War and Peace

2018 Runningworks Lark Hill 50km Ultra Marathon

Ultra #9

Saturday, 03 March 2018

To understand my place in this year’s Lark Hill 50km, we need to re-visit the 2017 event (for which I didn’t write a report, sorry).

First, a little about the event. Just behind the Lark Hill Sporting Complex in Port Kennedy, south of Rockingham (even further south of Perth) is a bushland area with a few loops of compacted limestone trail and 360m of soft sand (Marnie: I measured this on Google Earth!) . Race Director, Dave Kennedy (of Six Inch and WTF fame) thought it’d be a bit of a giggle to send out runners to do 3km laps at night; 8 (and a bit) laps for 25km, 17 laps for just over 50km, or 34 laps for 100+km. There’s no real hills per se, but each lap starts with a 4m (or so) descent from the windmill/start/finish/aid/camp area and then “fundulates” for almost the entire loop, and then back up the 4m to complete the lap; the only flat section is through the sand. It’s not a fast course and it does deserve some respect; just how much was a lesson I’d learn, twice.

2017 — A ball of string

On the Thursday night before the event, I was sitting with Tracy at home, thinking about what events I’d do later in the year. She suggested I do events I hadn’t completed before and then mentioned that I hadn’t done Lark Hill. She mentioned it again, and again. To avoid hearing that I hadn’t run Lark Hill before, again, I signed up for the 50km event in two days time. It’s only 50km, what could possibly go wrong?!

The long weekend arrived; Saturday was a hot day at the end of a hot week. The kids race is a prelude to the silly distance events which kick off at 19:00. As I arrived at the start area, the kids were well into their 45minute race. I’d done a little bit of planning for my hydration and nutrition but as I looked at these sweaty and red-faced kids, I began to wonder if I’d done enough. Tracy was away for the weekend, so I lugged all my stuff from the car and got set up; I’d never had to be my own aid station before as I’d always had Tracy to hand me my stuff. As I laid out my personal needs at the aid area, I wondered again if I had brought enough fuel and hydration, but then thought, “Meh, it’s only 50km.” I didn’t know it, but the first thread started to unravel from my ball of string before I’d even started.

It was about 37°C and lots-percent humidity. I sweat profusely in the best of conditions, but this night was going to be something else. We started out into the dusk, my shirt was saturated by the time I got to the bottom of the drop from the windmill; total distance travelled, about 60 metres. I had a plan to finish in under five hours, requiring a pace around 6:00/km. All three events (25, 50 and 100km) start together, so there’s a bit of a rush from the start by the shorter course runners. I couldn’t tell who was running in what event so just tried to keep to my own pace and do my own thing but still, I started way too quickly. Another thread started unwinding.

That’s basically how the night progressed for the first 20km or so of the race; I ran too fast, sweated too much, and didn’t replenish enough. In the 25km and 50km events, we weren’t allowed pacers, but Didi and Ben were out and about on the course, running along with a few runners who they wanted to support. It was great to have them spend some part of a lap with you as they were a great distraction from the monotony of a 3km loop. I think it was on lap 7 (18-21km) that I started having stomach troubles. I started dry retching as I was running, this is not a pleasant experience at all. At the end of the lap, back at the aid station, I took a sip of Tailwind from my supplies and it immediately came back up. I tried another sip and it too immediately reappeared. This did not bode well; it was still very hot and humid and I couldn’t keep fluid down. I took a handheld bottle of water and headed back onto the course for another lap. More threads began to unravel.

Somewhere in lap 8 (21-24km) the lack of fluids and nutrition started to bite, my pace slowed but I was still running. I kept moving forwards as best I could; run, retch, run some more, retch some more; try to drink some plain water, spew. On and on. In lap 10 (27-30km) I took my first unplanned, unwanted walk break. I was cooked. I was hurting. I was sick. I was only just over half way.

Some time later, Didi reappeared and ran alongside for a bit. I think I put on a brave face, but I really was hurting and struggled to keep even with her as she easily trotted along. Had I been paying proper attention to some of the things I should have been noticing, I should have seen I had almost stopped sweating. My shirt was still mostly wet, but dry patches were beginning to appear. I wasn’t going up the little rises on the course well, and was going down the descents just as poorly. My form had gone and my legs were hurting, running and walking. Lack of hydration and my inability to keep my liquid nutrition down meant that I was regularly cramping and experiencing all sorts of muscle spasms; basically, I was a mess, and “only” had 20km or so to go! By now, I didn’t even where my ball of string was.

Amongst the things I wasn’t noticing was, there weren’t many runners around. Of course, the 25km runners had finished their event, but there just wasn’t as many runners as there should have been. I went for really long spells without overtaking a 100km runner or being passed by another 50km runner (or even the 100km leaders!) I remember seeing the occasional headlamp in the distance and crossing the occasional runner near the start/finish, but was quite alone on the course (except when Didi or Ben popped in). The laps went by; I was still dry retching and running beyond my limit. Didi and Ben had headed home as it was nearly midnight, I was alone for long spells. With two laps to go, I was cramping badly so was downing anti-cramp drinks and tablets, but they didn’t hang around in my gut long enough to do much good. A few people had said that I’d feel better if I could actually vomit instead of dry retching — they were wrong as I felt like absolute crap when I did eventually physically spew instead of retching all the time.

After what seemed like an eternity, I ascended the hill to the windmill for the last time and crossed the finish line. I knew I had missed my target time ages ago, so didn’t even look at the timing clock at the finish gantry or my watch. I went directly to my chair and sat there. Alexis came over to me and said “Congratulations, you got third!” and slung a medal around my neck. I threw up, narrowly missing his feet. WTF!? WT actual F?! THIRD?! I said there must have been a mistake in the timing as there were so many runners in front of me. Alexis said that many of the 50km runners had pulled out or stopped after 25km as the conditions were so tough and reiterated that I had earned a podium place. WOW! I think I threw up again.

I sat there, dumbfounded for a while and then started making plans about getting home. I packed up my stuff, bade farewell to everyone camping out to bring the other runners home and started the long, long walk back to the car with all my gear. I was very tired, felt really ordinary and had blurred vision (I blamed the salty sweat in my eyes) so driving for 45minutes home may not have been the best decision, but I was hardly in any shape to make good decisions by this stage… somehow I made it home. It was nearly 02:00 and still 30+°C.

I weigh myself before and after most runs. As I was about to get into the shower, I stepped onto the bathroom scales and read that my weight was a lot less than the previous evening but just how much didn’t register right away. As I was washing off the encrusting salt, the stink and the dirt, my brain revisited the weight and weight loss; I had lost about 7% of my pre-race body weight, clinically way beyond “ordinary” dehydration and into the “severe” category. No wonder I felt like crap — all the signs and symptoms were there had I simply looked for them. (I later found out that at many ultras they weigh runners at the aid stations, looking for dangerous/abnormal fluid retention, or dehydration; some events using cognition tests instead, in any case I would have failed this monitoring/testing and been scrubbed from most of these events.)

My stomach and core muscles were sore from all the dry heaving and vomiting but got better within a few days. Eventually, I summoned up the courage and looked at my time: 5h17m. I had lost 1minute per lap against my target time, or 20seconds per kilometre. There’s an old running saying that for every ten seconds too fast in the first half, you’ll be twenty seconds slower in the second half. I was actually worse; I had run about 1 minute per lap faster than target for the first half, and then 3 minutes per lap slower than target pace in the second half

The other legacy from the event was a torn hamstring, suffered by running too hard for too long with cramp. Over a year later, I am still suffering with this injury.

2018 — Mojo lost

So that brings us to this year’s race. I had a brilliant Australia Day 100km Ultra Marathon event, which might have added to the undoing of the lessons I should have learned from 2017; after-all, it’s only 50km. The weather was not going to be as hot or humid as 2017, but I did add a little extra fuel and hydration to my “normal” plan. I certainly wasn’t feeling excited about the prospect of running 50km so soon after the 100km, even though I did it 2017. Although the event was in my training plan, if it weren’t for the pre-race email which Dave Kennedy sent out on the Monday before, I might have forgotten about the event entirely? Let’s just say, before the event my enthusiasm was low.

I arrived in good time to the start area, at the same time a Richard Back who was running the 25km event. It was nice to catch up with him especially because he’s always so relaxed, some might even say he’s blasé about his running events. There was a large SRR (Secret Rockingham Runners) encampment at the start/finish area and they were rowdy supporters of the kids 45minute race which was well underway when I arrived. Happily, the kids didn’t look as flushed or fatigued as the previous year, proving the conditions on the course weren’t nearly as bad.

After the kids had finished, Race Director Dave Kennedy gathered up the runners as best he could for the briefing. A few of the SRR contingent disrespectfully continued their boisterousness through the safety briefing, much to the chagrin of the RD and others. Afterwards, we were invited to the start and after a short countdown to 19:00 we were off.

I had a number of goals this year: finish, upright and uninjured, in a better time than 2017 and under five hours, and if I could, under 4h42m. I started near the front of the pack cognisant the 25km runners would be charging off the line. Shaun Kaesler was aiming for an impressive time and Clare Wardle was in the mix too, so I was very careful not to get sucked along in their wake.

I had my pace alerts set on my watch and I was determined to abide by them; an intention that didn’t even make it through the first lap! I was running behind a group of SRRs who were three abreast, chatting loudly and weaving along the trail. On the first lap, the 25km runners take a detour to get their required distance whilst the 50km and 100km runners do the full loop of the 3km course. I was expecting the group of three to be in the 25km event and waited for them to turn, but they didn’t. Bugger! These people were either in my 50km event or the 100km event. They ran just ahead of me, and each time I got a little closer to them, they sped up just a little. I really wanted to settle into my own pace and space, but they were in it and I was started to get a little grumpy, after just 3km. Eventually, in lap 2 (3-6km) I got through and settled to find my own rhythm.

From the very start, my right hamstring started to niggle. I was not sure whether it was a psychosomatic hangover from last year or whether it was the genuine injury becoming apparent again. I thought I’d give it a few laps to warm-up properly and then reassess if it was going to be an issue. After a couple of laps, it did indeed warm-up but it remained a little sore and I was reminded of its presence and injury history on every incline.

Although it was after sunset, the light from nearby sports complex was sufficient to illuminate most sections of the course; in lap 3, the full moon would rise. I carried my headlamp, but didn’t use it as I was enjoying running in the murky light. Sometimes, a faster runner with a “portable sun” for a headlamp would come up from behind and I’d watch my own shadow as they came by. Sometimes, I’d come up behind a slower runner and use the light from their headlamp for a moment as I passed. Some people are aware of headlamp “etiquette” but there were a lot of runners who weren’t: the proper thing to do when you see another runner approaching and you’re wearing a headlamp is to look down and a little bit to the left (we run on the left of the trail) to avoid blinding the oncoming runner — you certainly don’t look them in the face! Many times, I’d be coming up behind a slower runner and they’d turn around and look at you square in the face with their “portable sun” headlamp! I was starting to getting more grumpy.

I was minutes ahead of where I should have been and was still running well. I was running by myself for the entire night, only the incessant beeping of my too-fast pace alert keeping me company. My body felt good, my nutrition and hydration were good; my brain just wanted to be somewhere else. I am often my own worst critic, my own worst enemy and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t make peace with myself or the event. I was running too fast and I knew it, but I didn’t have to put in any effort… yet.

Adding to my grumpiness were runners wearing earbud headphones. I’d come up from behind a say, “Passing on your right” but they’d not hear me. I’d shout the message again and some might hear but some wouldn’t; sometimes you’d have brush past or barge through to get them out of the way which is good for neither the overtaking nor the overtaken. We were on a closed trail so there was no danger from traffic, but I thought it completely disrespectful of other runners. </soapbox>

Needless to say, I’m not having the best night out by this stage. I was counting off the laps and was looking forward to hitting 8 ½ laps i.e. the halfway point of the event. I was running along, planning how I was going to celebrate and then by the time I got there I had completely forgotten about it! I found myself back at the start/finish having completed another lap. I was determined this time to focus on hitting the 10 laps completed mark, but again missed it when I got there; I had to check the distance recorded on my watch to discover I was already into lap 12. That’s when whatever was left of my running mojo completely vanished.

My body was still strong. I was still running too fast but easily. My brain did not want to be there. If someone had said to me, “Quit” I would have, without even thinking about it. I could think of a million things to do instead of what I was doing right then. The only motivation I could find to keep going was a (metaphorical) small spark in a pile of wet, green leaves; there was little chance of this erupting into a raging fire of excitement any time soon. Sometimes though, that’s enough.

I decided I’d do a 5minute run/1 minute schedule for a lap to see if my mood would lighten. I was well ahead on time, so could afford to give a little back. The plan… failed. I was just as unmotivated two laps later. Then something happened which helped me regain much of my focus; my legs started to hurt. My right hamstring had been troublesome for the entire 14 laps completed so far, but now my quads and glutes were starting to feel the pressure of going too hard for too long too soon. Oddly, my pain helped my resolve to finish. I maintained the 5/1 run walk, partly to keep the motivation going and partly to give my legs a break, but it meant that I’d not finish in under 4h42m.

Shaun Kaesler had passed me in lap 5 of 17; he hadn’t come passed again. Did he bonk? Where was he? I tried to remember to have a look towards his chair at the start/finish to see if he had withdrawn, but every time I got to the aid station I got so engrossed in getting myself sorted out that I forgot to look over and see. I thought another 50km might have come passed early in the night with a group of the 25km runners, but in the dark it was hard to tell one runner from another. Only some of the 25km runners such as Chris, Kim and Rochelle were the exceptions as they stormed by me several times. I started having dreams of grandeur, pulling a “Bradbury” like in 2017 where I managed podium position because everyone else ahead quit in the horrible conditions. That motivational spark got a little bit brighter.

So there I was, still moving forwards with “not far” to go when I hear footsteps from behind. I’m in the run phase of my run/walk and I’m now having to work hard to maintain any sort of decent pace when Margie Hadley pulls up alongside. She’s in the 100km event and lapping me, again. I pant to her that she’s running well and looking strong — I’m not lying either, she’s a machine! Margie is supportive and enthusiastic, but she’s also white-liar because compared to her flawless gait and effortless style, I looked like a bag of crap; she wasn’t even breathing hard or sweating. She reciprocates my comments to her and tells me that I’m running well. When you’re already feeling pretty fragile, over-pained and under-whelmed, there’s nothing like getting lapped again by someone running twice the distance to deflate whatever is left of your motivation, despite how awesome they are. I finish lap 15 and for the first time, really considered quitting, with only a couple of laps to go. It was a real low point.

I had passed through the half-marathon distance in under 2 hours, which was a milestone I wanted to meet. I passed through the marathon distance in under 4 hours, which was another milestone I wanted to meet. I had 6 kilometres to go and could not see any reason to keep going. I took a drink at my aid station and washed some of the salt from my face, forgot to look at Shaun’s chair again and started arguing with myself the pros and cons of finishing. Pro: you’ll feel better about yourself if you get it done. Con: you’ve got to go back out there and do it. Etc. Etc. I’m just about to decide that the cons have won and I’m going to quit when I realise that whilst my brain has been arguing with itself, my legs have carried me to the far end of the course!

I’d been running all night without my headlamp switched on, except for running along the sand section where I’d seen a few runners trip on some rocks or small plants which have started popping up in the middle of the path (it’s actually supposed to be a firebreak, so I’ll assume they will be dealt with before long). I somehow found myself on the penultimate crossing of the sands when I see another runner trip just ahead. I help her get to feet and running again, bending over to help her twinged my legs; it was hard to get running again and it started another battle between my brain and body.

I finished the lap and stood at the aid station table. I downed a Pickle Juice to see if that would help my legs; they weren’t actually cramping, they were just very fatigued and sore… it doesn’t help. I headed out on the last lap, still on my 5/1 routine. I thought I could give it all on the final lap and omit the walk breaks, but then remembered Australia Day Ultra where a “sprint” finish gained seconds but cost lots of unnecessary extra pain; I decided I’d stick with the 5/1 routine to the end. I beat the five hours goal, but was hardly elated. I learned that Shaun had a stellar run, winning the event but missing his main goal. Clare Wardle had finished just a few minutes before me, first female in 5th place overall. I was sixth overall.

4:53:32 (50.99km)

On the drive home, I got to thinking more about what happened. Distance running is a strange thing: Not many people actually race as there more to it than “simply” winning. It’s about being your best and doing your best. On the day, if your best is better than everyone else’s best then you “win” a prize, otherwise, you come away knowing you did your best. I’m OK with this. But what about days when you don’t give it the best of which you know you’re capable?

I thought long and hard about maintaining respect for the distance. I believe these last two Lark Hill “failures” have been because I lacked the proper respect for 50 night trail kilometres following the ADU 100km events. There’s no such thing as “only” 50km here (or anywhere).

I love running long distances; there’s the challenge to overcome the tough moments, but there’s a certain peaceful quality about it, most times. Tonight was not one of those times; it was a horrible conflict from which I was lucky to escape with a finish, albeit with a 23minute event personal best.