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). 

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