A 50 km ultra marathon through the hills surrounding the country town of Marysville. Most of the course was on fire access trails or singletrack and was not technical. Two separate loops and a couple of out and backs made up the course, as well as a quick run by a beautiful waterfall. There were several steep, rocky sections, but the track was dry and easy to navigate. There was over 1700 m of elevation gain.
The race started the year after the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009, which wiped out the whole town. The aim was to bring people back to the region, to show them that beauty still existed around the burnt countryside. The town has been rebuilt and tourism has slowly started increasing again, with the assistance of community events like this one.
The Lead Up
After completing a marathon in August 2014, an ultra was definitely on my sights. Unfortunately that goal was pushed into the background when Danny and I decided to go travelling for six months. I tried to keep my fitness up overseas but I was only getting in one run every week or two. Definitely not ready for an ultra.
While travelling I listened to many podcasts discussing all things running, including ultramarathons. I was determined to tackle the challenge once I was back at home. I researched races in Australia and settled on the Marysville Marathon in November, due to location, course and cause. We were arriving home in August. This gave me 14 weeks to go from almost zero to 50 km. I had no idea if it could be done.
Also while overseas I started researching training programs online. I found a few that would fit my schedule and picked out elements of what I thought I needed in my running plans. I ended up combining these programs with my marathon plan of the previous year, coming up with a hybrid model. I hoped that I would be able to manage the volume and intensity it required and that my body would be ready come race day.
Fortunately, my training was mostly uninterrupted. I gradually built up the distance and started adding some tempo and interval sessions. I ran five days a week, cross-training with cycling and weights on the other days. Most runs were on the road, as I lived in the suburbs, but each weekend I would try to head out to the Perth hills. Here I found steep climbs, rocky paths, singletrack - everything that would prepare me for the terrain I wanted to race on.
There were no injuries, no over-training syndrome, no plateaus. I could see my times improving each week, particularly on my 10 km tempo run that I completed on the same course every Tuesday. I was starting from almost scratch, so it wasn't surprising to see my times getting better and better. I peaked at about 90 km a week, with a long run of 40 km. I analysed the course map and elevation profile, organising my race plan to fit around the aid stations and drop bags. By the time race day came around, I felt as prepared as I could be. There were only two downsides weighing on my mind:
The race was across the other side of the country, in the mountains, where temperatures were much colder than what I was used to. There was no way to train for that.
I picked up a chest infection two weeks before the race. I thought I would have recovered in time, but the cough was still lingering. The cold weather did not help.
The name on my bib: Kimpossible. I must have been drunk when I signed up.
We stayed in Marysville the night before the race, and could walk a few minutes to the venue in the morning. It was freezing cold. Although it was almost summer, up in the mountains it was easily in the single digits, which I was not used to. I held on to my jacket as long as possible before ditching it to head to the start line.
With only 65 number of runners competing in the 50 km event, the start was fairly relaxed. We loosely took up positions behind the line and slowly jogged out when the gun went off. Within a few hundred meters we hit a steep hill, causing everyone to slow to a walk so we could save our energy for the remaining 49+ kilometres.
Towards the start of the event I was near the front, but was overtaken again and again by other females in the first 12 km. My whole body was stiff in the unfamiliar temperatures and needed more time to warm up. It wasn't until we hit a sharp uphill section around the 13 km mark that I started gaining and passing other runners. It was at that moment that I learned that I have some pretty good powerhiking skills, despite never practising this in training.
By the time we reached the top of the hill, about a kilometre later, I was the first placed female. I never imagined I would ever be at the front in a running race, and presumed I would be overtaken again shortly. We ran down a long descent to turn around and head back up the same hill, so I could see how much of a lead I had gained. It was a only a few minutes, not much this early into the race.
Every few kilometres I would catch myself thinking, "Wow, I have been in front now for 5 kilometres, 10 kilometres, 15 kilometres...". It would be awesome to be able to say that at the end, no matter what the final result was.
As I caught up to the back of the half marathoners and marathoners, it became impossible to know who was in which event unless I turned and looked at their bib. The only way I knew how I was going was through the occasional volunteer, who would clap and shout out that I was coming first. This motivated me to keep pushing forward, to see how long I could maintain the lead.
I was carrying a hydration belt with me so I never needed to stop at the aid stations. I would often sneak a quick glance though, to see what was on offer. The usual water and electrolyte, plus gels, lollies and chips seemed to be the dominant items. I stuck to the gels and dates I had brought with me, not daring to try a new food in the middle of a race. (The finish line was a different story - I went nuts on everything.)
The weather warmed up as the day progressed, but this didn't seem to help my cough. Every few hundred metres another coughing spell would start, prompting some concerned faces from the other runners. While my lungs did their best to exit my body through my mouth, I managed to keep up my pace most of the time. I concentrated on keeping a high cadence and moving forward - I could worry about breathing later.
Always time for a wave and a smile.
During the briefing we were informed that the course would be marked by brightly coloured ribbon tied around branches every few hundred metres. Major intersections were signposted or manned. The usual stuff. The course led me up and over several more walking-only hills, down some sketchy, slippery paths, and through beautiful forest. Everything was going to plan. Until about kilometre 43.
I had been following another runner for a while, keeping him within 20 metres of me. There was a bend in the course and by the time I had completed this bend, he was gone. I looked around to see if I had missed a turnoff, if he had stopped or maybe suddenly gained a huge lead on me, but he was nowhere to be found. I pressed on, not worrying too much about him (maybe he had to pee and ducked into the bushes?). Then there was no other runners in front or behind me that I could see or hear. It continued like this for about two kilometres. It dawned on me that I wasn't sure if I had seen any ribbons for a while. This was disconcerting, as they had been so consistent. I also knew I should have come across an aid station by this point. A battle was going on in my head as to what I should do. Had I really missed another path? Was I going way off course?
I stopped. Looked around. No one. I shouted out to see if anyone could hear me. Silence. Things didn't seem right. Memories started flooding back of the last event in which I was coming first in but ended up losing the lead right at the end. Could it be happening all over again? I decided to run back the way I had come, hopefully finding some other runners soon to show me the way. I ran as fast as I could, holding on to some hope that maybe I could retain or regain the lead. But mostly I just didn't want to be lost in the forest.
A few minutes later I heard a noise and looked up. Two women were flying down the mountain directly towards me. We couldn't all be on the wrong path could we? I must have been going the right way all along. Before they reached me I turned and bolted back down the hill, for the second time. A burst of adrenaline surged through my muscles. I had no idea which distance these women were completing, but if it was 50 km then I had some competition. I reached the point where I had initially turned around to head back, but this time continued forward. Two minutes later I hit that aid station I was expecting.
The next couple of kilometres were the fastest of the race. I wanted to make sure I used up every ounce of energy to get me to the finish line as fast as possible. I was annoyed with myself for doubting my initial judgement and retracing my steps, and also for not focusing more closely on the course markings. I reached Stevenson falls, a famous tourist attraction in Marysville, briefly admiring its beauty but then focussing again on the task at hand.
The last five kilometres were mostly flat with a gentle downward slope. I realised then that I could complete this race, that I would be an ultramarathon finisher. I loved that last half an hour, and had already started thinking about future runs. I knew I preferred the longer races over the shorter ones, and that the trails were much more enticing than the road. I took in everything, from the scenery to the atmosphere, and hoped I that this was just the start of my ultrarunning journey.
As I completed a lap of the local football field I spotted Danny, clapping and spurring me on. I smiled broadly as I crossed the finish line, utterly spent and still coughing my lungs up, but also elated and relieved. No one at the finish line could tell me the final result, so I walked over and spoke to the timing officials. A quick check on the computer and it was confirmed: first female! I was expecting someone to wake me, tell me it wasn't real. I was astounded. I had just won my first event, in my first ultramarathon, and I was on cloud nine.
I hated having to walk the hills. In training I always ran the hills, most of which were fairly short but did include some steep inclines. After passing several runners while hiking in this race, I should probably work on this skill a little more.
Pay attention to course markings so you know you are going the right way.
Never give up. Even if you have gone the wrong way, you're lost or you think you will come in last, you never know the outcome until you cross the finish line.