Tuesday 25 July 2017

Kokoda Ultra Marathon 2017 - Part 1

In today's times we take for granted the lifestyle we have and the opportunities that are afforded to us. It is easy to forget that things could have been different if it had not been for the commitment and sacrifices of those who came before us. As an Australian I am reminded of our nation's history through annual days of remembrance, respect and celebration. On a personal level I was fortunate enough to have my Pa, Jim Rowland, to share with me war time stories and recount his own personal experiences from his time in the Australian armed forces during the Pacific Campaign of World War II. When Pa spoke about his war time experiences I would listen, even though I had heard his stories many times before. But now he has gone and I reminisce about his telling of his experiences, I can recall the tears in his eyes and the raw emotion in this voice. I cannot imagine a time when people so young, as my Pa was, were entrusted with so much responsibility and were asked to do so much with the very real possibility of making the ultimate sacrifice for others. It is a result of their sacrifices that I don't have to make my own. What I can do to pay homage to those Australian's is to remember them and their actions.
As a mark of respect and to honour the actions of others I'd considered traversing the Kokoda Track. I had no particular date or time in which I'd traverse the track, but it was there on my bucket list. By chance the opportunity arose to partake in the inaugural Kokoda Ultra Marathon on the 75th anniversary of the Kokoda Track Campaign, Papua New Guinea. Organised by Wayne Wetherall of Kokoda Spirit and Anthony Thompson of 360 Athlete, the Kokoda Ultra Marathon traverses the full 96km length of the Kokoda Track over 3 days and 2 nights, taking in places of historical significance along the way. It was a history lesson as much as it was a staged running event.

I haven't done much hiking where I had to camp over night. The last time I did an overnight hike was back in 2002 which resulted in a marriage proposal from Brian. That was at a time in our lives before either of us did anything remotely running related. So once I committed to participating in the Kokoda Ultra Marathon I had a pretty steep learning curve. I had no gear and no idea of what to expect. All I had were my trail skills and a dubious level of fitness leading up to my departure. 

The support leading up to the event was really good. Anthony Thompson was the main point of contact and he probably got a little annoyed with my novice questions, which he hid well, but his help was invaluable in setting me straight. Communication amongst other entrants on social media was also useful to get to know each other and provided lots of light-hearted entertainment before we convened in person. It was good to know that other people were thinking and asking the same things. 

Training for the event comprised my usual amount of "junk" kilometres, mostly without a back pack. It was about two weeks before I left that I finally got all my mandatory gear together, apart from my shoes which I got the week before departure. I managed one small run with a "full" pack, then did something to my back which put an end to my preparation. So the training I did with a full pack was best described as limited. Consequently I decided to "wing it" and risk what ever consequences may come. I'd put it down to being part of the adventure.

With all my gear sorted and vaccinations taken care of, all that was left to do was depart for Papua New Guinea. The flights I had booked coincided with most of the other entrants. So on Monday morning at sparrow fart I departed for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. This was my first time to the country and though I had heard many mixed stories, I along with the other members of the group, were well looked after during our entire stay.  Our base in Port Moresby was the Stanley Hotel which was luxurious. It provided a lovely relaxed environment for us to get to know each other and to be briefed on what lay ahead of us. 
Group photo at Owers Corner. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
In addition to Wayne and Anthony who organised us, the remainder of the cohort comprised Tegyn Angel, Kellie Emmerson, Ashley Raymond Benett, Shane Antrobus, Rebekkah Middleton, Mark Middleton, Steve Bain, Grant Wallace and Chris Ord. It was a small intimate group of like minded people whom I had the pleasure of sharing this experience. I shouldn't forget to mention the Papuan porters who were instrumental in assisting with the logistics along the track. Without them I'd have been carrying a lot more gear in a much bigger pack.

Shortly after settling in to our accommodation, the event itinerary was torn up and thrown out. Due to factors beyond the control of the organisers our planned Tuesday flight from Port Moresby to Kokoda fell through and on the Monday evening we were informed that the track may have to be traversed in reverse, starting from Owers Corner heading to Kokoda Village. Ultimately it didn't really matter to us as we were to be be prepared to set out on this event on Tuesday morning either way. The only difference was that instead of heading out onto the trail from Kokoda Village on Wednesday, it might be that we would become acquainted with the track on Tuesday at Owers Corner instead. 

So on Tuesday morning it was confirmed, we would be heading to Owers Corner on a bus with the assurances that our altered flight from Kokoda would be sorted by the time we got there on Friday. It was a bit like preparing to do something on the count of three and then having it done on the count of two. I therefore had the bus trip to mentally prepare that in just a few short hours I'd actually be on the Kokoda Track. 

After a bumpy bus trip along PNG's rugged roads we finally made it to the head of the Kokoda Track. At Owers Corner we were greeted by friendly locals and gorgeous clear weather which bathed the dense Papuan jungle with tropical sunshine. Before heading off onto the track, we took time to understand the historical significance of the area that we were in. As was the case throughout the event we paid our respect to those who had been here before us. One of the ways we remembered what had happened on this track was through poetry which we all took turns to read. I find the verse of poetry to be quit powerful and the subject matter firmly installed the importance of this track and the sacrifices that were made so many years before. The Kokoda Track isn't just another walking track through nature. The Kokoda Track is steeped with countless accounts of battles, heroic acts and sacrifices during the Kokoda Track Campaign of World War II. Being on the Kokoda Track helps to bring all these accounts into perspective. 
Reading a poem about the Diggers. Kokoda Ultra Marathon
At about mid-morning it was time for us to head out and finally become acquainted with the Kokoda Track. The track was pretty easy to follow. It wasn't signposted but was marked occasionally with pink tape, though we were told not to rely on it. Though we all carried a map, which we now had to read in reverse, I rarely used it for navigation as I found the Track was the most prominent of any other intersecting tracks. The few times I used the map was to check that I was in the correct village and to point out places of historical significance, both of which were mandatory requirements of the event.
The downhill start from Owers Corner. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
Though the Kokoda Track is "up hill" from Owers Corner to Kokoda Village, we started the first section of track on a very step descent to Goldie River. It was here that we said goodbye to dry shoes and socks for the remainder of the day, as we made our way across Goldie River's wide waters. The track followed the banks of the river until we started the climb to Dump 66 and Imita Ridge. The ascent up to Imita Ridge is very steep and intimidating. During the Kokoda Track Campaign there were 2,000 timber steps cut into the mountain side, though these have now been reclaimed by the jungle. 
Imita Ridge during WWII. Australian War Memorial.
The further our group progressed along the Kokoda Track the more we spread out and found our own space. Though most of us are competitive, we weren't racing each other, but just going at a comfortable individual pace as the terrain dictated. After Imita Ridge I found myself all alone on the trail. It was a surreal situation to be in. Having spent time in the morning and the previous day hearing about historical events on the Track, being in solitude helped to give it a new perspective. On the Track, alone, I wasn't distracted by conversation. I was in the moment imagining what it would have been like to face an enemy who didn't want to be seen until the last moment. Looking around I can understand how easy it would have been to blend into the jungle. 

From Imita Ridge we descended about 550m down to Ua-Ule Creek and its tributaries. In all there were 22 creek crossings in this section, or so I've been told as I'd lost count. So our semi-dry shoes became completely sodden and muddy. Lucky for us we were on the track during the dry season and there hadn't been much rain so the track was relatively "dry". In the wet season it must be a quagmire.

By the last creek crossing my shoes were looking like they had done 1000kms, not the 10kms that they had really done. From Ua-Ule Creek the track headed up to Iorabaiwa Ridge, 600m above. Iorabaiwa Ridge marked the furthest point of Japanese advance. It was also a good opportunity to take a moments rest and reflect upon its significance. 
Day 1 Map, which we had to read in reverse. 
Though I was alone on the Track, I wasn't completely alone. Interspersed randomly along the Track were the Papuan locals, some of whom were supporting our event, others just going about their daily business, including cooking meals on the side of the track. It didn't matter which local I passed, they always greeted me with a warm smile and a friendly wave. I'd always test their English by saying something to them. Some times it would start a conversation, other times a "Kokoda?" from me would be followed by a "Kokoda" from them then a pointing finger and smile. 

Our porters were amazing throughout the event.  They would always be at the check points setting up camp and cooking our meals.  Occasionally we would pass them along the trail as they would usually head off before us in the mornings. They were always there to help us in any way they could. Nothing was too much trouble for them.

Every day along the Kokoda Track I would randomly come across a hiking expedition. Judging from their accents they were mostly Australians, making the same pilgrimage along the Track as we were. Traversing the Track unsupported is frowned upon and I can understand why. The local people rely upon the expedition companies to provide them with employment and income. Some of the villages we passed through stocked cans of soft drink. Heeding some earlier advice, I took with me some money which I used to buy drinks from the locals. Even though not every village benefited from us staying in it, at least we could contribute to the economy in one small way. I was more than happy to exchange some heavy coins for a much appreciated can of soft drink.
Day 1 Profile.
The track descended off Iorabaiwa Ridge down to Ofi Creek before another large, but less steep, ascent up to Maguli Range and Naoro Village, our camp for the night. Day One ultimately saw us arrive in Naoro Village after covering 22km with approximately 1800m of ascent and 1400m of descent. It was a tough slog along the Track. I can only imagine just how tough it would have been carrying a full military pack or injured soldier along a sodden track. Near impossible would be my guess, but it was done nonetheless.
Naoro Village. Kokoda Ultra Marathon 
Arriving at Naoro Village was a great feeling. I emerged from the jungle to see a cleared grassy area with a scattering of huts made from local natural resources. The local children came out to greet me and show me the way to the camping area. Kokoda Spirit had arranged for their Papuan team to meet us at every camp site. Their guys helped with transporting equipment along the track, including setting up the tents and making us meals. While I waited for everyone else to turn up I struck up conversations with the locals and we discussed the Kokoda Track and what it's like to live on. It was interesting to learn just how different our lives are but yet we can still find many common connections, such as cleaning and washing. Once at the camp I was directed to a shower which I did not expect. The shower turned out to be just a tap connected to a pipe. It didn't look like much but it felt like luxury. After my "shower" the Papuans boiled water for me so I could have a hot drink. So after unpacking my gear into my tent I spent the afternoon sitting on the grassy slope at camp sipping my hot milo, soaking up the beauty around me while waiting for the other members of our team to arrive. Tegyn  was next in to camp and wasted no time in refuelling himself and sorting his gear out for the next day. While watching him it made me think that maybe I should be doing the same, instead of sitting around drinking milo, so I went and had another milo to help think about it some more.

Our morning and evening meals were carried in by the Papuan porters. I had already indulged myself by way of hot drinks. Next on the menu was dinner which comprised fried rice with a meat sauce, which tasted amazing. There was no skimping on quantities either, as there was always enough for seconds. It was a well cooked hearty meal to compliment the day's efforts on the track. 

At the end of Day One, once we had all arrived safely into camp, we convened over the campfire to discuss the days events and the significance of the section of Kokoda Track we had just covered and were about to cover on Day Two. I thought Kokoda Spirit had struck a good balance between allowing us to cover the Track at our own pace, while taking the time educating us on the significance of each section we covered and its history. With our minds processing the days events and our history lesson, we headed to our tents for some much needed sleep ahead of our longest day on the Kokoda Track.

The second and final part of the journey will be posted in a few days under Kokoda Ultra Marathon 2017 - Part 2.

Kokoda Ultra Marathon 2017 - Part 2

Continuation from Kokoda Ultra Marathon Part 1.

Day Two, Wednesday, was our longest day on the Track, which covered 42kms. Based on peoples efforts the previous day, it was important that we got an early start in order to make the most of daylight. So, in the early hours of the morning, we were awake, packed and ready to go before first light. With our head torches on we all headed off into the jungle together. As we'd had more time to get to know each other we stayed closer for longer and chatted a little more. 
Day Two Course Map. 
The track from Naoro Village descends down to Naoro Swamps and Brown River. The swamps comprise tall dense grass and in sections sodden ground. Through this part of the track I was with Kellie, Tegyn and Ash. We stuck together and stayed on the most trodden path. Cutting through the swamp and Kokoda Track is Brown River, which was another formidable waterway. With a bit of assistance we all crossed without incident. 
Day Two start line. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
Emerging from Naoro Swamp we were confronted with "The Wall". It is a very steep section of trail that goes straight up the mountain side. The first impression was that the only thing holding this "wall" together was tree roots. It was not an exceptionally big climb, but it was steep and slow going.
Tree roots holding "The Wall" together.
On the other side of The Wall, down in the next valley, is Menari Village. Though we were not staying in this village, the locals still came out to say hello and view the spectacle. I was told that they normally see hikers lugging large packs, so us with our active gear apparel and small packs must have been a novelty. The locals took advantage of the passing trade and offered us soft drinks for sale. They didn't have to ask twice and currency was produced with haste. While we were there we took some time to watch the local kids play footy. Ash clearly had too much energy and decided to join one of the teams on the field.

After our break we headed out onto the track again. The rugged terrain eventually played its part in spreading us out. Similarly to Day 1, I was once again by myself on the Kokoda Track. Being alone on the track for a second day, I was becoming better at spotting historical land marks. At the end of the first day we discussed each others experiences and compared what each one of us saw. Now on Day Two I was able to identify abandoned tracks, depressions in the ground, benched areas on the hill sides, all of which became clearer now I had some practice. Nature can be so wonderful the way it reclaims disturbed ground, but it can leave some clues behind. 

The ascents and descents on Day Two were massive. There were numerous ascents where I looked at my watch thinking that an hour had gone by, only to realise that in reality it was just 15 minutes. I was surprised at how slow going some of these sections were and can see why so many people take many more days than us to traverse the Kokoda Track. 

Above Menari Village at the top of a 700m ascent is Brigade Hill. Apart from my deep breathing, it was a peaceful tranquil place, but during the Kokoda Campaign this is where a fierce battle took place which resulted in many causalities from both sides. On the other side of Brigade Hill is Efogi 1 Village. Again, as was the case in Menari Village, the locals came out to greet me at Efogi Village. The children didn't offer any soft drinks but made up for it with their enthusiasm.
Day Two Profile.
The high point of Day 2 was Mount Bellamy at 2190m, which is also the highest point along the Kokoda Track. It was noticeably cooler at this altitude. A little further along the trail was Templetons No. 1 Campsite ,which marked the end of Day 2 and our campsite for the night. Even though I'd covered 42kms with 2700m of ascent and 1780m of descent, I still made it with plenty of daylight left. Similarly to the end of Day One it was a matter of finding a place to have a quick wash before unpacking my gear in the tent and indulging in some milo while waiting for the rest of our group to turn up. 

We all found Day Two to be tough with some of the entrants arriving at camp a little after dark. Amongst the tail group was Anthony. Every day he stayed at the back to act as sweep. As he did every day, Anthony would put his own needs aside to check first on the rest of us and ask how our day had been and discuss the day ahead. Afterwards he'd go about his own business before returning to organise us again. He was instrumental in ensuring that the whole event operated smoothly, which he did superbly.

We were all pretty exhausted after our Day Two efforts on the track, compounded by our early morning start. The warm evening meal, however, did the job of restoring energy reserves in the cooling evening temperature before we retired to our tents and some much sought after sleep.

As discussed that previous night, the start to Day Three would be different again. To make things interesting, it was decided that we'd have two separate starts in the morning, with the slower people heading off in wave 1, followed an hour later by wave 2. The mornings entertainment therefore comprised of watching wave 1 departing camp. After I'd sorted myself out and finished packing, it was time for wave 2 to depart. Paper, scissors, rock decided the order of starts. Kellie went first, followed by me, then Ash, then Tegyn. It was a fun way to spend our last day on the Kokoda Track. 
Day Three Course Map.
Day Three, Thursday, was a "downhill" day and it didn't disappoint on tiring legs. I was starting the feel the affects of a weighted pack from the previous days as I'm not used to carrying such a heavy load (all part of the adventure). I had quite a bit of chafing down my back which was annoying me but it wasn't too bad and I learnt to manage it throughout the run. 
Day Three Profile.
The first couple of kilometres on Day Three had lots of relics from the Kokoda Track Campaign. It didn't take much effort to identify the relics along the side of the trail, though all were showing signs of decay.
Day Three, Wave 1 start. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
We all seemed to have separated quite quickly today. Ash took the lead, determined to catch as many of the wave 1 group  as possible, Tegyn caught up then pulled away from me quite quickly. I caught and passed Kellie, so we were mostly by ourselves again today. 
Eora Creek suspension bridge. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
In one of the valleys was an elaborate bridge across Eora Creek, which would be best described as dubious yet beautifully made by the locals. Not long after Eora Creek I caught Grant and Shane (wave 1) just before the village of Alola, where I was able to purchase a can of coke. A little further along the track is Isurava Memorial and its village. Just before Isurava I caught Ash on a down hill section he was running very carefully balancing his can of coke as he didn't want to spill a drop of the precious liquid.

Tegyn, Steve and I passed each other on the short out and back to Isurava Memorial. This is a mandatory stop and now I see why, as it is a beautiful memorial with stunning views that mark the scene of a four day battle that has been described as the battle that saved Australia. When leaving the memorial I took directions from a local villager who pointed me up what turned out to be a short-cut track, so I returned to the trail a little ahead of Tegyn to his annoyance and fair enough as he was in front of me and running really well. In fairness I stopped and waited until he was out of sight before I continued along the track in pursuit. 
Isurava Memorial. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
From Isurava Memorial and its neighbouring village, it is predominantly down hill through the villages of Deniki, Hoi, Kovello to Kokoda where I passed Mark and Rebecca who informed me that Tegyn was about 15mins ahead and that I should run faster and catch him. I caught Chris instead just before coming into Kokoda which was our final campsite and end of the Kokoda Track. In total, Day Three was 30.5kms with 1000m of ascent and 2560m of descent. At the finish line there was the feeling of accomplishment amongst our small group. We had all been on a journey together, and though we didn't stay together on the track, we all had very similar experiences. It was great to watch everyone come through and be so happy.
All us girls made the Female Podium. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
At Kokoda Village Wayne had travelled up and had our drop bags waiting for us. We had packed these prior to leaving Port Moresby, so it was good to have some luxuries at the end. For me it was clean clothes and a sleeping mat. 

First Class ticket please, one way. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
Early the next morning we packed our gear and boarded a truck for the trip to the Kokoda airstrip. Much to the annoyance of the Papuan support team, on several occasions they had to clear a path through trees that had been felled by nuisance locals. Eventually we made it to the airstrip and with relief our plane was waiting for us. 
Kokoda Village
Back in the hotel at Port Moresby I took a long hot shower. It was good to wash the grime away. It did some to the point where I could no longer smell myself, which suggested that I smelled the worst. 
Presentation. Kokoda Ultra Marathon.
Our last night in Port Moresby was spent reflecting upon the event and presenting each of us a finishers medal. I feel very privileged to have shard this experience with such a great group of people. The format for this event is such that someone with moderate trail fitness is capable of covering the Kokoda Track in the three days given. The support from Kokoda Spirit was exceptional, from signing up, until our return departure from Port Moresby. Kokoda Spirit are clearly an experienced company who provide a high level of support and logistics along the Kokoda Track. I was hesitant about doing a staged event such as this, but my fears have been alleviated and I'm now looking to do another stage race in the not too distant future. 
Bomana War Cemetery. Australian War Memorial.
Gear (amongst other mandatory gear I carried)
La Sportiva Akasha shoes. They were perfect for this sort of terrain.
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Thongs
Ultimate Direction Fastpack 15. It was a Mary Poppins bag, containing more than the name suggests.
Ultimate Direction Body Bottle
Ultimate Direction Ultra Light Hat
Kokoda Ultra Marathon 2017.


Saturday 25 February 2017

The Hillary Ultra, NZ 2017

I first familiarised myself with The Hillary Ultra, NZ trail back in 2015 as part of my focus on the Skyrunning Oceania Series. That time I travelled alone and managed to finish in a time of 9:57:45 for a new course record. The following year my good friend Gill Fowler raced The Hillary Ultra. Prior to heading off to race, Gill and I discussed the course and I encouraged her to get my course record as I thought she could lower it further. Unsurprisingly Gill did lower it to 9:55:52. As Gill’s time was so close to mine I thought that there was the possibility of taking 1 or more seconds off her time this year.

For this year's race Brian accompanied me to Auckland as he was entered into the 34km run. Both of our goals for the event were very different. Mine was to run strong for the entire 80kms, his was to enjoy the scenery and to just finish. We were both fortunate enough to again stay with Brian’s Aunty Bev and Uncle Jack in Auckland. It is always good to stay with them as they are both very active people and are considerate of runner’s requirements (rest, diet, sleep, preparation, relaxing, napping, recovering, etc) as Bev is familiar with the marathon distance having done many road marathons before.

Photo from Arataki Visitor Centre. The Hillary Ultra Trail is somewhere in that forest.
The day before the event, Brian and I attended race registration then headed up into the hills of Waitākere Ranges Regional Park to the 80km start line at Arataki Visitor Centre. The only other time I had been here was for the start of the 2015 race, which was prior to first day light. I naively thought, at the time, that the race started at first light and so I missed out on the impressive views of the bay, dam, Auckland and surrounding dense forest. This time in daylight I took the opportunity to enjoy the views and wander around the visitor centre which proved a nice way to relax prior to the next morning’s early start.
Pre-race nerves. Photos4sale.co.nz
Having Brian with me this time round meant that I could sleep in until 4:30am before we had to get up and head directly to the start line at Arataki Visitor Centre. This year I had with me a good head torch, something that I had overlooked last time. The race start was the usual affair, with a short but humorous race briefing by race director Shaun Collins, followed by the gathering of runners under the inflatable start line arch, before we headed off in darkness along 80kms of The Hillary trail. A brief countdown proceeded the start, then it was a short moderately paced run up through the visitor carpark which allowed for self-seeding to occur and avoided any hostile jostling prior to the single track through the first of many forest sections.

The first of many kauri dieback prevention foot wash stations. Photos4sale.co.nz
Running through the dense forest is an unusual experience for me. The bush I run in at home is sparse and you can see for a fair distance into it, even with a head torch. The forest along The Hillary Trail, in comparison, is very dense and it is difficult to see much further than just a few metres. Occasionally my head torch would pick up a glint of reflected light and I had no idea if it was a beady eye from an animal or just a droplet of water, either way it kept me distracted while running this night section.
A runnable ascent. Photos4sale.co.nz
After about half an hour of running the sky above started to get some colour in it. Gradually the light from my head torch became less effective as the day dawned. By this time we were well and truly into the race and had covered much undulating terrain. Through these early stages of the race I found myself running pretty much by myself as the field had already spaced itself out around me. At the first aid station, Huia, at 14kms, I was told I was 7th overall which is unusual for me to be so far up the field this early on.
Hands-on-knees technique is very effective on steep hills. Photos4sale.co.nz
The first climb after Huia marks the start of the "big" climbs for the day. At around 360m ascent over 3km the first climb is steep but semi-runnable. The trail zig-zagged through lush forests, but after about half an hour of climbing the forest starts to open up and revealed a view of the ocean which only got more spectacular as the trail ascended. Near the top there is a permanently fixed chain to help runners up the last steep incline that revealed an amazing panoramic view. Memories from last time I raced here in 2015 kept resurfacing and I remembered stopping at the top briefly to take in the beauty and it did not disappoint this time either. Down below I could see the next check point  at Whatipu (24kms) and another runner ahead. I caught that runner, Tom Ennever, at the aid station, and we continued to run together for awhile until I dropped him on the following climb, but he soon caught up again. On this climb I found two other runners. One of them, Nathan Bycroft, ditched his fiend and joined my bandwagon on the ascent. Nathan and I continued to run together pretty much the rest of the race. It was good to have some company and we used each other to set the pace and keep each other honest.   
Descending is a form of controlled falling. Photos4sale.co.nz

When I'm running with other people I imagine that the gap between us is bridged by a rubber band. This "rubber band" is a metaphor for the mind's ability to keep my body within a reasonable distance of the person I want to follow. In this race, following Tom and Nathan, I allowed this rubber band to stretch out a little by letting them stride out on the flatter terrain, but I lifted to close the gap in order to pace off them. The furthest I let that rubber band stretch was when they would be a few bends ahead on the trail, but most importantly they stayed within sight meaning that I didn't let that rubber band "break". As soon as that rubber band breaks it is difficult to be able to mentally and physically lift the pace again to catch up. It is a technique I use in training runs and races alike and the results are remarkably consistent.

The Piha checkpoint is the starting point for the 34km runners, of which Brian was one of them. When I arrived there was no one there which meant that I’d missed the start of the 34km race, so in my mind, Brian became a hare and I was a fox. Not often do I get the chance to chase him down, this would be a first under race conditions, so I relished the opportunity this time round.  From the Piha checkpoint the trail makes its way onto, then along, the beach through the tidal zone of dense black sand. After a kilometre of flat sandy beach running, which took a toll on the legs, the trail heads back into the forest. It wasn’t far up the hill before I came across the tail enders of the 34km pack. They were pacing themselves early and I managed to pass with ease on the single trail, in pursuit of the next 34km runner ahead. I continued this process for the remainder of the race, always keeping Tom and Nathan within sight.
Sometimes I had to take my eyes off the view and focus on the trails. Photos4sale.co.nz
The following checkpoint was at Bethells. I arrived as the 16km runners were being briefed prior to their race start. I didn’t waste much time at the checkpoint refuelling as I wanted to put as much distance between me and the “fresh” 16km runners as I could. As all runners (80km, 34km and 16km) finish at the same finish line in Muriwai, this last section of trail from memory was going to get crowded. I made it about 1km along the trail before the 16km leaders caught me. They were setting quite a pace and treating it as a sprint. I managed to take advantage of these 16km runner’s movements and pass a few 34km runners. It was a nice change from having to call out “passing” as I’d been doing for the last 15 or so km’s.
Near the top of the second big climb from Bethells I came across Brian, sitting down on the grassy slope. He was looking pretty exhausted and wasn’t in much of a hurry to move. I told him to get a hurry on, but I could tell the interest wasn’t there. He passed me the car keys along with some motivation, that I was on record pace if I just continued running strong. Brian’s pretty good with his stats, and I trust what he says, so I used his words as motivation to run on and potentially give the record a nudge.
In between crowds on the coastal track from Piha. Photos4sale.co.nz
 The single trail, which winds in and out of the coastal cliffs, was by this time becoming pretty crowded with energised 16km runners and exhausted 34km runners all passing and being passed alike. Occasionally I’d get called a “speedy” 16km runner, which at times I felt like correcting them saying that I was an 80km runner, but by this time my energy was reserved purely for running.
Always happy to finish. Photos4sale.co.nz
Crossing the finish line outside Muriwai Surf Life Saving Club was a tremendous relief. The whole day I'd been focused with my running and to finally stop running was a massive relief. I stopped the clock at 9:56:56, just 64 seconds off Gill's course record, but a 49 second PB none the less (bloody long way to run for such a small PB in my honest opinion). It's not the first time I've missed out on a course record by mere minutes in an ultra. My primary goal in races is to always finish, which I did, so I'm happy. Now it was a matter of filling in a few hours while I waited for Brian to finish his sight seeing tour. One stand out feature of New Zealanders is how friendly they are and it was easy to strike up a conversation with people at the finish line while I waited.
Shaun Collins, The Hillary RD, and the hand made trophy. Photos4sale.co.nz
I'm glad I made the decision to return to The Hillary. It's good to see how the event has grown. Personally I think that the views in the first 50kms of the course are some of the best, but that is still not enough motivation to get Brian to step up to the ultra.

The Hillary Course Profile


It is a good feeling when you can rely upon the same gear again and again knowing that it fits well and performs superbly.
Ultimate Direction Body Bottle 500ml
The Hillary Course Map

Saturday 8 October 2016

Hounslow Classic Ultra 2016

For me the lead up to this year's Hounslow Classic Ultra (68km, +/-4500m) had been some what relaxed. After my efforts at the BUFF Epic Trail and lingering leg issue I wasn't sure if I should register for the Hounslow Classic. Consequently I bided my time and left it quite late to enter the ultra distance race.
Running off Lockleys Pylon. Aurora Images.
The weeks between the BUFF Epic Trail and Hounslow Classic I continued to run as I usually do, racking up my usual mileage on the trails. There was no intensity in these runs and I enjoyed a lot of them with my people friends and my fury friends. The issue I had with the leg from my European trip remained but I was able to avoid aggravating it during this time. Better still, was that I hadn't committed to run yet and I didn't feel depressed about my casual lead-in to the race. I still managed however to get onto the Hounslow course regularly on weekends and familiarise myself with the steep descents (more like drops) and ascents (more like climbs).
The descent off Du Faur Head (Lockleys Pylon side) down to Blue Gum Forest. Training Run.
My commitment to finally register for the ultra came from a number of decisions. The year was still far from over, though Christmas decorations have already started appearing in the shops. I didn't want to end the year without doing one more event. So far in 2016 I hadn't done an ANZ Skyrace. Brian wanted to help out Mountain Sport by sweeping the shorter 21km course, so we were likely to be up at the event anyway. I had no other race lined up for the foreseeable future, so could risk aggravating my leg before having a proper rest period afterwards. So after weighing it all up I committed to the challenge of competing in Australia's toughest ultramarathon, as appointed by Ultra168.com.
The tree bridge crossing Govetts Creek at Blue Gum Forest. Training run.
Although the preceding week to the race was a short week due to the Monday being a public holiday, I made it seem even shorter by heading up to Katoomba after work on Thursday night. It's always an awesome feeling to sleep in Katoomba knowing that you are already at your destination and that the travelling is already done. I found it so relaxing that I risked sleeping the whole of Friday away. Once I finally managed to motivate myself, I travelled up to Allview Escape, Blackheath, which was this years event race hub. The uninterrupted views from this location gave runners and spectators spectacular view of the Grose Valley. The lawn at Allview Escape extends to the top of the escarpment from which there are direct lines of sight to many of the course's prominent features, such as Evans Lookout, Junction Rock, Pulpit Rock, Lockleys Pylon and the Pinnacles, the course's halfway/turnaround point. Each of these locations were tantalisingly close (within 8kms as the crow flies) but would take many hours of concentration and hard work to reach.

The Hounslow Classic Ultra is an out and back course, which is far from boring. The course sees runners drop in and out of the Grose Valley four times. Each descent and subsequent ascent is unique in its own way and just as much concentration is required going down as it is going up, though going up definitely takes longer to do. The technicality of the terrain is a good leveller bringing those who can run fast back to those that can run the technical trails, with the biggest advantage given to energetic hikers. 
Andrew Layson (Berowra Bushrunner President) and me before the ultra start.
Come race morning we were greeted with perfect weather that revealed the gorgeous views that would accompany us runners throughout most of the day. Even though I've seen the view hundreds of times before, I'm still mesmerised by it. Unfortunately I wasn't at the start line to gaze, but to race, and when we all finally headed off the pace was sensibly dictated by eventual race winner Loughlinn Kennedy. After a short section of fire trail to allow us to self seed, we dropped down onto the single clifftop trail and followed it towards Govetts Leap, last years race hub. I found myself running close to the ever cheerful Lou Clifton. Race previews had ousted local girl Lou as a potential podium finisher and rightly so as she is having a stellar year on the ANZ Skyrunning circuit with strong results. Even though this was a race and technically we were competing, we still managed to keep a pace where we could run together and chat like we would during a training run. It was really quite enjoyable to be able to do this on the trails with a friend.
The start line at Allview Escape, Blackheath, is spectacular.

The well formed clifftop trail continued past Govetts Leap along to Evans Lookout carpark, then around to Neats Glen before starting the first big descent down into the Grand Canyon. Arguably one of the most picturesque walking tracks in the Blue Mountains, the Grand Canyon track slowly deteriorates the further you descend. There are sections that are well landscaped, then there are sections that have succumbed to land slips. All this is easily traversed but care needs to be exercised. As the trail started to become more technical I stuck to a pace that was comfortable for me. My conversation with Lou ended near the landslide section where I passed her then started to edge ahead. Once at the bottom of the Grand Canyon I followed the level single trail and the river down to Junction Rock, which marked the start of the days first big ascent back up to Govetts Leap via Rodriguez Pass. Joseph Dorph caught me at this point and took off out off sight. I'd spend the rest of the day trying to catch him. This ascent up to Govetts Leap gets steeper and steeper, starting with a gentle grade which turns into more frequent series of steps which in themselves get steeper and steeper, before arriving at the base of a vertical cliff and a trail which cuts across its face. On the ascent I caught and passed Jason Martin, but not before having a brief chat. Ahead I could now see Joseph, whom I knew I could catch and over took him at the falls. Joseph stayed right behind me all the way to the top. None of this happened quickly as the motion of running changed to a jog, then hands on knees power walk until finally reaching the top. I had a long day ahead and there was no use going out too hard at this early stage of the race.

Lou Clifton and I having a chat while running through the Grand Canyon track.
After completing the first big ascent and reaching Govetts Leap, the route retraces the clifftop track back to the race hub at Allview Escape where I met up with Brian to refuel. This first loop (21km) took me 2hrs 36mins to complete and was just a warm-up for what was to come.
Coming back to the race hub. Junction Rock is in the valley below. Ben Duffus.
I left the check point before Joseph and it wasn't long before he caught up again and we ran together for a while until Pulpit Rock where he left me for good. This next section of the course around to Perrys Lookdown is really the only runnable section of the trail as it follows a reasonably well graded dirt road. It's one of the few opportunities for the faster runners to stretch their legs and not be hindered by rocks, tree roots, branches, tourists, shrubs, etc. I was expecting to be passed by runners along this section, especially since I have a habit of slacking off when running by myself, but even with my relatively slow pace I managed to keep my position in the field.

The "runnable" part of the course between Allview Escape and Perrys Lookdown. Scott Hawker.
Most of my training runs on the course occurred between Perrys Lookdown and Lockleys Pylon. The two points are only 5kms apart, however between them is a 600m descent down to Blue Gum Forest then another 600m ascent back up the other side. This section of trail provides one of the best training grounds in the Blue Mountains for vert vs distance. On the climb up to Lockleys Pylon I could feel the effects of the Spring sun on my body. The day was reasonably warm and much of the trail up to Lockleys Pylon is exposed. The usual energy I have at this point on my training runs was starting to diminish and my lackadaisical training routine for this race was starting to show. Shortly after reaching Lockleys Pylon I was passed by Loughlinn Kennedy and Danny Garrett travelling in the opposite direction. They looked like they were running on top of each other and neither were relenting. Both these guys were leading the race and were on their return journey towards the finish line. Joseph was the next person I saw, in third place, on the out and back which meant he must have over taken a couple of runners. The 3km run out to the Pinnacles, turnaround point, was becoming a chore. I could feel my feet starting to become heavy and although the trail was reasonably flat, the exposed rocks were hampering my stride. On a few occasions I felt that my issues from the BUFF Epic Trail were preparing to make a come back, but I felt that I couldn't go much slower else Lou would surely have caught back up to me.
The volunteers at the Pinnacles checkpoint were very helpful.
The return journey from the Pinnacles back to Perry's Lookdown took 9mins longer than the out journey. At the time it felt like a lot longer as I was sure that I slowing down. As I'd passed Lou between the Pinnacles and Lockley Pylon on the return journey I knew where I sat in the field relative to everyone else. I didn't want to reduce the intensity, but at the same time I could still feel the weather sapping my energy. My nutrition plan was out the door by the time I was back at Perrys as I was finding it difficult to force food down. By the time the sun finally started to abate on the return journey to Allview Escape, the effects on my nutrition had done its damage. Solid food was no longer an option and I was left to my trusted cordial.
Sean Greenhill (RD) checking that I was alright before heading out on the last loop.
The final descent back down from Govetts Leap to Junction Rock was slow going. The spring in my step had gone. From Junction Rock there was just one more substantial climb back up into Grand Canyon. There wasn't much running going on along this section. My movements were coarse and I felt like I was in a hike-a-thon. At the back of my mind I wanted to finish the course in daylight and I used this as my motivation to keep going.

The hike-a-thon back up the Grand Canyon track. Ben Duffus.
It was a huge relief to emerge from the darkening Grand Canyon track and see that there was enough daylight to get back to Allview Escape. The weather had changed while I was in the canyon and the sun had been replaced with a cold heavy air as a cold weather front had come through. Along the clifftop track I was forced to start running in order to keep myself warm, such was the sudden drop in temperature. To my disappointment the cold air had brought a light fog that now concealed the view. At least I got to enjoy it earlier in the day when I was fresher and could afford lifting my eyes up from the trail. Now in my exhausted state my eyes were firmly focused on the trail ahead.
Yes Sean, those mountains look much bigger from my perspective. Maggie Jones.
After 10hrs 24mins I finally made it back to Allview Escape for the fourth and final time that day, 1st female and 4th overall. The final loop had taken me 44mins longer than the first time. I felt spent. I apologise to Sean Greenhill, Race Director, for not being more accommodating in his finish line interview, but to be honest all I wanted to do was have a spew, and I didn't think that it would be appropriate to do it in front of everyone. On the bright side, it is amazing how good you can feel after purging the system.
Hounslow Classic Ultra Podium. L-R Lou Clifton 2nd, me 1st, Lucy Bartholomew 3rd, Danny Garrett 2nd, Loughlinn Kennedy 1st, Joseph Dorph 3rd. La Sportiva Australia.
For anyone looking at a stand out Skyrunning event that is different to anything on the Australian trail running scene then this is my pick. It has big climbs with technical trails that reward runners with more technical running ability over those with flat out speed.
I found it easier to carry the food rather than consume it. Aurora Images.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva H9eadband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.
Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap