Going into the unknown of ultra running for time rather than distance was a calculated area of inexperience I knew I had. There has to be a different strategy and mental preparation to go into a race where you're spending an entire 12hrs on a 500m circuit....... Whilst I knew this at the time of paying my entry fee, it was far from my level of comprehension just how mentally draining this would be.
We arrive 3 hours before the start line with the knowledge of a record participant figure of 265. On the 500m track it has to be tight fit. So to secure a decent spot, we better be early. Expecting to be one of the first, we find there are at least a dozen other teams setting up already. Ok, so we're not too keen after all. We hop out of the car, Wow, it's not what I'd call comfortable running conditions. Low 30 deg C, at 90% humidity meant that just our casual walk around the track to find a good spot brought some light beads of moisture the forehead.
We settle down about 40 metres from the start line and main timing camp giving easy access to race data as we trudge through the weary night. With more food, drink, table space, shelter and general aid matter than the entire race, I think we've got all we need. My mother and brother, both being virgins to the aid station game were unbelievably well prepared and carried the team of 4 well through the night.
30 minutes to go I decide I'd better sit down for a while and get the head in the right space, rather than spinning through the million thoughts of how, when, what of my race plans and just keep it simple. Stay comfortable for 6-8 hours, aim to be at 60km by the 6 hr mark and see what's left after that.......
"5 minutes to go guys. Relay teams to start near the front as we anticipate them to run off faster, then everyone else find a spot you feel comfortable" was the announcement from the loudspeaker nearby. Gee, those last 25 minutes went by quick considering the last 24hrs leading up didn't seem to move at all. Barry, Sammi, Graham and I slowly tread our way over. I take a quick final glance over myself to make sure I haven't forgotten anything, turn on the Garmin, give the surrounding crew some warm wishes before we head off on the slight down hill grade.
140 something runners all lining up on a 4 meter wide track meant the combined scent of deodorant and deep heat was that much stronger, not to mention thinking the first couple of turns will be a tad bit squeezy. And off we go to sound of the village bell..........
The first couple of laps are really hard to keep my pace down. With so many events on the go from half marathon to 12hr, relays of every option known to running, it meant there was some very fast pacing out there. "Keep comfortable for 6 hrs" was running through my mind every time the Garmin buzzed through a kilometre and telling me I'm way ahead of target pace. "Ok, slow down Matt you're going out way too hard". I continue to tell myself. No matter how much I tried to run slower, I just found myself running splits 30-45seconds faster than the plan. (This will change later on).
"1 minute till change of direction guys" blaster over the field. Dripping with sweat only 1 hour in, I decide to follow the example set by the majority of the male field and lose the top. Oh that's better instantly. The sun's now resting on the horizon giving us a distinct orange and purple glow, and the breeze now hitting the skin direct helped drop the core temperature a little.
22 laps down I hit the 1 hour scheduled direction change. At least we had a chance to run towards our mates before we each turned for a quick hi-5 and forced grin. I quickly take a mental examination of how I'm sitting body wise vs time and come to realise that while I may have 11km in the bank, making me 1km in credit, I'm not sitting as comfortable as I'd anticipated. Better get some food in. Fuel up early! As I reach out for a cherry ripe I see my arm is shiny like I'm oiled up for a bodybuilding photoshoot. Why am I sweating so much when I'm running at 70% effort? Better keep the fluids up. Instead of just taking a quick swig after every few laps and returning the bottle a few seconds later with an unthoughtful bottle toss back at the support table; I decide I'll take a bottle with me on my scheduled walk breaks. This seemed to have kept the fluids up enough to keep me going and settled one of my fears of dehydration.
2 hours and 20km down I'm back on target pace. "6hours, 60km, stay comfortable" I continue to remind myself. With the plan of eating early to stay fuelled up I keep my eating habits regular and fluids remain the priority....
Barry is on a flyer pushing a pace I'd expect from the typically fast starter and continues to look good. Sammi passes her PB distance and seems to have settled into a reasonable run/walk pattern that's working for her. Graham a couple of laps back looks to be fairing quite well.
Not good..... what's going on? Stomach going on me at only 30kms? NO! I've had longer training runs at faster pacing with no problems. I haven't eaten anything untested. This is not right. I slow to a pace of run 1 lap walk the uphill section of the next and repeat. 20 mins later, the belly continues on it's downward spiral. How can this happen? The legs soon follow with that familiar, heavy, sloppy feeling when you're feeling low. I've got to break this now otherwise I can kiss this night goodbye. I settle back to a run 1, walk 1 pattern but keep the walk to a 7km/h pace so as to not cost me more than neccessary. I have a few KM's buffer in the pacing to allow a slight drop off through the night but I hadn't planned having to cash them in so soon.
I'm not the only one that's now about to have an uncomfortable night. Sammi rolls her ankle, but finds she can keep on it with a favourable limp. So with some deep courage and determination, she gets back out of the relieving camp chair and hits the track once more. Sitting at low 20km's I try to nudge Sammi back out of a slump by telling her I'd be really happy if she could muster 32km, and ecstatic should she hit 35km. She get's back up and pushes out some more. Well done, Sammi, that takes something from deep inside that most others can't fathom.
3.5hrs I'm way back at 32kms. If I'm to hit the targeted 100km, this belly had better get sorted NOW. Oh yes, I bought some ginger beer as a plan B in anticipation of belly problems. Let's give it a go. Untested on runs but I've got nothing to lose now. Down half a bottle and off I go. I hobble through for 10 minutes and, oh, it's coming good. Is it really getting better or is it just a mental thing? I don't care. I can run. I get 4 or 5 laps though at goal pace. YEAH, I'm back! 100km will be a tough fight but it's still on target. I just need to keep this belly at bay. OK, no more sweets, and no gels. Fruit and pasta is all it will take.
What is that? Ooooo, ow, click, click, click. Medial collateral ligament on left knee. Every leg extension without fail was with a clicking sharp pain. I slow to a walk, it stops. Run again, ouch, there it is. You've got to be kidding me? Where has this come from? Racking my brains of what can cause this I come to nothing. Training has been good, tapering was good. Why now? On the only good note, the ginger beer seems to have done it's job. The feeling of losing my dinner has subsided somewhat. Still there, but bareable. Bit of an anticlimax now that I can't run from the damn knee.
I slip further and further back. Now at 19th place, and 5hrs down I make some calculations. If I'm to make 100km's I'm going to have to run at normal ability. Sadly, tonight is not my night and should I attempt it, I think it'll pull me right out. Right there, I have to mak a call I never planned for; "I have to let go of my 100km target, it's not gonna happen" I mutter in the direction of our table to the crew as I stagger past.
About 30 minutes later I tell Barry of my trouble as I keep a painful but determined run/walk pattern up. He shares his compassion and respectfully pushes on, still on target for a comfortable 100km session.
Another 30 minutes, Barry comes trotting up behind for the hundredth time. (what it felt like). "Maybe try taking the calf sleeves off. See how you go" He advises. Why not, it's hot anyway and I'm certainly not punching out any level of 'performance' to warrant them. So I finish the lap and flop myself down onto the delightful comfort of the canvas. ahhhh, can I stay here forever? Off they come. It felt as relieving as taking your shoes off after a long day....... Off I go.
15 minutes later I chance a little stroll.... Still clicking.... Shit! At this rate, I'm now looking at 80km. This is not what I signed up for! This is not what I trained for! So the painful run/walk pattern continues while I dread every time I come to my planned run down the gentle slope and long for the walk on the up.
6 hours down, and the announcements continue to remind me that the 6 hour runners are finished. By the 4th or 5th announcement I'm about ready to curse at him as it's definitely not something I need to hear right now. The only positive that came at this time was seeing Sammi finish up as strong as an injured runner can and knocking a huge PB at 34.5kms. So after a 3 second congratulations hug as she is rewarded with a rest and cold drink, I return to the deadly gravel that has carved my night plans to ruins.
Hang on........ I, I, can I? I think...... YES, it's releasing........ Whilst still slightly there, the ligament seems be playing by the rules a bit. 8 hours in, it is clear that 100km's is off the cards no matter how good I now feel since I'm only at 62kms and in no position to pull out a 4hr marathon. Now the chance of pulling back my recently doubtful revised plan of 90km's is possible should this knee continue to improve and the belly stay at bay.
"We're about 2 minutes from the turn around folks" is the call filling the now almost silent and still course. Not a lot of cheering from the weary supporters and the runners are all in their own trance like state in attempt of making something of this warm, sticky night. Ok, 3 hours to go. I'm in 20th place. Let's see how this knee is. I make an attempt to put in 2 full laps without a walk for the first time in hours. It works. WooHoo!!!!! I can actually run! In fact, just putting those 2 laps down had the big screen tell me I'd jumped into 19th. I may be having a bad night but clearly so are some others.
This little buzz gave me a thought. If I can run, and I picked up one place, how far away is the next? Let's get 18th. I come around to aid station with a new found sense of energy. "Steve, I'm 19th, go check the screen and tell me how far away is 18th". 3 minutes later, "4 laps Matt." OK, 2km away. Let's reel him in. This occupies the mind with a more manageable goal. I put down about 5-6 laps at decent pace. "Now where is he?". "1 lap" he replies. Oh this is great news. Not only can I now run if I keep my mind off the belly, but I'm gaining. I down some more fruit which has been my only intake for the last 6 hours besides an attempt at half a cup of spaghetti. Let's get him. 3 laps later, 18th place. YES. Alright, where's 17th. Only 3 laps ahead. This one takes a little more chasing but just after the next change the big screen rewards my efforts with prize of 17 next to my name.
This is a game I like better. Forget about how far I'm going, or the time I have left. Let's just focus on 'one at a time' with the next in front. "Got him Steve, where's 16th?" It was so refreshing each time I seen I was pulling in on the next and a massive boost once I'd got them. This is how I'll finish the night off. "5 laps". OK, so this one's a little further but 2.5km's is ok as long as he's not going to hard. I have a little over 1.5 hours to go. Let's make this one the target.
I fuel up again, keep the chilled water flowing and don't stop. No more stopping if I'm going to get this one. A few little walks on the up of the back straight here and there but that's all.
2 minutes til our next and final direction change for the race, I find I've got him. It was a hard chase, and took a bit out of me but I got him. Now I need to keep it. No lower than 16th at the end, but let's go for 15th. After another sneeky request of my crew to stare the tally screen down I find the next is not only just 3 laps away, but he's walking with Graham. Aha. I got this. 1 lap down, 2 laps down, ok there he is. Oh, bugger, he's gonna make this hard. He's started running again. 50 minutes to go. OK let's just not let him get away and I'll pass him on his next walk break. Whoa! He's putting in. I can't maintain that pace. No way, he's clearly been walking for a while. 15 minutes later he comes flying around past me, and looks strong. OK, no way is this gonna to happen. He's too quick after a decent break. Let's just keep this 16th and not let it go.
Here comes the reminder that I've been up all night; the indescribable Queensland sunrise. Oh what a sight for tired eyes. It's a subtle yet direct message that we're almost done. Gee I needed that.
All the while of playing 'cat and mouse' I've let the total km's become 2nd priority, resulting in a tally I wasn't really conscious of. Oooo, 30 mins, and 4 kms til the 90. I'm knackered, but I can do that. Let's get that 90!!! Sounds better than 80 something. Knowing I'm going to have to report this run, I really don't feel like reporting an 80's tally.
"Hey Barry, how far off your 100km?" I don't know what he said under that strained but concentrated breath but I could sense it was very soon. I soon find he hits it shortly after. What an inspiration and what a buzz for me to share that with him given he's the man who got me into ultra running only a handful of months ago. Well done Barry, you're a true example of what ultra running is all about. Commitment, compassion, personal resolve, and a down right awesome runner!
3 minutes to go I hobble through the line to tick over the 90km total. Awesome!!! As I come to my aid station my father hands me my finishers block to mark where I stop but I tell him I'll make it back anyway. This means a final lap at 6min/km pace. Sounds easy but not after a night like that. I give it my all. Striding out like I was fighting for my life, the announcement comes out "30 seconds",.............."15 seconds"......... there's the line and there's my aid station. If I have to stop somewhere on the course for the officials to measure my finishing spot, it's gonna be there. With 4-5 seconds to go, there I am slowing to a holt right in front of my awesome crew. "Keep going, it's still on!" they scream. "Nope"....... and bang, there it is. All over folks.
90.547km's, after the worst night I've spent on my feet in my short running career. Whilst I was initially upset with falling short of the 100km goal, I look at where I was at 4 hours and how I felt for the following 5. That makes me happy with the 90km's.
It's one thing to run well, which is always welcomed, and there's another to run when you're not well. This race was an example of pushing through when at your lowest. When you think you're out and you begin to brainstorm ways of excusing yourself out of the race because of some legitamate reason. Thankfully, out of the million ideas I came up with during those awful hours, non of these reasons were good enough. No way was I returning home to tell my wife and kids that I gave up. No way was I returning to my aid station with all the effort thay'd put in to say I'd given up. No way was I looking in the mirror the next morning and expecting to be happy by knowing I'd tossed it in.
Good runs teach you that you're training was right, and that you've prepared well. Bad runs teach you everything else....................... Which means I learned a lot. I can't wait for my next bad run!
Pre race pic - with Barry and Sammi