Ambassador Rhiannon just completed the Ultra Trail Australia 100k. We are so proud of her!! Here is her journey!
This race felt like it had been a long time coming – I caught the 100km ultra bug back when I was injured last year and my crew were all signing up for it. I made the decision to not buy my ticket then, but my awesome coach Dave and I discussed me training for it and if it was meant to be, a ticket would become available and if not, then I would go down and support my crew anyway.
Over the last 6 months, I followed my training plan to the T, hitting every single mark Dave set for me, and except for a minor foot inflammation incident a few weeks out, I got through unscathed and looked set to toe the start line uninjured – a new feeling for me as every other ultra I’ve run I’ve been injured.
I met with my nutritionist Loren to work out my fuelling options for the race. I have a number of food intolerances and am unable to stomach usual race food like gels so we worked out real food options. We settled on a rotating selection of raisins, sweet potato, white potato, roasted beetroot and Shot Bloks, and Trail Brew for my hydration fluid. I had practiced with this fuel and it worked for me well. I decided to include some additional extras in my later drop bags like choc covered dried berries and potato chips for some late night boosts.
In the days leading up to the race I had no nerves, I was just so excited and pumped to race. I had never felt this prepared and ready for a race before and I was loving it. Probably should have taken that as a sign that things wouldn’t go as planned lol I met with Dave the day before and he strapped up both my feet and as well as a lot of strapping all over my lower back to try and avoid any back chafe, a new annoying side effect from my new hydration pack.
We travelled down the day before the race, and our flight was delayed as well as traffic getting out of Sydney, meaning we didn’t actually get up to Katoomba until just before we were booked in for our buffet dinner. We had to race home to where we were staying to quickly pack up our drop bags for the checkpoints before heading back for the pre-race briefing. Due to the crazy weather of the last few days and predicted rain for race day, the decision had been made to change the course. Less elevation in total but more technical and meant an out and back section as well, over what is considered by many to be the toughest part of the course. Great.
I had set my race goals early: C goal was finish within cut off (28 hours), B goal was finish in sub 20 hours and earn myself a bronze buckle, and A goal was finish on Saturday and not run over into Sunday (just under 17hrs). To be honest, B goal was the one I was aiming for but I felt I needed an A just in case. I managed to get some decent sleep and woke up early the next morning ready to tackle UTA.
Given the crazy amount of rain that was expected, I had made a last minute purchase to upgrade my rain jacket. I put it on while we were waiting for our wave to start but had taken it off again before we started. Turns out I didn’t need it at all for the race, but I’m glad I was prepared just in case.
One of my besties Cath and I were both starting in Wave 7 and excited to start. We had made the decision to not run together as we both have different game plans when it comes to races. 7.05am and we were off – straight into a few kms of road running. Awesome lol my shins always take a few kms to warm up, especially on road and this was no exception. I wasn’t concerned at all and just took it super easy along this section, running with a ginormous grin on my face.
We finally finished the road section and started down the infamous Furber Steps. These steps are about 1km and super steep – and the 100km ends by going back UP them. Quite cruel but adds to the challenge. The sun came out around this time and I managed to snap a few pics of the gorgeous views.
A mini landslide caused a bit of a backlog, and whilst standing in line I got to chatting to some other RMAs from QLD as well as Drew aka Mr Garmin. We snapped a quick selfie with him and then got moving again.
I must admit, I didn’t study the course map or descriptions as much as I perhaps should have, and was taken off guard when we started heading up the steep Golden Stairs. Wow, that hurt.
I ran through the first checkpoint at 11km feeling fine, however realising somehow I had miscalculated and wouldn’t have enough Trail Brew on me to get through to checkpoint 3 where I could access my own supplies. I decided to be conservative with my hydration fluid and crossed my fingers I would make it.
We came across some beautiful runnable track and I fell in step with Drew again and got to chatting with him, and learnt a lot about him and his journey to become Mr Garmin – a really nice genuine guy. I caught up to Cath around this point and we ran together for a bit and then we got stuck in a massive queue waiting to get down the Tarros Ladders. I’m sure it was made worse by the slippery conditions but something really needs to be done about this section. Some people were stuck up to 50 minutes here, not moving at all. When you can’t move and your body starts to cool down, things start hurting when its time to move again and you can be more prone to injuries. Through this section there were massive rocky inclines and declines, that for someone with very little legs it was quite hard to navigate at times. I found myself dangling before having to jump down and embarrassingly had to ask someone behind me to boost me up at one stage. But I got through and started the descent down to check point 2. This section was beautiful, and some amazing views.
At around 30km just as I started to head down a hill, I felt a sharp pain in my left knee, deep up and under my knee cap. I instantly stopped and tried to stretch it out. In all my training runs in the last 6 months, I had never experienced any kind of knee pain and it threw me. I started to head off again and going flat or uphill it was fine, but every time I went down hill it pinched bad. I made it into checkpoint 2 and asked the first aid station if they could strap it up. They advised me that they weren’t technically allowed to strap it up in case it gave me a false sense of security. Well fuck. He added a band of strapping tape under my knee and told me to see how I went. I saw Cath come into the checkpoint at that stage and went over to see how she was going, and told her what happened. Her hammie was a bit niggly but she was feeling great. I filled up with more water and my diluted Trail Brew and headed off again. When I got to the next downhill section, my knee started screaming at me, and I had to try and do a downhill walk/shuffle, reminiscent of Coastal High 50 last year. Cath came past me and gave me some of her caffeinated panadol to help me through. As flats and uphills didn’t hurt my knee, I caught up to her again, and we fell into step going up a longer hill section. We chatted and decided to run together and adopted a bit of a run/walk technique through to checkpoint 3 at around 46km.
My stomach had been feeling a bit funny, and my legs had been threatening to cramp, which I put down to not having the right levels of hydration fluid. I felt like I needed to go to the toilet, but not much of anything was happening when I went. I filled up my pack with all my food and hydration from my drop bag, and off we headed. It was around this time that we thought our watches were slightly out as they didn’t match the signs we were seeing along the course. It really stuffs with your mind when you think you’re at a certain stage, and then see a sign saying something else.
By this point, my knee was hurting more but we were still managing to run a lot of the flat sections and hiking strongly up the hills. We hit a section called Nellies Glen, and dear god that was brutal. I was really regretting not studying the course more by this point as everyone around me was talking about Nellies and how they had expected this and I was just dying. When would this bloody end?!? Finally we reached the top and ran through groups of people cheering along the sides of the roads, it was so wonderful to see so many people out and about cheering on complete strangers as they crazily ran 100km.
Just before we reached checkpoint 4, we ran past the street we were staying in and damn it was hard to not turn in! The set up at checkpoint 4 was amazing, massive tables of food, drop bags all lined up, heaters on, physio tables, and the volunteers were phenomenal. Nothing was too much trouble for them. We put on our thermal tops here and refuelled for the next leg. In hindsight, I wish I had asked one of the physios here to strap my knee but unfortunately I didn’t.
We still seemed to be on track for a sub 20hr finish and so off we set. Just as we got to the Three Sisters lookout, we got a sunset snap over the mountains behind Scenic World and before the fog started to roll in. By now, my knee was getting sorer, and then we hit the most brutal part of the course. Approx 20km of basically up stairs or down stairs, with barely any flat runnable in between. It was unrelenting, alternating between painful downs, moving my sore leg down the step then my good leg joining it, inching down one step at a time, and then exhausting up up up, thinking I have no idea when this is going to end but knowing every bit of up meant an even more painful down on the way back.
It was around this time that I had one of my bigger hissy fits. The combination of the dark, the pain, the signs that were now obviously not accurate, poor Cath had to listen to me yell and rant on. Though it wasn’t all bad through here. In the pitch black, we started to hear music and came across a lone volunteer with a boom box cranking, and Cath and I were singing and dancing along to Beyonce’s Crazy in Love as we approached him. I heard that song yesterday in Coles and I stopped and giggled with the memory.
We got to another aid station at the Golf Club around 68km or so, and by this stage my stomach was not happy. I couldn’t stomach the thought of anything sweet and so was digging around in my pack for any of my potatoes. My nutrition plan was out the window but it was the only thing I could eat. Even my Trail Brew was turning my stomach, and so I was barely sipping it or water. I stopped again for the toilet a few times and still not enough was happening.
We passed our 2 other besties and they were both going strong. Meanwhile, I was alternating between crying and apologising to Cath for ruining her race, to whinging and bitching about the pain. Bless her, Cath just kept being her amazing positive bubbly self, and reminding me to just take one step at a time and we would get there.
As we approached checkpoint 5, we were told about an out and back loop. Due to the change of course, instead of stopping at checkpoint 5 we had to run past it for another 1.5km before coming back and being allowed in. At that time of night, in that mental state, that was fucking torture! Not just for me, but basically every single person walked that bloody loop, it was so demoralising.
Finally we got back into checkpoint 5 and I went straight to the physio and asked him to strap my knee. He strapped up what he could, I changed into my road shoes that I had put in my drop bag as my feet were screaming from the impact of the hard track and so I had hoped that the road shoes would provide some extra cushioning. I tried a sip of my flat coke and nearly vomited, so just grabbed all the potatoes out of my drop bag and filled up one of my bottles with water. Thank god I had cooked extra potatoes!
We then started the agonising trek back for the last 22kms. I can do 22km in my sleep these days but that felt like it took years off my life. I kept apologising to Cath that we weren’t going to get our sub 20 and that I had stuffed up her race, and then yelling that I didn’t want to play anymore. We fell into step with different people along the way that all seemed to be doing much better than me and whilst the distraction was welcome, mentally it was a bad time for me. By this point, my stomach and decided it had enough and I had to keep stopping for number 2s. My back started to hurt and it felt like back chafe, I was ready to cut my feet off they were burning so much and I would have gladly smashed my knee open and removed the knee cap myself. But very very slowly, we were ticking off the kms on the way home.
I developed an interesting technique of crawling backwards down the stairs and it didn’t hurt my knee. I got a few strange looks but I didn’t care by this point. With about 5km to go, we came across a volunteer camping in the forest. We asked how long we had and he said just over 4.5km and there were no more stairs. I vaguely remember saying something along the lines of you better not be fucking lying to me as everyone else has lied to me up to this point and if you are I will come back and punch you. He replied that for me to do that I’d have to come back down the stairs to do so. Alright smart arse, you’re saved for now.Do you have any idea how long a km is, when you’re in immense pain and it’s pitch black around you and you’ve been on your feet for over 20 hours??? What felt like 10hrs later we finally reached the bottom of the Furber steps. At least going back up them they had handrails so we could pull ourselves up each step. What kept us going was knowing that we were nearly there and that our friends would be waiting for us at the finish line.
We finally got to the top and reached the final ramp. We took off our high vis vests, turned off our head lamps, grabbed each others hands and managed to run the last section around the last bend and across the finish line – arms in the air – in 22hrs 8 minutes. We were handed our medals, and someone took some photos for us and then we looked around and realised we couldn’t see anyone we knew. Suddenly they all popped out, turns out the bloody app hadn’t been updating properly and had only just showed we had hit the bottom of the steps when in reality we were at the top. Damn.
But no matter, after all of that, we were officially 100km ultra running bad asses! We had done it, and no one could take that away from us. I could barely walk and I was sporting some wicked back chafe but I had a medal around my neck!
We made our way back to where we were staying but I was too wired to sleep, plus my feet wouldn’t let me even if I wanted to. I ended up going back out and meeting up with my fellow RLAG ambassador Kirsty as her son was about to run in the 1km kids run. While we were there, more 100km runners came through after being out there for over 24 hours, running through to the finish to thunderous applause. I must admit I had pangs of jealousy as when Cath and I ran through at 5am there was about 5 people standing around to cheer us in. But I also had tears in my eyes for them, as I could fully appreciate how tough it was out there and how much tougher it must have been to watch the sunrise again and to still be out on the course.
All up, I finished 937 out of 1059 finishers (6 finished past cut off and over 200 DNF), 231rd female and 79th female in my age group.
It wasn’t the race I hoped for and I am disappointed with how things went down, both for myself and for Cath. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and I have learnt a lot from this experience. This definitely won’t be my last 100km race, and when I met with Dave today to debrief and get my knee checked, we have begun discussing where to from here already.
My journey to UTA wouldn’t have been possible without my amazing husband. His support while I reached for my dreams, his commitment to me and our daughter while I was out training, his positivity when I had doubts, and his constant updates for all our family and friends while I was out there on course are what enable me to do what I love.
To my ever-patient coach Dave, thank you for all you have done over the last 3 years of working together. You have fixed me, trained me, and listened to my ramblings while patiently shaking your head. It’s taken me awhile to learn to listen and accept advice, but I would never have had the confidence or the physical abilities to ever consider running 100km without you. Thanks for the chats today and not laughing me out of the room when I told you my next goal, it’s going to be an interesting ride!
Other people who have been instrumental to getting me to this point include Loren my nutritionist, and Kat and Drew my PTs – thanks guys for helping to make my body the finely tuned vessel it is today lol
And lastly, to all of you who have taken the time over the last 6 months to read my long rambles, to share your stories, to post messages of support and good luck. There were times where I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide, and even typing up my race report now I wanted to run away as I felt like I was letting someone down. But then I remembered, I’m Real Girl Runner, and what’s more real then a warts and all recount of what happens out there during a 100km ultra. Thank you for all of your support. Here’s to many more!