So in my mind I like to think I’m an ultra runner who organises a few events. Funny how we see ourselves, I’ve organised a LOT more events than I’ve competed in in recent years. Anyway, now I’m back from a 2.5yr injury break it’s good to be doing the odd race again!
So it was with great excitement when all the stars aligned and I was able to commit to doing the Hounslow Classic last weekend (10th October 2015). I committed to doing it early July so had a good 3months to train on the back of a good 33k mountain race, the Routeburn Classic, late April this year.
After marking out and clearing the Mt Difficulty Ascent course I had a few good weeks of serious climbing under my belt. I started training in earnest then promptly cracked a rib. Running with a cracked rib is awesome ‘ultra’ training. You can develop your pain tolerance from the very first step of your gentle 5k! But it doesnt help with the actual healing. So no running for 4 weeks. A bit of gentle biking but that was all. Bummer – looks like I’ll only get 2 months good training before Hounslow.
So a month later I start training then get a mild cold. Not too bad but I want to take it easy so it doesn’t get worse so I ease up on the training. After a few days I feel good so do a couple of hard days ‘catch-up training’ then boom! Man-flu. OK! F%#@ you then, I’ll do nothing for a week. At least I still have 6 weeks to get some good training in – and I did. I logged everything on Strava (yes I do find it motivational knowing others are watching how much or how little I’m doing – but also it’s just an awesome training log!). from 6 weeks out I ran in kilometers – 80, 45, 85, 41, 52 and 10- actually when I look at that now it looks pretty shit. I’ve never been a high mileage runner and I did chuck in a few bike rides (20-30ks) for some cross training. I also did some core and leg strength training at least 3 days a week for 15-30mins per day. So nothing epic about my training. in the last 10 days I deliberately did less than I thought I could or should do – Hot Tip #1 – better to go into a race under done than over done!
So the race! A lot of my Aussie mates had been talking this race up. It’s the Mt Difficulty of Australia! It’s soooo steep… It’s soooo technical… it’s just all-round soooo hard. I sniggered out loud at these comments on Facebook. The Aussies think it’s hard! Well I won’t have to worry, what do the Aussies know about steep, technical ‘mountain’ races anyway! Boy was I about to get schooled!
Outwardly I was telling folk it’ll probably take me 12hours. Inwardly I couldn’t imagine it taking that long and thought 10hrs could be on the cards. My plan was to start slow, not blowup too early, get into my grove and see how things panned out. last few days had been good. short flight from Queenstown to Sydney. Great car ride with Ben and Andrew Duffus from the airport to Blackheath and great accommodation… no niggling injuries!!
The Hounslow course is actually nicely broken into 4 reasonably equal parts, so the first 17ks I wanted to do slowly but come in under 2.5hrs. I started near the back and ran the first flattish section really slow, took some pics on my phone as I went… when onto facebook and posted them!! I was going really easy.
Once we started going down I gradually started passing a few people, no hurry, just a couple here and a couple there. The first 17ks takes you around down and back up the ‘Canyon Loop’ which is absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful! Sheer cliff faces, deep gorges lined with ferns… a wee tunnel, lots of running under over-hanging cliffs… lots of stairs – even the flat sections had these really cool, large, rock ‘stairs’ across wet areas. Great fun to run on/skip over! I took some photos here too – didn’t stop though – was taking it more seriously at this stage.
At the bottom of the canyon there are a few kilometers of nice runable single track which was a bit over-grown. i had to have one arm in front of my face keeping branches and leaves away – the footing wasn’t particularly unstable, you just couldn’t see it that well for the flora flicking your eyes/face. It was fun running though, branches to jump over, tree’s to dodge around – I was loving it! Now we had our first real climb. Up a lot of stairs passed and under and through water falls… it was awesome. If finish of that first loop came sooner than I thought and I was stoked to see it took me just under 2hrs 30mins. The bells and cheering of the crowds around the aid stations was awesome – gave you a real boost. The aid stations were beautifully stocked with fresh fruit, coke, chips and lollies and was any 5yr olds birthday party dream come true.
Now I had had a taste of the course I realised 10hrs would be a BIG ask! I set a wee goal of doing the next 17ks out and 17ks back in 5hrs 30min.
As I left the start/finish area again I meet up with Jean Beaumont (another Kiwi I was staying with) and we ran to the next aid station together. Jean is a good strong runner and I thought she’d be a good pace setter for me. So we skipped along a great, runnable section of the course then I left her slightly behind as we descended ‘Perrys Look Down’ – damn! That was a lot of steps!! I hadn’t done much downward steps training and was trying to go gentle on my Plantar Fascia. I could feel them getting hot so every now and then I’d walk a few steps and try to land in the full flat of the step (not the edge of each step). Damn steps!! This course has more steps than all of NZ’s National Parks put together plus a few of our cities I reckoned. (My feeling towards steps would change later in the race).
The next bit of the race didn’t have stairs. The climb up to Lockley’s Pylon starts off nice enough, single track weaving through the bush… it gradually gets steeper and at this part of the day it got about a degree hotter with every vertical 10m climbed. I had been eating and drinking well so I couldn’t understand my lethargy not quite half way into the race? Looking back at strava it took me 1 hour to go 2.2km! I honestly don’t think I have EVER walked so slow. (There is one fenceline in Northburn100 that gets you down to that pace but only for a few minutes. Actually later in Northburn100 there is quite a bit of grovelling… )
The sun was beating down on me. The poxy trees all around me were so spindly that they offered zero shade. I was starting to feel sick and began the debate – better to spew and get it over with or just try and hold it in? This debate went on for the next hour. Another layer of indecision was added to the debate when I decided the next bit of shade I’ll take a rest. Just a wee lie down – where is a nice bit of shade??!! Honestly there was none. About this time I caught up with Matt Bixley – WTF?? Matt are you going up or coming down? You shouldn’t be here going up!?? Matt had lightly tapped his ankle against some particularly vicious foliage and decided his race was over. He was just getting to the next aid station for the bus ride of shame. Talking shit with Matt did get me through probably the worst part of the race.
About half way up this climb the course leaves the nice narrow, loose rock single track in the exposed sun and becomes a rock climb navigating some pretty decent crags… in the exposed sun. Unfortunately I just didn’t have the energy to really enjoy this bit as I’m sure I would have. You top out at the crag and then see another climb ahead of you! And then after that one there is another one! Then finally you make it to Lockley’s Pylon. Best views on the course you’ve been told. Whoopty fkn doo! (Totally don’t care) What? This isn’t the turn a round?? Nope there’s a ‘flat’ bit along the top to the aid station and turn around. I can see a bright orange vest in the distance – that must be it!
People are struggling just like me all around. A couple of guys I just passed are sharing the last of their water. “Here you go boy’s, have some of this” I said oh so unselfeshly and gave away my last electrolyte from my bottle. I still had water in my bladder – suck, suck – oops, no I don’t but no worries the aid station is just up there. Oops, no, you’re just a photographer?? The aid station is another 3 km away??!!! Fk.
So it was, 3km later, fantasizing about shade and cool fluids I eventually made it to this aid station. I’m not kidding one bit when I say Scotty Hawker was about the most beautiful vission I had ever seen – if I had the energy there would of been hugs and passion – but lucky for him all I could do was collapse in a chair and scull a can of coke direct from a tray of ice! OMG, absolute bliss. Cool watermelon – OMG nommm nomm nomm… this aid station was so nice I just didn’t want to leave. A leasurely visit to the port-a-loo and some more watermelon and I started to consider getting going again. By this time (20+ mins later) Matt Bixley had turned up. I gave him a good couple of kicks to the ribs and abdomen as I told him I would do if I passed him pulling out on the course.
As I left I gave Scotty a kiss good-by, told him I loved him and would see him later… I also grabbed an extra couple of cans of coke for side pockets which I fully expected to hand out to people dying on the side of the track and I would be a great hero for saving their lives. As I ran away from the aid station the sun went behind a cloud and instantly the temperature dropped a few degree’s. After a few kms I asked everyone I passed coming towards me if they had any water… they pretty much all did. Then just beside Lockley’s Pylon I saw another Kiwi Andre Chalmers. He had given his water and electrolyte away to a guy who had collapsed on the side of the track (the collapsed runner had eventually got up and carried on to rendezvous with a medic who was walking in), Woowhoo! Someone to give my coke too! I think he quite appreciated it.
All that sitting around at the previous aid station, sculling coke and cooler temperatures had lifted my spirits considerably. Now I was actually running again! This was genuine technical trail!! Rock scrambling, swinging on branches… loving it again. Near the bottom I new I had a good climb back up to Perry’s look-down so I slowed to a walk and drank the other can of coke that I didn’t need to give away.
Steps again! Steps are soooo awesome! Nice wide, smooth, flat steps… perfect for hauling yourself up steep mountains with the aid of poles. I was in real shade of proper trees but it was still bloody hot. Going straight up at this stage and internally I was heating up. Come on the rain!! It had been teasing for about an hour, threatening to rain, then finally – Boom! Thunder and RAIN!! OMG that rain felt good. Each drop a tender kiss from the gods.
Now I was rocking it on all these wonderful steps. Damn it was a looooong way up (the biggest climb of the day) and then another aid station with more coke and Water Melon!! Life was good again. I actually felt cold for the only instant in the day at that aid station. it was absolutely bucketing down so i put my jacket on and tramped away expecting a long but easy walk across the tops. Any thoughts of a time I might make had long gone. I just wanted to finish this bastard. Just get the job done and don’t over-cook myself.
About a full minute after leaving the aid station the rain stopped and I put my jacket away again. I met up with another ‘trudger’ and we walked and talked for a while. I was feeling better and encouraged him to trott for a small flat section, he wasn’t quite up for it.
The rest of the race is not so interesting from a readers point of view. I felt better and better. I was running all the downs, all the flats and even a few of the ups!!
The course was awesome – really fun trails to run over, even the steps down were fine – back around the ‘Canyon Loop’ in reverse gave a different perspective and a fantastic way to finish your dalliance with the Grose Valley.
Ended up coming in 11:33 just before it got dark.
Massive thanks to Sean the handsome, suave RD with a voice so smooth as to allay all your fears.
Big thanks also to Mel and all the folks who actually made this event happen.
Aid station folks – your were absolute angles. Friendly helpful, bladder-filling angles.
Final words – It is the toughest 68km course I know of. But this race IS doable. The ups are soooo bloody up you can’t push it too hard. The downs are soooo bloody down you cant go too fast. The flat is just beautiful to run. Take time and enjoy it.