Alarm was set for 3.15am. This is early, even for me. Restless with a deep paranoia that I wouldn’t wake up in time for the start of the race, I slept very little. Two espressos later, adding last minute items to my running pack, I shake it with a caffeinated excitement and I hear an odd sound. I shake the pack again with curiosity only to realise a moment too late that that curious sound is the straps of my running pack tearing.
Hmmmm…..It’s now 4:00am. Race start is 4:30am and I still need to pick up a last minute item of mandatory gear from a friend at 4:15. Unusually, I don’t sweat it. I post on Facebook a last minute plea but it’s really just for amusement. It’s too late now for any real help to arrive.
I remember the gaffa tape in my car, still in the glove box from a month ago when my car got broken into and I taped it back together so I could go to Bright and run 4 Peaks. Hmmmm…..I remember the time my dad crashed his motor bike on a ride from Adelaide to Philip Island taking the scenic route along the Great Ocean Road. Unusually, he didn’t sweat it. He gaffa taped his bike back together and rode on. If it can’t be fixed with gaffa, it can’t be fixed.
I tape my bag together and am feeling confident it will last my predicted 24 hours out on the course. No one else seems convinced. Friends offer me last minute efforts of help – it seems there is an empty pack laying in almost every hotel room in Falls Creek, just waiting for me. Olivia even offers to hike a pack in for me on the course. For some reason, I can’t accept this help. I smile with sure confidence.
Time is moving quickly and before I know it, we are off. The first 5km follows Packhorse Trail. It feels like I’m just flowing down, gently, in the dark, guided by the light of my torch. I’m afraid of the cold. I run most Summer days in pants and a thermal. The weather predicted a pleasant day along the course, but the cold Falls Creek morning has me rugged up in a long sleeve, a thermal and a wind proof jacket. Over kill, even for me. At the trail junction – I take off all my layers. What the fuck was I thinking? As I stuff my layers in my pack the zip breaks. I keep this to myself. I fiddle with it enough so that I think most of my gear won’t fall out. As I’m fiddling with my pack on the side of the trail, 90 % of the field passes me. I’m not too worried but as I start to run, the padding of my additional layers removed, the pack starts to swing.
The holes in the straps mean it’s hanging too low and has no support. It’s grinding on my back and I feel chunks of skin being worn away…all in the first 10km of a 100km race. I’m getting frustrated and I know I can’t fix the pack now but I can fix my head. I have to let go what I can not control. Yes my back is going to be red raw at the end of this race but I’ll be in so much pain by the time I get to the finish line that will be the least of my worries. I think of what I’ve gone through to get to the start line. I am not going to let this pack bring me down. I develop a new strategy. The pack won’t break if I stay happy. If I get frustrated or sad, the pack will break and my race will be over. It’s time to get happy!
I take the first climb incredibly conservatively and at this point the remaining 10% of the field overtake me. I suspect I’m at the back end of the pack but I get a little shock when the sweeper catches me and tells me I’m dead last. I think about giving it in at that point. I’m a couple kms away from Warby Corner and I know I can be back at my hotel room in just over an hour. If I run back that’ll be enough of a jog to justify a pizza and a long soak in the hot tub. Then I think of what I’d say to Matty my coach. I quit the race cause I wanted pizza? Because I was coming last? Because I was slow? I don’t even like Pizza! Such BULL SHIT! They were all bullshit excuses and there was no way I could use any of them. So I strolled on into Warby Corner, the first check in point of the race. A few other runners were there with their crew. I had no crew so I sorted my nutrition out, said good bye to Barry who was sweeper for the first 25km of the course and got shuffling with the goal of not meeting the next sweeper.
Shuffling out of Warby Corner I got happy and I pretty much stayed happy until 85km into the race. I met some new friends, I drank water from the river, I climbed some mountains and ate some snacks. Oh and I didn’t meet any more sweepers! It was all pretty joyful.
Going into this race, the part I was nervous about was Quartz Ridge. It’s a rocky trail descending off Mount Bogong and is quite exposed. I get vertigo in high open spaces. I feel like the world is slipping out from under me and need to climb with my hands touching the earth. I suspected this might occur at some point during this race. I chose this race for that very reason. I wanted to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There were a few shady moments where my heart beat loud in my chest, but I was generally okay. I didn’t freak out. I moved slowly and carefully, but I was okay.
As I made my way down this trail I thought of my friend Vanessa who ran the 100 miler a few years ago. I was thinking of her standing at Langfords Gap – around the 85km mark of the race I think it was that year. She was standing beside her husband, after she had just patched up her blistered feet and was ready to tackle the night knowing she had a whole night and possibly a whole day of running ahead of her. I said to her, “you look so happy,” and she said “I am!” She looked radiant and it’s an image I never forgot. I was thinking how much her feet must have hurt at that point in the race yet she was so happy to continue. I tried to channel some of her mountain spirit and then I felt my phone vibrate. Who could that be? It was Vanessa! We spoke as I hurdled down Quartz Ridge, up and over up and over up and over the tree cemetery. My courageous friend. I knew if I could channel just 1% of her strength of character and her spirit I would finish this race happy and how could I not after her thoughtful phone call? I’ve never spoken on my phone during a race. This was a joyful first.
I was already running happy, but after Vanessa’s phone call I was running with love. I was familiar with the course and each time I thought a particular climb or particular section of lonely trail might bring me down, it didn’t.
I had another incentive to run happy. I knew my best friend had driven up to Falls Creek during the day and would be waiting for my at Langford’s Gap, the 70km point of the race this year. She’s not an ultra runner and we all know as ultra runners, ultra running isn’t much of a spectator sport. I was feeling blessed and grateful as I cruised into Langford’s. To add bliss to my bliss out, the sun was setting over the mountains, the sky was pink and there was my friend. I knew I smelt bad. The day had turned out to be quite warm and I had run through rivers and sweat out the day in a clammy damp shirt, and yet my wonderful friend hugged me. That is a true friend.
Langford’s was the first and only opportunity to change out of my wet shoes and socks that I had run in all day. The feeling of brand new dry Injinji’s brought me to pure ecstasy. I lingered a little too long at Langford’s chatting to old and new friends, having a snack, putting on warm dry clothes. Eventually it was time to leave and I knew I had 15km to Pole 333. No more mountains to climb – this should be easy. But it wasn’t. Daylight had left and the fog set in, I couldn’t see more than half a metre in front of me. The trail was easy enough to follow from here to Pole 333 but my head was playing tricks in the poor visibility. About 5km out from Pole 333 I started to get down. The trail was really wet and I was spending a lot of time rock hoping to keep my feet dry from the big pools of melted snow. It was a time consuming task and I was over it.
I got to Pole 333 and couldn’t make out the direction I needed to follow. I asked Clare from Alpine Search and Rescue the way and I was terrified she was trying to send me down the 100 miler course. I’m sorry Clare!
From Pole 333 I knew I had 15km to the finish, but my head. After Pole 333 the 100 milers go in one direction and the 100km runners in another. Most of the lights in the dark were following the 100 miler course and I felt so alone. I should have felt happy I only had 15km to go instead of 80 or whatever absurd distance they had, but I couldn’t get myself out of my slump. I had no niggles or injuries, but my feet hurt more than they’ve ever hurt before. I struggled to run and my shuffle was probably no faster than a walk. As I jogged into Pretty Valley Pondage my head torch went black – no warning. I channeled Satan and screamed “FUCKKKKKK!” to the black sky like it was 2010 and I was back singing in a metal band. Then I realised there was a volunteer standing a few hundred metres in front of me. I apologised profusely and he was such a gentleman. My hands were so cold by this stage I couldn’t manage to undo my pack and get my spare torch battery out. I had to ask for his help, something I don’t do well. He was so kind. Thank you kind volunteer man.
Then there was Mount McKay. It’s an out and back to the summit and as I “jogged” up a woman and a guy who was crewing for her were jogging back down. He said to me “Are you sure there isn’t ANYTHING I can do for you? Is there ANYTHING you need?” I realised then that I must have looked like complete shit. I said “just the finish line thanks, that’s all I need” and continued on with my shuffle.
THEN, I saw a man walking in front of me. I thought why hasn’t he got a torch and where is his running pack? He’s not a runner, he’s a creep! What’s he doing out here with no torch at midnight? Creepy creepy! Feminista of The Night, I tried to catch him and then suddenly he disappeared. He wasn’t real. Uh oh.
As I pranced about in the bush following the “green sopped poles” after Mount McKay I felt so disorientated. I had to keep checking PDF maps as I was convinced I was going backward, but then I hit the dirt road. Then the sign saying I had 2km to go to the finish. I tried to run with everything I had, which wasn’t much given I coudn’t keep any calories down from Pole 333 which seemed like an eternity ago at this point. 900m down down down. My poor feet! Finally, the finish. 22:03.
Through most of this race I thought to myself I’ll never ever run the 100 miler. That was easily the hardest 100km race I’ve ever run. It had everything that terrified me – mountains, heights, navigation, extreme weather, isolation. It also had everything that made my heart sing – mountains, heights, navigation, extreme weather, isolation. It’s the fear and the challenge that make it all worthwhile – that make running for 22 hours out in the mountains the most exciting thing I can possibly think of doing.
And so, a week has passed. My feet now fit back into shoes. The hole of gapping skin on my back from my broken running pack has mostly healed. And I feel myself wondering – what else is out there that scares the absolute shit out of me? That is worth all the sacrifice just to conquer? There’s always the 100 miler 🙂
The race was one thing but there is so much preparation that goes into a race. I was born in one of the flattest, driest, hottest suburb in Australia and mountains and the cold are not something I take for granted. I ran in the mountains for the very first time only two years ago and nearly died. A few weeks later I crewed for my friends who were running Alpine Challenge that year – so I could learn. I spent the following two years taking every opportunity to train in the mountains with my wonderful friends Kerry, Celesta and Jacqui who taught me so much.
I am no champion. I don’t win races or come close to the front of the pack, but what I do means something to me. I pick challenging races and I work through my fears. These experiences teach me to value and respect myself and teach to me to fight and survive in real life when times get tough. Most of all, they bring me love – for the planet, for its people and for myself.
I want to dedicate some of the love I earned in this race to all my friends, but some special love, respect and hope for my dear friends Vanessa and Kerry.
I’m at the race start of the Zion 100 miler in Town Park, Virgin Utah. Both the 100km and 100 miler races start at the same time so there are quite a few of us standing around chatting nervously. Despite having travelled across the world for this race, I instantly feel part of this community.
I see my new friend Cindy. I met Cindy the night before through our mutual Facebook friend Karen. Karen is a running pal who saved my arse a few years earlier when I left my Garmin at the airport before the Kep Ultra. Cindy too would save my arse before this day was through. It’s a beautiful community!
(Cindy and me at the race start)
6:00am comes too quickly and we are all off, my wonderful pacer, crew and friend Erin jogs the first few steps with us and then she is out of sight. It is still dark at this time. The sun is yet to rise. Though I know the sun will have set again and it will be dark once more before I see her again.
We head toward Flying Monkey trail. This is a steep trail that climbs around 600m in 1km and requires the use of a rope to scale parts of the Mesa, however once at the top, the views are stunning. The sun is beginning to rise. I am happy.
It’s a 10 km loop at the top of the mesa over undulating terrain. I try to run slow. It’s going to be a long day. I make conversation with some of the other runners. They have all run plenty of milers. Their advice quenches my novice thirst. I am warned about some of the more technical aspects of this particular course and told wisely “there is no shame in walking.”
It’s time to descend the Flying Monkey Trail and while I try to use the rope to get down the sharp descent, I realise I will be better off if I just use what my Mamma gave me and toboggan down the smooth rock on my backside. I check to make sure I haven’t ripped a giant hole in my pants and quietly encourage myself for my wise wardrobe choice. That could have been a very long day at the office with my backside out in the desert sun.
Soon I check in at Dalton Walsh Aid Station. We’ve already run 30km but I feel super fresh. I leave quickly heading out on a long dirt road that heads toward the second major climb of the race. There is a lone RV out in the desert and I say to another runner “look, it’s Heisenberg.” He tells me this is an awkward conversation so I am forced to run a little faster to make my exit. I channel my spirit animal for this race, the cassowary – bright, colourful, powerful (and slightly awkward).
At the top of the second climb, I encounter slick rock for the first time. I had been warned about this stuff but didn’t appreciate just how awful it was going to be until the first 10km stretch across the rock is under my belt. It is the equivalent of running on undulating, jagged pavement.
Eventually it’s over and I’m back at Dalton Wash. From here we head out onto another dirt road that slowly climbs up toward the third and meanest climb of the race, Goosebump Mesa. The heat starts to affect me. We are out in the open and the sun pummels its rays down upon us. It’s nauseating and it becomes difficult to keep down calories. My pace slows but I keep moving forward.
I become very interested in every runner I meet. I push the pace a little so I can catch up with a woman with wild curly hair. She’s from New York. She is struggling in the heat and can’t talk much so I day dream about the types of trails she might train on in New York. It keeps me occupied until we hit Goosebump mesa.
As we start to climb Goosebump the wind is knocked out of me. It’s a hands on knees grind to the top. Runners are perched on rocks around each switch back. I’m not the only one struggling but I don’t stop. Short strides and a scramble to the top and I reach Goosebump Aid Station.
From Goosebump we head out on a loop that should take me around two to three hours at the pace I’m going. I’m happy because I know the second time I pass through Goosebump I’ll see my lovely pacer Erin. However there is a slight problem – I’m three hours ahead of my most optimistic, speed demon schedule. I don’t have a phone that works in the USA so I don’t really have any way of contacting Erin. I try to send her a mental message by holding my temples, scrunching my face and hoping really really hard that she gets it, but I don’t like my chances.
About twenty minutes after leaving Goosebump, I start to wonder if I’ve taken the wrong trail. I haven’t seen another runner for some time. Then I hear foot-steps – it’s Cindy! We run together for a bit and then I tell her my predicament – that I’m three hours ahead of schedule and don’t know how to tell my pacer. She offers to text message her. Cindy is running faster than me now so I yell out the phone number as she runs off into the desert.
About an hour later, Cindy and I pass each other again and she lets me know that Erin got the message but won’t meet me at Goosebump as planned. Instead, she will meet me at the aid station 12km out of Goosebump.
I am relieved but as I jog on into Goosebump I feel so sad. The emotion is completely ridiculous but after running all day, I can’t help it – it’s all part of the course. I sit down for the first time all day and change my shoes. I am despondent. I don’t feel like talking to anyone. A camera man puts his great big camera in my face and asks me some questions. I want to tell him to fark off but instead I just ignore him. I’m not hungry. I’m not thirsty. The suddenly, I know exactly what I need…Rob Zombie!
Hellbilly Deluxe is loaded and off we go. I’m running stronger than I have run all day – hand clapping and screaming into the night. The album is over and I feel a little sad before I remember Hellbilly Deluxe 2! There’s a lot more hand clapping and singing and screaming and then I can see them! It’s not just Erin. It’s Julie! Dan! And Adam! (I didn’t know Adam – Julie’s husband, at the time but instantly he became a great friend).
The next few hours were amazing. Erin AND Julie paced me for around three hours. I don’t recall much of the trail through this section – I think it was single trail. I recall Erin had some pretty funky shoes that I just kept my eyes on and tried to keep pace. We had some laughs and giggles and then we passed a man who was having a good old fashioned ultra chunder. Julie is a doctor so she stopped to check he was okay. He was fine – ultra style. So she rejoined us and we jogged and laughed into the night.
(The top of Goosebump Mesa)
I said good bye to Julie whilst Erin kept me company all the way back to Goosebump Aid Station. This would be the final time I would pass through Goosebump. It was 2am and it was a momentous occasion. Though this was also the point I was to say goodbye to Erin. We would meet again at Virgin Aid Station in around 3 hours time, or so I thought. I wasn’t really talking much at this stage and I was getting cold. I knew it was a terrible descent down the Mesa and I took off without saying a proper goodbye to Erin.
The early morning hours find me hallucinating on a dirt trail. I’m no longer sure what is real and I’m afraid I’m getting hyperthermia. I see cartoon animals – a fox, a few frogs and a Klu Klux Klan man.
At 5am I hit Virgin Desert Aid Station. I don’t see Erin. I’m so cold. I had left my emergency thermal gloves with her and now I think I need them but she’s not here. I ask one of the volunteers if he has seen her. She’s gorgeous, tall and blonde – hard to miss. She’s not there. I can’t waste any more time so I head out on the first of three 10km loops that loop back to the same aid station.
I’m worried I’m getting frost bite. My hands hurt so bad I put them down my shirt under my arm pits. It helps but it’s very awkward to run with your hands in your arm pits.
I think my nose is going to fall off so I pull my buff over my face.
At 7am I am greeted by one of my wonderful pacers, Julie. I’m afraid it’s another hallucination. I’m so confused. When she talks, I realise she is real. She assures me that when the sun is full in the sky my aches and pains will disappear. She’s a doctor – I believe everything she says, I have to!
They don’t disappear but they do ease as my body warms up for another day of running. This loop feels like it’s taking a very long time, but suddenly I remember I packed my toothbrush. I tell Julie and she gets excited for me – at the end of this loop I will brush my teeth and it will be the best day ever!
At 9am, I brush my teeth. I can no longer stand or sit – only run. So I lie belly down on a tarp and brush my teeth. Julie, Adam, Erin and Dan gather around me and cheer. Yay! I brushed my teeth!
Erin joins me for the final miles. I am so glad to have her with me for this rough stretch. She is so good to me. The sun is so hot and I have forgotten my hat. Despite being sleep deprived and dehydrated she offers me her own hat and water. Instead of accepting graciously I start to complain.
“This is farked!”
“This is soooo farked” Erin joins in.
“This is sht!”
“This is soooo sht!”
Erin tells me I have less than 10 miles to go.
“That’s 10 miles too farking far!”
(Erin and I on the final mile)
I am raging and then suddenly I am laughing.
What a privilege it is to be out in the desert!
Sunrise to sunset to sunrise.
To paraphrase from the film Wild, “There is a sunrise and a sunset everyday. You can choose to put yourself in the face of beauty.”
I crossed the finish line at 12:30pm on Saturday – 4 hours ahead of my goal time in a time of 30 hours and 31 minutes.
I had put myself in the face of beauty. I had found my Zion.
Many many thanks to everyone who supported me in this journey but particular thanks to Matty Abel, my running coach at DBA Runners; Erin and Dan for everything; Julie and Adam – for being amazing, so amazing to me; thank you to my Dad who is always my inspiration; my mum who always believes in me; and most of all – my Liam who inspires me every day to be the best version of myself.
This is not my race report. That will follow. This is purely a reflection on my mental health four days after running 100 miles.
Initially, I had been very afraid of running 100 miles. Although I consider myself an ultra runner, this is one distance I was not sure I ever wanted to or should approach.
Bipolar episodes can be triggered by anything less than six hours sleep. Running 100 miles for a mid pack runner like myself, will generally involve running all day and all night and at least some of the next day. That’s an entire night of no sleep, no rest. I was scared. However, as I progressed in my running, I thought to hell with it, let’s give it a go.
The smart move would have been to run close to home and to have family and friends ready to support me in case it all went pear shaped. But I guess I had a bone to pick with bipolar. So many past experiences that should have been exciting and exhilirating had been dulled by bipolar. I wanted to experience everything. I wanted to find my Zion.
As I entered the Zion National Park the day before race day, I felt overflowed and electrically charged with emotion. A deep intensity of feeling that I now know never to take for granted. It was bliss and I soaked it in. I was already winning, not the race, but life.
The first day of racing went so fast and so smooth I felt a little concerned I was suffering hypermania. Should I be feeling this good? I was remembering to eat and my speech was at a controlled speed so I figured I was good. As night fell, I waited for things to get bad. I had great company and whilst I felt absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude for my crew and pacers, these emotions were all ‘normal’ so far as ultra running goes.
As I departed my pacer and headed down one of the sharpest descents of the race alone (around 2am), I once again anticipated the worst. Yes there were definitely a few f bombs thrown around during this section. The last few hours of daylight also brought some brilliant hallucinations but once again, all ‘normal’ in terms of ultra running.
The lowest time came the following day, with around 10 miles left to finish the race. In truth, this was really my only downer. Physically I was a wreck. My hip had ceased up and I was growing frustrated by my slow pace. As the sun increased its heat I realised that I had forgotten my hat in changing from my night time gear back to my day time gear. Mother Nature was beating down on me.
I started to complain to Erin, my pacer.
This is shit.
This is fucked.
I am sooooo over this.
Yep this is shit.
This is fucked.
It’s sooooo hot.
Sooooo over it.
It sounded funny when she said it. Eventually I realised how ridiculous I was sounding, just in time for the final aid station to come in to view. From this point, I knew I only had six miles to cover to the finish line. I was moving the pace of a snail but the end was near and my spirits soared again. That was really as low as it got and it was over as quickly as ripping off a bandaid (maybe not for poor Erin who had to put up with my complaining but in perspective – the low were a teeny tiny fraction of the highs).
As I crossed the finish line, I felt a surge of emotions: relief, pride, strength, happiness and excitement.
In the days that have followed I have nourised my body and soul with good organic food, sleep and I have kept moving – light walks and even a hike in the Colorado Mountains.
I haven’t experienced the huge downer I normally do post any race.
This has really gotten me thinking, what makes the 100 miler so different to any other race or distance? Was it just this particular race? Was it all the love an support I got from my crew and pacers out on course (thank you Erin, Dan, Julie and Adam), the strength and love my partner Liam was sending me in spirit (thank you Dearest) and the huge amount of support and love from all my family and friends that made this race so good?
I have always had a pretty good support network and while I never ever take that for granted, all the love in the world hasn’t stopped me from crashing and burning before.
So is there something more to this? Is there something special about running long?
The truth is, yes this race was hard, but it wasn’t that hard. All the horrible moments I anticipated just didn’t eventuate. I honestly had a really fun time running 100 miles and since the race, I haven’t felt an ounce of the post race blues. I know there may still be a downer around the bend but the fact that four days have passed since my last race and I haven’t wanted to die yet is a new thing for me.
Could it simply be that running long is good for the soul? I mean really good? Are 100 milers the new prozac?
Your world is an ashtray
We burn and coil like cigarettes
(Marilyn Manson, Reflecting God)
Three, nearly four years ago. Driving into the Grand Canyon National Park with my four best friends, my world was an ash tray.
Here I was in one of the most amazing places in the world with four of my favourite people.
I wanted to feel something, anything.
Heavily medicated with bipolar medication. A barely functioning liver and a beer the size of my head in hand.
A pill to make you numb
A pill to make you dumb
A pill to make you anybody else
(Marilyn Manson, Coma White)
I wanted to feel something.
I felt something. A shadow of emotion, but it was something.
Scar! Scar! Scar Mother fucker!
Marilyn Manson, Reflecting God)
We were screaming, all of us. Head banging. It was so simple and so fantastic. Driving into the National Park.
I was alive.
I stayed in the States for two months. I ran every day I was there. When I got back, I quit drinking, quit my meds and took up trail running.
Time has passed me by and I have grown stronger, mentally, physically and emotionally. I am ready for this next challenge.
In four weeks, I will be running 100 miles, my first 100 miler – Zion 100 miler.
Well because I want to see those canyons, that red earth, that US sky, free of the haze and free of the misery.
I want to feel the exhilaration when my heart floods with joy at the sight of that red earth.
I want to feel the heat and dirt on my face, my aching feet and tired legs.
As the sun sets I want to feel fear, of the unknown, of the night, of my own limits.
When I feel I can’t go on, I want to feel the exhaustion. I will acknowledge it and then search to feel the strength within.
I want to feel the highest of highs and the lowest of lows because feeling something is worth everything.
First thing is first, I do not profess to be an expert on this topic. However when I entered my first multiday race, the Big Red Run (BRR) in 2013, the first thing I did was Google “multiday racing.” This strategy had served me well in my preparation for a half marathon, a marathon and even an ultra marathon so I assumed I would get something of interest. I was wrong. There was nothing. Not a thing!
So I spoke to as many people as I could about multiday racing, posted on CoolRunning and Facebook looking for tips, read biographies by runners who had run multiday events, I even looked at multiday cycling events for tips. Eventually, I stumbled on Bryon Powell’s book, Relentless Forward Progress. While he doesn’t specifically deal with multi-day racing, his book is a bible for any ultra marathoner and I was able to take a few key pieces of information from it and apply it to multiday racing.
In the end, a few things worked well and a few things really didn’t work at all.
This year, I entered and raced the Atacama Crossing. I was able to tweak those things that had failed me during BRR 2013 and in the end I was pretty happy with the choices I had made.
So what leads me to this blog is not that I suddenly consider myself an expert on multiday racing after only two events. What motivates me to write is the knowledge that there is absolutely nothing out on the internet or readily accessible for someone contemplating such an event. So I want to share with you what worked for me and what didn’t work so well. I emphasise the word ‘me’ here. What works for you might be very different and before I go in to my tips, I leave you with Dean Karnazes tip for multiday racing (taken from the extras clip in Desert Runners) “Listen to everyone, follow no one.”
1. A 100 miler program is a good starting point.
I used a 100 miler program from Bryon Powell’s book. I then tweaked it to include the most important aspect of multiday training which leads me to point two….
2. Back to back to back runs.
Back to back to back runs are the single most important thing in training for a multiday race.
To begin with, I started with back to backs. That involved running anywhere from 20-40km on Saturday and backing it up on Sunday with a similar distance. The logic is that you need to get used to running on tired legs.
As you get stronger build up to back to back to back long runs. So for me, I would do 20-30km on a Friday after work (hitting the trails in the dark is also a great way to prepare for the long day where you will be out in the dark unless you’re super fast). Wake up Saturday and run another 30-40km. Then anything between 20-40km Sunday.
If I knew my motivation to run on Sunday was likely to be missing, I’d enter a race or plan to meet a friend so that I’d be accountable and make sure I got the session done no matter how tired I was. Remember, you’re going to be more tired than you could ever imagine running a multiday event – get used to running when you really don’t feel like it.
3. Train specific to the terrain
Really think about what this means. This was one of the things I didn’t do so well first time around.
BRR is a lot of sand, so every weekend, I would drive out to the Great Ocean Road to train on the beach. This was the most inefficient use of my time. Firstly, I was spending four hours return in the car – this was a waste of my precious time. Secondly, running on the sandy shore of Torquay did absolutely nothing to prepare me for the dunes of the Simpson Desert.
So, if you have dunes – go train on them, but for many of us who don’t live anywhere near the beach, all that driving is going to chew up time that you could be training, so focus on what is around you and how you can use that to mimic the demands of the terrain on your body. I live in the hills so I trained on those hills so I got stronger and better able to handle the ascents of the dunes. The rocky uneven terrain I used to mimic the uneven impact of the sand on my shonky ankles.
Second time around I didn’t bother with any sand training, I just ran all my miles on hills. By the time it got to race time, my legs were strong enough to handle the desert.
4. Hit the gym
You are going to be carrying that pack a very long way. You need to be strong to do this. As a runner you might have strong legs, but I bet your shoulders and back could do with a spruce up. You don’t have to start lifting like Arnie, but do some work to help your poor old shoulders out – they will thank you for it. While you’re at it, focus on your core strength too. That pack will make you its biatch if you don’t get strong.
5. Prehab is cheaper than rehab
Factor in recovery weeks during your training. Get friendly with a good myotherapist. Take your spikey ball with you everywhere and impress your work mates with your desk stretches – when they ask you what on earth you’re doing and you say you’re going to run 250km across the desert it gives you office credit to do what you like (two years later and I’m still working in a corporate office bare foot).
1. Test everything!
You do not want to stock up on freeze dried food to find that on day three of the race, you cannot handle another mouthful.
On one or two of my back to back to back run weekends, I ate only what I planned to take with me out in to the desert. To rid myself of the temptation of the pantry, I went camping on these weekends. This made the whole thing a fun adventure and come race day, I knew exactly what foods I could tolerate whilst running back to back efforts.
2. Don’t confine yourself to the freeze dried prepackaged meals
I have food allergies and I am a vegan so none of those pre-packaged ready made meals work for me. This was a blessing in disguise. Both races, I have had to deal with the envious looks of other runners as they sit down to a breakfast of spag boll while I indulge in oats with cranberries and chia seeds.
Those pre-packaged things are loaded with garlic which can upset your gut when you run. By the sounds and smells coming from the porter loos, they’ll also either block you up completely or have you risking a “code brown.”
Here are some foods I took with me to the desert that worked really well (they’re all wheat free, fructose friendly and vegan):
– Corn cous-cous (though if you eat wheat or gluten you could opt for regular cous cous or spelt or khamut).
– Rice noodles
– Dried seaweed flakes (yummy and salty)
– Dried fruit (cranberries, blueberries and bananas)
– Textured vegetable protein (TVP – available at health food stores and most Asian grocery stores)
– Oats (soak overnight for easy digestion or use quick oats)
– Chia seeds and sesame seeds (both high in tryptophan which will help you sleep at night)
– Trail mix
– Vegetable chips
– Banana chips (Coles banana chips don’t contain honey)
– Sunwarrior protein powder
– Cliff bars
The only freeze dried foods I took were plain rice and a plain vegetable mix (no spices or added garbage).
1. Test everything!
Things will start to chafe in places you never thought could chafe. Test everything you plan to take with you and test them in racing conditions. For example, I have a Solomon skirt that I adore racing in. It’s great for ultras. However, after three days of running with no wash, the fabric created a weird rash on the outside of my thighs. I of course did not discover its ability to do this until day three of the Atacama Crossing. Had I just worn the compression shorts I had tested and planned on wearing right up until the morning before the race, I would have had one less rash to deal with.
2. Find a pack that suits your body type
Not many packs fit a female body well. I ended up using an Inov8 Race Pro 2 30 litre pack for the Atacama Crossing. I took out the back padding and replaced it with my Thermarest as I could inflate it slightly so that the back of the pack contoured into the shape of my spine. I then made a whole heap of changes to the pack which included adding front bottle holders so I could keep a better tab on how much I was drinking during the race and I cut off every loose strap as they not only add weight but they annoy the crap out of me when they flap about in the wind for 250km straight!
For an event like BRR, it’s not necessary to carry everything you need for the full week so you can get a smaller pack and that generally means you have more options. My advice on this one is try before you buy. I have four packs sitting in my gear closet right now and only two of them ever get used – the perils of buying online. One is too long for my torso and the other chafes my collar bones. If you’re going to be using that pack for 250km, it needs to be comfortable.
And make sure you start training with your pack early!
3. Buy big shoes
This was my biggest learning curve. For BRR, I wore shoes one size bigger than my normal size. Over the course of the week my feet swelled and by the final day, I could not take my shoes off for fear of not getting them back on. The result of swollen feet in tight shoes was disastrous. Had it not been for the amazing and creative medics at BRR, I would have had to drop from the race.
Second time around, I bought shoes two sizes too big for me. They were perfect. Minimal blisters and minimal toe nail carnage as a result.
4. Look after your feet
If you get a hot spot, stop and tape it. Read up on blister prevention before the race. Stock up on Hydropel and/or moleskin if that works for you. Take gaiters (sand will annihilate your feet) and make sure your sneakers are not the type that will let all the sand in through the front mesh of the shoe.
Don’t underestimate the importance of socks. My feet were such a mess during BRR and that was partly due to my sock choice. I wore Injinji trail socks with compression socks over the top. This worked great on training runs in the cold, wet Dandenong Ranges but was a nightmare in the hot Simpson Desert. This combination caused my feet to overheat. The compression socks were such a pain to get on and off that I ended up leaving hot spots because I just couldn’t be bothered to deal with them. They soon turned into nasty blisters on blisters on blisters.
Second time around, I wore Injinji liners and Drymax socks over the top. This was a great combination. I didn’t use any cream or powder to prevent blisters and my gaiters broke midway through the race. I had river crossings, sand and heat to contend with and only had four very small blisters by the finish and didn’t lose a single toe nail (compared to about a zillion blisters and no toenails at the finish of BRR).
5. Give poles a go (or not)
I didn’t take poles to the Simpson Desert. This was partly because I totally underestimated how slow I would be running at times and how much I would need to walk at times.
I decided to take poles to the Atacama Desert thinking I would only use them on the long day. I ended up using them from the very first to the very last moment of the race. They saved my back, helped me climb and kept me steady when I was fatigued.
To each their own – if you’re a fast runner and plan on running the whole thing, you certainly won’t need poles. But if you are a mere mortal, give them a go. Personally I loved them and wouldn’t do a desert race without them now.
6. Don’t be cheap on sleeping gear
I took only what I needed and I paid for it dearly. I was so cold during the desert nights of the Atacama Crossing that I didn’t sleep for any more than two hours a night. This just added to my fatigue and delayed my recovery.
If there is ever a “next time” for me, I will be investing in a warmer sleeping bag/liner and sleeping mat and warm clothes (thermals and jacket – I was cheap and nasty primarily because I didn’t want to ruin anything with a 4deserts logo, but in hindsight, a good night’s sleep is worth its weight in gold).
I should be writing an essay right now. Actually, I should be at uni right now, but I decided to skip today’s tutorial on research and evidence in health science.
I fly out to Santiago, Chile at 6:40 on Sunday morning. I have been making lists, lists and more lists of things that need to be done before I go. This morning I realised that I was never going to tick everything off unless something went, so my uni tutorial had to go. Now, I should be writing my essay that is due Tuesday, but instead I am obsessing over fitting all my mandatory gear and food into my bag and running 250km across the Atacama Desert.
My good friend Duncan told me that life is like a stove top – you’ve got four hot plates, each representing a different facet of your life. It’s okay to supercharge one hot plate at the neglect of another from time to time, but you can’t expect to have all four hot plates firing at maximum heat all at the same time.
I have come to realise this week that not only are all my hot plates turned up to maximum heat, but I’ve got too many friggin’ hot plates!
I guess I just have to let the cooker burn now. I’ve probably ruined the rice, but if I can save the legumes I’ll be happy. Actually, I think the legumes are cooked to perfection.
So yes, life is madness, but when I reflect on the last few months of training and life, well I’m pretty happy.
Training has been spot on. No stone has been left unturned. The last three months my weekly mileage has been between 80-110km. Most weeks have been comfortably in the 90-100 range. That is really good for me. When I reflect on my training for Big Red, I only did one week of 100km. Every other week sat around 70-80.
CrossFit has been great in developing my overall strength and giving me confidence, agility and despite the myths that CrossFit is an injury prone sport (yes, it is if you do it WRONG), I have stayed injury free this whole training block.
I have incorporated altitude training, speed work and Bikram yoga into my schedule.
On reflection, I don’t think there is anything that I would change.
Despite the fact that my hot plates are all burning out of control, I’m so bloody happy. I have been trying to catch up with as many friends as possible in the last week before I fly out. As I walked down Brunswick Street on Wednesday night after dinner with my dear friend Jo, I thought, God I am so friggin happy!
A few years ago, Melbourne was a cold and lonely place for me. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted out of life. I felt totally lost – lost in myself and lost in this city of unfamiliar faces.
Now, Melbourne is home. I have wonderful friends, friends who I am so grateful to for their continued support, friends who inspire me every day and friends who I will miss while I am away.
In a couple of weeks when I’m trudging through the desert with a heavy pack on my back, sleep deprived, stinky, hot, uncomfortable and in a world of pain, I hope I have the strength to remind myself how lucky I am. How lucky I am to have wonderful friends, loving family and a supportive partner who just shrugs his shoulders and says “Oh your life” every time I tell him of my next adventure. How lucky I am to have a body willing and able to attempt such a feat. How lucky I am to do these things for fun! I am a lucky, lucky girl.