Glasshouse 100: I'm an ultramarathon finisher

There's always a first time for everything. Last weekend I did my first real ultramarathon.

Technically, my 50ks at Kurrawa 2 Duranbah last December counts as my first ultramarathon, a term which describes any foot race of over 42 kilometres. But when you up the stakes to 100ks on trails, somehow 50ks of road running seems remarkably different. I felt like what I had ahead of me was more significant.

I didn't know what to expect but as the event approached I was hopeful that I had trained enough to be physically and mentally able to get through 16 or so hours on the trails.

Race eve registration

My normal bout of nerves and emotional energy hit early with a surge on race eve. As we we drove up the highway to Beerburrum State School, which served as the start and finish and main base for the event, I freaked out. (And yes I cried.)

What about? Silly stuff.

I wouldn't know anyone. I don't know what the drill is. It would be obvious that I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I didn't know how welcoming the ultra running crowd would be with newbies.

My nerves were calmed a little by the installation at the front of the school - pencils which read

- I am resilient
- I am getting along
- I am confident
- I am organised
- I am persistent

KKB and I both thought they were perfect ideals to aspire to, not only for primary school kids but also for beginner ultrarunners.

Registration took a very short time - no lineup like Ironman - and I picked up my goody bag, Tshirt, race number and meal tickets. While we waited for the briefing KKB and I both took the opportunity to read the more detailed version of the course map that was on display and I chatted with a few fellow runners (who were indeed, welcoming of the newbie). I got a few good tips, including a reminder to carry list of checkpoints or hand written directions to make sure I knew where I was on course. I hadn't done this yet so quickly wrote them up while waiting for the briefing to start.

After a fairly brief briefing and a tasty lasagne and salad we drove home. I had done all my preparation during the day so went straight to bed to rest up for what was going to be a long day.

It's not a race 

In the lineup for the toilet on race morning I got to trading stories with a few fellow competitors. As we said goodbye I wished one of them a good race. I got two responses. 
"Don't you mean, have a good run?"
"What, there's a race on here today? I'm just going for a run."

Referring back to the website and emails from the race director, I noticed we are referred to as "entrants" and not "competitors". I stand corrected and I enjoy the distinction. 

Go time

There was just a bit of preparation to do on race morning. A quick weigh in with the event doctor, and some small talk with fellow entrants, before heading to the start area. I stood mostly in contemplative silence, and before I knew it we were away. Out the school gates, along the path beside Steve Irwin Way, and under the second railway bridge as was emphasised at the briefing.

After just a few ks I started to get an idea of how this might pan out. Me and one other female runner had lost sight of the pack as we ambled along at our comfy 7:30 minute ks. We stayed together for the first loop back to the school and chatted a little. I shared my childhood reminiscence of how we used to always get excited at the sight of Mt Tibrogargan, calling it either Grape Ape or Magilla Gorilla whenever we drove past it on the old highway down to Brisbane. 

On return to the school we passed through Checkpoint 2. I confirmed my number was checked off and kept running. I had settled into a comfortable pace and had more than enough food on me. My new friend stopped. OK, maybe it won't pan out with me and my fellow runner wondering whether to make awkward conversation for the next 100kms. I was actually a little relieved at this. I prefer to run at my own pace.

Enjoy the journey

I took the right turn up Mt Beerburrum, knowing that this was the steepest part of the course. It started OK with gravel road up to the carpark, and then holy hell. Steep alright. Many runners were coming down as I headed up, including my new friends from the day before. Many of them gave me a smile and some encouragement and I returned their cheerfulness with a wave, nod or word of encouragement back.

The view from the top was pretty special and I took a moment to take a quick snapshot.

From here it was around through the pine forest to Checkpoint 3, and around the bottom of  The Twins to meet KKB at Checkpoint 4. I was on schedule for the first 24ks.

The importance of a good course reccy

I'd read everything on the event website multiple times and from all this reading I thought the terrain would be fairly manageable. I'd covered most of the east loop of the 100 mile race in the Wildhorse At Night event. It was fairly flat, but with some uneven surface and soft sand. Even though that loop wasn't part of the 100 kilometre course, I thought I'd read that this section was the hardest of the 100 mile course. So I thought that the training runs I'd done on South Boundary Road would more than prepare me for the event.

Where I thought I read this, or how I came to this conclusion, I don't remember now but it doesn't matter. It was wrong, wrong, wrong.

I spent a fair bit of time walking the rutted out, steep trails around the back of the Glasshouse Mountain Lookout to Checkpoint 5. When I got there, KKB informed me that some of the runners had mentioned the next loop to Checkpoint 6A was a bit gnarly. I just looked at him and tried to mutter something about the last few ks but I don't think he quite caught it.

The next section lived up to this promise, but the "powerlines" section through to Checkpoint 8, which was supposed to be fairly "runnable" failed to live up to that promise. In fact I feared for my life a couple of times. Parts of this section were not only steep and uneven, it was frequented by 4WDs and I was all alone with a breed that I soon decided was the natural enemy of the trail runner. Some sections were so deeply cut into the earth from the 4WDs they were more like tunnels than trails. If a 4WD had have barreled down the section I was making my way up, I wouldn't be here to tell the story.

The only way out of here was, well, to get out of here. So on I went and thanked my lucky stars I didn't have to go back that way.

The 11.5k western loop at Checkpoint 8 was more of the same with a few steep ups and downs, but for me at least the challenging terrain was offset by beautiful subtropical rainforest and some sections of quiet and very runnable tracks. One of the women I'd spoken to on Friday afternoon assured me that once I'd gotten this part out of the way the terrain for the rest of the 100ks was much easier, and that proved to be so.

Technology fail

By the time I got back to Checkpoint 8 my coveted new Garmin fenix 2 that was meant to last for 50 hours had given up the ghost. This was disappointing on many fronts - not the least being as noted when I bought this new piece of bling in the days leading up to the run, if it's not on Garmin Connect it didn't happen. It was looking like I was going to have to get over this because this puppy was stuck on 50.1ks and by now I had done close to 65.

With a little help from friends

For several checkpoints I had the company not only of KKB but also S and K. They got to Checkpoint 5 as I was shoving some form of refined carbohydrate down my neck. They stuck around to greet me for both my passes through Checkpoint 8, and back at 7.

I was most thankful to see S on the approach to Checkpoint 8, when I was confronted with a cattle grid. With 50 odd ks in my legs, I stopped, blinked a couple of times, and wondered how the hell I was going to get across this thing. Ridiculous, I know, but I just couldn't fathom how I was going place my feet in such a way that wouldn't end in an injury of some kind.

On the other side was S. He saw my helpless blinking and picked his way over to my side of the grid to help guide me back across. If he wasn't there I expect I might have tried to crawl or shuffle across on my bum which, even while typing this now, is really downright embarrassing.

Not only did S save me from a potentially awkward situation on my ultrarunning debut, I'm sure the company was a godsend to KKB as they patiently waited at Checkpoint after Checkpoint. Being greeted by three smiling faces and three sets of encouraging words was amazing for me too.

Not long after leaving Checkpoint 8 to head to 7, I had a sinking feeling that I probably should have picked up my lights. By now it was after 4pm and there was 7.5ks to cover before I'd see KKB again. The trail here was good and I was able to run most of the way - but I was bailed out anyway but a fellow ultrarunner and his friend, who saw I wasn't kitted out with lights yet, and lent me a headlamp to get me through. They really are an amazing bunch, this ultramarathon crowd.

Although technically not a friend, the event doctor is worth a mention here too. He weighed me in at Checkpoint 8 and 5 and greeted me at Checkpoint 7 and at the finish. I thought it was impressive that he was out on the trail checking on some of us at the tail end of the field. He had such a gentle and caring manner too. A real asset to this event.

Technology fail times two

I got to Checkpoint 7 where yet another loop awaited me. I got through this in good time, and safely with my lights, but not before picking up some salted boiled potatoes from the aid station. (Salted boiled potatoes are exactly what you think they are. Boiled potatoes with salt. After running 75 odd ks, let me tell you SALTED BOILED POTATOES TASTE AMAZING.)

The loop went by fairly quickly, and with 82 ks now under my belt it was time to backtrack to Checkpoint 6. I was most of the way there when my Ay-Ups dimmed - something they do not long before the battery goes flat, and this battery was meant to last for six hours on the high setting and twice as long on the lower setting I was using. I'd therefore expected it to get me through to the end of the event. While I kept moving, I started to panic a little, and this started to affect how easily I could process cognitive thoughts about finding my way along the trails as night set in. I didn't know how much longer my headlamp would last and the only alternative I had was the torch app on my iPhone. We'd already returned the borrowed headlamp to the runner's crew so this was no longer an option.

As I approached the road that would lead me around to Checkpoint 6 I heard the familiar sound of KKB's VW Caddy. I was so pleased to see him. He'd been worried that I'd taken longer than he thought so my panic must have affected me more than I thought.

Luckily, he had a spare Ay-Up that he'd brought to use on his bike. Relief does not begin to explain how I felt. I think I almost cried with joy while he fixed it on to my head mount and sent me on my way.

The lights are on but...

Even with bright new lights, I remained a little directionally challenged. While the Glasshouse Trail events are on marked courses, you have to know what you're looking for and be consistently alert. As day turns into evening and evening turns into night, it becomes harder to spot the white tape and trail marks and red arrows that marked the course.

Even though I didn't feel tired at the time, in retrospect I think I might have suffered some mental fatigue that made making decisions more difficult towards the end of the run. Even with my trusty written directions, the last ten kilometres threw up challenges that frustrated me. Physically, I still felt good. Surprisingly, running felt better than walking, so when I had to slow either for technical areas on the track or to check my directions, I felt the 90 plus ks in my legs.

Before I knew it I had passed back under the railway bridge and was heading back along the path alongside Steve Irwin Way towards Beerburrum State School. A couple of 100 mile participants approached and passed by heading out onto the 50 or so kilometres remaining for them on the Eastern loop. As I wished each of them well, I thought to myself, "there's no way I could run another 50 kilometres now".

But just like a 100 kilometre is different to a 50 kilometre, 100 miles is different to 100 kilometres. Of course I couldn't have completed a 100 miles last weekend. I hadn't prepared for that, physically or mentally.

When I finished I felt good. Excited. Relieved. And really surprised at how quickly 18 hours can go. I felt like I'd had good focus all day and that physically, I had been prepared to run 100ks.

The 18 hours was a little longer than I would have liked to take but I am so, so satisfied with my performance. Bring on the next one. (Yes, I typed that.)

Got more questions? For something different, I've created a follow up post with answers to the main questions people have asked me about running 100ks.

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