This week I entered the Ultra-Trails Australia 100km event in the Blue Mountains in May. You may know it as The North Face 100. It is an iconic event, Australia’s biggest ultra (I think!) and this year there were 1300 places allocated to the 100km event. At just under $400 to enter (let alone all the costs for gear, travel and accommodation) it’s not cheap but still it sold out in under 2 days, so I got in early. I’m in!
I decided to enter the event after crewing there this year. Much like my Yurrebilla volunteering experience in 2014, attending the event as a non-participant made me determined to enter as a competitor the following year!
Yurrebilla was my first ultra. Although that was a challenging course, UTA100 is a different kettle of fish. For a start, it’s pretty much double the distance. And instead of being in the Adelaide Hills, this is in the Blue Mountains. Extremes of temperature are common, and there is 4200m of elevation. On top of this is the added challenge of running through the night which most (other than the super elites who are finished before sunset) have to contend with.
As part of my long-term preparation for this event I entered the Heysen 105k ultra which takes place this coming Saturday. I thought it would be good to have a 100km event under my belt before tackling UTA100, and being close to home (less than an hour from town) the travel and accommodation costs would be minimised. I would also have the opportunity to train on the course, and it is a much gentler course than the UTA100.
One of the biggest challenges of the 100km event as opposed to the shorter ultras, is running through the night, mostly on trails. I have done a bit of night trail running before but never in a race. The night trail runs I have done have been around Cleland and Belair in the Adelaide Hills, always in a group, and always social, so we tend to stick together (or at least regroup at regular intervals). A race is totally different, especially an event with around 100 participants, where the night section of the race will come quite late and therefore the field will be more spread out – it is highly unlikely that I will be in a group by that stage.
Last weekend I did 2 night trail runs. The first one was around Cleland, which is relatively familiar territory for me (although with my somewhat limited navigational skills, I could probably easily get lost if I ended up on my own). It was an abbreviated, 12km run, thankfully cutting out the climb up Mount Lofty, and we saw a couple of koalas, lots of kangaroos, a few deer, and even a frog!
The second night run for the weekend was along the last section of the Heysen 105 course – around 18km. We started just before 7:30pm in fading light, and it wasn’t long before the mandatory head torches came into action. This run was different to any of the night runs I’d done before. Whereas the Belair and Cleland ones are more technical, this one was mostly wide tracks, quite a bit of dirt road, and some sand (which I’m sure will be a whole lot tougher next week when I will have already run 90km!)! I ran pretty much the whole run with a guy called Adam who had run this section in daylight the week before, so was familiar with the course – very handy! Running through Kuitpo Forest was interesting, I couldn’t imagine running that section on my own – well I could imagine it but it was a scary proposition!
Luckily in the Heysen 105, runners are allowed/encouraged to have buddy runners to run the last part of the course. Buddy runners are allowed from Checkpoint 3 which is also the finish of the new 57km event. The idea of the buddy runner is to run through the night. The cut-off time is 7am Sunday, and runners have the option of starting at either 6am or 7am. As someone who values her sleep, and has no intention of being out there for even close to 24 hours, I opted for the 7am start.
Beck, with whom I ran most of Yurrebilla, was originally going to be my buddy runner and then, after making sure I had an alternative, she decided to enter the 57km event. That worked out well, because now I potentially have someone to run with for the first 57km! Theoretically I can then have my buddy runner (Kirsten) with me from that point, but I thought I’d be nice to her considering she has just run the Melbourne Marathon!
I needed to work out what time I would estimate getting to the checkpoints so I could then work out when I would be likely running at night. The plan is to have Kirsten with me just for the night section and based on my training runs there was no way it was going to be dark by the time I got to 57km! I had done all but one of the training runs and cumulatively covered around 80km in 7.5 hours, averaging just over 10km/hour. It is a less physically challenging course than Yurrebilla which I did at around 8-ish km/hour, but realistically I knew I wasn’t going to be able to run 105km at 10km/hour – I’d LOVE it if I could, but fatigue will be a factor.
Double Yurrebilla time seems to be a pretty good rule of thumb for those who have done both events. For me that would be around 14 hours – add an hour to be safe. So I’m hoping to be finished between 9 and 10pm. Therefore realistically I might only be running from Checkpoint 5 to the finish in the dark. To be safe though I decided to ask Kirsten to run with me from Checkpoint 4 which would mean she would be doing the last 28km with me. Just a nice walk in the park for her after Melbourne Marathon! It wasn’t going to be fast running either, let’s face it (and probably a lot of walking). I did the last 18km section in 1 hour 40 on the weekend but I’d be dreaming if I thought I could do that in the race! Based on the average pace of 7-7.5km/hour I estimate I will reach Checkpoint 4 between 5:15 and 6pm.
One major difference between the 56km Yurrebilla ultra and this event is that the checkpoints are fewer and further between. This means that I need to carry a lot more gear and food. For a start there is a mandatory gear list including head torch, hi-viz vest, beanie and gloves – all of these for the simple fact that night running is part of the event. I’ll also need to carry more water – at Yurrebilla I only carried a maximum of 250mL water and 250mL sports drink whereas at Heysen I will need to carry not only bottles but also some water in a bladder, given that there will be around 20km between checkpoints. I needed to buy a bigger pack – the pack I have been using all year for my long runs and also for Yurrebilla just won’t cut it for the longer distance. I went with an Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest which I ordered online and fortunately arrived on the Friday before the second last Heysen training run. So I have had 2 opportunities to practise with it before the event – so far so good! The only minor hiccup was, the first time I used it, I couldn’t figure out how to operate the drink bottles – I got to the point where I would unscrew the top and drink like I was drinking out of a glass – I knew that there had to be some easier way to get the drink out!
At Yurrebilla I relied mostly on the food provided at the checkpoints, but at Heysen I am going to have to supply a lot of my own nutrition. To avoid weighing myself down, I plan to use drop bags – one for each of the 5 checkpoints and one for the finish line. For this I bought 6 supermarket cooler bags and labelled each with my name and the checkpoint I want it left at. Without having a support person to follow me around, this is the best way to ensure I have what I need, when I need it. In the bags will be mainly nutrition but also other gear that isn’t going to be needed throughout the entire race (eg cold weather gear and hi-viz vest).
Nutrition-wise I’m keeping it simple and keeping with the tried and tested. My sports drink of choice is lemon-lime Gatorade, having not had too much success accessing the Nippys True Grit which was supplied at Yurrebilla – that stuff was GOOOOD! I use the powder, so will put 500mL worth of powder in each of my drop bags, so I can mix up some more at each checkpoint. I’ll also have a few pre-mixed protein shakes if I need them along the way.
For food I am going to carry a cut-up nut bar (with a couple more spread between a few of the drop bags for later), a portion of Lifesavers and almonds (again, some more of these will be in drop bags), and half a white bread sandwich (each drop bag will have half a sandwich in it – alternating between 2 different nut spreads, for a bit of variety!). I plan to have some salted, boiled baby potatoes in each drop bag as these were a godsend at Yurrebilla – I’m not normally one who craves salty food but it’s amazing how much you need (and appreciate) it after running for a long time!
My new ‘thing’, and something I tried for the first time at that last night run (not wanting to try something new on race day – NEVER EVER do that!) is mashed sweet potato with salt, in a gel tube. The tube I used was actually designed for toiletries, easy squeeze with a leakproof valve, but is certified food-safe. I used that during the night run and MAN did it taste good! I plan to carry one of these and put more in later drop bags. Very easy to eat, no chewing required, tasty, salty and a good hit of carbs – ticks all the boxes!
I booked a room at the St Francis Winery Resort, about 17km from the finish. I did not fancy driving back to Adelaide, potentially very late at night, after running 105km. Camping at the finish line was an option but I thought a bed sounded a lot more appealing.
Normally I run 5 times a week. My plan for race week is to have an easy run (call it a ‘jogette’) on Tuesday, and a walk with my Thursday morning group. I will skip Friday altogether (although knowing me I will probably go and meet the group for coffee afterwards!). I need to be fresh for Saturday and I certainly don’t want to risk injury by doing anything silly!
My next blog post will be a report of the Heysen 105 – wish me luck!