Ultra Trail Australia I owe you an apology, I was wrong. Please forgive me for all the bad things I said about you before we met.
I went into UTA with a whole bunch of pre conceived ideas. It was corporate, over hyped, a race where they pack too many people into single track trails for money, destroying the environment and the enjoyment of the participants. I’d heard of conga lines of traffic. Runners just standing still on the trails waiting for their turn to climb a flight of stairs.
I know, looking at all that on paper, I sound like an arsehole, the kind of trail runner that I actually really don’t like!
I wasn’t interested in running it. It just didn’t think I would enjoy it and being around all those people, especially post COVID, gives me anxiety.
But with all that being said, my husband had signed up so I figured I might to but it wasn’t until he said I couldn’t beat him over 100km that lit the fire and triggered the enter button to be activated.
I was confident in my long training history and base training that I would be ok with the distance and signed back up with my pals over at SquadRun right at the start of the specificity period of training which meant lots of stair work.
I’d heard about the stairs at UTA, it’s an infamous part of the course but I had it in my head that it was just the Fuber Steps, 950 odd stairs in the last 1km of the race. Again, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The UTA festival kicked off on Thursday with the 11km trail race.
We headed down in the afternoon hoping to avoid the Friday rush to get our mandatory gear checked off and register. We successfully browsed the expo without panic buying running gear we didn’t need only to go to the Blue Mountains Running Co the next day.
I packed my drops bags and loaded what felt like everything I owned into my pack.
The race calls for an insane amount of mandatory gear. It weighed 5.5kg without my phone and Go Pro (clearly essential I don’t know why it isn’t on the official list!). After my medical boo boo at Kosciusko I made sure I had extra bandaids and buffs as well as a heap of food.
In the drop bags I had changes of clothes, extra first aid and buffs, wipes and of course more food, mostly lollies, Woolies granola cookies and two minute noodles.
I made the decision to carry my poles the entire way despite advice to pick them up at 78km and also to carry the gear that the race said I could have left in my 55km drop bag. I should have listened to both, no wonder my shoulders are sore.
Our AirBnb was located on the course and about a 10 minute walk to the start line/expo/registration area. Problem with Katoomba, I discovered, is that not an inch of it is flat. There were 60 steps from my car park to the air bnb. By the time I was in the start line ready to go at about 7:20am on Saturday morning, my calves were already sore. Not a good sign.
The race starts in waves to avoid the dreaded congestion on the course with the elites going off at 6:20am and then everyone else following suit in waves every 15 to 20 minutes.
I saw my coach, gave her a hug and off I troddled.
I had two goals for this race. A time goal and an overall goal. I wanted to finish in under 19 hours, the time needed to qualify for the Western States 100 lottery. Based on my wave prediction time, 17:30 to 18:30, which was selected based on my previous race results, I thought it was reasonable.
The overall goal was to enjoy the course, take lots of pictures and treat it as a “one and done” once in a lifetime experience.
The course is a figure eight style where you loop in and out of the made base in Katoomba. The elevation profile doesn’t do it justice at all.
We started out on a looped bitumen road section around Katoomba to space out the runners a bit before heading down the Fuber steps into the trails.
There were heaps of spectators and other runners waiting for their wave to cheer everyone on and entertain folks with their creative (and very true) signage.
It was mostly smooth sailing until I reached the landslide section of the course. It was super rocky with large boulders that required I use all fours to climb up and down rocks. I banged my left knee on a rock, trying to squeeze through a section and not hold anyone up. I didn’t think anything of it though, it didn’t hurt more than the initial impact and didn’t effect my running at all.
From landslide we hit the first major set of stairs, The Golden Staircase, 485 stairs. I have to admit I had to stop half way to take of my jumper. It was rough going and I was so thankful for the handrail (I’m so scared of plummeting to my death!) but the views were stunning.
The first checkpoint was at the top of the Golden stairs. I thanked the volunteers and went straight through. I was feeling good and stoked to get some running in after the previous section.
We moved onto a dirt road and I chatted with a few runners as I went. I met Singhy from Canberra who runs to raise money for Running for Resilience who told me all about his running adventures as we shuffled along.
He told me about all his friends in the race and I told him about my husband and our bet.
Less than 10 minutes later I hear Singhy behind me. He found the husband.
We all kept going together as the path off the road was a little insane. I had my hands preoccupied and my heart in my throat but the lovely Maxine Okeefe took some great shots (see gallery below) of the path that we took off that road.
Ladders, rock climbing, sliding on my butt, this section had it all. I think it was around Duncan’s Pass but I could be wrong!
After that the husband disappeared off into the distance.
It’s around this point that everything gets super confusing in my post run brain.
We shuffled along to checkpoint 2, Foggys Knob and into a section of private land that is only available to be run on during this event.
The climb out of there was brutal. It was steep and picky and felt essentially vertical.
Once on top though there was an epic ridge line and a couple of blokes playing indigenous music.
It was probably the descent off this ridge where I made my first real mistake. The descent was steep, dry and dusty dirt. It would have been more efficient to slide down on my butt!
My right foot was moving forward into my shoe, slamming my toes and already mostly dead and/or actually dead toenails into the front of my shoe. So I went down kinda sideways lead by my left leg. Turns out it was a bit tough on my old left knee and it started to ache.
I wish I’d taken a photo of the endless road section that followed but I didn’t. It was long and tedious, but it was great to chat to people about where they had travelled from and other races they had done.
We even came across some mountain cows and joked that we hoped they were friendly because we didn’t have to legs to run away from them.
From the road we traversed a grass section as we made it to the Mardi Gras aid station at Six Foot Track, about 39km into the race. I’m not big on studying maps but I knew this was the one before the big climb. Not sure why I thought it was a road, it started out as one before it became 525 stairs. Oh and it started to rain.
Whilst the stairs were brutal, I chatted with a few folks and enjoyed the running when it was available. I came into the aid station at 55k with Sarah who “represents actors” when she’s not running and she was the sweetest and offered for me to “borrow her family” since I didn’t have crew or support. I chatted with them as I changed my tops and ditched the hat for a buff, fluro vest and head lamp.
The aid station was at the Katoomba Aquatic centre and I can see how some people didn’t leave and that pulling out here is a big risk. It was warm and there was soup and noodles and Bakers Delight in addition to all the usual aid station lollies and fruit.
I had my mandatory gear checked and off I went into the night.
This entire section all kinda blurs into one. There was a lot of chatting and unfortunately a lot of walking after my left knee decided that it didn’t want to co-operate with anything downhill anymore.
It was really technical with lots of stairs, lots of these “sponge biscuit” type paths and generally just quite picky.
To be honest I’m not sure I would have done a whole heap more running even if my knee was up for it.
Usually this sort of thing would send me into a downward spiral of devastation and self loathing but I refused to let it. I remembered my goal, to enjoy the course and take pictures. When I let myself get disappointed I would ask myself “is this the fastest you can go in this moment?” If yes then good, keep going, if no then let’s stop sulking and run for a bit.
At some point between aquarium and the next station at the Fairmont Resort I got a text from hubby saying he had pulled out. Whilst I was disappointed for him, I couldn’t help but get a bit of an energy boost. I just have to finish this bloody thing and I win!
I had heard one of my coaches in a pre race video say to just make it to Queen Vic Hospital (78km checkpoint) and get ready to run. There was a huge “runnable” section to get you to the finish. Before the race I was excited by this and looking forward to this section. I love downhill and if this was a similar set up to Old Ghost, I was ready to smash this section.
I came into Queen Vic to find hubby there with a cup of noodles and my drop bag. I had some noodles, a bikky that I dropped in the dirt (and ate anyway) and headed off for the final stretch.
With the giant exception of the left knee, my body was ready to run. I had achieved the goal but the knee was not having a bar of it. I got onto a downhill road, the road that never bloody ends, and the pain radiated through my knee with each step.
I used my poles as crutches and ran/walked down the whole thing. It was demoralising, knowing that I should be running but I couldn’t so I just kept moving forward and watched everyone pass me.
“Just go as fast as you can”, I kept telling myself.
I tried to do some quick math (which you should never do in a race) and figured my “run/walk” was at best 9-10 min/km, my power walk was 12 min k’s, so big deal it’s like an extra 30 minutes into my time, right?
Well maybe, but my power walk was actually more like 15 min per km but who cares, at least I was consistent!
From about 5km to go, little signs popped up on the track. It was dark but runnable and I was walking. I couldn’t wait to get to those damn furber steps and see what all the fuss is about.
And this is going to get me in trouble, but they really weren’t that bad! Nellies was way worse! There were way tougher sections on the course than Fuber, but that didn’t stop me sitting down on the rest bench half way up!
Once you make it to the top of the 951 stairs you run though a bit of a finish shoot and your done.
I finished in just under 20 hours, my longest time out on the trails, and the most time spent in the dark.
I’m really chuffed with the result, even though it didn’t go to plan, even though I know I can it better and faster.
I really enjoyed it. I kept moving forward. I didn’t sit on a rock and cry, I didn’t even contemplate or entertain the idea.
I achieved what I set out to do and it was bloody hard.
I spoke to so many runners who had done this event 2, 5 or 7 times. “Why?” I asked them all, astonished that anyone would sign up for this torture more than once!
But I know now and I get it, it’s pretty bloody special.