Thursday, 7 July 2016

Lavaredo Ultra Trail 2016

Heading back to my European home away from home left me with mixed emotions this year. I was excited about heading back to Cortina and the Dolomites but I was definitely feeling sad to be leaving Liz behind. Liz and I had discussed things in depth prior to me going, and she kept saying she really wanted me to go. She’s always been so incredibly supportive of me chasing my dreams with my running and I couldn't do what I do without her.

I’d been having some major calf problems since getting back into the full swing of training after my break from running last year, including tearing my calf 2 weeks out from Mt Solitary and then having issues with it again during the UTA100. Fortunately it didn’t tear in UTA which was great, but that was short lived. Three weeks after UTA I was heading out for a night run in prep for Lavaredo and I tore it again heading down Furber Steps. Literally the day before this horror run I had confirmed and booked my flights to Italy and then less than 24hrs later I was limping back home from a training run. I was absolutely gutted and angry that things were playing out how they were. I asked myself so many questions that cold dark night as I walked home. “Why has it decided to tear now?” “How can I get through those couple of awesome runs and now it’s playing up?” I thought that I had been smart, easing off during UTA because I knew I had Lavaredo coming up and felt like I almost deserved a smooth and strong build to Lavaredo. That was obviously not to be!

Because of all the dramas it ended up being a day by day assessment and frequent visits down to Sydney, a 5hr round trip for 90 minutes of appointments with my physio Mark Green from The Body Mechanic and also Peter Sweeney (an awesome physio that has been giving me massage/treatment). Every morning I was waking up, rolling out of bed and having that sick feeling of wondering how my calf was going to feel. When things get like this for me I really start to wonder why I bother. I hate that feeling of waking up in the morning and not knowing. 

Training up on course at Forc. Lavaredo.

The final week before I was due to fly out I managed to get one week of decent training in, including a really good hill session and long run where I managed to be nearly 10 minutes quicker up Mt Solitary than what I was pre-UTA which gave me confidence. During the hill session every step going up I was waiting for a pop. I didn't go crazy hard but definitely pushed things a little as I figured I’d much rather it tear 10 minutes from home rather than 27hrs worth of trains, planes and buses. I decided on the Monday after a Sunday long run that I thought things were good to go.

Arriving in Cortina it was like I hadn't left. It was really cool to have the same bus driver pick me up and even the same staff at the local pizza restaurants and cafes.

I had arrived 1 week out from the race so that I could do a couple of short runs on course and get as comfortable in the big mountain environment as I could. It was great having my Catalan brother Pau arrive on the Monday so we could do some short training runs together. It was great to catch up so soon after UTA100 in May. Combining travel, racing and friends is why I love this sport so much!

The build up to the race involved a few new things including my introduction to the wonderful world of Calzone pizza! After seeing Pau order one and then the size of what came out on his plate I had to get in on the action the following night. I’d also just purchased an AeroPress coffee maker and taken some of my favourite Cassiopeia coffee beans with me so I knew I had some of the comforts of home.

Training went well in Cortina and the body seemed to have travelled well. I was also excited that I was able to book in with Mohamed the local physio guru in Cortina that I’d seen last year. I’m not one of these athletes who can just run and run and run. I really need regular treatments to keep my body ticking over smoothly. 

Leading the conga line early on - Photo Gigi Botte

I booked in to see Mohamed the Wednesday of race week and had a great session, to the point where he was adjusting and treating my ankle exactly how Greeny does without me even mentioning anything which was awesome. 

The day after my treatment Pau and I drove to Lago di Landro on the Lavaredo course for an easy 30 minute shake out jog. After 5 minutes I felt a slight twinge in my calf which instantly sent a shiver up my spine. I told myself that it was just being a little grumpy after the treatment the day before. Things got worse as I continued running so I cut things short and walked back around the lake to the car. Speaking with Liz on the phone I was gutted. I’ve had this happen enough times now to know when something isn’t right. 

Pre-race was as normal as pre-race can be. Interviews and a press conference; getting my gear ready and triple checking I had everything ready for my super crewman, Majell. We’d caught up prior to race day to chat about a few things and I was super stoked to have him on board helping out. It was definitely going to help knowing I got to see a good mate at the checkpoints along the way.

As I was standing on the start line looking around I was so pumped knowing how deep the field was. I was truly going to get to test myself against the best ultra marathon runners in the world in this race. I’ve always said I’d rather come 30th place and get my butt kicked by 29 awesome runners rather than turn up at a race where I’m just expected to win.

The race start wasn’t too hectic as we ran out of town, I’d nearly say the first 5km was leisurely. As we started the first climb of the race I just tried to relax into the climb and get things moving. As we started to climb I had a smile on my face as I could hear other runners huffing and puffing around me when I was feeling controlled and comfortable. The last time I had this feeling was during The North Face 100 Australia 2015 and that race didn't end too badly, so I felt like I might be on for a good day. I’ve always been funny like that, I kind of know right from the onset whether things are going to go my way or not. Obviously a lot can happen in 119km but my gut feeling early on in races is often right.

Just after the 33km Federaveccia Checkpoint. Photo - Gigi Botte

There was a massive group of about 30 odd runners that came through Ospitale at 18km which was to be expected. Everyone was jostling for position as we came into the aid station. I made a slight surge to get ahead and quickly filled up my spare soft flask with water that I had Tailwind powder in and I was off. I always like to be as efficient as possible at checkpoints as I like the little buffer it gives me when I leave the aid station. 

As we started to climb up towards Forc. Son Forca the large group started to splinter. I actually think some of the damage had been done on the first descent about 10km into the race. I told myself in the build up to this race that I was going to have to descend quicker and harder than I normally do if I had any hope of being near the front of the field. The descent down from Forc. Son Forca (approx. 2100m) was hectic to say the least! Andy Symonds (eventual winner) and Sylvain Court (eventual 4th place) took off like a flash. By this stage I was sitting in 4th place just behind Pau with Gediminas Grinius (eventual 2nd place) just behind. As we descended I had constant thoughts going through my head of “oh no, this isn’t going to end well”. I knew my legs weren't conditioned to run downhills this hard and then expect to have any climb left in them for later on. 

Federaveccia at 33km was where I saw Majell for the first time. It was great to see him and within a flash I was out of the aid station with only Andy in front of me by maybe 20-30m. I later found out he hadn't stopped at the aid station which just goes to show how fast Majell was at the aid station! I caught up to Andy pretty quickly and then soon after Sylvain, Pau and Gediminas joined us. As we started to climb up here it became apparent that Andy and Sylvain were keener than the other 3 of us Compressport teammates on running uphill. I was caught in two minds on this climb out of Federaveccia as I wanted to make sure I didn't blow up my quads too soon, but I also wanted to make sure I stayed in contact with the front end of the field.

I hit my first and only real low patch of the day as we hit the undulating terrain through until Lago di Misurina. I’d spoken with my good buddy Jez Bragg before the race and he’d mentioned there were heaps of muddy and slippery parts on the course. After a few training runs on the course and not finding any I was wondering what he was talking about. Then at about 38km into the race I found out what he meant. Holy crap, quite literally! There was mud, cow crap and everything in between. I was running through this boggy mess just waiting for a shoe to get sucked off. It was just as this section commenced that Gediminas pulled away from me and where Pau caught up. Pau caught me quickly and passed and I had a moment where I really couldn't be bothered. It was wet, muddy and I was a little cold. I instantly thought of something Liz had told me in one of our chats pre-race where she said to just not have low patches, or to try and snap out of any as fast as I could. I laughed to myself and literally said out loud “I don't have low patches” and then ran hard to get onto Pau’s tail again. Little did I know that this move here would mean I’d spend the next 50km running with Pau. 

We then got towards Misurina and the start of one of the major climbs of the race. I’ve done this climb several times, in training and in the race, and despite being tough is a favourite part of the race for me. Pau and I worked together through here swapping the lead and making our way up to Rifugio Auronzo at 2333m, another non-crew checkpoint. I quickly refilled my Tailwind and Pau and I left the Rifugio with a roar, ready to attack what I knew was a massive crux of the race for me.

Getting into the grind heading up to Rif. Averau (2413m) - Photo - LUT

I knew that I was going to have to get way outside my comfort zone on the descent from Forc. Lavaredo down to the bottom of the valley. In 2015, I was running along with eventual winner Didrik Hermansen in second and third place when I decided to let Didrik go on the descent. I eventually lost 11 minutes to Didrik in the space of approximately 14km. I knew I couldn't let this happen again, so when Pau started putting on the gas on the downhill I just tried to relax as best I could and run down as smoothly as I could. In the end I found it really exciting and invigorating running so hard downhill. One thing I have found over the last few years racing in Europe is that Europeans seem to descend much quicker than us southern hemisphere folk. 

As we were nearing the bottom of the valley the sun was well and truly starting to shine and soon after head torches were turned off and we began the grind up the hilly but runnable climb to Cimabanche at 66km. It was here I really felt like asking Pau politely to slow down so we could cruise a little. But instead I just put in a headphone and turned up the volume and gritted my teeth. One thing I always try to remember and something I tell my coaching clients is that every low patch passes, sometimes it takes longer than others but it will pass and you’ll feel good again. I knew that seeing Majell at Cimabanche would give me a boost, and also getting some fresh water and banana, which had become a favourite in this race for me.

In my happy place! Photo - Gigi Botte

I made sure that we checked everything at Cimabanche as I wasn't going to see crew again for about 28km. I knew the next section up the Val Trevenanzes well. A section that I remember as being the most beautiful on the course. It didn't disappoint, Pau and I were often giving each other that look of “holy shit we’re so lucky to be running here!!” 

We made our way up the valley with a little more water about than the week earlier when I had been on a training run. It was awesome being able to top up with ice cold water along the way as the morning was starting to heat up. As we got closer to Col de Bois I started to feel quite good on the technical but runnable incline and Pau told me to go ahead. We had a quick few words where I told him to hang on the back of me but he said he couldn’t. As I moved ahead I told him I’d see him soon as I knew he’d bounce back.

He caught back up to me near the pass and we then ran together for the final climb up before descending into Rifigio col Gallina at 95km. I remembered this part of the climb well as I’d caught a runner here last year, so decided to make a little surge here and see what happened. I say surge in the most relaxed term, merely a slight increase in effort from a hike!

One of my favourite parts of the course between Rif. Col Gallina and Passo di Giau. Photo - LUT

I soon got to Col Gallina and had a quick change of shirt as it was definitely starting to warm up. Just as I was leaving the checkpoint Pau came charging in. It was definitely game on! The section from Col Gallina to Passo di Giau is another favourite of mine and I’m really happy with how I climbed and descended this section. I think I had an approximate 4 minute gap on Pau at Passo di Giau but knew how fast he would be on the final descent, so I had to run hard.

The trails from Passo di Giau to Rifugio Croda da Lago are epic. Sweeping single track along the mountainside, and a picturesque mountain hut and lake in the distance give plenty of motivation to run strong. I’d prepped myself mentally for this section pre-race and told myself to just run hard and not hold back. I felt like I was moving well and as I did a sneaky look over the shoulder several times to check where Pau was I didn't think I saw anyone. A super quick refill of water at Croda da Lago and I was off for the final 1000m descent into Cortina and the finish.

Nothing quite beats the feeling of running up the finishing chute at Lavaredo! Photo - Alexis Grand Trail

It’s super technical through here and I did my best to run at speed and navigate the tree roots and muddy terrain. I haven't ever finished off a race quite as hard as what I did that day, flying down the trails and through into the edges of town. 

As I made my way onto the road I came across a family who had set up an impromptu aid station with water and even a shower for runners. They had bells they were ringing and the children gave high fives as I ran past. I opted not to stop despite being pretty warm and about a minute or so later I was glad I didn’t! As I was getting closer to the finish I heard the bells and cheering behind me so I knew someone was close. I knew at the speed I was running they were likely less than 500m behind. I gave it everything I had and I soon came across race director and good friend Simone on the bike to lead me into town. It was such a surreal experience those last few hundred metres when I felt I had control on 5th place. 

I crossed the line in 13:00:37 for 5th place and easily what I feel was my most complete performance to date. To bag a top 5 placing in a field as deep as what Lavaredo had this year I’m over the moon. It was such an enjoyable experience running such a long way with my good friend Pau and I’m stoked we both had good races. 

119km completed and only 2 minutes separated us in the end! Photo - Alexis Grand Trail

Thanks to the Ultra Trail World Tour for supporting me to be at the race this year and also to my sponsors Hoka One One Australia, Compressport, Tailwind Nutrition, Vfuel, Ryders Eyewear, Outdoor Research and Simple Hydration for your ongoing support and providing me with the gear I need to play in the mountains!

Majell my super crew, I think Ferrari wants to chat and have you in their pit crew bro. Such a rad experience to share with you brother!

Liz and Baby H, you motivated me more than you know to push hard and to make you proud. It’s so exciting that for my next race I’ll have my two girls there to support me in person :)

Monday, 30 May 2016

Ultra Trail Australia 100 - 2016 Race Report

Bib Number 1… no pressure right?

My build up to Ultra Trail Australia 100 had been widely publicised through the newspaper and social media platforms. I’d taken a lot of time away from the sport I love, but it was now time to lace up and see whether I still had what it takes to perform on the international stage against world class runners.

I ran in the Mt Solitary Ultra a few weeks prior as a tune up and got schooled on running up runnable hills by my good mate Jono. I was stoked to see him running so well, but it was definitely a dent in my confidence as usually anything vertical is my strength. He’d also out-climbed me on the steep eastern col of Mt Solitary, so I was clutching at straws to find positives from that race. I was only 45sec behind Jono to take 2nd place so that was good motivation leading into UTA100.

Despite the lay off, I felt remarkably calm and chilled in the build up to UTA. I tried not to buy into the hype of the race too much nor the international competition. It felt like a case of ‘business as usual’ really. I now look back with a smile when I think of how far I’ve come as an athlete in a few short years of racing competitively - I never used to be this relaxed pre-race.

Race morning was warm and I ticked off the usual pre-race things like taping nipples, applying body glide, drinking coffee…  all the good stuff. Though I say things felt like business as usual, I must have been a little off my game as I was standing on the start line with my new fluffy pom pom Outdoor Research beanie on and would have started with it had Liz not called out to me. I mean I would have looked pretty suave running back through the crowds of people at the start/finish, but from a performance point of view I’ll stick with a buff. 

All smiles pre race with Race Director and good mate Tom Landon-Smith.
As soon as we started running along the road at the start I could tell we weren’t running as quick as last year. I’m not a fast starter by any stretch so when I found myself leading the runners along the road it was easy to establish the pace was slower. 

As we went down Furbers I passed Mario Mendoza and Rhett Gibson, not going particularly faster than them but preferring to have an open trail in front of me. Jono followed suit and before long we’d bridged a small gap. It stayed this way for a few km before we started the climb up Golden Stairs. A few guys caught up and then pulled away on the Golden climb, but I felt content to cruise up at my own effort and not be dictated by others this early on in the race.

I spent the whole of Narrowneck running with my Compressport team mate Pau Capell and my good friend Freddy Thevenin from Reunion Island. One of my loves of trail running and racing around the world is the friendships created with guys like Pau and Freddy. Speaking in English and my very limited French we managed to translate that we were all going to be locking horns again at the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in late June.  

Cruising along NarrowNeck plateau with Freddy just behind.
We ran along sitting in 3rd, 4th & 5th places behind Mario who was long gone by now and Jono who was just a couple of hundred metres in front. It was great having Jono there to use as a gauge of effort and pace. The pace along Narrowneck felt surprisingly comfortable despite my lack of speed work in recent months. Speed training and my calves aren’t the best of friends, so unfortunately it’s only natural speed I can take into racing.

The single track of Narrowneck has to be some of the sweetest trails on this course and some that I don’t nearly run on enough. Through here the 3 amigos caught up to Jono and we then became 4. It would stay like this through until Dunphys Checkpoint. 

Dunphys was smooth as usual, as I already had Tailwind powder in an empty 500mL soft flask in my pack so all I needed to do was add water to that, and top up my other flasks and Simple bottle. One thing I found was because of my speed at the aid stations throughout the race it enabled me to run a cruisier km as the group caught up.

Iron Pot has become quite the iconic section of the race over the years, most people remember the didgeridoo along the out and back section and often forget the steep rutted out single track that you have to go up to get there. I felt awesome going up Iron Pot which I was really happy about for 2 reasons. The first being that I simply got out climbed by Jono on the steep stuff a couple of weeks ago so I felt like I’d made progress and 2 - I was stoked to have my climbing legs back knowing I had Lavaredo coming up.

Running through to 6ft Track Checkpoint, Pau, Jono and I seemed to have dropped Freddy on some of the runnable fire trail road sections. We were soon 4 again as the Chinese Flyer Yun Yanqiao joined our group. I made a bit of a gap on the guys at the aid station and mandatory gear check. Thanks to Gavin from Tailwind Nutrition for giving us all the heads up on what they were checking, it made for a much smoother transition. It was awesome to see Liz for the first time in the race here, it always gives me a boost. Having my Uncle Ag and mother-in-law crewing as well was pretty special. A quick flask swap and some supplies to get me through to the Aquatic Centre and I left 6ft in 2nd place with no-one behind me.

‘So far so good’ I told myself as I started the run up Megalong Valley Road, whilst still reminding myself that there was still a lot of course to go and to not get complacent. I felt like I was ticking things over really smoothly and I was really enjoying the runnable incline. As you progress up Megalong Valley Road the road basically gets steeper and steeper before the start of the tough Nellies Glen climb. 

As I started to hit the slightly steeper fire trail I instantly felt a twinge in my right calf and a throbbing sensation. I ignored it at first in the hope that it was just one of those funny niggles that would go away, but it was the same calf and the same spot that I’d had a small tear 2 weeks out from the Mt Solitary Ultra so I was pretty worried. I ran another few hundred metres before easing off the pace but it was definitely not going anywhere. Not wanting to think too much about the guys behind me I decided I might as well ease off for a short while and see how things go. A couple of times over the next few km I tried to add a little more effort on the steep but runnable incline to no avail.

At about 52km Pau caught up to me and we had a brief chat, he explained that my mate had some serious cramp problems. I was gutted to hear Jono wasn’t having much luck with his body as I knew how hard he’d trained for this race. As Pau was catching up to me I was thinking in my head that I’d stick with him for a while as I knew his pace must be steady as it took a few km for him to catch up when I eased off the pace. 

As soon as I added a touch more effort the calf throbbing and twitching was back. I backed off instantly and told Pau to run well. It was great to see Pau running so strong, he’s definitely one to watch out for in Italy!

Nellies Glen was as good as Nellies Glen can be when you have a calf that feels like it’s about to pop. I walked more than I ever have up here and took short but frequent breaks to nurse the calf. Not long before the top Yun caught up to me and we had a brief chat. He was looking so strong as he passed me and I could only dream of feeling that good later in the race.

As I passed our house when we hit the road, thoughts popped into my mind of just calling it a day. I felt like if I wasn’t going to be running to win then was there much point in breaking myself and ruining my chances of running Lavaredo. It’s something that I had thought about during the climb up Nellies. A lot of elite guys seem to take this approach now days and call it quits on an off day to then rebuild quickly for another race. It definitely hasn’t been my ‘style’ of racing up until now as I prefer to start what I’ve finished, but I couldn't stop thinking about potentially missing Lavaredo because of a blown calf.

Meeting up at the Katoomba Aquatic Centre with Liz and my crew again, Liz could tell something was up. I told her the calf wasn't great and I knew that she knew that wasn't great as my chicken leg calves have been a hot topic of discussion at the dinner table of late. More so me complaining that they are always so niggly. 

I grabbed what I needed nutrition and hydration wise from her and decided to cruise towards the Fairmont and just see what happens. As much as I wanted to pull the pin I just couldn't do it yet as I felt I hadn’t tried hard enough and given it time to possibly come good. I thought I’d just cruise through to the Fairmont, I’d decided to also inherit a dirty heel strike to minimise the load through my calf. It felt comical how slow I felt I was going, and soon after leaving the Aquatic Centre I was caught and passed by Hoka One One team mate Ben Duffus. To say Ben blew past me like I wasn't moving is a massive understatement. He had the spring in his legs that I wish I had that day.

As we started the descent down Giants I’m not sure how but I bridged a fairly decent gap to Ben & Yun. I put it down to local knowledge and the approx. 10-15 times I’d been down Giants in recent weeks training. I knew in training that the section from Giants through to Leura Forest and then up Fern Bower was going to be a crucial part of the race so I’d trained here often. 

As soon as we hit the bottom together order had resumed and Ben and Yun took off into the distance. Through the undulating single track to Leura Forest my calf was having words to me again. Any time I tried to run ‘normally’ forgetting my heel strike it would pop up and remind me that it was still there and still angry. I walked many inclines through here that I wouldn't normally even consider as uphill. It was through here that my Lithuanian friend Andrius caught up to me. Being the gentleman that he is he asked if I was ok, to which I replied that I was just taking in some nutrition as I didn’t want to let on that I was broken - I’d have no chance of catching him then.

I stumbled (literally) my way up Fern Bower and then through the technical single tracks onto Gordon Falls and then onto the Fairmont. Through this section Ryan Sandes from South Africa caught and passed me too, also asking if I was ok. I told Ryan the truth as by this stage I felt my race was going to be over at the Fairmont. My calf wasn’t allowing me to run any inclines or ‘runnable stairs’ so I figured what was the point. As he moved along I watched him run off and started thinking how stupid ultra running is and wondering why I even bother. I got into a pretty negative headspace and bad thought after bad thought crept in. I knew it was happening and normally I’d snap myself out of it, but this time to be honest I really couldn't be bothered. There was going to be no fairytale ending, I wasn't going to get the win I felt robbed of in 2015.

Running the road section into the Fairmont I remembered this section last year as it was where Dylan and Longfei pulled away from me. I smiled and only wished I was running as well as 2015. As I came into the aid station Liz, Ag and Livy were there. I told Liz I didn’t think I was going to continue. We spoke about the calf and long term plans and that maybe it was best to pull the pin and then re-group for Lavaredo. Liz is great at giving me ‘tough love’ during races and thinking clearly when I might not be, so after I’d spent more than enough time messing around at the checkpoint she told me to get going and that she’d see me at the Queen Vic Hospital to reassess things. As I ran away from the checkpoint I thought to myself ‘Stuff that, I’m not having a DNF next to my name’.

Exiting the trails just before Tablelands Road.
The next few km were still a little wobbly but as I hit Tablelands Road something clicked, possibly literally. I seemed to make a really smooth transition to the road section and my normal hatred for the road was nowhere to be seen. I was loving the road, I was able to run freely and I felt like I’d only run 20km. Why, what, when or how this happened I’m not sure. As I was ticking over the km’s on the road I thought to myself ‘I’m not going to overanalyse it, but how has my calf sorted itself out?’ As I caught 50km runners they said lots of nice things and offered great encouragement. I returned the encouragement where I could trying to say at least hello as I passed. It’s a feature of UTA that I love, the social element of many like-minded people all out there battling the course. 

I came into QVH with a new lease of life. The previous 25km were forgotten and I focused my attention on finishing off confidently and using this as a platform leading into Lavaredo. I told myself not to get carried away and that things may flare up again. I descended down Kedumba efficiently and felt good with my progress. I knew that somewhere between QVH and the Sewage Treatment Works I would catch Mum and Dad which gave me extra motivation. The usual never-ending descent down Kedumba passed quickly and I actually enjoyed the descent, and my knees behaved which made me smile on the inside.

I eased into the first part of the Sublime Point climb knowing not to get carried away and push too hard. I could definitely feel my calf but if I kept the intensity at a certain level things felt ok. I ran far more of this climb than I thought I was going to and when I needed to hike briefly on the 2-3 steeper pinches I hiked with purpose and felt ok. The further up the climb I got the more I smiled as I knew that as I hadn’t caught up to Mum and Dad they were obviously having a good day out. About 400m from the Sewage Treatment Works I saw two orange Mile 27 hats and knew it was them. 

I battled a few emotions as I caught up to Mum. I was so happy to see her enjoying herself, and knowing that Dad had run every step of the way with her was so cool. It’s a memory that I will not forget any time soon.

Seeing these two on the trail was unbelievable, I’m so proud of them both!
The last few km of single track to the bottom of Furbers were fun. I ran a lot slower than I’d like but I was content and confident I’d be able to hold onto 6th place, and happy that I hadn’t broken myself before Lavaredo. Furbers was great and I enjoyed the interaction with fellow competitors as we made our way up this tough finish to this race.

I’ll never get sick of running up this finishing chute.

Crossing the line in 10:01 - I was glad to be done.

It was awesome having family at the finish line and there to support. I had 2 uncles, 3 aunties, 4 cousins, and Mum and Dad out there running over the weekend. I’m so proud of them all for running and also the rest of the family including Liz’s Mum and other Aunty’s and Uncles supporting us all.  
Liz moved ridiculously efficiently all day which was made even more impressive by the fact that she was 29 weeks pregnant. It was awesome seeing her and the bump at the aid stations throughout the day. I’m really looking forward to many more missions with my two girls chasing me around the mountains :)
10:01 isn’t the end of the world and I’m taking the positives that I can from my race as I now build towards the Lavaredo Ultra Trail 119km in Italy on the 24th June. Lavaredo is my all time favourite race and I can’t wait to toe the line with Pau, Freddy, Andrius and a long list of other mates. 

Thanks to Hoka One One, Compressport, Tailwind Nutrition, Vfuel, Ryders Eyewear, Garmin and Simple Hydration for your support. This is the start of big things this year!

Full steam ahead!!

The family photo. From L-R: Cousin Nicole - 22km, Aunty Avis - 22km, Aunty Mitzi - 22km, Aunty Patsy - 22km, Cousins Connor   & Harrison - Kids 1km, Cousin Mike - 22km, Mum - 50km, Uncle Shane 100km, Uncle Glen - 100km, Dad - 50km.

My motivation :)

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The North Face 100 - Australia 2015 - Race Report

After recently relocating from Perth to the Blue Mountains only 4 weeks before the TNF100, it was definitely a different feel walking to the start line for what was now a local race for me. Essentially living on the course enabled me to hone in my skills on the TNF course and become as familiar as I could in the build up. 

Race morning was different, I woke up at 1:30am and was wide awake and hungry. In the past I have just fallen back asleep but this time I really needed something to eat. I got up as quiet as I could (staying in our friends' loft apartment meant the kitchen was basically in the same room as the bed, and my sleeping wife) and put some bread in the toaster. I added my new favourite combination that has been passed down to me from my lovely friends the Brischetto family, which includes avocado and Marmite (or for the Aussies, Vegemite). I don't know why or how this flavour combo works but it does. Feeling incredibly satisfied after a bite to eat I was asleep not long after until the alarm went off at 5am.

I don't think I have ever been so relaxed before a race. Liz, Mum, Dad, my good mate Tom and I all walked down to the race start at Scenic World. After a bit of a jog to warm the legs up I made my way to the start line. Not realising the exact time, I worked my way through the crowd before taking place in about row three. I figured this fitted in well with my plan of making sure I started easy and didn't do anything silly from the start line.

The pace on the out and back section on Cliff Drive was fast. Instantly I knew we were running faster than last year so I eased off a bit and let the front bunch do their thing. As we hit Furber Steps I started to bridge the gap as we made our way down the stairs. I caught up to Jono, Tucks and Brendan soon after as we made our way through the landslide section and it was just like a training run with my good mates. We hit Golden Stairs and the climb went by effortlessly. 

Being inside the top ten so early on and feeling like things were ticking over nicely I was really happy. The next section along Narrowneck (11km) was one I had done quite a few times in training. I started off running with Jono, Tucks and eventual winner Dylan Bowman from the U.S. As we made our way along the undulations of Narrowneck I began to get pretty cold and the legs just weren't feeling how they probably should. I put my sleeves and gloves back on and even contemplated getting my jacket out. I put the feeling in my legs down to the cold and just did what I had to do to get through to Tarros Ladders. There was a bit of leapfrogging going on and having Dylan and Francois D'haene just ahead and Jono and Tucks just behind gave me motivation to keep things ticking over.

Having fun in the early stages along Narrowneck.

Tarros Ladder was awesome! The crew who set up that section of the course really do an amazing job. The single track off Narrowneck was even better than what I remember which was a nice surprise. The steep descent down into Dunphy's was fun and it was great to see good mate Kerry Suter there who was doing some live coverage for I briefly stopped with Jono and Tucks to refill my water and then we were off again.

The next section from Dunphy's checkpoint to 6ft Track checkpoint includes a really fun and steep climb up Ironpot Ridge. It also has a stunning out and back section which includes some amazing guys playing the didgeridoo up on the ridgeline. I remember getting goosebumps here last year as we ran past, and as we made our way up the steep ascent I was hoping they would be there again this year. I was stoked to see that they were, it was another amazing experience.

It was just before this section that a little drama had unfolded. Jono was out front leading the race like a man on a mission with a group of four including Dylan, Longfei Yan, Francois & Hoka team mate Julien Chorier just seconds behind. I was about 15seconds behind the group of four at this stage. Due to unfortunate circumstances with the race marshall not being at the exact spot for the out and back along Ironpot, the group of four missed the left turn to go and do the out and back section. As I approached, the marshall was yelling at me to turn left to which I calmly replied that I knew the course and where I was going. As I made my way out, Jono then ran towards me and mentioned that the other four had missed a turn.

I then descended off the ridge and caught up to Jono who confirmed that the others had missed the 1.4km out and back section. Jono and I were both under the presumption that those four runners were going to be disqualified for not sticking to the course which essentially meant we were now in the lead of the TNF100. After a quick gear check I came into checkpoint 3 and there was quite a lot of commotion going on. I quickly found Liz, Mum and Dad who explained that the four guys were being given a time penalty. At first I wasn't quite sure what they meant by that and when someone explained again I instantly had mixed emotions going on inside my head. As I made my way out of the aid station I was followed closely behind by my good mate Dave who was on film and camera duty for the race. I have no doubt that Dave's comments as we left the checkpoint helped shape my race for the next 12km and set me up for a good finish. Dave explained that I now had a bit of a lead on those guys and to just consolidate and keep things together and not do anything too crazy. Dave is a damn experienced guy so I figured his advice was well worth sticking to.

The climb up the Megalong Valley went really well and I made sure I kept the pace comfortable. I had so much information and thoughts going through my head now so I had to make sure I did what I needed to do. As I ran along the road up to the start of the Nellies Glen climb, part of me was elated to be in the lead of the TNF100 but part of me couldn't quite understand why a time penalty had been given. I decided it was best to try and forget about it for now and enjoy the trails, scenery and the race itself. For those who read my race report from TNF100 2014 you might remember Nellies Glen as where my race completely fell apart. After being in 2nd place and feeling great I got to the top of Nellies to only start vomiting uncontrollably. Undoubtedly this was in the back of my mind as I made my way up the steep stairs in the gully. My legs hit another flat patch going up here. As mentioned earlier I knew where I needed to be on the trail, I knew where I should be able to run to before hiking, but today unfortunately I didn't even get close. "Consolidate" I kept on reminding myself that I didn't have to be doing anything amazing, I just had to keep moving. I hit the top and the brief descent gave me time to get the legs working again. At the top of the climb there were more of my amazing friends including Joe, Paul & Janet. They cheered me on as I ran past. There's just something about seeing friends out on course that gives you a special boost.

The Aquatic Centre and checkpoint 4 came soon after and it was great to see my family again. One of my goals pre race was to not spend too much time fluffing about at checkpoints this year. After getting what I needed I was jogging through the hall and as I left I heard cheers as Dylan, Francois and Longfei came in. In the back of my mind during the last 12km I figured they were going to catch me at some stage. I quickly went through my head what I was going to do once they caught up. As we made our way along the cliff top track to Echo Point I kept on playing over in my head "What are you going to do Scotty?" I knew there was going to be a decision that had to be made whether to up the pace and join their group or get spit out the back. 

Really there was only ever one answer and that was to join this trio of world class runners and see if I had what it takes to compete at the top level. Drawing motivation from my good mate Blake and his performance at Transvulcania a week earlier I convinced myself that if Blake was game enough to challenge the best then I should follow suit. I was now going into the unknown for me. I had never been at the pointy end of such a competitive field, 60km in to a 100km race. We then ran the beautiful fast single track trails through to Gordon Falls which was an experience I'll never forget. We were all taking turns in the lead and apart from one point where I nearly got dropped off the back I was enjoying myself. Working hard at times to keep up on the flatter & faster sections and then making up ground on the stair ascents and descents. 

Getting my grind on trying to hang on to the main group.

Not long after the Gordan Falls water point Dylan and Longfei made a bit of a break on myself and Francois. I knew the climb up to the Conservation Hut was coming up so I made sure I prepared myself for that. I felt strong going up here and was still pinching myself that I was leading Francois up the climb. It was overwhelming at times that I was running along with guys who I have so much respect for as athletes and people. We then hit the road section running along to the Fairmont and I could see Dylan and Longfei just ahead, it's amazing how on the trails you feel someone is miles ahead when in reality they were always just around the corner. Their pace up front was just too fast for me and both Dylan and Longfei looked super comfortable as they ran off. I started to make a bit of a gap on Francois so I figured I must be moving ok. 

Ticking things over just before the road section coming into QVH.

My overall race plan from the start was to try and get to QVH feeling as good as possible and then "race" the final 22km to the finish. I knew this section so well including the 15km climb out of the valley. I arrived at the checkpoint receiving info that the two lead runners were only 2.5minutes up on me which gave me a massive boost. I was feeling great and hearing that gave me even more motivation. I knew what I needed to do on the descent down Kedumba. After covering it in training several times I knew that if I just bombed down with no care for my quads then it was likely going to backfire. I was in third place and moving quite well down Kedumba when I was completely surprised to glance over my shoulder after hearing fast footsteps - it was my Chinese friend YanQiao Yun. He said a quick hi before running past me like I wasn't even moving. I had another "What are you going to do Scotty?" moment as to whether or not to chase him and bridge the gap. Initially I pursued and got on his tail before deciding that this pace wasn't sustainable for me so I backed off the gas. I remembered my race plan of trying to smash the final 15km and I felt that if I ran down with Yun then I wasn't going to be able to do this.

I hit the bottom and began the ascent to the 91km checkpoint. It was so motivating and fun chatting to the 50km runners as we all made our way up the steep firetrail road. I tried to get into my climbing rhythm as quickly as possible and stay there. Just as I approached the 91km checkpoint I looked ahead and could see Yun. I quickly called out to the volunteers for plain water and someone came over towards me to fill my soft flasks. He did a fantastic job and advised me I was in 4th place but 3rd had just left. I kept an eye on Yun as my flasks were getting filled to get a gauge for how he was climbing. I left the aid station in hot pursuit to try and get back into 3rd place. Soon after, I caught Yun as I powered up the climb. As I went past Yun I remembered the time gap back at QVH only being 2.5mins to Dylan and Longfei. I figured I had been moving pretty well so they might not be too far ahead. As I carried on up the climb some of the 50k runners mentioned that there was another Chinese runner just ahead. It gave me a massive boost and motivation to push some more and try to catch Longfei. Coming around the final bend before the trail flattens out before the treatment works I caught Longfei. I caught him just as we crested the top, nervously I ran past saying a quick hello before bombing the next 500m to make sure he couldn't hang on. I know what his flat speed is like so I tried to catch him by surprise and make a burst.

I refused to look back, I was told once that looking back can be seen as a sign of weakness so I did all I could to keep my eyes looking in front of me and take the trail as it came. Once I was satisfied that Longfei wasn't going to catch me my focus turned to trying to catch Dylan. I kept thinking to myself during the next 5km or so to the bottom of Furber Steps about the finish from last years race where Stu Gibson and Tucks sprinted it out to the finish line. Secretly I was hoping the same might unfold today. Little did I know that Dylan had absolutely flown during the final leg and was 6mins up the trail.

As I made my way closer to the base of Furber Steps there were more and more runners on the trail and also tourists. I started calling out well in advance to give them warning that I was coming as I was moving pretty quickly by this stage. I can't explain how enjoyable it was flying over those last few km of singletrack. Once I hit the bottom of Furbers I felt I was home. I had done the Furbers ascent over a dozen times in training and thought even on a bad day I could get up in 12mins or so. I looked at my watch and realised that I had just under 15min to reach the finish line to crack 9hrs. I'm pretty sure I let out a yeehaa as I left the valley and took off up the stairs. I basically grunted my way up every single step trying to say thank you to whoever I could as they made way for me coming up. At one stage near the top I got near the base of a metal set of stairs that must have had 10 people on it, but they all moved across to let me through. I was at the stage where I was basically grabbing anything and everything to help me get up. Trying to make out handrails and posts from tourists arms and legs was a bit of a blur. 

Hitting the boardwalk I had to fight back the emotions as I knew I'd sealed 2nd place. I gave it a bit of a sprint and the cheering welcome of the crowd was absolutely electric. I'll cherish that moment and memory for the rest of my life. Looking up at the clock and seeing a time that started with an 8 was so satisfying, I couldn't believe that I'd run sub-9hrs on the TNF100 course. Soon after I crossed the line Liz came running up and I had to fight even harder to hold off the tears. These are the moments that I cherish. Although I'm often out there alone on the trails training and racing, knowing that I get to see my best friend and wife at the end is what motivates me.

Looking up and seeing a time that started with an 8 made me smile for sure!

I made my way over to give Mum and Dad a big hug - it was so special to me that they were there to witness my best performance to date. Not because of the time or place but because I truly had the most fun I've ever had during a race and they were there to share that with me.

Makes all the hard work worth it

Congratulations to Dylan for the win, it was a pleasure sharing the trails with you, and to Yun who ran a crazy final 50km to bag 3rd place. 

I'm still trying to process what happened last weekend and it still seems a little surreal. It was the performance I had wanted and dreamed about in training but to actually do it was amazing. I'm not 100% sure of my race schedule for 2016 but I have to say I feel like I have unfinished business with the TNF100 so I'll likely be back in a years time to have a crack at the top spot.

Thanks to all my sponsors & supporters including Hoka One One, Compressport, Tailwind Nutrition, Ryders Eyewear Australia, Simple Hydration, Ay-Up Lighting and Mike at Northside Runners Crowsnest for their continued support of me chasing my dreams. 

Also thanks to my incredible coach Andy, I know I'm bloody hard work at times but your knowledge and training program has definitely taken things to a whole new level!

Finally thanks to my amazing wife Liz and Mum & Dad for being there to support me as always. Knowing I have such an amazing family supporting me makes this running adventure so much more special. 

Sponsor plug...? Heck yes, the new Speedgoats were insane! 

All photo's thanks to my good buddy Lyndon Marceau from marceauphotography @marceauphotography