Saturday, 14 May 2016

Ultra Trail Australia 2016

For me, Ultra Trail Australia 100km (formerly known as The North Face 100km Australia) is an event that inspires and motivates me. When I first heard about the inaugural event back in 2008 my initial thought was that I have to give it a go. I wasn't a runner back then, far from it in fact, I was just someone who enjoyed spending time outdoors, especially in my beloved Blue Mountains. Back then the thought of completing 100km was daunting, it still is, but the generous cut off meant that even a steady walking pace would see me through to the end. With a bit of trail running practice I managed to complete the event in what I considered a pretty respectable time of 15:30. From memory it took me until the following Tuesday before I started looking forward to the following years event. This has pretty much been my story every year since.
Ultra Trail Australia 100km course profile.
When training for events I like to mix it up. I need to in order to keep the motivation. A few year's back I wrote a training diary, documenting all the runs I did in a calendar year, listing distances, places I ran, people/friends I ran with, and other general comments. That particular year I was happy with the way I performed on the UTA100 course so I've used this diary as a rough training guide for subsequent years. It's something that has worked for me and I'm happy to continue doing it. It doesn't, however, prevent me from running with friends who need to run specific distances, or for a specified duration at a certain intensity. But hey, if it works for them then I'm happy to tag along.
Commence the stampede!. I sought protection behind Ryan Sandes, Andrew Lee and Scotty Hawker.
Ultra Trail Australia
Just about every weekend this year I've been up in the Blue Mountains training for this and other trail running events. I've been up there so much that I've submitted an application for temporary residency. This is the most I've journeyed up to the Blue Mountains for training runs and I think it has definitely helped. Last year my husband, Brian, was building us a new home in Sydney. Our life was unsettled at the time and it was most noticeable to me at last year's UTA100. I'd spent months training for the event, to make up for missing the 2014 race due to injury. I'd gone through all the motions to race the 2015 event, but that was all it was. Going through the motions didn't mean that I was ready to tackle 100km, especially on a course I love so much. So with a heavy heart, sitting in the event carpark on the morning of the UTA100, I solemnly removed my race number and joined Brian in spectating the start of the race. Fast forward a year, and living in our new home, I now had Brian to support me in my training. I felt renewed and invigorated. Most importantly I had motivation and full support from Brian. After a two year hiatus, 2016 would be the year that I renew my affinity with UTA100.
Fast start. To ensure longevity of shoe grip it is important to avoid running on the ground. Rebekah Markey.
I had a goal in mind for this race, but like everything with ultra trail running, you need to be flexible with your goals and adaptable. My preference in races is to go out at a sustainable pace which is relative to the course. This course starts at first light with an uphill run along a bitumen road, which coupled with a weeks worth of tapering results in something resembling a stampede of eager runners. After 5kms of seeding on the bitumen road the course changes tact and moves to single trail where another round of seeding begins. In order to avoid being left behind I made a feeble attempt at staying with the leaders by starting towards the front of the pack. As soon as the countdown was complete and we lurched forward in unison, I was quickly filtered through the pack. By the time I was finally on the trail, Brian and my mum had set themselves up to spectate (ring cow bells) at the top of Furber Steps and they kindly informed me that I was 4th Female as I passed. Now firmly on the trails the descent down Furber Steps and traverse along Federal Pass to the Golden Stairs was much more to my liking and the road runners were quickly being seeded backwards amongst the trail runners. The ascent up Golden Stair was it's usual grind and I resorted to the hand on knees technique to see myself to the top.
Climbing Golden Stairs. Ultra Trail Australia.
Now that my heart had started pumping and my legs had loosened up I got into a comfortable rhythm along the Glenraphael Drive fire trail which runs along Narrow Neck plateau. A short way along Narrow Neck is the first checkpoint (11.4km). I came through here in 50th position (2nd female), which has been pretty typical for me based on previous years. Just ahead, within sight was Kellie Emmerson, who was setting the pace for us girls. As I quickly filled my UD body bottle at the checkpoint I was passed by Gill Fowler, whom I left the checkpoint chasing. Shortly after the checkpoint I saw up ahead that Gill had passed Kellie and in an attempt to catch Gill I upped the pace and also passed Kellie not long after. I find the fire trail along Narrow Neck to be most annoying. At times it seems to go on forever, at other times the twists and turns seem to repeat themselves. I've often found myself thinking "will this ever end" but then there are sections along its length where the views open up to reveal spectacular Blue Mountains vistas, with the most spectacular of these being right at the end of Narrow Neck plateau.

Once at the end of the plateau I was fortunate enough to have caught up to Gill. Before the fire trail disappeared we positioned ourselves amongst the surrounding runners so that we wouldn't be held up on the descent through the next section of single trail. To help us descend on race day the event organisers assemble a series of sturdy aluminium ladders. They might not be as fun as the slightly more sketchy Tarros Ladder, but they are a much more sensible method of descending the 15m rock face. Once at the bottom it is a short drop down to the saddle at Little Cedar Gap which makes a good vantage point to view the runners that are about 4km ahead in the valley below. I couldn't see anyone this time, but I wouldn't have been surprised to have seen the lead group of guys. After the short but steep climb up and over Mount Debert the course rejoins the fire trail and it was back into a comfortable rhythm running side by side with Gill all the way to checkpoint 2 (31.6km). I really enjoy running with Gill and doing this section with her was just like one of our casual training runs together.
Just another casual run with Gill Fowler heading to CP2. Ultra Trail Australia.
Following checkpoint 2 is Ironpot Ridge. It is one of the few spots that is restricted to runners, except on race day. I thought that in my absence I'd forgotten what it was like, but it wasn't long (the first cattle grid to be exact) before all the memories started rushing back. I know it is a beautiful trail, we've all been told by Tom Landon-Smith that it is a beautiful trail, but after +30km's in the legs it is hard to appreciate the beauty, especially when racing. The most memorable part of Ironpot Ridge, by far, is the sound of the didgeridoo. It is a uniquely Australian sound and hearing it stirs emotions of National pride. It must be a pretty awesome experience for all the foreign runners.
Running in the Megalong Valley. Peter Cai
The descent off Ironpot Ridge is probably the most sketchy part of the course. Its grade is steep, the ground consists of a soft powdery dust and there is a mix of hidden sticks and rocks ready to take out the unwary. At this point I started to break away from Gill and I ran on my own through the farmers properties and along the dirt road into checkpoint 3 (46km). This checkpoint is the first opportunity that crew have to meet runners along the course. By the time I had arrived the gathered crowd had warmed up and the cacophony of sound was a welcome change from the sound of footfalls on the dirt road. On the approach to the checkpoint I took a quick glance over my shoulder and spotted Amy Lamprecht and Gill Fowler following closely behind. After presenting my head torch and waterproof jacket at the mandatory gear check I spotted Brian waving frantically from the side of the crew area. I threw my empty body bottles at him while receiving a small sliced turkey roll, replenished body bottles and took stock of a small bag containing party food (think 5 y.o. birthday part junk food) before heading out. I've taught Brian pretty well and we have this process down to about 15 seconds.
Getting ready for Brian at CP3. Ultra Trail Australia
Running out of the checkpoint I passed both Amy and Gill who were still sorting themselves out. Shortly after leaving the checkpoint the trail rises ever so slightly on the approach to Nellies Glen while changing from cut grass in a paddock, to single trail following the Six Foot Track, before another dirt road. Shortly before the dirt road ends, and the climb up Nellies Glen starts, I was caught and passed by Amy. She had a strong pace on the ascent and I used it to get up the steep and uneven terrain. The trail up Nellies Glen is an unkept equivalent of Furber Steps, but on the first half of the UTA100 course. Amy gapped me a little towards the top, but not so much that I lost sight of her. Shortly after reaching the top of the climb the gap had narrowed substantially as Amy had stopped for a brief media interview and photoshoot with the event media. So to my benefit we were together for a while before she edged ahead going into checkpoint 4 (57.3km) at  Katoomba Aquatic Centre .
At the top of Nellies Glen. Ultra Trail Australia.
My crew quickly refuelled me at the checkpoint and I snuck out the door of the aquatic centre gym and headed back down the gully to do battle with the gauntlet of tourists. I was hopeful that the runners ahead had made an impression and that some of the tourists would have wisened up to the fact that there was a race going on. At Echo Point I was desperate for a nature break, so made use of the public facilities. I reemerged in pursuit of Amy down the Giant Stairway. It turned out to be fortuitous as she had paved a way through the tourists and I only needed to follow behind. I still wasn't worried that I had female company this far into the course. Years ago in this race Julie Quinn taught me an extremely valuable lesson when it comes to ultra trail racing, which is to "run your own race". It is no use going all out to stay with some one, or to catch them, or to be in front of them. In a race like UTA100, one hundred kilometers is a long way and you need to run your own race in order to achieve your own goals. This is something that I've remembered and practiced many times in races, and this years race was no different.

Rehydrating at Fairmont Resort. Ultra Trail Australia.
I'm extremely familiar with this remaining section of the course, especially down through Leura Forest. If I want to sneak in a quick run when I'm up in the Blue Mountains this is where I do it. I know from Leura Forest that I can run up all the stairs and it is at this point that I made my final attempt to break away from Amy. I mightn't have been running up the steps but I sure as hell wasn't going to make it look like I was struggling on them either. The move seemed to pay off as I snuck a few glances behind me where the trail allowed and I could see a small gap growing. The remaining section of trail I mostly spent alone, apart from the occasional male runner. Arriving at the Fairmont Resort waterstop (66.2km) I was united with Andy Lee. He was playing with the water from the tap like a bird in a bird bath, while chatting with the people around him. I too took advantage of the waterstop to rehydrate in the warmer than usual race conditions and restocked before we both departed together. It was pretty good to be running with Andy and it was just like our training runs, except it was me this time who edged ahead near Wentworth Falls. The tourists through this section were reasonable and the trail was wide enough to accommodate passing manoeuvres. It is along this section that I started catching the UTA50 runners (walkers). I do admire them for their effort. I remembered my first attempt at this race and admired them for stepping up to the challenge. Plus, they are the ones getting the most value for money out of this event.
Departing Fairmont Resort with Andy Lee. Ultra Trail Australia.
After arriving at Horden Road and then Kings Tableland Road it was the final bit of bitumen for the course. I dislike this part of the course most. I felt so slow and sluggish running along the road, and to make matters worse there is nowhere to hide from the ever present crew vehicles making their way in slow procession to and from checkpoint 5 (78.4km) at Queen Victoria Hospital. It was a good feeling arriving at the checkpoint. The checkpoint had music playing and there was a good vibe about the place. The last thing to do was restock with Brian before heading down into Jamison Valley and Scenic World on the far side.

Departing the checkpoint I pinned my ears back and started on the 6km descent down to the Jamison Creek. For the most part I was running by myself. To make things interesting I focused on catching and overtaking as many UTA50 runners as I could. I hoped in doing so it would help propel me in reaching the finish line before the day's last light. Each person I passed on the trail was most enthusiastic and their encouragement was much appreciated. On the climb between Jamison Creek and Leura Falls Creek I was caught and passed by Andy Lee. He was steaming ahead and I tried briefly to stick with him. In the final 12km of the course he put 16 minutes on me. A true testament to his abilities.

Shortly before the "old turd works" I caught up to an old friend, Grant Ackerman, who was doing the UTA50 event. I'd helped him out with some advice leading into the event and it was good to have caught him so close to the end. We exchanged pleasantries before I ran ahead.

After the "old turd works" the course rejoins with itself for a short 200m section between Leura Forest and Leura Steps. This was where I had earlier made my move on Amy. This time I was hopeful of seeing some friends along this short section of trail, but the people I saw I didn't recognise. The tourists along this part of the Federal Pass had mostly retreated back up to the top of the cliffs and I pushed as hard as I could in the rapidly fading daylight. 
The run up the long awaited finish chute. Rebekah Markey.
I reached the bottom of Furber Steps which I'd descended 93km ago and a whole day earlier. The variation in grade and variation in step heights were quickly taking it's toll. I was cursing the course setter for finishing an ultra trail run like this. If it had come to a sprint finish I doubt that I'd have the strength to out sprint or out climb anybody. Put simply I felt like a snail going up Furber Steps. The higher I got the more I could hear the commotion at the finish line. I started to feel less of my screaming legs and started thinking of the finish line ahead. I paused briefly toward the top to put on my head torch before I lost all remaining daylight. With a final push I managed a respectable jog as the gathered crowds appeared before me at Scenic World. Crossing that finish line at Scenic World was just spectacular. It's the best finish line the course has ever had, and trust me I've been across a few of them. The finishing chute was spectacular and the roar from the crowd was thunderous. It felt awesome, until I stopped and the fatigue and cold started setting in. I was elated to have finished another UTA100, this time in 11:16:14, first female and 17th overall. 

At the finish line being blinded by flash photography.
The most touching moment for me after finishing was when Brian revealed that he had shed a tear or two for me and my achievement. This along with his house building ability are just two of the many reasons I love him so much. 
Female Podium (L-R): Chantelle Farrelly, Amy Lamprecht, Kellie Emmerson, Fiona Hayvice, me.
I want to congratulate Tom Landon-Smith and Alina McMaster along with their AROC Sports crew who have grown this event from its humble beginnings to what is now a professional world class trail running event. I'd like to congratulate them for their efforts along with the efforts of all the volunteers who helped out and encouraged us runners tirelessly out on the course.
Celebration time. Ben Duffus.
I'd also like to thank La Sportiva Australia and Ultimate Direction Australia for their support. Their gear was absolutely perfect for this race.

La Sportiva Akasha shoes. They were perfect for this course.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva Headband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0. One seriously awesome female running vest.
Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Ultimate Direction - Adventure Vesta 3.0 Review

Guys might have their "gear", but girls definitely have their "accessories". When it comes to trail running one of the must have accessories is a good vest, to store more accessories (mandatory gear), right?! I'll be honest and say that when I think about going for a long run, the last thing I think about is my vest. Probably because in the early days when I started trail running I relied upon an uncomfortable light weight back pack which chafed and allowed its contents to bounce around. Over the following 10 years, I've watched them slowly evolve from crude light-weight back packs into functional running vests. As more brands grasp the vest idea they've slowly evolved more and more, some for the better and some not so, but I suppose that is all part of the development process. I'm pleased to say however there is one vest on the market that comes from a manufacturer that has used great initiative to produce a product that's aimed at the ever growing female trail running market. That brand and product is Ultimate Direction's Adventure Vesta 3.0. A large volume vest that is specifically for female trail runners, and if you ask me they have done it pretty well.

Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0
Some vests and packs out there say that they are made for the female figure, but in reality they are at best unisex. As many women know we come in all body shapes and so need a few more adjustments which men just don't need, so they are often left off. The Adventure Vesta 3.0 however is a stand alone vest from the men's, and here's why.
Inside view of vest. So far I haven't had any chafing from its simple construction.

For a large volume vest, 11.2L, this vest fits extremely well to my petite torso. I'm quite small and unlike other vests the Adventure Vesta 3.0 is comparatively short in length. This means that the vests main rear compartment sits nice and high on my back. To hold the vest secure against the body it has side adjustment at the bottom of the shoulder straps, which allows the straps to sit straight down the front of the chest. The shoulder straps are nicely spaced at the top of the vest meaning that the vests weight is carried on the shoulders and not the lower neck. Securing the shoulder straps across the chest are two chest straps connected to ridged slides or rails. Both the side adjustments and chest adjustments can be easily made to accommodate different body types and different thickness in clothing layers. Being able to correctly fit the vest to my body shape I found when running on technical trails that the vest remained stable against my torso and didn't bounce around, no matter how much I moved around.

Top of rear compartment.
At the rear of the vest, closest to the body, there is one large full depth compartment specifically designed for bladders. The easy zip access at the top of the vest has a small Velcro tab to hang the bladder. There is also a mid-height pocket in this compartment which could accommodate a smaller capacity bladder while allowing it to be hung from the top Velcro tab. Both the shoulder straps and base of the compartment have holes large enough to accommodate a bladder tube and mouthpiece which can then be secured on the front in many configurations by the elastic loops located in various location on both shoulder straps. I often find myself switching between bladders, bottles and soft bottles when running and having a vest that allows all three methods of hydration means that I'm using the vest more than I would otherwise.

Positioned on the outside of the bladder compartment is the vests main compartment. This is a large single compartment running the full width and length of the vest. This space is easily accessed via a two way zip which runs vertically along the right side of the compartment and horizontally across the top allowing full access to its contents. It doesn't matter how much you stuff into this compartment it seems to be accepting of everything as the elastic fabric running up the sides allows it to stretch and increase its volume while securing the contents comfortably against the body. One draw back that some vests have is that when these main compartments are fully packed they turn into big sausages, but Ultimate Direction has managed to minimise this effect with this vests construction.
Main compartment (unzipped) easily accessed.
Two more small zipper compartments of equal size continue to extend the vests generous capacity. The top pocket has a key toggle and an emergency hair band (told you its a female vest). Both pockets are constructed of what appears water resistant material, but if you're like me it is very difficult to distinguish the tipping point between how much rain is okay for water resistant and what's not. I'd still recommend a plastic zip lock lunch bag to protect those precious items against water. Since acquiring this vest I've been fortunate enough to avoid running in wet weather, but I'll up date this review next time I'm running in the rain with this vest.

The last outer rear compartment is narrow and deep which is accessed through an unsecure opening at the top. The external layer of elastic material is the same as the vest's main compartment which seems quite accepting of anything you jam into it. Though this compartment has an unsecure opening (no zip, clip or otherwise) at the top, I'm yet to loose anything out of it.

It would be a rare occasion that I'd have all the rear compartments full and its contents secure, but that's not a problem with this vest. Externally this vest has an elastic chord which laces up its centre and can also be fastened to the side hooks to further secured the rear compartments contents against my back.

Lastly the rear of the vest contains two ice axe loops at the base, though for me living in Australia I don't see myself utilising this design feature much.
Body bottle. The vest comes with two of these as standard.
The straps down the front of the vest felt well balanced whilst I was running technical trail. This in part is due to the way that they can be adjusted to sit vertically down my chest. At the top of both straps are two large pockets for Ultimate Directions Body Bottle. It's great to see Ultimate Direction embrace a soft bottle which contours to the body and doesn't allow its contents to slosh around. The large opening at the top of the Body Bottles makes it easy to unscrew the bite cap and fill the bottle. Both pockets are still large enough and deep enough to accept plastic bottles for those who are yet to be converted to Body Bottles. An elastic chord at the top of both pockets adequately secure bottles within the pockets.
Front view of vest.
Just above the bottle pocket on the left shoulder strap is an emergency whistle. As evidence that the vest's design team have put great initiative into this vest , there is a small fold of elastic fabric that forms a neat little pocket to secure the whistle and prevent it from bouncing around. 
Bottle pocket with emergency whistle.
On the left shoulder strap, below the bottle pocket, is another open pocket. It is not very deep, but runs full width of the strap. The top is open and unsecured, but when the bottle pocket above has a bottle in it the opening is reduced considerably. I've been using this pocket to house my gloves or buff while running. I wouldn't put my phone or food in it as these items might bounce out.
Hidden waist adjustment strap.
At the bottom of both shoulder straps are two small compartments with zipper opening. The one on the right is slightly larger than the one on the left. Like the rest of the straps external fabric, it is elastic and can accommodate a generous amount. The base of both compartments are secured with Velcro which comes in handy when hiding the waist adjustment strap. I'm my situation the waist adjustment strap had a long tail which neatly tucked away behind these compartments. These compartments then fold down over the tail to discretely hide them. Another plus is that the waist adjustment can be easily made without removing the rest.

To finish off the front strap features there are elastic chords designed to secure compactable poles. Again this is a feature I'm unlikely to use as I don't have the arm strength for poles, but you never know I might give it a go some time in the future.

All the features on the front straps are easily accessible. I was able to reach everything on the front and dig deep in to all the pockets/compartments without issues. Ultimate Direction hasn't designed the rear features to be accessible when wearing the vest, which is a good thing as I'm not a flexible person. They also haven't put features in positons that are frustratingly out of reach. If you need to access the rear features you will need to take at least one shoulder out of the vest to reach around.

In summary I'm struggling to think of design features that Ultimate Direction have missed, or could improve on. This vest has only been on the market for a short time, but its features and quality of construction is likely to ensure that it remains a market leader for a few years yet. Sounds like too much praise? For a large volume female vest it really does tick the boxes. It's definitely a vest that I'll be getting lots of use out of. So if you are after a guilty purchase then seriously consider Ultimate Direction's Adventure Vesta 3.0. You'll be able to justify the purchase after your first run, I promise.

My credentials to write this review is in my running wardrobe which contains a historical collection of "top of the range" running packs and vests that I've purchased, won or been given over the last 10 years. My collection has packs and vests ranging in volume from 1L to 12L, that are designed for bladders, bottles, soft bottles and a mix of both. I've used each and every one of them over the years on training runs and races alike. Of course I have favourites, but they are my favourites for a reason, its because they are functional and I like wearing them. At the time of writing this review I'd run +100km with the Adventure Vesta 3.0 on various trail terrains.

As a disclaimer I'd like to declare that the Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0 (XS/S) was provided by Injinji Performance Products and that at the time of writing this review I'm fortunate to be an Ultimate Direction Australia Brand Ambassador.