Damn the torpedoes!

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Waterous Trail on Foot WTF 50mile 2016

Ultra #5

Sunday 24 September 2016

One year ago, I completed this event and swore (and cursed) that’d never do it again. A year later, I’m on the starting line in the dawn light preparing to do it for the second time. The 2015 event was tough; I didn’t finish well but I did learn a lot about distance and time, and about myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to run the 50miles again this year either, I HAD to run it. After last year’s effort, there were demons which needed to be laid to rest; they had been bugging me all year. This was another opportunity to right what went so wrong last year.

Some of the people I ran with last year have stepped up to the 100mile event (aka the ‘miler’) this year. I’d love to run that distance in an event, but lacked the desire to do the required training; dedicating nearly a whole year to a 50mile event is bad enough, let alone doubling the distance.

The Course

The Waterous Trail is located south of Dwellingup which is about 100km south of Perth. The inaugural WTF event in 2013 was supposed to run on the Waterous Trail but because of a prescribed burn in the area, the event course was changed and has remained so since (but may change to the originally-intended course in the future?). The course follows the Munda Biddi mountain bike trail from Jarrahdale to Dwellingup, with a few detours. The Munda Biddi trail has some road, gravel road, wide track and single track sections i.e. a bit of everything, and about 1680m of hills.

The milers start in Dwellingup and then run the same course (for the most part) to Jarrahdale and then return along the same route to Dwellingup. This means that 50miles and the milers cross paths at about the halfway point of the shorter course. It’s inspirational seeing the milers when they are only about one quarter of the way through their ordeal, smiling and offering words of encouragement and support to the short course runners. The camaraderie and esprit de corps among ultra (trail) runners is like nothing else and a big part of why we do these crazy things.

In the 2015 event, there were 5 aid stations but this year one station had been removed and a water-stop had been ‘upgraded’ to a fully-fledged aid station. The longest leg between aid stations was just over 25km. I had been practising with different fuelling and hydration strategies and settled on a mix of 150% concentration of Tailwind (a glucose based sports drink which also contains electrolytes), plain water, Winners energy gels, banana bread (340 Calories/100g and cheap at about 90cents/100 Calories) and Enduralytes salt tablets. I had small drop-bags for each aid station, so I could simply grab my bits and stuff them into my vest, top-up my water bladder and then head off without too much delay.

The Plan

In 2015, I really wanted to finish in under 10 hours, but was disappointed when I finished in 10h18m. I knew where I had gone wrong and worked hard to overcome those shortcomings (or thought I had). This year, my goals were :

  1. beat the 2015 time
  2. be happy with a finish under ten hours
  3. be ecstatically happy with a finish under 9h34m (required pace 7:00/km)

I’d had a couple of chats with a good friend and exceptional runner, Ben Harris (winner of the 2015 WTF100 miler in his maiden attempt at the distance) and devised a plan to keep on pace by watching each kilometre (his idea) and counting +1 if the pace was faster than target pace and -1 if slower than target pace (ala blackjack card counting). If I got to +5 then I was running too fast for too long, so could afford to slow down. That was the plan anyway. I really wanted to beat the 9h30m time, NOT going fast from the start was going to be the key.

I thought I had overcome the worst of my cramping issues too. I was stronger than last year, and after events such as the Bunbury Three Waters Running Festival 50km, I was confident that good pacing would keep me out of cramp-trouble. There’s still no good science as to exactly what causes muscles to spasm and cramp, but I’m still following Dr Tim Noakes’ idea that “early onset muscle fatigue” is the cause; I’d still load up on salts and stay well hydrated just in case he’s wrong, but plan on going slow from just after the start to avoid working my legs too hard too soon.

Jarrahdale to Kingsbury Road (Aid #1, 14km)

We gathered at the Jarrahdale hall before dawn to complete pre-race formalities and hand over our drop-bags for transporting to the various aid stations. It was cold and dry but the weather forecast was for showers developing into rain later in the day. There was a buzz, a real sense of adventure amongst the starters as I think most of us were keen to get started, but like always, there were a few pensive faces in the crowd. Shortly before the scheduled 06:00 start, we were herded up the road to the trail head where the course officially begins. The Race Director, David Kennedy, is not one for fanfare so basically asked if everyone was ready, started a countdown from ten and then about 35 or so runners headed into the bush to endure somewhere between 8 and 14 hours of effort.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to slow down to 7:00/km at the start and also knew there was the first climb just after 5km, so planned to allow myself the adrenaline and excitement at the start to be fast but sensible, then have 15minutes to walk the first hill, and then I’d settle into my required pace. It sounded like a good plan, with one minor flaw, after the hill, I didn’t slow down! I wear two Garmin watches: one has the battery life to see me through to the finish but doesn’t have pace alerts (Garmin 910XT), the other has pace alerts but doesn’t have the battery endurance to make it all the way through the event (Garmin FR620). Every time I looked at the 910XT it showed a pace waaay too fast; the FR620 was beeping incessantly and even other runners were asking if I was aware of the excessive noise polluting the quiet of the morning. But I couldn’t slow down. I fell into pace with Nick Swallow, whom I knew of from Facebook but hadn’t actually met, and Martine Nield (eventual winner of the ladies 50mile); a few others came and went. We chatted about everything and nothing; Nick kept asking about the noises coming from my watch but we still didn’t slow down.

Being early Spring, the wildflowers were blooming, which is great if you’re not prone to suffering allergies like I am. There were times when I could barely breathe because my nose was dripping like a faucet and my eyes were so itchy I could barely see. Although I had taken a couple of Zyrtec the night before and a couple that morning, I was thinking there wasn’t enough antihistamine in the world to end my suffering. There wasn’t anything to do but to keep going.

Nick and I were chatting (about some random subject) as we entered the first aid station at Kingsbury Road. Tracy was there with my “other” bag containing non-mission-critical stuff like spare socks and a wet towel to wash my face. David Kennedy was there; I asked him how the timing system application I wrote was working (today was it’s first trial) and chatted briefly about it. I surprised myself at how calm and relaxed I felt; I was really enjoying the day so far. I grabbed my drop bag containing more banana bread and Tailwind. I hadn’t used any gels and still had water, so was ready to head-off again with Nick for the next leg, with hardly a break in our conversation from arrival.

Aid #1 exit: 1h24m28s
Avg pace since start: 6:02/km
Predicted finish: 8h15m!

Kingsbury Road to Nth. Dandalup Dam (Aid #2, 30km)

This is the leg of which I am least familiar. I’ve only run it three times, last year, but was surprised about how much I remembered of it. Nick and I were still running together; Martine came passed and then got a little “geographically challenged” so came back to us to avoid getting lost and wasting too much time looking for the course. There were no major climbs in this section, but it’s far from flat. We kept a pretty comfortable pace on the flatter sections and walked the uphills; we flew down some of the descents when we really should have been a bit more cautious, but were more sensible for the majority.

About 21km from the start, there’s a box on the side of the trail containing fresh fruit from a local orchard, placed there by the local landowner. The box has a sign saying the fruit is free for cyclists (the majority users of this track) and although we know it’s ok for runners to grab a mandarin or orange on the way passed, we chatted about how many runners would actually take something not specifically labelled for them and why the landowner might have only mentioned cyclists without referring to walkers or runners. Idle chatter to pass the time, and distract you from the almost continuous beeping from the pace alerts of my watch!

The three of us entered the North Dandalup Dam aid station together. I was feeling fresh and still very strong; we’d run 30km like it was a casual stroll. As I grabbed my supplies, washed my face and reflected with Tracy about how well we were progressing; I knew I was ahead of time, then actually LOOKED at my watch to see how far. I nearly fainted when I saw we were 20minutes ahead of schedule!

Aid #2 exit: 3h05m48s
Avg pace since start: 6:11/km
Predicted finish: 8h28m

Still having fun! Photo by Dave Tams Source: Facebook
Still having fun!
Photo by Dave Tams
Source: Facebook

Nth Dandalup Dam to Whittakers Road Out-and-back (Aid #3, 40km)

Maybe Nick did actually need to re-tape his feet, or maybe he was simply sick of listening to my watch beeping, but he told me not to wait for him when I was ready to set off again. Maybe Martine did need to use the facilities at the Dam, or maybe she was sick of the beeping too? In any case, I was on my own heading up the first hill from the Dam. I could see a couple of runners ahead of me and knew that Martine and Nick were just behind me. I had really enjoyed running in their company for the first 30km today but knew that I really had to concentrate now and get my pace under control else things were going to get ugly, just as they had last year when I did exactly the same thing. Every time I heard my watch beep, I slowed my pace (or I thought I did). I still felt like I was moving easily. I was eating and drinking easily, I was remembering to take my salt tablets; I even warmed up enough to remove my gloves for the final time.

One problem with the pace alerts on the FR620 is that if you exceed the user-set pace by a “small” amount, it will alert, but if you exceed the pace by a “large” amount, the logic in the watch says something like, “you weren’t listening to my alerts when you only exceeding the target pace by a small amount, so I’m going to stop making any more alerts!” For most of the 5km from the Dam to Whittakers Road, the watch was silent because I was running too fast for the alerts to be triggered.

There was a massive crowd at Whittakers Road. It was awesome running towards all these people who were clapping and cheering for you; just like at City to Surf, your pace gets faster and faster when you’re buoyed by this support, and this was really the last thing I needed! I headed out towards Goldmine Hill for the out-and-back section of our course. On the way out, I got to see the runners in front me; they weren’t that far in front and I should have been a lot further back! After my turnaround, I got to see the runners behind me; Martine was running on her own again and looked awesome, Nick was a little ways behind her and still looking strong; Nathan Reeves was in between them. There were some runners on their own, others in groups of two or maybe three. Everyone gave a smile, wave, cheer, or high-five as we crossed paths. Again, my pace increased when I saw runners coming towards me, even though I was trying really hard not to.

I made it into the Whittakers Road aid station and went straight to Tracy who had my bags of goodies. If this was a car race, you could have called this stop a “splash and dash.” With a vest full of food and drink, and a topped up bladder of fresh water, I headed out for the longest unsupported leg of the race, 25km to Oakley Dam.

Aid #3 exit: 4h08m13s
Avg pace since start: 6:12/km
Predicted finish: 8h29m

Arriving at Whittakers Road aid station Photo by Grainne O'Connell
Arriving at Whittakers Road aid station
Photo by Grainne O’Connell

Whittakers Road to Oakley Dam (Aid #4, 66km)

The reason there was such a large crowd at Whittakers Road was because this where both the 50mile and 100mile events were converging, and most of the runners’ supporters were there. Just as I was leaving the aid station, the first of the milers came thundering across Scarp Road, followed by a pack of four, then another one and another. The lead runners were flying! They were a quarter of the way into their event and were moving faster than I (and most of the other 50milers) were running and we were halfway through our distance. I saw runners I knew and tried to shout out my support for them, as they did for me, but in reality it all just turns into noise as you pass each other so quickly; the high-fives always boost the spirit though. I saw Shaun Kaesler and Ben Treasure in the leading group but no Ben Harris?! What had happened? Did Ben have another blowout like at the Perth Marathon, or was he just being awesome and sticking to his race plan regardless of what everyone else was doing? I was starting to ponder this when all of a sudden I get accosted by Michelle Brown who was only seconds behind the lead pack. Michelle was running as part of the only relay team entered in the 100mile event, along with 6 other ladies, collectively known as “those awesome running chicks!” Michelle was at the end of her leg but still looked fresh and strong; she gave me a huge bear-hug and nearly squeezed the stuffing out of me. She turned and skipped off into the distance to handover the relay running duty to Cassie who was waiting at Whittakers Road.

Just as I was entering (the now defunct) Whittakers Mill, I saw Ben running with Logan Vickers, he was smiling and chatting. He shouted out that we had met earlier than anticipated (into his run) so I must be ahead of time; if only he knew! I told him where I had seen the leaders and how far back I thought he was, a high-five as we passed. As the distance between us opened, I could hear him still shouting out something in support. (Ben would finish third, with a new personal best, if there was any doubt.)

I saw some other milers coming through and tried to keep an eye on the trail ahead of me, my watch as I was looking for the 42.2km mark (marathon distance) and see Roger Millet (who was running his first miler after running part of the 50miles with me last year). As luck would have it, all of these things happened pretty much at the same time, I saw Roger running brilliantly and watched the distance tick over to 42.2km in 4h22m (not bad for a trying-to-run-slowly-marathon)… then it happened!

On previous runs, when I start to cramp I got little spasms first, which were manageable for the most part; but this time there was no warning and my right hamstring went from hero to zero in less than a second. Some people call it “shot by a sniper” as one second you’re running along without a care in the world and the next second you’re not. Within a few hobbles the medialis muscle of the left quadricep decided it wanted to cramp too. “Great” I thought, only 40km to the finish and I can barely walk.

Unfortunately, I’ve been in this position before, so it’s a well practised process. Swear. Stop. Stretch and massage. Walk at first, then try to run a little. Swear. Stop. Stretch and massage. I was still moving forwards, and somehow was even maintaining a pretty good pace. I decided now was a pretty good time to finally start looking at my watch(es) and listen to what they were telling me. I tried to put one kilometre in at a time; after completing the previous kilometre I’d walk for one minute then complete the rest of this kilometre before my target pace of 7:00/km had expired. Repeat. Then repeat again. Then it became run when I could, walk when I had to. Trying to run with cramp is not easy. A muscle which is involuntarily contracted doesn’t like being forced to relax. Every stride taken (walking or running) was tearing at the muscle. It was painful. The fun stopped.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get too much worse, my gut decided it wanted to add to my misery; I vomited a couple of times and had to stop a couple more times for #2 in the bush. I had a first-aid kit in my pack which contained toilet paper, which is good for cleaning up after #2 because it is absorbent; but it also absorbs the anti-chafe from between your butt cheeks, which I would learn a lot more about later! Pro tip: take more vaseline!

Who am I kidding? Photo by Shane Holstein Source: Facebook
Who am I kidding? #attemptedsmile #notfoolinganyone
Photo by Shane Holstein
Source: Facebook

I avoided counting the kilometres, distance didn’t matter. The only thing which mattered was the kilometre I was currently in. I kept running and walking as best I could. I was surprised the whole field didn’t come by me as at times I was barely moving, but no-one came passed. I made the road crossings which I used as navigation marks to break up this section of the run, Del Park Road and North Spur Road. I climbed “Conveyor Belt” hill, reminiscing that the previous time I ran up this same hill, was with Didi and Natalie, the wind was behind me and I was having a great day; now I wasn’t. The top of Conveyor Belt hill is the highest point of the course, so I amused myself by affirming that it’s “all downhill from here!”

I was running along Scarp Road towards Oakley Dam when I caught sight of Bryant Burman coming towards me. I knew he was in a podium position when last I saw him. It wasn’t impossible that the first one or two runners could have made it back onto the Munda Biddi trail after visiting the aid station without me seeing them, but Bryant was the first runner I’d seen so hoped for his sake that he was in the lead. WAIT A MINUTE! If Bryant was in the lead, then I was only about 2.5km or less than 20minutes behind! How could that be? My brain was exploding in slow motion; I didn’t know how to process this information. Bryant said there were four runners between himself and me. I knew Martine (even though she had taken a tumble — later diagnosed at A&E after breathing difficulties as torn pectoral muscles and bruising to her ribs!) and Nick were both ahead of me, so at best I was in sixth place! My brain was still exploding in very slow motion. It hurt.

I hobbled down the hill and into the Oakley Dam aid station. Tracy was there and got me sorted out. I was in such a befuddled state that I was just about to head out of the station when one very sharp volunteer noticed I hadn’t topped up my water and proceeded to do that for me; you just gotta love the volunteers! I felt like I needed salt, so grabbed a small handful of crisps. My gut was feeling marginally better, but I hadn’t taken on as much fuel in the last 15km as I should have. It was another 16km to the finish.

Aid #4 exit: 7h24m24s
Avg pace since start: 6:44/km
Predicted finish: 9h12m

Martine
Martine looking awesome leaving Oakley Dam
Photo by Brianna Mouat
Source: Facebook

Oakley Dam to Jarrahdale Finish (82km)

Something in my head wasn’t working properly, I thought I was about 30minutes ahead of clock-time schedule, but because we were about 15 minutes late starting after walking from the hall to the trailhead, I was only actually 17minutes ahead, but I couldn’t reason why. I was tired, I was hurting, I couldn’t run and when I walked I was still cramping. I had 16km to go and was starting to run low on energy and will-power. I was really starting to doubt my ability to finish and was contemplating turning around and heading back down the hill to Oakley Dam.

I looked longingly at my watches as I trudged up the hill from Oakley Dam, wishing them to tell me something useful; just then the FR620 battery died. For whatever reason, this didn’t make things worse; actually, I was happy the f*cking thing was dead as there’d be no more pace alerts telling me I’m going too fast or too slow. This was actually the pick-me-up I needed. I decided I’d not care any more about pace or distance. There was nothing more I could except keep going forwards at the best speed I could manage. “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”

I was in agony. Just about every muscle fibre in both of my legs had been torn, stretched, damaged or otherwise abused. My arms were tired from doing so much work trying to keep me balanced. A couple of times, I managed a pretty good jog and giggled thinking that my FR620 should have been beeping at me, relishing the thought that it was dead! Beck Hefferon (second female finsher) and Nathan Reeves came by me but I overtook (?) who, earlier, had taken quite a nasty fall. I knew Ian North couldn’t have been far behind, but I wasn’t racing him, I was racing me and the clock. I entered the final stretch of the course, nicknamed the “Marrinup Maze”; it’s a scenic section through some forest and passed a couple of camp-grounds. The smell of sausages cooking was enticing, but the wood fire smoke was less so. I’m not completely au fait with the Maze with regard to distance, but I still refused to look at my watch. I had no idea of exactly how far I had to go or whether the sub-9h30m finish was still possible; it didn’t matter. I was walking as fast as I could, running was now impossible, or so I thought. I saw a small sign on the side of the trail which said, “1km to go!” There was no way I was going to walk across the finish, so I started trotting as best as I could. I sneaked a glance at the elapsed time on my watch and it read 9h28m. Through the trees, I could see the cabins near the finish line. I rounded the final bend and “sprinted” to the finish; it wasn’t pretty, but I finished. 9h32m45s according to my watch; ninth position overall.

46minute personal best Photo by Thomas Grober Source: Facebook
46minute personal best
Photo by Thomas Grober
Source: Facebook

I sat at the finish line with the medal which Dave Kennedy had slung around my neck. I didn’t really know what to do or think. It didn’t matter anyway as I couldn’t do anything, no matter what I thought. I was stuffed! It didn’t take long before I started to get very cold, so I hobbled inside WTF Race HQ (cabin #1) to grab a quick shower and change into warm, dry clothes. The hardest part of post-race showering is removing compression calf-guards; a task made completely impossible when you cannot stand on one leg nor make it to the floor without further injury. I showered with mine on and removed them later. After, I joined the rest of the runners and supporters outside to cheer home those who finished behind me. With some chocolate, a beer and some friends we watched the next few runners achieve their finishes. Everyone is welcomed as a champion. You just have to love this ultra-running community.

Aftermath

Two days later, I’m still sore but I can walk. I have no strength in my quads and have to use my arms to help sitting in a chair and standing from that chair. My calf muscles feel pretty good, but my hamstrings are still a little twitchy. ITBs are very tight but rolling them is too painful, so I’ll leave them alone for another couple of days. I thought I might lose one toenail, but it looks much better today.