Friday, June 1, 2018

Ultra-Trail Australia 100km, 2018

A Team Effort
By Nadine and Brendan Davies

Photo credit, Kate Dukes. Thank you!
Just as the journey towards UTA100 this year was a team effort, so is our race report. Enjoy!

Nadine's Report

Brendan is an exceptional runner. Somewhere along the way, I have become somewhat ho-hum about this. This account of his race doesn’t touch on how amazing he is. This is an account of a race where the goal was to perform, and how this was achieved for this particular person (not for everyone). I personally don’t believe that this is the only way to participate in a race (with a performance focus) as I think there are many wonderful reasons and goals when it comes to running in a race. However, this is what I have seen in Brendan, as a Psychologist and as his wife, for the UTA100 in 2018. This is a back-stage pass into Brendan, as I experience him.

How Brendan usually races:

Brendan trains 120 to 200kms per week. He makes sure he has done course specific training where possible. He is conscientious about his clothes and shoes and pack, his nutrition and hydration are planned out in advance. He trains in all weather, and no matter what his headspace is. He ticks all the boxes in the lead up. He participates in all the pre-race jazz that his sponsors and race directors request of him, as he hates to disappoint anyone. He answers emails and calls and texts and messages. Come race day he fronts up ready to lay it all on the line. He isn’t shy- he’s not there to play or enjoy himself or make friends- he is there to race. He warms up without fail. And then he plans to start pretty hard, especially if it’s flat or downhill or there’s a possible single-track bottle-neck. He wants to push himself, to be the best that he can be that day. He doesn’t run like the clappers, but it’s a fine line- no conservative starts for Brendan.

Brendan knows you cannot race a 100km event at 90% (or 100%) effort for the whole time. This cannot be sustained. However, it is emotionally and mentally easier to race this hard. For those not made like Brendan, this may seem odd. “But surely it is a natural inclination to go a bit easy? Don’t we all hold some in reserve??” is the usual response. In Brendan’s world (his internal world, not the world of runners!) high standards, expectations, years worth of training and build up, personal and professional goals, other runners being present with you, comparisons to others, comparisons to previous versions of self – all of these lead to the ‘easy’ thing being to push push push. This is the courage of Brendan, that people usually see and comment on. Brendan’s ‘regular’ courage of being willing to lay it all on the line, to possibly make a fool of himself, to keep going even when he’s ‘not performing’, never stopping, never pulling out of a race. The act of really showing up, with each step he takes, including every step beyond the moment of the race unravelling for him. Some people cease to show up when their race unravels (by DNFing). Some don’t show up in the first place by not committing to the training required to be able to engage with the race and their bodies on the day. And others don’t show up by hiding in a shorter distance than the one they really want to be doing, or by slowing down behind another runner and choosing to not overtake when they can, or by walking when it is time to run.* When racing, Brendan doesn’t choose self compassion or taking a risk or trying something new or stepping outside his mental or emotionally familiar places. He sticks to what he knows works for him. He almost enjoys burying himself- comfortable, familiar, predictable, and at the end of the race, no fear or shame is risked. I gave it my all, I can hold my head up high.

How this race was different:

Brendan decided to approach the pacing differently. To do this he had to change his behaviour. And to change his behaviour, he had to dig in to how he would feel, and what he would be thinking. He was going to have to manage thoughts and feelings that he could usually avoid while racing. Fear, self doubt, impatience, uncertainty. Loud thoughts telling him he was taking it too easy, he was lazy, he was stuffing things up.

He had to be willing to take a risk. Not the ‘oh this may pay off or it may not’. But to whole self jump in and say ‘I’ve never done it this way, so I am going to embrace failure from the start’. Not a low threat risk, but one that put his goals, his emotions, and his identity on the line. A real risk.

Brendan had to make the choice to not hold on tightly to an old comfortable way of operating. He would traditionally draw on high standards, high effort, guilt/ shame/ internal self flagellation to push and strive. That from the moment the gun goes off, operating at full effort, is the way to race. Full effort not because it would lead to him winning. But because full effort keeps the discomfort at bay. The discomfort of ‘what if’, of a head that is chattering loudly as it is not distracted by physical demands, of risking feeling like he had put in less than 100% and the resulting crash in self esteem that would come from that, of trusting himself on a bigger scale. It required him to trust the Brendan 4 hours down the track, rather than the Brendan right now. Trusting his future self to honour his current self.

We talked about what it felt like to let people run out ahead of him. Like a string that connected his belly button to the people in front of him. Pulling him along. Usually he didn’t have to tolerate uncertainty, or feeling ‘less than’, because he would allow his urges, or other people, to dictate pace. So the plan was to cut that string. Plan with his head (10 hour pace to half way), and find mental and emotional ways to manage the distress that would occur. We brainstormed thoughts, we looked at mantras. This was not a generic ‘google a mantra’ moment. It needed to be something specific, something that was deeply meaningful for him. We actually quantified this, giving each option that we brainstormed scores on ‘hope’ (higher score is better), ‘upset’ (higher score not good) and believability (higher score better). Most important was believability- thoughts including mantras do not work unless we can consistently believe them. He settled on “Racing smart means easy to 6 foot track” and “I am wise, I am not my ego”. An example of one he didn’t use was “I need to ‘slow’ start to perform best “- the word slow pushed the ‘upset’ score up too high. “I need to be wise” didn’t score very well on hope, or believability. It didn’t matter that what he DID need was to be wise- as a mantra that one wasn’t going to work for him on race day.

We also talked about how the pressure that comes with pre-race commitments (and too much time on social media) undermine his goal of being calm and focused, not tight and obsessive and wound up. This was really difficult for him, as negotiating to put his needs first, when he knows other people want stuff from him, is pretty much alien to him. The week in the lead up we largely spent in lock down (well, compared to previous races!). We went away the weekend before. I had a blanket ban on people staying with us on race weekend. For some people having other people around is useful as it helps with perspective and distraction. For Brendan, it just adds to stress and pressure- it makes his head more full, he feels the needs of the others around him too loudly. His response to stress and pressure is to buckle down. This is what we were trying to avoid- we wanted him holding the race lightly.

I know that as he was in the front pack from the start, it may seem like his race was no different to usual. However, he had it timed out. The splits I had for crewing were for a 10 hour finish. He’d done that previously, and understood that would be ‘holding back’, at least to CP3. That was the plan- race a 10 hour race to half way, then have at it. Race a 9 or 9:30 hour race from now. He was within 3 minutes of his scheduled time at CP3 and CP4. This means he managed the self-doubt, the loud voices, the urges and the ego until about 50kms into this race. I see this, more than ‘showing up’ as he usually does, as truly courageous. He risked much more, he emotionally and mentally worked much harder. He wasn’t all control, all push, all determination, all ego. He was flexible and steady and held the race and himself ‘lightly’. He released his tight grip.

I hope this helps explain, in an un-sanitised manner, why I was so excited and proud and emotional during and after this race. Brendan was raw and real and courageous and trusting out there- his vulnerability made me super emotional. It was a wild ride for me. We were both so invested on the day. The outcome- both the PB time, and that he won the race- was fantastic. But it was the vulnerability I knew he was holding that made me rock and shake and cry and almost puke (thanks for capturing my own vulnerability on camera, Roger Hanney… gah!). Putting everything out there like that in a race (or in life) is an ultimately lonely journey, and I am honoured that I get to walk with Brendan for even a few of his truly undefended moments. Even his willingness to share what I have written – his imperfections, his still-healing internal messes, the current journey that isn’t yet complete- is an act of real grit. I hope this honest (intimate even?) account helps people understand, and perhaps even start conversations, about healthy vulnerability, and courage.

*Please note- I don’t believe all DNFs are people not being courageous or not showing up. I also don’t believe there is anything ‘wrong’ with a shorter distance, or with being self compassionate and taking a walk break or running with someone for a whole race. I do not believe most or all of these people are not ‘showing up’, not being vulnerable. But this is the case sometimes. I know for myself when I sit in the middle or back of a training room, not at the front where I may be called upon, part of me is not ‘showing up’. I’m not risking it, that day. I’m not risking getting it wrong, or embarrassing myself or feeling strange or incompetent.

Brendan's Report

The key is not the will to win. Everybody has that. 
It is the will to prepare to win that is important’

While not quite as long as the Detailed Analysis of Kilian Jornet’s Mount Everest Claims, this is a lengthy piece, so apologies in advance.

The journey to the UTA100 2018 started last June, after bookending my back-to-back Comrades campaigns, having finished 19th in 2016 and a slightly disappointing 50th in 2017 on the up run, I was keen to come back and dedicate the next year to building back up for the Ultra-Trail Australia, the race that stops the Blue Mountains and the race that has now no doubt become the pinnacle of Ultra-Trail events in Australia.

Training – 'Train Hard to Race Easy'

Of course there is no easy gains in ultrarunning, and although an experienced ultrarunner, (I lost count of how many times I was called a ‘stalwart’ of Australian ultra running over the last month), one can’t simply rest on their laurels and rely on past glories to take you to race success. There’s simply no getting out of the daily grind (or privilege) of training and over the last year I've stepped it up again. Thankfully trail running is one of those unique sports where half the time your training load can be made up of some quite fun and social days out and I made sure I kept the balance there to keep me sane.

All my training is found on Strava – there’s nothing left out.  So please go ahead and check it out for yourself if you are a data fiend. I'll summarise for those that couldn't be bothered! Although I coach many athletes using heart rate, I rarely use it in training myself, I train to effort (RPE method) on trail or pace as a % of FTP on the track or road and I’ve always trained all year round with periodised builds to ‘A’ races. I ‘race’ a lot – but for training purposes, and I don’t do much crosstraining like strength work. All my strength comes from the hills in training and I slowly build my vertical gain and loss up the closer I get to the event.

I’m averaging 120-180km per week of running with generally 3000-6000m D +/- with fluctuations according to the phase of my program. In general my micro cycle will look like this:

Anytime during the day I’ll get out for an easy hilly road run, 15-20km. EVERYTHING around my home town Woodford is hilly so this run is actually just intended to be an easy run. 300-500m of gain in 15-20km is an easy run for Woodford standards!

This is a day that is a bit of a mystery box. I often cover 30-40km in this day as I coach 4 x Training Squads and as it’s the Squads’ strength focused run session I will usually run it with them. Sessions vary; tempo runs, progressive runs, hill repeats, hilly fartleks, XC fartleks, sprints, trails and stairs. Although I rarely do them at my ‘training’ pace, they are invaluable time on feet and mileage building sessions.

I will also do my own session, usually a VO2 Max interval session such as mile or kilometre repeats or time based intervals like my ‘Hour of Power’ (15 x 3min with 1min recoveries). Always done on the flat road to maximise the session.
So my Tuesday usually looks like this.

  • 6am – Squad Session, 5-10km according to session
  • 7:30-9:00am – VO2 Max Session, 14-20km including WU and CD.
  • 4pm - Squad Session, 5-10km according to session
  • 5pm - Squad Session, 5-10km according to session
  • 6pm - Squad Session, 5-10km according to session
6am – Long Run, usually alternated between road and trail, 15-25km according to phasing. Pace and effort varies.
6pm – Easy run of 6-9km as part of the Blue Mountains Running Co/UP Coaching Social runs. This is a very relaxed run, but during my peak weeks I was also running easy from 3 suburbs away and running to and returning to make it more like 25km for the afternoon so sometimes again up to 40+km for the day.

Usually a bit of a lower volume day, with it often just being an easy run in the morning of 10km or a longer 10km WU on the roads before a hard track session with my night training squad up here in the Blue Mountains. Usually short reps, a mixed set or track fartlek.

A rest day of sorts, a bit like Monday, but usually a touch shorter, I try to keep it easy and on trail.

I like to get out and do a hard parkrun in the morning, with a longer tempo run extension making it up to 20km or failing that, it was an UP Coaching Training Day for either 6 Foot or UTA of which we had them on average every second weekend. Sometimes it was run at my pace, other times with others. Just depended what I felt like!

Sunday Always a long run of some type on trail, more often than not again another Training Day on the course with the squad. So a lot of on course training. Runs ranging from 30-50km according to phasing but with lots of specificity, eg stairs, trail, hills.

The other big part of my training program is of course the racing I do. I do a lot as threshold runs to assess certain elements of my training, to train at an intensity I may not reach in training but more so because racing is just so darn fun! I don’t taper or have any detraining time post race for these; I make sure they are always viewed as just training. There are what I call the C races and included a few road races and some small local Running Wild trail races.

There were also a few races that I see as key in the building phase, and these were a little more focused with a smaller periodised approaches and taper. These included 6 Foot Track, Mt Solitary Ultra and culminated with Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji 3 weeks prior. Unorthodox perhaps!

OK, so a few notes on training. It’s a rough guide but that’s as good a summary as I can give in terms of quantity, but one thing you’ll notice is the variety, both in terms of types and terrain. I’ve always believed UTA is the road runners race of the ultra-trail running scene up here and hence why I was dedicating quite a few hours to road and speed work. You can’t go really pointy end at UTA with endurance and no speed and similarly you’re in the wrong race if you’re prioritising speed over endurance for the 100. In many ways being a performance focused ultra runner demands the perfect balance of all the elements of running training. You obviously must have an enormous aerobic capacity and most of this comes from long runs and weekly mileage. But you must also have a high VO2Max and Lactate Threshold (which impacts on running economy) and then the other stuff - specific strength, muscular/skeletal stamina and durability, technical skill, agility and mental stamina that ultra-trail running demands.

Then you have to make sure it’s periodised to peak at the right time, adding in rest and recovery and looking after all the 1%s that add up to much more than just that; weight, sleep, stress, life balance and a sound psychology for racing. Now who ever said being am ultrarunner is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other? Well try then doing that for a whole team of athletes and as well and that pretty much sums up what I do in my job as a coach.

Pre Race Weeks

The last three weeks leading into the race are perhaps the most crucial of them all and can undo the benefits of the training if you’re not careful but likewise add an immeasurable amount of confidence putting the icing on the cake if you get it right.

For me it started with UTMF – the 170km, 8000m +/- Japanese epic three weeks prior. I went it to that with the intention of getting the most out of it for UTA, the final massive aerobic push, the huge strength gains from the climbing and the conditioning from the descents. Super compensation training that goes to the next level but I know my body well enough to know how this works postively. I realise that to most runners out there it would seem like an inconceivable thing to do. That’s the benefit of experience and years in the sport I have that allow me to make decisions like this with confidence.

Although my result at UTMF was nothing to write home about, I raced it really hard, paid for it, and cemented in my mind what I didn’t want to do at UTA. It also gave me a massive fix of mental fitness. Basically for the last 30km of UTMF I shuffled, hiked and staggered my way around the brutal course, not really enjoying it but surviving. It was mostly on the whole self-inflicted due to getting my execution wrong.  I got through it, but I didn’t dwell on it and turned all the positives that I gained from it towards UTA.

Two weeks prior and one week after UTMF I got my reasonably recovered body to the start line of the Sydney 10 and threw everything into that, running a new 10km road PB of 32:30. While not fully recovered of course, it was a sign that I was almost there and importantly the heart and lungs felt back to normal. The effort in that race felt really comfortable and I that was the huge aerobic gains I got from UTMF.

For the final two weeks I laid pretty low and Nadine started to input more of her magic by taking us away for a quiet weekend before the race. Lost sleep regained with that pattern continuing to race day. The last few days were also crucial. I kept my time and obligations at the Expo as minimal as I could, got my kit/gear prepared early and briefed Nadine in regards to crewing. No fussing around.

Importantly I got my mind sorted out  and have to thank Nadine for helping me through some great visualisations, some ‘race rules’ to stick to and making me challenge some of my race weaknesses. These generally addressed letting go of me urge to ‘race others’, respecting myself and my training and letting go of my ego. To do this I had to practise what I’m always preaching with athletes I coach; ‘run your own race’. To do this I came up with these rules/mantras:
- I need to start ‘easy’ to perform best.
- Run light and easy to CP3
- I am not tied to others, I am not pulled along by them.

- 'Don't let your ego write cheques your body can't cash in' - My favourite movie line ever!

Race Day

I had a good night’s sleep and woke up around 4:30am and as is usual had a bowl of oats, honey and a banana. Got dressed and went for a light run outside to get ‘things moving’. Left home at 5:15am and once reaching Katoomba sat in the warm car for as long as possible before walking to the race start at Scenic World. At 6am I’d arranged to meet the UP athletes (Uppers) racing in the first few waves of the 50k and 100k for the group warm up in the Scenic World carpark. Coach Kellie Emmerson and I were both calm and collected and that was really the intention, to rub that off on the athletes and I think it worked. I gave a short last minute pep talk which really just reminded the team to be grateful, keep the joy factor high and don’t to anything you haven’t done in training and it will be a successful day.

The race itself is I guess what most people reading this are probably interested in hearing about. But honestly it was actually pretty uneventful in my view as ultras go, but saying that I’ll go ahead and try to recall as much as I can.

I deliberately set myself around 5 rows back from the start line, wore a plain white shirt and this would ensure a pretty low key, relaxed and contained start along the road section which is a 3 or 4km out and back before hitting the Furber Steps. It was great to start the day seeing all my trail running friends on the out and back, the support was incredible and I thank you all very much. Just prior to heading into the Katoomba Falls boardwalk section my good mate and sparring partner over many many races Vajin Armstrong who had raced the day before in the 22 was along the road and he gave me a reassuring message ‘smart start Brendan’. Like he could see where my inner headspace was!

Heading down Furbers I began to find my feet a bit more but was cautious in the early morning light (or lack of). The view out to Mt Solitary was spectacular, the first time I had seen it since the burnoff on it a couple of weeks prior and I knew it was going to be a stunning day as far as conditions go. Along Federal Pass I slipped by a couple and got behind a little pack and headed onto the dimmer sections past the Scenic Railway Station. Approaching the Landslide I made the internal call to keep behind the little pack I was with and was surprised to see them take it cautiously. It was definitely the slowest through here out of all my previous TNF/UTA races, however, considering it was in my race plan to be slow in the first 15km or so, I was more than happy to tow the line. One to the head over the ego's urges.

It was only really until I got to Golden Stairs where I began to pass others – Jono O’Loughlin and I had cruised there together since the landslide and was taking them just a bit easier than I was comfortable doing so I slipped by and made my way up.  I settled behind Andy Lee and a few others and what struck me was how the pointy end of this race has changed over the years. Back when I made my what was then TNF100 debut in 2011, I definitely would have been pretty much running solo at this point. Towards the top of the Golden Stairs I was behind Mark Green and a few other runners I didn’t know. I was happy with how I had worked the stairs and felt super comfortable with my effort.

The lovely UP Coaching The Hills couple, Rebecca and Evan Dodds where at the top ringing their cowbell to enthusiastically greet all the runners, and along the beautiful Narrow Neck plateau I now ran with Mark and whom I was later to find out was Harry Jones. These would be the only two other runners (in the 100k) that I would see for the rest of the day. As per my plan, I ran through CP1 as I was carrying enough water to last me until CP2 (approx. 500ml) and had enough fuel with Hammer Perpetuem, Gels and Babyfood to get me to my first planned refuelling point at CP3.

The visibility off the plateau was breathtaking and I don’t think I’ve seen more clearly the peaks out yonder in the Kanangra-Boyd so clearly. It was easy running along here, and it was a leg that I’d earmarked in my plan as miles to kill at an easy effort. Harry seemed to be the one pushing the pace and led the way for most of Narrow Neck, I ran within my own little ‘bubble’ and slipped back and came back to them just through natural pace variations. It was a very comfortable effort. My head games was made a bit easier through being at the front of the field. Would I have pushed harder had anyone been further in front? My plan was not to but this has been my undoing in other races so I'm glad I didn't have to be tested on that front.

I had the privilege of being first to the ladders, and I slipped down them and onto the single track without fuss. I was glad I was leading here, just due to having the clear trail in front. I knew Harry and Mark wouldn’t fall off and it wasn’t my plan to breakaway, but somehow I did open a little gap just before Medlow Gap FT. I had a quick look behind coming off the single track and saw them – it wasn’t significant and it sort of solidified what I knew already, Mark and Harry are bloody great competitors!

Along the firetrail then with Mark and Harry there was a bit of banter and the we all knew the settling in period was over. There was a feeling I think we all shared that as positions go, it was probably going to be us 3 featuring at the front at the end of the race if we could hold it together. We had made a great start and I knew from the split times we were travelling along at a good clip very similar sort of times to previous years I had run this – but feeling much easier.

CP2 came and Harry, Mark and I all came in together. I got to the water tanks first, filled my bottle and was away towards Iron Pot. I think I put a bit of time on the other two through the CP here – running along the road towards Iron Pot Mountain there were no footsteps behind. Iron Pot is one of my favourite parts of the course, it’s not just the stunning views but knowing the Aboriginal significance and hearing the Didgeridoo and clapsticks always elicits some reflective moments. I  
know where a lot of the grinding grooves and pots are on this ridge and imagine the way of the Gundungurra Nation people sitting up here, chilling out looking out over the great expanse of the Megalong Valley. How fortunate we are to be able to do what we do through their country!

At the turnaround on Iron Pot I was surprised to have opened up a bit of a gap on Harry and then Mark. It was probably 1min-90s but that was a pretty significant lead given that we had only reached Dunphy’s not that long ago together. I had expected them to be just behind but I guess I must have pulled away climbing up Iron Pot and it was the first time in the race now that made me think I was now dictating. I descended the tricky spur off Iron Pot and through Green Gully, being the leader does have some benefits, I got to see so many wallabies dozing (and scattering). I wondered to myself if the wildlife think ‘It’s that time of year again, that bloody race and hundreds of runners will come through shortly!’ Got to keep your mind amused somehow.

Back onto Megalong Rd, I was keen to hit the Euroka Road climb with good energy so downed a gel along the flatter section in preparation. Checked in with myself and things were going to plan. I felt great, body was feeling strong and mind was relaxed, composed and patient. Along the descent down to 6 Foot CP3, I opened up the stride and let the gradient dictate the pace, the Inov-8 Terra Claws I was wearing were handling the course beautifully and providing the right balance between comfort and grip on the dirt road, so I didn’t really hold back. This section is a strength of mine and I treated it as such. Ran into my fellow UP Coaching colleagues Graham, Jo and Kelly-ann who were working the course for the social media feed and they gave me some great encouragement. I was running in ‘my bubble’ at my pace and effort and was getting excited to see Nadine for the first time at the Checkpoint.

A quick gear check of thermal and phone and then a short run into the CP – it was a different approach into the checkpoint area to when I last ran the 100k in 2015. I found Nadine and swapped out both bottles, took a new baby foot, some gels, downed half a can of Red Bull as I’ve been doing in all my ultras of late and was on my way. I knew that gap to the chasers had opened up a bit and I must have been on the 6 Foot Track for a good minute before I heard cheers for the next runner. This gap had now confirmed it, I was the breakaway.

The leg from CP3 to Aquatic has been to some degree my Achilles heel in previous races so I was keen to finally nail this leg. I felt like today was going to be the day for that, but the running had to continue to be relaxed and easy. I was eating and drinking really well, and the small rises along this section weren’t really stretching me so I pushed up them all with a little more vigour. The 50km mark along here is always a welcome sight, while I’m one for breaking the race into small manageable chunks, it’s nice to know you’re on the other side of halfway. I continued to push along this open wide firetrail at a solid but contained tempo. Entering the Nellies Glen single track, my goal was to run to the first step and then take my first extended hiking break for the day up the stairs. Managed to do so quite well, and took to the stairs with the aim of hiking with purpose and momentum.

I remember back to my first TNF or it may have even been my second in 2012 and having to walk, stop, let me heart rate subside, repeat with the odd vommit along the way all the way to the top of Nellies which for all reasons may have been Mt Everest to me back then! Today was a clear indication to me how far I’d come from those days and how you all should be encouraged that consistent training brings rewards. Yes I was challenging myself just as hard to get up but unlike how it was previously, I was not being dictated to by the course, it was in fact the exact opposite.

I took the steps, when the spacing allowed, one stride/one step and so, being a small little guy, in essence turning the stairs into a big single lunge strength session. Dave Byrne was spectating half way down and asked me how I felt. ‘Pretty good’ I replied, a tough place to spit out many more words but he could see how I was moving and knew it was solid. I reached the green barriers and knew it had been a reasonably fast ascent, it just felt like it was. I had committed to myself that I would run from the barrier, and although it took a bit of will power, I slowly got moving again up the final little pinch to the top and then down through the lovely little single track that takes you into Katoomba. That’s a lovely little section, the banner photo of this blog was taken through there many many years ago and I always just call it Fern Gully as there’s just not shortage of them there. It’s a section that reminds me how far I’ve come in the sport, and indeed how long I’ve been doing this!

Up to now I hadn’t really been treating the race like a ‘race’. I was trying to ‘hold lightly’ the whole concept of ‘racing’ but now it was definitely game on. I knew after summiting Nellies (is that the right term) that this was a the strongest I’d been at this point in the race ever, and most eager my mind was in anticipation of the kilometres ahead. I wasn’t going to get carried away though and controlling the mind through the euphoric moments is just as an important facet of ‘mental toughness’ than showing grit and fight when things go bad. I needed to keep a calm head more than ever now so I resorted to using a combination of positive and neutral/distracting self-talk. Along the road to the Aquatic Centre, I focused on my form, spoke and smiled to a few locals that were out supporting and gave myself a mental pat on the back for a good job done to half way but now the real business end of the race was about to start.

Getting to Aquatic Centre was a moment of emotional release, and Nadine definitely had her game brain engaged too, telling me my split, how it compared to my plan and how far the chasers were at 6 Foot. 2 min gap at 6 Foot and right to the splits plan at 6 Foot but not surprisingly that last leg to the Aquatic was more than 5min faster than planned. It was confidence building feedback. I refuelled and got moving, taking a Mango Chicken babyfood with me (for some Protein), a new bottle of Perpetuem and some more gels. I knew this next leg was the crux of the race and could become the make or break section.

I really love the beginning of the next leg, through the paddock and across the Cliff Top Track up to Echo Point and down to the Giant Stairs. It’s a good segment for me with the stairs and technical terrain and I made a pact with myself to skip down the stairs two at a time when I could and to not let myself be dictated to by the trail. The tourists were thick and I faced the usual issues of international tourists moving to their right into my path and so on and I was glad to finally get past the mass at Echo Pt and onto the Giant Stairway where the tourists quite smartly tend to stop at the Three Sisters platform.

I got to Dardanelles and psyched myself up for a ‘strong and solid’ climb back out of the Valley via the Leura Falls stairs to the top of the Prince Henry Cliff Top and the Majestic Lookout is always my mental ‘first base’ type breakdown of this leg. Oh and for those wondering, yes of course I walk most of the stairs in this section, definitely all the long staircases, where usually my arms are hauling my body up the via the handrails more than my legs that take two steps at a time, but I always try and run the small and more random sets of stairs.

With energy levels quite good thanks to my diligence to fuelling, I got to Leura Cascades and took the single track to Gordon Falls with purpose and holding true to my plan of going down two stairs at a time, my body was holding up well. Got to Olympian Rock, and must have been feeling good as I don’t think I’ve ever run that section, not even in training, or was it because Lyndon the photographer was in a choice spot and I had to run for the photo? Didn’t matter, I was definitely in the zone and just wanted to get through the stairs section as good well as possible. I’d arranged to meet Nadine at Gordon Falls Reserve and was surprised to see her here a bit earlier, but probably a better spot for her and she told me I had 6min on Ben Duffus and Harry at the Aquatic Centre. This was the first time that I heard Ben had entered the frame, and as much as I didn’t like it, I knew it was inevitable that he was going to come through the field at some stage. He is such a classy and smart athlete, always runs the back half of races super well and his strengths lie on the technical and steep descents/climbing sections of the course…so with the second half in his sweet spot, and with my sweet spot more in the ‘runnable’ legs of the first half, this was going to take some massive effort to hold Ben at bay.

6 minutes is still 6 minutes though and as long as I was running to my optimal effort, my mind didn't panic and held a steady pace it was still going to take a big push for Ben to bridge that gap. Willoughby Rd is the ‘second base’ of this leg and I used the easy road running to refuel, settle and focus on the task ahead, tuning in with my body and mind, making sure I was seeing things clearly and breaking down sections into little chunks. Next stop Fairmont.

Running into Fairmont my plan was to refill my water and be in and out which was pretty much how it went. My brother-in-law Steve who had raced the 22 the day before was there and having scored himself a media pass by virtue of offering to cover the event using his drone and phone, was using the opportunity to give me another time update. Team Davies was working beautifully and Nadine had phoned ahead and told him the gap was still 6 minutes at Olympian Rock to Ben. Happy days, I was holding the gap.

The next section to Valley of the Waters was done with a renewed energy, taking the long, meandering trail down to Lillians bridge swiftly and efficiently, reaching Empress Canyon in pretty good time. I must have pushed just a little too hard as after the bridge came the only significant low point of the race. I really struggled with energy on the little sets of stairs and the transition from downhill running to flat and stair running made a statement – I had a stack just before the little picnic area on the Valley of the Waters Track. Thankfully nothing serious and I took this as a sign to eat, I quickly downed another Hammer Gel, down some Perp and felt great again.

An example of how the mind can play tricks, about a minute after the fall I had the nagging thought, ‘had something popped out of my vest when I fell?’. I didn’t want to cop a time penalty for losing some gear…I just had to do the old possible Vs probably mind solution. Was is possible it could have happened, yes. Was it probable? No. Go with the odds Brendan!

The climb up to Conservation Hut on the stairs is tough, but I ran it all wanting to take a good positive mindset onto the easy and fast section of the Short Cut Track. A lot of tourists again but thankfully no collisions, with most being very considerate and stepping aside. This was almost it…almost the end of this leg, and the undercliff track was over before I knew it, and I was increasingly passing more and more 50 runners who were all, first shocked, then encouraging. It was great to have their supporting words.

Rocket Point and Little Switzerland Trails were run as well as I’ve ever run them, in training or racing, and I filled my head with positive thoughts; the sun is warm, the weather is perfect, Ben would have to be running exceptionally well to have gained ground but I didn’t allow those thoughts to get a foothold. Focus and think about your own running, reminding myself that there was a long way to go has a great way of bringing it back to the next stride. I met up again with Graham and the gang and they assured me my form looked good and strong and that was good as it was pretty much exactly how I was hoping it would!

Up Hordens Rd met with Anthony Simone, an UP Coaching athlete who gave me a high five and told me little Joshua was up the road waiting with his cow bell, there were quite a few spectators along this section of the course.

I love the road slog to QVH Hospital and got to the CP in full daylight sun at 1:30pm and almost 7h exactly after starting the race in dim light at Scenic World. I’d left Nadine with my good Ay-Up lighting to bring to this CP ‘Just in case things go to poo’ I told her, but it definitely was not going to be needed today. (In order to fulfil mandatory requirements I started with two much smaller and lighter headlamps with me during my run). At the CP I was surprised how many 50 runners there were and it would be actually quite a little challenge I hadn’t planned on having to tackle for the rest of the race.

I was in and out of the CP, Nadine and I had rehearsed our transitions in regards to transfer of fuel/water and we had it down pat. Nadine let me know that the gap was 6 minutes at the Fairmont – so I was holding the gap to Ben well but the next part of the course was the part of the course that Ben could crush, I had to stay on my game. In the prerace chat with Nadine I told her that if anyone was within 5mins of me at the CP I wouldn’t be holding back on the downhill down Kedumba as I didn’t want the race to come down to a race off up the hill and along Federal Pass. With it being six minutes it was a bit of ‘grey area’ of how to tackle the course. Nadine left me with a wise parting sentence at the CP ‘keep going as you are’ and she was right. If I’ve been holding a similar lead all the way from the Aquatic Centre to hear, why should I need to change anything?

So with that, I ran the next half the course solidly and efficiently, ticking off kilometre by kilometre. Of course it wasn’t slow, I just couldn’t let myself do this as I knew Ben wouldn’t be, but it wasn’t crazy fast. I was looking after my body and was thankful that my body had looked after me up to this point. I reflected back how the legs felt in the backend of UTMF…totally different, aching, quads shot, destroyed and only allowing me to ‘nurse’ myself down the descents. So this is where UTMF was to pay off for me, the body had repaired and adapted even stronger. Now I felt bullet proof, strong and able to absorb all the ground impact forces as well now as it had in the first kilometre of the race. It’s a great feeling, as like many of you reading this, have been in the position when every downhill feels like a knife is stabbing straight into the muscle.

I contributed to an article that Roger Hanney wrote for the UTA Race Event Guide titled ‘Ultramarathon Mental’. In that I wrote ‘The mental side of Ultra running emerges when the physical limitations are reached. So while I recognise that the mental aspects; the control, the composure, the toughness and the resilience required in ultra running is very much real, I focus much more on the physical – the more in peak condition I am in then the less reliant I am on the mental toughness type aspects.’

So today was a day I wasn’t having ‘to go to the well’ too often.

The uphill grind starts after Jamison Creek and the first little pinch is a long one, but it at least was going to prove whether I’d be able to run out of the valley or not. I had to start and give it a shot. I got into my ‘granny gear’, fast cadence, short strides with efficient movements. I’ve done this part of the course too many times that I care to remember. It was also the last on-course training run I did 2 weeks prior. I did that deliberately so it would be fresh in my mind. I always remind my athletes, ‘that if you run it in training, you can run it on race day’, or ‘don’t let walking be your default’ so I was going to practise what I preached and run it.

I’d fuelled well and aerobically I was in great condition as the climbing felt fine. With the trail smooth and the support abundant with 50 runners, I felt like I had a pressure to run, but it was a good pressure. A performance pressure that I knew I needed. It’s surprising to hear the reactions from 50 runners I’d pass ‘You’re mad’, ‘How on Earth’?, ‘OMG he’s the first 100 runner’, ‘You’re a machine’ etc and it was a good source of motivation and pressure to keep going. I’m sorry to all that I didn’t respond to as well, I wasn’t ignoring you, well I kind of was, it’s just that talking when operating at a near threshold effort up the climbs is sort of difficult!

The 4km or so between Jamison Ck and Leura Fall Ck is always a time for head down and bum up, it’s tough but it’s doable. Crossing the second Ck is like another ‘second base’, just got to get to Federal Pass and then it’s home. I always love running this last bit of the climb, it undulates just enough for it to be a little forgiving on the calves and the bellbirds always are singing loudly as you get to the tailend of the climb. Hearing them in the distance kept me motivated. I filled up my water at the Helipad, and headed towards the birds.

Reaching Federal Pass was a relief, I ran the little single track between the Sewage Works and the trail where I was well, but having no idea how far Ben was back I had to keep pushing on. I’d calculated from the way I had run that big down and then big up that Ben would have been able to possibly pull in a couple of minutes at most, and that would give him a sniff along the last 5km back to the finish. He would also have the benefit of being told some splits at the Helipad, which would also give him extra motivation. In any case, I just kept it in the moment, ‘run your own race as you were’ I reminded myself.

The descent from Leura Forest along the Federal Pass is fun and I felt light and floaty. I downed a lot of fuel here for the push home, I had to force it in as I definitely didn’t feel like it but I had to do it. The 50 runners were thick through here and it was great that they gave way to me on the trail as soon as they heard my intentions to pass. A few were using their earphones to listen to music which was annoying as I literally had to tap them on the shoulder, I don’t think music has a place on singletrack in races and it might have to be something that organisers look out in the future.

Along here somewhere I passed one of my athletes I coach Kath Crawford who was in the 50km and I said to her ‘come on Kath almost home’ or something like that and she turned to a guy she was running with and said ‘that’s my coach’. That gave me an enormous buzz hearing that and left me resolved to finish this off as well as I could. I wasn’t going to lose it now. If Ben or any other runner was to get me they were going to have to earn it!

I ran the last little bit of the section before Furbers well and knew that as long as I tackled Furber with a strong intention it would be good enough. I started the climb up Furber running, but after the first set of stairs doing this I realised that it probably wasn’t in my best interest to do so! I was draining the tank so to speak and didn’t want to come undone now. So I exercised, as Nadine would say, some ‘self compassion’ and hiked the stairs from here, two at a time when I could, using my arms when I could to haul my body up them too. I felt like I had reached the end of my day though, maybe it was the emotions starting to kick in, but there was a big fast fade coming on and all I wanted to do was finish this off.

Majell from UTA was out there and let me know that he only knew as much as I did how far the chasers were so I just kept hauling myself along. Reaching the Scenic World turnoff, I knew then that it was going to be my day and I could release the emotions a bit. Many friends were out on the trails and it was a buzz. Entering the final boardwalk, loads of Uppers, loads of friends and family. Someone handed me an Aussie Flag and the rest is just something I will remember forever.

It’s been a long goal of mine now to bring the title back to the Blue Mountains, it was now mission accomplished.

Post Race

Shower, assessing damage to toes, some recovery soup, beers, photos then seeing so many athletes come in was special. Saw many of my athletes that I coach or are part of UP Coaching come in, and while they all are equally special moments, it was pretty special to share in the joy of winning with Kellie Emmerson. I’ve been coaching Kellie for a couple of years now, and she’s just gone from strength to strength in that time. So good to see her now win this one which meant as much to her as it did for me.

Was a great way to end a special day.

On the ‘Fastest Time’… 

I was surprised to hear Kerry Suter after the race announce that my time was the fastest on this ‘unadulterated course…’ you can hear him say it in the video below. To be honest I don’t care too much about course records but it did get me curious about it so I have done some homework.

Technically, Kerry was right, I have now the fastest time on the UTA100 course ‘proper’.

Prior to 2014, there was a much different course, not so much in terms of the trails covered as that was quite similar, but in the order of the 100. For example, the race started and finished at the Fairmont Resort. I have the Course Record of the old course from my win in 2013.

In 2014 the Course was changed to the current route. Since then, the 100 course has only been run exactly as per the course proper in 2014 and 2016, both of which the winners (Stu Gibson, 2014) and Pau Capell (2016) ran slower finishing times than mine.

In 2016 the course was changed due to wet weather quite significantly, with the whole last leg rerouted. This result is marked with an asterisk in the UTA Race magazine with the explanation given of ‘Altered Course’. That leaves 2015 and the year that Dylan Bowman won, with Scott Hawker 2nd and Yun Yanqiou was 3rd. All ran quicker times than my time this year. However, what makes 2015 an interesting year, is that both Dylan and Yun inadvertently took a wrong turn during the race and were awarded a time penalty as a result. Scott didn’t. So I guess technically you could argue a couple of things there, Dylan would have the ‘technical’ CR and Scott the ‘ Strava Crown’ for ‘running the entire course’.

This aside though, the route of the 100 course in 2015 was different to the route ‘proper’, not significantly mind you and the debate whether it made it quicker or not is one left to have over a coffee or a beer. In 2015 the course didn’t go down the Giant Stairway along Dardanelles Pass and up to the Ampitheatre Track via Leura Falls stairs. Alternatively it stayed on top on the Cliff Top Track and joined the Ampitheatre Track via the Fern Bower Track.

My opinion? Well the Event Guide shows Dylan’s run as the Course Record for the ‘New Course’ so it is as it stands this and I’m happy with that. But…it will, in my opinion, take a heck of a run to beat his time of 8:50 on the course ‘proper’. Maybe Dylan and Scott will just have to come back and give it a crack! I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

Thank You!

Tom, Alina, staff and volunteers all part of UTA. What an event this has become from humble beginners, you have driven the growth of trail running in Australia and so many people’s lives are now so much better for it. Thank you for putting on such a well run and spectacular event.

My sponsors

Inov-8 - Have been with me now for almost 7 years now, Inov-8 shoes and trail running gear are distributed through barefootinc and Sally, Max and Dylan have always been the more than wonderful in their support in my training and racing.

I wore Terra Claw 250 Shoes, Race Ultra Shorts, Race Ultra Socks and used the Race Ultra race vest during the race. Had the Race Ultra Waterproof Jacket in the vest and the pants on standby.

Hammer Nutrition – Keep me fuelling well and recovering in training and racing. I used Hammer Perpetuem, Hammer Gels, Hammer Fully Charged before and during the race.

Ay-Up Lighting – Thankfully didn’t need to be used during the race but used extensively in my training and work.

Le Bent – Socks and Baselayers. Again, thankfully didn’t need to dig the baselayers out and both stayed snugly in my pack but used extensively in training and work.

Aerodaks – Kept everything comfortable ‘downstairs’

Suunto Australia – the Ambit 3 Peak.

Many thanks to Shane and Belinda Café 2773 and also the Blue Mountains Running Co. for their support of myself, UP Coaching and the local running scene in general.

All the team of coaches and athletes, both local and around Australia at UP Coaching, so much genuine love and support and was so great to see so many of you kicking goals over the weekend.

My family and friends for the wonderful support all through my career.

Leaving the best to my wife Nadine, thank you for crewing, supporting, psychologising me in the lead up, letting me be insane most of the time and keeping me sane when it matters!