Saturday, 23 July 2016

BUFF Epic Trail Aiguestortes 2016

The third and final race of my 2016 European trip was the BUFF Epic Trail Aiguestortes, Spain, which also doubled as the biennial Skyrunning World Championships. This three day event had vertical kilometer (VK), 26km, marathon and ultra races on offer. I'm a big fan of the longer "value for money" type of events so chose the ultra with its 105km, +/-7950m. What I didn't anticipate was how much "value" I was to get on the mountainous ultra course.
BUFF Epic Trail course profile.
Two weeks prior to the BUFF Epic Trail I raced in the High Trail Vanoise VK and Petit Parcours races in the French Alps. Their purpose was to help me acclimatise to the altitude and big European mountains. Following the High Trail Vanoise event I travelled with Mum, Dad and Brian down to Spain to check out the BUFF Epic Trail ultra course prior to race day. Firstly we spent a few nights in Taull (Vall de Boi ) to check out the first big ascent and last big descent of the ultra course. We then moved to Espot for a few more nights where we checked out the middle part of the ultra course. Although these recce runs were short in distance, they generally involved a VK up out of the valley which was a lengthy exercise, but each effort was rewarded with gorgeous Pyrenees view and the occasional bird of prey sightings. I often wondered if they were circling Brian on his way up the mountain side to meet me. All up we managed to check out about half the ultra course, but as it turned out, these sections were the easiest parts of the course.

Prior to the "business end" of my trip we all drove to the Spanish Costa Brava coast where we spent a few nights in the white washed coastal town of Cadaques, Spain. It was a refreshing change from the mountainous regions we had been in for the last two weeks. The change in location also minimised the temptation to overexert myself before the big race. Essentially I had nothing else to do but sit back and soak up the suns rays while enjoying the Mediterranean views.
Tapering may as well be enjoyable. Cadaques, Spain.
When we returned for the BUFF Epic Trail, the race hub village of Barruera in the Vall de Boi valley, had transformed itself into a trail running mecca. A number of temporary structures had been erected for the event. This seemed to attract a myriad of trail runners, like moths to a bright shining light. Everyone seemed to be busy doing something somewhere.  It was a big change from the quiet little village I had visited just a couple of days earlier.

The VK kicked off the long weekend of Skyrunning races. While spectating the start I managed to catch up with a few of the Australian and New Zealand Skyrunning team members. It was good to meet some new faces and catch up with others. During our discussions they relayed to me that the ultra course had been modified. As confirmed during the prerace briefing, a 10km section of the course was to be "neutralised". From what I could gather, permits were not granted for this section of the course. The solution was for us to traverse this section of trail as "day hikers" and a percentage of our overall time would be deducted. All very confusing, but the general consensus was that the race would go ahead regardless.

The ultra trail, including the neutralised section, is 105kms. The lowest part of the course is the race start/finish town of Barruera at 1100m elevation. From here it is all up with four major ascents and descents accumulating in +/-7950m of elevation change. The highest part of the course is just under 3000m elevation, which I was hoping would not disadvantage me after my earlier acclimatisation in France. I had done as much as I could to be ready for this race and all that was left to do was the race itself.

Come race morning I once again lined up with the well styled European trail runners in the predawn light. There was just enough light to see without a head torch, but by the time we all started running I found myself jostling for position next to someone with a light. The pace was quite fast to start with. Much faster than I was prepared to run. After the first few kilometres the trail switched from following the relatively flat trail up the Vall de Boi valley, to ascending up the steep alpine slopes on the route's first big ascent (+1000m). The earlier enthusiasm of the other runners around me was quickly reeled in and the pace dropped dramatically to a mix of power walking and a slow jog where the grade allowed. This pace was much more sustainable and more to my liking.

Upon reaching the top I followed the other runners over the pass and started the  long runnable descent down to the village of Senet and the first crewed checkpoint beyond at Refugi Conangles (22.9kms). I'd done this leg of the course with Brian so knew what to expect and how to approach it. I was only a shorty way down the descent before a sharp pain quickly developed from my left glute down my left hamstring. Since arriving in Europe I'd had what felt like a deep bruise in my left glute. I suspect it was from sitting for too long on the airplane seats. It hadn't been restricting me on my previous runs, but just incase I'd been taking it easy where possible and had a few massages, but seemingly it wasn't enough. Now that the dull sensation had emerged as a noticeable pain I reigned in my pace, stepped off the trail and started walking. Almost as suddenly as the pain had appeared it started to fade. I tried lifting the pace back up to a run again, but the pain re-emerged. I spent the next hour finding that point where discomfort became pain as most of the field that was behind now started to trickle past me.

The less technical section of descent down to Senet.
In previous ultras I'd occasionally come across some pretty talented male runners during races. The fact that I'd caught them was an indicator that they were not having a good day. The guys that stand out most in my mind were those that managed to compose themselves and soldier on to the end, sometimes repassing me before the finish line. It's these guys whom I admire, who don't look for excuses to pull out, regardless of the expectations placed upon them by others. I've often wondered if under the same circumstances would I retire during a race. I've never seriously considered DNF'ing (did not finish) during a race, but I was now. I felt that my time of reckoning had arrived.

The remaining kilometres to Refugi Conangles checkpoint were slow and uncomfortable. I was able to jog the flats and ascents with some discomfort, but it was the descents that were causing me the most grief. I arrived at the checkpoint where Mum, Dad and Brian and been waiting for me. The look of sympathy on their faces said it all and I didn't have to tell them that something was wrong. Brian asked if I was alright. "Yeah, I'm OK". No, not really, but what could he do? I explained as best I could how I felt. Brian asked if I wanted to pull out or continue on. He reinforced that he, along with Mum and Dad, would support me either way. I stood there thinking about my options and what I wanted to do. We'd worked and saved hard to afford the trip over to Europe. I had trained hard to get myself ready for this race. Although I've had a few DNS's, I had never DNF'd a race before. My race might have been done, but my run (jog) was far from over. I refilled my bottles and replenished my pockets with food before announcing that I'd continue on. I was in a bit of discomfort, probably too much for this early stage of the run, but I was prepared for a long day and a long night on the trail. 
Brian restocking my supplies before I departed Refugi Conangles.

It is almost guaranteed that during an ultra something will hurt, eventually. I often find in ultras that the brain can only focus on one source of pain at a time. The level of pain is relative to what else is hurting in the body at the same time. If something hurts more then that becomes the minds focal point. My logic for continuing on was that the discomfort I was feeling at the moment was restricting my running but wasn't preventing me from continuing on (jogging, hiking, walking). There was always the possibility that something else would start hurting more and that I might be able to lift the pace a little. This might sound a little strange, but I'm sure that ultra runners can relate to it one way or another.
Heading up into the clouds.
The section of trail beyond Refugi Conangles was all new to me. I hadn't made it this far in my recce runs. The trail ahead and what it holds would be my reward for continuing along the route. I was still well in front of the sweeper (if there was one that is) and I wasn't last, though I felt like I wasn't far off. The trail headed up the mountain behind the refugi, into the low lying clouds. The climb was massive (+900m), which was a predominant feature on this course as there were a few big climbs. There were few sections that could be considered "flat", though there were sections where the grade on the ascents slackened off and became runnable. Unfortunately for me the runnable sections proved to be of little advantage. At the top of this next climb I could spot the first of the perched lakes, for which this region (Aiguestortes and Sant Maurici Lake Nation Park) is renowned. There are over 200 lakes in this area and the course was about to run past many of them.
The alpine lakes were spectacular and there were so many of them.
The checkpoints on this course were reasonably well spaced. As my crew could only get to two of the checkpoints (Refugi Conangles, 22.9kms and Espot, 71.0kms)) I was dependant upon the provisions supplied by the race organisers. As time in the checkpoints was no longer a concern for me I found myself gazing at the array of food and beverages on offer. I'm not sure if it was the altitude or what, but I definitely had an increased appetite. I found myself filling my pockets with food, along with two handfuls, before departing the checkpoints. I never eat this much at checkpoints, but if my body wanted it then I was happy to oblige.
Part of the trail down to Espot.
Shortly after departing the Colomers checkpoint (47.9kms) I arrived at the start of the "neutralised section". A marshal was there to ensure that our race numbers were hidden before we continued on. The course markings disappeared along this section of the course and we were instead flowing a string of marshals who marked the way for us. Prior to arriving in the Pyrenees for my course recce runs I'd loaded the ultra route onto my GPS watch. The one million waypoints had been reduced to ten thousand in the process, which led to some confusing interpretations of the route during the recce runs, especially when there was no trail in sight to follow. I'd slowly got used to it so knew what to expect if I had to rely upon it. Now, running with a watch for the first time in a race for many years, I was glad to have the add reassurance that I was on the correct route, even though there was little chance of getting lost.
Walking into Espot with mum.
At the end of the "neutralised section" I was once again on familiar trail as it descended down to Espot. I'd done this long descent with Brian and knew how runnable it was, however I had left my running legs way back at the 5km mark. Meeting me at the bottom of the descent at the Espot checkpoint was Mum, Dad and Brian. Although it had been almost 9 hours since we had last seen each other it looked like they were relieved that I'd finally turned up. Brian let me know that I'd made up 43 positions since we last saw each other. I don't remember overtaking any where near that number of people, so most of them must have been DNF's. This checkpoint was by far the biggest to date, and was housed in one of the village hotels. Laid out along one wall of the hotels dining room was a smorgasbord of food. I was like a food obsessed dog, starting at one end of the room, eating my way to the other end. I have never been so hungry in my life, but like I said before, I needed to listen to my body.
Espot was an awesome checkpoint with delicious food and a change of socks.
It was 6:20pm by the time I left Espot for the biggest and longest climb of the day (+1300m). Last light for this part of the world was just after 10pm and I was keen to make use of all the natural light as I knew that my pace would drop substantially when using my head torch.
Almost at the top of the final "big" ascent.
By the time the sun set I was on new trail. I hadn't made it this far on my recce runs and it was disappointing to be missing out on what I'd heard were spectacular Pyrenees vistas. When it gets dark there are a lot less distractions for the mind and it is easy to focus on those parts of the body that are hurting. My leg was still causing me a discomfort, though dropping the pace had helped considerably. However, being out on the trails for this long meant that other parts of the body were hurting just as much, like my toes from all the rocks I'd kicked. I tried to block all of this out and just focus on my headlight illuminating the trail ahead.
View of the final descent from the last pass. This is Brian on one of our recce runs.

Summiting the final pass of the route I was once again back on a familiar trail. I'd done this section with Brian and even in my exhausted state of mind I was eagerly looking out for familiar landmarks to count down the last few kilometers. I emerged from the trail onto a road at a small aid station manned by volunteers and anxious crew, one of which was mine. I almost didn't recognise them. I initially ignored them until they awoke me from my daze. By this time I was a girl on a mission. I wasn't looking for a distraction, just the finish line so that I could say that I'd conquered this epic run. I slowly counted the villages off the lower I got down the mountain, Taull, Boi and finally Barruera, again with its long awaited finish line.

Arriving in Barruera was a huge sense of relief. I had initially set out with, what I thought, a realistic expectation. Early on in the race my goals had to be reassessed, taking into account my current circumstances. I then stripped away my earlier expectations and just focused on the single goal of finishing. So after almost 22hrs on the trail I finally made it across the finish line with the official time of 19:46:06, to the applause of maybe a dozen sleepy spectators/support crew. 

Looking back at what I'd done, I am glad that I had decided to continue on. I felt then, as I do now, that had I DNF'd then I would have regretted it. There would have been this nagging voice questioning, "what if?". Though it might have been a long uncomfortable and arduous task, I can confidently say that I have an answer to a question that I didn't have to ask myself. To end on a positive, I've now completed a full course recce of the BUFF Epic Trail.
I ran the last few hundred metres to put on a show for the assembled crowd.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva Headband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.

Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap
BUFF Epic Trail route (neutralised section "missing").

Sunday, 10 July 2016

High Trail Vanoise, Petit Parcours, 2016

The second race I'd entered in the High Trail Vanoise weekend of races was the Petit Parcours (Medium Race) located in the gorgeous French Alps town of Val d'Isere. The name of this event is somewhat misleading, as are a lot of French words when you don't know the language. With 39km, +/-3200m through the French Alps, there is nothing "petit" about this course. The climbs are big and intimidating, along with the altitude and technical nature of the terrain. All up, it was the perfect lead-in race for the upcoming Skyrunning World Championships in a fortnights time.
High Trail Vanoise Petit Parcours.
Unlike the High Trail Vertical Kilometer (VK) course two days prior, I'd be taking this race more seriously. I wasn't chasing a time or a result. I was participating so that I could acclimatise and get used to the long steep ascents and descents. There is no comparison between races in Australia and this race. The mountains are huge, the grades are seriously steep, the terrain is as technical as they come and a large portion of the course is run at an altitude, where if you are a "low lander" like me, is really noticeable. 

To refresh my memory of what I was in for, I read my blog from the Ice Trail Tarentaise Altispeed race in 2013. The Altispeed race follows much of the same course as the Petit Parcours. I wasn't sure why the course got renamed and slightly altered, as a lot of information gets garbled in translation from French to English. Prior to the race Brian and I managed to check out limited parts of the Petit course beforehand, along with some higher sections as it had been two years since I'd run above 2000m in altitude. Having arrived in Val d'Isere four days prior to Sunday's race, I was not sure what benefit I got from acclimatising in such a short time frame, but it had to be better than nothing, right?
Made it though gear check.
Come race morning, I arrived at the starting area. The first hurdle of the day was to pass through the mandatory gear check. I was hoping beyond hope that my translation of the mandatory gear list was correct. In broken English the guy checking my gear ran through the items, touching and feeling each item, as a merchant would before purchasing ones wares. The last item to be checked was crampons. My translation app said that crampons were "optional", but apparently this was not the case, they were "highly recommended". After some discussion and gesticulation between the guy checking my gear and the gear checking Captain they let the small English speaking girl through with a waggle of the finger and a shrug of the shoulders. This I translated as " I deserve what I get out on the trail." Was it too late to withdraw?
We are off!
Amongst a gathering of well dressed European trail runners, I started the race behind a silent electric trail bike. We skirted the town of Val d'Isere along a gentle incline as the vehicle trail we were following wound its way around the hillside before descending into the next small village of la Daille (4.0km, +200, -240m), further down the valley. Before arriving at the village, we  were joined by the Grand Parcours runners who were running 67km, +/-5400m. They had started predawn and summited a 3653m glacial peak (Grande Motte) beforehand in the early morning light. Once our trails joined we would run the remainder of our races together as both our courses shared the same trail all the way back to Val d'Isere.
The descent into la Daille.
As we entered la Daille, I was greeted by Mum, Dad and Brian. Brian counted me off as the 6th woman in the Petit Parcours. Our race bibs were slightly different with a blue and orange band, as opposed to the two blue bands worn by the Grand Parcours runners. The first big climb of the Petit Parcours commenced immediately upon departing La Daille. It was almost a VK in its own right. Up, up, up we went. Unlike the VK course earlier we had a defined trail in which to follow. This trail had numerous switchbacks, but the grade of the trail was "douche grade", where running was no faster than power walking. By the top I'd managed to power walk past a few girls. Not to sound degrading, but by this stage most of us were power walking and by passing I mean that instead of me following closely behind them, they were now following closely behind me.

What I thought was the top was not the top. Instead I was greeted by another small valley surrounded on three sides by large scree slopes and towering mountainous peaks above. The ground at this elevation was scattered with large patches of snow. The trail made its way around these patches of snow, but where necessary it traversed the snow, which seemed to occur a lot. In the perched valley, echoing around me in this natural open air cathedral was the clanking sound of rocks as they cascaded down the mountain side to join the rest of the crumbling mountain on the scree slopes below. I've often been told that the mountains are a leaving beast, and now I can understand why.
Almost at the top of the first big climb. This is looking back during a course recce.
The trail took us over the lowest pass in this perched valley, then it was a short but steep descent down the other side towards a hydroelectric dam (Lac de la Sassiere) and another checkpoint (9.4km, +1200, -540m). Apart from the dam wall holding back a sizeable lake, there was little to no sign of human influence, which is what's most appealing about this area and what I love most about the sport. Running in nature is just so simple, and its reward is being able to interact with the natural environment in its purest form.
Lac de la Sassiere. The trail took us to the right, higher into the mountains.
Once at the top of this climb the trail skirted around several 3000m peaks. On paper this stretch around the far side of the mountains looked a lot easier than what it actually was. Up the hill from La Daille, over the perched valley, up around the far flanks of the mountain then the descent into the next village, Le Fornet, to meet up with my crew. Simple, right? The trail however was extremely technical with loose rocks and large sections of snow to contend with. I lost count of how many times I'd fallen over. As I found out after the race, I wasn't the only one to find this part of the trail difficult as even the fastest runners were being slowed by this challenging leg. Along this section of the course I noticed that my breathing was becoming more laboured and I could feel the effects of running above 2500m on my body. I wasn't alone in this feeling, as the other runners around me were also expressing signs of fatigue. The vast majority of the field were French and not many could speak or understand English, so any French words, presumably encouraging, were met with a smile and a nod from me interspersed with the occasional grunt.
Accordion and trumpet players in Le Fornet.
After a -950m descent I finally arrived at the next village, Le Fornet (17.0km, +1550m, -1460m), which is located on the higher side of Val d'Isere in the same valley. It is a cute alpine village and as us runners arrived we were greeted by two musicians, one playing an accordion and the other playing a trumpet. It all made for a very surreal experience as I exchanged my empty flasks for full ones with Brian and restocked my pockets with food. Again, from reading the bibs, Brian informed me that I was sitting in 4th place. From La Fornet it was almost entirely uphill, climbing +1400m to the highest point on the course, Aiguille Pers. I joined a conga line of runners as we followed the trail up through the fur trees, with their smell providing a pleasant subtle fragrance. On the way up I was cheered on by fellow Aussies and La Sportiva Team mates Aaron Knight and Tom Brazier who were also in Val d'Isere to compete in the High Trail Vanoise events. It was good to see them and to receive their encouragement.
The road crossing between Le Fornet and Col de l'Iseran.
Sitting in 4th place on the climb I was thinking about how tantalising close to a podium 4th place was. I hoped that with the race barely half way run perhaps I could snag a podium if I stayed focused for the remaining course. As the fur trees gave way to the flowering alpine meadows I caught sight of, and then passed the girl ahead to attain a podium position. Now instead of chasing a podium, I was motivating myself to keep it.

I ran as much as I could.
The rocky terrain started to expose itself and the higher I got the more scarce alpine flora became. Just near Col de l'Iseran (highest paved pass in the Alps at +2765m) I was met by Mum and Brian at another checkpoint (22.1km, +2400m, -1460m). The struggle to reach this point was already telling on my body. My lungs were burning and my legs were feeling slow and heavy. There was a very runnable section of trail for about one kilometer before the checkpoint, which in my mind was runnable, but was such a struggle to actually do.
Feeling very small against the mountain on the way up to Aiguille Pers.
Leaving the checkpoint I could see Aiguille Pers ahead, the mountain that marks the highest point of the course at 3386m. From this checkpoint it was almost a complete march to the top. We followed a sketchy single trail which traversed the lower scree slopes of the mountain. The loose rocky terrain was interspersed with sections of snow and the steepest sections had a fixed rope for us to use. I don't believe that my absent crampons would have provided any more grip in the snow than the Akasha's which I was wearing. Also, it appeared that the other runners weren't using crampons either, if in fact they were carrying them. Traversing and climbing in the snow required a special technique, which I seriously lacked. I found that shorter strides with a solid toe kick into the snow proved to be the best technique. Ascending above 3000m was causing me to get a little light headed and I was feeling a little giddy as the climb went on. Every time I looked up to the trail ahead the top seemed to be no closer. The marked trail ran pretty close to some large cliffs and I wondered if it was indeed the correct route. I remember thinking, "surely the race organisers wouldn't send us up there!". Alas, they did. I could see people ahead just above me and a moment of relief started to creep in that I was finally at the top, until my eyes caught sight of a higher peak a little further on. At this point I was having serious reservations about doing this event. It was definitely too late to pull out.
Aiguille Pers is the peak in the middle of photo. Col de l'Iseran in bottom right of photo.
Finally, after reaching the peak of Aiguille Pers, the trail started its descent back towards Col d l'Iseran. Similar to the ascent up the mountain, the terrain interchanged between loose rocks and snow. Descending in the snow was much easier than the ascent. I could stretch out my stride a lot more and I practiced finding that tipping point whereby I could ski for short distances using my shoes. I could also feel my breathing becoming noticeably less laboured the lower I got in elevation. The dizziness I felt earlier also abated the lower I got.
Lots of snow to practice my descending technique.
After this big circuit up Aiguille Pers, I pretty much kept my place in the now strung out field. Upon returning to Col de l'Iseran (30.0km, +3060m, -2125m), Brian said that I'd closed the gap to the girl ahead. He pointed out that she was just 500m ahead and that he could see her in the snow on the ascent up to the Tunnel des Lessieres (31.0km, +3230, -2125m), which marked the final climb of the race. I'd done this short section up to the Tunnel with Brian two days earlier, so I felt confident in pushing a little harder on this final climb. The grade of the trail in the snow was quite gentle, and the few short sections where it kicks up had steps cut into it. I climbed up too and passed through the tunnel then followed the trail down the other side as best I could. In my exuberance to get down I'd overshot a turn by a considerable distance. By chance I looked to my left and saw the markers high above me and some people further along the trail. I was cursing myself for missing the turn as I climbed back up the slope to rejoin the trail. The snow on the other side of the tunnel was a little softer than the snow on Aiguille Pers. There were sections while running over it where even my light weight broke through the delicate crust and my leg quickly disappeared into the snow. Being the final stretch, and mostly downhill, I pushed hard towards the finish.
There was no easy way up to Tunnel des Lessieres. I'm silhouetted against the snow.
Coming down the final slope I could hear the announcers French accent. In fact I could hear the announcer for quite some time as the slope was more of a mountain. The grade of the trail was quite steep and the loose stones meant that I still had to keep my wits. I could see the finish area below, which means that if I face planted those at the finish area could probably see it. My descending technique wasn't pretty. Brian confirmed this when he pointed out the high powered video camera and gigantic screen which was set up at the finish area.
On the big screen in Val d'Isere. Thank goodness I didn't fall over on this section!

Crossing the finish line I was surprised to discover that I was in fact first female in the Petit Parcours. On the final big descent I'd managed to pass the girl ahead, and the girl that Brian through was leading had instead run the Grand Parcours with a Petit race bib. I though things had got lost in translation again, but apparently not. So after 6 hours 53 minutes and 4 seconds out on the course I finally got to sit down and have a rest. I was so glad that I hadn't decided to step up and do the bigger Grand Parcours. Maybe next time though.
Just so people didn't think I was Austrian.
La Sportiva Akasha shoes.
La Sportiva T-shirt
La Sportiva Snap Short
La Sportiva Trail Gloves
La Sportiva Headband
Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta 3.0.

Ultimate Direction Body Bottle.
Ultimate Direction cap.

Petit Parcours podium.

Friday, 8 July 2016

High Trail Vanoise Vertical Kilometer 2016

Vertical Kilometer (VK) races are non-existent back home in Australia (+1000m, <5km). We're just not blessed with the topography, or access to areas where one could be held. It was for this reason I sought out a VK course on this latest trip to Europe. I did my first VK in Canazei, Italy on my first European trip in 2013. I found it steep, lung busting and momentarily exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable. I also found it to be not as taxing on my legs as I imagined. When I was planning my 2016 European trip around the Skyrunning World Championships I was looking for events that would justify an extended stay in Europe and be fun to do, but at the same time wouldn't leave me depleted of energy ahead of my goal race at the end of my travels. The perfect combination was found at the High Trail Vanoise races held in Val d'Isere, France. Over the course of 3 days there's a VK, 18km, 38km and 64 km races on offer. They are all run at higher altitudes than I'm used too (1800m up to 3600m) and were two weeks out from my goal race, which would hopefully leave me enough time to recover. My plan was therefore to compete in the VK on Friday afternoon and the 38km on Sunday morning.
VK course.
I arrived in Val d'Isere on Wednesday before the VK race with Brian and my parents (Jim and Joan) who were all accompanying me on this trip to Europe. The day before the VK, Brian and I decided on a course recce of the VK course. We knew where the course started, on the grassed roof of the aquatic centre, (1800m elevation) and finished high above at the telecommunications buildings (2800m elevation). The route goes straight up the mountain behind Val d'Isere on the Bellevarde Face, loosely following the cable car most of the way. Brian and I started on the vehicle trail which zig zags its way up the hillside under the cable car. Upon reaching the top our watches measured 4.5kms and +1000m, -7m. We had the correct elevation gain, but had accumulated about 1.5km more distance than anticipated. Clearly we had taken the "easy" route up. Race day would therefore be more direct and no doubt more challenging!

As the VK was a bit of fun I didn't bother tapering, so Brian and I spent the morning before the VK checking out the Tunnel on the 38km course. The Tunnel sits at about 2900m, and any extra time at altitude would be beneficial for the longer races still to come. We returned to Val d'Isere in time for lunch and a short nap before my allocated VK start time of 17:25.
Awaiting my turn in the starting corral.
This event was the first for a long time where I can say that I had the lowest of expectations for myself going into it. I hadn't race a VK in years, let alone the route. I also had no idea of the competition. In a way it was refreshing. The only expectation I had prior to crossing the start line was to just finish. If I wanted to walk then I'd allow myself to walk. If I wanted to look at the view then I'd take the time to raise my head and look around. This was my outlook before starting. After I started my competitive nature kicked in, along with a whole lot of expectations.

View looking up the Bellevarde Face from the VK start area.
Standing in the starting corral I was lined up with the other runners in our respective starting order. We were all set off in minute increments. As I watched the runner ahead take off on the course, with his poles, I was wondering if I too should be running with poles? There was a big contingent of the field who had them, but then again they probably knew how to use them. To momentarily take my mind off the run, the announcer switched from French to English.  I remembered him asking me if we had "big mountains" like this in Australia? No. Am I scared? Yes! He was kind enough to give me an English "3, 2, 1 GO", before I gingerly ran off up the mountain.
Up, up and up.
For me, the start of the VK was kind of awkward, having only done one beforehand. It is such a short race that it feels like it deserves a sprint start, but the grade quickly kicks up and the only thing to focus on is cadence. I focused on keeping my feet in a regular rhythm, something akin to my heart beat which was rapidly increasing. I also didn't want to slack off because the lower part of the course was very exposed and gives a good view to the assembled crowd below. The guy ahead, who'd departed  a minute beforehand was my first and most immediate goal. I also didn't want any girls to catch and pass me. I would allow myself to get passed by the guys as they were in a different category, but at the same time I'd try to stick with them for as long as I could. The runners starting behind me were seeded, so trying to keep in front of them kept me running scared the whole way.
This is the view I was missing out on.
The course had a big mix of trail types along its short but steep length. After the short section through newly mown, but still lush alpine grasses the trail followed one of the steepest service vehicle tracks I've encountered. Not only was this vehicle track steep, but it comprised lots of loose stones and finer gravel. After a few small sections of vehicle trail and several tight switch backs, it was on to single track, with its slightly more direct and steeper ascent. There was certainly no messing about on this course. The trail so far was more direct than the one Brian and I took earlier and I had only gained about 200m in elevation.

Following the flags up the alpine slope. I'm the yellow dot in the middle of the photo.

As the trees thinned out and gave way to grassed alpine slopes the trail became almost a direct line upwards. The course markings now dotted the open grassy slope in a straight line upwards. There was no trail to follow here, only the course flags. A keen eye was required to avoid stepping on a precariously positioned rock or animal burrow. I took a few glances around and for all my efforts, and what had already seemed an excruciatingly long time, I had not ascended as high as I thought. The higher I climbed up the grassy slope the closer I got to the next section of vehicle trail that would take me to a more gentler grade of trail up to the top of the cable car (+850m). As the grade became less intense nearer the cable car building I tried to go from a power walk to a run. My run at this stage felt like more of an "on the spot" type of jog that you often see runners do at red lights. By this time the faster seeded male runners had started to come through more frequently. Their legs had more power and they easily edged ahead, tapping their poles on the gravel as they passed.
This is pretty much the only flat part of the entire route.
As I reached the cable car building and ascended the short flight of steel steps I was greeted by Dad who had caught the cable car up, along with  Mum and Brian. Seeing Dad didn't mean my race was finished. A short section of flat positioned us for the final direct stretch up to the finish line. Ahead I could see the finish about 150m above me, and between me and my goal was a gaggle of exhausted VKer's who appeared to be reaching out for that finish line. There was no distinct trail up to the top. It was a case of any which way you can to reach the finish. The vegetation disappeared the higher I ascended and now the ground was extremely steep and the small stones made it difficult to get traction. My movements at this stage resembled those of a nightmare, where you have the movements and sensation of running, but without actually getting there. My lungs were burning at this altitude and my throat was extremely dry. I joined those around me with arms out stretched, like zombies clawing at the mountain side. I could see Brian and Mum near the finish. Brian was calling out "one more place". I dug deep and focused on overtaking one more person before this VK was over. I over took him and then staggered the last few meters up to the finish line where I needed to be propped up by Mum.
The final push to the finish line above.
While exhausting myself on the ascent I was thinking what a horrible race this is. How weak my legs were, how difficult it was to breath, how this was pure torture. Then once at the top all I could think about was how much of an achievement this was and what I'd do differently at my next VK race.
The final climb with a seriously steep gradient.
For all my effort I ascended the 1000m in 49:01 and 9th female. I was a long way from first, but those girls ahead showed me that VK's are their own special discipline. If I do another VK I'll probably make the effort to learn how to use poles.

Vertical  Kilometer - 1000m elevation gain in under 5kms.

Flying the flag with fellow Aussie and La Sportiva team mate Aaron Knight who also did the VK.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Ultra Trail Australia 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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