Race recap: Cairns to Port Douglas Ultra, my first involuntary DNF

Even before the “gun” went off at 5am at Crystal Gardens, the Cairns to Port Douglas Ultra had already achieved the goal of the worst race I had been to (and I live in Victoria so that’s saying something!)

In the weeks leading up there wasn’t much communication from the race organiser and what did come out didn’t make any sense and contradicted other information on the event website. To be honest, I wrote it off as teething issues because it’s the first running of this event (it’s not the organisers first event though) and whilst annoying and confusing, I wasn’t too bothered by it.

We went into the local running store on Thursday and collected my pack. The website said you had all week but had to go in on Friday to be photographed with a tracker. The folks in the store didn’t know about the tracker situation so I went back again on Friday only to be told it wasn’t mandatory and was just to take a photo with it.

I had trained hard, did the long runs, the sauna sessions, all the things. I felt ready, so this was annoying but I didn’t care that much. It just seemed super unorganised.

The race was due to kick off at 5:00am, so in the dark, about 20 minutes outside of Cairns City. The information online said you had to be there 90 minutes before the race to get your GPS tracker and there was a 4:00am cut off to drop your drop bags off. Now this isn’t a big race, there was only 60 people in the 120k collecting trackers and getting publicly weighed (don’t start me!) so there was no need to get there so early.

But of course I did, because I needed the drop bag service and appreciate they have to drive them out to all the checkpoints. Well, they were all still there when the race started so that “cut off” was obviously rubbish.

Also there were no porta loos and the public toilets weren’t open. So you have 100 runners milling around for no reason, 90 minutes before the race, busting for the loo and no toilets. Eventually with about 25 minutes to spare someone came and opened them, which got me in trouble later because I weighed in before I pee’d. Again, I figured it was just teething issues since it was the inaugural race.

So with all the pre race drama and confusion, we set off on time at 5:00am. It was slightly drizzling and humid AF. I wasn’t dry at all the entire race, it was like running in a wet suit in a steam room. I was glad I did the sauna stuff, even if it only helped a little, I can’t imagine how bad it would have been without it.

The course essentially went straight up. A couple of km’s of trail stairs in the wet and in the dark. It was sticky, slippery and slow going. The humidity and lack of air was suffocating. There could have been a view at the top, not sure, it was dark.

The first leg to checkpoint 1 at 26km was a mixture of fire trail, water crossings and technical single track. There were parts you couldn’t see the trail through the long grass and many sections where there were so few markings that you questioned the decision you made at the last junction point.

There was a water stop at 15k. No idea why it wasn’t an actual checkpoint/aid station but it had this weird little loop around an epic fig tree. I saw a few comments on Facebook saying they had missed the water stop. It was just 20L water jugs on a table and there was an ambulance parked next to it. I can see how people might have thought it wasn’t part of the race.

At around the 19km mark there was a super confusing junction point. I thought I went the right way but after going 500m down the trail and not seeing a confirmation marker I thought I must have gone the wrong way so I trudged back up to wait for a few other runners and we decided together which way to go. Luckily it was the right call (and I was going the right way in the first instance) but when I got to the first checkpoint I found out lots of people had turned the wrong way and added some extra distance.

At 26km we hit the first checkpoint. I refilled my bottles and bladder. It was nice to see people as there hadn’t been an aid station since the start and the race was so small that you rarely saw other runners. The volunteer checked our numbers off a list and said some of the GPS trackers weren’t working.

I didn’t even think twice about this until much later in the race!

I was feeling pretty good at this point. I had fuelled as per the alarm on my watch (1 clif block every 15 minutes) and was drinking heaps of water and electrolytes.

It was hot and the trail was super slow going in spots but I was still confident at getting to the end.

I’m not quite sure when the wheels started falling off a bit, but the relentlessness of the technical trail was starting to wear on me.

I had been tripped by vines across the trail a few times and snagged by the wait a while vines a few times too. Once it literally pulled my fluro vest out of my pack and another ripped a hole in my shirt.

The wait a while vines have these sharp one way talon type things and the only way out of them is to go back and up hook yourself. They are long and skinny and sometimes you can barely see them.

It was exhausting trying to watch your feet footing in the roots and rocks as well as the minimal course markings (I was so paranoid about missing one) and looking out for the hanging daggers!

I was looking forward to seeing people again at the next aid station which was at the 40km mark.

I saw some other runners and my husband was there with my drop bag too. Apparently my tracker wasn’t working or the website wasn’t being updated but again these things never work.

I was told I had to get on the scales again and then told that I had lost too much weight. I told them about the toilet situation and they just wrote the numbers I told them on my bib (since the first time had been written in highlighter and had washed off) and told me to drink more.

I didn’t see any usual aid station stuff like fruit or food, I had my own so made my way out of the aid station.

And that was when the wheels really fell off.

For whatever reason I just could not climb the bloody hill. Going up make me feel nauseous and light headed and to be honest, overly emotional.

I think I spent at least 15 minutes just sitting on various rocks and logs willing myself to get it together. I kept eating and drinking and literally took it one step at a time.

At one point on this climb I logged a 58 minute kilometre!

But I was determined and I have one rule. We don’t go backwards, all you need is forward progress. Plus, this was the last “big” climb of the course, the back half was “easier” than the front.

So I got my AirPods out and listened to the latest offering by Demi Lovato up the climb. This was the last point in the next 15km or so when I would have reliable phone and internet.

I sorted my shit out eventually and was able to run walk a bit but then we did a back track onto the same technical trail from earlier. I wasn’t ready and I cracked it and walked.

Of course because I was going so slow I consumed more food and more water than expected, and then I started running out of water (I was carrying a 2L bladder of water and 1 L of electrolytes in bottles!)

I was hot. There was no phone reception. No car access and no aid stations.

So I walked. I didn’t know what else to do and I didn’t want to do anything silly and wreck my race or my kidneys.

I dunked myself in the water crossings and sacrificed one airpod to Surprise Creek. Yep, this is how my day was going!

I almost cried when I saw the two 25L water containers at the end of the road at around 58km mark. There wasn’t much left in them but I filled every thing that I had, against the instructions online that said you could only fill 500ml. I felt pretty average and was a bit worried about heat stroke and dehydration so I took it easy and just drank slow and kept walking. Again, I have no idea why this wasn’t a proper checkpoint.

A few k’s later I ran into my husband on the trail just near Barron Falls. It was odd, but he sometimes runs down the trail to take videos and photos. He said the aid station was gone and that I had been “cut off”.

But there isn’t any cut offs. I was dehydrated but not delusional. The only cut offs were for the buckles and overall which was 29 hours.

I’d read everything, the race briefing, all the info, even the rules (because I really didn’t want a pacer and needed to work out the rules for it!) and no mention of a cut off.

Plus cut offs freak me out. I only ever sign up for races where I know I’ll meet the cut off. I’ve learnt my lesson at other races like Two Bays where chasing cut offs stresses me out.

I was having a terrible day anyway but having the decision taken away from me was devastating, especially when I had no idea it was coming.

Coming into Kurunda, the tourist town where checkpoint 3 had been set up, there was no aid station. Nothing. It was pitch black and there were two people (who i later found out were also runners who had been cut off) sitting on the other side of a large grass oval.

I walked over to them and another guy, who said he was a volunteer came up to me and said I hadn’t made the cut off. I asked him what cut off and he started rambling about how it was originally at 4pm and they moved it to 5pm and now it was too late.

I told him it wasn’t written anywhere and he said he was just a volunteer.

The other runner sitting on the ground asked me if I knew about a cut off. Nope.

The volunteer then asked if we planned on staying there. There was no aid, no medical, no nothing. I’m glad I had decided to look after myself, slow down and walk to try and rehydrate myself because these people clearly didn’t give a rats.

Then things got really questionable. The volunteer wanted to leave and said he was going to further down the track to cut off people based on their GPS locations. The same ones that hadn’t been working all day. He said there were 3 people on a certain section and he was going down there to wait for them. I mean, who would trust this after it wasn’t working all day?!

Wasn’t there a sweep? Shouldn’t someone have been walking/running at cut off pace, clearing the course of runners and any rubbish on the way?

How do they know, like actually know, that no one is out there?

My results, still says I started and then was cut off. There are no splits or anything despite going over all their secret timing mats.

He was just going to leave the other runners at the checkpoint. We offered them a lift but they were already sorted.

I was baffled. Not only because there was no cut off but also because I wasn’t offered any assistance (thank god I had a support person), my drop bag wasn’t there and if I was running this event alone, which they encourage with the bus drop offs and drop bag service, I would be stuck in Kuranda, at night, with no assistance or medical after running 60k. But they didn’t seem to give a rats, they just wanted to leave and clearly had had enough.

I don’t think this is the volunteers fault, he would have been doing what he was told. And the fish always rots from the head. I have no doubt runners would have yelled at him.

I went back to the car, and updated the socials.

I had so many messages of support at the start and as a result of my mid climb pity party!

I also got a heap of messages from other runners who had run the event who complained of inadequate course markings, no communication to runners or volunteers, no medical support and packing up aid stations and leaving injured runners behind!

Since the race I have read and re-read the website, looking for any suggestions of mid race cut offs and didn’t find any.

I emailed the race director and as yet, I’ve not received a response.

Cut offs aside, the constant safety issues are a massive red flag. They didn’t even check mandatory gear!

On the way back to Port Douglas in the car, we saw runners running on the main road into Port Douglas, in the dark, on the side of an 80km/h zone! Yes they had fluro’s on (thank goodness) but seriously!!!! Either close the road, put at least cones out or find a different route!

Obviously this whole thing has left a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I probably wouldn’t have made the finish anyway, the dehydration freaked me out. I might have rallied, I might have thrown in the towel. Ill never know, and it doesn’t really matter.

The safety issues does. I’ll be emailing this to the race director and whoever issues running event permits in QLD. Definitely don’t recommend this race.

3 thoughts on “Race recap: Cairns to Port Douglas Ultra, my first involuntary DNF

  1. Dan says:

    I was support crew for a mate and I totally agree, the whole event was a shambles. I knew it was going to be from my own experience at the first running of the BTU (where I had gotten lost for the first time ever). The last water aid station before CP2 had apparently ran out of water so my mate had no water for over 5km in that heat. He suffered for it later and was cramping badly. Who thought 500ml per person would ever be enough in Cairns! I will never ever do another Shona/Cora race ever again. I was also volunteering at CP3 and apparently the instructions were to cut off at 4pm, which was extended to 5pm and then later extended to 6pm to 2 more people who didn’t know of the cutoff. I feel for you…

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  2. Robyn says:

    I’m so glad to have read this. We couldn’t believe how disjointed the information was and the communication was so poor. I did the 80km and had the same experience with the early drop off of the bags that didn’t leave until after we had started. The markings were SO poor and down right dangerous as we left CP5 to head into town. Without my support crew I would never have made it the last 12 km. I too ended up on the highway by mistake. A complete shamble. Not an event I will do again nor recommend to anyone.

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    • Mel Mac says:

      Hi Robyn. I’m so sorry you also had a really crappy experience. We are definitely not alone. I have received so many messages just like yours of people who got lost, ran out of water, were injured and abandoned at aid stations or just cut off without warning. The organiser is not open to constructive feedback either, it’s all the runners fault.
      Congratulations on finishing your race though in really tough conditions. Their crappy organisation doesn’t take away from you travelling 80km on foot! Epic!

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