I stood at the bus stop with Sim, my husband and also support crew for the day, waiting for the bus to take me to the start line of my first 100km race. The same finish line I had crossed exactly year early after competing in the 50km race. Within hours of finishing I knew I would be back next year to take on the bigger race, now known as UltraTrail Australia 100, through the Blue Mountains of NSW.
To an outsider it probably doesn’t make sense, to pick one of the toughest and most gruelling 100k’s as your first race, one where flat is non existent and you are always going up or down, usually steeply. Truth is I suck at flat running, I’d much rather be hiking hard up a steep hill than running along a flat trail, but that’s just me.
In the 12 months, between that particular 50k and preparing to start my first 100k, I had climbed many hills, sometimes repeatedly. I had faced my fear of heights, time and time again, to make sure it wouldn’t be a weakness. I had run in the early mornings before the sun had come up, into the night as the sunset and everything in between. I had learnt more about nutrition, about muscles, about recovery than I had ever cared to know before. There were constant emails to my coach, Matt, about training, heart rates, strategies, fears, fuelling and whatever else crossed my mind that was even vaguely race related. There were also messages to friends who had run longer ultras or TNF/UTA100 itself. That morning, twelve months later, I was different to the person who started the journey to the start line, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
On the bus Sim and I mused at how warm it was this year and how I wasn’t as nervous. I was excited and the butterflies were starting, but I didn’t feel the self inflicted pressure I usually feel at the start of an A-race. I was here to experience and to finish. I had time goals but they were not the most important thing. I wanted to finish, more than anything else, to do that and that alone would be a win. Anything else was icing.
We arrived just as the first wave of runners left and I briefly sent well wishes to my coach on the wind, knowing he was chasing his own big goals today. We found a quiet spot to just chill as wave after wave was called, I was in Wave 6, back of the pack, but I was happy with that. Comfortable in fact. As Wave 4 was called as spotted my friends Pete and Juanita through the crowd. Pete was also doing the 100k, in my wave, and Juanita was taking on the 50. I introduced them to Sim and we chatted while slowly preparing to start. As our wave was called I hugged Sim goodbye, telling him I’d see him at the Six Foot Track checkpoint, then made my way to the start chute with Pete. After a brief photo together and a quick hug from Angie and Kylie who had spotted us, I also bade Pete goodbye, moving myself to the back of the pack, knowing Pete is a much faster runner than I.
As I waited to set off I pretty much ignored everything around me. I kept my head down, fiddling with my watch until we began to move. It had started.
As we turned the first corner I heard my name and got a high five from Travis and Kelly who stood on the corner, so cool to see so many people you know so far from home. The first section is about 5km of road. An out and back, it is a deceptively long little hill and I knew from last year that I needed to be conservative here, so I immediately dropped to a hike. I fell in behind two men who were running the race together. One had done it a few times and was helping his friend to complete his first race today. He commented on how people were working way too hard if they were sweating and breathing hard already, which I have to admit I took comfort in, and that it was nice to see some others were being sensible too. I pretty much cruised the road section, keeping an eye out for friends, watching my heartrate and just enjoying the atmosphere. We finally hit the trail and I relaxed. This is where I wanted to be.
First view of the Three Sisters on our way down the stairs
It was slow going, lots of stairs (stairs we would meet again in some 94km and going up instead of down) and lots of people but generally moving comfortably. When we hit the section known as landslide, I was starting to get frustrated, I knew I could move faster but people were gingerly picking their way along the technical trail that I felt, for the most part, more comfortable jogging along. After a few “excuse me”s and requests to pass I had clear trail ahead of me and it was glorious. I jogged along, marvelling at the views, then the forest, the gentle curve of the trail and the lack of sounds other than the wind, I almost could fool myself that I was just on a training run. Then I hit the Golden Stairs. I was watching my heartrate carefully, resisting the urge to charge up what I knew was the first of many steep ups for the day. Its hard when everyone else is content to push and huff and puff up the stairs but your strategy is different. I resigned myself to jumping off every landing to let the stream of people through and making sure I kept to my own pace. As we came out onto Narrowneck I breathed a sigh of relief, my race plan was never to look at the whole 100km, I was doing a series of runs from aid station to aid station. The first run to Checkpoint 1, was the one I was most worried about as I was fearful of missing the cutoff. I knew it was only a km of fireroad until I hit the checkpoint and I was positive I could make it in time. I settled into a comfortable hike up onto the plateau, enjoying the view, smiling for the race photographers and passing words with fellow runners.
I breezed into Checkpoint 1 at exactly 2hrs. I filled my bottle with help from a volunteer and was on my way again in minutes. I felt good, I was happy I had beat the cutoff by 40min and now I was working my way to Checkpoint 2, Dunphy’s Camp, hoping I would get to meet an Instagram and FB friend who was volunteering there. After running along the Narrowneck Plateau for around 9km we hit single track leading down to Tarros Ladders, a set of aluminium ladders rigged on the cliff face especially for the run.
There was a long line up and we were told that there would be an 8-10min wait or we could take a diversion track of an extra 400m, I decided I would rather be moving and took off down the track, getting some more clear single track which was nice.
I was still getting frustrated on any single track that was downhill and slightly technical as people were moving slowly, slower than my comfortable pace, and I actually find it more slippy when I go slow on the downs, but I kept reminding myself I had a long way to go and taking my time was for the best. As we popped back out onto a dirt road I figured we must be getting close to the next checkpoint. I couldn’t remember how far it was exactly, I hadn’t, for once, memorised exact distances and what times I needed to be where. I was here purely to finish. The times I had figured out a few weeks before were more for Sim, so he had a vague idea of where to find me when. In fact, I didn’t even know what time it was, I had set up my watch so I couldn’t see, although I could work it out from the runtime ticking over at the bottom of my screen.
As I went up and over the fence into the checkpoint I spied Jamie on his phone and gave him some stick about it. After a quick hug, I walked in to refill both my bottles and was out again a few minutes later, looking forward to making it to the ridge at Iron Pot mountain and knowing that I would see Sim at the next checkpoint a little way after that. The climb up to Iron Pot is a steep one and by now it was getting very hot. It was an unseasonably warm day and being out in tracks through paddocks, where the heat reflected off the grass, made it even hotter. As I reached the top of the mountain I could hear the sounds of the didgeridoo and the clap sticks as the local land owners welcomed us into their amazing and spectacular place. Words can’t really explain the chills, the goosebumps or the feelings that welled up as I ran along that ridgeline. Something about the reality of actually being there and that yes, I was actually doing this. As I ran back past the local land owners I thanked them so much for being there, for making that part of the race so special. The elder thanked me back, saying they loved being out there, seeing people enjoy their place and then he commented that I had the most awesome shorts and that he loved the colours. Yep, everyone loves the duds!
The descent down off Iron Pot was again, frustrating, but once I asked to pass a few people I got a run on. I was starting to feel very hot at this stage, I remember hiking past a dam in the middle of the paddock thinking if it wasn’t so mankey looking I would dip my buff in it and how much of a relief that would have been. I was drinking well, having my electrolyte and water but I was starting to feel queasy in the stomach. I wasn’t worried about it. On every long training run and race there has been a point after the 30-35km mark where the same thing has happened. I usually feel a bit blah and yuk for a km or two and then the feeling passes. I was actually surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. We came out onto a road near some farm sheds, which I recognised from one of the many TNF100 movies I had watched, and fell into an easy jog beside a very long legged runner who was power walking. He commented that I was doing a nice steady pace and I replied that I thought he had an unfair advantage with his long legs. We jogged/powerwalked together to the base of the next climb where I dropped back to a hike as he continued to powerwalk ahead. As I began the climb, watching my heartrate carefully, I was hit with a wave of nausea. I was surprised, this wasn’t usual. When I got to the top of the hill I decided to have a toilet break and see if that helped. For a moment I thought it had, I started running down the road at a gentle pace only to find myself holding onto a tree, doubled over, vomiting on the roadside a moment later. A few people called out to ask if I was ok, to which I replied I was just having a moment and I’d be fine. I took a deep breath, took a few sips of electrolyte and then water and started walking, convincing myself that it was a one off and if I gave my body a moment it would settle and I would be fine. The nausea was coming in waves. Every time I started to run it would hit with force. Over the next 3km I vomited 3 more times. I texted my friend, Jill, that I had been vomiting every km and that I wasn’t keeping anything down. I was worried because I thought I had another 3km to the checkpoint at least and I couldn’t work out why this was happening. She rang me back, calm as ever and went through what was happening and what I was doing, while I kept walking as fast as I could bare. I got off the phone, in my head I was trying to work out what the fuck had happened, all while trying to smile for a photographer, when I realised I could see the checkpoint and that Sim would be there.
I walked into the checkpoint only 10min behind my “perfect day” goal time, but I did not know that at the time. Sim cheered me down the hill, telling me I was doing amazing, but he got no smile. I grimaced at him and blurted out that I had been vomiting for the last 3km while I underwent a mandatory gear check.
Sim immediately changed tack. He took me to where he had set up a began repacking my pack while I went to look for some watermelon, I was so happy to see some. I sucked on a piece as I walked back, still trying to figure out what the hell had happened. Sim asked me about the views from Narrowneck in a bid to distract me from getting down and I told him about the magic of Iron Pot Ridge, but I was worried. I was set to go and Sim told me I needed to keep moving, he would see me up top in a few hours and that I could do this. As I walked out of the checkpoint I spotted a guy dousing himself with a cup of water and I remembered wanting a wet buff earlier, so I wet my buff and continued on out the gate, onto the Six Foot Track. I got up to a jog and then stopped to vomit yet again. Dammit! Up came all the watermelon. I was feeling down. I couldn’t work out what had happened, why I was sick. I figured all I could do was keep moving, stopping whenever I needed to spew and get to the next checkpoint. Pulling out wasn’t even a thought, I just needed to stop the vomiting somehow and keep my fluids up in the meantime. It was starting to cool down now and I changed to sipping not only when my timer went but also if I felt even a hint of thirst. I knew I wasn’t drinking nearly the amount I did in training, but I figured keeping a little down was more important. I was also getting really frustrated with my pace, my heart rate was really low, I was hiking everything and continually being overtaken by people jogging or by people walking every time I stopped to “have a moment” with a tree. If I tried to jog or run the nausea would hit with a vengeance, so I walked. I got to the base of Nellies Glen and prepared myself to hurt. This was a climb I was worried about. I put one foot in front of the other, surprising myself at my pace considering my heart rate was still sitting so low. About halfway up I came across a guy lying on his back in a singlet, legs up the wall listening to music. I stopped to ask if he was ok, he said he was having a break and I cautioned him not to get too cold, I had just stopped to pull on my thermal as it was getting chilly. I was still getting waves a sickness but managed to get to the top without another spew, as the ground evened out I started to jog but again I felt sick, so I stopped, pulled out my headlamp as it was now dark and hiked on.
I came around the corner to find another runner stopped still in the middle of the track. As she heard me come up behind her she asked if I could please help her. I grabbed her hand and she explained her legs had locked up and she couldn’t move. Still holding her hand, I started walking with her, as she leaned on me we chatted about how things go wrong sometimes, even when you think you’re doing everything right. She had done UTA last year but pulled out at Six Foot Track, she was sure if she got to the aquatic centre she would be fine after a massage. Able to stand on her own, I picked up my pace and came out onto the road, knowing I must be getting close to the next checkpoint. I stopped, thinking about it and realised I needed my road safety vest, I called back to Fiona to double check, yes. I stopped to get mine out and put it on, Fiona walked passed explaining she didn’t want to stop for fear of locking up again. Once I had my vest on I caught up to her and helped her with her pack and vest and then I jogged off to the checkpoint, hoping the vomiting was gone for good now and that this was a turning point.
I came into the Aquatic Centre and Sim was waiting, cheering me in yet again. I was almost in tears, telling him I was still being sick, that now I was so far behind my goal times (I wasn’t) and that I was so frustrated because I had just walked so much that I could have normally run. He told me I was wrong and that we needed to get on with it. He took my watch off to charge it and I changed into a long sleeve top and clean, dry buff. We debated me taking the spare headlamp in my pack but decided I didn’t need extra weight and I would be fine without it to the next support point. I had a few sips of coke, hoping it would help my stomach like it had at the Glow Worm Tunnel Marathon and noticed another message from Juanita on the blanket and smiled.
I went to the bathroom, checking my pee (as you do) and happy to see it was pale meaning I was still absorbing some fluids at least. I got back to the blanket to my pack being ready to go. Sim handed me my watch and told me I had been there long enough. I stood up, put my pack on and walked across the auditorium as Sim cheered me and Fiona called out “Go Jo!”. I stepped out the door, into the cold and the night and I cried, this wasn’t how it was meant to be.
A little way down the road we turned into an easement that would take us back to the cliff tops. It was freezing cold, so I stopped to put my thermal over the top, worried about the cold making me worse. I started jogging, enjoying the cold on my face but annoyed at the constant drip from my nose. I saw the eyeshine of a fox and watched as it bounded away and then stepped off the path to do my biggest spew yet, getting my shoes and legs in the process, so glamorous!! I continued on the path as it wound its way through Katoomba and when I finally stepped onto the single track, that I knew would take me around to the Three Sisters, I felt some comfort in familiarity, I had done this part before. Up the path to Echo Point we heard the ring of bells and someone yelled “Great job, Jo!” I smiled at the use of my name (it was on my bib) and was met with a smile from Lucy Bartholomew followed by “Go girls!”. In disbelief, I wound my way across the platform to the where the trail restarted only to have Sim grab me for a hug and the man next to him thank me for helping his wife, Fiona. I smiled again and kept moving, worried about what I might say or feel if I stopped.
Here started the stairs. My sense of time and distance kind of get lost here. There were stairs. I went up, I went down. I stopped to breathe. I stopped to keep the nausea at bay. I stopped to spew. People stopped to ask if I was ok. I kept moving. At times it was a slow crawl and others I moved ok, not fast but ok. At 8:30, an hour after leaving the aquatic centre and after yet another spew, I messaged Sim to say I was worried about getting an electrolyte balance or dehydration. Little did I know that was the last spew for the race. I was taking it very slow, I was sipping as much as I could stand and every time I began to feel nauseous I would stop, do some yoga breathing and will myself to keep down what precious nutrition I had taken on board. It was somewhere in here that I had my one and only emotional meltdown, it was fleeting (or so it seemed) and consisted of me whining to myself for a moment that this wasn’t how it was meant to be, but I let myself feel that for a moment then kept moving. Sim met me just before the water point at the Fairmont and convinced me to get checked by the medics before continuing on. It had taken me over 3hrs to cover around 10km, he was understandably worried. I had now travelled a little over 69km.
As I sat at the waterpoint, waiting for the medic to become available, I realised I hadn’t been sick for quite sometime. I talked to a volunteer, under Sim’s watchful eye, and she felt as I was obviously very lucid and talking fine, I was in a much better state than some others she had seen. After explaining to Sim that I hadn’t felt dizzy at all, wasn’t stumbling and felt ok everywhere but my stomach he agreed that I should be ok as long as I continued to take it easy. It was going to be slow but be damned if I wouldn’t finish. As I left the checkpoint I grabbed a handful of potato crisps on a whim and crushed them up to eat, licking the salt off my fingers thinking they were divine.
I was worried about this section, I had found it tough here last year but I knew it was a whole different ball game tonight. I was still stopping occasionally to keep the sickness at bay but in between I was managing a steady jog and I could now stomach more Tailwind electrolyte and water than I had been able to since before the Six Foot Track. I got to Wentworth Falls and marvelled at the emptiness. Last year it had been full of tourists, tonight there was no one, just me. I stopped at the top of the falls to apply some paw paw cream, I could feel some chafing beginning and took that as a good sign, meaning I was moving more. By the time I hit the 75km marker on the Kings Tableland fire road I was buoyed, remembering my excitement at being halfway at this point last year and thinking tonight I was three quarters of the way. As I hit the road I fleetingly thought I should text Sim to let him know I was a few km of road to the checkpoint. The thought was lost as I stopped to breathe again, damned stomach. I jogged most of the way to the QVH checkpoint, happy I could manage that, my legs being willing, feeling good for the run, even and my heart still very low, I’m not sure why. As I ran into the checkpoint the DJ stopped to ring the bell to let everyone know a runner was arriving. There were claps and murmurs of well done, but none of them were Sim. I looked around, wondering if he hadn’t seen me. Not being able to find him I rang him. The conversation went like this:
Me: “Where are you?”
Him: “In the car on the way to the checkpoint…… Where are you?”
Me (laughing): “Um…I’m at the checkpoint”
Him: “What the hell? How? It took you over three and a half hours to do the last 10km and you just did another 10 in just over two??”
Me: “I’m feeling better”
Luckily I had everything I needed to get my nutrition sorted. We agreed I would sort myself with what I had and if he arrived before I left, so be it. As I got my Tailwind bottles and water sorted, whilst stuffing my face with potato chips and chatting to the volunteers (one of whom recognised me from Instagram – hilarious!!), I realised I would have to wait for Sim.
My headlamp had been stuck on the low setting for at least an hour and I was worried about getting through Kedumba in the dark as it was. I messaged him to let him know and went into the runners tent to relax and eat more chips. I chatted to a woman supporting her hubby who told me I would be done by sun up, which made me smile. One of my goals had been to finish before the sun came up again. It was lovely and warm in the tent, a little too comfortable, so I decided to wait outside in the support crew area. I stood beside the bleachers doing little bits of yoga to keep the blood flowing and checking my Facebook to get a boost from posts from friends. Another woman waiting for her runner noticed me and asked why I was waiting, I explained and she offered to help me out anyway she could, of course a headlamp is a hard one to help with. Sim soon arrived and he was so flustered and apologetic. Poor thing, he’d had a rough day already sending me out when I was obviously ill. I told him it was fine, I wasn’t worried, I was just so happy I was feeling ok, plus it was a little funny. I swapped headlamps to the one Buff had lent me as a back up, I debated carrying my dimmed one as well, but figured I should be fine. Sim checked I still had everything I needed, gave me a hug and shook his head in disbelief as I marched determinedly out toward Kedumba.
As I got onto the flat I ran, and goddess it felt good. For the first time in almost 10 hours I was able to get my heartrate up to my normal training levels. I ran down into the valley, not caring how much my legs ached, how cold it was or how far I had to go. I was so happy to run. I passed so many people who seemed broken, shuffling along, many on poles, reminding me how I had felt in those last hours of Kokoda Challenge (Kokoda Challenge is a 96km team event through the Gold Coast Hinterland) some two years ago. But not today. I was still fighting nausea but I was on the home stretch now, I refused to let it win, I only slowed to walk and breathe now, instead of stopping altogether. I did stop to pee however, another good sign! I knew this section would take time, I started singing to myself, chatting to people I passed, my legs were shakey if I stopped for any reason. Then my borrowed headlamp started flashing. I figured it was a warning so I turned it to the dimmer setting and dismissed it as a minor glitch. Onward I went. My mood was better, I was drinking well, although I was well and truly over the taste of Tailwind, I played a game with myself trying to remember what each section had looked like in the daylight last year, who had I spoken to at this point? As we started up one of the longer climbs I had been hiking along side a young woman using poles, she was hurting but started charging up the hill while I dropped back in pace, knowing this was a long long hill. She looked back startled and asked “how long does this hill go for?” To which I replied “For fucking ever! But that’s not very helpful is it? I don’t honestly know, its just long”. She smiled and dropped her pace as well. So we went up and down and up again, through the dark and cold and sometimes warm night. I took to carrying my gloves in my hand so I could put them on when it got cold but take them off when it got warm. It was easier than stopping to change tops and seemed to keep my temperature regulated. I was hanging out to see the last water point. I knew it was less than 10km to home from there and I could walk that in if I had to.
I heard the generators first, then saw the flood lights. I remembered the trail from here so well, at least I thought I did. Everything is different in the dark. I grabbed more chips and kept going. I was steadily overtaking people know, I moved strongly picking the next light and willing myself to get to it. Still on the dirt road, about 500m before we would move onto trail I passed a guy sitting on a large rock on the side of the road. His headlamp was off and he was gazing out into the bush. I enquired if he was ok and he replied he was fine “Just enjoying the serenity, soaking it in, we’re almost done you know”. He was right we were almost done. Its kind of bittersweet that point, I tried not to dwell on it for fear of crying. I had said all along that I knew if I got to Checkpoint 5 I would finish. But here, now, it was a reality and part of me didn’t want it to end. Yes, it had been a long day, yes, I was tired and couldn’t wait to have a shower and not smell like pee and vomit and sweat and dust and Tailwind, but once I finished it would be over, I would go back to being ordinary little me not an extraordinary person of endurance. These thoughts flitted through my head but I tried to ignore them and keep going with the task at hand. Up through the sewage works timing point, past the tents of sleeping volunteers and photographers, through ankle deep mud after managing to keep my shoes dry up until this point. Past more people, onto the single track, I kept waiting to see the 5km to go marker, knowing there were markers every kilometre after that. My legs were aching a lot now. Fallen logs and steps going down seemed cruel at this point, although I laughed as I winced negotiating them. Flashes went off at intervals as cameras with movement sensors took photos, it will be interesting to see how those turn out! I expect a few grimaces and shocked looks in mine! It seemed to be taking forever. I was at 4km out and hesitant to try and run for fear of tripping, I had been on my feet for a long time and my headlamp was dim now, so I moved as quickly as I felt safe to. Then the headlamp went dead. My first thought was “Really? Seriously? Are you kidding?” I laughed, ah well, what’s one more thing? I got out my phone for a light and searched for my backup torch. I found it and unceremoniously shoved everything back in my pack, worried that if I lost something I would undoubtedly get a finish line gear check foisted on me. I got to where the stairs up started, not the actual Furber stairs, but the first few little runs of steps. I was happy to find going up was ok, easier than down by a long shot. I overtook a few people struggling on these, shaking their heads as I rhythmed my way up. I passed the bottom timing point, holding my torch in one hand, other hand on the rail and started going up. I knew it would take time, it’s a long way, so I counted the number of stairs, losing count most times before I got to 100, but not caring, it was just to pass the time. About halfway up I messaged Sim to tell him I was almost done.
I was trying to not think about anything but the numbers, not what I had been through, not how far I had come, not that the finish line was so close, just the stairs, how many was I up to?
I hit the wooden ramp and I knew I was practically there. I ran past another timing point, perturbed it didn’t beep, fleetingly worried that someone might think I cheated if it didn’t register. Then I heard my name, not just once but a few times, from people, not just Sim. I was taken aback. No way. I got to the top of those three stairs to hear the cheering and calls get louder and I was overwhelmed. The tears started to come, I shook my head as I ran down the shute, past where I had stood some 23hrs ago waiting to start. I leapt over the finish mat.
Fuck yes! I did it! It wasn’t pretty, in fact it was hard and awful and ugly in parts and yet that made it even more worth celebrating. I was given my medal and my finishers towel and then Sim just held me. I was home. I closed my eyes and was happy I had finished. I opened them to be surrounded by my amazing trail friends. They had been watching my progress through the night and had come to cheer me on to finish. As I hugged each one I was in a kind of disbelief. That they were here, to see me… And then my coach, Matt, stepped forward and hugged me and I was floored. Overwhelmed.
I want to gush here about my amazing husband, about the friends who were there with me at the finish and also in spirit, about my incredible coach, who had finished the 100k some 12hrs earlier, but I think you have all read and heard it all before. So let me just say because of them the the experience was not only richer, but possible.
So, now how do I feel about the race? I am proud. Proud that I pushed through some tough times to get to the good. I was under my C goal and finished before the sun came up again. I learnt a lot, about what I can do, what I can push through and about what I would do differently next time. I am a little disappointed, I think I could have gone sub 20hrs and got a shiny belt buckle, if only… but maybe the lessons mean more, in the long run. If it had been a perfect day, a perfect run, maybe it wouldn’t mean as much?