An Ultra Journey
Running 100km through the Blue Mountains
“Why am I doing this to myself? This isn’t fun anymore.”
This was running through my mind on a loop for nearly two hours from the 57km checkpoint – a low point of the race when I began to question everything.
One of the main reasons I run is to have fun, and it was tough when the experience deviated so far from it. But then I remembered that I also run to connect more deeply with myself and nature; a meditation of sorts. The funny thing is, on reflection, this low point during the race was about as deep as meditation and searching gets for me. My personal growth has always come from adversity and pain. Most ultrarunners will face the same question during a race. I believe this is one of the main reasons why we sign up in the first place. We know the race is going to push our bodies to near breaking point and test the outer limits of our mental, spiritual and emotional capabilities.
An ultramarathon was always going to bring some nerves, but lining up on the start line with an injury – knowing that I would be in pain from the first step – was beyond daunting.
Just three weeks before, I was told I had a hip joint impingement along with a labral tear.
With awareness and acceptance, I looked at this additional challenge the same way I learnt to approach life during periods of major depression and anxiety. I knew it was going to be hard and that it wasn’t going to be my best running performance on paper so in the days leading up, I adjusted my intentions and goals for the race. For me, this process was an act of self-love.
Even before the 57km checkpoint, I had already experienced an early dip. At the 35km mark, I had some quad cramps but the thing with physical dips is that they are easily overcome. In this instance, I hiked in to get some extra nutrition and salt. It wasn’t until the 50km mark that my hip started to get really angry and it was no longer just physical; it was now affecting me both mentally and emotionally.
As I hit the easier road section coming into the 57km checkpoint, I called my good mate and physio Alex Bell, founder of The Running Room. “Pricey! Didn’t expect a call from you bro. How’s it going out there? All ok?”, said Alex. I explained that with every step, a shooting pain went down my entire leg. Alex empathised with me, but assured me it was all part of my injury and that I wasn’t going to do further or permanent damage. This reassurance was ALL I needed to push through. I left that aid station without even sitting down, still on track to hit my target of sub-14 hours for the UTA Silver Buckle.
Unfortunately, that spring in my step was short-lived.
The next section had a savage descent down long and steep stairs. I jumped down a couple, which was overzealous of me; it felt like a truck had jammed my hip joint shut. I yelled out in pain and cursed at myself for being such an idiot. “Take the stairs easy”, I had told myself. I got carried away and paid the price.
I hobbled. I winced. “Is my race over?”, I thought. I had to walk and hike almost all of the next 8km section, which I would’ve typically run. This was rock bottom. I cried at one point, feeling defeated and beyond disappointed. “I’m not walking 35km”, I said to myself angrily. I didn’t think I could come through this patch. I was giving up.
The trauma of my past started flooding back. I had to let go of pride and ego and listen to my body, with a fast walk being all I could manage.
People who I worked so hard to pass earlier in the race were now passing me. It was soul-crushing. I tried to ride the wave, knowing it would pass. I held onto hope that my hip would somehow decide to work with me again, like it had for the first 50km.
I approached the 69km water point. I sent Tom a voice message letting him know I could hardly lift my left leg, tripping constantly over tree roots and rocks. He could hear that I was close to quitting. Tom returned fire on the voice message; his words of encouragement hit deep.
“Someone cares. I’m not alone in this,” I thought. And so I pressed on, staying as present as I could, just thinking about the next step. At one point, I was literally saying “left-right-left-right” in my head as I walked.
I made it to the aid station and subconsciously gravitated towards a big sign that said, ‘WITHDRAWALS’. A warm shower and dry clothes were only minutes away. That sign had more gravitational pull than the Moon. But I stopped. I called Tom who told me to think about it and not rush the decision, sit down and speak with the First Aid people.
After chatting and problem-solving with the First Aid lady, who gave me some ‘placebo’ Panadol, I decided to push on to at least the 78km checkpoint.
“You are superhuman”, I told myself.
“You have only just started to scratch the surface of your potential. The race starts now. Only 30km to go”.
In these moments, you have to tell yourself whatever is necessary to get moving again, and that’s what I did.
I put on my thermal long sleeve top, as it was freezing by this point. My heart rate and body temperature had dropped rapidly from being stationary for too long. Rest was a double-edged sword.
The first 500m back was a very slow walk. I felt frozen to the bone. I looked at a video that Tom had sent me from Sarah and Talulah – I didn’t even need to watch the whole thing as just seeing their faces was enough. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for everything I have in my life today, and the fact that I was fit and healthy enough to be out there in the first place.
My perspective suddenly shifted with a light bulb moment amidst the chaos; this WAS the test! This was why I was there. I started to talk to my hip like it was another entity; just like I had done so many times when my anxiety and depression engulfed my soul.
“I know you aren’t happy with me”, I told my hip. “But we can do this together. I will run the downs super easy, I’ll hike the ups, but you gotta give me the flats”.
It sounds weird to think that I was having a full-blown conversation with my hip but it worked. Now, my hip wasn’t hurting as much and hiking the ups left enough in the tank to make up time on the flatter sections.
Within minutes, my body was warmer and my heart rate was climbing back to where I needed it. In that moment, I remembered pushing through the pain with Lockie Clancy during ‘The Long Run’ and how during the second ultra in 5 days, at around the 80km mark, we both realised that our legs had stopped hurting. I think when you push for long enough, your brain gives up sending pain signals or something.
It was happening again and now, I was running the flats about as well as I had all day; a conservative 5:30/km pace seemed like a breeze. The downs were still excruciating but I accepted them for what they were, and as I promised my hip - I took them slow.
Although I was coming into the final 78km checkpoint on a high, I had already decided that that was enough. I had convinced myself and justified that dropping out was now reasonable. I felt content as I cruised along a nice runnable flat singletrack section.
The final 22km section of the course is arguably the toughest; certainly with 78km already in your broken body.
You have a steep 10km descent right down to the Kedumba Valley floor and then you climb all the way back out for 10km, finishing with the brutal 951 Furber Stairs. That is why the 78km checkpoint has a very high dropout rate. I had run this final section a few times in training so knew what was coming and I honestly didn’t think my body could take it.
I ran into the aid station with the Vipers lads, including Tom, cheering me on. The surge of energy and adrenaline was insane. Before I realised what was even happening, I asked for fresh socks and begun changing them while simultaneously eating a Vegemite sandwich and washing it down with coconut water.
I was going to finish this race!
The sun was now setting. It was already near zero with a freezing wind on top. I put on my race belt and Tom strapped in my poles, which would help me hike out of the valley more efficiently. Tom told me to go get after it, “finish this thing off, you got this brother.”
Back on track, I calculated that I had three hours to run, not walk, this section if I wanted to reach my goal. In the moment, I doubted it was doable, given that the section took me about two hours, forty-five minutes in training with only 10-20km in my legs. I now had 80km in my legs and I felt broken and freezing.
But I didn’t let that stop me. I started running, slowly but surely, at only a 6:00/km pace, where typically I’d be running this descent around 4:30-5:00/km pace. It was all I could manage to protect my hip. My quads and knees were also destroyed by this point.
It was now dark so out came the head torch. I looked up at the moon through the trees and had a moment to myself. I thought, “wow, how small I am right now in this universe. How incredible and amazing is this experience of running at night, seemingly alone, yet so connected.”
At this point, I couldn’t wait to hit the water crossing at the valley floor, signalling the finish of the worst of the descent. It was an agonising 8-10km but I remained positive and consistent with my pacing.
I tried not to think about the time and Silver Buckle, but it was hard not to. I did the maths again as I crossed the river; if I hiked really well, I might scrape in sub-14 hours. I knew I needed to be at the base of the Furber Stairs with 20 minutes up my sleeve.
I pulled out my poles and started powering up the first of the big climbs. I passed a few people who were moving like snails. My body temperature started playing games on me. One minute, I was burning up hot and sweaty, the next; freezing cold. Mental fatigue started to set in. I was not super experienced at running with a head torch on trails; my eyes were struggling to see and I tripped a few times.
When I hit the final singletrack section, there were many 50km runners hiking to the finish. They were amazingly supportive, moving off the trail and cheering me on as I dug deeper than ever before, grunting out loud. The clock was ticking with no time to waste.
I didn’t know how far off the Furber Stairs were. My elapsed time hit 13h:30m and I realised I only had 30 minutes until the Silver Buckle cut off; I thought I wasn’t going to make it. But then I rounded a corner and saw the checkpoint volunteer. I was at the base of the stairs! I couldn’t believe it.
All I had left was 951 stairs in 25 minutes with 99km already in my legs…
My legs were cramping and I was using the hand railing as much as I could to pull my body to the finish. At one point, I even started bear-crawling up the stairs to desperately keep my momentum going.
Then, I could hear the finish line announcer. I could hear the crowd cheering. I stepped up the final step and ran towards Scenic World, with only a few hundred meters to go. Tom was waiting there at the corner of the finish chute. He screamed with delight when he realised it was me, “SUB-14 BABY!!”.
I ran through the finish chute with my arms outstretched, elated beyond belief. I really soaked in those final steps, feeling like I was floating.
“We did it!”, I thought to myself. I threw my arms in the air, crossing the finish line in 13 hours 52 mins and 36 seconds. I collected my Silver Buckle with incredible pride.
UTA100 was so much more than just race day. I dedicated myself to my 4-month training program, 6 days a week, often waking up at 3am to get the sessions done. Running an ultra-marathon has so many similarities to the rollercoaster that is life. You will be thrown curveballs and not everything will go to plan.
Remember, you are stronger than you think. Get out there and experience life. Share it. Connect with others. Step outside your comfort zone. Do things that scare you. Push your limits. Discover your true potential. Fail forward. Learn. Grow. And don’t forget to have fun while you’re doing it. Life is too short.
Thank you to my incredible fiancée Sarah, for always supporting me on these challenges. You made so many sacrifices to allow me to chase this goal. I am beyond grateful for you, your unconditional love and support. Thank you again to everyone who helped my UTA100 dream come true. Tom, The volunteers, my coach Matty Abel, Vipers RC, Alex Bell, The Running Room, The 440 Run Club and most importantly my family.