Who’s to blame?

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2018 Australia Day Ultra Marathon

Ultra #8

Saturday, 20 January 2017

I’ve been carrying a hamstring injury all through 2017 and although it’s much better since getting platelet rich plasma (PRP) injections directly into the tendon, it’s still not 100% so I’ve not been able to run on any surfaces other than flat roads/paths for a really long time (except for Six Inch Marathon in December which was a trail marathon with hills!) The many, many miles stomped out on boring, flat paths and roads in 2017 was all leading me to one place though, Australind, specifically for this event.

My training had been good. I felt like I’d done enough to be able to finish, upright under my own steam, in a time better than 2017 (10h50m); but, could I go under ten hours? I’d been running for the last three months using a heart rate monitor and keeping the pace slow and easy, hour after hour; I’d done very little speed work and no cross-training or gym work. I was worried I wouldn’t have the capacity to maintain the required pace for 100km to achieve a sub-10hour finish. Another worry was that I’d done very little running at the “slow” 6:00/km pace required for the event and was worried that if I fell into my natural pace that I’d repeat my 2017 experience and “explode” in the second half of the distance after going too hard in the first half.

The race starts just a few minutes after midnight on Saturday morning, so the Friday was spent finalising every aspect; getting all the hydration and nutrition sorted out, first-aid and “just-in-case” medical supplies, a tent and table for the personal aid station, camp stretcher and sleeping bags for Tracy etc. I tried to have a nap in the afternoon, but the universe and the telephone conspired against me and I only managed a few minutes of actual sleep, although I did lay on the bed for an hour or so. Tracy got home from work and I packed everything into the car. The casual onlooker may have thought we were going away for a month: there were two eskys, a bag containing during the run clothes, another for immediately after the run clothes, another bag for the rest of the weekend clothes, a large plastic box with everything for the personal aid station as well as the camping equipment. I kept drinking water and electrolytes, and ate a couple more small bowls of pasta over the next few hours, showered and taped my feet, got dressed and then wandered around aimlessly until finally it was time to leave for the 90 minute drive to Australind.

On arriving at the start/finish area on the Australind foreshore, there were a few tents already set up, but less than last year. Ron, Alexis and the event team were scurrying around adding the final touches to the race preparations, but there was a calmness that was quite reassuring. A few of the 100km runners were there already; some were laying out their supplies at their personal aid station or adding to the communal aid station, some were pacing up and back as a sort of warmup, some were just standing around quietly talking about what lay ahead. I had a quick chat with Tony Smith, there’s just something about Tony that builds your confidence. I had a fun gab with Gary Wilmont who’d be manning an aid station this year but was passionate about giving the 100km event a crack next year. I checked in and received my bib number and timing transponder; shit suddenly gets very real when you put these on. Alexis delivered a race-conduct and safety briefing before stating that we’d be starting at 00:05 which was in five minutes time. The runners meandered to the start corral and got semi-sorted; faster runners to the front, slower runners towards the rear of the pack.

There were some people who were going to be pushing very hard during the race. Richard Avery (exceptional runner and all-around-nice-guy) was planning an assault on 7 hours in his comeback from injury (www.richardavery.co.nz) in order to qualify for World Championships. Bernadette Benson, all sorts of world, Canadian and Australian records holder for all sorts of crazy running, was going to be there to have a crack at adding some more records to her already very impressive résumé. Kevin “Big Kev” Matthews, Tony Smith and Jon Pendse would be racing hard for the men’s crown, as would Marg Hadley for the women’s event. Further back in the field were a few runners having another go at the distance, some seeking to improve their personal bests and some just to do it again because running 100km is “fun”. There were a few “virgins” toeing the line for the first time, some blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead!

If you weren’t focused on your watch to see that it was precisely five minutes past midnight, it might have been a bit of a surprise when Alexis shouted out with no warning or fanfare, “3… 2… 1… GO!” Of course, the front runners surged off the line into the darkness as they had to get into their ridiculously fast pace early if they were to break their records; my job was not to go buster off the start line but to gently build to my required pace and go no faster. I had my pace alert set at 5:50/km and I promised myself I would stick to it.

I was hoping there would be some sort of “bus” of runners all aiming to finish in the same time which I could join, but in such a small field it wasn’t going to happen, so I had prepared myself early to run the entire distance solo. As the field sorted itself out into the “proper” running order, I could hear familiar voices but there were no faces in the midnight black. Eventually the voices would become silent, either as the conversations were dropped to save energy and concentrate on the task at hand, or just became too distant to hear. As much as everyone was trying to conserve energy for the race, just about every time the runners crossed on the out-and-back course, there were a few words of encouragement exchanged. It’s a great feeling when someone like Richard Avery is belting passed you in the opposite direction at 4:12/km pace (or thereabouts) yells out, “Great work”, or “Keep going Scott” etc. Just about all of the runners voiced some support; it didn’t matter if you were at the front of the race or the back; on the first lap or the last lap. The mutual support which exists in this running community is exceptional.

Runners in the dark
Runners in the dark
Photo: Matt Byles
Source: Facebook

I had a plan to run the first four laps, breaking each lap into the (about) 6km “out” section and the “back” section; then in the second half, breaking each lap into (about) 3km sections: start to “Aid 2”, Aid 2 to the turn, the turn back to Aid 2, and then finally Aid 2 to the start/finish. I was pretty happy with my pacing, although there times when the pace alerts were sounding and I’d look at the watch and it showed an ok pace? Eventually, I figured the trees at the far end of the course was interfering with the devices and I was getting spurious alerts, so basically ignored these and only checked on my kilometre by kilometre lap times. Just as I passed through 50km in about 4h53m (well within the zone I was aiming for) I realised that I had not yet taken a walk-break and this was the furthest distance I had ever run without a walk-break. Every time I passed an aid station point, I added another 3km to my longest ever run without a break score. (I walked through the aid stations as I had to drink from a plastic cup and/or get my “housekeeping” in order i.e. re-pack fuel belts etc., but otherwise I was running.) Some time before the event my Dad had asked about how far I’d actually run in a 100km running event; I didn’t have a complete answer then, but I do now, 100km!

The vollies at the aid stations were exceptional, tending to every need with calm enthusiasm. Gary was at Aid 2 and all I had to do was shout, “Water please,” as I approached from either direction and Gary would appear by the side of the course with two cups of water and some quiet encouragement for me. Alex Pattison was at Aid 3 for the majority of the event and offered similar fabulous support (as did all the attendants as they did their shifts at their respective stations). At the start/finish, I’d grab water from the communal table and drink this whilst hiking to Tracy at my personal station. Tracy was asleep for laps 2 and 3 but I’d laid everything out in such a fashion as to be self-sufficient if I needed, but Shirley Treasure in the next tent offered support in lieu as well.

At 03:00, the 50km event started as I was heading towards the start/finish area on lap 3. Suddenly there was a burst of headlamps coming straight at me, fast! An eastern states runner, Wayne Spies, was leading the pack and was flying. Each time he passed or we crossed, he shouted out some encouragement, as did Bryant Burman, Chris Lark, Clare Wardle, Emma Luscombe and the other blobs of white light! It wasn’t until the dawn that you could actually identify each runner and attach a name to your support calls, “Great work Chris” or “Looking good Emma, keep going!” etc. The 25km event started at 06:00 and I missed seeing Bev Andrews immediately after her start as she must have been buried in the throng, but I saw her each other crossing as she powered to a new PB. There is a documented effect that runners will increase speed when they see another runner approaching, so I was mindful to keep a close eye on my pace as the course became “crowded” with the three events. Eventually, the majority of the 50km and 25km runners would finish (or sadly, withdraw) and the number of runners on the course began to decrease, which made concentrating just that little bit easier.

I had run 70km without a walk-break when the first twinges of cramp started in my injured right hamstring. I chugged down a bottle of Pickle Juice and it worked almost straight away. Looking back at the GPS recording of the event, this was about the point when my pace noticeably slowed, but I was still ahead of time and still moving forwards. At about 90km I had another cramp starting on my left side, so swigged another bottle of Pickle Juice. Unfortunately, this cramp was going to be too much for the little bottle of miracle-liquid and I feared the cramp was going to take over and ruin my last ditch effort to finish strongly. I changed my gait slightly and eventually the twinges subsided, but I was mindful that I was close to the limit, but with “not far” to go.

To finish first, first you must finish

Inside the final 3 laps, at each end of the course I was doing the maths about how much time I could afford to give back and still finish in under 10 hours. Every time I did a computation, I felt happier and more confident as the pace required got slower and slower. At the start of the final lap, after 8h40m of non-stop running, my (fuzzy) maths said I had 80 minutes to go 12 kilometres, requiring an average pace of about 6:40/km and I was still moving relatively easily at about 6:00/km; at the final turn, the required pace was almost 7:00/km. It was hard to keep focus; there was no room for complacency because the 100km distance will destroy you at any sign of weakness.

The brutality of this distance had already been demonstrated that day. Richard Avery lapped me just as I was approaching the end turn at about 2.5 laps, meaning he should have lapped me again at about 5 laps completed for me and that should be the last time he laps me as he’d be finished before he got the next opportunity. I was coming into the end turn halfway through my fourth lap when I see Richard standing there, eating. I was a confused. He was flying earlier and should have been quickly approaching me from behind and now I was overtaking him? Distance running is just as much a mental exertion test as a physical exertion test (some might argue that it’s more mental than physical, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time). Richard broke; his day was done at 4 laps completed (50km) after just 3 ½ hours. The results page shows it took him over 90 minutes to complete lap 5.

I first met Chris Knott around 1987, and then ran into him again a few years ago. He’s a very accomplished marathon runner and had decided to give the 100km distance a crack at this event. I’d chatted with him online a few days before, he said he’d been training at maintaining a 5:00/km pace and was hoping to keep that pace during his first attempt. I was a little gobsmacked, but he’s seriously fit and focused, so I wasn’t going to put it to him that maybe he was reaching a little high. At the times I saw him during the race, he was flying! He had opened his hi-vis vest and it flapped like a cape, so he was recognisable from a distance, even during the dark hours when everyone was just a white blob of light heading towards you. He smiled and shouted out, hardly puffing. During lap 6, everything unravelled for him. Even though he was now badly hurting, as we crossed at the turn, he shouted that I was catching him and to keep going. I overtook him on lap 7 when he was off the course (using the toilet) and I was very surprised to see him behind me at the next end turn. Chris finished in about 11 ¼ hours.

Ben Treasure (of WTF Treasure Island and Six Inch Aid 1 fame) was running sensationally well. He was aiming to better his 100km time and (I think) well on track to do it, for the first six laps. At the end of the course, I was closer than at the previous turn. He was hurting, but like Chris shouted for me to keep my effort going and catch him. He found a second (3rd? 4th? 5th?) wind and ran a great final lap so I was unable to chase him down before the finish.

The “demise” of these awesome runners and wonderful people was a real wake up to me as I was plodding through my miles. If these guys (and some of the ladies blew up too) can succumb to this distance, then I must be very close too? During the morning, I had been though a dark patch and started wondering why I was out there when I could have been… well, anywhere else. I remembered a quote:

When you’re standing on the deck of the Titanic, do you look down at the icy waters, or do you look up at the bright stars?

At that moment, I looked up and saw the trail of a satellite as it passed overhead. Maybe the runners who succumbed looked down once too many times? I was really hopeful I was not going to be one.

To the end

The last lap was uneventful and I chuckled to myself about an old submarining mantra, “Boring is good.” It means that nothing is going wrong, so I could just knuckle under and get the final kilometres done. I kept a close watch on my pace and was mindful not to throw away the effort of the previous nine hours of continuous running. After passing through Aid 2 for the final time and getting my last cups of water from Gary, I thanked the team there for their support and started to gently increase the pace for a final push to the finish. I don’t know why I did this, because in the grand scheme of things, I only gained a few seconds and it hurt… I mean it really hurt! I’d been running at a constant pace all day, but now for no good reason I had started a “sprint”. I looked up to see the finish gantry, and Tracy standing just on the finishing side. The race clock showed 9 hours 50 something minutes as I came through the aid stations. I was elated! I stopped my watch at just under 9 hours 54 minutes, a PB of almost 56 minutes on my 2017 time. 8th place overall (6th male). Alexis slung my bling around my neck, which almost pulled me over!

Alexis presenting me with bling
Alexis presenting me with bling

If you build it, they will come

Ron, Shaun, Alexis and all the other dedicated behind-the-scenes people work their asses off to put on a brilliant event; for us runners to head out into the dark, to push themselves to breaking point, to discover what “too much” means, how far is “too far” is and what it’s like to be “at the limit”. Is anyone to blame for all this pain and suffering? Do we blame the race team? If they didn’t build it, I’d be able to walk up stairs today. If no-one came, there’d be no point in building such a great event.

I guess we are equally to blame; them for making it, us for doing it? Maybe I’ll have the answer after next year?

There is no sugar coating which makes running 50km or 100km palatable. If you’re ever going to attempt it, you do have to be just a little bit crazy (it might not actually help, but it certainly wont hinder). (IMHO) There is no better event to cut your ultra-running teeth on than this event.

Reward
Reward

There were a lot of personal best times set today, across all the race distances. There were some Australian and overseas national records set too, and some times which may earn those runners positions on national teams. The race directors are still finalising the data and scrutinising the event timing system to make sure all of the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but check the results page in a day or two for the complete set of results: 2018 Australia Day Ultra 25/50/100 km results