Ultra-Trail Australia 50K: A Race Report from the Back of the Pack

The Ultra-Trail Australia 50K race in 2019 was my first ultramarathon. I've written this race review to collect my thoughts and share my experience with other runners who plan to run the event in the future.

Ultra-Trail Australia 50K course, courtesy of my Garmin

This article is written from the perspective of a novice ultrarunner. I am a back of the pack runner in any trail event I've run before this. Speed is not my speciality, whether it's on the trails, or at my local Parkrun.

I finished the UTA 50 in 11 hours and 30 minutes. If you're looking for advice for a faster finish, you might not find it here. But if you're a slower runner like me, and new to the event, then this is written for you.

If you're an experienced UTA runner, you might disagree with some of my thoughts as well. Although they're written from my own perspective on the day, they certainly aren't the only advice that a UTA hopeful would need.

Either way, if you want to offer a different perspective, or add anything to this article, please feel free to leave a comment at the end.

Training for UTA 50

I'd never trained for a 50K ultramarathon before. So I knew that I was going to need some help. From reading books and online articles, I knew that a training plan that built up slowly over time was the best way to improve fitness and endurance, while also avoiding injury. I just had no idea how to put a training plan together.

With a little research, I found the UTA 50 training plan by Hanny Allston of Find Your Feet. Hanny was the 2016 winner of the UTA 50, and also finished second in the UTA 100 in 2017. So, she knows the race, as well as having a deep understanding of trail running and ultramarathon racing in general.

Not to mention the specific challenges of UTA 50, with over 2500m of elevation gain throughout the course.

UTA 50K elevation courtesy of my Garmin

Hanny's plan runs for six months. The race was in May 2019, so my training started in November 2018, knowing that I would be away on holiday for two weeks during December. My thinking was that I could train up to my holiday, then on my return just repeat one or two weeks of the program to get back on track before continuing. Our holiday was a ski trip to Canada, so I knew I would still be reasonably active while we were away, and not lose too much of my running fitness. As it turns out, I caught a cold on the way home and had to sit out an extra week of training. So it was a three-week break, all up.

Before starting the training program, I had run a trail half marathon in October. That was a struggle, having just come back from a nasty ankle injury. But I was able to consolidate a decent base of training after the half marathon. I went into my UTA training feeling pretty good.

The best way I could describe the training plan is that it follows a “wave training” pattern. You build up over a couple of weeks to a long run (called a mission), then back off a little to recover, then build up again to the next slightly longer mission.

The majority of runs are time and effort based (e.g. 50 minutes at an easy pace), with just a few distance-based workouts here and there.

Mid-week runs are mostly easy efforts of 30-60 minutes, getting up to about 1h 30mins later in the program. Some mid-week runs are tempo runs, some are hill intervals, and some are 5K time trials. So, there's a mix of easy/recovery runs, and other runs designed to increase speed and climbing ability.

I found the program to be tough but fair. I didn't feel at any stage that I was getting pushed too far, too fast. I skipped a few runs here and there due to general soreness that I was wary of developing into an injury. My ankle was still healing and needed a lot of icing and massage, especially after long runs.

A non-hilly, easy training run

In addition to the runs, Hanny recommends some additional cross-training. For example, you can go for a walk, do bike riding, rowing, weights, or core/mobility work.

My Strava history has 76 training runs recorded. In addition to that, I did a bunch of recommended cross-training. Sometimes, when my legs felt a bit dead, in place of the typical Tuesday 30 minute easy run, I would just do 30 minutes of walking, followed by 30 minutes of rowing. Then I'd follow it up with some foam rolling, and that usually had me ready for the rest of the week's training.

So, all up, I feel that I completed about 90-95% of the training plan in some form. According to Strava:

  • I completed 634.9km of running during training for UTA.
  • My longest training run was 42.2km (honestly, this was longer than it should have been. It was supposed to be a 6-hour mission, but I misjudged my route and was out for about seven and a half hours instead.)

All that said, I did need to make training a priority. Fitting ultramarathon training in around work and family means making some sacrifices. To get up early to train means going to bed early at night, which isn't hard when you're tired from getting up for training! But, in the beginning, it does take some discipline if early mornings are not a regular habit.

I also gave up a few social outings, or in some cases had to skip drinking and leave early. Some other scheduling conflicts required a bit more thought, but nearly all problems were solvable. On one memorable morning, I woke up at 2:30 am so that I could get in a 5-hour training run and still make my son's basketball game that morning.

It also rained

My number one recommendation is that you make this Your Thing. Most of us have time in our lives, after family and work, to prioritise one Thing. If running UTA 50 is a goal, make it Your Thing that gets prioritised above all else.

If you have a family, like I do, they need to be on board. There's no way I could have trained for UTA if my family were not supporting me. Especially my wife, who had to shoulder a lot of parental duties while I was out training, or when I was on the couch recovering.

What You'll Carry During UTA 50

Training for an ultramarathon is more than just running a lot. To complete the long training runs, and the race itself, you also need to understand pacing, fueling, and hydration. Also, you need to be able to carry and use your mandatory gear.

Mandatory Gear

UTA 50 has a long mandatory gear list. Take it seriously. The gear is for your safety and the safety of those running with you. It includes, amongst other things:

  • A minimum of 2L of fluid carrying capacity.
  • A minimum of two food portions on you to begin each leg of the course.
  • Safety items such as a compass, mobile phone, headlamp, high-vis vest, and whistle.
  • First aid, such as space blanket and bandage, as well as recommended items for blister care, sun protection, etc.
  • Clothing items such as a hat/beanie, buff, thermal top, and water-proof jacket.

You should read and adhere to the mandatory gear list. Not just for your safety, but also because you will be stopped from continuing the race if a random gear check finds you're missing an item. You will also get a time penalty if you fail the gear check at the finish line.

I also carried some non-mandatory gear, including hiking poles, gloves, headphones, and a battery to recharge my phone or Garmin if necessary.

At first glance, it does seem like a lot of stuff.

All my gear after my fifty millionth run through the checklist

But it does fit in a suitable pack pretty well.

All the gear in my pack, the rest are clothes, buffs, etc

That's a Salomon Adv Skin Set 12 pack I'm using, purchased in 2017. Newer models look a little different but still come in 12L capacity. I honestly don't know if you could fit all the gear into an 8L pack. Maybe, with creative packing, and with no optional extras included. Elite runners seem to carry less, but they also have different nutrition requirements and do other tricks such as packing a child-sized thermal top since they're unlikely to wear it anyway.

Because my pack had no pole carrying feature that complied with UTA rules, I also added a Naked Belt. The Naked Belt has two loops for storing your poles, folded, across the back of your hips/waist. I used the extra storage pockets in the belt for stashing my gloves when I wasn't wearing them, bits of rubbish, and at times a third water flask. It worked well for me, but in future, I'd prefer to run without the belt if I can find another solution for my poles (probably a new pack).

Train with your mandatory gear. You don't want to discover the night before the race that everything doesn't fit in your pack. Or find halfway through the day that you've stashed your phone out of reach and can't take any photos.

You don't need to carry it all on every training run. The Find Your Feet training plan I followed had me slowly adding mandatory gear as the workouts got longer. I took the full load on the last two missions.

Nutrition and Hydration

What you eat and drink during the race is one of the most personal decisions you will make. Everyone is different, and your body is doing to respond differently to mine.

I can't stress enough that you must practice your nutrition and hydration during training. Knowing what gives you the energy you need, without causing stomach problems, will avoid your day turning into a nightmare.

The mandatory gear rules come into play here too. But, you do need to interpret them correctly.

2L of fluid capacity doesn't mean carrying 2L of actual fluid at all times. You'll be drinking as you go, so it's impossible to have 2L on you all the time. But even at the start line, you don't need the full 2L if your training tells you that you can get to the first water point (17k in at Fairmont) on less. I started with four 500ml soft flasks. Two of them had mixed Tailwind and were in the front pouches of my vest. The other two were prepped with dry Tailwind powder and stashed in my pack for later.

Similarly, with the food, the rules are for two portions as you begin each leg. The 50km course is two legs; the first leg is from the start line to QVH, the second leg is from QVH to the finish. There are a few ways to approach this.

One option is to just stash two portions of food (and gels count as a portion, or at least they did in 2019) in your pack that fulfil the requirement. Then start the race with what you think you'll need from start line to Fairmont, eat some of the food at Fairmont, continue to QVH, eat food there and maybe leave with a few extra snacks, and carry on to the finish. Whether you finish with those two portions still in your pack doesn't matter, as long as you start each leg with them.

Keep in mind that some people can run the entire race on Tailwind and a few gels. I'm not one of them. And I knew that from my training. So my approach was to start with all my food for the entire race. I would only rely on aid stations for water and Coke.

Your needs are unique. Remember that someone capable of finishing the race in six hours has different fueling needs than someone who will be out on course for 10-13 hours. Trust your training.

The food I carried for UTA 50 included:

  • Two Vegemite sandwiches on white bread, cut into halves.
  • Two honey sandwiches on white bread, cut into halves.
  • A bag of party mix lollies.
  • Four packs of Clif Shot Blox chews.
  • One Clif bar.
  • One LCM bar (my “I'm feeling low and need a boost” snack).
  • Two extra sachets of Tailwind (in addition to the Tailwind I prepped my flasks with).
  • Salt Stick Fast Chew salt tablets (for restoring salt lost through sweat, and prevent muscle cramps).

In hindsight, too much food. I could have survived on half the sandwiches and Shot Blox. QVH aid station also had Clif bars, so I didn't need to carry my own. And, ironically, the mountain air dried out the sandwiches anyway, making them unpleasant to eat. I binned them at QVH (more on this error of judgement later).

Getting There

If you don't live in the area, travelling to Ultra-Trail Australia takes some planning. Accommodation is in high demand, especially in Katoomba itself. The on-site dorm accommodation tends to sell out fast as well.

Knowing that we had two families making the trip, we opted for an Airbnb house in nearby Wentworth Falls. With plenty of bedrooms, a proper kitchen, and an outdoor hot tub for recovery, it seemed like the best option for us.

I know, right?

We chose to fly down on Thursday because we had runners in the UTA 22 on Friday. Because of some school commitments, we couldn't get away until a 2:00pm flight from Brisbane. So by the time we landed, got our bags, and received our rental car, we left the airport and drove straight into peak hour traffic. It took a couple hours to get all the way out to Katoomba, and it was dark by the time we arrived.

The lengthy drive also caused me to develop a cramp in my right quad. I'd had no problems at all with that leg in training, so why it went south on me that night is beyond me. If I were returning to UTA in future, I'd try to fly down on Thursday morning to allow more time to relax and shake out any stiffness.

Staying in Wentworth Falls worked fine. For the Friday we pre-paid for parking at Scenic World so we could drive all the way in there for UTA 22 registration and the shuttle buses to the start line. After the race, it was also super helpful to have that parking booked to pick up the tired runners.

If you're only planning to arrive on Friday, be sure to allow enough time to get to race check-in that day. It's easier than checking in on Saturday. There is also the race briefing on Friday night. It's held next door to Scenic World, but you don't need to attend in person. I opted to stay at the house to do a final check of my gear, pack everything in my race pack, and then watched the briefing on the internet. That allowed me to just go straight to sleep instead of taking another half hour or more to get back to the house after the briefing.

Race Day

The big day had finally arrived! My start group was scheduled to begin at about 8am. So, allowing time to drive over to Katoomba, catch a shuttle, and walk the short distance to the start precinct, I wanted to be out the door by 6:30. Which for me means waking up at about 5:00am.

Coffee, white toast with jam, bathroom, etc., and I was ready on time. My race pack was already packed, all I needed to do was add water to my first two flasks. I put everything in a big shopping bag to carry and wore my rain jacket to keep warm on the ride over. My jacket rolls up into a small self-contained pouch and would go into my pack as mandatory gear just before starting.

As my family was going to be waiting for me at the finish line, I also packed a bag for them to hold on to with things I would at the end. Dry shirt, beanie, warm jacket. Should have also included some clean shoes or slides, but I forgot. If you don't have family or friends to leave a bag with, there is a drop bag facility near the start/finish line.

Getting to the Start Line

We drove into Katoomba and found street parking a few blocks from one of the shuttle stops. The shuttle routes seem well planned by the event organisers. I heard of a few people who had to wait for one or two shuttles to go past before they could fit on one, but I didn't hear of anyone missing their start group from the delays.

After getting off the bus its a short walk the rest of the way to Scenic World, and we got to see runners from earlier start groups coming past in the opposite direction. It was very inspiring and exciting, knowing I would be following them soon.

Probably playing Angry Birds

At the start precinct, I found some space and went through my warmup routine to get my hips, knees, and ankles all ready to go. A million bathroom stops and cheering off the waves before mine, and finally, it was my turn to enter the starting chute.

Well, except I went for one more bathroom stop, so the chute filled up before I got back.

Coming Dead Last in UTA 50 (8:02am)

Because of my last second bathroom break, I was at the very back of the start group. We're the final group starting, so I'm pretty much coming last before the race has even started.

But anyway, off we go, crossing the start line and making our way out of Scenic World. The first section of the course is mostly road, and after a few hundred meters, you hit the first hill as well. I hiked up, jogged down, hiked up some more, etc. I knew that I would be running back past Scenic World after about 6kms. I had decided to treat this mostly as a warmup, get into a rhythm, and make sure no little niggles were going to bother me all day.

There's two out and backs in this first road section, and as we got to the first turnaround, I stopped to take a photo of the view. I wasn't prepared, and it took me a few moments to pull my camera out, so as I turned to take a selfie I found myself looking back at the course sweeps coming down the road behind me.

Literally losing my first ultramarathon

Whoops! I'm dead last!

I decided to reign in the selfies and set off to regain some ground on the rest of the pack.

As we came back to past Scenic World, I was feeling good. Legs fresh and energetic, breathing under control, not hot or cold, nothing in my pack bothering me. A cheer and high five from my family as I ran past gave me a boost.

Should I eat something?

Prince Henry Cliff Walk – 7km (9:01am)

After Scenic World the course runs along Cliff Drive, through a park, and then you hit the Prince Henry Cliff Walk. This is the first trail section of the course, and it's mostly flat and runnable.

What will slow you down along here is:

  • Tourists, probably sick of hundreds of runners coming past them by now.
  • Traffic jams with other runners, particularly on any stairs, of which there are a few short sections.
  • Stopping for photos of the incredible views.

I continued sipping Tailwind, munching a few lollies and ate half a sandwich. I wanted to keep fueling early to avoid issues later in the day.

At about the 8km mark you'll come to Echo Point, and then continue a short distance around to the Three Sisters. This is where you descend the Giant Staircase nearly 200m to the bottom of the cliffs.

The queue for the Giant Staircase

Which brings me to my first set of on-course tips:

  • You'll be sharing handrails with 2000 other runners. And they are generally a bit dirty. If the thought of using your hands to touch your food afterwards bothers you, wear gloves.
  • There will be traffic, and you may need to queue at the top for a few minutes before you begin your descent. If you want the best possible finishing time, you'll either want to be at the front of the start group from the beginning, or in one of the earlier/faster start groups.
  • You will need both hands to descend the stairs. If you want to eat or drink something, do it before you get to Echo Point or while you're queuing at the top.
  • The stairs are steep, with tight turns and some low hanging rocks and tree branches. Anything sticking out from your body (e.g. sunglasses on your head, poles sticking out from your pack) is at risk of catching something and causing a problem for you and those around you.
  • Be patient. It's a slow descent, with nothing to be gained from passing the person in front of you.

I had a great time chatting with the people around me as we worked our way down. Almost lost my sunglasses to a tree branch. Got some vertigo when I looked over the side of a railing at one point. But made it to the bottom without incident.

Dardanelles Pass – 9.2km (9:40am)

At the bottom of the stairs, the course turns onto some beautiful trails through Dardanelles Pass and on to Leura Forest. It's cool, shady, and just plain gorgeous down there.

Sadly, this was also where I encountered my first DNF runner for the day. A woman was down by the trail with an ankle injury. People were calling for the volunteer a few hundred meters back to come and assist. I stopped for a moment to ask if I could help. There were already three people helping, and one said she is a nurse, so they told me they had things under control, and I kept moving. We later learned she had broken her leg in two places and had to be airlifted out to the hospital.

Traffic through Leura was still congested. I wasn't keen to pass people and risk stepping off the trail and hurting myself, especially as I was running with a dodgy ankle myself. Too early in the race for risk-taking. So I jogged and walked as the traffic allowed, enjoying the scenery and a few conversations.

When people talk about the stairs on the UTA course, they're mostly referring to this section. Yes, the Furber Stairs at the end are notoriously challenging. But they're mostly one sustained effort.

Through Leura to Fairmont, the challenge is different. You'll go up a dozen stairs, have a short flattish section, and then descent 20-30 stairs, have another flattish part, and then go up again. Up, down, flat, up, flat, down, flat, and so on.

Still congested, but moving okay

How you handle this section can have a significant impact on your finish time. If you just want to finish, you can walk the shorter flat bits between two sets of stairs to preserve energy for later. If you're aiming to get the best possible time, you'll need to run those flat bits. Even if they're quite short, saving 10 seconds here and 30 seconds there adds up to a lot of minutes over the entire course.

The steps are hefty. Not like household stairs. You'll be stepping up and down some that are twice the size of regular stairs. It's a lot of work on your leg muscles. Think about what it would be like to step up a small box, and then jump down the other side onto one foot. Then do it hundreds of times. It's hard, and the more you can train for this effort, the better your day will go. It's also some of the most beautiful scenery you'll see all day.

Yeeeeeeewwwwwwww!!!

If the traffic is bothering you, don't stress too much about it. The crowd does begin to thin out as people struggle with the stairs. I found the best place to pass people was actually the top of a set of stairs. Get right in behind someone, and if they get to the top and have gassed themselves, they'll usually step aside to let you pass while they catch their breath. I found this to be safer than passing on flat sections that can be quite narrow and also have big drops next to them.

The stairs don't really stop until you finally emerge around the 16km mark, where a road section takes you into Fairmont checkpoint.

Fairmont Resort Checkpoint – 17km (11:30am)

The approach to Fairmont has just enough flat section so you can pull yourself together before the crowds of spectators see you.

I jogged my way into the checkpoint, which was crowded and had a real party atmosphere going. My Garmin had me 3hrs 28mins into the race. Stopping to take stock of my condition, I realised that I was feeling pretty good. No pain or injuries. Something was in my shoe, so I took that off and shook it out, and retied both to get that fresh, snug feeling back into them. I chatted to a few people about how their day was going so far. The vibe was upbeat and fun.

Fairmont Checkpoint

I was drenched with sweat by now, and both my flasks were nearly empty. So I set about getting myself ready for the next section.

  • Took two salt tablets.
  • Guzzled most of a flask of cold water from the refill station.
  • Used some water to wash my hands, face, and cool my head.
  • Ate another half a sandwich.
  • Visited the bathrooms (not port-a-loos, they'd actually covered the floors inside and opened up the resort bathrooms! Fanciest race toilets ever!).
  • Added water to my next two Tailwind flasks.
  • Stashed another water flask in my Naked Belt just in case.

I stayed in Fairmont for about 10-15 minutes, longer than I should have, but I wanted to be sure I was ready to leave.

By now, traffic was a non-issue. There were still people around me, but not impacting my pace. I could now move at any speed I wanted to, and at times I went a little too fast and had to reign myself in. I knew there was still a long way to go.

There's more stairs and ups and downs after Fairmont, but not as hard as through Leura.

My ankle was starting to bother me, particularly when descending more substantial steps. I pulled out my poles and used them to take some of the weight when stepping down. I also appreciated having them for the short climbs and any uneven terrain, with my weak ankle very much on my mind. I was starting to feel the race now and found a comfortable pace that kept me moving without blowing up my legs or lungs. I was really appreciating the long runs I had done during training, which taught me what level of effort I could sustain over long distances.

At around 20km, I could feel a little cramp coming on in one of my quads. I walked for a few moments and took some more salt tabs and fluid, and it passed quickly.

Shortly after that, I came to the Conservation Hut. My family was waiting there to check on me. Even though it's not a proper checkpoint, I stopped for about 10 minutes to talk about how I was going. For the 21kms of hard work, I was feeling good. Ankle brace was bothering me a lot, but I wasn't sure why exactly.

Feeling good at 21kms

My biggest problem at this point was that my sandwiches had dried out. Maybe it was the dry, chilly morning air. Perhaps it was a different brand of bread than I usually used. This didn't happen to me in training, so I wasn't prepared. I was trying to eat one, and it just wasn't going well at all. Sipping some water to soften them up was, as you can imagine, not much better. It occurred to me that this might become a problem, but I didn't have a solution for it. So after that brief stop, I carried on.

Somewhere around Wentworth Falls, the leading runner of the 100K race passed me. A few minutes later, the second-place runner also overtook me. These guys had started a couple hours before me and were now 70kms into their race. Bloody hell!

The Sahara Desert – 25km (1:37pm)

Okay, not really. But soon after Wentworth Falls, the course flattens out to a sandy, exposed section of trail. The day was warming up now, so if there's one word to describe this section, I would say – unpleasant.

Still smiled for the cameras though

But, I was chatting to some friendly people, and as we passed the 25K marker, I realised that I might actually get this thing done.

Halfway! But the hard part is yet to come…

Coming off the trail onto a road section, I decided to solve my ankle problem. The soreness hadn't eased off when I reached the flat part of the course. It felt like my brace was bashing the inside of my ankle with every step. So I stopped and took it off. A few moments later, the ankle felt fine.

Running the road section along Tableland Road into QVH, which continued to be generally unpleasant in the heat, I was struck by a terrible smell. Another bloke was running a bit in front of me. With a breeze blowing back on me, I had a dilemma. Do I slow down and get away from the smell? Or do I speed up and get ahead of the smell?

I kept trying to pass him, but he seemed to have the mindset that he would not let me overtake him, and would speed up again when I got close. Bloody frustrating.

We danced that dance for a little while before he finally gave up. I got past him. The smell didn't go away. It was then that I realised the smell was me. I'd been sweating hard, and stank enough that even I could smell it. Geezus!

The last section of road into QVH is a gentle downhill, so I got to run in, thanking the spectators who shouted encouraging words to me.

Queen Victoria Hospital Checkpoint – 28km (1:57pm)

QVH felt like an oasis in the desert. Okay, maybe I was just happy to be still moving well, 28km into the race. I soaked up the atmosphere and set about dealing with my needs.

First, the dry sandwiches went in the bin. I wasn't going to eat any more, so there was no point carrying them. I went over to the water taps and filled a flask with beautiful, cold water, and guzzled it all. Then took another off to the side and gave my face and head another soak.

I took a drink of Coke in my collapsible cup, visited the bathrooms, chatted to some other runners for a few moments, then got ready to depart.

In hindsight, I realise now that ultra-brain had started to kick in. I recall standing there, holding three empty flasks in my hands, wondering what I wanted to do with them. Eventually, I worked out that I wanted two Tailwind flasks, and one of half Coke, half water. The Coke flask went into my Naked Belt and the others into the front of my vest.

I made sure I had some Shot Blox and lollies where I could reach them, put on my headphones, turned on my music, filled up one more cup of Coke, and set off.

Exiting QVH takes you up a gentle incline for a little while before it flattens out into a decent runnable section. My Coke flask was bulging from being shaken up, so I let the gas out of it gently, then tucked it into my wrist buff.

I jogged along, listening to music, sipping on Coke, and by about 32kms was feeling great. Energetic, happy, no pain or soreness anywhere. I looked at my Garmin and started doing the maths on how long it might take me to finish.

Probably shouldn't have done that.

Kedumba Pass – 31km (2:39pm)

The number one thing people warn you about in UTA is the stairs. The second thing is the descent down Kedumba Pass. This section of the course is 6kms of almost entirely downhill (8km if you start counting from the gentle downhill after QVH). It didn't seem so bad at first until I got a little way into it and hit the first steep section.

On tired legs, I was forced to slow down and shuffle down the first steep part. Someone up ahead of me was having such a horrible time of it that they were walking down backwards to take the pressure off their knees.

And so we bloody went. Down, down, down. Some 100K runners passed me here, looking impressively strong. But for the most part, I was moving along with the same 50K runners to varying degrees. People had different strengths. Some would pull ahead on the steepest parts, while others were better on the flatter sections.

My legs and feet were taking a pounding. I turned off my music so I could focus more on controlling my speed. I kept sipping Tailwind, chewed on some Shot Blox, and just kept on going as best I could.

At the very bottom, the lowest point in the race (altitude-wise), we crossed Jamison Creek, followed by Leura Falls Creek. The cold water felt so good on my tired feet that I turned around and went back to stand in it for another minute. Like a little ice bath. It felt so good.

Then I set off again.

Thankfully I already had my poles out, having used them to take some weight off my legs on the steep downhill sections. I leaned into them and started up the first hill.

A few thoughts about this section:

  • People warn you about the stairs in UTA, but really I think the hardest parts are on the back half of the course. Long, steep, relentless hills. And at times, only your thoughts to keep you company. If anyone is nearby, they're probably not feeling very chatty right now.
  • This section made it worth carrying my poles for most of the first half of the race. I did not regret having them.
  • If you go too hard down Kedumba, you're going to really struggle on these climbs. I saw some runners walking backwards up hills, and some stopped entirely.
  • If you messed up your fueling throughout the day, this is likely where you're going to realise it. As I did.

Having not replaced my sandwiches with any other solid food at QVH, I now found myself starting to feel low on energy. Conditions were warm and dry, and what I really wanted was an ice-cold drink of something sugary. I started dreaming of Sprite… then Solo…. then Sprite again. I decided that the first thing I wanted when I finished was both of them. I kept sipping my warm Tailwind, and my dumb ultra-brain just plain forgot that I had Clif bars and an LCM bar in my race pack.

As my suffering reached a peak, I reminded myself that this is what I signed up for. To be pushed to my physical and mental limits, and seek how far I could really go.

Besides, the only way out by now is to keep going to the finish line.

In the distance, I heard music, and a few moments later, the welcome sight of the final aid station came into view.

The Final Aid Station – 41km (4:36pm)

The atmosphere at this aid station is a little more subdued than others. There's no spectators, just volunteers, a table of water, fruit and lollies, and some port-a-loos.

I took my pack off, unstrapped my Garmin, and connected it to the battery I was carrying. It was getting low, and I didn't want it to die in the last 8kms of the race. The battery was in case of emergency for my phone, but I threw in my Garmin charging cable at the last minute. That 5 or so minutes of charging probably saved the day, in hindsight. I would be gutted to finish UTA and not have a complete Strava record of it.

I decided one Tailwind and one water flask would get me to the finish. And, like an idiot, I forgot all about solid food again. But I did take some more salt tablets because I could feel water just sitting in my guts and not absorbing.

It wasn't dark yet, but I could see the sun was getting close to dropping down behind the mountains. I ditched the headphones, pulled out my headlamp, got myself all rigged up again, made one bathroom stop, and then left the aid station.

A breeze cut through me all of a sudden, making me stop and consider whether it was time to put on my thermal top. But I figured once I was moving again, I would be able to keep warm.

There are more heartbreaking hills past the aid station. In fact, the course is pretty much all uphill from here on, with very few flat sections.

Behind and in front of me were dozens of other runners spread out. Some 100K runners moved past me. I had a quick chat with a few of them, asking how their day was going. One said he was having a terrible day, powering past me and on pace to finish 100K in not much more time than it will take me to complete 50K. I guess its all relative.

My nutritional errors finally got the better of me, and I started to feel nauseous. I was sipping Tailwind and water to keep my stomach settled more than anything. And again, dumb ultra-brain couldn't come up with a solution. I had perfectly good food in my pack. Even my “I've hit rock bottom” snack, the LCM bar, was right there in my side pouch where I could have reached it without even stopping.

But somehow, I made the decision just to keep going. I don't know why. Maybe my mind was thinking “there's less than 8kms to go, that's nothing, you'll be at the finish line in no time”. But I was only hiking at this stage, and wouldn't run another step for the rest of the race. So it was going to take longer than dumb ultra-brain realised.

My headlamp was on by the time I passed through an open, grassy area, where a family was camping. They had a fire going, and the warmth of the flames was nearly enough to make me stop. But I pushed on, and soon came within sight of the forest canopy again.

I could see other racers stopping to put on their thermal gear. It was dark and cold, and I decided to do the same. I'm glad I did. The temperature dropped very fast.

Again, even though I'd stopped and taken off my pack, my dumb ultra-brain still didn't realise that getting some food out now would help.

Leura Forest – 44.5km (5:29pm)

As I entered the forest, there were two women nearby. The one in front asked if I wanted to pass. I said no. What I actually wanted was some company for this last push to the finish line.

And so we started a convoy with just the three of us, which soon grew to over ten people hiking along together. The woman in front, whose name I sadly neglected to ask, had finished the race the previous year and talked us through what to expect.

We marched on, in little pools of light from our headlamps, occasionally stopping to let 100K runners pass safely. At some point along here, the 100K female winner passed us. She was powering along. I was amazed.

We also saw 100K runners heading in the other direction. For them, the race was about 60km in. Passing us on their way out, they had a long night ahead of them, traversing the same course I'd run earlier in the day, only in the dark. Many of them wouldn't finish until after sunrise the next day. I was super impressed at the mental toughness to head out into the night to complete such a daunting task.

Furber Stairs – 49.4km (6:57pm)

Finally, the moment I'd been waiting for. Furber Stairs is the last section of the race. It's 900+ stairs, taking you about 200m up to the finish line at Scenic World.

As hard as that sounds (and it is hard), I was looking forward to reaching the stairs, because it would mean my race is almost over. Just one last effort, leaving nothing in reserve, and I will have achieved my goal.

Our little human train let out a collective cheer when we reached the stairs. I stopped to tie my shoes properly, then started up.

My poles, which had been useful for moving through the dark along narrow, uneven trails, now became a dilemma. Some of Furber is metal stairs – almost like ladders. Having both hands free to pull yourself up with the railings is helpful. But some sections are just regular dirt and rock steps with no handrails, so the poles were more useful. After a few moments of indecision, I decided just to keep using the poles. Despite the disadvantage for the sections of metal stairs, I think it was overall a net positive outcome to keep using them.

It took me about half an hour to ascend the stairs. Between each set of steps were some short, flat sections. Mostly I was able to keep moving, but a few times, I stopped at the bottom of a set of steps to get my breathing back under control before climbing again. There were a few puddles beside the trails where other runners had lost their battle with nausea. I was desperate not to join them.

It was pitch black, and apart from the occasional runner passing me, I was alone. At one point I looked over a railing and saw a line of a few dozen headlamps zig-zagging their way up the trail below me. Seems like everyone was in their own personal zone, just trying to get to the finish.

I was thoroughly cooked at this point. Every set of stairs was a massive effort for me. I was still sipping fluids to try and keep my stomach settled. But there was no more energy in reserve, and no time to take on fuel.

Suddenly I could hear music, and glancing up I could see the glow of lights at Scenic World above me. Then the cheers of the crowd at the finish line. I passed a volunteer who told me I'd climbed the last of the stairs. And it was true!

The Finish Line – 50.65km (7:32pm)

A wave of adrenaline and excitement washed over me. All of a sudden, the pain in my legs and feet was gone. I felt light as a feather as I made my way along the boardwalk towards all the light and noise of the finish line.

I'm so glad there's about 100m of flat ground to cover before the finish. I don't know what I would have looked like if the top of the stairs emptied straight into the finish chute. With that 100m of space, I was able to compose myself, clear my mind, and enjoy the moment.

Like some kind of cruel joke, there's a handful of final steps, and then I jogged into the finish chute. The noise was incredible. The announcer called out my name, and I was across the finish line.

Yeah it felt pretty good

After the Race

Things get a bit blurry for me after crossing the finish line. I must have had the good sense to stop my Garmin. I was vaguely aware of a photographer snapping pics of me. There were hugs with my family who had been waiting in the cold and dark for hours.

The finish line volunteers did a mandatory gear check. I had to show that I had a buff and a rain jacket. The buff was on my wrist. The rain jacket was in my pack. I couldn't reach it by then, my arms weren't cooperating. But I told them where it was, and they found it themselves.

I was handed my medal and finisher prize (another buff, can't have enough of them!), and exited the chute.

We walked around to the Scenic World cafe. I must have asked for those two soft drinks I'd been dreaming about for hours because after a short rest on a chair my wife brought them over to me. But I was not coping well with sitting indoors. Something about the combination of nausea and not having an immediately obvious place to throw up if I needed to was stressing me out. So after a big sip from one of the drinks, we walked back outside to the recovery area.

On the walk over, I started to feel pretty bad. I was shivering, and it got worse as we arrived in the recovery area. I didn't want to go inside the building (again, in case I puked) so I sat down on a chair under a heater.

If you are on your own, there's a tent in the recovery section where you can leave a drop bag of stuff you'll need after finishing. There are also showers if you're willing to line up for them.

My family had my stuff with them. I stripped off my wet shirt, leaving my thermal top on. Then I put on my beanie and snow jacket.

And then the shakes really set in. I was shivering hard, doubled over in the chair. People were asking me questions. What do you want to do with your gear? What do you want to eat for dinner? Do you want to go inside? Are you okay? I couldn't answer any of them except to say I was okay, I just needed to focus on getting warm.

It took about 10 minutes for the shivering to subside. And then, like an idiot, I took another sip of my cold drink. That triggered another bout of shivering, and I realised I just needed to hold off until I could get warmed up properly back at the house.

Me and my drinks

By now, I was chatting again, talking about what it was like out on course, how grateful I was for certain aspects of my training, and other things. I spoke to a few runners I recognised from out on course. Then once I felt good enough to move, we walked over to the car park and drove back to the house.

A long, hot shower sorted me out. I got my first look at my ankle that had been bothering me during the race. There was a big bruise on the inside of the ankle joint. The plastic insert of my ankle brace must have been bashing it while descending stairs. No wonder it had hurt so much. Removing the ankle brace was the right decision. The bruise cleared up very quickly the next day, so no severe damage was done.

I had imagined I would be ravenous after the race, but my body wasn't ready to take in a whole heap of food yet. I sat on the couch with my feet up, replying to messages that had come in throughout the day. I nibbled on some salty chips, slowly ate two slices of pizza, and finally got to drink the soft drinks I'd been dreaming about.

We compared notes on what the second half of the course was like. I had experienced the latter part of it in the dark, whereas the UTA 22 runners got to see it all in daylight. It sounds like Furber, in particular, is a vastly different experience during the day, because you can actually see the views from it.

Sleep came on fast, but it was broken sleep. I was woken by thirst a few times, thankful for the bottle of electrolyte drink next to my bed. I woke up very hungry and got out of bed for an early breakfast. And there was a lot of stiff and sore muscles that needed loosening up.

But overall, I felt pretty good the next day. We packed, drove back to Sydney, and flew home, and all throughout the day I had some mild stiffness in my calves and hips but was otherwise okay. I ate a lot, at frequent intervals, as my appetite was coming back with a vengeance.

Lessons Learned

People say that you learn a lot from your first ultramarathon. And my experience proved that point. Overall, I feel the day went very well for me. But I did make some costly nutritional errors. And the next day, as I replayed the events of the race in my head, I couldn't help but feel I could finish a lot faster next time.

Don't get me wrong, I am super happy with my finishing time of 11:30. I had a blast the entire day and avoided significant blowups or injuries. And just the fact that I finished at all, on my first attempt.

I think I will return to UTA 50 in the next few years, and try to beat my time. Until then, I'll keep training and running some other local 50K events.

In no particular order, here's what I feel are the most important lessons I learned.

  • You can do this. And I'm not just saying “I did it, so anyone can.” I saw people of all ages, shapes, and sizes out there on course, getting it done.
  • Training is crucial for your ability to finish the race physically. I followed a slow “return to running” plan from my sports doctor to rehab my busted ankle. Then I followed the Find Your Feet training plan for UTA 50. Without those two phases of my training, I would have just gone out running junk miles, ramped up too fast, and hurt myself.
  • Training is essential for your ability to finish the race mentally. You will build the self-belief that you can do this. And not just the time on feet, doing long runs and preparing to deal with the mental challenge of pushing your body when it just wants to stop. But also the reading and podcasts to coach you through the highs and the lows.
  • Practice with everything you'll be using on the day. I didn't do, wear or carry anything new. Pre-race dinner was tested. Breakfast was tested. Every item of clothing was tested. Every piece of equipment had been trained with. Every fuel item had been consumed on a long training run. I knew how hard to blow my emergency whistle to make it work. I knew what Crampfix tasted like. Nothing was left to chance.
  • Finishing a 50km race will change how you see yourself. It will change how you view any physical challenge. You'll discover strength you didn't believe you had. You'll reveal weaknesses that you didn't realise were there. And you'll start to look for new challenges to take on.

What Comes Next?

Rest and recovery are essential after an ultramarathon. Some say that your body needs a week to recover per 10km of the race. So you're looking at around one month before your body is ready to take on your next big challenge.

Of course, that's different for everyone. Some well-conditioned athletes can just have an easy week or two then roll into their next training block.

Either way, rest doesn't mean doing nothing. You can, and probably should, get out and do easy exercise to aid your recovery. The same type of short runs and recovery sessions you did during training are ideal. Take a walk, do stretching and rolling, do a few 30min easy efforts, or go and cruise through a Parkrun. It's not the time for hitting PRs, but some movement is helpful.

For me, after UTA 50, I did nothing at all for a week. Then I did one easy run of 4km, and a 10km jog that weekend to test my legs. Physically I felt fine, but mentally I was missing something. The motivation to do anything just wasn't there. I ran a 17km social run three weeks after UTA, just to push myself out of that mental funk. It was a fun outing, but I still couldn't get a consistent routine back.

Everything still works

So my running became quite sporadic for a few months. It was the coldest part of the year, which didn't help my motivation. I couldn't help but feel that there was just no point in going out for “only” a 3-5km run.

But I didn't want all my training to go to waste. I decided to turn my attention to strength training for a few months. I have a home gym and set about rebuilding my lower body strength with a training plan of main power lifts (e.g. squats, deadlifts, bench, overhead press) with additional core and mobility work.

In the depths of winter, I ran Steam at Nerang, a race by the Mountain Goat Trail Runners. 15kms and 600m of elevation gain that showed me that while I had lost some of my fitness since UTA, I hadn't fallen off as far as I feared.

But it wasn't until October and the lead up to the start of the SEQ Trail Running Series that I found my mojo again. Having a race to prepare for, even a short one, brought me back to what I love doing – running fun trails with great people.

Now that I'm back in the swing of things, I'm training for my next ultramarathon in July 2020 – The Guzzler 50K.

By Paul Cunningham

Paul is a writer and entrepreneur living in Brisbane, Australia. He enjoys spending time with his family and running in the mountains. Paul was the founder of Practical 365, a former Microsoft MVP, and Pluralsight trainer. Paul is also on Twitter and Instagram.

0 comments

  1. What a great read. Thanks for sharing. I did my first ultra at UTA last year too. I was also in the last wave and finished in 11hours and 8 minutes. Back of the pack is a great place to be.

  2. Thank you for your race recap! It was inspiring and informative! I am currently training for my first UTA50 this year. All the best for the Guzzler 50!

  3. An informative and enjoyable read… thank you so much
    I will read it again yo keep me motivated for this years UTA 50

  4. Excellent race write up, hoping to see you at UTA50 this year,
    I will, of course, be at the back of the last starting group 😁

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