Monday, 20 November 2017

Great Expectations

“I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.” 
-- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

It was 5am on the morning of Saturday 14 October, 20 minutes before the mandatory roll call for the Great Ocean Walk ultramarathon. All I needed to do was put on my running gear and walk the five minutes to the start line. Putting on my well-worn shorts, I noticed that one end of the drawstring had disappeared into the waistband.

Somewhat annoyed, I extracted the drawstring (which I really needed because the elastic on these shorts is not what it used to be) and started to re-thread it. I won't go into the details of what followed, but it involved a combination of a safety pin, swearing, a ticking watch, accelerating heart rate and a steak knife. I made roll call without a minute to spare.

So far, my quest to run my second 100km ultramarathon in a more relaxed state than my first was not going well. On the plus side, it hadn't even started yet.

The Great Ocean Walk ultramarathon was celebrating its ninth running.  The race, organised by highly respected race director Andy Hewat, covers the full length of the Great Ocean Walk hiking trail. It stretches from the beachside town of Apollo Bay on Victoria's south coast, to the famous 12 Apostles limestone pillars in the shallows of the shoreline near Port Campbell. It would be difficult to find a more stunning stretch of trail in Australia.

I had entered the Great Ocean Walk, often abbreviated to simply 'GOW', two years after running my first (and to that stage, only) 100km ultra. That debut was at the Surf Coast Century and although I had achieved my stretch target of sub-11 hours in that race, I had not enjoyed it. For some runners, being on their limit for hours on end is the reason why they run these races, but after much contemplation, I decided that wasn't for me.

So, GOW would be about starting conservatively, enjoying the trail, taking pictures and not worrying so much about my time. And there I was at the start line with my heart still racing and trying to calm myself down.

At the start line

The first hour or so of the race was in the dark, headlights bobbing in front of me as I settled somewhere in the second half of the 76 person field (there were also seven relay teams of two, who would complete 55/45km legs). Recent rain had turned sections of the trail into ankle-deep, foul-smelling mud. Soon, the gradient shifted up and we tackled the first climb of the day - the 7km from Shelley Beach to Parker Spur.

I enjoy hills and found myself running up this one at a reasonably comfortable pace. The thought did occur to me to slow down and walk, but I was in a good rhythm, so I decided to keep up my steady jog. I passed a few people as I reached the top of the climb around 16km into the race and began the 5km descent to the first aid station at Blanket Bay.

The descent was reasonably uneventful - more mud, a couple of runners overtaking me (I'm much better going up hills than down) and a very positive outlook. I was a few minutes ahead of where I expected to be and feeling good.

I stopped for a few minutes at Blanket Bay, having a quick chat to the volunteer who kindly re-filled my water bottles. Some complaints from campers the year before meant that support crew were no longer allowed at this checkpoint, so the first point I'd see my one-man crew member Paul would be close to the Otway Lighthouse around 32km into the race.

Near Parker Hill 

Seal Point

By this point, the morning had turned into an absolute stunner. Hardly a cloud in the sky, not too warm and only very light wind. And every few kilometres, a glimpse of a gorgeous coastline. In fact, so frequent did these vistas present themselves, that I found myself not bothering to take pictures of most of them. "Meh, another magnificent view - just like all of the others."

Approaching the lighthouse, and having passed the people who got me on the descent to Blanket Bay, I met Paul on the side of the trail. He told me I was in around 30th place. It was nice to have the update and I knew that I was moving through the field, but it wasn't that important to me.

The differing types of trail

Flash back to 2015 Surf Coast Century, when that sort of stuff was important to me. Most of the day was a battle to stay ahead of my ambitious pacing plan and despite the awesome efforts of my support crew to keep my spirits up, it didn't stop me from hating large sections of the run.
After that race had ended, the first words I said to my wife were “I never want to do anything like this again.”

And yet, here I was, about a third of the way into another 100km ultra. And loving it. Here, somewhere on the western coastline of Cape Otway, I'd found my reason for running these races. It's difficult to explain, but during this run I realised it was the grey area between competing and cruising, and keeping in that zone for hour after hour. Of course, undergoing this experience on a trail such as the Great Ocean Walk helps a little bit, too.

Looking towards Castle Cove

The official aid station at Aire River (42km) was the first chance Paul had to offer actual assistance, after the Blanket Bay restriction. I was about 10 minutes ahead of the time I told him I'd probably be there, so I made sure to relax for a few minutes, eat something and soak in the atmosphere of the numerous support crews attending to, or waiting for, their runners.

I didn't pause for too long, however, and soon I was off on the relatively short section between Aire River and the next aid station at Johanna Beach. On paper, this was 13km of an easy, mostly coastal, route with only around 320m of ascent/descent.  On the trail, however, it was a different story. The first 4km were a dream, but after that, the trail was a series of what seemed like very steep descents (often with rocky steps) and nasty little pinches.

Near the end of the easy bit on the way to Johanna 

I was pretty banged up when I hit the beautiful Johanna Beach and I soaked in the glorious day with the waves rolling in on my left. Soaked it in for about 30 seconds, before realising there was no getting away from the soft sand and I had a 2km slog to the aid station at the end of the beach. At one point I got a bit too close to the tide and a wave came in a lot faster and further than I was expecting - spinning me like a top and setting off a cramp in my hamstring. I'm sure the guy I had passed a few hundred metres before had a chuckle at that.

Johanna Beach

I left the aid station in good spirits, having spent a few minutes longer there than planned, but that's what I felt like I needed at the time. I was mindful of the fact that everyone I had spoken to who had run GOW before had a variation on the theme of "the race really starts at Johanna." The next 20km packed in a lot of ascent/descent before an unmanned water drop at 75km and a further 5km to the last aid station of the day, the Gables at 80km.

Leaving Johanna aid station 

Milanesia Beach

The first 5km after the aid station climbs inland around 300m and I remember feeling really good, running most of it. In fact, I recall thinking to myself "this 55-75km section is a piece of cake" (or something like that, anyway). There's a really fast, fun descent to Milanesia Beach and at this point, if it's possible to strut during an ultra, I was doing it. My inner voice had adopted a mocking tone - "the section after Johanna is, like, soooo hilly. Yeah, right."

And then, the hills.

It was like one of those scenes from the old Batman television series with Adam West (Millennials: you might need to search for this on YouTube to understand this.)  300m climb at 20% - Bang! Sharp 200m descent. Whack! Immediately into a 200m climb at 20%! Pow!

Repeat for 10km.

Stairs near Ryan's Den on the horror 65-75km section

Like a punch drunk villain, I emerged from the House of Pain at Moonlight Head, where a friend of mine was spectating with a mate of his. They told me I was looking strong. "Grfyt", was my eloquent response.

Still, the unmanned drums of sweet, sweet, water were only 400m away. Since Milanesia Beach, I'd become sick of the liquid-based fuel I was using pretty much exclusively for this run. And that meant I hadn't been drinking as much as I wanted, which also meant I was not getting as many calories in as I had planned.

The night before, Andy had asked that we keep our consumption from this unmanned water drop to around 500ml, since he wanted to ensure there was enough for everyone and, anyway, the final aid station was only 5km away. It took every fibre of my being not to open the tap and sit under it with my mouth open. But instead, I filled one of my bottles and headed to the Gables.

Selected wildlife
Awesome photo of Nigel and the bovine spectator by Cassandra Gash

The section I had just finished between 65-75km was that part of an ultra where the demons made their appearance. The ones that tell you to pull out of the race at the next aid station, or interrogate you incessantly, asking why you would pay someone so you can put yourself through this. I'd got a bit cocky, particularly after that first climb from Johanna, and forgot that there's a world of difference between getting to 60km and getting to 100km.

But I'd been able to banish those demons by slowing down and focusing solely on forward momentum. I was in the red zone, but I had no reason to push it to breaking point. However, for all of my "I'm just here to enjoy the trail" pre-race rhetoric, I was also conscious that I was making decent progress and hadn't been passed by anyone on the course who I hadn't taken back (save for the fast runners who were in front of me on the start line and stayed out in front). There I was, in that compete v. cruise grey area that I wanted to be in.

The 5km to the Gables aid station was a hoot. Mostly downhill or flat, and with the promise of some food, more fresh water and a friendly face just around the corner. It's an inland section, so no stunning coastal views, but a very nice section of trail all the same.

"He was swearing a lot more at the Gables", Paul later told my wife. Yes, that 25km Johanna-Gables leg really took it out of me. I had a good chat with Paul, ate a Clif Bar and some orange segments and sat down for a few minutes. I really can't explain how grateful I am for Paul's presence on that day. To an outside observer, the importance of crew members may be hard to understand, especially on a course like GOW, where there are only three aid stations between the start and finish for them to offer support. But as a runner, they can be the reason for pushing onwards towards an aid station, or the difference between leaving an aid station on the trail or in a car. Paul had everything I needed and gave up his entire day to make sure of it.

I probably lingered a bit too long at The Gables, because I was a bit stiff when I left. And a little unfocused, too, going off course for a few hundred metres before realising my error when the trail I was on ended at the top of a cliff. This annoyed me more than it should have, but soon I was back on course and on my way to the finish line.

At 81km, my watch battery died. Having started running in the "If it's not on Strava, it didn't happen" generation, I started recording my run on my phone. With my phone tucked away in a pocket in my running pack, I no longer had the instant gratification of knowing how fast I was running, or how far to the finish. In fact, however, this soon became liberating. I knew I was on track to break 13 hours and now it was just a matter of running for a couple of hours at a comfortable pace.

On the last leg

The last 20km is almost exclusively along the coast. The sun was getting lower, but in no danger of setting before I finished. Instead, it just added something else to the memories from the day - shadows growing slightly longer and colours changing hue. With maybe 11km to go, a group of campers drinking beers gave me a rousing reception and it put the biggest smile on my face. Although, to be honest, the thought of joining them for a cold one did cross my mind.

Then I saw a sign which said the 12 Apostles were 7km away. 7km! That's less than a lunchtime run. The only landmark between here and the finish line I knew of was the Gibson Steps, which was around 1km before the finish, so that became my next focus, now less than 6km from where I was.

I loved those 6km. I took out my phone and confirmed that I was well under 13 hour pace, probably closer to 12.5 hours. The ocean was glinting in the late afternoon sunlight and the finish line was beckoning. Although I was still (mostly) running, I'd decided that I would walk the better part of the final kilometre, to give me time to soak it all in and reflect on the day that I'd had. It really couldn't have gone better and I wanted to remember as much of it as possible.

Just before the 12 Apostles visitor centre, where the finish line is located, the needle swung back to the 'competitive' side of the spectrum. "Since the first 10 metres of the race, nobody has been able to get past you and stay there.", said the voice. "You're not getting passed now, in the shadows of the finish line, because you're walking!"

So I started running, or, to be more precise, shuffling. At the entry to the visitor centre, there was a sign that advised runners to slow down. I laughed - that sign really wasn't applicable to me (or most runners, I suppose), at that point.

The emotions as I entered the finish chute and crossed the line are indescribable. Suffice to say, it was a completely different experience to my first 100km race. No more or less satisfying, but just… different. I had a great chat with 4th place getter and ultra running legend Dan Beard, who had finished about an hour and half ahead of me. I had finished in 13th place, in just under 12 hours and 25 minutes.

(Some of) the better reasons for toeing the line

I stayed at the finish line for about an hour and a half, enjoying the atmosphere, cheering the finishing runners and eating everything in sight. I collected my silver (sub 13 hour) belt buckle from Andy, who I chatted to briefly and thanked repeatedly. With so many races on the trail running calendar, some events can get lost in the noise, but this one should be on every ultra runner's list of must-do races.

As circumstances had it, Paul drove me back to Melbourne that night. I got into bed about 19 hours after ripping a hole in my short’s waistband with a steak knife in Apollo Bay that morning. I woke up the next morning in my own bed, had breakfast with my wife and kids and said "That won't be the last one."


Saturday, 11 June 2016

Pacing in ultras: an analysis of timing data

I run, therefore I'm injured.

It was Puffing Billy that did it. My win against the train came at a cost - a nagging groin injury which I'm only just starting to see the back end of six weeks later. That means I have about six hours a week to try to fill a running-shaped hole in my schedule. I could use those six hours to spend more time with family, or donate my time to a charity. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to spend it looking at data. Running data. Ultra running data.

Why? Because I’m a data guy. That’s my job – to look at data and turn it into information. So, what information can I find in the world of running data? Specifically, I’m interested in data from ultra marathons and what it can tell us about those who do well and those who do less well. (Yes, yes, everyone who completes an ultra has done well, but the cold hard fact is, some do better than others. They are races, after all.)

At the outset, I’m going to confess that I offer no guarantee of the statistical validity of my findings. Maybe if I had enough data, I could offer this. But I don’t. Or at least, I can’t be bothered finding enough. Instead, I’ve looked at two of Australia’s biggest 100km races (which couldn’t really be more different in terms of terrain) – UTA 100 (nee: The North Face 100) and the Surf Coast Century. I picked these two events because of (1) the size of the start list and (2) the checkpoint data that’s available for these races.

I wanted to focus on pacing and specifically, which groups did it well and which did it not so well. Did the front runners go out hard and barely hold on? Did the backmarkers take it easy at the start, knowing they had a long day ahead of them? Or was it the opposite? Were women better than men? Old better than young? Did certain parts of the course slow down the back-of-the-packers more, relative to the guys and girls at the front? Or, did it not matter – did fast runners slow down at the same rate as slow runners?

Why the focus on pacing? It just so happens that it’s an area that I’ve worked very hard on in recent years. My main goal in a race is now to perform better in the second half of the race relative to the average runner and runners around my final position – if I don’t do that, I’m disappointed.
Onto the results.

Firstly, UTA 100.

I used the checkpoint data currently available for the 2015 edition of the race to split the race into eight segments, as well as a rough first “half” (0-46km) and second “half” (46-100km). I was first interested in how much longer the second “half” of the race took, compared to the first (remember, the second “half” is actually 17% longer than the first). On average, across all competitors with the relevant data, the average “slow down” was 60% - that is, the 46-100km segment took 60% longer than the 0-46km segment.

It turns out that, on average, there was no difference in the proportional slow down between men (607 runners) and women (171 runners) – both had an average slow down of 60%.

More differences emerged when you looked at the finishing position of the runner. And it’s important here to remember that I’m not comparing overall times – just the rate at which different runners slow down over the race. There’s no rule that says a slow person will slow down faster than a fast person – it’s all about how you judge your own level of effort and endurance. Think about a 10km race – a 34 minute runner and a 60 minute runner can have an identical ‘slow down’ rate if they’re both good at pacing to their ability.

The below chart shows the relationship between finishing position and the rate of slow down. You can see there’s a small correlation between the two.

I think the uptick towards the end of the series (i.e. the final 10% of finishers) is probably down to something more than just bad pacing. These may be people who have injured themselves, or are completely new to ultras and are just doing whatever it takes to finish. Still, it does appear that those at the front of the field are better judges of what is a sustainable pace than those in the middle to the back of the pack.

What’s striking though, is that there are many runners, at whatever position in the rankings, who mix it with the best in terms of percentage slow down. This suggests to me that pacing can be learned and applied to ultras – just because you finish 600th, doesn’t mean the second half of the race is going to be a nightmare compared to the first.

What about age? It turned out that the older you were, the more you slowed down. On first glance this might not sound surprising – but remember, we’re not talking about overall speed here, we are talking about how much runners slowed down relative to their own early splits. And even in the “super masters” category (50-60 years old), there was a healthy proportion of runners who outperformed the average slow down – even those who finished in the bottom quarter of the field. Let’s take another look at that scatterplot, with the different age categories visible.

Remember, the average slow down is 60%. Each age category has plenty below the average and plenty above it. So whilst on average, the older runners slowed down a bit more, at an individual level, it didn’t mean much.

So, where were the different groups slowing down? Was there a particular part of the course where, say, the backmarkers started to slow down more than the leaders, or did the difference just gradually emerge? A little of both. The below chart looks at a few groups of runners sorted into finishing position. It takes their time into checkpoint 1 (10.5km) as a base time and then shows how their race progressed as a multiple of that first split.

For example, if you got to the first checkpoint in one hour and finished in 10 hours, the line would end at 10 on the y-axis. The numbers on the x-axis correspond to the distance at each timing point. If everyone slowed down at the same rate, the lines would all be identical. And the flatter the line, the less you slowed down.

The chart is a little busy, but it’s clear to me that for those at the back of the pack, they really started to slow down after 66km – the last third of the race. The section with the largest spread between the front and back of the pack was between 78-99km. This also happens to include a very long descent followed by a very long climb. And the bottom 50 (that is, the bottom 50 with timing data for all timing points – this was a bit hit and miss) slowed down a LOT in the last kilometre, which I’ve heard (I’ve never done UTA) is a bastard.

Finally, what about the overall distribution of slow down rates? There's a long tail out to the right of the average - if you're in that tail, there could be some improvement to make.

So, what about the comparatively flat and fast Surf Coast Century?

It turns out that most of the conclusions from UTA applied to its flatter Victorian counterpart. Although, in terms of sample size, SCC is much lower (~175 runners with data on all timing points, instead of ~650 for UTA), so the results are even less robust.

The average second half (and this time, it’s pretty much even in terms of halves – 49km/51km) slow down was 24%, with males (122 runners) slowing down by 25% and females (53 runners) 23%. Not much difference there. The second half of SCC is also hillier than the first, so it’s not just fatigue that led to the slow down.

Again, there was a small correlation between finishing position and pacing. But like UTA, lots of variation irrespective of finishing position. Some people in the middle to the back of the pack even went close to a negative split.

There was also the same general trend of the older runners slowing down more, but not by much. The 20-39 year olds slowed down by 23%, 40-49 by 24% and 50-59 by 28%. What’s interesting is that three out of the four runners in the 60+ category averaged 17% or less – putting them in the top quartile of the field in terms of slow down.

Similar to UTA, you see a good mix of younger and older runners finishing the second half strongly relative to the average field slow down (24%). By the way, I hope my Dandenongs Trail Runner comrade Mathieu Doré doesn’t mind me pointing out that he’s the outlier at the front of the field – 13th place, but the biggest slow down in the field! (If I know Mathieu, he’ll have a good laugh about that and then (1) go out and destroy some Strava segments and (2) win a whole bunch of races.)

What about where the gaps started to open up? Here’s the same index chart as UTA. I’ve taken out the top 20 category and changed the bottom 50 to the bottom 20, because of the smaller field.

You can see the front and back of the field really start to diverge after the half way point. As I noted earlier, this is also the hillier section of the course. And in the last 15km (which is pretty much flat along the coast), the back end of the field was struggling. Maybe this was affected by injuries, or maybe the final 15km of a 100km ultra was biting people who went out a bit too fast.

And to round things out, here's the slow down distribution. Again, a longer tail to the right, but for whatever reason, it's a bimodal distribution (two peaks). This is probably just a symptom of the relatively small sample size.

Two different races, very different terrain, but similar conclusions.

So I think what I learned from this exercise is this – for individuals in the race, sex, age and speed don’t matter a great deal when it comes to pacing well in an ultra. On average, sure, it’s better to be in your 20s and fast. But you can be over 50, placed near the back of the pack and finish as strong (relative to your own ability) as the young and fleet of foot.

One final thought – I’m tipping a few of you have read this far and you’re now thinking “So, his conclusion is that older people slow down more and the elite runners know how to pace themselves. But everyone’s different. Whoa! This guy deserves a Pulitzer!” But hey – that’s the thing about data. Sometimes it surprises you and sometimes it doesn’t. But at least the next time you talk to someone about pacing in ultras, you might have some facts to back you up. And plus, I got to play with some data. Win-win.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Puffing Billy's Great Train Race 2016

Thirteen-point-five kilometres.

Two hundred and fifty metres of elevation gain.

These are not words that usually strike fear in the heart of ultra runners. I've been on "recovery" runs longer than 13.5K, with twice the amount of elevation. So why did I have pre-race jitters in my legs and stomach?

Because, thirteen-point-five kilometres with two hundred and fifty meters of elevation gain is a bastard of a distance when you're racing it, that's why. And I was about to re-discover this all over again, having not fronted up to Puffing Billy's Great Train Race since squaring the ledger at 1-1 with the train back in 2012.

In beating the train in 2012, I managed 56 minutes dead, back when the course was 13km. It had since been extended by around 500m, apparently for safety purposes (although the particular part of the course they have cut out seems fine to me). Given there was an extra 0.5km, I was hoping to finish around the same time, i.e. 56 minutes. For that to happen, I'd need to run just under 4:10/km on average, although with the nature of the course, there would have to be a few sub-4 minute kms thrown in there on the downhills.

A good contingent of Dandenongs Trail Runners had made their way to the start line in Belgrave. In the four person 'DTR Rockets' team I was a part of, we had Jonathan Coles, Davern White and Lauren Starr (Coles White Starr - sounds like some private label supermarket brand). Jonathan was with me in the first seeded group, with Davern and Lauren joining the other DTRs in the second group.*

The DTR crew
(L-R: Cassandra, Christian, Cameron, Jonathan, me, Lauren)  

As Jonathan and I lined up nervously near the start line, we observed that the train driver seemed to have his game face on. And he was disconcertingly young - not an old jovial fellow with a big belly and bigger beard (so in other words, he wasn't Santa Claus). If push came to shove, we thought, this driver would have no hesitation doing both. We'd find out just how prophetic that observation would be in a little more than 56 minutes' time.

After the customary rendition of Advance Australia Fair by Mike Brady (no, not that one), we were off, with the first 1.2km a downhill dash to the foot of the first hill. This first climb goes for about 1.7km at 4% and I felt pretty good, averaging 4:10/km on the climb and getting through the first rail crossing ahead of the train. About a kilometre into the following descent, I passed 4km in 15:30 - 35 seconds ahead of my planned split. Hmmm, had I gone out too hard?

There's more descending between the 4km and 5km marker, before the biggest hill on the course, which starts soon after 5km. The hill, the second part of Selby-Aura Road and Menzies Road, is 2.25km at 5% average gradient, but there are sections that are probably 10% or more. I was pushing pretty hard on this hill and passed a number of people, but I was about 5 seconds per kilometre slower than I'd planned, so I was hoping this wasn't the beginning of the end. Just before the Menzies Road section, I went through the second rail crossing and asked a volunteer if we were still ahead of the train. Yes, by about three minutes, came the reply.

The climb dispensed with, there was then a sharp descent (400m @ 12%) to the third rail crossing. Through that, and then a small rise and descent, bringing you to the start of the final climb (it feels weird calling these 'climbs' after what we tackle on the trails, but bear with me, here). Somewhere in that section, I passed my 8km split about 45 seconds ahead of plan. But I was starting to pay for it with my legs feeling heavier and heavier.

The last climb is the most gentle - 1.7km at 3%, but again, there are some steeper sections in it. Near the end of it, at 10km, is the final rail crossing. About 300m before the crossing, a sound entered my consciousness and it took me a while to realise it was a steam engine. That didn't sound like three minutes any more! I focused on the crossing and looked for signs that the volunteers were going to stop the runners. They weren't.... yet. My pace, which had been a steady 4:30/km on this climb, shot up to 3:55/km and I got through the crossing and soon after that, the end of the climb.

That little 300m interval before the crossing felt like it maxed out my legs. As I started the 3km descent to the finish line, there were people passing me and I couldn't respond. I wasn't even looking at my watch any more - splits be damned - I was just focused on running as fast as I could to beat that infernal machine into Emerald Lakeside Park. I could hear its whistle and its engine and you could sense the mild panic starting to spread amongst the runners nearby. I got some sort of rhythm back, though, and as I passed the 12km marker, all I was thinking was "1500m to go - you can do this!".

You enter Lakeside Park at 12.5km with a steep descent. I flew past a few people on the downhill (thankyou, trail running) and cursed the extra distance added to the race. Pushing very hard, it wasn't until I had about 500m to go that I allowed myself to admit that I'd be beating the train. There's a final, very short, sharp rise to the finish line and I passed at least three people struggling up it, but by that stage, I don't think individual places were important - we only cared about beating one specific competitor.

I crossed the line in 55:04, in 142nd place (of 2,742 runners). A PB by one minute, on a course that measured 540m longer than the last time I raced it. To put it in perspective, I later used my GPS data to estimate that I would have run approximately 53:10 on the old course. I always thought a 53:xx time was beyond me. Today, I got lucky, with some good conditions and an injury and illness-free preparation.

About a minute later, I saw the train driver run past the finish line and then I noticed Jonathan, who was out of breath. He explained that the driver pipped him by about 20 metres, after unleashing a devastating sprint on fresh legs in the closing stages. It was still a two minute PB for Jonathan, but his disappointment was palpable after coming so close.** We then saw Davern come in and all three of us were ushered away from the finish area which was getting pretty congested. It started to rain and we headed off to find our bags and warm clothing. A few minutes later, Lauren completed the DTR Rockets' race and we later found out we finished in the top 10 teams (10th of 49). What a performance!

I had entertained the notion of running back to Belgrave after the race, but even before the rain got heavier and the temperature dropped a few degrees, I decided there was no way I was in shape to do that. I had nothing left to give and was just looking forward to putting my feet up and getting a coffee (or three) into me. Lauren and I joined fellow DTR Cassandra and a friend of hers on the first train back, as the inclement weather set in. To say I'd made the right call not to run back is a massive understatement.

So, after the 2016 edition of the Great Train Race, the score reads: Cimdins 2 - 1 Puffing Billy. One part of me would like to retire in front and this year's result gives me a chance to do that. On the other hand, I've got many years of running ahead of me and pulling the pin in my 30s seems a little silly, all for the sake of preserving a lead over a train that could beat me hands down if the driver really wanted to.

The other thing that can't be underestimated when it comes to this event is its point of difference with almost all other races. I will never win a race, unless the field is incredibly thin. In the Great Train Race, however, I'm not really racing the other runners - I'm racing the train. And that's a contest I can win, given the right circumstances. It's hard to explain, but that makes a big difference to me. I feel something that I don't feel when I'm just racing against other runners. And on the two occasions I've crossed the line before the train driver, the sense of satisfaction is enormous. In fact, I'd go so far as to say my 2016 Great Train Race is the high water mark of my short running career.

Wouldn't I want to feel that buzz again? Let's see what the future brings.


Postscript: it is now a bit more than a week  since I took on the train and this race has left me battered and bruised like no other race of its distance. I have pulled up better from 50km ultras. I arguably pulled up better from the 100km Surf Coast Century. Being in a close race with the train is relentless - when you get to the top of the hills, you just run harder down them to extend your lead or to make up lost time. I guess that's why it's so damned satisfying.


* Davern did well just to make the start line. A tree across the Metro train tracks just outside Ringwood had Davern and many other runners scrambling for taxis early on Sunday morning. 

** According to the official times of each runner, Jonathan finished with a faster time than the train driver. Maybe he was delirious when he approached the finish line... 

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

...sometimes, the bear eats you

We found the humour eventually. It was inevitable, really, once discussion turned to U.S. politics. In particular, the race for the 2016 Republican nomination (I mean, really...). I won't go into the details, but there we were, reprising Monty Python's The Four Yorkeshiremen routine, somewhere close to the 50km Boneo Road aid station.

Things were not going well. We'd resigned ourselves to missing the 8 hour finish line cut-off, which if anything, had improved our outlook on the rest of the day. If I had to guess how hot it was, I'd say it was about 80 degrees (Celsius). At least, that's what it felt like at the time.

Back when we started the 56km Two Bays Trail Run, seven hours ago, we had planned to be finished by now.* And the first 27km had led us to believe that everything was on track. As the 2km downhill stretch of bitumen leading to the halfway point wore on, however, that plan went out the window. At some point close to half way, the ultra demons started to prey on the body and mind of my running partner and fellow Dandenongs Trail Runner, Chris.

Dandenongs and Lysterfield Trail Runners unite before the start

When we reached the turnaround point, Chris was like a changed man. Maybe I should have noticed some earlier warning signs, backed off the pace and pulled the pin on the 7 hour goal. Or maybe it just hit all at once. This latter scenario was, and probably still is, Chris's official version of events. But Chris is so polite he'd never tell me if I pushed him too hard, to soon. It's a pointless debate anyway - the fact was, I knew then that we were in for a long second 28km.

Like some cosmic riddle, the climb up the bitumen hill at the start of the return leg from Dromana to Cape Schanck didn't seem anywhere near as long as the descent did. But once we entered the National Park and hit the steeper part of the climb up Arthurs Seat, it was Game Over. Chris was struggling to put one foot in front of the other, the steps built into the trail not helping things.

The heat was starting to bite and talk turned to just getting to the next aid station to guzzle some water. When we finally reached it (the small but very cheerful aid station in the Rosebud street section), the volunteers were, as always, eager to help and ask how things were going. We walked into the aid station and walked out of it - running was now something we rarely contemplated.

The type of unconventional assistance offered at Two Bays aid stations
(Photo credit: Adrian Foster)

It was only another 2.5km to the next major aid station, at Browns Road. We continued to yo-yo with some other runners (we're still runners, even if we were walking), as each individual had their bad and good (or at least, not-so-bad) moments. Cresting another hill, we arrived at the aid station.

It could have gone either way. Chris was sitting down on the ground, sharing a few quiet words with yet another wonderful volunteer. At this moment, Chris seemed to me like Schrödinger's cat - both "alive" (still in the race) and "dead" (withdrawn). We just had to wait until someone opened the box.

Berating himself with a quick "Come on, Chris", he got off the ground, thanked the vollies and headed towards the trail. He was alive! A little further on, he told me he'd re-assess at the next aid station. Well that, I told him, was Boneo Road - about 11km from here and 5km from the finish. And there was no way he was pulling out with 5km to go.

So we walked, rested and even ran a little. We discussed nerdy topics like escalator throughput and cricket prediction algorithms. We were slowly ticking off the kilometres, but I don't remember obsessing over it - we both knew we wouldn't be recording an official time today. It was just about finishing.

Evidence that we did run a little
(Photo credit: Phil Larkins. [How good is it!?])

And then, we arrived at the Boneo Road aid station. Or, "paradise", as I like to think of it. A young lad poured some ice down the back of my singlet. One girl poured some iced water over my head, whilst another was jumping up and down, dancing, singing and chanting encouragement. "How do they keep this up?", I thought, gratefully. In fact, these kids seemed to defy the law of conservation of energy - they lost none, yet transferred enormous amounts of it to the runners.** From out of nowhere, a Zooper Dooper was thrust into my hands by some benevolent apparition.

Chris was receiving the same treatment as me and I paused to reflect on the exceptional commitment every volunteer made today to make this run as easy as possible. I mentioned later to Chris how in awe I was of them and he agreed that they once again delivered in spectacular fashion. They deserve all the thanks they get, and more.

The finish line was 5.3km away and we set off to find it. With somewhere between 1-2km to go, 8 hours ticked by. I didn't even notice. We were going to finish and that's all that mattered.

About 500m (?) before the finish line, we were greeted by our personal supporter base - Les, Cheryl, Shawn and Jonathan, who represented the Dandenongs Trail Runners with pride that day. As they accompanied us to the finish line, I joked to myself that it would suck to be DQ'd for employing pacers, but something told me we'd be ok. Just before the eyes of the Two Bays world at the finish line could settle on us, Chris and I broke into a devastating sprint finish to the line and crossed it together arm-in-arm.

Together again. One team.
(From L:R, Jonathan, me, Shawn, Les, Cheryl, Chris)

I'm not sure how many people ended with a DNF against their name that day, but I'm tipping it was much higher than usual. That Chris wasn't one of them is a testament to his determination and strength. Aside from that, he's also a bloody good person.

There's really not that much more to say, so I think I'll leave it there. Chris has already summed up his day here, with far more economy, wit and style than me.

On a final note, an alternative title for this post was "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That just about sums up my 2016 Two Bays Trail Run.


* We had started with another friend, also named Chris (the guy in the photo with me at the start line, in the LTR top). At around 13km he was looking good and forged ahead with a mate of his. In a perfect ending, Chris ended up crossing the line in 6:59:38, a mere 21 seconds up his sleeve in his quest for a sub-7 hour finish.

** Ok, that's two physics-related examples I've used, which is very dangerous considering I am not a physicist. There's little doubt I've misused these examples, but please don't feel the need to point out any errors in the comments.

Movescount file:

Thursday, 24 September 2015

2015 Surf Coast Century: a fugue

Dude: Fuck.
Walter: What'd he say? Where's the hand-off?
Dude: There is no fucking hand-off, Walter! At a wooden bridge we throw the money out of the car!
Walter: Huh?
Dude: We throw the money out of the moving car!
Walter: We can't do that, Dude. That fucks up our plan.

 - a scene from The Big Lebowski.

I'd planned it all. Down to the minute, in fact. On paper and without being in the actual race itself, it seemed like the right thing to do. Firstly, my one-man support crew, Dylan, would need to know roughly when to be at the aid stations. Secondly, if I was going to be in with a chance of beating my stretch target of sub-11 hours, I'd need to know how I should be pacing each leg. The problem was, the plan didn't account for me starting to feel like rubbish at the 30km mark of a 100km ultra. My first 100km ultra.

But now, here I was, always frustratingly close to my planned time at each checkpoint, but only achieving this by hanging on by a thread. I might have been on time, but I wasn't supposed to be feeling this bad. It was fucking up the plan.

The  Plan1

I've given a lot of thought into how to write up my experience at the Surf Coast Century without turning it into a tome that rivals Don Quixote or Les Miserables in number of pages. And since I'm no Cervantes and Hugo, I need to be a bit more economical, otherwise the title of this post would be TL;DR. I eventually settled on a template I'd apply to each leg. Therefore, if you find the first section tiresome, you can stop there, knowing it's not going to get any better.

Leg 1 (0-21km)
Official title: Coastline Crusade
Unofficial title: Slips and sinkholes
Leg split (incl. time in aid station): 2:11:24 (49th best time)
Elapsed time: 2:11:24
Position at end of leg: 49th
Highlight: Picture running along a pristine beach, with the rising sun lighting the sheer cliffs to your left. To your right is the expanse of Bass Strait, including the occasional set of waves rolling in as the early morning surfers ponder these strange creatures heading eastwards to Torquay. What do you think the highlight was?

At the start line
(Photo credit: Dylan Perera)

Life's Good
(Photo credit: Supersport Images)

Lowlight: Somewhere in the second kilometre, stepping onto a sand-covered rock, both feet whipping out from under me and crashing ribs-first onto the (thankfully smooth) rock.
Comic relief: The untold number of pioneers who tried to avoid the ankle deep water when the tide reached the cliffs by plotting a new course, and found themselves instead waist deep (or deeper) in the surf.
Over-riding emotion at the time: Joy. It was such a beautiful setting and I ran much of the leg with fellow Dandenongs Trail Runner Scott, and the kilometres flew by.
Over-riding emotion now: Regret, I suppose. Regret that I was on a schedule on this stunning leg and only stopped to smell the roses fleetingly.

Leg 2 (21-49km)
Official title: Ironbark Basin
Unofficial title: The Turning of the Screw
Leg split: 2:57:41 (28th best time)
Elapsed time: 5:09:05
Position at end of leg: 33rd
Highlight: I really enjoyed the winding single track through the Ironbark Basin. It's not that it was exceptionally picturesque, but I was always within range of some runner doing one distance or the other and it got the competitive juices flowing.
Lowlight: For whatever reason, starting to feel flat at the 30km mark. I was hitting the splits I needed to, but in the plan, I was still feeling good at this stage. Reality was beginning to have a say about that.
Comic relief: I think I got a bit over-zealous on the foot-wash contraption you had to use to protect the native flora from whatever nasties your shoes might have picked up. My shoes were covered in a thick lather of soapy suds coming through the intermediary aid station/spectator area and it seemed that everyone was wondering what the hell these new 'foamy' shoes were, because they were all looking at my feet!
Over-riding emotion at the time: It was probably anxiety. I had reached Torquay about 5 mins behind schedule, the number of rock sections on Leg 1 slowing me down more than I expected. And then with me starting to feel ordinary with 70km to go, I was getting really concerned with how the rest of the race would go.
Over-riding emotion now: Amusement. I started to feel ordinary at 30km... Try explaining that to a non-runner! "Well, you know, the first 30km were fine, then it started to get hard. I can't explain why." "Um," the response might come, "it's because you had just run 30km..."

Early on in Leg 2, when I still felt good
(Photo credit: Supersport Images)

Leg 3 (49-77km)
Official title: Currawong Falls
Unofficial title: Cimdins Falls (Apart)
Leg split: 3:17:33 (20th best time)
Elapsed time: 8:26:38
Position at end of leg: 27th
Highlight: Seeing my family at the 70km aid station and almost bursting into tears because it was the only good thing to happen to me for the last 3 hours.

My youngest son Will trying to provide illegal assistance at the 70km aid station
(Photo credit: Dylan Perera)

Lowlight: Telling myself I wish I hadn't signed up to raise money for Oscars100 for this run. Honestly, I was so sore and fed up with trying to hang on to this shred of hope that I'd go sub-11 hours that I wished I'd never raised a cent. That way I could just pull out at 70km. Maybe I'd fake some bullshit injury. I could see myself in full Jon Belushi in The Blues Brothers mode - "I fell on my ribs... I rolled my ankle... My hamstring is about to tear... A snake bit me... You gotta believe me... It wasn't my fault!!!" But no, instead I had to keep going. And it was such a chore.

Pain, earlier.
(Photo credit: Supersport Images)

Comic relief: There wasn't much humour to be had, but in hindsight, my sooking to Scott at around 65km about how hard done by I was feeling was pretty funny, in a pathetic kind of way.
Over-riding emotion at the time: Too many to mention. Let's just go with despondency, shame, exhaustion and bitterness. Looking at my performance stats from this leg, you might think I'm laying on the false modesty a bit thick, but at the time I had no idea how I was going in relation to the rest of the field (the solo field being pretty sparse at that point). And to be honest, I didn't have the energy to even think about whether I was doing better than other runners. I'd never felt so alone and fed up on a run. I hated it.

Arriving at 77km aid station. Leg 3 finally over.
(Photo credit: Franck Verez)

Over-riding emotion now: Confusion. This leg confuses the hell out of me. And that's because I can't work out whether setting a stretch goal like I did is worth it or not. I would have enjoyed this leg so much more if I had just planned on a sub-12 hour finish, something which I thought I could achieve on most days if everything went well. But instead, since I was so close to my planned splits, I had to push for this stupid sub-11 stretch. It completely ruined the enjoyment factor, but [spoiler alert] ended up contributing to a greater post-race sense of pride. There's no getting around it - for me, on that day, it was one or the other. Enjoy Leg 3, or hate it and go sub-11 hours. And I still have no idea which is the better outcome.

Leg 4 (77-100km)
Official title: Lookouts and Lighthouses
Unofficial title: With a Little Help From My Friends
Leg split: 2:30:00 (11th best time)
Elapsed time: 10:56:38
Position at the end of the race: 22nd
Highlight: See 'Elapsed time', above. Special mention to the amazing support I got out on course from my family, Dylan and my friend Franck and his wife Isabelle. They gave me the inspiration I needed to keep going.

5km-ish to go. Smiling on hard packed sand.
(Photo credit: Franck Verez)

4km-ish to go. Not smiling on soft sand.
(Photo credit: Franck Verez)

Lowlight: Losing my cool at Dylan. He'd come down to the beach at Urquhart Bluff to tell me that I was still on track for sub-11 hours. He told me there was only around 6km to go but my GPS watch indicated it was more like 8km. In response to his encouragement I spat back that I wasn't on track and he didn't know what he was talking about (of course, he was the one who was right). Dylan was an absolute superstar all day, without him I would never have achieved what I did, and to speak to him like that was terribly poor form.
Comic relief: at about 81km, after a bit of a sustained climb up a dirt road, you turn right and are faced with a hill that's about 250m long at about 15%. It's not a big hill in the scheme of things, but it was unexpected and, well, I had 81km in the legs. "For fuck's sake!", I cried out and I'm almost certain I heard the relay runner about 50m behind me laugh.

Forcing out a smile for the camera. At least it was downhill.
(Photo credit: Supersport Images)

Over-riding emotion at the time: Determination. At the Aireys Inlet aid station (15km to go) Dylan told me I could still get that sub-11 hour time. Told me the plan was still on. I didn't want to accept that and told him I couldn't, but he wasn't having it. He said he'd check in on me at a few places before the finish, to "make sure I was still running". And as much as I didn't want to, I ran. Even when I was convinced it was a lost cause (even after I'd told him he was wrong at Urquhart Bluff), I ran. Dylan found me again with 21 minutes left before 11 hours and told me I had between 3-4km to go. You better believe I ran then.
Over-riding emotion(s) now: Pride and gratitude. The last 23km, in my first ever 100km, was my best leg. Only 10 people ran this leg faster than me all day and I even managed to pass five relay runners on their one and only leg. And a big part of that was down to Dylan, for telling me to believe in myself and giving me a kick up the arse when I needed it. And for that, I'm very grateful. 

And then it was over. I'd finished. In no time at all, Nicole had filled up my 1L stein and I was enjoying a beer with Regan Welburn, a running friend who had smashed the course to finish in 6th place. I stayed at the finish line for about an hour, cheering friends and strangers over the line and soaking in the atmosphere. The biggest cheer of the day went to the guy who finished 3 seconds within the 12 hour, 1L stein cut off. Amazing scenes.

(Photo credit: Supersport Images)

...and finished again
(Photo credits: Dylan Perera)

So, what was I complaining about at the top of this piece? The plan worked, didn't it? Yeah, it did in the end, at least for this particular race. But I suffered more than I ever have to achieve it. The first words I said to my wife after I crossed the finish line were "I never want to do anything like this again". To be fair, she immediately replied, "You said the same thing after Buffalo." 

But maybe this time I mean it. The truth is, for the most part, I didn't have fun out there (and I know this despite the fact that my brain is already at work, reconstructing an alternative version of the events of that day, tinkering with my memory). I felt too keenly the burden of expectations. My expectations and those of others. I'll spend the next few weeks thinking about the reasons why I run, because if it's purely for fun, then I don't see myself running another 100km ultra. If I run for a sense of achievement, would I not be better off returning to road running, with its quantitative focus on times? Friendship? I've got the DTR social runs for that. If it's just for the scenery, well, I can take up bushwalking. But then I look at that finish line picture.......

I thought I had everything planned. Maybe I was wrong.

This plan underwent intense scrutiny late on Friday night after I learned that support crews could leave items at the intermediary checkpoints, rather than providing assistance only at the major aid stations. I'd initially measured all my nutrition (Tailwind) into 750ml servings, two of which would go into a 1.5L bladder. Now, an easier option of 2x500ml bottles at every aid station (major and minor) was possible. So Dylan and I went through the equivalent of that puzzle where you have a 5L jug and a 3L jug and you need to make 4L. We got there in the end and the bottles worked a treat.

Suunto Movescount file:

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Adventures in Wonderland

"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."
        - Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

So, what was the moral of the inaugural Wonderland Run? Well, more on that later, but firstly, for the uninitiated, the Wonderland Run is the latest trail run/community event/social media extravaganza put on by Big Long Run, aka Rohan Day and his band of merry men and women. That is, the people who brought us the Two Bays Trail Run and, until recently, the Roller Coaster Run (now with Mountain Sports). For Wonderland, Rohan was ably inspired and assisted by the well known and respected trail runner (amongst other things) Matt Bell.

 The incomparable Rohan Day (Mad Hatter) and Matt Bell (White Rabbit)
([Amazing] Photo credit: Tamsin Bearsley)

You can get the details of the run on the website here, but essentially, this was the inaugural running of the event and comprised two main races: a 36km and a 20km trail run through the Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park, based in the regional town of Halls Gap. And boy, did the town get behind this run! Cafes, restaurants, caravan parks, adventure gear stores, all got in on the action and welcomed around 400 runners and their families to their town.

I was sharing a house with a group of fellow Dandenongs Trail Runners and my long time friend Ruth. We'd all arrived on the Saturday, just in time to see DTR Narelle take out first place in the '6 months pregnant' category of Saturday's 8km 'flat' run, in a time that the majority of the Australian populace would only manage on a bike. The Saturday run is just another example of the Big Long Run team just getting it right. It really did seem to set the mood for the weekend and the fact that it was only 8km meant that people of all ages could get involved. 

After a low key Saturday night at the house, making pizzas, watching footy and drinking a couple of beers (you can see I take my pre-race nutrition seriously), race day dawned. It was warmer than I had anticipated, but after a lot of thought I still decided to wear my thermal top. I jogged the 2km to the start line as a warm up and as luck would have it, I bumped into fellow DTRs Cameron and Richard on the way.

DTR ready to go!
(Photo credit: Peter Mitchell)

The warm up had only increased my confusion about whether to wear the thermal or leave it with the rest of my mandatory gear which was being transported to the Mt Rosea carpark. I decided to wear it, concerned about the potential temperature difference between Halls Gap (240m altitude) and the higher reaches of the course (800-1000m).

The last thing to do was to drop my two 500ml bottles in the special needs box to go to the 21km aid station. Now, where was that box? I found Matt Bell, who advised me that it had already left! No matter, Matt said, he'd arrange for them to be taken there anyway. Legend! (Try that at your next road event, or even trail event, and see how far you get!)

Before I knew it, we were off and I settled into a reasonably easy rhythm as we started the first climb to the Wonderland carpark and, beyond that, The Pinnacle. (The race took its name from the Wonderland trail, one of the many trails that are found in the National Park.) 

And just after reaching the aid station at the Wonderland carpark, I witnessed something I never thought I would: deliberate, unrepentant, course cutting. 

Soon after exiting the carpark, you take a left on a trail instead of going straight. The five guys ahead of me went straight and the guy behind me called out "left turn guys". I thought to myself how it would be easy to miss the sign, so I held back and prepared to let them through ahead of me. All of them slowed down, then one of them muttered "this way's quicker" and they all kept going! I announced that they could cut the course if they wanted, but I was going left, and I led the rest of the group down the correct trail. 

And you know what? They missed out on one of the best sections of the course, squeezing through rock formations, climbing up steps, being completely immersed in the environment. And you know what else? It couldn't have been that much quicker to go the other way, because when we merged with the other trail, it was just behind the Gang of Five. I again informed them that they'd cut the course and should go back, but they were apathetic, and continued ahead. I was fuming! This is NOT what trail running was all about.

Part of what the cheats missed out on
(Photo credit: Matilda Iglesias)

As I was stewing on this, I was also stewing underneath that damned thermal top. It became too much and I decided to stop and take it off. A few people went past as I peeled off my layers, but it didn't take long and I pressed on towards the Pinnacle, over some rocky and increasingly technical terrain. Once we'd reached the magnificent views from the Pinnacle, there was some nice running down to the Sundial carpark aid station. This particular aid station was marshalled by the famous Mama Two Bays, and they didn't disappoint - you could hear them from more than a kilometre away! I went through Sundial with another DTR keeping me company (Bryan, who was doing the 20km), and then the courses split, with Bryan starting his descent and me heading towards the start of the climb to Mt Rosea.

Approaching the Sundial aid station with Bryan right behind me
(Photo credit: Kate Ablett)

Once you got above 800m, the weather changed dramatically. We were up in the clouds and the rocks we were running across were wet and slippery (as I found out when I tried to overtake a runner and my feet went out from under me and I crashed to the ground). Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I settled into a hike with a like-minded runner named Troy, only running every so often when it was safe to do so. This was without doubt the most technical terrain I'd encountered in a race. And if the climb was hard, the first kilometre of the descent was just as bad, with the slippery rocks slowing us down and requiring us to use our hands to shimmy down some of the course.

Rock scrambling on Mt Rosea
(Photo credit: David Hughes)

But the technical stuff soon gave way to a more familiar type of trail and I commenced the 6km descent to the Borough Huts aid station at 21km. I was running at just under 5:00/km pace, wanting to keep a bit in reserve for the final 15km of the race. I soon got to the bottom of the descent and the very welcome sight of another fantastic aid station, complete with a tea party offering cakes and biscuits as well as your more usual runners' fare.

I grabbed my bottles (thanks again, Matt) and headed off for the final 'flat' 15km around Lake Bellfield then back into Halls Gap. I'd ran most of the course on a family holiday here in December and knew (a) what a grind this section was and (b) the location of five horribly steep pinches on a fire trail on the eastern side of the lake. I settled into a sustainable pace exiting the aid station and passed a couple of guys before being passed myself by Tash Fraser, 2nd placed woman in this year's Two Bays ultra. 

On the way to Lake Bellfield
(Photo credit: Matilda Iglesias)

Tash built up a lead of a couple of hundred metres going around the side of the lake and I thought that was that, because she was running strongly (or at least, she was relative to me!). But when we reached the pinches, which hit you one after the other like a set of waves, I noticed myself slowly reeling her in (we were both also passing several others, who had perhaps not realised how hard this section is, relative to how it looks on the profile).

The Wonderland 36km profile.
[The nasty red pinches barely discernible in the foreground]
(Image credit: Les Corson)

I passed through the Brambuk aid station with about 5km to go only 10-20 seconds behind Tash and managed to pass her on one of the small rises on the trail, with maybe 3km to go. Knowing there weren't any hills from then on and that Tash would be running strongly on the flat, I gritted my teeth and pushed hard. I rounded Delley's Bridge at the northern end of the course and from there it was a completely flat bike trail for about 1.5km to the finish line. 

Running hard towards the finish line, I was greeted by three incredibly enthusiastic girls, cheering each runner home. It was a terrific way to conclude the race and I crossed the line in 4:09 with a massive smile on my face.

(Photo credit: Tamsin Bearsley)

Ruth, Chris and Narelle were all there with very kind words, as was trail running good guy Ashley Bennett. I asked Ash how he went and he responded "pretty good" and then at Rohan's prompting, stood on the top step of the podium to be presented with his first place prize! So yeah, "pretty good". And here I must pause to note that Ashley stuck around to the end of the race and handed his winner's prize of a voucher for a new pair of shoes to the final person who crossed the line. An absolute class act and that's why Ash is generally regarded as one of the nicest, most humble guys in our trail running community. 

It was whilst I was giving my housemates a debrief that Narelle mentioned that fellow DTR Les had rolled his ankle and pulled from the race. He was over by the first aid tent, ankle strapped, rugged up in warm clothing, talking to another DTR, Andre, who in contrast had destroyed the course with a typical display of mental and physical strength, to finish 9th overall. 

I went over and provided condolences to Les, who was using this event as one of the final lead in races to his shot at redemption in this October's Melbourne marathon. It was August last year that a trail event had done in his other ankle and derailed his marathon plans and now he was experiencing a wicked sense of deja vu. You can read more about Les's Wonderland experience here.

It's occurred to me that I haven't really done justice to the course. For the record, the first half of the course is spectacular, both the views and the trails. The second half is less of a feast for the eyes, but it certainly has its moments (see below) and is a real mental and physical test after putting yourself through the wringer climbing up to 1,000m and back down again. And true to form, the volunteers and aid stations are the best in the business - as with any Big Long Run event. A sincere thanks to the vollies (with a special mention to the incredible photographers) for helping make it such a special day. Put simply, this is a 'must run' event for any trail runner in Victoria. If you're interstate, put it on your list, too, and come see how a trail run should be organised.

Andre rocking it on the 'unspectacular' (cough cough) part of the course
(Photo credit: Lorraine Aitken)

We spent a few hours milling around the finish line, cheering both friends and strangers across the line. It's probably the longest I've ever spent at the finish line post-race and I loved every minute of it. After deliberating with the DTR crew and one of the runners who was with me at the time, I decided I'd report the course cutters to the race organisers. Maybe nothing will come of it, and maybe nothing should (they didn't gain any time, after all), but it came down to principles - they were told they were cutting the course and they didn't care.

Together again
(Photo credit: Cheryl Martin)

And so, the inaugural edition of the Wonderland Run was over. From my point of view, the event was a resounding success. Rohan, Matt and anyone involved in putting the race together should be very proud of themselves. Let's hope the 2016 edition is as well supported as the 2015 race (I'm sure the local businesses would agree!). On a personal level, I was very happy with how I ran (I'm sure the course recce in December helped), but as always, since I'll never challenge the fast guys and girls, it's more about the experience than the finishing position. 

That's all well and good, but are we any closer to finding the moral of Wonderland? I don't think there is one, but I don't say that to disappoint the Duchess. What I mean is, we'll each find our own moral in this tale, and in the many other stories you can find on the Wonderland Facebook page. I can almost imagine an extended Tea Party, with all the characters from Carroll's novel trying to make their voices heard:

"Course cutting must be eradicated!" asserted the Mad Hatter. 
"Trail runners don't dob in other trail runners!", countered the Dormouse. 
"Start steady, finish strong!", advised the Mock Turtle. 
"Don't get to the finish thinking, 'if only I'd gone harder up Rosea!'", muttered the White Rabbit, looking at his watch. 
"Avoid trail running in the lead up to road races!" warned the Dodo. 
"Running trails like this remind you why you run in the first place!" cried the Caterpillar. 
"Don't forget how quickly you warm up when running!", reminded the March Hare. 
"Nothing beats spending time with like-minded friends!", winked the Cheshire Cat. 
"There's nothing wrong with a little bit of healthy competition!", shouted the Queen of Hearts. 

"Isn't trail running wonderful?", Alice thought to herself, smiling. 


My Suunto Movescount file:

For two great videos of the run, check out the efforts of Marcus Pain and Peter Southton

Visit the Wonderland Facebook page for more excellent photos, many of them taken by Matilda Iglesias of MiCreations. A special mention also to Tamsin and Andrew Bearsley, who took and posted whole bunch of excellent photos.