quicker descent down Furber and an opportunity to exchange encouragement to other runners. Once at the bottom of the steps I turned left and headed along Federal Pass towards Leura Forest. This section of trail had its scattering of tourist and walkers, but they were more encouraging than those at Scenic World and it was probably a novelty to see a runner come through. Taking advantage of my crowd parting skills was Philip Whitten who had managed to catch up to me. Shortly after the turnoff to the Giant Staircase the trail passes the "way out" track which is a short section of trail used to connect the Federal Pass to Sublime Point Fire Trail below. Standing at one end of the short trail you can the see the other end and vice-versa. It is a section of trail that I use frequently on training runs and passing it during the race was just a reminder that I'd be passing the other end of it in about 20 minutes time.

Continuing along the trail I passed Leura Forest and headed down towards the old remediated "turd works" (these are the official names, I promise). It's at this point that the single trail gives way to the well graded Sublime Point fire trail. Passing the "way out" track again I looked up to see if I could spot anyone I knew, but I didn't so continued on the descent further down into Jamison Valley. The bottom is marked by a ford across Leura Creek, which although low wasn't low enough to avoid getting my socks wet again. This crossing marks the first of two creek crossings, separated by a +200m climb over a spur. This year I've been doing plenty of training through Jamison Valley running west to east. I'd identified trail runners going in this direction as those training for Mt Solitary. Trail runners going east to west I'd identified as those training for UTA, which also uses the same fire trail. The result had been a lot of people running this fire trail in recent months which is good to see people enjoying its semi-remote beauty.

The Sublime Point fire trail is seemingly endless and it played on my mind. Although I've run it pretty much every weekend so far this year there are bends along its length that still put me out and disorientate me. Looking up from the valley floor the mist from earlier in the day had set in and obscured the prominent sandstone cliffs that surround Jamison Valley. Most of my running along here was by myself. I'll admit that I was chasing a PB for this race. Back when I first ran Mt Solitary Ultra in 2011 I finished thinking that my time could have been a bit quicker. I was glad for Jo Brischetto when she set the previous course record in 2014 as I believe it was a time that I was capable of,  but believing and achieving are two very different things. On a few of the climbs I found myself switching between running and power walking as I didn't feel that running was any faster. To motivate myself I'd think about Jo and how much of the fire trail she would run up. I've done a few training runs with her and I know how strong she is, particularly on the hills.

Finish line. La Sportiva Australia
I ran as much of Kedumba Pass as I could. There are steep sections where I found it better to back off, particularly near the cutting. Where the trail was less steep I ran as much as I could, but I felt that my legs were slow and heavy. On the final rise before Queen Victoria Hospital I could see someone ahead cheering me on most enthusiastically. As I got closer it turned out to be Mum who'd driven up with Dad to surprise me on the trail. What a surprise it was, but our meeting was brief as I could hear the noise from the finish line and Luke Doyle announce over the speaker system that I had just 1 minute to break Jo's course record. I opened my stride and allowed my legs to carry me down the gentle slope and across the finish line in 5:28:10 for the win and female record.
Race Presentation; me and runner-up Chantelle Farrelly (L-R).
La Sportiva Helios 2.0 - Great super light weight trail shoes with excellent traction. I didn't slip or slide all race. They also dried really well after crossing Kedumba River.
La Sportiva Bushido - Brian also ran (part of the course). He said that the Bushido's had excellent grip and didn't falter on any of the terrain to the top of Furber Steps.
La Sportiva Snap Short - The weather was still warm enough for me to wear these light weight running shorts. They fit snugly on my hips and didn't restrict my movement.

Predominantly muesli bars and soft lolly party mix, washed down with cordial.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Knapsack Lap Race 6hr Solo 2016

Lap races to me sound pretty boring, they probably sound pretty boring to most people. I don’t mind training on the same section of trail again and again. I give my local trails a good work out, day after day, but I usually have a break of at least a day before revisiting the same section of trail. A lap race for that matter is usually not my preferred event format. I do make an exception to my rule for Running Wild NSW's Knapsack Lap Race, for a number of reasons. Other than the obvious one being that it’s in the Blue Mountains (Glenbrook), each 5.0km lap is entirely on undulating free flowing trail. Add to this the fact that it’s held on the Australia Day Public Holiday just adds to the event’s vibrant almost party like atmosphere.

Course map. Running Wild NSW
Prior to the event kicking off there is the mandatory singing of Advance Australia Fair (national anthem), this year sung by Blue Dog (aka Wayne Gregory). We stood to attention as a gathering of runners, not singers, and the acoustics at race HQ were not fantastic, neither was the PA system, but we manage to get through it with a feeling of pride and that the awkwardness of the rendition will soon be forgotten on the impending trails.

The group start comprise of runners competing in the solo, pairs and team’s 3hr and 6hr events, all several hundred of us. The event had sold out prior to race day. It’s a little crowded at the start and runners jostle for position firstly on the grassy sports oval, then on the intermittent narrow single track, wider single track and fire trail. About halfway around the first lap most people have found their place and we all move smoothly around the trail in one big stretched out conga line.
Lap profile.
My first goal for the run was to complete 60km’s. My next was to lap Brian as many times as possible. I managed 60km’s and twice, narrowly missing out on a third.

The first few 5km loops took about 29 minutes to complete. There is a water dump at around the halfway mark, but I mostly left that alone. I usually waited until I returned to race HQ at the completion of every lap to raid the esky for food and drink before carrying on. Hanging around race HQ is dangerous as there are supporters and team mates of other runners. It makes for quite a social affair, and a wanting distraction as the race progresses. It can be all too easy to mindlessly pilfer the esky or strike up a conversation, none of which aid in the progression of the lap race.

I had company for the first 3 hours of the run. I was joined by my cousin Taylor Miles whom I ran a lot with. Taylor was better on some section of the course than I was, so the gap between us ebbed and flowed, but we were mostly within sight of each other. I didn't know how hard he was pushing during his 3 hours until I found out that he'd exhausted himself totally just before the completion of his 6th lap.

It is difficult to keep track of laps and position during this race. The first three hours are spent speculating who is in the same division, as being overtaken doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going back a position. Along with race bibs runners have their division written in black marker pen on their calves. I often found myself scanning peoples calves to help identify their race/division. A few times I got despondent after being passed, only to realise that those nicely shaved silky smooth legs belonged to a guy, not a girl. Some runners passed at such speed that it became at times little demoralising knowing how much you’re fatiguing hour by hour, lap by lap. These faster runners were clearly part of a relay or team.
Possibly the first lap, possibly the last lap. Running Wild NSW.
After the 3hr mark the trail becomes a lot less crowded as the 3hr participants depart the trail and fatigue from other 6hr runners mean that their time at race HQ is extended. I admit that it was tempting to loiter at race HQ longer than I had too. I really did struggle to leave on the last few laps.

Every consecutive lap I completed was an opportunity to improve on the next laps. First time around I was following the runners heels ahead. The second time around I had a lot more space and could see the trail ahead a lot clearer. The third time around I tried different approaches to the bends, ascents and descents. I started experimenting with what felt better and more natural for me. Some rocks I would jump off with my left foot, others with my right. I would go around certain rocks on the left, for example, because it would help keep my momentum up as I went around the upcoming bend. Sometimes I’d try something different, and if it didn’t work then I’d try something different again on the next lap. By the last few laps however my legs and mind were starting to fatigue and what worked on laps 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 were now not working so well come lap 9 onwards. Consequently I started experimenting again, to find what was more comfortable in my progressively fatiguing state.

As the 6 hour mark was nearing I'd just completed my 11th lap having just caught up with fellow Berowra Bushrunner Eric Burgess. We'd both agreed that this lap together would be our last. Unfortunatley for me I was met by Brendan Davies, who instructed me that it was my duty as an ultra runner to run to the "end" and that meant another lap. I would have debated it if I had the energy, but the crowd support seemed to be in Brendan's favour so out I went again. As it happened Eric decided to leave for another lap, he needed the extra milage with a 100miler approaching for him. After pilfering through the esky one last time I made it my focus to catch up to him ASAP. It took all my effort to catch him, but once I did it was worth it as the company was much appreciated.

It was a gruelling day out there on the trails at Knapsack. I managed 12 laps for a total of +60kms (the laps were a little longer than the specified 5kms) in 6:23:45 and the win in the Female Solo 6hr.
Eric Burgess and I at the end of our 6hrs. Karin Burgess.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Kepler Challenge 2015

With the growth of trail running there is no such thing as an "off season". For the most part in Australia we don't have seasons which define the end of the trail running season, so potentially you can run all year round, year after year doing quality trail races. There are so many races on offer all year round now that it's necessary to create your own "off season" in order to allow the body to relax and reset the mind, both of which are necessary to be motivated enough for future races. For me I've already started to wind down and am doing the next couple of races for my own self interest and pleasure. To finish the 2015 calendar year I was once again fortunate enough to run the Kepler Challenge (60km), NZ. This was my third trip to Te Anau for the event, having run the Challenge in 2014 and the Grunt (27km) in 2011. For this trip across the "Ditch" I was accompanied by my parents.

My training for this year's race hadn't been very specific. I still did in excess of 100km weeks on the trails, but I hadn't been doing any long distance tempo runs. In the weeks leading up to Kepler I had started doing intervals once a week at the local oval, consisting of multiple runs at 90% effort, broken up with short recovery periods. I'd been doing these with faster friends in an effort to keep my efforts honest. Brian had been joining me for some of these sessions, even though he might have sat out one or two laps of the oval. 

At 6am the Kepler Challenge kicked off in the early dawn light. There is just enough natural light in this early stage of the event to distinguish the trail, and its occasional hazard, under the tree canopy. I was comfortably cruising along the early stages of the race as the trail ran alongside Lake Te Anau. I was happy with my early pace, which was no where near that of Ruby Muir and Zelah Morrall who quickly ran off out of sight. On this type of course they are two runners who stand above the rest. Zelah is the current course record holder, having set it in 2003, and there was speculation that Ruby might have been after the record this year, so there was no use in trying to tear off trying to keep up with those two. 

At Brod Bay (5.6km) the trail abruptly turns from near flat running to an incline that in places is just steep enough to want to walk, but is still runnable. Given my year of predominantly running Skyraces I wasn't going to walk unless I absolutely had to.
Lots of opportunities to see where you are going and were you have come from. Kepler Challenge Facebook.
I reached the Luxmore Hut checkpoint (13.8km) in third place. While I was getting my gear checked at the mandatory inspection, I saw Fiona Hayvice arrive at the checkpoint. We left close together and spent the next few kilometers, running along the exposed ridge line within sight of each other. On the descent, with seemingly endless switchbacks, down to Iris Burn Hut checkpoint (28.4km) I managed to close the gap to Fiona and we pretty much arrived at the checkpoint together.  
The views are gorgeous from the top. Kepler Challenge Facebook.
 It was along the back part of this course, where the trail is fairly flat as it runs alongside Iris Burn tributary where I lacked the speed, and probably the determination, to keep up with Fiona. I quickly started to lag behind and watched her depart into the distance, occasionally spotting her ahead on the straighter, more exposed sections of trail. Usually I'm more competitive and would chase after people, but my mind and body were in holiday mode and I was quite content to just enjoy my time on this gorgeous trail. 

A short way out from Rocky Point checkpoint (36.1km) I was caught and passed by Jean Beaumont. I'd met Jean at the Hounslow Classic a few months prior. Hounslow was more of an introduction, and running with her at Kepler was a good opportunity to develop that a bit further. Jean slowly edged out a lead and the gap between us slowly increased. As with Fiona I wasn't in any particular urge to chase after her, I was just enjoying the race run along the Kepler Track. Perhaps if I'd had Mick Donges encouraging me along this section of trail, like last year, then things might have been different.
I look way too exhausted for such a flat section of trail. Back Country Runner.

I was enjoying my run so much that it was a rather rude shock when I started to hear the finish line announcer's voice radiating down the trail. Crossing the Kepler Challenge finish line, and ending the trail running calendar year, in 6:31:46 was a feeling of elation and relief.  My focus for the year had been Oceania Skyrunning. I had focused on keeping myself fit and healthy for the entire year, while constantly fearing an unexpected injury. To get through my target races for the year without injury was very satisfying. There has been a lot of discussion about ultra trail runners burning themselves out by racing too much. I think this year I was able to train sustainably and peak at the right times, and fortunate enough to get results that I worked for and sometimes fluked. Now is the time to enjoy the festive season.

P.S. Brian thought that it was possible for me to run 6hrs at Kepler, given my training, however it turned out that I ran near perfect splits for 6:30. In hindsight I'm pretty pleased with the way that I managed to pace myself over the course. I got to enjoy the trail just that little bit longer.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Hounslow Classic, 68km, 2015

These race reports of mine are written primarily for myself, so that I can reflect on events surrounding trail races. I think it's important to remember what worked and what didn't so that faded memories don't distort the real story. I'm writing this report so that I remember to give Hounslow Classic the full respect that it deserves! There are so many aspects of this course that are intimidating; the 68km's, the technicality of the terrain, the +/-4100m shared over the 4 major ascents balanced with the 4 major descents. This course has the potential to chew you up and spit you out. 

The Hounslow Classic is located in the Grose Valley, just north of the upper Blue Mountains town of Blackheath, NSW, with the race hub at Govetts Leap. This part of the Blue Mountains are synonymous with imposing vertical sandstone cliffs which the course negotiates numerous times in several locations. For these reasons alone I just had to throw my hat into the ring and sign up. I love running in the Blue Mountains, and the lure to run in an area of the mountains I don't usually focus on was irresistible.
Justine Medin showing how big the valley is on a training run.
None of the climbs out of the Gross Valley are easy. From the valley floor they start rising at a respectable grade which can be considered as runnable, to an extent. This runnable grade wears away at the legs quickly and the pace slowly grinds from a high cadence run to power walking strides up these lower valley slopes. The further you ascend the steeper the grade, until you reach the bottom of the spectacular sandstone cliffs. The trails cutting through these cliffs are narrow and steep. To ascend these sections you often need to resort to a mix of hands on knees to help push yourself up and hand over hand using the available balustrades. Opportunities to run are extremely limited, until you reach the top of each climb. Every time I trained on the course I'd try to run further up the slopes before having to walk, or practice a better line to descend. I slowly discovered the places where I could push a little harder and areas where I needed to back off and either recover or conserve myself.
View from Lockley Pylon.
The Hounslow Classic was my first race following a fairly lengthy southern hemisphere winter break, with my last race being Mt Difficulty in New Zealand. Pretty much every second weekend I’d be up on the Hounslow course doing reps of Perrys Lookdown, or reps to Lockley Pylon, occasionally mixed with a few reps up to Govetts Leap or loop through the Grand Canyon. During every training session on the course I felt like a yo-yo running down into the valley before climbing up out of the valley. To ensure I did the desired amount of climbing I would drop down from Perrys, then do two reps from Blue Gum Forest up to Lockley's, which ensures that the last ascent of the session would be back up to Perrys and therefore the car. I find it best to remove unnecessary distractions during training, like returning to the car half way through a training session.
A bit of pre-race nervous chatter and sand bagging.
For me the worst part of any race is race morning. I often have a restless night’s sleep before a race, and the early morning starts means no sleep-in.  Then there’s the tough decision of “what do I wear”, as the clothes I picked to run in the night before no longer seem suitable to wear come morning. There is also the rechecking of the race pack, as if items that I’d previously packed the night before had disappeared and I have to guess the missing item. This series of events happens before I leave the house, again as I exit the car, and occasionally just before the start. The only thing that settles me down is the call to the start line.
The end of the first short loop. Hounslow Classic Facebook
The first couple hundred metres of the Hounslow Classic is up a bitumen road (the only bit of bitumen on the course), followed by another few hundred metres of descent, which sets the tone for the rest of the race, up down, up down, you get the gist. This part of the course is generously wide which allows runners to spread out and find a little space for themselves. The starting pace was nice and leisurely which allowed me to slowly warm up and loosen up. It normally takes me about 20 minutes of running to start getting into race mode so I had no complaints about the early pace.

After this little loop we started on the course in earnest. Being an out and back course, every descent would become an arduous ascent on the return. The race morning could not have been better. After early morning reports that it was raining in Blackheath, the weather cleared before the race to reveal this part of the Grose Valley’s spectacular beauty. As the first part of this course meanders along the cliff towards Evans Lookout the views over my left shoulder revealed the large ascents and descents that lay ahead. It is a natural beauty that us runners would respect in a very unique way, namely blood, sweat and/or tears.
The trick to trail running is to not touch the ground, like Maggie Jones and I.
I ran the first part of the race with Maggie Jones. I wasn’t expecting her to be up the front, but she kept a comfortable pace and there was no need to push any harder at this early stage. The open trail along the cliff line ended abruptly at Neats Glen carpark, where the trail turns sharply left, marking the descent into the leafy Grand Canyon track. This is where I thought I would pass Maggie but she was surprisingly quick on the descent and through the valley floor. I started feeling a little out of breath trying to stay with her. The first part of the descending trail is nicely landscaped, which gives you a false sense of security and draws you further down. It is not long however that the trail slowly changes and gives way to a more technical trail. The canyon is very picturesque and a nice place to dawdle in, though not so in the early stages of an ultra trail race. Generally I kept my position on the trail as it followed the river down to the valley floor beyond. There are sections of trail that cut in under overhanging rock formations where the head height is reduced and being small has its advantages. A little further down the trail, still on the descent into the valley, the trail is interrupted by a landslide which makes the trail almost indistinguishable. A little “local” knowledge helped in this area as the “better” route is loosely marked with red and white flagging tape.
One of the creek crossings in the Grand Canyon.
Shortly after the landslide section, the trail becomes more runnable and I enjoyed the feeling of gliding through the valley floor, listening to the babbling river beside me, while keeping a wary eye out for snakes. The rest of the trail back up to Govetts Leap is mostly runnable as it follows the Govetts Leap Brook from Junction Rock via Rodriguez Pass. The trail here slowly rises at a moderate runnable grade. The further you go however the more stairs start to appear and the steeper it gets. The defining point is at the base of Trinity Falls, as this marks the ascent up the cliff face. It is not a vertical ascent, but a tough slog up a track which cuts its way through the natural features of the sandstone cliff. It was at Trinity Falls that I edged past Maggie and tried to gap her on the ascent.
Coming up out of the Grose Valley for the first time. Hounslow Classic Facebook.
As I neared the top of the cliff, and the race hub at Govetts Leap, I could hear the cheers and cow bells ringing for the runners ahead. Once at the top I located Brian at the checkpoint who resupplied me then I did a quick check-in/check-out before departing for the long out and back section to The Pinnacles, via what seems like the most indirect route, probably because it was.
Feeling relieved that the dirt road section had come to an end at Perrys Lookdown. Hounslow Classic Facebook.
The next three kilometers were much like the first, where the trail meanders above the cliff line, this time with the views over my right shoulder. After a quick loop around the Pulpit Rock monument the trail goes up onto a dirt road. This is the section I liked least. All my training had been on the hills and technical trail. While running on this dirt road out to Perrys Lookdown I felt as though my speed was not much faster than the earlier climb up Rodriguez Pass. Although it is fairly flat, with little variation in elevation, I expected to be overtaken any moment by the rest of the field. I took consolation in the thought that I could make up any lost time on the following leg. It was around this time that the field started to spread out and I spent most of the time running by myself.
A bit of hands on knees action while climbing up to Du Faur Head. Clarke McClymont Facebook.
Between Perrys Lookout and The Pinnacles the trail descends down in the valley once again to Blue Gum Forest, where it crosses Govetts Creek via a natural log bridge (large fallen tree) and ascends the other side to Du Faur Head and Lockley Pylon before flattening out for the remaining stretch to The Pinnacles. The descent down the sandstone cliff from Perrys is very steep and a slip or trip could result in dire consequences. Given the amount of practice I'd had on this steep part of the course I ran down in a pretty reckless manner and managed to catch Ewan Horsburgh who was suffering a bit with cramps but seemed in good spirits. Once at the bottom of the cliff I opened my stride and cruised down the groomed trail as it descends down to the valley floor. Once across the log bridge my goal for the climb up to Lockley Pylon was to reach the top before the leader came back through on his return journey, half way up the climb I caught up with Loughlinn Kennedy who I'd meet on an earlier training run. It was Loughlinn's  longest distance race to date he was struggling a bit in the heat as it was starting to get very warm on this part of the course. I managed to scramble my way to the top of the climb before meeting Ben Duffus (eventual race winner) just after Lockley Pylon. Behind Ben there was a reasonable gap before I started seeing the chasers. I was keen to get the last bit of this section over as soon as possible. The trail on this side of the valley is comprised of lots of loose sharp rocks which make running difficult as you need to dance around in order to find suitable footing. It is also a section that I find goes on and on and on, hence a section that I tended to avoid during training.
"Do I really have to do it again?" Rebekah Markey Facebook.
At The Pinnacle checkpoint I was greeted by the Markey Family from my local running club Berowra Bushrunners. They were manning The Pinnacles checkpoint, which is also the turnaround point on the course. It was good to have familiar faces which goes a long way towards helping ease the anxious and quick checkpoint turnaround. I headed out for the return journey back over the same trail that I’d just completed, crossing paths with every other runner still out on the course, on their way to the Pinnacles. To keep myself motivated I played a game on the return whereby I wanted to reach a particular tree, or hill, or rock before seeing particular people. The next girl I saw was Maggie, followed closely by Lucy Bartholomew. Judging by the gap I guessed they would be having a good tussle on the return.

What I like most about trail running is how friendly we all are as a collective group. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are in the field, people are equally supportive. It makes it a pleasure to participate in events such as these where you are toughing it out on the same course together. There were lots of positive and encouraging comments being exchanged on this return trip and it made the return journey just that little bit quicker and more enjoyable. Meeting the sweepers while ascending Perrys marked the end of the field and a return to solemn running.
Feeling and looking a little exhausted on the return to Perrys Lookdown checkpoint.
There was a small but supportive crowd of spectators at Perrys Lookdown and after another quick refuel at the checkpoint it was onto the dreaded dirt road section again. Edwin Perry managed to reach the checkpoint just ahead of me, but I managed to transition quickly and left ahead of him. He put his long legs to good use and soon caught me and then sped off. Not long after Loughlinn reappeared and he looked a lot better then the last time I saw him. Loughlinn and I ran a bit together until he got to fast and I had to drop back. About halfway along the road section rain drops started to drop lightly out of the sky. Up until then the day had been almost perfect. In typical Blue Mountains style, the weather changed rapidly, this time with rain that slowly developed into a deluge, and briefly hail. I’m fortunate to have an awesome raincoat, so I put it on and it managed to keep everything above my waist dry, until the rain eased, and eventually stopped completely.

When I reached Pulpit Rock I was expecting to encounter more bushwalkers on the trail, but the rain had deterred most of them and the trail was generally free for me to run freely. I arrived at Govetts Leap once again for a final refuel before heading down into the valley one last time. Mentally this was the most difficult part of the race, to leave a checkpoint in which I would finish some 2.5 hours later. I can only imagine how hard it would be for those runners who were struggling to leave the checkpoint to complete the last loop.

I didn't see anyone again till the bottom of Neates Glen when I caught up with Andrew Lee. Andrew was struggling, but he hid it well with his positive attitude. We had a little catch up before I pushed ahead to finish what I'd started.

As I emerged from the Grand Canyon track I was greeted by my young nephews who had been prowling the trail waiting to see me come through. They don’t often get to see me race so this was a novelty for them. Their expectation was that I’d stop and have a chat or play with them on the trail. They were not impressed when I continued running up the switch backs and they couldn’t keep pace. I kept hearing their voices call out " Aunty Beth, please slow down". They unsuccessfully attempted to cut large sections of the switchbacks. It proved to be very amusing in this late stage of the race. They did manage to sort themselves out and get a lift around to Govetts Leap just in time to see me finish.
That was one welcome finish line. Clarke McClymont
After all the ascending and descending the last 50m of course is a gentle incline up to the finish line. As much as I wanted to walk it the gathered crowd kept me honest and I jogged up to the finish for the win in 9:45, 7th overall.
Post race debrief with Lucy Bartholomew (2nd) and Maggie Jones (3rd).
Mountain Sports continue to put on fantastic events and this is certainly no exception. Race Director Sean Greenhill managed to put together a truly challenging course surrounded by some of the most stunning views in the Blue Mountains. I'm sure he pulled strings to ensure good weather too. To top it off the flora was is full bloom, including numerous waratahs.
Hounslow Classic, 68km podium. Hounslow Classic Facebook.
My win at the Hounslow Classic also allowed me to secure the Oceania Skyrunning Series for 2015. I’ve really enjoyed participating in the series and competing in 4 new Skyrunning events:
The Hillary, 80km, NZ
Buffalo Stampede, 75km, VIC
Mount Difficulty, 43km  NZ 
Hounslow Classic, 68km, NSW. 


Saturday, 13 June 2015

Mt Difficulty Ascent, NZ, 43km 2015

The name said it all. In hindsight I probably should have heeded the warning. My third race for 2015 was in New Zealand at the Mt Difficulty Ascent, 43km'ish with +/-3600m (thereabouts), which was also my third new race of the year. It wasn't necessarily planned that way, however it was just the way things panned out for me. 
Course overview and profile. Mt Difficulty Ascent.
Information about the event was pretty basic if not scarce. I relied mostly on Facebook banter as to what was expected. The two stand out topics were the steep gradients that were "off trail" and the erratic winter weather, both of which lived up to the pre-race hype on race day.

I flew into Queenstown and then headed over to Bannockburn/Cromwell, NZ with Mum as my chaperon. It might have been the allure of New Zealand in winter, or the fact that I was racing once again, or perhaps it was the fact that the race HQ was in a winery! Either way Mum was pretty keen to join me on yet another overseas running foray. Unfortunately for her she broke her arm the week before we headed over, but fortunatley it didn't disrupt her travel plans too much.
The Mt Difficulty terrain was a little rugged. Mt Difficulty Ascent Facebook.

The evening before the race Mum and I made our way to race briefing. The usual items got addressed along with the associated hazards of the race. Note for next time; don't take Mum to a race briefing where she listens to all the possible ways you can injure yourself, as all she will hear is "do this and you'll die". 

As the lazy winter sun started to creep over the horizon I assembled outside the winery, along with the other runners, for the 8am start. It was a group start for the marathoners (ANZ Skyrace) and half marathoners. There was a small list of mandatory gear for this event and looking around it appeared that most runners had not heeded the Race Directors advice to don the whole kit. Being one one of the non-Kiwi runners I was attired in the whole mandatory kit, plus a few extra items.

As we headed off in a group I spotted Whitney Dagg (eventual winner) and Jo Johansen (2nd), both of whom where two runners I wanted to stay in touch with. For the first few kilometers I ran with Fiona Hayvice along a fairly tame section of road and 4WD trail which was a good little warm up. This section was over quickly and the course turned off trail for a short scramble up a hillside known as Nipple Hill, then down again. At the top of the climb we had to climb over a barbed-wire fence. During the manoeuvre I managed to snag my glove on a barb then proceeded to watch it slip off my hand and be taken by the wind back over the fence. The sad look on my face must have prompted a fellow runner to pick up on my distress and he kindly retrieved it for me. I was very grateful for his gesture. 

This mix of trail essentially set the tone for the rest of the course, comprising well defined tracks interspersed with "off trail" sections marked with orange tape and occasional lengths of fixed rope. The terrain on these sections comprised exposed rock with small solid tufts of wild thyme which proved to be a nice form of aromatherapy during the race.
The rope proved useful while tackling the steep gradients of Nipple Hill. Crank Photos.
After the first little up and down section we then returned to a formed trail, it wasn't long before markings took us "off trail" again, this time for a 500m ascent over 1km. This is European skyrunning type grades (50% gradient), which is exactly the reason I was looking forward to this event. I was after a relatively local event that had some stupidly insane gradients. At the top of the ascent we picked up another formed trail for a while before veering off along a fence line and down a steep descent marked with rope.

Some descents looked a little treacherous.
There was a checkpoint at the bottom of this descent where the half marathoners were directed back towards the finish line (winery) and the marathoners were directed towards the biggest climb of the day up Mt Difficulty, 1020m ascent over 3km. This was a big slow climb that was entirely "off trail". The higher we got the better the views got, but it was difficult to appreciate it with the icy winter wind cutting through me. We had been warned at briefing that there might be strong winds and they were not wrong. I dared not stop moving in case I froze. Near the top of the Mt Difficulty ascent I was joined by Bernard Robinson. I always enjoy making friends on my runs, even in races. The gusty wind made it difficult to talk and I found myself being blown into Bernard on a few occasions. There were times when I tried to run and when I had both feet off the ground I found myself being blown sideways. It was better when we changed places on the trail as he proved to be a useful windbreak, more useful than I was to him.

The steep bits were long and steep. Steve Neary Facebook .

The remainder of the race was a relatively gentle descent off Mt Difficulty on the leeward side of Bernard.  I crossed the line in a fairly casual marathon time of 6hrs 19min for 4th place. I'm glad that the regions wine is smoother than the terrain.

I turned up to the Mt Difficulty Ascent to test myself and test myself I did.

P.S. - "Off trail" loosely stands for, any which way you please as there is no defined trail.
Panic stations. Kawarau Bridge Bungy.
A spontaneous end to my latest trip. This is the wind blowing me back up again.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon, 75km, 2015

It is always a frustrating experience to be injured, more so when it means being unable to run and missing an event. Last year I was impaired by an injury which resulted in me missing the inaugural Buffalo Stampede in 2014. I did however make the journey to Bright, Victoria, to spectate which only fueled the fire to return the following year and attempt this Skyrace.
Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon Profile.
Fast forward a year and after some cautious training, I made it to the event ready to race. This year's Buffalo Stampede was also the Skyrunning Oceania Continental Championship with respective titles up for grabs in the SkyMarathon and Ultra SkyMarathon distances. Runners from Australia, New Zealand and abroad assembled to test their abilities on this Australian Skyrunning course. The Buffalo Stampede had been expanded from last year to include three race distances; 32km (Sky 26'er) with +/-2000m elevation gain/loss, 75.5km (Ultra SkyMarathon) with +/-4900m and 41.4km (SkyMarathon) with +2930m/-1940m held over three consecutive days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. The race that I targeted was the Ultra SkyMarathon with its out and back route from Howitt Park on the banks of the Ovens River in Bright to the top of Mt Buffalo and back. 

The first race of the weekend was the 32km, aka Sky26'er, which was altered and subsequently extended at short notice, due to risks associated with recent fires on the original course. The change to the intended route messed with runners heads, but it was a reminder that in trail running you need to be flexible and quick to adapt. The initial pace out of the starting chute was fast at the beginning, after all it was a "sprint" event, but judging by the spent looks on runners' faces back at the finish line the course had done its job of testing all who attempted it. The nett result was that the first day of racing had set the tone of excitement and a little trepidation for the races to follow. 

I was pretty happy to arrive at the race start line injury free. I had been over sections of the course a few times since the race was originally announced and was looking forward to putting all the different sections together. The female race field for the Ultra SkyMarathon consisted of the usual Aussie and Kiwi suspects; Julie Quinn, Jo Johansen, Whitney Dagg, Gill Fowler, Shona Stephenson, most of whom had bested me in trail races before. The only dark horse amongst the female field was Landie Greyling from South Africa, whom I was yet to race against.

The 7am Saturday morning race start of the Ultra SkyMarathon from Howitt Park in Bright saw the usual surge of runners in their eagerness to traverse the course. As usual I got swamped by runners, but I wasn't concerned as the trail is wide enough to overtake when needed, and I knew that my conservative pace would see me work my way back through a large portion of runners ahead. Running through the parklands of Bright I settled in behind Gill and Julie for awhile and soon the runners started to separate as the terrain started to rise, signaling the first major ascent for the day. The ascent followed a single trail mountain bike track alongside one of the many fire trails carved into the hillside. The ascent was very steep and I was able to start overtaking people as their earlier enthusiasm was reeled in the higher we got. A short distance up the ascent I passed Shona on the side of the track struggling with her head visor after it got caught in her hair. Fortunately for Shona a nice guy had stopped to help her untangle her hair. Note to self, don't wear a visor without having a tight ponytail. Nearing the top of the first ascent at Mystic, I saw Gretel Fortman who was spectating and encouraging runners up the hill. Gretel informed me of the gap to the other girls ahead, which was only a few hundred meters. I knew the next section into Bakers Gully was very steep and I was confident in my ability to descend quickly and catch up to the girls ahead. I opened my stride on the descent and was able to pass Gill going down this section. I knew Gill would be taking the descents cautiously having recently rolled her ankle badly in the early stages of the Mt Buller Skyrace two weeks prior.   
Summitting Clearspot. Skyrunning ANZ.
Having reached the bottom of the descent at Bakers Gully it was a short section of flat before the trail started to rise again for the second big ascent of the day up to Clearspot. It was on this ascent I was able to catch and work my way in front of, though very slightly, the leading girls of Whitney, then Landie. 
Descending Clearspot. Justine Medin.

The three of us all ran close together on the descent down Warners Wall then on into the Buckland Valley checkpoint. Landie started to gap me when I paused briefly to refuel as she kept on running through the checkpoint. Landie was out off sight before I got to the fire trail on the other side of the valley. Whitney managed to over take me as well, Bugger!, but I stayed within sight of her throughout the valley and over Keating Ridge to the next checkpoint at Eurobin Creek. 
First time through Eurobin Checkpoint. Buffalo Stampede.
I left the checkpoint before Whitney and hoped to put a gap between us on "The Big Walk" climb (+1128m over 10km), but every time I turned around she was there. I couldn't go any faster as I knew there was still a along way to the top, let alone the finish line. I really didn't want to push it too hard if I didn't have too but I was definitely feeling the pressure.
Almost at Mt Buffalo Chalet.
The higher I ascended up The Big Walk the more the trees thinned out until the view started opening up across the valley and mountains beyond. The single trail crisscrossed the bitumen road and I was spurred on by the occasional cheer from passing vehicles. I chanced a few looks over my shoulder and occasionally glimpsed Whitney charging up the mountain behind me which helped to keep me focused and not allow my pace to slacken. The ascent seemed to take forever and it was a relief to finally reach the Mt Buffalo Chalet checkpoint for the start of the "lollypop" out and back section. It was a bit disappointing to find out from my crew that Landie had extended her lead slightly, so my focus switched from chasing to being chased.

Just as I started the 7km out and back section to Chalwell Galleries I crossed paths with Tom Owens (leading male and eventual winner) heading back to the Chalet. Not long afterwards I crossed paths with Andrew Tuckey (2nd place male and Oceania Champion). I was surprised when Andrew went off the narrow trail to allow me to pass. Chivalry is alive in trail running. Seeing and exchanging words of encouragement with all the lead males helped lift me as fatigue was starting to set in. 
Approach to Chalwell Galleries.
This out and back leg is a little gem of alpine Australia. Near the "lollypop" the trail skirts around an alpine lake then a short distance beyond the trail takes you through, and even under, some large rounded boulders, for which Mt Buffalo is well known. I managed to get to the start of the "lollypop" loop without seeing Landie which meant that she didn't have that big a lead over me. The same could be said when I returned to the common out and back trail when I failed to see Whitney, Gill, Julie and Jo, which meant that they were likely in the lollypop loop already. The first female I saw was Shona. I did manage to see a few other girls and we exchanged words of encouragement as we passed each other. 

Back at the Chalet I was given another split and it was good to know that I hadn't lost any time. The course now doubled back on itself all the way to Howitt Park in Bright. We would also be crossing paths with every other runner, both fast, slow and everyone in between. Occasionally I'd get an update on how far behind Landie I was, but the times and distances varied so much that it was more frustrating than anything else. I tried to stretch out on the descent  off the mountain in an attempt to narrow the gap ahead to Landie. I can't say that I wasn't trying as I momentarily found myself falling into some bushes, having tripped on a rock, which was a wake-up call to be more careful. Luckily it only resulted in a grazed knee and compared to many other runners' legs mine were still looking pretty good.
Getting refueled and restocked at Eurobin checkpoint on the return journey. Antony Bowesman.
Returning to Eurobin checkpoint I was again informed by my crew of the time difference to Landie ahead. It was the same as the top, but what was equally important was the gap to Whitney and Gill behind me. I was hoping my speedy decent might have put more of a gap between us but clearly to no avail. Heading out over Keatings Ridge again I put my earphones on and listened to a playlist that Brian had specially compiled for me. The songs were not necessarily to my liking, but they were different and unpredictable with high tempo beats to "keep my cadence high" as Brian put it. 

Even with the long straight road section through Buckland Valley I couldn't see any girls ahead or behind me. There were a few guys that I tried to stick with but essentially I felt that I was in no man's land. Again the gaps were much the same and I felt that the podium had pretty much been decided. If I had known that Julie had leapfrogged from fifth to third in that previous leg I might have tried to run harder. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
I really didn't know what I wanted at Buckland Checkpoint. Antony Bowesman.
The ascent to Clearspot was tough and I tried to run as much of it as possible. I could see runners/walkers ahead and they all seemed to be going as slow as myself which made me feel a little better. On the descent from Clearspot I could hear the cowbells in the distance, from runners ahead passing spectators. The final ascent up to Mystic was slow, but the coke from Bakers Gully checkpoint helped me get to the top. That was a horrible ascent for me, as the sun felt so hot I wasn't sure if I had a fever or if the day was really that hot. I plodded on and eventually got to the top and managed a slow trot down the last descent. The end was near and I was starting to wish I was already there. On the run into town I passed Mum who was waiting for me. She urged me on and told me how close I was to a sub 10 hour finish.

It was such a relief to cross the finish line back in Howitt Park. Finishing second in 9:59:46 was sweetened by also being crowned Ultra SkyMarathon Oceanic Champion. Shortly after crossing the line and receiving my finishers medal from Sean Greenhill I was asked for an interview. I had to quickly decline as I was afraid that the next thing out of my mouth would not be words.
This is how I felt at the end. Skyrunning ANZ.
I really enjoyed the whole experience that Mountain Sports were able to create for this Buffalo Stampede event. The three race format over three days allowed runners not only to compete, but to also spectate, cheer and socialise. The ting, ting, tinging of cowbells heralding approaching runners is becoming more frequent in trail races around Australia. Having international runners attend and race on a "home"course is a great experience. The whole weekend was a lot of fun.
Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon female podium, Julie Quinn, Landie Greyling, me (L-R).