How does one feel after a 50 km ultra marathon?…. Half as broken compared to running a full century I guess. Last Sunday, I participated in Adelaide’s inaugural 50 km Cleland trail race. I haven’t run an event shorter than 100 km for years now, so this was somewhat out of my comfort zone (if there is such a thing). My decision to participate was sporadic; after reading the final weather forecast on Wednesday and being guaranteed a rain-free day, the possibility was made concrete. The idea to participate was actually another of my midnight epiphanies. I tend to wake up a number of times throughout the night with a sea of ideas swarming through my mind. This one simply whispered “Cleland”, and I felt an accompanying sense of security – the universe spoke.
I decided to maintain my training routine until race day, reducing my normal 5.5 hour cardio session the day before by one hour to 4.5 hours. Pre run dinner was a low carb burger, Mexican bowl and chicken salad. A few pieces of low carb dessert treats later, with a full belly and having prepared my food packs and drop bags, I was ready to snooze.
I was not stressed, not worried, not fussed; I was excited. My sleep was great; I woke up about 5 times throughout the night but that is normal and actually comforting for me. I feel as if I dream travel and each awakening is a new chapter of my nightly journey. The next day I woke up 10 minutes before my alarm, chucked on my running gear and hopped out the house with my flannelette pyjama pants worn over my shorts. It was a measly 2 degrees Celsius and I had stayed over my mum’s partner’s house, unfortunately forgetting to bring my warm pants.
Nibbling on a protein bar and a few nuts whilst sipping my gigantic petrol station milky tea, I drove the 20 minute journey through the hills to the start and finish line. Arriving some 50 minutes prior to the 7:30 am start, I had ample time to dawdle. Forgetting to label my drop bags, I had to improvise and modified a white cardboard serving plate, attached it to my drop bag and scribbled my number on it (130); it would do.
Surprisingly, I felt quite fresh and springy, not often the case before an ultra. Having a rest day a day or few beforehand usually leaves me slightly sluggish and it is only after some 10 km (sometimes 20) that I find my rhythm. I thought I would embrace this sprightly feeling, particularly considering that this was only going to be 50 km of pain.
By the time I knew it, we were off and the freshness didn’t elude me. My hip, which had given me ample trouble for the last few years, was actually behaving and I was pleasantly surprised by my pace. The trails were very runnable and not technical which aided with the sense of flow. I was soon informed at a checkpoint (number 3 I think), that I was the first woman. I was pretty surprised but also grateful, yet acknowledged that this was only very early in the piece and anything (or rather everything) was possible.
Some minor issues I experienced were the slipping of my socks and a few tight spots along my lace line. I easily remedied this by loosening the laces periodically; no major inconvenience. At about the halfway mark, the hip decided to stop being my compliant little friend and began periodically hurting. I acknowledged that it was time to adopt the mental pain strategy and meditate it away. When pain strikes, I find it therapeutic to start sectioning the course, focusing only on arriving at the next check point. I promise myself a quick stretch upon arrival, one which usually provides momentary relief, but more significantly, represents a form of self appreciation; my body works hard and deserves the window of respite.
My digestion was on point, an uncommon feature during my runs. I started munching away on my self packed protein bar, nut and dark chocolate baggies early. I didn’t want to enter a catabolic state, my experience is that this leads to premature fatigue and poor recovery the following day. I was taking in somewhere within the vicinity of 500 calories per hour and drinking maybe 800 ml of sugar free electrolyte water in the same timeframe.
My nutrition strategy is quite unique in that I make a concerted effort to avoid consumption of sugary produce during ultras. I’m not a compete anti carb crusader, although I was once a purist – leading to lack lustre results. I avoid the refined stuff, but consume ample carbs in the form of beans, milk, sugar free chocolate and other naturally sweet food (beans and milk do not feature in my ultra munchie packets, just to clarify). In hot weather, a swig of the poisonous chemical concoction known as Coke can play the role of a temporary reviving elixir, but I reserve the right to use it in virtual emergencies only.
Each 10 km section of the event was marked with different coloured signs. I’m not the best at keeping on track, so I made a concerted effort to memorise the sections and corresponding colours. I dropped my warm sweater off in my drop bag at the halfway mark and collected a few more food baggies, also replenishing my drink to continue carrying a full litre. Again, the hip was playing games but the beauty of the emerging sun, the tunes sung by the birds and the general magic of the habitat justified the bodily discomfort. Eventually I arrived at the 30 to 40 km yellow section. Still feeling relatively good, I was quite surprised when I felt the section turn into a bit of a never ending story. I was sure I had run more than 10 km, a suspicion that was later confirmed when I began passing runners I had been in front of from the early race stages. Shrikes, I must have missed a turn or doubled up on a loop.
As I made my way around the border of the Cleland wildlife park I was informed by a walker heading in the opposite direction that I was the second female. Yep, I had definitely screwed up somewhere along the course, however all was not lost. I was alive, still feeling OK, I was embracing the energy the wildlife was brimming with and most importantly, I was deeply involved in my passion. I used this opportunity to play the gratitude game, something that alluded me during my early running years. Had I been in this position back then, I would have been pissed, stressed and thoroughly disheartened. Life is too short to make turmoil of what is really a blessing. No one could deprive me of the right to be on the trails and a position relative to another is just that, relative. Catastrophe aborted, I continued on, now even more relaxed and in flow than before the wrong turn.
As I continued along, I arrived at an epic hill. I love inclines, the slog up the steep one’s places me in an indescribable state of trance, all energy dedicated to placing one foot in front of the other; pure grunt work. I also used this opportunity to smash down some food, my few nibbles turning into scoffing down the entire contents of my energy baggie – I was clearly using up my energy stores at a significant rate.
As I approached the next checkpoint I came across the female who was now up front, a lovely girl named Sonja who I officially met and chatted with at the finish line (we are now officially facebook friends…where else but at an ultra marathon event do such things happen, right?). I recognised her from the start of the run and remembered passing her in the first 10 km. Seeing me, she took off like a gazelle. I was astonished by her speed and simply didn’t entertain the idea of even attempting to keep up. Explosive running is not my strong point, I’m a bit more like the tortoise that will just relentlessly plod along. Sonja maintained her front line position for the majority of the remaining race, running the steep inclines and smashing the down hills. At one point, I was sensationally impressed as she pulled out her phone and made a call while climbing a steels hill. I was later told by Sonja that this was to her partner, a request for him to grab her a gel at the next checkpoint.
The unintended chase continued for the next 10 km. I had no idea of where the finish line was but I was quite confident that there could not have been much trail remaining. Having some ‘umph’ left in the tank I made the sporadic decision to just let it all out, and I picked up the pace. I was so damn proud of the fantastic turnover my legs were embracing, the union of mind and body was at play. Could this have been a moment of that universally yearned for state of flow? With the energy soaring, I passed Sonja on the incline and expressed my amazement at her grit. I moved on, thinking ‘crap, I now have to maintain this faster pace’.
As I approached the next corner I was informed by a lovely spectator that my mum was just up the path, waiting for me. That was the only boost I needed, the legs took on a life of their own. I sprinted up to mum who, being the crazy cat that she is, was sitting on a foldable chair some 50 m from the finish line, reading an eBook I had recently finished myself. Seeing me, my gorgeous ma threw her eBook reader on the ground (no damage caused), and began running with me. We crossed the finish line together, a reminder of the final moments of my UTMB run in France some 3 years prior. This event wasn’t quite on the same scale, for starters, it was missing some 8000m of elevation and approximately 110 km of distance. Nonetheless, the moment was still magic, the feeling of love and warmth burning in my belly.
So that is how the event panned out. We remained at the finish line for the next hour or so as the finishing runners continued to stream through. I had a great chat with my friendly rival, Sonja, as we discussed our interchanged race, our mental discourse and our amazement at the other’s persistence. After a quick medal ceremony, mum, Eugene (mum’s partner) and I made our way to a celebratory delayed lunch at a gorgeous diner, Cafe Tranquillo, up in the suburb of Stirling. I wasn’t too hungry, considering how much I had consumed on course, however I couldn’t turn down the epic super food salad, particularly since mum was shouting.
Eventually we arrived home and finished the day with a 4 km swift walk with our decrepit yet insanely cute border collie. Nothing like walking out the lactic acid….wearing a 10 kg weight vest of course. An Epsom salt soak before a gigantic dinner put me into a sensationally relaxing comatose state, as my bed summonsed me to a deep slumber.
What a day of pure bliss, there is truly nothing that compares. My approach to running ultras is quite basic. The first, foremost and primary goal is to finish. If attained without serious injury, I’m one happy camper. Any other result, whether it be an official placing, a fast pace, a fantastic flow is but a bonus. This event was full of those bonuses, and I am indebted to the universe for blessing me with the opportunity. Now to find the next one….
Joanna Kruk is an Australian Police officer who runs Ultramarathons around the world in her spare time. Having completed events from 160 km outright events to 250 km multi stage races, she uses her training to contemplate ideas and delve into the inner workings of the mind. Follow Joanna’s adventures on www.ravenous-seeker.com