Race Recap: Peaks and Trails 50k

I’ve been pondering this race review for the past two days. To be honest I don’t really know where to start. The beginning is the obvious spot, but I’m not sure exactly where that is.

I’ve been running and “training” for trail ultramarathons for about seven years now. Sure I’ve seen slow improvements in my finishing times and my general enjoyment out on the trail, but I certainly hadn’t been making gains, not even the beginners variety.

There is no doubt in my mind that that is due, in the most part, to two things, 1. lack of workouts and actual training and 2. insufficient fuelling both in training and in racing.

I’ve been pondering getting a personal coach for a few years. I’d been with Squadrun for a long time, since 2016, but in fairness to Kerry and Ali, who I absolutely love, I wasn’t following the plan, I wasn’t doing what I was told. I was just running every day for fun, hanging out with my dogs, not for training or improvements. I didn’t follow the plan, I didn’t do the workouts, most weeks I didn’t even open the plan.

So this year I decided enough was enough and came to the realisation that I was ready to put in the work. I reached out to an athlete and coach that I respect and admire and thankfully she said yes.

That was less than a month ago.

I can’t tell you how different my training, fuelling and now racing has been.

There were only two goals going into the Peaks and Trails 50k. Don’t race and fuel. That was it, with the added bonus of an opportunity to test out all the gear ahead of my a race. The 50k was a pit stop on the training plan enroute to the Cairns to Port Douglas Ultramarathon on September 3rd. The goal was survival and recovery.

But you don’t care about that, you want to hear about the race.

From what I can gather from Google, the Peaks and Trails running festival has been around in some version since 2016 with the first ultramarathon distance event taking place in 2017. Here’s the 2022 breakdown:

Location: Dunkeld, Victoria, Australia
About 280km west of Melbourne
Distance:50k, 20k, 13.5k, 6.5k and Mud-Dadjug (previously Mt Abrupt) Challenge
Price:$125 for 50k
Inclusions:Perfectly marked course, lots of marshals, aid stations every 8-10k or so (give or take), timing and live tracking and a bonus gift if your lucky
Course:4 mountains, lots of stairs, lots of rock, mostly single track or fire road, no bitumen!
Shoes:Trail, especially if its wet
Elevation:about 2100m

The course has had some variations and this year included some private trails as well as the newly updated Grampians Peaks Trail.

We were only provided an elevation profile ahead of the pre-race briefing. That was it. I’m not big on studying maps before a marked event anyway but it’s nice to have some idea where I’m going or at least what is coming. All I knew was there were four big hills off into the distance and the rest was a mystery.

At 7:00am, right before sunrise, about 40 runners setting off into the mountains of the Southern Grampians.

The first on the list was Wurgarri (Mt Sturgeon). The single track was mostly stairs and rocks leading to the peak where a lovely marshal was there to check our names of the list and take pictures of the view.

After the first summit, the trail bent back around the other side of the mountain and we rejoined the original track we were on before tackling the next ‘hill’ Bainggug (Piccaninny).

At around this point, the 20k runners had started and were starting to fly past me, one young bloke even raced an emu that ran down onto the trail and scooted past as if being chased by this poor unsuspecting trail runner. I thought I was watching a real life version of Wile coyote and road runner.

The second mountain, Piccaninny, was much easier to climb, smoother and more “runnable”. I bombed down that faster than I could run away from the old bloke at the start trying to mansplain to me about saving my legs for the flat section at the end.

It was up the next climb that the wheels began to fall off for me and it was probably the hardest and “darkest” section of the race. The climb to the top of Mt Abrupt is about 3.5km and according to the internet, 8500 steps. I’m not going to lie, I think at some points, I was travelling at about 1 step every 15 seconds. To say it was slow going is an epic understatement. I think I logged a 25 minute kilometre at one point. I was not enjoying myself. It was lucky I didn’t have phone reception because this is usually the point in the race that I start questioning every single life decision I’ve ever made.

Part way through my meltdown I realised that there was a slight flaw in my fuelling system. My one Clif block per 3km works great when that is about 15-20 minutes, not so much when it’s an hour! So I had an extra couple of blocks on the climbs and managed to rally. The view from the top was worth the effort, but I have never been so glad to get it done.

The next climb up and over the Signal Peak was uneventful and the views were just as stunning as the ones from the previous peaks. I knew once the climbs were done the rest was pretty runnable so I was ready to put my training to use.

After the climbs it was down to the bottom of the mountains, along some prickly fire roads, smooth gravel roads and a trip along the river. The course was extremely clear, with more Marshalls than I have ever seen at a trail race, especially one this small.

One thing I can say about the Peaks and Trails race is that it is a real family and community atmosphere. All the volunteers were smiling, taking pictures on their phones and offering encouragement and sometimes shots of whisky. The aid stations were manned by entire families and were filled with individually wrapped homemade slices and quiches from the local kindergarten and primary school mums. The one major road crossing was looked after by the only policeman in town and the live tracking meant that people spoke to you by name when you arrived to re-fill your bottles and your heart.

I started the race with a fuelling plan and I was carrying everything with me. Cairns to Port Douglas has mandatory gear and water carrying requirements so I wanted to make sure I was used to carrying the weight. My pack would have weighed at least 4.5kg and included 2L of water in the back, 1L of sports drink (tail wind) in the front as well as the mandatory gear, my camera (of course), my clif blocks and bag of lollies. I was very conscious of the plan and didn’t miss a single block. I emptied and refilled (and emptied again) my sports drink and couldn’t resist some watermelon at the aid stations.

The entire last 20k or so I wished I had my headphones with me. The rules said I wasn’t allowed them so I didn’t even pack them, but if I’m being honest I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t a Marshall for the entire section. At one point, I had a quite one sided conversation with a bunch of kangaroos who were about as un-enthralled with the conversation as I was at reaching 50k on my watch and not being anywhere near the finish line. I was pretty consistent over the last section but I know I can do it better next year.

I made it to the finish line in 8 hours and 20 minutes, which was about what I was expecting. I ran through the finishing arch and was welcomed by a handful of people and one of the amazing organisers who gave me a pair of Peaks and Trails socks and a bottle of water.

Another runner, Jason, who had also finished the 50k, offered to take my finish line photo. There was just one catch, I had to turn around and run through the arch again! I mean, if I didn’t tell you, you totally wouldn’t know!

I got back to my accommodation about 10 minutes later and I was just super stoked with how everything had gone. I had managed my fuelling well (for the most part), for the first time ever I didn’t have any chafing and I could still walk. I had some avocado on toast and some veggie soup and soaked in the cottage spa bath for a bit.

I took away so many lessons from this race and I think for the first time they were lessons that weren’t learnt the hard way.

Fuelling score card: idea stolen from Jason Koop!

But I think the biggest lesson is how much I love community trail running. I get the UTMB is the Tour de France of ultra running, blah blah blah, but I’ll have Peaks and Trails over UTMB any day of the week, even if there is no medal at the end.

See ya next year Dunkeld. I’ll try not to only leave happy tears on Mt Abrupt next year.

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