Sunday, 17 April 2016

Mt Solitary Ultra 2016

Every time I go up to Katoomba, which is quite a lot, I look out from my bedroom window each day and gaze at Mt Solitary. The mountain stands prominent on the south side of Jamison Valley, alone, solitary. Depending on the weather its exposed sandstone cliffs can reflect the suns rays, or it can be concealed in cloud and mist which descends and wafts through the valley. Mt Solitary is mesmerising in so many ways and to be able to traverse it in a race is just truely magical, but at the same time the mountain reminds you why it stands supreme and alone.
Course Map. Running Wild NSW
It's been what has seemed forever since I last raced Running Wild's Mt Solitary Ultra, 2011 to be precise. I've been over it plenty of times on training runs but for one reason or another something else had got in the way for me to race it. 2016 was different and I wasn't going to let the opportunity pass. This race also marked the belated start to my trail running season for the year.
Course Profile. Running Wild NSW
Mt Solitary Ultra is a 45km race held by Running Wild NSW. It's a 100% trail run which tests runners on all types of Blue Mountains terrain. Starting at the old (haunted?) Queen Victoria Hospital it is a short uphill start to the run, along a well maintained fire trail before the long descent down into Jamison Valley via Kedumba Pass. Along this fast descent I was unsurprisingly passed by plenty of faster guys. I watched their larger legs stride out and it was no use sprinting to keep pace. About half way down towards Kedumba River the course veers off the fire trail onto a technical single trail which rolls, drops and snakes its way down to the river.  The guys with bigger strides really slowed down on this technical stuff. I joined the conga line and bided my time until an opportunity arose for me to overtake.
Some of the Berowra Bushrunners; Karin Burgess, Zaid Mohsen, Brian Cardelli & me. (L-R). Karin Burgess
At Kedumba River the race route crossed directly across the river. Usually on training runs I make a slight detour to an old fallen tree whose wide trunk makes a natural bridge across the water course which allows me to keep my shoes dry. As this is a race however, such luxuries cannot be afforded, so I crossed the shin deep water and said goodbye to my dry socks in the process. After crossing Kedumba River the single trail heads up in varying grades ranging from gentle incline to "stick your tongue out and you'll touch the ground" steep. This was the opportunity to start making up some places. I'm comfortable with the route up and know the sections to push hard on and which to conserve myself. I slowly picked the guys off, one by one. By the top I guess I'd made up about ten places. This climb seemed to have seeded the field and there wasn't much movement in overall position for the rest of the race. On the tougher sections of the ascent I reflected upon struggles encountered by the mountaineers in the previous nights viewing of Everest (2015) and put into perspective what I was encountering.

The mountain mist that had been around prior to race start still hadn't burnt away by the time I'd reached the "log book" and instead of a gorgeous Blue Mountains view there was just a wall of white. Missing out on a view wasn't so bad as it was a day for racing, not so much a day for sightseeing. The log book marks the top of the big climb, but not the top of Mt Solitary. From here it is a series of small rises, each bigger than the last as the trail skirts its way in and out of the cliff line. The trail is overgrown with plenty of rugged mountain vegetation which you have to endlessly negotiate. It makes running along this part of the trail more of an awkward dance than a straight out trail run. Occasionally as I came around a bend I'd be greeted by hikers who would offer words of encouragement as they stepped off the trail to let me pass. They sure picked a bad morning to be on the trail as 200 runners were about to interfere with their hike. I'm sure the novelty wore off well before the sweepers passed them. 

The descent of Mt Solitary is lots of fun. I love climbing over the rocks and using my whole body to negotiate the route. There are a few areas that are a little sketchy, but I know the tricks and know which rocks to jump down onto. It is more a process of controlled falling. At the bottom of the descent, under the presence of Ruined Castle, the trail follows the old abandoned railway line around to Scenic World. It sounds more glorious that it is. All evidence of the railway is gone now, but the trail is fairly flat with sweeping bends that make it very runnable. Along this section I opened my stride and enjoyed running beneath the sandstone cliffs that ring this western end of Jamison Valley. Towards the end of the old railway line the trail is interrupted by a large landslide. It is a labyrinth of debris and I always have the feeling of taking a different route each time I cross it. To keep me on course however I eyed out the pink tape which marked the "official" race route and blindly followed it.
On the way up Furber Steps.
Once through the landslide I could start hearing the cacophony of foreign voices which accompany the tourists at Scenic World. It also marks the gauntlet of directionless individuals intent on disrupting my running pace. It was easier to negotiate the vegetation on Mt Solitary than it was the projecting selfie sticks and backwards walking, talking tourists. With frustration rapidly increasing I refocused my energies on ascending Furber Steps, all +900 of them.  The tourists here were less ignorant of what was going on and they generally stepped aside to let me pass. As Furber Steps is an out and back section of course it allowed me to see where I sat in the field and how close people are in front and behind.
On my way down Furber Steps.
At the top of Furber Steps I ran over the checkpoint timing mat before presenting my snake bandage at the mandatory gear check. After a quick refuel it was a much quicker descent down Furber and an opportunity to exchange encouragement to other runners. Once at the bottom of the steps I turned left and headed along Federal Pass towards Leura Forest. This section of trail had its scattering of tourist and walkers, but they were more encouraging than those at Scenic World and it was probably a novelty to see a runner come through. Taking advantage of my crowd parting skills was Philip Whitten who had managed to catch up to me. Shortly after the turnoff to the Giant Staircase the trail passes the "way out" track which is a short section of trail used to connect the Federal Pass to Sublime Point Fire Trail below. Standing at one end of the short trail you can the see the other end and vice-versa. It is a section of trail that I use frequently on training runs and passing it during the race was just a reminder that I'd be passing the other end of it in about 20 minutes time.

Continuing along the trail I passed Leura Forest and headed down towards the old remediated "turd works" (these are the official names, I promise). It's at this point that the single trail gives way to the well graded Sublime Point fire trail. Passing the "way out" track again I looked up to see if I could spot anyone I knew, but I didn't so continued on the descent further down into Jamison Valley. The bottom is marked by a ford across Leura Creek, which although low wasn't low enough to avoid getting my socks wet again. This crossing marks the first of two creek crossings, separated by a +200m climb over a spur. This year I've been doing plenty of training through Jamison Valley running west to east. I'd identified trail runners going in this direction as those training for Mt Solitary. Trail runners going east to west I'd identified as those training for UTA, which also uses the same fire trail. The result had been a lot of people running this fire trail in recent months which is good to see people enjoying its semi-remote beauty.

The Sublime Point fire trail is seemingly endless and it played on my mind. Although I've run it pretty much every weekend so far this year there are bends along its length that still put me out and disorientate me. Looking up from the valley floor the mist from earlier in the day had set in and obscured the prominent sandstone cliffs that surround Jamison Valley. Most of my running along here was by myself. I'll admit that I was chasing a PB for this race. Back when I first ran Mt Solitary Ultra in 2011 I finished thinking that my time could have been a bit quicker. I was glad for Jo Brischetto when she set the previous course record in 2014 as I believe it was a time that I was capable of,  but believing and achieving are two very different things. On a few of the climbs I found myself switching between running and power walking as I didn't feel that running was any faster. To motivate myself I'd think about Jo and how much of the fire trail she would run up. I've done a few training runs with her and I know how strong she is, particularly on the hills.

Finish line. La Sportiva Australia
I ran as much of Kedumba Pass as I could. There are steep sections where I found it better to back off, particularly near the cutting. Where the trail was less steep I ran as much as I could, but I felt that my legs were slow and heavy. On the final rise before Queen Victoria Hospital I could see someone ahead cheering me on most enthusiastically. As I got closer it turned out to be Mum who'd driven up with Dad to surprise me on the trail. What a surprise it was, but our meeting was brief as I could hear the noise from the finish line and Luke Doyle announce over the speaker system that I had just 1 minute to break Jo's course record. I opened my stride and allowed my legs to carry me down the gentle slope and across the finish line in 5:28:10 for the win and female record.
Race Presentation; me and runner-up Chantelle Farrelly (L-R).
La Sportiva Helios 2.0 - Great super light weight trail shoes with excellent traction. I didn't slip or slide all race. They also dried really well after crossing Kedumba River.
La Sportiva Bushido - Brian also ran (part of the course). He said that the Bushido's had excellent grip and didn't falter on any of the terrain to the top of Furber Steps.
La Sportiva Snap Short - The weather was still warm enough for me to wear these light weight running shorts. They fit snugly on my hips and didn't restrict my movement.

Predominantly muesli bars and soft lolly party mix, washed down with cordial.


  1. Great effort Beth. First time I have run that course so your descriptions and names of places and sections helped me remember the course a bit better. Your description of the climb up as "stick your tongue out and you'll touch the ground" steep is what I have been trying to describe to my my non-running workmates, so thanks for that and I am hoping to use it (quoting you of course :) ). Best of luck, cheers Grahame Vernon

    1. Thanks Grahame. It is often difficult to describe the type of terrain and distance I run to those non-runners out there. It doesn't matter what you say, they'll never understand unless they experience it for themselves.

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