Saturday, 5 December 2015

Kepler Challenge 2015

With the growth of trail running there is no such thing as an "off season". For the most part in Australia we don't have seasons which define the end of the trail running season, so potentially you can run all year round, year after year doing quality trail races. There are so many races on offer all year round now that it's necessary to create your own "off season" in order to allow the body to relax and reset the mind, both of which are necessary to be motivated enough for future races. For me I've already started to wind down and am doing the next couple of races for my own self interest and pleasure. To finish the 2015 calendar year I was once again fortunate enough to run the Kepler Challenge (60km), NZ. This was my third trip to Te Anau for the event, having run the Challenge in 2014 and the Grunt (27km) in 2011. For this trip across the "Ditch" I was accompanied by my parents.

My training for this year's race hadn't been very specific. I still did in excess of 100km weeks on the trails, but I hadn't been doing any long distance tempo runs. In the weeks leading up to Kepler I had started doing intervals once a week at the local oval, consisting of multiple runs at 90% effort, broken up with short recovery periods. I'd been doing these with faster friends in an effort to keep my efforts honest. Brian had been joining me for some of these sessions, even though he might have sat out one or two laps of the oval. 

At 6am the Kepler Challenge kicked off in the early dawn light. There is just enough natural light in this early stage of the event to distinguish the trail, and its occasional hazard, under the tree canopy. I was comfortably cruising along the early stages of the race as the trail ran alongside Lake Te Anau. I was happy with my early pace, which was no where near that of Ruby Muir and Zelah Morrall who quickly ran off out of sight. On this type of course they are two runners who stand above the rest. Zelah is the current course record holder, having set it in 2003, and there was speculation that Ruby might have been after the record this year, so there was no use in trying to tear off trying to keep up with those two. 

At Brod Bay (5.6km) the trail abruptly turns from near flat running to an incline that in places is just steep enough to want to walk, but is still runnable. Given my year of predominantly running Skyraces I wasn't going to walk unless I absolutely had to.
Lots of opportunities to see where you are going and were you have come from. Kepler Challenge Facebook.
I reached the Luxmore Hut checkpoint (13.8km) in third place. While I was getting my gear checked at the mandatory inspection, I saw Fiona Hayvice arrive at the checkpoint. We left close together and spent the next few kilometers, running along the exposed ridge line within sight of each other. On the descent, with seemingly endless switchbacks, down to Iris Burn Hut checkpoint (28.4km) I managed to close the gap to Fiona and we pretty much arrived at the checkpoint together.  
The views are gorgeous from the top. Kepler Challenge Facebook.
 It was along the back part of this course, where the trail is fairly flat as it runs alongside Iris Burn tributary where I lacked the speed, and probably the determination, to keep up with Fiona. I quickly started to lag behind and watched her depart into the distance, occasionally spotting her ahead on the straighter, more exposed sections of trail. Usually I'm more competitive and would chase after people, but my mind and body were in holiday mode and I was quite content to just enjoy my time on this gorgeous trail. 

A short way out from Rocky Point checkpoint (36.1km) I was caught and passed by Jean Beaumont. I'd met Jean at the Hounslow Classic a few months prior. Hounslow was more of an introduction, and running with her at Kepler was a good opportunity to develop that a bit further. Jean slowly edged out a lead and the gap between us slowly increased. As with Fiona I wasn't in any particular urge to chase after her, I was just enjoying the race run along the Kepler Track. Perhaps if I'd had Mick Donges encouraging me along this section of trail, like last year, then things might have been different.
I look way too exhausted for such a flat section of trail. Back Country Runner.

I was enjoying my run so much that it was a rather rude shock when I started to hear the finish line announcer's voice radiating down the trail. Crossing the Kepler Challenge finish line, and ending the trail running calendar year, in 6:31:46 was a feeling of elation and relief.  My focus for the year had been Oceania Skyrunning. I had focused on keeping myself fit and healthy for the entire year, while constantly fearing an unexpected injury. To get through my target races for the year without injury was very satisfying. There has been a lot of discussion about ultra trail runners burning themselves out by racing too much. I think this year I was able to train sustainably and peak at the right times, and fortunate enough to get results that I worked for and sometimes fluked. Now is the time to enjoy the festive season.

P.S. Brian thought that it was possible for me to run 6hrs at Kepler, given my training, however it turned out that I ran near perfect splits for 6:30. In hindsight I'm pretty pleased with the way that I managed to pace myself over the course. I got to enjoy the trail just that little bit longer.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Hounslow Classic, 68km, 2015

These race reports of mine are written primarily for myself, so that I can reflect on events surrounding trail races. I think it's important to remember what worked and what didn't so that faded memories don't distort the real story. I'm writing this report so that I remember to give Hounslow Classic the full respect that it deserves! There are so many aspects of this course that are intimidating; the 68km's, the technicality of the terrain, the +/-4100m shared over the 4 major ascents balanced with the 4 major descents. This course has the potential to chew you up and spit you out. 

The Hounslow Classic is located in the Grose Valley, just north of the upper Blue Mountains town of Blackheath, NSW, with the race hub at Govetts Leap. This part of the Blue Mountains are synonymous with imposing vertical sandstone cliffs which the course negotiates numerous times in several locations. For these reasons alone I just had to throw my hat into the ring and sign up. I love running in the Blue Mountains, and the lure to run in an area of the mountains I don't usually focus on was irresistible.
Justine Medin showing how big the valley is on a training run.
None of the climbs out of the Gross Valley are easy. From the valley floor they start rising at a respectable grade which can be considered as runnable, to an extent. This runnable grade wears away at the legs quickly and the pace slowly grinds from a high cadence run to power walking strides up these lower valley slopes. The further you ascend the steeper the grade, until you reach the bottom of the spectacular sandstone cliffs. The trails cutting through these cliffs are narrow and steep. To ascend these sections you often need to resort to a mix of hands on knees to help push yourself up and hand over hand using the available balustrades. Opportunities to run are extremely limited, until you reach the top of each climb. Every time I trained on the course I'd try to run further up the slopes before having to walk, or practice a better line to descend. I slowly discovered the places where I could push a little harder and areas where I needed to back off and either recover or conserve myself.
View from Lockley Pylon.
The Hounslow Classic was my first race following a fairly lengthy southern hemisphere winter break, with my last race being Mt Difficulty in New Zealand. Pretty much every second weekend I’d be up on the Hounslow course doing reps of Perrys Lookdown, or reps to Lockley Pylon, occasionally mixed with a few reps up to Govetts Leap or loop through the Grand Canyon. During every training session on the course I felt like a yo-yo running down into the valley before climbing up out of the valley. To ensure I did the desired amount of climbing I would drop down from Perrys, then do two reps from Blue Gum Forest up to Lockley's, which ensures that the last ascent of the session would be back up to Perrys and therefore the car. I find it best to remove unnecessary distractions during training, like returning to the car half way through a training session.
A bit of pre-race nervous chatter and sand bagging.
For me the worst part of any race is race morning. I often have a restless night’s sleep before a race, and the early morning starts means no sleep-in.  Then there’s the tough decision of “what do I wear”, as the clothes I picked to run in the night before no longer seem suitable to wear come morning. There is also the rechecking of the race pack, as if items that I’d previously packed the night before had disappeared and I have to guess the missing item. This series of events happens before I leave the house, again as I exit the car, and occasionally just before the start. The only thing that settles me down is the call to the start line.
The end of the first short loop. Hounslow Classic Facebook
The first couple hundred metres of the Hounslow Classic is up a bitumen road (the only bit of bitumen on the course), followed by another few hundred metres of descent, which sets the tone for the rest of the race, up down, up down, you get the gist. This part of the course is generously wide which allows runners to spread out and find a little space for themselves. The starting pace was nice and leisurely which allowed me to slowly warm up and loosen up. It normally takes me about 20 minutes of running to start getting into race mode so I had no complaints about the early pace.

After this little loop we started on the course in earnest. Being an out and back course, every descent would become an arduous ascent on the return. The race morning could not have been better. After early morning reports that it was raining in Blackheath, the weather cleared before the race to reveal this part of the Grose Valley’s spectacular beauty. As the first part of this course meanders along the cliff towards Evans Lookout the views over my left shoulder revealed the large ascents and descents that lay ahead. It is a natural beauty that us runners would respect in a very unique way, namely blood, sweat and/or tears.
The trick to trail running is to not touch the ground, like Maggie Jones and I.
I ran the first part of the race with Maggie Jones. I wasn’t expecting her to be up the front, but she kept a comfortable pace and there was no need to push any harder at this early stage. The open trail along the cliff line ended abruptly at Neats Glen carpark, where the trail turns sharply left, marking the descent into the leafy Grand Canyon track. This is where I thought I would pass Maggie but she was surprisingly quick on the descent and through the valley floor. I started feeling a little out of breath trying to stay with her. The first part of the descending trail is nicely landscaped, which gives you a false sense of security and draws you further down. It is not long however that the trail slowly changes and gives way to a more technical trail. The canyon is very picturesque and a nice place to dawdle in, though not so in the early stages of an ultra trail race. Generally I kept my position on the trail as it followed the river down to the valley floor beyond. There are sections of trail that cut in under overhanging rock formations where the head height is reduced and being small has its advantages. A little further down the trail, still on the descent into the valley, the trail is interrupted by a landslide which makes the trail almost indistinguishable. A little “local” knowledge helped in this area as the “better” route is loosely marked with red and white flagging tape.
One of the creek crossings in the Grand Canyon.
Shortly after the landslide section, the trail becomes more runnable and I enjoyed the feeling of gliding through the valley floor, listening to the babbling river beside me, while keeping a wary eye out for snakes. The rest of the trail back up to Govetts Leap is mostly runnable as it follows the Govetts Leap Brook from Junction Rock via Rodriguez Pass. The trail here slowly rises at a moderate runnable grade. The further you go however the more stairs start to appear and the steeper it gets. The defining point is at the base of Trinity Falls, as this marks the ascent up the cliff face. It is not a vertical ascent, but a tough slog up a track which cuts its way through the natural features of the sandstone cliff. It was at Trinity Falls that I edged past Maggie and tried to gap her on the ascent.
Coming up out of the Grose Valley for the first time. Hounslow Classic Facebook.
As I neared the top of the cliff, and the race hub at Govetts Leap, I could hear the cheers and cow bells ringing for the runners ahead. Once at the top I located Brian at the checkpoint who resupplied me then I did a quick check-in/check-out before departing for the long out and back section to The Pinnacles, via what seems like the most indirect route, probably because it was.
Feeling relieved that the dirt road section had come to an end at Perrys Lookdown. Hounslow Classic Facebook.
The next three kilometers were much like the first, where the trail meanders above the cliff line, this time with the views over my right shoulder. After a quick loop around the Pulpit Rock monument the trail goes up onto a dirt road. This is the section I liked least. All my training had been on the hills and technical trail. While running on this dirt road out to Perrys Lookdown I felt as though my speed was not much faster than the earlier climb up Rodriguez Pass. Although it is fairly flat, with little variation in elevation, I expected to be overtaken any moment by the rest of the field. I took consolation in the thought that I could make up any lost time on the following leg. It was around this time that the field started to spread out and I spent most of the time running by myself.
A bit of hands on knees action while climbing up to Du Faur Head. Clarke McClymont Facebook.
Between Perrys Lookout and The Pinnacles the trail descends down in the valley once again to Blue Gum Forest, where it crosses Govetts Creek via a natural log bridge (large fallen tree) and ascends the other side to Du Faur Head and Lockley Pylon before flattening out for the remaining stretch to The Pinnacles. The descent down the sandstone cliff from Perrys is very steep and a slip or trip could result in dire consequences. Given the amount of practice I'd had on this steep part of the course I ran down in a pretty reckless manner and managed to catch Ewan Horsburgh who was suffering a bit with cramps but seemed in good spirits. Once at the bottom of the cliff I opened my stride and cruised down the groomed trail as it descends down to the valley floor. Once across the log bridge my goal for the climb up to Lockley Pylon was to reach the top before the leader came back through on his return journey, half way up the climb I caught up with Loughlinn Kennedy who I'd meet on an earlier training run. It was Loughlinn's  longest distance race to date he was struggling a bit in the heat as it was starting to get very warm on this part of the course. I managed to scramble my way to the top of the climb before meeting Ben Duffus (eventual race winner) just after Lockley Pylon. Behind Ben there was a reasonable gap before I started seeing the chasers. I was keen to get the last bit of this section over as soon as possible. The trail on this side of the valley is comprised of lots of loose sharp rocks which make running difficult as you need to dance around in order to find suitable footing. It is also a section that I find goes on and on and on, hence a section that I tended to avoid during training.
"Do I really have to do it again?" Rebekah Markey Facebook.
At The Pinnacle checkpoint I was greeted by the Markey Family from my local running club Berowra Bushrunners. They were manning The Pinnacles checkpoint, which is also the turnaround point on the course. It was good to have familiar faces which goes a long way towards helping ease the anxious and quick checkpoint turnaround. I headed out for the return journey back over the same trail that I’d just completed, crossing paths with every other runner still out on the course, on their way to the Pinnacles. To keep myself motivated I played a game on the return whereby I wanted to reach a particular tree, or hill, or rock before seeing particular people. The next girl I saw was Maggie, followed closely by Lucy Bartholomew. Judging by the gap I guessed they would be having a good tussle on the return.

What I like most about trail running is how friendly we all are as a collective group. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are in the field, people are equally supportive. It makes it a pleasure to participate in events such as these where you are toughing it out on the same course together. There were lots of positive and encouraging comments being exchanged on this return trip and it made the return journey just that little bit quicker and more enjoyable. Meeting the sweepers while ascending Perrys marked the end of the field and a return to solemn running.
Feeling and looking a little exhausted on the return to Perrys Lookdown checkpoint.
There was a small but supportive crowd of spectators at Perrys Lookdown and after another quick refuel at the checkpoint it was onto the dreaded dirt road section again. Edwin Perry managed to reach the checkpoint just ahead of me, but I managed to transition quickly and left ahead of him. He put his long legs to good use and soon caught me and then sped off. Not long after Loughlinn reappeared and he looked a lot better then the last time I saw him. Loughlinn and I ran a bit together until he got to fast and I had to drop back. About halfway along the road section rain drops started to drop lightly out of the sky. Up until then the day had been almost perfect. In typical Blue Mountains style, the weather changed rapidly, this time with rain that slowly developed into a deluge, and briefly hail. I’m fortunate to have an awesome raincoat, so I put it on and it managed to keep everything above my waist dry, until the rain eased, and eventually stopped completely.

When I reached Pulpit Rock I was expecting to encounter more bushwalkers on the trail, but the rain had deterred most of them and the trail was generally free for me to run freely. I arrived at Govetts Leap once again for a final refuel before heading down into the valley one last time. Mentally this was the most difficult part of the race, to leave a checkpoint in which I would finish some 2.5 hours later. I can only imagine how hard it would be for those runners who were struggling to leave the checkpoint to complete the last loop.

I didn't see anyone again till the bottom of Neates Glen when I caught up with Andrew Lee. Andrew was struggling, but he hid it well with his positive attitude. We had a little catch up before I pushed ahead to finish what I'd started.

As I emerged from the Grand Canyon track I was greeted by my young nephews who had been prowling the trail waiting to see me come through. They don’t often get to see me race so this was a novelty for them. Their expectation was that I’d stop and have a chat or play with them on the trail. They were not impressed when I continued running up the switch backs and they couldn’t keep pace. I kept hearing their voices call out " Aunty Beth, please slow down". They unsuccessfully attempted to cut large sections of the switchbacks. It proved to be very amusing in this late stage of the race. They did manage to sort themselves out and get a lift around to Govetts Leap just in time to see me finish.
That was one welcome finish line. Clarke McClymont
After all the ascending and descending the last 50m of course is a gentle incline up to the finish line. As much as I wanted to walk it the gathered crowd kept me honest and I jogged up to the finish for the win in 9:45, 7th overall.
Post race debrief with Lucy Bartholomew (2nd) and Maggie Jones (3rd).
Mountain Sports continue to put on fantastic events and this is certainly no exception. Race Director Sean Greenhill managed to put together a truly challenging course surrounded by some of the most stunning views in the Blue Mountains. I'm sure he pulled strings to ensure good weather too. To top it off the flora was is full bloom, including numerous waratahs.
Hounslow Classic, 68km podium. Hounslow Classic Facebook.
My win at the Hounslow Classic also allowed me to secure the Oceania Skyrunning Series for 2015. I’ve really enjoyed participating in the series and competing in 4 new Skyrunning events:
The Hillary, 80km, NZ
Buffalo Stampede, 75km, VIC
Mount Difficulty, 43km  NZ 
Hounslow Classic, 68km, NSW. 


Saturday, 13 June 2015

Mt Difficulty Ascent, NZ, 43km 2015

The name said it all. In hindsight I probably should have heeded the warning. My third race for 2015 was in New Zealand at the Mt Difficulty Ascent, 43km'ish with +/-3600m (thereabouts), which was also my third new race of the year. It wasn't necessarily planned that way, however it was just the way things panned out for me. 
Course overview and profile. Mt Difficulty Ascent.
Information about the event was pretty basic if not scarce. I relied mostly on Facebook banter as to what was expected. The two stand out topics were the steep gradients that were "off trail" and the erratic winter weather, both of which lived up to the pre-race hype on race day.

I flew into Queenstown and then headed over to Bannockburn/Cromwell, NZ with Mum as my chaperon. It might have been the allure of New Zealand in winter, or the fact that I was racing once again, or perhaps it was the fact that the race HQ was in a winery! Either way Mum was pretty keen to join me on yet another overseas running foray. Unfortunately for her she broke her arm the week before we headed over, but fortunatley it didn't disrupt her travel plans too much.
The Mt Difficulty terrain was a little rugged. Mt Difficulty Ascent Facebook.

The evening before the race Mum and I made our way to race briefing. The usual items got addressed along with the associated hazards of the race. Note for next time; don't take Mum to a race briefing where she listens to all the possible ways you can injure yourself, as all she will hear is "do this and you'll die". 

As the lazy winter sun started to creep over the horizon I assembled outside the winery, along with the other runners, for the 8am start. It was a group start for the marathoners (ANZ Skyrace) and half marathoners. There was a small list of mandatory gear for this event and looking around it appeared that most runners had not heeded the Race Directors advice to don the whole kit. Being one one of the non-Kiwi runners I was attired in the whole mandatory kit, plus a few extra items.

As we headed off in a group I spotted Whitney Dagg (eventual winner) and Jo Johansen (2nd), both of whom where two runners I wanted to stay in touch with. For the first few kilometers I ran with Fiona Hayvice along a fairly tame section of road and 4WD trail which was a good little warm up. This section was over quickly and the course turned off trail for a short scramble up a hillside known as Nipple Hill, then down again. At the top of the climb we had to climb over a barbed-wire fence. During the manoeuvre I managed to snag my glove on a barb then proceeded to watch it slip off my hand and be taken by the wind back over the fence. The sad look on my face must have prompted a fellow runner to pick up on my distress and he kindly retrieved it for me. I was very grateful for his gesture. 

This mix of trail essentially set the tone for the rest of the course, comprising well defined tracks interspersed with "off trail" sections marked with orange tape and occasional lengths of fixed rope. The terrain on these sections comprised exposed rock with small solid tufts of wild thyme which proved to be a nice form of aromatherapy during the race.
The rope proved useful while tackling the steep gradients of Nipple Hill. Crank Photos.
After the first little up and down section we then returned to a formed trail, it wasn't long before markings took us "off trail" again, this time for a 500m ascent over 1km. This is European skyrunning type grades (50% gradient), which is exactly the reason I was looking forward to this event. I was after a relatively local event that had some stupidly insane gradients. At the top of the ascent we picked up another formed trail for a while before veering off along a fence line and down a steep descent marked with rope.

Some descents looked a little treacherous.
There was a checkpoint at the bottom of this descent where the half marathoners were directed back towards the finish line (winery) and the marathoners were directed towards the biggest climb of the day up Mt Difficulty, 1020m ascent over 3km. This was a big slow climb that was entirely "off trail". The higher we got the better the views got, but it was difficult to appreciate it with the icy winter wind cutting through me. We had been warned at briefing that there might be strong winds and they were not wrong. I dared not stop moving in case I froze. Near the top of the Mt Difficulty ascent I was joined by Bernard Robinson. I always enjoy making friends on my runs, even in races. The gusty wind made it difficult to talk and I found myself being blown into Bernard on a few occasions. There were times when I tried to run and when I had both feet off the ground I found myself being blown sideways. It was better when we changed places on the trail as he proved to be a useful windbreak, more useful than I was to him.

The steep bits were long and steep. Steve Neary Facebook .

The remainder of the race was a relatively gentle descent off Mt Difficulty on the leeward side of Bernard.  I crossed the line in a fairly casual marathon time of 6hrs 19min for 4th place. I'm glad that the regions wine is smoother than the terrain.

I turned up to the Mt Difficulty Ascent to test myself and test myself I did.

P.S. - "Off trail" loosely stands for, any which way you please as there is no defined trail.
Panic stations. Kawarau Bridge Bungy.
A spontaneous end to my latest trip. This is the wind blowing me back up again.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon, 75km, 2015

It is always a frustrating experience to be injured, more so when it means being unable to run and missing an event. Last year I was impaired by an injury which resulted in me missing the inaugural Buffalo Stampede in 2014. I did however make the journey to Bright, Victoria, to spectate which only fueled the fire to return the following year and attempt this Skyrace.
Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon Profile.
Fast forward a year and after some cautious training, I made it to the event ready to race. This year's Buffalo Stampede was also the Skyrunning Oceania Continental Championship with respective titles up for grabs in the SkyMarathon and Ultra SkyMarathon distances. Runners from Australia, New Zealand and abroad assembled to test their abilities on this Australian Skyrunning course. The Buffalo Stampede had been expanded from last year to include three race distances; 32km (Sky 26'er) with +/-2000m elevation gain/loss, 75.5km (Ultra SkyMarathon) with +/-4900m and 41.4km (SkyMarathon) with +2930m/-1940m held over three consecutive days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. The race that I targeted was the Ultra SkyMarathon with its out and back route from Howitt Park on the banks of the Ovens River in Bright to the top of Mt Buffalo and back. 

The first race of the weekend was the 32km, aka Sky26'er, which was altered and subsequently extended at short notice, due to risks associated with recent fires on the original course. The change to the intended route messed with runners heads, but it was a reminder that in trail running you need to be flexible and quick to adapt. The initial pace out of the starting chute was fast at the beginning, after all it was a "sprint" event, but judging by the spent looks on runners' faces back at the finish line the course had done its job of testing all who attempted it. The nett result was that the first day of racing had set the tone of excitement and a little trepidation for the races to follow. 

I was pretty happy to arrive at the race start line injury free. I had been over sections of the course a few times since the race was originally announced and was looking forward to putting all the different sections together. The female race field for the Ultra SkyMarathon consisted of the usual Aussie and Kiwi suspects; Julie Quinn, Jo Johansen, Whitney Dagg, Gill Fowler, Shona Stephenson, most of whom had bested me in trail races before. The only dark horse amongst the female field was Landie Greyling from South Africa, whom I was yet to race against.

The 7am Saturday morning race start of the Ultra SkyMarathon from Howitt Park in Bright saw the usual surge of runners in their eagerness to traverse the course. As usual I got swamped by runners, but I wasn't concerned as the trail is wide enough to overtake when needed, and I knew that my conservative pace would see me work my way back through a large portion of runners ahead. Running through the parklands of Bright I settled in behind Gill and Julie for awhile and soon the runners started to separate as the terrain started to rise, signaling the first major ascent for the day. The ascent followed a single trail mountain bike track alongside one of the many fire trails carved into the hillside. The ascent was very steep and I was able to start overtaking people as their earlier enthusiasm was reeled in the higher we got. A short distance up the ascent I passed Shona on the side of the track struggling with her head visor after it got caught in her hair. Fortunately for Shona a nice guy had stopped to help her untangle her hair. Note to self, don't wear a visor without having a tight ponytail. Nearing the top of the first ascent at Mystic, I saw Gretel Fortman who was spectating and encouraging runners up the hill. Gretel informed me of the gap to the other girls ahead, which was only a few hundred meters. I knew the next section into Bakers Gully was very steep and I was confident in my ability to descend quickly and catch up to the girls ahead. I opened my stride on the descent and was able to pass Gill going down this section. I knew Gill would be taking the descents cautiously having recently rolled her ankle badly in the early stages of the Mt Buller Skyrace two weeks prior.   
Summitting Clearspot. Skyrunning ANZ.
Having reached the bottom of the descent at Bakers Gully it was a short section of flat before the trail started to rise again for the second big ascent of the day up to Clearspot. It was on this ascent I was able to catch and work my way in front of, though very slightly, the leading girls of Whitney, then Landie. 
Descending Clearspot. Justine Medin.

The three of us all ran close together on the descent down Warners Wall then on into the Buckland Valley checkpoint. Landie started to gap me when I paused briefly to refuel as she kept on running through the checkpoint. Landie was out off sight before I got to the fire trail on the other side of the valley. Whitney managed to over take me as well, Bugger!, but I stayed within sight of her throughout the valley and over Keating Ridge to the next checkpoint at Eurobin Creek. 
First time through Eurobin Checkpoint. Buffalo Stampede.
I left the checkpoint before Whitney and hoped to put a gap between us on "The Big Walk" climb (+1128m over 10km), but every time I turned around she was there. I couldn't go any faster as I knew there was still a along way to the top, let alone the finish line. I really didn't want to push it too hard if I didn't have too but I was definitely feeling the pressure.
Almost at Mt Buffalo Chalet.
The higher I ascended up The Big Walk the more the trees thinned out until the view started opening up across the valley and mountains beyond. The single trail crisscrossed the bitumen road and I was spurred on by the occasional cheer from passing vehicles. I chanced a few looks over my shoulder and occasionally glimpsed Whitney charging up the mountain behind me which helped to keep me focused and not allow my pace to slacken. The ascent seemed to take forever and it was a relief to finally reach the Mt Buffalo Chalet checkpoint for the start of the "lollypop" out and back section. It was a bit disappointing to find out from my crew that Landie had extended her lead slightly, so my focus switched from chasing to being chased.

Just as I started the 7km out and back section to Chalwell Galleries I crossed paths with Tom Owens (leading male and eventual winner) heading back to the Chalet. Not long afterwards I crossed paths with Andrew Tuckey (2nd place male and Oceania Champion). I was surprised when Andrew went off the narrow trail to allow me to pass. Chivalry is alive in trail running. Seeing and exchanging words of encouragement with all the lead males helped lift me as fatigue was starting to set in. 
Approach to Chalwell Galleries.
This out and back leg is a little gem of alpine Australia. Near the "lollypop" the trail skirts around an alpine lake then a short distance beyond the trail takes you through, and even under, some large rounded boulders, for which Mt Buffalo is well known. I managed to get to the start of the "lollypop" loop without seeing Landie which meant that she didn't have that big a lead over me. The same could be said when I returned to the common out and back trail when I failed to see Whitney, Gill, Julie and Jo, which meant that they were likely in the lollypop loop already. The first female I saw was Shona. I did manage to see a few other girls and we exchanged words of encouragement as we passed each other. 

Back at the Chalet I was given another split and it was good to know that I hadn't lost any time. The course now doubled back on itself all the way to Howitt Park in Bright. We would also be crossing paths with every other runner, both fast, slow and everyone in between. Occasionally I'd get an update on how far behind Landie I was, but the times and distances varied so much that it was more frustrating than anything else. I tried to stretch out on the descent  off the mountain in an attempt to narrow the gap ahead to Landie. I can't say that I wasn't trying as I momentarily found myself falling into some bushes, having tripped on a rock, which was a wake-up call to be more careful. Luckily it only resulted in a grazed knee and compared to many other runners' legs mine were still looking pretty good.
Getting refueled and restocked at Eurobin checkpoint on the return journey. Antony Bowesman.
Returning to Eurobin checkpoint I was again informed by my crew of the time difference to Landie ahead. It was the same as the top, but what was equally important was the gap to Whitney and Gill behind me. I was hoping my speedy decent might have put more of a gap between us but clearly to no avail. Heading out over Keatings Ridge again I put my earphones on and listened to a playlist that Brian had specially compiled for me. The songs were not necessarily to my liking, but they were different and unpredictable with high tempo beats to "keep my cadence high" as Brian put it. 

Even with the long straight road section through Buckland Valley I couldn't see any girls ahead or behind me. There were a few guys that I tried to stick with but essentially I felt that I was in no man's land. Again the gaps were much the same and I felt that the podium had pretty much been decided. If I had known that Julie had leapfrogged from fifth to third in that previous leg I might have tried to run harder. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
I really didn't know what I wanted at Buckland Checkpoint. Antony Bowesman.
The ascent to Clearspot was tough and I tried to run as much of it as possible. I could see runners/walkers ahead and they all seemed to be going as slow as myself which made me feel a little better. On the descent from Clearspot I could hear the cowbells in the distance, from runners ahead passing spectators. The final ascent up to Mystic was slow, but the coke from Bakers Gully checkpoint helped me get to the top. That was a horrible ascent for me, as the sun felt so hot I wasn't sure if I had a fever or if the day was really that hot. I plodded on and eventually got to the top and managed a slow trot down the last descent. The end was near and I was starting to wish I was already there. On the run into town I passed Mum who was waiting for me. She urged me on and told me how close I was to a sub 10 hour finish.

It was such a relief to cross the finish line back in Howitt Park. Finishing second in 9:59:46 was sweetened by also being crowned Ultra SkyMarathon Oceanic Champion. Shortly after crossing the line and receiving my finishers medal from Sean Greenhill I was asked for an interview. I had to quickly decline as I was afraid that the next thing out of my mouth would not be words.
This is how I felt at the end. Skyrunning ANZ.
I really enjoyed the whole experience that Mountain Sports were able to create for this Buffalo Stampede event. The three race format over three days allowed runners not only to compete, but to also spectate, cheer and socialise. The ting, ting, tinging of cowbells heralding approaching runners is becoming more frequent in trail races around Australia. Having international runners attend and race on a "home"course is a great experience. The whole weekend was a lot of fun.
Buffalo Stampede Ultra SkyMarathon female podium, Julie Quinn, Landie Greyling, me (L-R). 

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Hillary, NZ 80km 2015

Permanent course marker.
Never before in a race have I wanted to stop more than I did in The Hillary, NZ 80km Ultra Marathon race. Not because I was injured, not because I was tired and not because I was sore, but because the views were so amazingly breathtaking. Unlike mountain races where you spend the day running into the same view, or around the same view, this race the views draw you further along the trail towards new, different, more exciting scenery. It was a pure pleasure to traverse this course, a treat for the eyes.

The start of 2015 for me has been a bit flat. This far into 2015 I was hoping to have done at least one major trail ultra, followed up with a more low key trail ultra, but the way things panned out I had done nothing. Essentially all trained up with nowhere to race. Fortunately, training is rarely wasted, and with the way trail running is at the moment there are plenty of trail races on offer. My pick for March was The Hillary 80km Ultra Marathon. As I always do, I follow races in advance before entering. For some reason, I feel more comfortable going into races with a preformed expectation.  I followed The Hillary's inaugural race last year (2014) and it definitely left a positive impression, so I marked it as a race to do in 2015.
Spectacular scenery.

The Hillary stood out for a number of reasons. Most of which are evident in the event's promotional video from the 2014 race (link). It is amazing to think that an ultra trail running event such as this is held so close to the city of Auckland, New Zealand.

I flew over on Thursday before the event by myself and stayed with Brian's Aunty Bev and Uncle Jack at their beautiful abode on the shore of Lake Takapuna. Without Brian's usual fastidiousness I took the time on Friday to do some recce of the bus pick-up, race HQ and some parts of the course. This was time well spent, as at 4:30am on race morning, I would have definitely missed the bus to the start line. I hate early starts, it is even worse when you have to do everything yourself. I've already missed an early morning race start and didn't want a repeat performance. I was definitely missing my regular support crew. Luckily come race morning I made it to the bus pick-up on time and scored myself a back row of seats to stretch out and continue my sleep on a rough and twisty road.
The race start was very dark.
Having arrived at the race start, I was ruing my decision to use an inferior head torch, as when the race started pre-dawn I resorted to using other peoples light, which therefore restricted me to their pace. I was comforted however that other runners around me with better head torches still found it difficult in the pre-dawn light on the technical terrain. The early pace wasn't particularly fast and suited my mood as I was struggling to get into a comfortable rhythm. I often find that I take a few kilometers to warm up and get switched on. For me I didn't feel race ready until the Huia (14km) checkpoint.
The terrain was mostly runnable. The Hillary.

After the Huia checkpoint the 80km field started to spread out more and more. I saw less of the runners ahead and runners behind as the course weaved in and out of sight around the coastal headlands. Running between people didn't particularly bother me. I easily navigated the trail, following the permanent Hillary Trail markers. Knowing that I had Jo Johansen, Fiona Hayvice and Justine Medin nearby kept my motivation up and pace honest. In the early stages of the race I found myself running with South Australian Andrew Hough until about the 27km mark. Andrew informed me that we met during Yurrebilla last year. He was running well over the mixed terrain and was quite fast on the downhill and uphill sections, and we found ourselves swapping places quite a few times. Its always good to have some company for long stretches during a race. 

At the Whatipu (27km) checkpoint I caught up to and passed two other 80km runners. Andrew was taking awhile at the aid station so I went on expecting him and the other two guys to catch me up but they never did and this was the last I saw of any 80km runners until the finish.
Checkpoint security was fantastic. The Hillary Facebook.

After the Piha (46km) checkpoint was where I got the opportunity to start chasing down the  34km runners/walkers. The Hillary is unique in that there are three race distances (80km, 34km and 16km) over the same point-to-point course. The start of all three races are staggered so as to have runners running and finishing together at the same location.The 34ker's had started about 45min before I arrived at the checkpoint and it wasn't too long before I started catching up to and overtaking some of the 34km walkers. The format worked quite well and I found myself eager to catch and pass the 34km runners ahead.
It was difficult to keep eyes on the the trail with view like this. The Hillary.

I came through Bethells (64km) checkpoint shortly before the 16km runners started. It was nice to receive a cheer from the assembled runners and spectators. Not running with a watch I knew from the 16km starters that I had approximately 2 hours to cover the last 16km of trail in order to get a sub 10hr finish time. As I climbed up, away from the checkpoint, I was chased down by some of the more enthusiastic 16km runners. Some were quick to pass, and I had to stop and let them go by as the trail was very narrow. Then I thought bugger this I'm losing time pulling over, if they want to get past they can make the effort, so I held my position on the trail. The other runners were polite enough to allow me my own space on the trail once they figured I was doing the full 80km event. In all honesty this race format made for a good distraction and helped lift my pace in the later stages of the race, chasing fresh legged runners, at a time when I knew Jo Johansen would be pushing hard to catch up to me.
There was lots of company in the later stages of the race. The Hillary.

It felt fantastic to descend out of the mountains and out into the finish area. The whole day had been a repetition of ascents and descents with a few short flat sections. After 80km's traversing the course I can see why the event is a sanctioned ANZ Sky Run, as the variation in grade is relentless.
Happy to finish, but not before washing my shoes one last time.

I was happy to cross the finish line in 9:57:44, 1st Female and 7th overall. Coincidentally the next two finishers were Jo Johansen and Fiona Hayvice, for 2nd and 3rd respectively. Any slacking off and they would have had me for sure. In reflection this is a race I already want to return to.

A big thank you must go to Bev and Jack for allowing me to stay with them. They openly accepted my intrusion when their thoughts were understandably focused on their more immediate family.
Female podium was nicely colour coordinated (me, Jo & Fiona, L-R). The Hillary Facebook.
Andrius Ramonas and I with next years weight penalty. Marcus Warner.
The Hillary mementos.
I wonder what the beach goers were thinking? The Hillary.
80km Course profile.