Arguably the two 100k's I've finished before UTA--HK100 in 2016 & 2017--had gone quite well. I placed 22nd in my debut and then had a vast improvement this year to place 14th in a loaded field. But, March brought Translantau 100k and it was a race that didn't go at all as planned. A night start was something I'd never done before, but in the end, it was gastroenteritis that did me in. 25km into the night and it felt like 80km into UTA, so I knew that though I could hike all night and all the next day just to finish, I would be better off doing something I've never done in my 20 years of racing--voluntarily drop out when I could well continue (though last fall I did drop from Two Peaks 21km with a badly sprained ankle).
Now fast forward to last week, two months post-Translantau DNF and I found myself in Blackheath, just north of Katoomba and Scenic World's start/finish. A friend of a friend opened up their house to me, and the week prior to the race, I did 5 runs to finish my taper--8k, 13k (with a few 2-3 minute cruise intervals with equal rest), 10k (of which six km was a course preview), and then easy runs of 11k & 6k. With two days remaining before the race, I changed up my pre-race rest phase by resting both Thursday and Friday before the race. I also ate super healthy (for me, anyway, courtesy inspiration drawn from Matt Fitzgerald's "The Endurance Diet" that I read on the flight down there) and slept 9-10 hours/night all week. This, I realize, is an unusual benefit that my work schedule allowed, but I think it helped me complete my taper well and get really well rested beforehand. Once my HK friends showed up, we dove into gear checks, drop bag prep, eating pizza and pasta in copious amounts, and talking of the course and staying out of the rain. A good amount of rain fell on Thursday night into Friday so the RD's made the call to modify the course. This edition was my first here so I was indifferent to any changes and knew that come race day, it would be high placing that I was going for and not a time goal.
ITRA performance index seems to be quite a reliable way of estimating one's potential finish in a field. I was 16th with 753 points pre-race, but knew that on any given day, a handful of guys will underperform for any number of reasons. I didn't want to be one of them, however. I felt that HK100 in January was a good step up, though my 14th place was just one better than my goal of top 15. Given UTA's deep field, I also thought top 15 would be a good goal and one that I'd be pleased with. Then, an A+ result would be sneaking in the top 10 somehow. But looking at the participant list was intimidating, so I didn't know what that would take to accomplish.
After a mile or so, I caught up to the nearest guy, Grant Guise, and had the pleasure of running with him for nearly 5 miles. We talked of his 100-mile history and why he was glad he didn't get into Hardrock five years ago (he will race it this summer, but as that race deserves respect if any 100 miler does, he said he would've gotten destroyed had he gotten a spot five years ago). Once we hit some technical parts and the ladders installed specifically for the race, he slipped out of sight, and then I had fun meeting and trying to keep up with local legend and 10-time finisher, Jono O'Loughlin. As we were winding down the last few hundred meters of single track, I heard someone approaching us. A few minutes later at about 24-25km where the technical trail dumped out onto yet another fire road, we were quickly passed by one Rob Krar. Anyone half familiar with the ultra world knows him as the two-time WS100 champion. We were certain we had never been ahead of him, so his response confirmed my suspicion of him somehow getting off course. He said it happened early on at the 5k mark and he ended up nearly back at the start line (not to say he ran an extra 10, but with the out/back 4km road start, I'm guessing he did an extra 2k or so. Tim Tollefson said he looked at Krar's Strava file and it appears he lost 7 minutes). He was on a mission to make good on his first international competition and first big race (as far as I know of) he's entered in about 2 years due to a long-term injury. He was soon out of sight and I pulled ahead of Jono, running by myself for several km. Around 30km, I caught up to Guise again along with a few other guys. I eased ahead of them and worked ahead to Mike Wardian. By the mid-30's I had passed him as a paved section turned steeper and steeper til even I was reduced to walking. But I guess I was walking fast as none of those guys were to be seen again.
I worked alone for the next several miles as we gained some elevation and the UTA staff doing some photo and video work encouraged me. Before they didn't know me, but because I was 9th at this point and names were on our bibs, they started cheering for me by name. Funny how such a simple act as using one's name when cheering boosts morale further! I passed Martin Kern and Hamish McDonald as we wound through some verdant pastures full of the all the accompanying scents! By this time I was in 7th and chasing my friend, Kazufumi Ose. We had a battle the last 20k of HK100 this year, so I was keen to catch him and work together for a while. As I passed the marathon mark at 3:34 and went thru 50k in 4:19, I was worried this fast start would come back to haunt me, but those miles were in the past and I needed only to focus on the back half.
Reaching 60k and knowing that Matt and Kazufumi were struggling, too, was a comfort--if I kept my head in the game and fueled consistently, I would be doing all I could to hold onto 5th. The crowds at CP's, on-course volunteers, and spectators along the way were super encouraging and enthusiastic. Passing by golf courses, suburban homes, spectacular vista trails, and more, I was enjoying the views and trying my best to stay relaxed, though as I told the folks at the 65km aid station, "the work day has started." By this aid station, fueling was only my secondary concern. The fast pace to this point left my hamstrings and soon, my calves, in a near-cramping state. I realized that running previously runnable uphill sections aggravated the problem, so henceforth I started stretching my whole posterior chain every 5-10km out of necessity. Preventing my hamstrings from going into full-blown cramps was needed if I was going to maintain my pace and position. Along with stretching, I started drinking even more water as I figured that could only help. Pre-race literature and hyponatremia didn't concern me as I was consuming over 200kcal/hour in liquid fuel that included electrolytes.
From when Tim and I crossed paths until when I passed Krar coming the other way, 7 minutes had passed. I thought he may be able to close this gap, but it was apparent he was working harder. Next past was Aurelien Collet of France and then finally David Byrne. David was looking strong and at 3km ahead of me, his was an insurmountable lead. Many 100k racers will say there was evil intent on the location of CP5 as we had to run past it, 1.5k down to a turnaround, then 1.5k back uphill before we could resupply. Many people, me included, ran out of water and fuel as we gauged it being immediately available 3km earlier. Alas, once those 3k was knocked off, I downed more Coke and watermelon and repeated the same pattern of filling my Tailwind and clear flasks and heading back up the way I'd come. I calculated near the turnaround that Ose was 5-6 min back and Flaherty another 5 or so off him. Other guys started rolling past closer and closer together, and as I got back near the fire road, Lucy Bartholomew (eventual women's 100k champ on her 21st birthday!) popped out and a few minutes later, my mate, Henri Lehkonen, was making his way toward CP5 at 78km. At this point I had about 19km left and was feeling ragged but determined. I started coming across more and more 100k racers on their way out to the turnaround. As Byrne had gapped me a good ways, several times the 100k runners I bumped into verbally said they were just wondering where I was. Apparently, Byrne was building his lead on me. I was doing my level best to catch him, but at that point in the race, it was a tough task to carry out. I had building confidence that I could maintain a 5th place finish, but his pedigree and that of the three guys ahead of him are a step above me at this point.
Caroline, a friend of mine, of whom along with her husband, first welcomed me to China in 2009, lost her battle with cancer two days before the race. This race, then, was not only to make good on the Translantau DNF, but also to honor her as she watched from heaven. Jesus' promise for the light and momentary afflictions of this life to pass away as we are given a new body took place in her last week. And though comparing a half-day's struggle in a 100k is a worthless comparison to what she faced in her last 2 years, it was, last weekend Down Under, what I could do to remember the life she lived fearlessly and passionately. As the km's ticked by, I made sure to keep fueling and finally the end came within reach as I passed the "4km Left" signpost. After nine hours and ten minutes of running, I had but those 4km left of which I'd actually previewed several days before the race. I knew most of it was runnable save the Furber Stairs. Those 951 stairs would be what they were, but up until that point I wasn't sure that someone wasn't right on my tail. One guy shooting GoPro footage made me bolt as he came up behind me. I knew the risk of severe cramps to be higher than the reward of trying to gain a minute on an out-of-sight Byrne, so I drank in the beauty of dusk in the Blue Mountains and chatted with a few hikers as I passed them.
For me, UTA was stop #2 on the 2017 UTWT. Next up is the Eiger 101k race July 15 in Switzerland and then the CCC 100km race in Chamonix, France on September 1. Though iRunFar mentioned me and wondered who I was, and though I have more confidence now that the European races could go really well, it is a tragedy such as Caroline's passing that make crystal clear what's really important in this life. Results are forgotten, young guns arise and usurp yesterday's elites, and aging bodies betray a once indefatigable figure. What matters, then, is living life in light of eternity and enjoying Jesus one day at a time, thankful for every little thing-including the ability to run 100km. And therein, I hope that by showing forth the glory of God in my running, fellow competitors, spectators and you would be encouraged and inspired.