The Guzzler Half-Full 50K race in 2020 was my second ultramarathon. This race review allows me to collect my thoughts about the day, and share my experience with any of you who plan to run this race in future.
I'm a novice ultrarunner. I tend to start and finish at the back of the pack. Speed is not my speciality, nor is long distances, but I can survive a 50K.
My Guzzler 50K official finish time was 10:34:51 in 2020. If you're a slower runner like me, and new to the event, then you might find this blog post useful.
This post is written from my own perspective and experience on the day. I imagine other runners had different experiences out there. So, if you want to offer a different perspective, or add anything to this article, please feel free to leave a comment at the end.
About The Guzzler
The Guzzler is a pair of ultra-distance trail races organized by The Trail Co, and held in the area around Mount Coot-Tha in Brisbane.
There's a 100K and 50K race that start on Saturday, and a 21K race that starts on Sunday. It's not as large an event as Ultra-Trail Australia, but it's a good size and there's a strong local turnout as well as some visitors.
This was the second year for The Guzzler. In 2019 the event was held in July. In 2020, with all the COVID pandemic issues, the event was moved to November. The change of date impacted me in several ways, which I will explain in this post.
Training for The Guzzler
I originally planned to recycle my training plan from the 2019 UTA50. But something in the back of my mind made me seek out some other resources for ultramarathon training plans. I ended up reading Jason Koop's Training Essentials for Ultrarunning. As it turns out, his advice aligns very closely with the UTA50 plan I had followed. But from his book I learned a lot more about why the plan is structured the way it is, and how each type of workout should help me improve. That understanding made me stick to the plan more diligently, especially the stuff that kinda sucks to do.
Based on a July race date my training started in January. Things were going quite well in those initial weeks, and I felt I was running strong and getting good results. But as February and March rolled around, with the COVID pandemic making headlines, I worried that things were not going to stay on track.
Sure enough, the race organizers were forced to postpone the event from July to November. Now, from all reports in 2019, the July race day was pretty warm even though it is right in the middle of our Winter. But the prospect of running in November when it would almost certainly be hot was not all that appealing to me.
Adding to that, the COVID outbreak resulted in a lockdown of sorts here in Queensland. School students were sent home to continue learning remotely. Our business, as with many others, needed to pivot and adapt to a primarily remote way of working as well. With all the stress and uncertainty, my training fell off for a few weeks. Once we got settled into something of a routine, I managed to get back into it with some road running to maintain my base of fitness. I wasn't sure if The Guzzler would go ahead at all, but I was determined not to let the year go to waste.
In May I ran the 42.2km in 42 Hours virtual race, covering the distance over three separate runs. That was a preview of the cold weather still to come.
After that virtual event I made the mental commitment to get Guzzler-ready. I rejigged my training plan dates and set about ticking off the workouts. As the depths of winter arrived I struggled to maintain my training plan. On one memorable morning I set off in near zero degree temperatures for a mid-week run in the dark, headlamp on and covered head to toe in layers of clothing. The sun was barely starting to come up as I returned home.
The biggest challenge for me was doing the training alone. Restrictions on gatherings meant that the usual array of group runs with other Brisbane Trail Runners members just weren't going ahead. A few of my regular running partners either weren't running the event, were injured, or we just couldn't sync up our training times at all due to everyone’s regular lives being disrupted.
I did have some company for the longest training missions near the end, which was welcome. Those are mentally quite challenging, and the weather was starting to warm up a lot by that stage of the year. I doubt I would have covered the same distances on those runs had I not had someone with me helping to stay motivated.
According to Strava, my 2020 running stats were:
- 165 runs
- 184 hours
That includes the 50kms of The Guzzler itself. And, because I ran very little after race day, is a fair representation of my year of preparation for the race. But if you want a more specific idea of the volume of training for the 50K plan I followed, for UTA50 I ran about 635kms of training.
My Gear for The Guzzler
Most ultras have a mandatory gear list. The Guzzler has a list quite similar to what I had to carry for UTA50 in 2019.
My pack is a Salomon Advance Skin 12L, purchased in 2017. It has been a sturdy, reliable pack since then and has enough capacity for a typical 50K mandatory gear list.
I ended up carrying:
- All the mandatory gear listed on The Guzzler event page
- Some extras for the hot conditions such as sunscreen, anti-chafe, an extra buff for ice, and arm sleeves (for sun protection and for holding ice)
- Hiking poles, which I don’t regret!
When I ran UTA50 I wore compression sleeves on my calves, mid-length socks, and compression shorts. With the expected hot conditions for The Guzzler I'd started experimenting without those things to try and stay cool. For example, the compression shorts which I love for chafe prevention during training runs, and especially in the winter to keep my legs warmer, were cooking my quads on longer training runs on hot days. I tested running without them and just using Squirrel's Nut Butter for anti-chafing, and found that kept me cooler without causing any chafing issues. Similarly, I took away the calf sleeves, which I had previously needed for injuries, and also bought some shorter socks that cover less skin. Anything I could do to reduce the heat seemed like a good idea.
I did most of my training with a cheap Garmin Forerunner 235 watch. During UTA50 it had not quite had enough battery for the full race. So in the lead up to The Guzzler I switched to a Coros Apex, which handled the distance with ease.
On my feet I wore Topo Terraventure 2, my current favourite trail shoe. They fit my wide foot very well, have good grip, and just enough cushioning for long runs without being unstable under foot. For UTA50 I wore the first generation Altra Timp, and they were great. But I only had Timps in a half size bigger than I needed, because I first got them when I needed to wear an ankle brace. By the time I no longer needed the brace that generation of Timp had been superseded by a new edition. I haven’t tried any of the newer Timps because I like the Topos just fine.
Nutrition and Hydration
I made nutritional errors during UTA50 that cost me big time during the later stages of the race. For my nutrition plan for The Guzzler I made a few adjustments based on that experience. I carried less overall food, but with a few extra options, and resolved to make more use of aid station food along the way.
- Pure energy gels, about 6 of them in various flavours
- A Clif bar (there were Clif bars on course as well)
- An LCM (made of Coco Pops) as a “pick me up” treat
- Clif Shot Blocks in margarita flavour for extra salt
- Salt Stick fast chew tablets
- 2.5L of water capacity (back bladder + soft flasks)
- Extra Tailwind powder in sachets
- Sandwiches (1x vegemite, 1x honey)
I spent the Friday before the race packing my gear, prepping my food, and running through the mandatory gear checklist a few more times. I made some final calculations for my nutrition plan, and tried to commit to memory enough detail to ensure I ate and drank enough during the day. I aimed for about 300 calories per hour of food or sports drink, plus water, and tried to plan out a good mix to ensure that I balanced my salt/electrolytes and fluid intake for the heat.
I didn’t get as much sleep as I hoped for due to a late night basketball game for our son, but I got enough to wake up reasonably fresh and set about my morning routine. Coffee, a breakfast of jam on toast, and then started sipping some water as I filled up my flasks.
We drove to the event parking and walked to the start line, where I met up with a lot of Brisbane Trail Runners who were also racing. In no time we were walking into the start chute, and I found myself pretty much at the back of the pack to start.
The Start (6:30am)
The first section of the race is flat road out of the start/finish precinct and around to the first climb. I spent this section adjusting my pack and getting everything comfortable, and just shaking out the legs and getting a feel for a steady pace. I downed a caffeinated gel as we hit the first climb up to Powerful Owl trail.
The first climb is long. There’s an opportunity to be “King of the Mountain” by recording the best time to the top of this climb. That’s well outside my comfort zone so I just hiked at a conversational pace all the way to the top, running a few of the flatter segments that I knew from training.
There is no point blowing up this early in the race. There’s plenty of opportunities to run later. The course flattens out after a while and I jogged to the road crossing at Channel 9, and started down Jacksonia. During training I often put in a fast descent down Jacksonia if I was looping back to my car at Gap Creek Reserve. It’s fun to blast down this hill, but it’s hard on the legs. I kept it nice and slow this time to conserve energy.
After Gap Creek Reserve there’s a few short and steep climbs out to South Boundary Road, which then links up to the trail around Enoggera Reservoir. The early sections of the course from start to SBR are very accessible even for inexperienced trail runners who don’t know Mt Coot-Tha area well. If you’re running The Guzzler I do recommend putting some time into these sections, and the Enoggera Reservoir loop as well, so you know what to expect and can get through the early part of the day without overdoing it. There are several car parks you can start from for shorter runs, then stitch them all together for long runs in the 25-30km range without getting into remote areas.
The first checkpoint is about 18kms into the race. I wanted to get there in about 2.5 hours so that I could beat the heat of the day during the climb up to the checkpoint #2. Unfortunately, the heat came in early and by about 12kms I was feeling it, even being down near the water of Enoggera Reservoir.
I kept up my water and eating, chatted to other runners here and there, and trotted in to checkpoint #1 at about 9:00:am. Right on schedule.
First Checkpoint (Walkabout Creek)
My family were waiting for me, and I knew I wouldn’t see them again until the finish, so I took a little extra time here to drink water, some Coke in my collapsible cup, eat a zooper dooper, and take some salt chews.
I rolled out of checkpoint #1 with another zooper dooper in hand, and once I was finished with that I pulled out my poles for the hike up Nebo Break.
The distance between checkpoints #1 and #2 is only about 6kms but it is almost entirely uphill, some of it quite steep and slippery. There was also no breeze at all, and the day was getting quite hot.
I was hiking along, chatting to fellow BTR member Sally, when we saw some more BTR folk up ahead with one of them sitting on the ground. When we got to them we learned that the person on the ground had almost fainted twice during climbs, and was now in a bad way. Her friends had her well in hand, and after a short stop they told me I could keep moving and asked that I help the medic locate them if I saw one (they were already phoning for aid by now).
About 2kms further along I did pass the medic who was hiking down to find them, and let him know about how far away they were. Another medic also came past on a motorbike to assist. I later heard that the downed runner was taken out by ambulance and after some IV fluids and food made a quick recovery.
With that scene in mind I was careful not to push myself too hard up Nebo Break. I kept a steady pace and took in water and calories at regular intervals. Having not run this section of the course before I had hoped to cover it in about 90 minutes. I arrived at checkpoint #2 after about 1 hour and 45 minutes, around 10:35am.
Second Checkpoint (McAfee’s Lookout)
Checkpoint #2 at McAfee’s Lookout is run by the Brisbane Trail Runners, so there were many friends and familiar faces here. Although I was still on schedule I was starting to feel quite cooked. I stopped to assess my condition.
I took a big drink of water to start, then ate some more calories, which was becoming a struggle. After another drink I made sure that my soft flasks were full. I took out my arm sleeves and put them on, then added ice to them to keep my arms cool and wet. I decided not to add to my back bladder, and instead filled an extra soft flask to carry in my hand. I grabbed a Clif bar to eat during the next section, and another zooper dooper.
Between resting, eating very slowly, chatting to friends, and taking time to prep before moving on, I spent about 30 minutes here. Much longer than I would have hoped for, but it was necessary given my condition. The timing mat recorded me leaving McAfee’s at 11:07am.
If the climb up Nebo Break had seemed hot, the next section through Hellhole was just brutal. No breeze again, and even though there is a lot of runnable course here and only one really steep climb, I was struggling a lot in the conditions to keep my body temperature under control. At one stage I noticed that I had stopped sweating, which is not a good sign. I slowed down, took on water, and in a short time broke out in a sweat again.
I was also starting to feel nausea coming on. From my experience at UTA I knew that avoiding food was not the solution for this, so I kept taking on calories in small amounts. The Clif bar I ate during this section of the course was a real struggle. I love Clif bars, but not when my mouth doesn’t want to produce saliva.
I pushed on, running when possible and walking when I needed to, which unfortunately was quite a lot. The course has an in-and-out section off South Boundary Road that takes you down to Gold Creek Reservoir and back again. I made the turn and started passing runners coming the other way. This section of trail is very exposed, and nobody looked happy climbing back up from Gold Creek in the heat. Many of them carried zooper doopers, and some had ice bandanas as well. I walked and jogged down and into checkpoint #3 at about 12:35pm.
Third Checkpoint (Gold Creek Reservoir)
For the first time since the start of the race I removed my pack and felt the fresh air hit my back. I took a few minutes again to assess my condition. I was definitely overheating, and it was still very hot in the middle of the day. I didn’t want to stop and rest too long here, and resolved to keep moving even if it meant walking the loop around Gold Creek.
I made sure I had enough water, put on some more sunscreen, and left the checkpoint after about 10 minutes with a cup of ginger ale in one hand and a zooper dooper in the other. Once I was finished with those I did a little jogging along the trail around the reservoir, but the undulating terrain meant I spent more time walking than running.
About halfway I decided to just stick to walking, and treat it as a recovery and refueling stretch. The nausea was still there, so I ate another Clif bar and kept drinking.
The heat was really getting to me now. I had no other runners around me, and my heart rate was quite high. I was concerned that I might succumb to the conditions and be down on the ground with no assistance for a long time, so I slowed down and removed my pack from one shoulder to let a little more air onto me. The loop took me about 1 hour 15 minutes, and I came back into the checkpoint again feeling quite wrecked.
Fourth Checkpoint (Gold Creek Reservoir)
Back in the shade of the checkpoint I started to consider my options. I felt hot and nauseous, but my legs felt fine. I didn’t have a headache, but I kept going through stages of not sweating, so I was worried about dehydration and possible early signs of heat stroke.
Looking around, I considered dropping out of the race here and calling my family to come get me. I only had a moment to think about that when a hand clapped me on the shoulder, and I turned to find Geoff from BTR standing next to me. He had volunteered as a course sweeper for the 100K race and was getting ready to set off around the reservoir. I told him I was feeling cooked and he told me not to worry, just take my time to get ready, and take it easy on the climb back out of Gold Creek to South Boundary Road. “You know what’s coming up, so just take it slow.”
As Geoff wandered off I made a little plan. I would force myself to eat something (a bakery item from the aid station), drink some more water, then stock up on what I needed for the final stretch and just walk the rest of the race if I needed to.
I grabbed an ice bandana from the checkpoint volunteers and tucked it into a buff around my neck, took another zooper dooper, and got moving. It was very hot all the way up the hill, but I just took my time and made it back up to South Boundary Road feeling okay.
Doing Maths on South Boundary Road
Once I was up on SBR things started to improve. The combination of shade and breeze helped me cool down a lot. I kept drinking, ate some margarita shot blocks, and adjusted the ice bandana around my neck. After a short time I felt like some music, so I got out my Aftershokz earphones and started one of my Spotify playlists.
Then I started running again. Just short bits at first to test things out, but then I felt well enough to run at about a 7min/km pace on the flats and downhills, and power hike the uphills. SBR is not very steep so there were no real hard efforts and my condition just kept improving.
At this moment in the race I turned my mind to potential finish times. In a perfect world I would like to achieve an 8hr finish time for a hilly 50K such as The Guzzler, UTA, or Blackall. During training I did not think that 8hrs was going to be possible this time, but perhaps 9hrs would be. With the hot conditions I had well and truly ruled that out, but was at least hoping for a sub-10hr finish.
Throughout the day, and particularly at my lowest point out at Gold Creek, I decided that just finishing under cutoff would be hard enough. But now that I was moving along SBR pretty comfortably I started looking at my watch and redoing the maths on a potential finish time. I had run the return leg from SBR to Gap Creek, up Kokoda, and along to the finish area plenty of times in training. Apart from Kokoda it was all pretty runnable and I started to think 10hrs was still a possibility.
I was also quite happy at this point in the race that my legs were still feeling okay. I had fought off the nausea, and as long as I kept myself from overheating again I could finish strong. I made a plan to eat another snack after the turn off SBR, then when I got to Gap Creek I would refill my flasks including one to keep in my hand to wet myself down any time I felt I needed it.
Unfortunately what I failed to take into account was that The Guzzler is not a 50K race, but has a few bonus kms tacked on to the end of it. When I passed the course marking that said “5kms to go” my watch said I was at about 48kms. Bugger!
Cutting Onions up Kokoda
I stuck to my plan through Gap Creek and then made my way up to the Kokoda trail. Anyone who has run around Mt Coot-Tha knows about Kokoda. It is a very steep climb, challenging on fresh legs let alone after nearly 50kms. When you get to the steepest section you still can’t see the top, and it can be intimidating and a little disheartening.
I’d been up Kokoda many times in training so I knew that the whole climb was actually pretty short. It really is just a matter of staying focussed, taking small steps, and keeping a pace that you can sustain without blowing up. You also need to make sure you’ve got some gas in the tank, so I suggest using your training runs to test out the optimal timing and nutritional item to take as you approach Kokoda.
Just as I approached the steepest section of Kokoda my watch ticked over 50kms at 9:53:56, and I quietly celebrated a sub-10hr 50K.
Then the tears came.
When I first started looking into running ultramarathons I read that they can break you down to nothing and bring your deepest feelings to the surface. When I ran the UTA50 in 2019 that was true, and in the final, hardest moments of that race as I pushed myself up the Furber stairs I felt peace and elation at having taken on such a challenge and succeeding.
Now in 2020, as I climbed the Kokoda trail having nearly quit at the last checkpoint, and now knowing that I would definitely finish, I just started crying. On reflection, I had bottled up so much of the stress and emotion of the challenging year that we’d been living through, that now it all just came tumbling out of me. Thinking about how our kids lives had been disrupted, all the business challenges we’d faced, the family tragedies, and what our friends and strangers around the world had been dealing with, it just all hit me at once. I think it was more from relief than sadness, a feeling that we had made it to the end of a very tough time in our lives.
There were some racers up the hill ahead of me, and nobody immediately behind me, so I just let it out. By the time I got to the top I had pulled myself back together a little. I probably looked like a real mess. A couple of volunteers gave me some encouraging words and pointed me across the road to the final section of the course.
Heading to the Finish Line
The last kms after Kokoda are mostly flat and downhill, but now I was beyond repair. I tried more water and a bit of food but I just kept overheating and feeling nauseous anytime I ran, so I just settled in to walk to the finish line.
I heard the music in the distance and that gave me a boost. A few hikers passed me in the opposite direction and gave encouragement which I thanked them for. After what seemed like a long time I finally came to the end.
Finishing The Guzzler Half Full
I don’t think I’ve walked across a finish line at any race yet (except Twilight when I walked the whole course on a busted ankle), so I broke into a trot as I came into the finish precinct. There was a flash from the photographer, I stopped my watch at 10:34:11, my daughter ran up and gave me a hug, and then I made a sharp right turn and headed for the nearby creek.
I was pretty sure I was about to puke.
I dumped my gear and sat down on a rock to cool down and compose myself. My family collected my finisher medal for me and came over to join me. I poured cold water over my head and drank some and started telling them about my day.
We knew from my UTA experience that I would possibly start to go into mild shock or hypothermia again. Despite the hot day the temperature was dropping quickly as the sun was going down now, just after 5pm. I stripped off my wet shirt and put on the thermal from my mandatory gear and then a dry shirt over that. I had a few little shakes but for the most part was okay.
What I did want to do was eat something. I nibbled on a piece of fruit cake and kept drinking water and we moved over to some chairs to sit and relax for a while and watch other runners coming in. About an hour after I finished the 100K winner crossed the line as well, which just blows my mind. Amazing time for such a brutal day out on course.
My wife brought the car in nearer to the finish precinct to save me a long walk, and we headed home. After cleaning up my gear and showering I kept hydrating, managed to eat some food, and fell asleep in bed fairly early.
I had to be up early the next morning to drive my wife back out to Mt Coot-Tha for her 21K race (The Big Sipper), so my rest would have to wait. While the 21K runners were being bussed up to their start line I went for some breakfast with the kids then we drove back to Walkabout Creek to cheer the runners through the only checkpoint for the Big Sipper. Then it was back to Slippery Falls picnic area to wait for the finish.
Physically I felt pretty good. No major soreness, but a bit tired. The weather was cooler than the day before. I kept eating and drinking, and by Sunday evening my appetite had returned enough to eat a substantial meal. I had planned to just rest for at least a week or two, and allow my appetite to stabilize and make sure I was back in balance in terms of hydration and all that. I can be a bit slow to bounce back from being sick or dehydrated so I didn’t want to push myself.
Mentally I was pretty much spent. After such a hard year I turned my attention to just finishing out the typically hectic November/December period with end of year school events and wrapping things up before our business shut down for two weeks over Christmas.
A few weeks after the race I started experiencing cramps in my lower leg, especially when sitting in my car or at my desk. A bit of exploratory pushing and prodding suggested a calf muscle was the culprit. I booked into my sports physio for an assessment, and they advised it is probably not a tear or anything major, more likely some knots and tightness. They advised me to keep things slow and flat for a while, and I did minimal running through December and January.
February delivered a surprise neck strain (just one of those getting old things), then a broken toe (kicked it on our new couch), then a recurring sinus infection which turned out to be caused by something that shouldn’t be there, resulting in surgery and more recovery time.
As I’m wrapping up this post mid-April I have the all clear to resume running, but am well out of condition. I figure as long as I don’t do anything dumb I should be back to a good running routine pretty soon.
What’s Next in 2021?
The real question for me is what do I work towards next? With COVID still hanging about I am reluctant to target another ultra this year. It’s not that I feel the training itself will be “wasted” if a race is cancelled or postponed again. It’s more that the time I sacrifice away from my family is only worth it if the race goes ahead.
And this year in particular my kids have some goals of their own that I’d rather make sure I am available to help them with. Sunday morning long runs have been replaced by Sunday morning driving to and from the kids sports training. Weekday routines have also been upended as priorities shifted. We also have a new puppy keeping us busy.
I would love to run The Guzzler 50K again, just not in November. Breaking down my Strava data suggests it should be possible for me to shave off 20 minutes of time spent at checkpoints. Take away the heat as well and a sub-10hr finish looks very doable. Put in a longer training cycle with a better base of fitness and the dream of sub-9hr also looks doable.
So as far as 50K races go, it seems that I will not run one in 2021. I think that running The Guzzler 50K in 2022 will be my next ultra, hopefully followed by Blackall 50 the same year (typically runs in October) or the year after. This year, in 2021, I will focus only on training and the Big Sipper (21K) in July.