This is the most common refrain you’ll hear if you tell a stranger you’re planning to run 62 miles through the Blue Mountains in Australia. The second is a confirmation that “this is running? Or is there a bike involved? Or maybe a horse?”
This is before mentioning that “I’m also doing a 50k two weeks before that, in the Philippines. Kind of a last big training run, tune-up sort of thing.”
In fact, I don’t know what compels me to do races like these. I just know that it’s a hell of a good time. If you discover that an activity, that 99.999% of other people find extremely daunting and painful, is actually enjoyable for you, don’t you think there’s some sort of utility arbitrage to be taken advantage of?
July 2013 was the inflection point. I had signed up for the Maasai marathon in late September, but the event also had a 75k on offer (marathons are 42k). Tempting, but reason said not to add another challenge to the mix when simply getting to East Africa and running a marathon at elevation under the equatorial sun would likely suffice. I went for it anyway.
Which meant that the next one had to be longer, wilder, harder. I found the race on a list of qualifiers for the Western States 100 mile run and gained entry by rushing the online gates with hundreds of other masochists when registration went live (promptly breaking the organizer’s servers).
There’s no shortage of marathon training plans on the internet, everything from absolute beginner to regimens promising a Boston-qualifying time or better. Beyond 26.2 miles, the waters are murkier — here be text-only websites with ASCII calendars and links to .xlsx files.
So here’s the Andy Brett 100k training plan™:
Focus entirely on building the long run. I started tracking it at 15 miles and added ~10% each week. After reaching 20 miles I added a recovery or “step-down” week every third week to get long run mileages something like:
20, 22, rest, 25, 28, rest, 31, 34, rest, 37, 41, rest, 45, 50
Runs during the week are less important but usually are 8-14 miles every other day to allow plenty of recovery time. Pace is always as you feel comfortable, and the terrain should match that of the target race.
It’s just that easy.
The 50k “warm-up” originated as an afterthought. If I was going to travel 7,500 miles to Sydney I may as well make it an adventure and stop in the Philippines too (that’s sort of on the way, right?). I was already going to be running 31 miles distances in training anyway, and at two weeks beforehand, it sort of fit in as a last training run. I could call it preemptive jetlag prevention.
It was a fortunate decision. The race was an excellent reminder of things I already knew, especially about pacing. The goal in these races is to be the person who is still able to run at the end. That’s pretty much it. This means that you need to keep your pulse below the redline as much as possible during the first half of the race. I don’t have a heart rate monitor but it’s pretty easy to teach yourself where that redline is.
So as some general advice: even if you’re running in the pitch black for an hour after the 4am start, and even if your headlamp is catching the reflection off the marble eyes of a dozen emaciated dogs blocking the road up ahead, don’t pick up the pace until well after you’ve first cleared the air strip as dawn is breaking, crossed the rusted-out, single-track metal bridge hundreds of feet above a gorge, and gotten at least halfway up to the turnaround at the top of the mountain. The race, much like life, is long, and there is no shortage of time to run faster at the end. Also, watch out for leeches on the way back down.
Armed with these lessons and twelve days to recover, I boarded the flight from Manila to Sydney. My first thought after arriving was that the air was “clean, and delightfully cold”. On the approach, however, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how much time was elapsing between when the captain announced that we were “about 100 kilometers outside of Sydney” and when we landed. In case the 50k hadn’t been enough of a reminder — “and then, when you’ve finished that, you do the whole thing again” — it was now taking this A380, powered by four jet engines, nearly 30 minutes to cover the distance that I was supposed to run next weekend. And I would be powered by four packs of Clif Bloks.
I was immediately distracted by the novelty of a new city. Setting all the other benefits aside, a twenty mile training run at an easy pace is a great way to explore uncharted ground outside of the well-worn Lonely Planet paths.
The night before the race, 1,900 runners and their support crews descended upon a gymnasium for the mandatory race briefing and gear check. We got advice about the course, including the 800 stairs we would climb in the last kilometer, part of nearly 14,000 feet of elevation climb over the 62 miles.
The weather forecast for the next day was ideal, so the gear list had thankfully been adjusted accordingly, but still included fleece tights, rain jacket, an extra long sleeve shirt, firestarter kit, compass, whistle, headlamp, three liters of water, and food/gels. While support crews were permitted to meet runners at aid stations, the gear list reflected the fact that each person needed to be self-sufficient for however long it took them to finish. The official cut off for the race was 28 hours but runners who finished in under 14 would earn a silver belt buckle. Target acquired.
Time to Run
The start was in six waves over 30 minutes, and I was in wave three. For the first 15 minutes the course looped on rolling hills through the town of Katoomba, including an out and back that allowed everyone to see everyone else. I noticed that there was no timing mat at the turnaround, meaning that an unscrupulous runner could cut off a few minutes here. It turns out that the kind of person who voluntarily signs up to run 62 miles isn’t prone to that sort of temptation.
We plunged down the first set of stairs into the woods and immediately passing became a challenge. The trail wound down—and sometimes directly across—the steep valley wall, with rough rocks underfoot. A couple of the most technical parts turned into bottlenecks, but remembering just how much runway we had left I was content to take it easy for now and took the opportunity to remove a layer.
The course opened up at the first checkpoint at 10 kilometers. I had opted to keep my Camelbak mostly empty at the start and did a quick pit stop to fill it here. With the extra room to maneuver it was tempting to try to make up a lot of ground but I was set on remaining conservative. I devised a mental game — if I moved up five places, no more and no less, over each 5k (the only distance markers apart from checkpoints were laminated 8x11's every 5k), I was pretty sure I’d be in the top 100 by the end of the race. Thus began “runner golf”: +1 for every person who passed me, -1 for every person I passed.
This was a useful game to occupy my mind on the less spectacular sections of the course, but there were plenty of other distractions to help me lose the card count.
Just before 30k, a solid pack of 8–10 runners had formed around a shared pace and mutual appreciation for keeping conversation terse in order to take in the pastoral scenery. As we ascended a series of switchbacks, a faint but deep sound came over the ridge. Our pace quickened as it grew louder, and by the time we turned a corner to find a man blasting his didgeridoo (not a euphemism), we had turned into a pack of hunters chasing game through the bush. The course here was an out and back along the ridge and we bobbed and hopped along the rocks with the didgeridoo announcing our presence to the green valley below.
Eventually the echoes subsided and the pack disbanded. For the first time I looked around and didn’t see a single other runner. It made runner golf more difficult but it was a welcome chance to assess how I was feeling and plan for the rest of the race. I was approaching the third checkpoint, 46 km in. I was tired, but had been doing a good job of staying under my redline and still felt pretty fresh. I guessed I’d been running for almost five hours by now. I spotted the checkpoint and climbed the last rolling farm hill to coast in on a slight downgrade.
This was the first checkpoint where runners could meet their support crew if they had one (I ran sans crew). Not having seen another soul for some time, I suddenly encountered a huge crowd of people anxiously watching for their runner to crest the hill. They were far too quiet, however, and I decided to fix that. A few arm sweeps and a bit of mugging was enough to rouse their spirits and I went through the entry chute with wind at my back.
The next section of the course climbed up what looked and felt like a rainforest, or as close as you can get to one in New South Wales.
Every elevation gain seemed to be immediately offset by a steep downhill section. A Physics 101 student will tell you that since you’ve stored up potential energy by climbing the hill, you get it all back on the way down.
With all the hills, I was regularly getting “reset to zero,” which was the term I came up with for being stripped of any momentum and having to start from scratch again. As one is prone to do with 6 hours of endorphins in his system, I started to get philosophical about it. “This is similar to doing anything else from scratch,” I thought. Writing an app, making a backgammon board, building a life. Your current position isn’t as important as your speed, and your speed isn’t as important as its derivative, to go back to our Physics 101 student. And the only way to run at 8 miles an hour is to start running 2 miles an hour and then start going faster. Success begets success.
Checkpoint four was staged in a small primary school at 57k. I topped off on sports drink and grabbed what I thought was a salt-covered bagel but quickly discovered was in fact a glazed-sugar-coated pastry. Whoops.
It now seemed appropriate to check in on the most macro progress bar. There were three progress bars running in my brain during the race: the large one for the whole race, a middle one for the next checkpoint or other goal, and a small one (the current hill). Usually the middle one has focus because the macro one is depressing, but after the halfway mark it becomes useful to say that you’ve already done X and you only have Y left.
Now I only had a marathon left. And there was a checkpoint with an aid station in 13 miles, so really I only had a half marathon to get there. By then, that would be farther than I’d ever run before, and by then I’d pretty much be done, because of course I could run another half marathon after that. And by the way, Andy, don’t look now but there’s a lot of daylight left. Unless I crash and burn I’ll be under 14 hours and taking a silver belt buckle back through US customs.
The next 13 miles sent us through the most scenic parts of the mountains, and given that it was a picture perfect Saturday, “trampers” (Australian for hikers) were out in force and a source of great entertainment. Two women said it looked like I had “just started running” (I assured them I hadn’t) and I took my ability to make coherent conversation as a sign that I was still in good shape. Or possibly in a lucid interval.
The 30 minutes before reaching the final aid station were the most challenging of the race. The trail was remote, along rough, steep hills and narrow staircases, and the pack was very thin by now. There was enough distance to cover after the aid station that I couldn’t entirely trick my brain into thinking that I just had to get there to be done — I still had 13 miles after that and I knew it.
It worked well enough, though. The volunteers at the checkpoint were plentiful and friendly — one of them literally held open the cooler spigot for me as I refilled (which, secretly, I appreciated). The light was beginning to fade as I crossed the timing mat to exit the checkpoint, sending a silent beacon back to any faithful fans still awake and tracking the race late into the evening in the US.
As I started down the trail, I felt what I can only describe as a wave wash over me. It was part accumulated exhaustion, part relief that I was within striking distance of the finish, part outright loopiness. I could tell that my face was involuntarily wincing and (wait, yes!) even crying. But I felt no desire to stop, and there wasn’t much to do about it, so down the trail I went, marking my path with miniature craters of salt water in the earth.
Eventually I had to concede that even with a full moon, it was too dark to see without a head lamp and swapped it with my sunglasses. It’s surprisingly difficult to run when all you see is a small tunnel of light 40 feet in front of your face, in particular judging inclines and how much effort to exert. With about 8k left I looked up and thought I saw a few stars lower on the horizon bouncing around. Then I realized I was looking at the headlamps of runners going up the last 2,000 foot climb to Katoomba.
Soon I was joined by another runner and we matched pace for a while, eventually carrying on a conversation, the contents of which I mostly forget. But in the moment it was the perfect thing — mutually assured distraction as we made the final 5k go by. We started to see trail signs that looked familiar, and then 50k runners who were just finishing up. The footing was as rocky as ever, and a near miss by me reminded both of us that at 98k in, it was probably time to be conservative about not twisting an ankle.
The last kilometer was, as advertised, pretty much straight up a cliff. Eventually a cheeky sign announced “Your Last Three Stairs” and we rounded the corner into the chute. I said my congratulations and booked it to the finish line.
It turned out that I was well under the 14 hour mark, 13:00:35 to be exact, and a smiling volunteer presented me with a silver belt buckle. For the entire second half of the race I was positive that I would want a beer and a burger when I was done. But those were temporarily bumped in favor of hot, salty, delicious soup as I quickly became cold to the point of shivering.
I was extremely grateful at this point that I had chosen to stay in the dorms 200 meters from the finish line. I was not, however, looking forward to getting into and out of my spot on the top bunk. I took a slow-motion shower, put on every item of clothing I had that wasn’t caked in sweat and salt, and returned to the finish area. The results had been posted and I found out my “runner golf” strategy had worked: I was 66th in the men’s standings and 78th overall.
James Bond will return in “Ultra Trail Torres del Paine Patagonia” in September.