Race Report: Up the Buff (2019)

Nestled quietly in Currumbin Valley, the Currumbin Eco-Village is home to a trail race that runners love to hate.

Don’t let the serenity fool you

As a new trail runner I ran Up the Buff in 2018 as only my second ever trail race. My first race was just two weeks earlier, serving as a good test of my ability to show up early in the morning at the correct location, but not a good test of my running abilities. An 11km spin around Daisy Hill did little to prepare me for the challenge of Up the Buff.

I stumbled across the finish line in 2018 feeling broken and spent. It took an hour of sitting on my ass, and a few cans of sugary Fanta before I felt steady enough to drive home again.

My first experience at Up the Buff had not damped my enthusiasm for trail running. After tearing my ankle ligaments a week later during a training run I spent the rest of 2018 doing rehab and running four more races, culminating in a fun stint at the Bayview round of the SEQ Trail Running Series where I finished the 11km long course smiling and happy.

Having signed up for my first 50k ultramarathon I spent the end of 2018 and the start of 2019 following a training plan to get ready. With everything going well I decided in March of 2019 to head back to Currumbin Valley and go Up the Buff again.

What is Up the Buff?

Up the Buff is hosted by Those Guys, the organisers behind the SEQ Trail Running Series and the Wild Earth Coastal High 50, among other great races in the region. Up the Buff has two distances – a 16k and a 25k – as well as a 3k kids race for charity.

The race precinct

Starting the Race

The first 3.5k of Up the Buff is run on roads. For the first 1k the course is flat, winding its way through part of the Eco-Village, before taking runners up the first hill. The road gets steep enough that most runners start to walk at this stage.

In my first attempt I had eagerly powered up this hill, not knowing what was coming next. If there’s one thing to know about UTB it’s that over every hill is another bloody hill. The only time you’re free of hills is when you hit the final 1k on your way to the finish line. Pacing is important right from the start. And I could already hear people around me gasping for air after going out too hard.

In training for my upcoming 50k I’d been working on my uphill technique. Keeping my pace steady and my breathing under control I made it to the top, around the first corner, and continued up the next hill. I got to the top feeling good, and started to jog as the road dipped back downhill again.

The first few kms is best described as “undulating”. I passed the same people uphill who would then pass me on the downhills.

“You’re too quick!” they’d call out as I power hiked up the next hill.

“Save your quads!” I called back as they sprinted down the other side.

Hitting the Trail

The trail section of Up the Buff follows the Buffer Track, which runs along the Queensland/New South Wales border. As far as trail races go it’s an easy one to navigate. Keep the fence on your left side until the turnaround point. Then keep the fence on your right side on the way back. If you can’t see the fence, you’re lost.

The track offers some lovely views on both sides but my eyes stay fixed to the ground in front of me. There’s a lot of narrow, slippery, unstable terrain even on the relatively flat sections. With my recurring ankle injuries I am careful to know exactly where my feet are landing.

Having a good time in 2019

After some gentle climbing the first decent hill appears; a short but steep downhill. There’d been a lot of rain in the lead up to the race, so the ground was wet and muddy. The entire 25k field had already passed through, as well as all the 16k runners ahead of me. A few people were stranded on the hill, holding on to trees or fence poles to keep their footing. I shuffled down as quickly as I could, and jogged on.

The next hill is a heart breaker. In 2018 I remember looking up the slope and thinking “What the hell is this!?!” It’s steep, slippery, and just long enough to take the wind out of your sails. Not to mention make you doubt your decision to run this race at all.

And that is basically how Up the Buff goes. Up a hill, down a hill, up a hill, down a hill. Some flattish bits in between, but not much. I remembered from 2018 how little recovery time there was in between hills. This time I felt fitter and more prepared, but still paced myself carefully to avoid a blowup. Hiking up hills, munching on a few lollies here and there, and sipping on Tailwind. After each climb I gave myself enough time to control my breathing then started jogging again. My goal was to not be complacent, push myself just hard enough to stay in control, and finish feeling like I could keep going if I needed to.

The Turnaround

Up the Buff is an out and back course. For the 16k runners the turnaround comes after some relatively flat terrain to give you a brief respite from hills. As I approached I started guzzling down the last of my Tailwind flask, and pulled the next one out of my vest to fill up. I knew from the previous year that the heat of the day made the exposed roads on the return leg quite unpleasant, so fluids are essential. And I’d rather have too much energy in me than not enough.

With my flasks topped up and another mouthful of lollies I started jogging back. Checking my watch I realised I had made the turnaround point in just over an hour (1:04:52 according to Strava). So there was a strong possibility I would beat my previous year’s time of 2:24.

The mental challenge of out and back courses is having to face the same terrain all over again – but in reverse. Every challenging ascent was going to be a challenging descent, and vice versa. I kept my spirits up by shouting encouragement to the runners I passed who were still on the outbound leg.

My slowest part of the race is the 12k segment. There are two steep climbs to deal with, and I once again focused on my uphill technique and controlling my breathing. Then you get to enjoy the triumphant feeling of cresting the highest point in the course again, knowing that the worst is over.

Well, almost over.

The Final Road Leg

In 2018 this is where my race fell apart. On cooked legs I tried to tackle the first road descents too fast, and blew up my quads and ITB. By the time I reached the final flat section I was a wreck, barely able to keep running.

This time I took things a little smarter. I walked the first steep descent, then controlled my speed as the road became less steep. I ran the flats at a moderate pace, and hiked up the hills.

This kept me feeling strong, and I kept looking at my watch and doing the maths in my head to work out whether I would still beat my previous time. After a few attempts I gave up and decided to just focus on finishing strong.

It’s a good feeling when you start on the final descent of Up the Buff. It’s still a bit steep, and there’s a photographer ready to capture your worst downhill running face ever (I’m barely keeping it together in this 2018 photo).

But if you can survive that last quad punishment, you hit the final flat section ready to push for a strong finish.

As my watch beeped to let me know I was in the final kilometre I knew for sure I would set a PB and avoid a blowup like last year.

The trail running community around here is terrific, and the finish line had plenty of spectators and other runners cheering people home. I crossed the line, received my finishers medal, and wandered over to the water station to get a drink.

My official time for 2019 was 2:11:36, beating my 2018 time of 2:24:30.

Coming back to the race a second time and proving to myself that I could handle it better was a big confidence booster for me.

And at 16k distance with over 550m of elevation gain, Up the Buff serves as a good test of how I can expect to feel at the first aid station of my upcoming 50k race (although I plan to pace myself slower for that one).

I’m looking forward to returning for an attempt at a sub-2hr finishing time.

What to Know About Up the Buff

If you’re thinking about running Up the Buff here’s some information to know:

  • There are two distances; 16k and 25k. The 25k runners follow the same course as the 16k, but when the 16k runners leave the trail for the final road section the 25k runners have to keep going for a second out and back with even bigger hills.
  • Held in March the weather is usually wet and cool. You can expect to feel cold as you wait to start, but the day can warm up quickly. I was overdressed the first year and had to carry a jacket in my pack the whole race because I didn’t think to leave it at the start line.
  • There is minimal mandatory gear. The race directors usually require you to carry 500ml water capacity, but even with the water stations on course I prefer to carry 1L (1x Tailwind soft flask, and 1x water soft flask, with a dry Tailwind flask in my vest to fill and swap at the turnaround). I sweat a lot though, and expect to be out for around 2 hours. If you’re faster and fitter than me, maybe you’ll need less fluids.
  • I’ve seen runners using poles during the race. If you want to use poles just be aware that there are two road sections, and there are several sections where you’re sharing narrow tracks with runners coming in the opposite direction.
  • There is ample parking on site and parking marshals to guide you. I find it best to arrive a little early to ensure a convenient space. Be careful on the roads though as there will be a lot of early morning cyclists out.
  • You can add a few dollars to your entry fee to make an additional contribution to the fundraising. There is also a fundraising BBQ held by the Mountain Goat Trail Runners. And if you’re bringing the family, your kids can run the 3k charity race while you’re out enjoying the hills.

Find out more at the Up the Buff event website, the Up the Buff Facebook page, or Those Guys Events.

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.