My First UTA 50 Ultra Marathon by Richo Caws
This was the phrase that I heard countless times when I told my friends and family about my plans to run in the UTA 50 this year. After I had explained that UTA stands for Ultra-Trails Australia and the 50 was for 50km, they looked at me in a strange way trying to figure out if I was joking or serious. The next question was usually “where?” and “why are you doing this?” I would always respond with: “Katoomba in the Blue Mountains” and “I needed the challenge to kick-start my running career”. This was usually followed by some incredulous looks and clarification that the territory I would be “running in” would indeed be mountainous. “Oh yes”, I assured them…. “there will be plenty of mountains for me to climb”. I may have appeared confident in my responses, but underneath I was still unsure if I could achieve this challenge… I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew?
It all started with a chance meeting of a lady known as Barbara, who was very excited about the opening of entries for the 2018 UTA series of races. I had vaguely heard of this mysterious race called the North Face 100 and even watched a TV special on the race. I never dreamt that I would someday be taking part in such a race. Barbara’s excitement was contagious and had inspired me to find out more about this race. Before I knew what was happening, I had signed up and paid the entry fee for the UTA 50.
I briefly mentioned this to Jen, one of my colleagues from Up Coaching and she looked at me and said … “You’re Doing What?” I said “I’m doing the 50” and she said, “how long have you been running?” “Not long”, I said, knowing that I only started serious training in November 2017. She asked me if I was being coached and this turned out to be the most important question that anyone could have asked. It prompted me to seek out a coach and as luck would have it, the head coach of Up Coaching, Mr. Brendan Davies accepted the challenge.
5 to 50 the parkrun progression
My first question to Brendan was, “Do you think I can do the 50?” He was so positive with his responses that I knew I could do it with his help, even though I was a complete running novice. At this time, I was flat out finishing a 5 km Parkrun in under 30 minutes. However, I was hooked and had crazy dreams of running this 50km trail race through the Jamison Valley and surrounds at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains! I was introduced to the Training Peaks program and just like that, my serious running journey had begun.
The Journey of a thousand steps
My first big challenge arrived sooner than what I had expected, a Six Foot training run on the hottest day in January. Yes, this was the day when the mercury reached 47 degrees in Penrith and I’m pretty sure I felt every degree of it whilst running through the Megalong Valley. I had run one other training run for the Six Foot track but missed a couple due to an unexpected overseas trip. This run was a much bigger challenge for me, with over 4 hours under-foot in the hot sun. I learnt so much from this run… I was dehydrated, I had sprained ankles, was chaffed, over-heated, sunburnt and completely spent. I was cramping in the car on the way home and retreated quickly to the safety of my couch at home for some much-needed recovery time.
However, I learnt so much from this one experience. Brendan helped me to work out many different solutions to avoid a repetition of these run-ending scenarios. From that day on, I was super-prepared and fully aware of the many requirements and contingencies that I needed to prepare for in all my long runs.
UTA training on course was great and super-useful. I managed to complete all my long runs on course and sometimes off-course. I took wrong turns and shortcuts that almost became folklore….. Rocket Rod always reminds me to turn left at Lillians Bridge and Noel still can’t quite see how I went off track on the Federal Pass. My only excuse was my delirious state after 40km of running.
Which brings us to race day. Six months of intensive preparation! 10kg lighter and after an amazing recovery from a hip and calf injury. I was indeed ready to go! What an early start…. the alarm went off at 4.30am and I was in the car by 5.00am, with my wonderful wife transporting me to Katoomba for the early start. I was so excited and at the same time, a little nervous about what lay ahead.
I arrived at Scenic World with plenty of time to spare and catch up with some of my colleagues from Up Coaching, including my coach Brendan and a few other runners. We didn’t have to wait long before the gun runners in the first wave were off and running. I did some quick warm-ups with Tim and Tony followed by some more warm-ups with Scott and then it was our turn to line up for the start of Wave four. Here I was on the starting line of the race with many of my Up Coaching friends. It all happened so quickly; before I knew it, we were off and running in the 2018 UTA 50!
OFF AND RUNNING
Wow! How quickly does time fly when you’re having fun. I absolutely loved the start of the race and went out hard. It just felt so good, plenty of energy, solid ground and the opportunity to pass plenty of fun-loving runners. I was meant to ease into this race, but not me… I had other plans. I wanted to reach the giant staircase before the rest of the wave arrived. Bingo! I was there before I knew it and to my surprise, it was a clear run down. Excellent! Now for the Dardanelles Pass and up to the Leura Cascades, we were flying along. It didn’t take too long before I ran into the longest conga line of the race. I had run straight into the much talked about the traffic jam on the stairs, only it was the stairs up, not the stairs down. No worries here…… it was time to fuel up and prepare for the trail ahead to Gordon Falls and the Fairmont Hotel.
FUELING THE FIRE
My nutrition and hydration plans were working well with Hammer Perpetuem as my primary source of fuel, supplemented by a few gels and drinking to thirst as required. I didn’t need to stop at the Fairmont, instead, I sailed straight through and continued onto the Valley of the Waters section of the course; and yes Rod, I did take the left-hand turn at Lillian’s Bridge! All was going well and surprisingly, I was feeling strong when I reached The Conservation Hut and finally the Falls, without any major slip-ups on my behalf.
My beautiful wife, Heidi was there at Gordon Falls, The Fairmont and on Hordern’s Road. She kept me going and inspired me to do great times for the first half of the race. Unfortunately, I knew that I wouldn’t see her until the end of the race from now on and it was hard to keep the momentum going. Fatigue was starting to kick in and I gave myself a little break along Tablelands Road, where I found myself walking again. That’s when I heard that voice in my head saying, “You’re doing what?”…. walking!… No way, fortunately for me, we rounded the corner and began to head down to Queen Victoria Hospital, (QVH) running again with another competitor. I found this more engaging as I could pace myself with the stride of the other runner.
I arrived at QVH in good time and collected some water as quickly as possible and then I was out, heading for the mighty Kedumba section of the race. Unfortunately, my back-pack was playing up, causing me grief as I left the QVH checkpoint. It kept sliding around on my back and without realising it, I had walked too much of this section of the race as I wrestled with the back-pack. I was able to regain my thoughts when I started the downhill section of the track and found myself running downhill with ease. I forgot about the backpack and made the most of this section. Catching up with quite a few of the other runners. I was really impressed with my speed downhill and can attribute that to all the training that we completed on this section of the course. In the past, I have been a little tentative about going for it downhill due to my dodgy ankles. However, today I brought my “A” game and kept hearing Brendan’s words of advice in my head, “Let yourself go Rich; don’t fight the mountain, go with it”.
Great advice, I literally flew down the mountain and made up a heap of time, I really now believe that I could achieve a sub 7-hour UTA 50 time today.
However, my uphill between the two creeks was not as good as it could have been. I ended up hiking most of the uphill instead of running these sections. A little disappointed with my effort here, but I did have over 40km in the legs at that point. Not to worry, I topped up my water supply at the Helipad and headed for home. I was keen to put in a big effort at the end of the race. However, fatigue was catching up with me and I was finding it hard to really get going again after so much hiking.
It was on the Federal Pass that the pain in my right-hand knee became excruciating and prevented me from running on any uneven ground, particularly downhill steps. I guess that I should have forced myself to run on and ignore the pain, but I was worried that it might deteriorate and force me into a D.N.F. situation. I took the option of slowing to a walk and watched my opportunity of a sub-seven hour finish slowly disappear. I ended up having to wait on the side of the track, inviting other runners to pass me by. They were always courteous and appreciative, with some urging me on, saying, “not far to go now”, I thought to myself, “thanks Scoop for telling me something I already knew.” Those last few Km’s seemed to last forever at this pace. I was on my favourite part of the course, which I usually call the Dragstrip because it is so well groomed with evenly spaced steps and cool flat sections that you can run at almost full pace. I always look forward to this section of the course, as I can usually put the hammer down and go for it here. This was not the case today, due to my perceived injury. I could barely manage more than a slow jog, grimacing with each downward step on my injured knee and giving way to copious runners who zoomed past me. This section is usually over quite quickly, but today it went on and on in a seemingly endless manner. With every turn, I expected to see the railings to let me know that I was getting closer to the Furber Steps. Unfortunately for me, they were still quite a distance off. It was surprising to me just how slow everything seems when you are not running, it was like watching a slow-motion sequence in a movie. I finally reached the railings that signalled that we were approaching the Furber Steps. I reached for my little secret weapon, a 250ml bottle of coke to give me that last sugar hit to propel me up the Furber Stairs and onto the end of the race. Refuelled and ready to go; just about to take my first steps on Furber, when a large group of elderly tourists with backpacks beat me to the stairs. I nearly died….who would have thought.
“I channelled up all my patience and kept quiet”
Furber Steps 952 steps of fun.
I channelled up all my patience and kept quiet as I slowly trudged up the stairs behind them. I held back and followed them slowly up the first few sections until they finally noticed me behind them and stood aside to let me through. I made the most of this situation, it killed me with pain, but I sucked it up and literally dragged myself up the mighty Furber Steps using every available hand-rail in sight.
And then I reached the boardwalk, which can mean only one thing. It’s time to run again as I knew the finishing chute was coming up. I heard the commentator call out my name and thought of Brendan’s words again, “This is our time to shine, we’ve done all the hard work in training, this is race day…enjoy it and look good” So I put on my happy face, adjusted my race bib and headed out into the crowded finishing chute with hopefully my best run of the day.
However, there was one last twist and turn unbeknownst to me. I couldn’t believe it, no cramps for the whole race and now in the last few metres on the finishing chute, in front of the crowds, my calve muscles decided a cramping they would go. Oh boy, the pain was fierce and I thought to myself, “oh no, not now… and then I heard that question again in my head….You’re doing what?” What could I do? ….. I just had to suck it up and push through the pain as if everything was fine. My wife and Graham Hand were there along with several friends from our Up Coaching family to celebrate with me. I thought to myself…that’s it…. I’ve completed my first Ultra Marathon and I made it!
The end is but the beginning
Fortunately for me,…I did make it to the end somehow and now I have the answer to that question that’s been hanging around for six long months… Yes I’m doing the UTA 50 and I know I can do it because I’ve done it before!
I’d like to thank all my colleagues from 20/twenty through to the Blue Mountains Social Running Club, the Nepean River Parkrun and PTC. A special thank-you to Graham Fletcher, who always inspires me and all my friends from Up coaching who have adopted me so readily into their big happy and talented family of runners. A big thank you to all the coaches from Up Coaching: Graham, Michael, Darryl, Ben and Jo and a special thanks to the one and only, Brendan Davies a true gentleman, an absolute champion runner and a Super coach. Thank you, Brendan, for believing in me and making me feel 10 foot taller. Only you could have given me the self-belief to run 50Km in my first Ultra. An awesome achievement, particularly when things didn’t always go to plan. For those that know, I lost my father in March of this year and I have dedicated this run to his memory. My father, Anthony Richard Caws was always a great sportsman and I know that he was with me on this run today. Love you Dad.