Journey to the First 100km
12 Oct 2018
Text Marie Choo, Photo by Sportograf
For her fundraiser `I Run for Rescue Dogs' this year, Marie Choo chose the Ultra-Trail Australia as her first attempt at a 100km trail race, running through the stunningly beautiful World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park.
Combining my love for running and dogs, I started running full marathons in 2015 to raise funds and awareness for rescue dogs in Singapore. To up the ante for 2017, I decided to go further and made my debut into ultra trail races with TransLantau50 in Hong Kong. Since then, my love for trail running superseded road marathons, and I found myself at the 100km long (UltraTrail Australia) this year.
As UTA was my second trail race ever and first 100km, I was definitely a rookie when it comes to training for such a distance. I asked some veterans for advice on training load with regards to weekly mileage and elevation gain, gear prep, nutrition, and the milliondollar question on how to deal with the sleep monster after running for over 16 hours.
After some research, I came up with a fourmonth training plan that comprised running, brisk walking up hills and stairs, swimming, yoga, and strength training at the gym. I ensured I hit an average elevation volume of 2000m and mileage of 100km weekly.
As running uphill is an impossible task for such a long race, I trained myself to walk at a steady pace when going up hills and stairs, alternating my training between Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and a 47-storey HDB block.
I also included a couple of overnight long training sessions of brisk walking for about 16 hours in duration to ensure my body can handle the sleep deprivation on race day. I personally felt it was important to have rehearsals so I can learn to cope and not get surprises on race day when I am mentally and physically fatigued.
My pre-race prep was divided into four main categories - nutrition, recovery and injury prevention, gear, and race day strategy. For my main nutrition, I fuel with Pure Electrolyte Hydration (150 calories per 500ml water) and Pure Electrolyte Replacement capsules. I know some athletes thrive simply on electrolyte hydration, but I prefer to also have some comfort food to maintain my blood sugar level and boost my morale for such a long distance race.
I chose Ovalteenies, M&Ms fun size Peanut Chocolate and Jagabee potato sticks for their small packaging and high satisfaction factor.
I wore BV Sport compression calf sleeves during my training and the recovery socks after, to improve my performance and muscle recovery.
UTA is known for its long list of mandatory gear and for a good reason. Temperature variation and changing weather conditions will require different gear change throughout the race. When temperatures dipped to almost zero at night, accompanied by strong winds at certain sections, I truly appreciated my ski thermal base layer, fleece jacket and waterproof rain jacket. Not only do you have to pass a gear check before collecting your race bib, there were also random gear checks during the race to ensure you have the mandatory items at all times. Not having the items will incur a 40-minute penalty per item and possible disqualification.
After studying the course, I decided on a realistic target completion time and made a laminated elevation chart with key points for my reference during the race.
The start point was at Scenic World and there were seven start groups for the 100km race. Being the last wave, my flag off time was at 7.54am and it gave me ample time to talk to fellow runners from Singapore.
I reminded myself of an excellent piece of advice that I learnt from a friend, which is “You must enjoy the race, then you will finish it”.
The first 5km of the race was on undulating road before we hit the trails, and I made a conscious effort to keep pace and not run too fast. After descending the steep Fuber Steps, we had to traverse through a rough track of a landslide before arriving at Golden Stairs. Half way through the descent, my calves were threatening to cramp up and I was reduced to a snail's pace. It was so bad that I took up my friend’s offer of a shot CrampFix before I struggled through the climb to the top, where Checkpoint 1 awaited. It was an unexpected early setback that baffled me because I thought I had trained enough for elevation.
The path to Checkpoint 2 was much better, with runnable parts and a descent down Tarros Ladders, an extension ladder erected just for the race, as an adventure highlight. After departing Checkpoint 2, I hiked for a bit before having to climb some boulders to reach Ironpot Mountain, in which spectacular views awaited the runners. A very steep and sandy descent was up next and I had to run in a zigzag manner like a pinball, grabbing from tree to tree just so I could brake and not slip and fall.
I arrived at Checkpoint 3 at 4.34pm, which was just four minutes off my target time. With sunset just half an hour away, I put on my headlamp in prep of nightfall as I left the checkpoint. My lowest point in the race was when I had to ascend 480m up Six Foot Track, which was made up of wet and slippery rocks. I was really happy when a runner caught up with me after I spent an hour alone in the dark. We decided to make our way together for moral support and I shared my bread with her.
My first drop bag was at Checkpoint 4, in which I left my poles and food stash. I made myself a cup noodle and ate it in no time. By now, I had been on my feet for over 11 hours and had covered 57km.
I set off once again into the cold dark night but with my poles to aid me this time, making my way towards Echo Point, which is near to the hotel that I was staying at and was thrilled to see my friend who was waiting in the cold to cheer me on. Up next was Fairmont Hotel, which was the next water point at the 69.4km mark. I was amazed by how slow I had become, taking over four hours to cover 12km. It was a welcoming sight when I saw a friend who was volunteering at the water point, especially after being alone on the trails and in the cold and dark for hours.
At 1.39am, I finally arrived at Checkpoint 5 after what seemed like an eternity. Once inside the tent, I was shivering non-stop despite sitting next to a heater. The volunteers were really awesome, prepping food and drinks for me, and even brought me a hot water bottle for me to warm myself up. It was really easy to overstay at Checkpoint 5, with the warmth and support of the volunteers, but I dragged myself out after 38 minutes. This was where most runners decided to call it quits, knowing that there is still 22km of unforgiving terrain ahead. I reminded myself that I did not come this far to give up, and braced myself for the long cold night ahead.
During the last few hours of my race, I was alone yet again most of the way, encountering only a handful of runners. I saw several runners who slept by the side of trails, body broken down by fatigue and unable to almost 1000m of ascent before the finish line. I started hallucinating, seeing tents with warm fires awaiting me, and the reflective marker strips as event staff cheering me on.
The remaining journey of 600m of ascent over 9km was brutal, and I was so close but yet so far from the finish stay awake. When the going got tough at times, I would look up to the sky and admire the stars, and will be overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for being in the Blue Mountains for this race. The race organiser truly saved the best (hardest segment!) for last, with 800m of steep descent to be followed by line. I thought about all the kindness from my friends to keep me going on the lonely march to the finish line. It was a welcoming sight when sunrise came. There were runnable parts but my legs had given up on me by the last 3km and every step I took was powered by sheer mental strength.
It was a love-hate relationship when I saw Furber Steps again; loved the fact that the finish line is only 500m away, but hated the fact that I still had to climb up those dreaded stairs. I was really happy to see my friend near the finish line and that gave me the last bit of motivation to run and cross it. After 24 hours 26 minutes, I can finally call myself a 100km ultra trail race finisher.
SURVIVING 100KM ON THE TRAIL
Being alone at night on trails was not as scary as I thought it would be. Perhaps I was in race mode, but fear never crossed my mind. We are all stronger than we think we are, and an ultra race as such is a good opportunity for selfdiscovery and our inner strength.
If you are doing a 100km trail race for the first time, I would strongly recommend including a session or two of overnight training and find out how your mind and body react to sleep deprivation and long hours on your feet. You can then find ways to manage and fight off the sleep monster and not let it affect your performance on race day. Be prepared for harsh weather conditions and have the right gear. There is a reason why race organisers implement mandatory gear lists, because it could potentially save your life or reduce your suffering. Instead of thinking about the overall mammoth distance of 100km, break down the entire distance into smaller segments and just focus on every 5 to 10km. Enjoy the race, talk to fellow runners, admire the scenery and it will be over before you know it. Instead of focusing on what others say I should be doing, I focused on my running mantra of “my race, my pace” and do the race to my best ability.