What do you eat?

I’ve been asked by a few people what it is I eat, both in my races and in every day life. This question always kinda makes me baulk for a few reasons. The first is that my relationship with food hasn’t always been a healthy one, there were many years where I binged on food as an emotional replacement, as a reward and I also restricted food as punishment. The other is that I find the discussions around athletes and food confusing to say the least. We are bombarded with so many things we should eat, things we need more of, less of, shouldn’t eat etc. I’ll be the first to admit I listen intently to what my running idols eat, but thankfully, my relationship with food has changed to the point where I feel comfortable with how I do things and the most that will happen is I will find a new way to eat something and not go into a full blown overhaul of my everyday diet and racing nutrition in the hope of yielding better results. That was something I tried in the past. It just doesn’t work.

So, where to start. Both my everyday and race nutrition have been a long, slow evolution which is still always changing. What works for a while doesn’t necessarily hold forever. I am also always reading and learning and will try new things, some stick and become the norm, others are thrown to the side after a few weeks, some I read and just think “nup, not even going to go there!”.

Everyday Food

My everyday diet now is what I would call pretty normal. I eat a lot of different stuff, mostly unprocessed. I was vegetarian for a good ten years of my life but before I had kids I started eating meat again. When I first started running, in the throes of trying to lose weight and get “healthy” I went low-fat and then went low-carb in the extreme sense but both were unsustainable for me. I have learnt a lot about different carbohydrates, different fats, sugars, vitamins and minerals but I am also aware that I have barely scratched the surface and most of you reading this will know just as much as me, if not more. I do tend to err on the side of low-carb which makes some of my meals a bit different to what the rest of the family is eating. For example if we are having spaghetti bolognaise instead of pasta I will have a bowl of baby spinach, capsicum, mushrooms and whatever else takes my fancy, with cheese and bolognaise sauce. Similarly for curry, I have salad with curry over the top. If its a big training week I might add 1/4cup of pasta or rice to the mix, but I don’t have any hard or fast rules. Our family meal plan is pretty stock standard. Breakfasts tend to be eggs of some form, with veg and occasionally toast or my other go to is yoghurt with fruit and granola. Lunches are leftovers, soups or salads, although the occasional cheese toasty will creep in in winter (cheese toasties are a weakness of mine). Dinner is meat and salad/veg, curry, stir-fry, ‘pasta’, burgers and all the usual fare that you make because you know at least 2 of the 3 children will eat it!

Race Day Fuelling

My race nutrition has also been a learning process. In the depths of my low-fat/low-carb time I did races where I only used honey and dates for fuel and had water with coconut water, lime juice and salt added to it in my hydration pack. I know now that this probably what contributed to some pretty epic lows out there on the trail which saw me death marching as a blubbering mess. I have tried gels, I have a real problem with even swallowing them without gagging so gave up on those pretty quick. There have been various electrolyte drinks and food combinations. I have done calorie challenges to try and work out just how much I can stomach on the run, that was possibly one of the grossest things I have ever done. I have also had epic fails of nutrition and body management which has seen me on the side of the trail hurling my guts up quite spectacularly numerous times (you can read my UTA report involving that if thats something you want to hear about!).

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My sports hydration of choice

My current nutrition is all about variety. I use TrailBrew (a hydration, electrolyte and energy drink) in bottles in the front of my pack so I can monitor my intake and make sure I am getting enough calories. I have water in my hydration bladder as well, so I can drink to thirst. I also eat a lot of different solid foods. My strategy is to eat and drink small amounts every ten minutes, throughout the entire race or training run. On any training run that is 3hrs or longer I do this, to practise and to make sure my body is on board with the way I am doing things and the foods I am eating. I have a lot of different options because what is palatable 2hrs into a race may not be at 20 or 30hrs in. So what do I eat? For my recent race at Alpine Challenge I had about 5 different flavours of Clif Bar (Choc Almond Fudge is my favourite) but by half way through my race they tasted like sand and I was struggling to swallow them, despite rotating through my other options as well. I found the same thing happened at Northburn, so now they are relegated to early on in the race nutrition, yet another evolution. As a side note, I was so over them that the next morning after my race I practically through my leftover (unopened) Clif Bars at my pacer, Kirsten, as I didn’t even want to look at them. The rest of my race food is made up into ziploc bags of food portioned for an hours worth of calories, usually divided into 6 pieces to have over an hour – the less thinking I have to do about what I’m needing to take in out there the better!

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Nutrition for 100 miles for me

For Alpine Challenge those bags had apple slices (added to the mix after having an apple from an aid station high up on Cromwell Station during Northburn), fresh pineapple pieces (I stole that idea from my friend Liv), potato chips (the food that settled my stomach at UTA), Vegimite and butter on white bread with no crusts (I crave salt in latter stages of the race), Vegimite, avocado and lime juice wraps (its a weird combo but it works!), Snickers (they really satisfy!), Mars Bars (they help you work, rest and play) and M&M’s. I tend to leave the chocolates for the latter stages of the races, they give me something to look forward to food wise and they are great for when I really need a sugar hit. I also carry jelly beans, in case I need a real quick sugar boost but can’t bare to eat chocolate (it has happened!). I will also use bits and pieces of aid station food and on the really long races my crew has food for me that isn’t portable. I have had mouthfuls of noodles, clear chicken soup (salty and delicious!), fruit and nut chocolate, coffee (I love coffee!), bananas and oranges. Unfortunately I can no longer stomach watermelon during races after a few gross incidents.

 

Prerace food

The only other food related thing I wanted to share was my prerace food. Mostly it isn’t that different to what I do every other week. I don’t carb load at all. I figure if what I ate through training worked, why would I change that in the lead up to my race? After all, the purpose of practising my nutrition in my long runs is to mimic race day and that includes my prerace nutrition as well.

The only big change I make is that 3-4 weeks before a really long race I take caffeine completely out of my diet. I run all of my morning runs fasted anyway, but I miss my post run coffee during that time! It also means no chocolate for a few weeks, but I do enjoy them on race day then. The reason I drop caffeine is, partly because its a prerace habit, partly because it means I sleep better (I have a very low caffeine tolerance) and partly because it means I can enjoy a good hit in the race when I really need it. I try and wait until I am in the last quarter of a race and then I will have some chocolate covered coffee beans or a strong coffee, (the one I had at 102km in at Alpine, with double cream was DIVINE!!!) and it gives me a good kick to get me going in the harder stages of the race.

As for my prerace meal? It’s really simple and boring. Roast chicken, with roasted veg of all types and some salad on the side. It’s nourishing, it’s comforting and it gives me everything I need. I also mimic this in training, having a similar meal the night before my longer training runs.

Post race? Ahhhh. The amazing and tasty cheese toasty. I seriously dream about them before race day as I love them and try not to have them that often. Washed down with a couple of cold chocolate milks. It really is simple and delicious. There is also the celebratory meal, once I’ve slept! It usually involves steak and oysters, usually bought by my ever supportive parents, although I do wonder if its just an excuse for my dad to have oysters…..

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Typical post race celebration meal

So that’s my training life on a plate. Like I said, this is what works for ME right now. It is always changing, I am always trying new stuff. I think people can get a bit evangelical about what they eat and try and ‘convert’ people to certain rules and diets. Likewise, in the pursuit of getting better we can like to think that if we eat the same way as someone we can get faster, go further, climb higher. In my experience it’s all a big experiment, it’s just as well I love food and am happy to try new things.

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Alpine Challenge – My first 100 mile race

You’re just going for a really long walk in the mountains and you’re going to have to get around it” – Anna Frost

This story really begins in a coffee shop in Surfers. I was having a catch up with my coach, Matt from Judd Adventures, to discuss what I should do next after running Northburn 100k. I was currently chasing points for UTMB lottery qualification but unfortunately the race I planned to run next, Alpine Challenge 100k, no longer provided enough points for me to qualify. There was another race that would provide the points, but it would mean going 60km further than I had ever gone before, something I wasn’t really sure I was ready for yet. Sometimes though, all it takes to make you believe you can do something is for someone else to suggest it. So, when Matt suggested that I “give the miler a crack” I wasn’t sure if I was excited or completely shocked. So there it was, I was going to run 100miles, or at least try.

Fast forward a good 7 months. My family had moved across the ditch to Wanaka in New Zealand, bar my husband who was tying up loose ends in Australia. There have been countless emails to my coach and messages to my friends and crew about training and fears and whether I can actually do this. I have run up and down many new and beautiful mountains, I have run around lakes. I have changed jobs. I have lost two possible pacers. I have solo parented my three kids while we sort out everything. You see life doesn’t stop to train for such an endeavour. You work it in and around life. Sometimes that can be messy and tiring and just damn hard, but if you want it bad enough, and I really want it bad, you make it happen and so, I did.

I flew into Melbourne after a full day of travel, unfortunately there had been no direct flights to Melbourne on a Thursday, so I had travelled via Auckland making it a long bloody day!! Here I met with Maz, my dear friend and crew chief, who knows me so very well and Becca, my lunch buddy and friend from Kyogle. After having some lunch/dinner, we picked up the crew vehicle (a light commercial Prado with the added bonus of a flashing light on top),

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Best Crew Vehicle EVER!!

did some grocery shopping and set off for the mountains. It was a four hour drive so I napped in the back as best I could, despite wanting to chat with two friends I hadn’t seen in months.

Next morning saw me do my last little shake out run, with Bec keeping watch over me, she explored the power station at the bottom of the hill while I ran backwards and forwards on the only flat part of trail and road I could find. I was loving smelling the Aussie bush again, along with the sounds of all the birds I had grown up with. After cooking my crew breakfast, kind of a tradition as they spend the next few days looking after me and its nice to do something for them, I set about getting my drop bags and pack ready for registration.

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Packing for the unknown is hard!

Its really hard to get your head around what you might want or need 30hrs into a run in the mountains, so between my pack, various drop bags and my crew I was trying to cover every eventuality.

About an hour before registration opened, Kirsten, one of two people pacing me for a section, arrived. I had never met Kirsten before, although we had chatted extensively on line through Operation Move, where she is a running coach. We got along well from the get go and I knew we would be fine out on the trail together. Once Kirsten had unpacked, we set off for Falls Creek to hand in my drop bags, pick up my race packet and get my gear checked. As we walked into the rego/gear check there was a huge board with examples of the items of your race packet tacked onto it. I picked up my packet and got my gear checked, with the volunteer from Alpine Search and Rescue telling me he would see me at Cleve Cole Hut tomorrow some time. Shit was getting real!

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Gear Check and Registration

After leaving my drop bags in the designated places we met with my second pacer, Jacqui. Jacqui had run the 100km and the 100miler at Alpine Challenge before. Having someone who knew the course and the area really well gave me a lot more confidence, so after the Q and A session we headed home for the traditional post race dinner, roast chicken and veg, lovingly prepared by Bec and Maz and then it was off to bed. Surprisingly I actual slept. I think I was in denial.

When my alarm went off I just pottered round doing all my usual prerun things, lube here, suncream there, shoes, pack, the butterflies becoming bubblebees in my stomach. My support crew were there if I needed but the tone was subdued, trying not to be to anxious or excited. Maz rounded us up, time to go, and up the mountain we went. On the way up we stopped to check the turn off the road onto the trail, I had been worried about where exactly it was and was seriously worried everyone would have sprinted off and I wouldn’t find it. We pulled up near the start line and the moment I got out of the car those pesky comparisons started. “Oh geez, these people are so fit”, “I look ridiculous in all these colours”, “ugh, what was I thinking I don’t belong here”. Have I mentioned I don’t like startlines? Fortunately, my crew were all over it, as usual. Seeing me turning inward they made me laugh and cracked jokes as I did my warm up, trying to ignore the circus forming at the startline.

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Not looking at all nervous

The call was made for us to check in and line up. Getting my name ticked off I quietly made my way through the crowd to the back of the pack, standing there quietly, listening to the chat around me “Its much warmer than last year”, “hopefully we get views from Bogong this year” has everyone done this before?!?! Maz and Bec came to rescue me from myself, more jokes and inappropriateness. My crew is seriously awesome. The RD, Paul announced that the severe thunderstorm warning for that night, something I had been worrying about all week, had been revoked – crowd goes wild – but there was still a thunderstorm warning, oh well.

Then with a 3, 2, 1 we were off down the road toward the trail. I was trying to not get dragged along, keeping it as easy as possible, the road was shit and I knew there was no point in looking at my heart rate just yet, so I listened to my breath and just tried to not get to carried away while checking my headlamp was set right for the trail. As we hit the trail, we settled into a conga line, my heart rate settled and I was able to start running the way I normally do. I would periodically call out to the person behind that they could pass as I slowed to hike on any incline, nervous of holding people up but also of using up too much energy too soon. My eat/drink alarm was already going off every ten minutes and I diligently nibbled and sipped, as I would for the next day and a half. I felt a bit self conscious, not seeing anyone else doing the same, but I knew this was what worked for me so I needed to just do it. When we switched from the downhill Packhorse trail and ran up onto the Spion Kopje Firetrail, I dropped back to a steady hike and watched as what felt like everyone, pass me. Determined to stick to the plan I settled in and told myself I had to run my own race if I was going to finish and that this was the first hill of many mountains. On the run down to the first creek crossing, I got to know a few of the other back of the pack runners. We chatted about the run, what else people had done and where we were from. Everyone looked shocked that I had chosen this as my first miler and that I had never run on any of these trails before, I tried to ignore them. We hit the first crossing and I barrelled through, quietly giggling at people stopping to take their shoes off. By now it was daylight and my headlight was off, but I decided I wasn’t stopping to stow it, part of the plan today was not to faff about at all. No unneeded stops. So I would wait until the first crew checkpoint to remove it. As we started the first of 6 big climbs throughout the race I was steadily over taken by every single person. Here I was, last again. I sent my crew a message at 13km, letting them know I was going ok but I was last. I started going through all my tools, making sure I didn’t get anxious, keep moving,, don’t let it get to you. As I rounded the next corner I looked down to see a lyrebird feather on the trail. This gave me a tremendous lift, lyrebirds are one of my special creatures, I usually see them when I am “on the right path, but in some hurt”. To be last already in such a long race was playing on my mind but with that feather I knew I was right to stick to the plan, keep my heart rate low and just keep moving. Over the space of the climb up to Spion Kopje I managed to pass a few people, all the while keeping my heartrate low and my movement steady.

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On top of Spion Kopje

Along the top toward Warby I was leapfrogging with people, catching them on the flats and downs, only to be overtaken on the climbs, but I was tremendously happy with that as I was still within sight of other runners most of the time. As I walked into Warby Corner, the first checkpoint and crew point, I removed my headlamp, took out my used bottles and rubbish and started looking for Bec, who had hiked in with my gear. I had now travelled 24.5km.

Both Bec and Maz were well versed in the fact that my crew point plan was to be fast and efficient. No chit chat, get in, get what I need (both physically and emotionally), get back out again. As other people stood around and chatted we went through my pack list, I got rid of my skirt, which was pissing me off, and within minutes I was ready to go again. I young guy, who had ridden his pushy up from Melbourne the day before (yes, seriously) asked if he could run out with me as he didn’t like running alone. I said sure, but quietly knew that wouldn’t last long. With a hug from Bec, off I went, within 2 min Melbourne man was going way too fast, so I dropped to a hike and told him I’d see him later and to have a great race. Having had such a great stop (thanks Bec!) I was now within sight of dozens of runners, we were still on firetrail, with very little cover so I could see a fair distance ahead. I felt like I was finally settling in and was able to just trundle along enjoying the scenery. Soon we were back in the scrub, I was noticing wild flowers, wondering what they were, thinking I should take pics for my friend Buff but adhering to my self imposed no faff rule. As I got close to Ropers Hut, I pulled my map out just to double check I was on the right path, yep, keep moving. Passing a few more people I was no longer feeling any pressure to keep ahead or to worry about position.

It was starting to heat up and as we started the steeper part of the descent to Big River I heard a sound I had only heard via video messages from my friend Jill. I affectionately call Jill my big trail sister. She is an amazing runner and one of the few people I personally know who has run 100 miles. She has been, not only an inspiration but a mentor of sorts, always happy to discuss training, running and life. It was Jill who got me to calm down and work the problem when my stomach went south at UTA100, with a well timed phone call. The sound was that of black cockatoos, Jill’s special creature. Just the sound made me smile, I knew Jill was with me. I scanned around to see if I could see them, knowing they were off to my right, but mindful of not taking my eyes off the now rather technical trail. Resigning myself to just hearing them, I focussed ahead, only to have a pair fly across my path, making me get goosebumps and buoying me in a way that only those who get those special moments will understand.

I caught up to two men who had passed me earlier, we had a chat, keeping a steady pace and then reached Big River. Again, no faffing, I filled a water bottle and kept moving as I tightened its lid, knowing I had another large climb and wanting to keep myself going forward. By now it was getting hot and although it became more exposed as we climbed there was thankfully also a breeze. As we neared Cleve Cole Hut we crossed a small stream and here I stopped to fill a bottle and also douse myself with freezing water. We had been warned that there could be water shortages for those in the back of the pack, so I was filling up whenever I needed to as soon as I found clear water. Here two other guys were resting in the shade and I offered one the use of my cup to pour water over himself as he wasn’t looking good. He declined and put his head in his hands. I moved on, glad I felt better than he did. Just over a kilometre on and I walked into the Cleve Cole Hut checkpoint. The heat was obviously hitting people hard with people lying in the shade of the trees eating and napping. I chatted to the volunteers while I waited to fill my other empty bottle then quickly moved on out of the checkpoint and headed for the summit of Mount Bogong. As we cleared the saddle, the views became apparent and I took out my phone to take some photos for the first and last time.

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On Mt Bogong

It felt like we were on the top of the world and every step I wanted to drink it in and then capture the moment. That’s when I realised I couldn’t take any more photos, between getting my phone out, taking the pics, putting it away I was wasting time I didn’t have. So the phone was stowed and I began the descent down to the second Big River crossing. By now the heat was starting to bite and I was over the technical single track. I knew I would soon hit firetrail and it couldn’t come soon enough. At the turn where the single track came out onto the main track I stopped at a stream to throw water over myself and quickly check my map to make sure I was heading in the right direction. A few hot kilometres later I hit the river and it was bliss. I took off my pack and lowered myself into the water, rather noisily as the water was freezing, much to the amusement of a fellow runner already sitting in the flow. I knew I had another long climb up to get back up to Warby and so I wanted to make sure my core temp was nice and cool before I started as it would be hot and exposed. I also made sure my dreads were completely soaked and put my hair up off my neck. Once I felt I was cool enough and wet enough, I got my pack on and started the hike up the firetrail.

It was carnage. The heat was clearly effecting many runners, people sitting in shady spots along the trail or just stumbling along. I passed at least two people afflicted by upset stomachs and had to keep hiking as one dry wretched just after I passed, worried my stomach would go as well if I stuck around. As I came toward the top I hit my first low. I was worried I was going too slow, that I would miss the Warby time cut off. I had purposely not committed the cut off times or my “hopeful” times to memory but now I was worried that I would miss it as I fought the heat. I messaged Maz as soon as I had reception, the crew however were having a much needed sleep in preparation for a big night of driving and support. As my 10min timer for food and drink went off, I diligently nibbled and sipped and remembered the advice I heard on a Gary Robbins podcast, about needing more calories if you’re hitting a low, so I pulled out a chocolate and had a munch. Not long after Maz replied that I was ahead of schedule, but by now I was back in a steady run – walk pattern and I could see the checkpoint in the distance. Knowing that less than 10km from there I would see my crew spurred me on and the runs got longer and the walks shorter.

I strode into Warby with a smile on my face, grabbed some water and some fruit and nut chocolate from the awesome volunteers. While I repacked, the member of another support crew gave me a run down on the track through to Langfords Gap where I would see my own crew. After thanking him and the volunteers I began jogging out of the station, smiling knowing I had 9km until I got hot food and hugs. I had now been on my feet for 12.5hrs and had travelled 64km. As I jogged down the trail there was more carnage, I passed at least three people resting less than a km from leaving the checkpoint. In the distance I caught glimpses of Pretty Valley Pondage in the distance. It was surreal to think that I had almost 90km to go before I would get there.
After a km or so, I left the fire trail moving onto a short single trail that wound its way through the heath and brush. My feet were starting to hurt, they had been wet for most of the day. It seemed to be taking longer than it should but there wasn’t much I could do except keep moving. The flats were getting hard to run, but I was moving well and willed myself to run walk as much as I could. As I came around the corner I could hear Maz and Bec before I saw them. The emotions welled up, as they always do. Maz hugged me and told me I was doing great while Bec took my watch to give it a quick recharge while we dealt with business. I sat and took my shoes off, to change my socks, drank my cup of soup and went through what I needed to take and needed to do before I left.

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Going over pack contents in between eating

Maz rubbed me down and also put anti chafe all over my torso. My feet were creasing due to the wet but felt better for the dry socks. I put on my longer tights, knowing it would soon be nightfall and that temperatures would drop. I debated whether to put my thermal on now or not, but I still felt hot so decided against it. Finishing off my soup and eating a few berries, Maz announced it was time to get going and the tears welled up. I knew it was going to be a long cold slog, alone in the dark before I saw my friends again and I was a little scared. Maz grabbed my hand and made me look in her eyes (it was a bit Kath and Kim) and told me “we will see you REALLY, REALLY soon”. I jogged out, in tears, I still wasn’t even half way. I was tired and sore and the night hadn’t even begun.

I made it about 500m down the track, in tears, when the wind came up and I started to feel cold. I decided to stop and put my thermal on, the no faff rule was still in effect but I  was mindful that it was about to get dark and that I was in the alpine high plains. In the past a lot of people have dropped out during the night due to either getting too cold or from the sleep deprivation.

I knew I had to change paths a few times in the next few kilometres. Being an unmarked course I was now holding my paper map and notes in my hand, as well as checking the phone map app, to make sure I was on track. I made the first turn and as I headed up towards Cope Hut some big fat drops of rain started to fall. I stopped again and put on my rain jacket, silently wondering if it were warranted or if I was just faffing. My alarm went off and I dug in my pack for my next nibble, Clif Bars were now tasting like sand and hard to swallow so I was cycling between all my other options, I realised I shouldn’t have picked up more of them at the checkpoint, I wasn’t going to eat them.

As Bogong High Plains Road came into sight the heavens opened and it absolutely poured down, so much for my dry feet. I crossed the road, watching the rain jumping back up off the bitumen after it fell, it was that heavy. Following the poled Australian Alps Walking Track, the terrain felt similar to where I had been running back in New Zealand, very bare and exposed, with poles marking the route. The trail was fairly obvious for the most part, although in places it was a stream or I was hopping on stepping stones just above the sodden ground. It was now dark and my headlamp was the only light I could see. My hands were freezing and everything below my jacket line was wet. I made the decision to get out my ski gloves, as I was pulling them on I was debating whether to bother with the waterproof pants in my pack when the sky lit up with lightening, followed by a boom of thunder. Decision made, keep moving and get off the plains as fast as possible. I’m not sure how long the storm lasted. I just remember trying to move as fast as possible in the dark while counting the time between lightening and thunder, trying to make sure I was moving away from the storm. I got to Cope Saddle Hut and spent about 5 min trying to work out which way I needed to go. The map was clear but the written instructions were confusing me. It was dark and I hadn’t seen another headlamp since leaving Bogong High Plains Road. After doubling back on myself a few times I made a decision and moved on, getting out the phone app to make sure I was moving along the right path. I now started counting poles, being dark there was no real view except the tunnel of light of my headlamp on the tussocks and stepping stones along the path. I finally caught up to a headlamp, grateful to see someone else, although there was no friendly banter just acknowledgement of each other and the constant forward movement. In the distance a strobe light appeared. At first I thought it was a headlamp but realised it was flashing and I hoped against hope it was the Pole333 checkpoint. I had now passed half way, some 85km into the run.

The Search and Rescue volunteers welcomed us into the tent, out of the wind and I tried to get my bottles and powder out as quickly as possible, not want to get too comfortable in the shelter. I was still cold but the wind had dried most of my clothing. Unfortunately my feet were starting to sting in the creases that had formed, but there was nothing I could do about that here. I remember taking something to eat here, but I’m not sure what and as I left I double checked with one of the volunteers I was heading the right way, thanking him for being out there in the middle of the night. He smiled and said it was nice to see someone still smiling out here (I may have been faking it).

As you leave the Pole333 aid station you are greeted with a sign announcing that you are entering the infamous “Mortein Alley” this is where the majority of miler competitors “drop like flies”. I was, from the very start, never really racing this race, it was always about beating the cutoffs. So, determined not to miss the next cutoff at Loch Carpark I moved as swiftly as I could with 90 mountainous kilometres already in my legs. I was getting very tired now, although my body hurt, it was of no real consequence, it was just background noise. In my tiredness I was very worried about getting lost, the trail crisscrossed with a number of side trails and wasn’t always well defined. I was thankful I was at the back because I could see the where grass had been stamped down forming a path of sorts between the trees and poles. I was now stopping at every possible junction to check I was headed the right way. At some point I came across a Chinese runner coming down the wrong path, obviously having taken a wrong turn. He confirmed the right path with me and took off into the night. As we descended down into the valley it became a pattern of me taking my time to get to the next junction only to meet the same runner and have him confirm the right path and take off again. He was obviously struggling to navigate and I was happy to have someone to second guess my directions.

We hit the valley floor and started the climb up to Loch Carpark, the next crew aid station. Although this is the shortest of the sustained climbs on the course it felt like the longest. I was getting so tired and the ongoing stairs were getting to me. I got a message from Maz to say they were waiting for me and were wondering how I was doing, I told them they would be waiting a long time as I was crawling up the mountain.

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Super crew waiting in the cold and dark at Loch Carpark

I then passed the Chinese runner sitting on the side of the stairs, head in his hands looking shattered, I kept moving, determined not to stop until I was at the checkpoint. Not long after my watch died, so I was left to try and gauge on my maps how far to go and trying to recall the elevation map in my head as I seemed to be forever climbing. I kept eating and drinking whenever I could remember to. As I came out towards the top, onto the ski fields (I think?) the wind became horrendous and cold. I was still constantly checking the maps as the trail didn’t really seem to be a trail and I was second guessing myself, the tiredness felt bone deep. Somewhere between the ski field and the checkpoint I realised I had just beat by previous 100km time from Northburn. Of course with no watch, I really didn’t know by how much but a PB is a PB and I let the knowledge buoy me along. I soon came across a volunteering walking towards me on the track , he said hello and pointed up to the checkpoint and the flashing lights on the hill. It was a relief to see them but at the same time they seemed so very far away. Trudging up the hill I could see one headlamp and then I heard Maz asking if it was me. I was so happy to hear her (it was pitch black other than our headlamps) I had made it to Loch, 102kms, but the fight was only just about to begin.

My number was recorded and as I swapped gear, I changed my light weight UD jacket out for my heavier duty Patagonia one as I was starting to have trouble with my core temp, put on extra layers and we attended to my poor feet, Bec went and woke Kirsten who was pacing me for the next section. I tried to eat some noodles and surveyed my feet, probably not a good combo in normal life, but I was so tired it didn’t bother me.

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Checking the damage to my wet feet

In the corner another runner lay sleeping but other than that it was just us and the volunteers. Rugged up I went to the bathroom – an actual toilet was a luxury at this point – and brushed my teeth. My crew taped my knees in preparation for the coming descent and Kirsten burst into the room full of nervous energy and chatter. I smiled, if nothing else she would be a welcome distraction. Maz prompted me to have another mouthful of noodles and I slipped on a new pair of shoes and socks, my feet felt normal for a few minutes. As Kirsten and I made our way out the door after our usual hugs, we were hit with the blast of cold and wind and I was reminded this bit was going to be really tough.

My brain was pretty much fried at this point and I told Kirsten point blank that I needed her to find the trail for awhile. In hindsight this was probably not the best decision on my part, poor Kirsten has run very few trails at night and not done a hell of a lot of navigation, it should have been a collaboration but instead I left it up to her. This is one of the harder sections to navigate, particularly at night, to the point where, despite it being an unmarked course the race director had made the decision to put pink flags at key points. So our cry of “pink flag!” could be heard every now and again with a sigh of relief. Usually followed by Kirsten yelling “Breakfast!” to remind me to eat and drink as I no longer had a watch alarm. At some point along the Razorback we missed a flag and headed slightly right where we should have gone left, we quickly descended down a goat track and when we suddenly hit the bottom and a grass path with an arrow pointing towards us we realised our mistake. I was devastated and the tiredness made it worse. I asked, or maybe I told, Kirsten to go find where we needed to be and I slowly trudged back up the hill we had just descended. Kirsten moved swiftly ahead and I lost her headlamp. Tired and dejected, for the first time I sat down on the track. I got out my map, trying to make head and tail of it, where we had gone wrong, when Kirsten called out. I could hear the worry in her voice, she had found the place we had gone wrong. I hauled myself to my feet, anger and tears welling up, her headlamp seemed so high on the hill and now I had to climb all the way back up there, so much wasted effort. I shook my head, realising that was unfair and decided that despite having just eaten, a kick of sugar would be well used right now. So I opened a snickers and trudged back up that bloody hill. By the time I got to Kirsten I was back in a decent head space, we checked and double checked the turn and headed down Bon Accord Spur. The sun was starting to come up which was a blessing and was beautiful, but the tiredness was getting worse and I was feeling so down as the descent wasn’t overly technical and I felt I should have been making up time running down but I was barely able to walk without tripping and kicking rocks. The next few kilometres were a blur of me looking at my feet, trying not to fall asleep and listening to Kirsten as she tried to keep me engaged and awake. The cutoffs at Harrietville were looming in my head and I was worried that I would either miss the cutoff or just feel worse and worse and not be able to continue.

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Someone is wide awake and it isn’t me!

We could finally hear the creek at the bottom of the valley and I was starting to be able to get a little jog up, by little I mean 100m at most, at Kirsten’s prompting. We got to the river to be greeted by the sweeper and the chinese runner I had left on the stairs before Loch Carpark. It turns out that when we took our little detour we had been overtaken. The sweeper assured us we still had plenty of time and that she had got going because everyone else behind us had dropped out. This was enough to break my stupor and we waded through the creek, welcoming the fresh water and splashing on my face. From here Kirsten began making me work, prompting me to run (jog) as much as I could. I wanted to get to the road as I knew from there it was a short distance to the checkpoint and my first coffee in over a month. So the next few kilometres we ran, walked, I asked Kirsten “How far to the bloody road?” and also tried to palm off my unwanted Clif Bars. We hit the road and Kirsten pushed me to keep running, telling me we were running 9min kilometres, I was now over 115km in. I was amazed I could run, although it hurt and I was oh so tired.

I was so glad to get to Harrietville. I had figured all along that this was my no turning back point. If I got there and out under cutoff I could finish. Overwhelmed with tiredness I became a complete mass of sobs. Maz took my hand and lead me to the car as all my fears of being so tired and missing cutoffs spilled out. She and Bec became all business, they put me in the back of the car, ordering me to lie down and sleep or at least compose myself, removed my shoes and left me to rest while they got me a coffee and took care of my pack. I lay there, sobbing, unable to sleep, my mind whirring. I was scared, I wasn’t tough enough for this, I was going to disappoint everyone but more than anything I wanted so badly to be the kind of person who could do this, in my heart I thought I was that kind of person, but what if I was wrong? After a time my sobs stopped, I realised I wouldn’t be able to sleep so I may as well get up. I took a deep breath, I needed to at least try, I sat up and opened the door. Maz was waiting with my coffee and she and Bec kept things light and efficient as I once again repacked and changed socks. I don’t remember if I ate, but the coffee was so damn good.

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My two awesome pacers watching over at Harrietville

My pacer from here was Jacqui. Jacqui has run both the 100k and 100miler at Alpine Challenge and was working on the Harrietville checkpoint that morning before starting pacing me. She knew the pressure I was under to meet cut offs, having been there herself when she did the miler but she also knew what I needed to do. I got up, said goodbye to my crew, the next time I would see them I would be under 10km from the finish.

Jacqui and I set off to start the climb up to Feathertop. This is the longest sustained climb in the entire race and it starts at 120km into the race. I pushed those thoughts out of my head and concentrated on right now. This became my mantra for the next 9 hours. Yes 9 hours. Jacqui and I got to know each other, having only spoken in person twice before and in a handful of messages on Facebook. While running/hiking with Kirsten, I had worked out that having my pacer in front of me, having to “catch them” worked best for me. So Jacqui hiked ahead, keeping far enough ahead to make me work.

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The grind up to Feathertop

Every time my head started to tell me I couldn’t sustain this pace for the rest of the race and I would retort with “but I can do it now, so just keep doing it”. I was also keeping at the front of my mind how hard the hiking reps, which Matt had prescribed I do on Mount Iron, had been and that I had always completed them, despite the uncomfortableness. So we hiked, stopping once, I think to remove or add layers. As we reached Federation Hut, the sweeper again caught up with us again and I found out the Chinese runner had dropped out at Harrietville. I was once again last.

We had a quick stop at the toilets Federation Hut and then pushed on to the summit of Feathertop. It was here that we caught two other runners. It sounds awful but I was glad to see some others at the back with me. The views were amazing, but I didn’t take long as I wanted to get it done.

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Working hard on Feathertop

There was, what Jacqui calls a “fake cut off” (an unenforced, but suggested cut off) that I wanted to meet for Diamantina Spur and we were cutting it fine. I had hoped to make up time on the descent but what I hadn’t accounted for the fact that the trail was as much a downward scramble and on tired legs it was challenging and slow. As we reached close to the valley floor, in my mind I decided I wasn’t going to meet the final cutoff. In my mind I quietly accepted that I could only go as far as the race organisers would let me, but that I would try my hardest. I voiced this to Jacqui, that we weren’t going to meet the cutoffs and this is when she became the star of a pacer that she is. Jacqui stopped and looked me in the eye and told me not to give up yet. Her words were something like this “You can do this, you have a finish in you but you are going to have to work really hard up this next climb, you aren’t going to stop. When we get to the creek I will take your bottle and refill it and you will keep moving”. And so, that’s what we did. I grinded my way up that hill, Jacqui in front pulling me along, while I willed myself to catch her. We caught another runner and then another, each person buoying me. Jacqui had to stop to help get another runner on course but I pushed on some more, knowing she would easily catch me. I finally reached the top alone, coming out onto the plains under snow gums and to the sight of more wildflowers, knowing I couldn’t be far from Pole333.

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At the top, Feathertop in the background

Here I met a group of Search and Rescue volunteers heading down to meet the sweeper. We had a quick chat and then, as Jacqui caught up to me we spotted some brumbies in the distance. I smiled, I had now had the full Alpine experience in my opinion, stinking hot weather, icy creeks, thunder storms in the high plains, mountain views, gale force winds and now the elusive brumbies. In the distance I could see the checkpoint and we pushed on, past the sign to say I had indeed survived Mortein Alley, cheered by the knowledge that in 5km I would be at the last crew point.

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Happy to have survived Mortein Alley

The same volunteers greeted us and Jacqui split a banana with me then sent me on my way whilst she refilled a bottle for me. We set off down the trail to be met by the brumbies we had seen in the distance. A beautiful stallion was protecting two mares, each with small foal, which was oh so gorgeous. Cautious of them being aggressive we detoured off the path to make our way around them, then off in the distance we saw lightening and thunder, it felt like an epically wild experience.

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Brumbies on the high plains, in the rain. 

We turned onto the fire trail that would lead us to the last crew point and I knew I was going to finish. A sense of relief swept over me. I tried to run as much as possible but my my glutes just hurt with every bounce. Our overall mood was cheerful now and Jacqui and I chatted as Pretty Valley Pondage came into sight. Jacqui pointed out the last climb I would make before the finish, up to Mt McKay. It seemed so much further than 5km away. A flashing orange light flashed in the parking lot and I smiled, my crew were waiting. As we crossed the pond Maz came out to meet us, she told us she had heard our voices on the wind through the valley and it had brought her such joy. It was smiles and joy all round. I was going to make it.

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Things getting a little silly at Pretty Valley

I changed shoes and socks for the last time and got ready to leave with Kirsten. I thanked Jacqui for her tremendous help out there, she had pushed me hard right when I needed it and it had made all the difference, but she needed to get back to her wee daughter Claire. I debated taking my poles, I really didn’t want them, Kirsten decided to carry them for me just in case, she ended up carrying them all the way to the finish.

We headed up the road to Mt McKay, I was obviously better company than the last time we had run together, with the conversation being much more of a conversation than a one way monologue on Kirsten’s part. The climb to McKay was hard on tired legs that were sick of going up, but it passed relatively quickly and we were soon at the top, enjoying the sunset.

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On top of Mt McKay – the last big climb

The last few kilometres to the finish were uneventful but seemed to take longer than they should, as they often do in long races. I lamented every up as it hurt and I thought I was done with ups and was annoyed I couldn’t run for long before my butt cheeks hurt to the point where I needed to walk, so mostly we just did a nice steady hike into the dark and toward the finish. The “run” down to the finish was also a walk thanks to the grass which was wet from the rain we had had off and on for the last few hours. When we finally reached the finish line, where I had started 40 hours ago, I was so relieved more than anything. I had finished, I was done, and geez I was so bloody happy. There were photos and smiles and I was tired but happy. We did it.
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The Stats
164.5km travelled

Approx 7000m gain and descent

Official time 40hrs15min

Shout outs
To Matt, my awesome coach. Thank you for holding my hand not only through the training involved for my first hundred mile race, but also through the upheaval of moving countries with my family and finding new trails to run. For your kind and supportive words every time I wobbled and your sometimes cryptic but often hilarious GIF responses in our facebook messages, reminding me not to take myself too seriously.
To Maz, my crew chief. Your love for me and your dedication to doing everything you could to get me to the finish means the world to me. You were tough, you were efficient, you were everything an awesome crew chief could be. We really need to get you that hat.
To Bec, super support crew. Thank you for giving up your time and money to come support me on my adventure. You worked away quietly in the background at every stop, making sure I had all I needed. It didn’t go unnoticed.
To Kirsten and Jacqui, my amazing pacers. To help a virtual stranger achieve a selfish goal such as this takes a special type of person. You are both rockstars in my eyes.
To TrailBrew and Injinji Performance Products, thank you for your ongoing support in my adventures. I had no stomach issues thanks to TrailBrew and my feet were fine, the only issues I had was due to my constantly wet feet.

Don’t You Get Scared?

It’s a common question. When people find out where I run and that I do so alone there are usually a few standard responses, either “I wish I could do that” (you totally can), “Your husband lets you do that?” (Seriously? WTF? That’s a WHOLE other blog post) and “But, don’t you get scared?”.

The answer is yes, I do get scared. We all get scared, don’t we? There are things that create fear in our hearts and minds, but it’s a choice as to what we do about that fear. How much power we give the fear and how we listen to it.

I run alone and at the moment I try and run every long run somewhere new, in an effort to mimic what will happen on race day where I will be running on ‘new to me’ trails and needing to navigate along the way. This can be scary, there is a chance I will get lost, or hurt, but I can’t let that fear dictate my life. I am a planner and I mitigate the danger as much as I can. I have a planned route. I tell at least two people where I am planning to run, how long I should take and when to start worrying if they haven’t heard from me. On every mountain or long run I take a full pack of gear, I always have, whether it be here in New Zealand or back in the subtropical National Parks of NSW and South East Queensland. In my pack I have dry thermals, a raincoat, beanie, spare food, water, a bivvy sac (think sleeping bag made out of space blanket material), first aid and a headlamp.

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Planning for any situation helps mitigate the fear.

Knowing I have these things in place helps me manage the fear. I usually have more fear before a new run than during. I will stress about running in a new place or if I know the conditions aren’t going to be the best, but nine times out ten, once I am underway the fears drop away.

But this doesn’t mean I blatantly ignore that fear. A month ago during training I decided to take on a particular trail near Lake Hawea called the Breast Hill Track. It gets a bit scrambly up the top and anyone who knows me will know I have a fear of heights. It was a cold and windy day, there were showers forecast, but I thought I would give it a go. As I got to the start of the first short scramble the wind came up the face of the mountain and hit me. I sat and calmed myself, willing myself to keep going. Yes, I was scared. This willing myself forward, getting beaten back, trying to quell my fears went on for about a kilometre. Then I reached my point of “no more”. The fear was too great. The wind was too hard, the trail too slick and my heart could find no joy, no reason to continue. Why? Because I no longer felt safe. Not just scared but also not safe. So I listened and went home and found a different trail to finish my run on.

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Rain, wind and fear on Breast Hill

Running alone as a woman also brings a special fear, one that is instilled in us from a young age. That fear that we shouldn’t do something because of what other people might do to us. There is, unfortunately, a culture of telling women to adjust their activities to keep themselves safe from men who may be out to do them harm. There have been many posts written about this, many debates about victim blaming and putting the onus on victims instead of perpetrators. It is also one of the main reasons many women who find out I run alone tell me they don’t feel safe to do the same. In five years of running, predominantly alone, on trails I have only felt unsafe twice because of the people I met on the trail. The first, I believe, was unfounded fear. I was doing my first solo night run and toward the end of it, when I was tired and already stressed, I crossed paths a group of men in their early twenties who were bush walking. They did and said nothing that would warrant fear, but still I was scared and put as much distance between them and me as I could. The second time, is the one time I feel something could have happened, but I listened to my gut and took steps to make myself safe. As I came off the trail at Mt Barney, a young guy pulled up in his ute and hopped out and approached myself and a man I had been chatting to about sport watches as we had made the final descent to the carpark. As I set about doing my cool down at my car, thinking about my snack waiting for me on the front seat, they had a short conversation and the you guy called out to me a comment about me looking super fit and threw me a look. Alarm bells went off, so instead of getting my snack and sitting at the picnic table like usual I hopped in my car and drove down the road to a spot where I could eat in the car. Less than 5 min later the ute pulled up beside my car, so I packed up and left to drive to the nearest town. But I didn’t let that fear control me. I was out on the trails again the next day.

So yes, I do get scared and when I get scared I try and work out if that fear is a socially instilled fear (women should not run alone), a fear fed by a phobia (this is too high) or a fear stemming from something I need to listen to for my own safety. I get scared. Sometimes terrified. I will have tears running down my face. Then, I will stop, take a deep breath and try and look at the fear, where is it coming from? Do I really have something to fear? And what should I do about it? I try to keep a level head and make sure I’m not letting irrational fear or fear caused by the unknown or worst case scenario thinking, stop me from having the adventures and experiences that I crave, whilst being mindful that fear is useful tool and we feel it for a reason, to keep us safe.

 

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I won’t let fear stop me from experiencing things like this!

Don’t Mistake My Highlights Reel for Real Life

I like to think that I post on social media quite authentically. If I have a shit run, I will generally share the what and the why quite honestly, but I have a tendency to try and find the silver lining or see the lesson and post that as well. Just as I will post how awesome a run was or what amazing things I saw. Thing is, this, social media, is not real life. It is a snapshot and I can colour it how I like. Whilst I shoot for honesty and authenticity, I don’t exactly want to whinge and whine and highlight all the bad things as well as the good.

As those who follow me on social media will know, our family has recently made the move across the ditch, to an amazing place on the south island of New Zealand. This is a dream come true for both my hubby and myself. If you were to just browse through my instagram you would probably think my life was filled with mountains and adventures, but these are a snapshot of maybe 40min, maybe 4hrs of my day or maybe even as short lived as a minute.

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The reality is dreams take work, lots of hard work. The last few months have been tough. They have been tough on everyone in our family in one way or another. Being a mum to three young people, adjusting to being uprooted to a new town, new schools, new country has been hard. My husband is also doing it tough, still living in Australia, working his job to help pay for this dream whilst spending every weekend getting our home ready in the hope of selling it. Not to mention finding a new job that I can do in school hours to help with all our costs. These are the things you don’t see behind the scenes. You don’t see the eldest child, constantly melting down because he is so far out of his comfort zone he just can’t cope, the middle child in tears because she misses her friends or the youngest child refusing to go to school because he doesn’t have any friends. But then again, I don’t share them because I don’t want people to think I’m ungrateful, I’m not. This was our choice and there is so much much that is great and amazing and better for our family here, but that doesn’t mean it is all easy, all sunshine and rainbows.

And then there are my goals and dreams for my running. There have been times over the last few weeks where my 40mins has been a saviour but there also times where it has been a huge stress. The fact that I am currently training for my first 100 miler is stressful enough. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love training, I revel in it in fact. I also take it seriously and want to do the training my coach sets me, justice. You see, it isn’t “just running” to me. I don’t know why, I really don’t get when it became so much more but it is important to me that I do my absolute best when I commit to these events and training blocks.

I think one of my running heroes, Sally MacRae said it best when she said “Some people say, “it’s JUST a race…or…that’s what YOU signed up for!”
But I don’t follow that line of thought- running is my masterpiece; a beautiful metaphor to life; and if I devote the majority of my time to becoming the best I can be at my craft, then I’ll never say, “it’s JUST running…or it’s JUST a race.”
It’s so much more- and I believe that’s why it stings so much when I fail.But it’s also what keeps me fired up, and coming back for more…because it’s so much more than “just running” to me- it will always be, and I’m proud of that.” in a recent Facebook post about her recent run at UTMB, you can read the full post here: Sally’s Facebook post.

I have doubts often. About my abilities, about my goals, about my speed, about whether I can finish this upcoming race, about whether I am the runner I think I can be.

It’s not only finding the time to train here that is stressful but the terrain and conditions as well. I am truly so far out of my comfort zone at times, that I am reduced to tears. On Instagram I shared this picture from a recent run to the top of one of the many amazing peaks here:

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On the descent from Little Criffel

Yeah. look at that view! Look how badass I am! But what you don’t see is me crouched on the trail talking to one of my kids advisors about getting them support. Or the hour of slogging through the snow, which should be awesome fun! Right? Except I had tears streaming down my face, stressing about what would happen if I hurt myself and my kids had to deal with that, me being the only person they have here in New Zealand and that I didn’t know what I was doing here and that yes, I was scared because its all so new and foreign to me. Then there are the emails back and forth to my coach about how to fit my actual training around looking after my kids and work. Or phone calls to my husband where I cry from sheer tiredness of being everything for everyone and trying to fit everything in. And then there is the guilt. The huge unadulterated guilt. Guilt for doing what brings me so much joy, while my kids struggle, while my husband spends weeks on end alone back in Australia, for expending energy that maybe I could pour into something for my family instead of for me. Yep, its not all smiles and pretty views.

I don’t regret our move, or how hard it is or the “stuff” we are all dealing with. I wouldn’t change our decision. Life is to be lived and making dreams happen takes time and sacrifice. But I also don’t want people to think that this is a fairytale life. Real life has ups and downs. There is so much good stuff.So, so, so much good stuff and it is in my nature to want to share that and not the harder, less happy things. But remember, what you see on social media is just the highlights reel, real life has a lot more substance to it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Why not?

6 years ago my hubby, Sim, went on a paragliding tour of New Zealand and he fell in love with Wanaka. He came home and told me we should move there. I burst into tears and said flat out “No!”. We had just moved from Brisbane to northern NSW. I was overweight, solo parenting most of the week and mentally not in a good place. My adventurous spirit was non-existent and a good weekend involved getting smashed on a saturday night and watching Buffy. Sim, knowing he would get nowhere with that idea, let it be for the time being.
Fast forward to March this year and the week before I left to run at Northburn. We were discussing where the race actually was, up until this point it was just “Jo is running a 100k race on the south island of NZ”. When Sim found out I would be staying in Cromwell he asked that I do him a favour, if I had time could I please go and spend some time in Wanaka and see what I think. I said sure, we had a week there, my friends who were doing support were also keen to do a little sight seeing, so why not?

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The shoreline at Wanaka

My friend Maz played tour guide for us a few days before the race as we drove to Wanaka. Driving through the valley to see the lake and the mountains surrounding it, I was in awe of the beauty. I wanted to explore those mountains, mountains I had seen pictured in friends photos, trails I had seen on maps, but being 48hrs before my big race, I resigned myself for walking around the town centre and having a hot chocolate instead. We did all the touristy things, wandered along the lake, took our photo at the famous Wanaka tree, visited the tourist information centre where I bought a few maps, just in case, and spent time just gazing at the mountains. I was slowly falling love.

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Being a tourist at the Wanaka tree

That night, chatting to Sim via email, he asked what I thought of Wanaka. I, of course, loved it and told him as much. His reply “Enough to live there?”. My head though, was full of my coming race and what that might bring, so I answered with a “maybe?” and left it at that, pushing the idea aside to think on later.

A few hours after finishing the race, I found myself back in Wanaka, standing in the lake, gazing once again at those mountains. I thought for a moment, maybe one day, if only…. That night I told Sim, yes, if we could it would be amazing, but I didn’t see how and there are the kids to consider. He said to leave it with him.

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We somehow found ourselves at Wanaka Lake again

By the time I got home a few days later, Sim was already researching options for us and how we could get over there. We made the decision not to tell anyone, including the kids, until we were sure things were going ahead. That may seem harsh, but with a child who doesn’t deal well with uncertainty, change and struggles with anxiety, we needed to have a solid plan in place before we broached the subject. Both Sim and I told a few key friends, in an attempt to curb our excitement and have an outlet for the ups and downs to come. Over the next few months we came unbearably close to finding a property only to lose it to another buyer in negotiations. As the months seemed to drag, Sim made a whirlwind trip to New Zealand to lock in finance and look at some properties in person. Within a week we had a place and it was finally happening.

Most people assume that I am the driving force behind this move, but it has been from Sim from Day 1. He loved Wanaka long before I did.  I’m just blessed that we both share a great love for mountains and water. I am so excited about the adventures we will have in our new space. There is so much to explore and learn. It is also scary. To pick up our family from our home in regional NSW and move to a new climate and new country, not to mention moving into town. Thankfully, running has taught me to be adventurous and that its ok to try and fail. Plus you never know whether something is right for you unless you give it a red hot try. I know the overweight, borderline alcoholic with low self esteem would never have thought running would have been something for her, but she gave it a red hot go and now look where she is headed 😉

 

The Things I Learnt From A 30 Minute Track Run

Yesterday I ran hard, on a track, for 30 minutes. It was hell. You see flat and hard are something I don’t do. Mostly because I find flat very boring but also, all the pretty places seem to involving climbing mountains and finding paths through forests. I’d much rather be there! As for hard, well my usual hard is very different to this kind of hard, more about that later. Having a coach makes you step out of your comfort zone and do the things you usually avoid. So, yesterday I ran around and around the track in the nearest town, as hard as I thought I could sustain for 30 minutes. It was an interesting half hour and I learnt a lot from it. There was a whole lot of internal dialogue going on, as well as a lot of observation of the process. Here are my thoughts on what I learnt.

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30min is a long time

My last race took me over 23 hours. You would think that a 30 minute run would be nothing, and to be fair it usually is. I get to the end of a usual short run and I’m left wanting more and wishing I could stay out there longer. Yesterday however the minutes dragged and when my timer went off to say I had done 20 minutes I cursed the space time continuum, my coach and all the “fast” runners I know. I tried to stay present, count the steps (counting is my “get up the hill without stopping” technique) but my eye kept wanting to see what the timer was up to, mostly because it seemed to be taking WAY too long. It was like time had slowed down, I kid you not!

Running for a time is harder than running for a finish line

When you run a race, with the exception of timed track events like a 12hr or 24hr, you know how far you have to go. So, if I’m running a 10k I know I want to go out relatively hard but leave enough in the tank so that when I get to 8km I can go harder. I also know that if I go harder, I’ll finish sooner, which is a great incentive to push myself. Plus there is that physical finish line that you can see that tends to spur you on. Yesterday I was running for time. As I said before, I don’t do that kind of hard. I ran a short trail race hard last year, but there was terrain (hills) and a physical finish line. I knew where I needed to conserve my energy and where I could afford to push and push hard. The whole pacing myself for a timeframe is new to me, I found it very difficult! I had a few goals I was pushing for, but not having run hard and flat for that long in quite awhile, I didn’t know if they were possible or pure fantasy. I decided that when I got to 2 minutes to go I would push hard, because to be honest, I was terrified I would push way to hard way to early and not be able to finish the task. There was, in my mind, no benefit to going hard at a certain kilometre mark because the finish doesn’t get closer according to the distance I’ve covered. When I hit 2 minutes I tried to gauge where my finish line would be and sprint hard to a certain tree, but I was wrong and then had to go further than that, which I did. As it was I finished and immediately thought “I should have pushed for the last 5 minutes instead” because I felt I recovered way to quickly.

I still have a lot of toxic thought processes

To be honest the toxic thoughts started way earlier than the actual run. When I was trying to figure out my goal pace for the run those little unhelpful thoughts were already starting and comparisons to other peoples runs being made. Sitting at a computer or in my car I can usually push those thoughts aside, but in the midst of a run, where you’re working really hard, your brain can really only focus on one or two things at a time and the fight to quiet those thoughts is a lot harder.

I do a fair amount of mental training to get me through my longer runs. There is also a lot of self reassurance that goes on and I am often asking my coach for external reassurance as well. Alone, on the track, with no pretty view or mountain climb to distract me, no one there shouting encouragement from the sidelines, the demons came out to play and made it abundantly clear that I still have a lot of work to do. Here I was, running the fastest I have EVER run for 30 minutes straight (yes, ever, in my whole life) and I knew I was running that fast because I had my pace showing on my watch and where do my thoughts go? “You know this is Jim, Laurie and Catherine’s easy pace, right? And you’re really struggling.” “I don’t think you can do this without taking a walk break.” “This is the hardest you can go and it’s still slower than other peoples recovery pace.” “Why do you even bother and try, you’re never going to be fast”. Really helpful brain, thanks for that.. Luckily I have comebacks for that, along the lines of “yeah, but I’m strong on the mountains” and “ultras are finished by the strongest and toughest, not necessarily the fastest” and the less eloquent “shut the fuck up and just run dammit”.

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“Celebrating” a PB with mixed emotions

When I finished I was engulfed with a sense of accomplishment mixed with disappointment, I had run the fastest I had ever run (Yay!!!) but I was slower than I had hoped. I had two main goals, hit 5km in under 30 minutes (never done that before) and reach 5.5km before the timer went. I ran 5.21km. Again the comparisons started and then the tears. Tears of “why am I so hard on myself”, “why aren’t I faster” and “why can’t I ever enjoy a *win* for what it is, without defaulting to comparisons and I could have done better?”. Like I said, still a lot of work to do.

Hills and 100k is easier than flat and 30min

Pretty much the entire run yesterday I spent reminding myself that if I can run 100km through mountains, I can get through 30 minutes of running hard around a grass field. I seriously found the latter much harder. Yes, it didn’t last as long, but it was harder, it was boring and it was relentless. On a mountain run you have ups that you hike, downs that you fly along, creeks that you cross, views that distract you, people that you chat to. There is so much going on, so much richness to the task, that for the most part the hardness is hidden and only comes to the fore when you let it. On the track there is nowhere to hide, there is no respite from the endless turnover of your legs at the same hard, relentless speed, no change in scenery, no easy distraction. There is just the task at hand, to run around and around, lungs burning, legs hurting, brain fighting. Give me the mountains any day.

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I’d rather be here than on the track

Posting times is confronting.

I think a lot of people who don’t really understand endurance mountain running think that I must run fast, to be able to cover those distances. I recently started posting my times on social media, mostly on Instagram and occasionally on Facebook. Some people are a little shocked at the slowness of my Personal Best’s. I guess that’s kind of part of the reason I’m doing it – to show people you don’t have to be fast. The amount of times I have had people come up to me and say “I would love to run this or that, but I’m not fast enough” is ridiculous. Quite often I will look at them incredulously, knowing that they are much, MUCH faster than I am and then proceed to tell them that it doesn’t matter how fast they are, if they want to do it they should just go do it. I have, for the most part, given up on trying to explain how slow I am, as people don’t believe me or don’t really get it. I get the whole “not fast enough” thing though, I seriously do! I have been the last runner, chasing the cut-offs, more than once, but dammit, my money is as good as the next persons and if I am physically capable and I meet all the criteria and cut offs then why shouldn’t I get out there and have a red hot go.

You would think from all this, that I have hated having to run hard. This block of training has been confronting and yes, it’s not my favourite thing I’ve ever done. Just this morning I messaged a friend saying I can’t wait until this block is over and I can get back to running trails, pretty much exclusively, 5 days a week. However, I am incredibly grateful to my coach for setting me these tasks. For over a year I have wondered what I could do if I was given the opportunity to just run hard, something I really don’t do in my usual training, so those questions are being answered. I also think a lot of what I have learned from these hard, flat session is going to serve me well in future adventures, both physically and mentally. Who would have thought you could learn so much from running around a field for half an hour?

For those playing along at home, this was my run yesterday:
10 minute Warm Up
30 minutes HARD
10 minute Cool Down

5km PB of 28min 46seconds, an improvement of 2min and 26seconds in the last 5 weeks.

If you are a data geek (like me) you can also follow me on Strava, just don’t be surprised if I don’t follow you back 😉

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See You On The Trails!

 

 

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

If you have read my blog or followed me on social media at all, you will know I have a story that I tell myself. When you think about it we all have stories we tell ourselves every day. They can be helpful stories that get you through your day or they can be a hinderance and hold you back. They might be something like “I have a green thumb” or “I suck at burpees”. The thing about these stories is they can often become self fulfilling prophecies. If you think you are a good gardner, you will probably invest a lot of time in it, enjoy it and excel at it. If you think you suck at burpees, you’ll probably not enjoy them and subsequently never improve at them.

When it comes to running I have two stories that I tell myself.

The first is my helpful story, that I am strong. It is a story that I have slowly written and cultivated over the past few years. I have invested a lot of time reaffirming this story and strengthening it because it helps me. My coach has also helped to constantly refocus on the fact that I am strong whenever I am struggling with my training. It has served me well in my running, particularly in the longer stuff because when it gets tough I can always fall back to “I am strong” and I can convince myself that I can get through, up this mountain, past this moment because of that.

The second story I tell myself is that I’m slow. It has become a story that I cling to. It is somewhat of a comfort, because if I know I’m slow and I tell everyone I’m slow then mine and everyone else’s expectations will be low. No pressure. If I come last or miss a cutoff its just because “I’m slow”. My coach is well aware of this story. Last year he had me run a short trail race as hard as I could, partly to show me that I’m not as slow as I think. Of course whilst being stoked with my result, I also put a whole load of qualifications on that run (most of the fast people I know weren’t running or were still recovering from big races held during the weekend prior, plus Strava always shows you just how slow or fast you are if you really want to look). When I came second at Northburn my immediate reaction was one of embarrassment and when telling anyone my result I would immediately qualify it with “but I was 10hrs behind the female winner, because I’m slow”.

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On the finish line at Northburn

Even just a few weeks ago in an email to my coach after doing some speedwork I lamented that “I’m strong to the moon and back, but oh so slow”. I will actually go on Strava and affirm to myself that yes, I am in fact slow in comparison to most other runners on there. I ignore the fact that slowness is relative. Yes, my speed is relatively slow to others, in fact my fast is some others recovery pace but it goes both ways, to someone else I am fast, yet I ignore that.

You see, I needed to reaffirm the slowness, because at the moment it is something that we are working on, focussing on.

The thing about these stories is that they are comforting, they are a known quantity. Its a comfort to know that when I’m out there my speed doesn’t really matter, cause hey! I’m slow! Now however, we are focussing on it, I’m trying to build speed and the thought that I may not be quite so slow is confronting. It brings about expectations, largely that I put on myself. What if I think I can be faster and I do a race and I fall short? It doesn’t even have to be a race, what if I expect I can run faster and I don’t? It brings about uncertainty. Despite always wanting to be faster there is something of a comfort of being able to fall back on the “but thats ok, thats what I expected, because I’m slow”.

I have a speed workout tomorrow. It is hard and it is scary. Hard because, well speed work is hard! Its also hard because I put expectations on myself. I get caught between wanting to be fast but also wanting to subconsciously confirm my story, my fallback, my comfortable space. I will celebrate my PB’s but usually I am also looking at how slow my fast is compared to everyone else. Its a story I need to rewrite, no matter uncomfortable or confronting it is, because its a story that I think is holding me back.

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The track can be very confronting