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. 


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