Sunday, 25 February 2018

Changing perspectives: a recap of Hut 2 Hut

"How did your run go?"


You see, the thing is, this wasn't really a run. In fact, it wasn't a run at all. There was some running, yes, but there's also some running in pole vault. And just like in pole vault, the running was a minor part and incidental to the overall goal of this event.

The event in question being Oscars 100 Hut 2 Hut. I'll just refer to it as H2H from now on.

The background

H2H is the major fundraiser for the Oscars 100 charity. Oscars 100 was founded by Andy Payne and his wife, Michelle Martello-Payne. Andy and Michelle started Oscars 100 when their son Oscar was diagnosed with autism. Wanting to do their part to make sure that kids like Oscar (and his brother Archie, who was also later diagnosed with autism) had the best treatment possible, Oscars 100 was born. This event raises funds for two very worthy organisations: Irabina Autism Services and Mansfield Autism Statewide Service (MASS).

At the pre-race briefing, we heard from Simone Reeves from MASS on the good work they do to help kids with autism and their families. We also learned that, so far, the event had raised around $35,000 for Oscars 100 and its beneficiaries. Funds are raised via a $50 donation as part of your entry fee, as well as any fundraising that individuals or teams undertake. The winner of the 2018 "Archie's Award", for the team that raised the most funds, was the Bendigo Boys - who won the award for the second year in a row, raising $7,700 at the time of writing.

I'd only just made that briefing, despite it starting at 8pm and me arriving at Buller at 4pm. You see, it was then that I realised I'd left my beloved trail running shoes at home! I made a panicked phone call to my wife who, legend that she is, offered to drive up and meet me halfway. So back in the car I got and made it back in time for the briefing. I suppose that's love...

Onto the race. Or, as race director Chris Ord put it at the briefing, the "experience".

The basics

The numbers look hard enough: 100km through the Victorian high country, starting and finishing at Mount Buller, with around 5,500m of vertical ascent/descent. Individuals (assessed and granted entry on application) trying to complete the course in 22 hours or less, or teams of two hoping to finish in anywhere from one to three days.

I was in a team of two with my friend Belle and we were aiming to finish in two days. This required carrying around 6-8kg of mandatory gear (depending on how full your two litre water reservoirs were), including a sleeping bag and sleeping mat. Not your usual running kit.

Mandatory gear (minus the shoes!)

You had to nominate one of two campsites to send a tent to for your overnight stay - 37.5km (Lovicks Hut) or 70km (King Hut). The 16 hour cut-off for King Hut felt achievable (70km, 4,000m vert), so that was the plan until the race organisers strongly recommended (almost demanded) that two-day competitors nominate Lovicks as their campsite. Despite my feeling that they were being overly cautious, we nominated Lovicks, with the understanding that if we came in well under the 9 hour Lovicks cut-off, we could continue on and either get to King or, if not, sleep at one of the checkpoints between Lovicks and King (either in a hut or an emergency tent).

I mean, 9 hours for 37.5km? Pfft - that's 4.5 km/hr. We'll be pushing through Lovicks. We're runners, not bushwalkers.

Summit to river

At 5am on Friday, we took our first steps in anger and straight into the first climb of the day - from the Alpine Village to the summit of Mount Buller (around 200m ascent in 2.5km).

Things didn't get any easier.

You see, this is where you first accuse the course profile of being a lying, cheating bastard. It's a pretty steep descent, yes, so you imagine before the race you'll have to take it easy on your quads so early on in the race. Maybe 7 minutes per km. Over of distance of about 8km, it'll take maybe an hour. Max.

It took us two hours.

We were moving at 4km/hr. Downhill. And we were moving as fast as we felt safe to.
You see, Four Mile Spur, which comprises the majority of the descent, is a horrorshow for anyone who doesn't like technical descents. And Belle and I both fall squarely into this category.

We picked our way slowly through the rocks and vegetation (in the dark), before scrambling over some rocky outcrops in the now dawn light. We later found out a handful of people had done their ankles on this section and withdrawn. More seriously, a man had fallen two meters off the rocky outcrop and landed on his back, tearing what I'm told was a "flap of skin" near his spine. When I found out about this, 4km/h didn't seem so bad anymore.*

The descent bottomed out at the Howqua River and we waded through, the cool water giving temporary respite to our already beaten-up feet.

What goes down...

Once again, we were lulled into a false sense of security with a few kilometres of nice running along the Howqua River. Well, it wasn't really a false sense of security. We knew what was coming - the first big climb of the day. A 5km section up Eight Mile Spur, rising about 850m to Refrigerator Gap.

You know how the brain protects us from traumatic memories by repressing them? Well, I don't know what happened on the climb to Refrigerator Gap, but I have next to no recollection of it except a few photos I took. Belle tells me it was a prick of a climb. I'm inclined to believe her.

Looking back to Mt. Buller (you can see the ski runs) from Eight Mile Spur

I do remember the aid station at Refrigerator Gap, though. Ultra running good guy Oliver Mestdagh was there with his family (and others) and they leant a welcome helping hand getting us ready for the cherry on top of the climb we just undertook: the final 1.5km to The Bluff.

Let's just say no one is breaking the world 1,500m record over this course. It rises a whopping 400m and I remember laughing several times at how steep it got. The hiking poles Belle and I were using became useless in places - you had to throw your sticks up the trail and haul yourself up by your hands.

But when we got to the top... Wow. What a view. We were at about 1,750m altitude, with 360 degree views on a clear and sunny day. Yeah - that climb was worth it.

The final push to the top of The Bluff

At the top of The Bluff 

Taking stock

Once we'd picked our jaws off the ground it was time to assess our progress. We'd travelled about 27km and it had taken us 7 hours. That's less than 4km/hr. It was at this point that I began to realise that the race organisers, who had traversed this course several times, might have known what they were talking about when "strongly recommending" taking the Lovicks Hut option on Day 1.

We had two options. Option 1 was to start pushing hard in the hope of covering the next 11km in less than two hours to give us enough time to get into and out of the Lovicks Hut camp before the 9 hour cut off. And then try desperately to stay in front of the sweep for as long as possible. Which probably wouldn't be far.

Option 2 was to save our legs, walk to Lovicks, camp there and get the job done tomorrow.

We chose option 2. In hindsight, it was a wise decision.

The first steps on the long trek to Lovicks

I had a sliver of doubt a little further down the trail, though, when a volunteer at the Bluff Hut aid station informed us there was only a runnable 5km descent to go before Lovicks. We still had about 50 minutes before cut-off, so that might get us there 20 minutes or so in front and we might have a decision to make.

I needn't have worried, though. That guy was clearly on drugs as we immediately began climbing up a 4WD track and continued climbing for 3.5km. Then, the runnable bit, which only lasted about a kilometre before turning down a churned-up, rocky single track.

We rolled into the Lovicks Hut checkpoint/campsite at around 2:20 pm, 20 minutes after the cut-off. 

It had taken us 9 hours and 20 minutes to complete 37.5km. It goes without saying, that was a first for us.

Camping with no beer

We spent some time eating, drinking and talking to fellow competitors under the verandah at Lovicks Hut. Then, as fate would have it, one of the Lovick clan showed up.

She proceeded to tell the volunteers manning the checkpoint (friendly, generous, salt of the earth style people from 4WD clubs) that we'd have to move. You see, Parks Victoria hadn't notified the Lovicks that we'd be there, and there were 20-odd people and 13 horses on the way and they'd be there in an hour and a half. No access to the Hut and our designated camping area was off limits, too.

This message was delivered in one of the rudest ways possible. I was livid, but the vollies were completely cool. They just got on with sorting a Plan B and we all helped to move everyone's stuff over to another section of the camp site. But no more hut.

I can't emphasise enough how good these volunteers were. They looked after us, cooked us dinner, made us breakfast (having to get up at 4am) and built us a fire. Legends.

The night was cold (the Hut is at about 1400m altitude) and my decision to sacrifice weight for comfort with my sleeping bag didn't pay off. I was freezing. After maybe three hours of broken sleep, someone's alarm went off at 3:30am and that was us - we might as well get ready.

After re-packing our gear, taking down our tent and having breakfast, we were on the road for Day 2.

Summit bagging

The first order of business was a steep 4WD track for 3km before turning left onto the Australian Alps Walking Track. It was still dark and - surprise - the AAWT was a bit rocky, so we were taking it easy.

The skies began to lighten as we approached Mount Magdala and then, just as we crested the summit, WHOA:

Sunrise at Mount Magdala

From Mount Magdala looking back to Mt. Buller and Mt. Stirling

Those photos don't do it justice, of course. And it's not just the difference between seeing it on screen or in person, it was the feeling at the time. A feeling best described as one of tranquillity. There was a light wind, but that was the only sound. And all around us, this beauty.

This section of the course was all about bagging one summit after the other. There are six named peaks on the course profile, but many more unnamed ones. Next up was Big Hill, followed by West Peak and Mount Howitt. Each of these peaks allowed us a glimpse of Mount Buller, still more than 50km away. It seemed a lot further.

View from Mount Howitt

There is a 3km out-and-back diversion to Vallejo Ganter Hut about 50km into the course. This cracking little hut was manned by the Generation Run crew of Bec and Stephen Rosel, and others. Belle is coached by Bec, so we spent a bit of time here catching up and re-fueling before returning to the AAWT and starting a section called the Cross Cut Saw.

The Cross Cut Saw is a rugged trail with a profile that befits the name. We covered several technical descents and climbs and in parts, it was hard to believe we were on course it was so overgrown or rocky. The Cross Cut Saw section culminates with the ascents of Mount Buggery and Mount Speculation.

Cross Cut Saw

Early on, I had seen two peaks close by and wondered if those were the two climbs. Not even close. Trust me, when you get to Mount Buggery, you know about it. And then the big bastard peak behind it just screams "Mount Speculation".

NOT Mt. Buggery and Mt. Speculation 

The REAL Mt. Buggery and Mt. Speculation

You get to the summit of Mount Speculation via some more steep rock scrambling and then, what do you know, another 360 degree view. This one was the best of the day. Mount Buller, now only 40km away, still seemed a mirage in the distance.

Approaching the summit of Mt. Speculation

It's not my childhood, doc, it's Muesli Spur

From Mount Speculation, the course profile suggested a long (12km) downhill to King Hut. First there was the aid station on Speculation Road, hosted by Ali and Jamie Moxham. They were deep in conversation when we arrived, so much so they didn't even notice us for a minute or so, but once they did, we received a royal welcome. Complete with a motorised water mister thing. It was heaven.

The night before, we'd heard about this very tricky downhill section near King Hut called Muesli Spur. We were told we had about 7km of uninspiring 4WD track before we got to that, so we set off, curious to see how bad this descent could be.

It was fucking horrendous.

Belle and I later joked that after experiencing Muesli Spur, I could never walk down the cereal aisle of a supermarket without yelling obscenities and ending up in the foetal position.

I ran out of water just before we hit the worst part, but since we only had around 3km to go, it didn't seem so bad. That was before a 500m section took us 24 minutes to get down. (There are no typos in that last sentence.)

Honestly, I hated it. I was not having fun, I was dehydrated in a warm valley. When we finally got to the end (which admittedly, concludes with some nice, easy downhill running), Belle got a flash of Angry Nick. He doesn't come out often on the trails, but Muesli Spur was enough.

You see - there are SOME parts of the course that aren't inspirational

But soon we were at King Hut and a surprise for Belle, as her mother, step-dad, sister, brother-in-law and niece were there waiting for her. I guzzled some water and Oliver Mestdagh arrived in time for another chat with him. We had 30km to go and both Belle, who had swept the final 30km last year, and Oli agreed that it was relatively 'easy' compared to what we'd been through so far.

A new perception of 'easy'

We were now faced with two back-to-back climbs. A 7km, 670m climb to Craig's Hut, followed immediately by a 4.7km, 300m climb to Mount Stirling. These were 'easy' climbs because they were mostly on 4WD tracks, save for a cracking section of single track half way up the Craig's Hut climb.

We crossed the King River (thigh deep - very refreshing) and started the grind. We were going at our own pace, which meant I was slightly ahead, but stopping every so often to wait for Belle. But Belle never rested, preferring to "grind it out and rest at the top". It was quite a sight to behold - she put it into low gear, steeled her determination and just...  Kept. On. Going. 

We reached the iconic Craig's Hut about 3 hours ahead of the cut-off, so we knew that, barring catastrophe, we'd be bringing it home that evening. We had the push to Stirling, a downhill to Howqua Gap hut and the final climb to Buller to come. It was time to tackle Stirling. 

Craig's Hut

Although the average gradient (300m in 4.7km) doesn't seem too bad, there are quite a few downhill sections on this part, which means parts of the climb would be 20% or more (we were jogging the downhills, which seemed to relieve our quads). But again, Belle never stopped once - she was like The Terminator.  

You actually reach the next checkpoint (Geelong Grammar Hut) before the summit. Belle had made it, but mentioned she felt a bit nauseous. In hindsight, I should have noticed it then, but it wasn't until we'd left the checkpoint that I realised Belle was pale as a sheet of paper. 

We immediately recounted what she'd had to eat that day (we'd been going for 12.5 hours) and it was nowhere near enough. Belle popped a gel, had some water and we rested for a bit. Five minutes later, the colour had returned to her face and from then on we made sure she ate something every 30-40 minutes.

By this stage, we'd crested Stirling and were on our way to Howqua Gap hut. We'd lost some time against the cut-offs (they get progressively harder), but we left the final checkpoint 2:10 ahead of the final cut-off. It was official - we were finishing today.

Approaching the trig point at Mount Stirling's summit

From the Summit of Mount Stirling

On the way to Howqua Gap Hut 

At this stage, we were joined by a friend of mine, Franck. He and his wife Isabelle had come up to Buller unbeknownst to me, to cheer us on a do some running/hiking of their own. It was a huge boost to see Franck and as we started the winding climb up a mountain bike trail towards Buller, Franck trailed us for a few kilometres before heading off to the village. 

These trails leading the the village are really nice and we were hiking them with a good cadence. Then at the top, just before the village, our friend Matt Veenstra was there to greet us and then a whole pack of friends - Andy and Michelle, Chris Ord, Isabelle, and others. It was a huge boost just before the final test. 

Arriving at the back of the Village
(Photo credit: Isabelle Verez)

It ain't over til it's over

At this point, you're so close to the finish line and the village. But instead of making a bee-line for glory, you need to loop down and around the back of the village and then get all the way up to the summit of Buller before re-tracing that 2.5km route you started the whole experience with. 

By this stage, the sun was setting. One last chance for some glorious views. That sunrise from the top of Mount Magdala seemed an age ago, the trials and tribulations since then part of a folklore written by Belle and I.

The last pictures taken from on course - sunset at Mount Buller

Headlamps on, we stated the climb towards Buller. Belle's energy seemed to be flagging, but it was pretty clear her mind was controlling things now. Up the stone steps leading to the top and there it was - the cairn at the summit, a canister perched on top. Inside the canister was a book placed there by the race organisers. You had to tear out the page corresponding to your race number, so you could prove you got there. 

The title of the book was kept a secret, which was about to be revealed. Belle opened the canister, extracted the book and we laughed. The book title? Torment


Writing our own ending

We navigated the steep slope down Buller very slowly, and then just as we were approaching the outskirts of the village, we were again joined by Matt, this time with friend and volunteer-extraordinaire Renee and Australian trail running royalty Kellie Emmerson.  

Earlier, Belle had told me she had never walked over a finish line. Well, she wasn't about to start now. We broke into a run, flanked by our crew, Matt live-streaming to Facebook, talking shit and laughing. 

And then, side-by-side, hand-in-hand, we crossed the line to the applause of the legendary volunteers and spectators who stayed out in the dark and cold to welcome the finishers. 

We'd done it. More than 40 hours since we started. 16.5 hours since we started that morning. Almost 26 hours of total time on course. We embraced, had our pictures taken and tried to let it sink in. 

I found Chris Ord and told him: "Ancient Greek poets didn't write shit this epic." 

(Photo credit: Isabelle Verez) 

Inside Race HQ. I look absolutely shattered.
(Photo credit: Isabelle Verez)


I'm writing this about a week after finishing H2H. (Judging by the word count, you probably think I've been writing non-stop.) Over the course of the week, my feelings about the experience have changed, in some ways almost 180 degrees. 

We covered 100km in 26 hours. Less than 4km/h. This is not the sort of pace that, as a runner, I'm used to. But since the event, I've come to realise that thinking about average pace in H2H is a category error. H2H isn't a run, isn't a race. Chris was right - it's an experience. You don't measure experiences in kilometres per hour or minutes per kilometre. 

It's an experience that, the more I've reflected on it, the more it's meant to me. Including our race entries and donations from well wishers, Belle and I raised over $1,700 for Oscars 100. That alone is something to be proud of.

But the experience itself was something I find difficult to put into words. It's something I will contemplate and cherish for years to come. I'm so glad that Belle agreed to team up with me - you couldn't ask for a better teammate.

I wish I could experience it for the first time again and again. But maybe, just maybe, I'll settle for experiencing it for a second time. And maybe a third. And, well, you get the drift.


* I'm told the race organisers are already thinking about how to make this section safer for next year.

Donation link:

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 DorĂ© 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.