The Ultra Trail Australia 2017 marked my first visit to Australia in nearly 4 years. It also marked my first visit to Sydney and the Blue Mountains.
After CCC last year, I and the lads had a discussion on which race we possibly could do next year. The Ultra Trail Australia was probably the first that came to mind. A race that wasn’t too far away from home and didn’t need a ballot entry. Truthfully there was pressure from myself to finish this race as I had a history of bottling races and having to run them twice. CCC and HK100 were two races which I have had to return to complete them. As I had no UTMB points left, I had to start collecting them again from scratch in order to try and qualify for a future UTMB. Interestingly enough, it was also one of my bucket list races.
I don’t want over-dramatize this experience, but here goes. The three of us arrived in Sydney in the late evening on Monday. After a long 2-hour train ride to Katoomba, we walked from the station in the cold to our accommodation. On arrival, we were shocked to find that the entire place was closed. We tried calling the owners but to no avail and we took shelter from the cold in an unlocked room. We were desperate as we couldn’t find a place to stay and most of the hotels/motels have closed. But by sheer luck, Wei Chong managed to call in a hotel but had to run 2 km back into town to hold the booking. Meanwhile, Duwei and I lugged our remaining luggage to the hotel. It was a harrowing experience, which interestingly enough took place within the night. After sleeping the night in the hotel, we had breakfast, before walking back to our accommodation.
After explaining the situation to the owners, we were told to report our situation to the UTA management. Safe to say that it was down to a lapse in communication on UTA’s part and our stay in the hotel was reimbursed. Hopefully, in the future, no one else will experience the same fate as we did.
Once we checked in to our accommodation proper, we wandered around town before seeing out the sunset at the lookout near Scenic World.
The following day, we did what most tourists here would do, visit Scenic World. Got to scout some of the routes for the course as well.
On Thursday, we made an early trip to the Expo to see if we could purchase the high-visibility vest. But there weren’t available yet, so we decided to try again later when the race check-in was opened. While there, we checked out the Expo booths and managed to chat with the owner of Pace Athletic. After lunch, we returned to the Expo, bought the vest and proceeded to gear check. It was pretty smooth, but the organisers really did check every piece of mandatory gear.
A quick tip would be to bring the printed specifications for certain items like gloves, jackets to quickly verify that they are indeed waterproof, thermal, etc.
We sat down in the bunk after dinner and started organising our packs. All of us packed one drop bag for the race, which was to be left at CP4 at the half-way point of the race.
On the eve of the race, the three of us went for the buffet dinner that was located near the Expo. It was great since it was nearby and we didn’t have to travel out for dinner. Dinner was pretty decent as well.
We also bumped into some of the other Singaporeans there.
Changes to the course
Because of the rain forecast for the weekend, there were significant changes to the course for both the 50km and 100km races. The 50k runners, who traditionally ran the second half of the 100km course, would now run the first half. The changes for the 100km course came in the second half of the race.IMPORTANT COURSE CHANGES TO THE UTA100
Due to the wet weather forecast and rain predicted overnight, there has been a course change to the UTA100 in the interest of runner safety. There are no changes to the start times for the UTA100.
The course up until CP5 is identical to the original course apart from the following changes:
1. You will not go up Ironpot Ridge, you be re-routed through the paddocks.
2. You will not descend the Giant Stairway, instead, you will be directed along Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Leura Cascades.
3. At Golf Links Lookout you will be directed up to Cliff View Road and through the Golf Course
4. At Lillians Bridge in Leura, you will be directed up Nature Track, past Edinburgh Castle Rock to Conservation Hut.
At CP5, instead of descending down Kedumba, you will be turned around and will follow the trails back across the cliff tops to Leura Cascades. You will then descend to Federal Pass and follow this to the base of Furber Steps as per the original course.
The course will be extensively marked, so please ensure you are following course markings.
Race Day / Start
Though the weekend weather was forecasted for rain, on race day it was more of a cold drizzle if anything else. After waking up at 5 am, we washed up, had breakfast at the canteen before returning to the bunk to get changed. Wei Chong would start his race in Wave 6 at 6:57 am, whereas Duwei and I started ours in Wave 7 at 7:05 am. I wore the WAA Light Jacket at the start, as it wasn’t that cold yet. As we were early, we sat at the Scenic World canteen to keep warm, before heading out to the start line to see Wei Chong off. We would take his place once the Wave 6 runners cleared the pen.
The start line was cold and the drizzle kept me from staying still, as I hobbled around at the start line. As the emcees counted down the final 5 seconds, I wished Duwei good luck and off we went.
We started off by till the edge of town before making a u-turn and then entering the trails. Those trails were actually Furber steps, but on the descends. I would later find out that going up Furber Steps was a pain than going down it. Eventually, I encountered and climbed up Golden Stairs before finally reaching the Narrow neck CP.
CP1 – Narrow Neck
CP1 was exactly as how I saw it on a Youtube video someone made. But so as not to waste time, I grabbed some watermelons and was out within minutes. I continued on the fire track path, power hiked the ascends and then ran the downhills the best I could. After much running, I eventually slowed down to navigate some technical and steep paths before waiting in line to descend the Tarros Ladders. I wasn’t feeling good at this point, as I was struggling to keep myself from vomiting my breakfast. The wait did help ease my nauseousness as I continued running towards the next CP. The 50 km elite runners would eventually catch up with us here as Vlad Ixel whizzed past me as I fell down my ass trying to descent among the mud and tree trunks.
CP2 – Dunphy’s Camp
I don’t have many memories of this CP, other than the beautiful scenery of the open countryside. As the weather became clearer and sunnier, I would later switch to a buff as I was dripping more sweat than I expected on my visor. At this CP, I gravitated towards watermelons again, as I knew it was cooling and was great for hydration. I also topped up my bottle of Tailwind, disposed some empty Overstim gels before moving out of the CP. My stomach eventually felt much better.
CP3 – Six Foot Track
Coming into CP3, runners were stopped for a mandatory gear check on the headlamp and high-visibility vest (hi-viz as they call it). Thankfully it was kept accessible in my pack and I cleared gear check easily. Hustling into the CP, I repeated what I had done earlier; refilled my Tailwind, grabbed some watermelons and moved out. By this time, I had been running for about 40 km or so and was still feeling good, even though the climbs without the poles started to wear me out a litle (wish I had them poles!).
But I kept reminding myself; early days, one step at a time. Soon we were out of the climbs and onto the main road, where cheers of the locals with their cowbells lifted my senses as I moved towards the Aquatic centre.
CP4 – Katoomba Aquatic Centre
Coach Andy was right about this CP, it was easy to get comfortable in here; warm, sheltered, you really didn’t want to leave. I retrieved my drop bag and began changing into the WAA long sleeve shirt for the night and grabbing whatever additional gear I had packed. As I sat down to change my gear, Grace came over to check up on me. She stayed for a bit before setting off.
At first, I thought of changing my shoes to Sense Pro 2’s, but I decided against it. The Peregrine was doing an excellent job in the mud and I hadn’t had any problems this far in. After confirming with the race officials that the fleece and rain pants were not mandatory to be carried, I dropped off the fleece in the drop bag before busting out into the cold. I took it easy before picking up the pace into the next section.
The 50 km runners finished at about this point, while the 100 km runners continued on past the park and towards Echo Point. As I moved towards the lookout, I stopped for a bit to savour the breathtaking sunset on the horizon. I felt a sense of relief to have made it this far but quickly reminded myself that it was time to grind out the night. As I entered Echo Park, tourists asked for my name, before shouting and cheering in unison. It was a great feeling and I never thought I’d have that candid race atmosphere like in Europe. I pulled out my headlamp and off I was into the shadows.
This water point was located in the middle of CP4 and CP5 and was located at a resort, a somewhat interesting place for a water point. I checked in, grabbed some fruits and looked around for some coke, of which there was none. Slightly disappointed, I took in a few more fruits before making my way out towards the darkness. From then on, things got rougher and rougher.
Because of the course changes, this section to and from CP5 became an out-and-back loop. Which meant that as I was heading towards CP5, the faster runners were running in the opposite direction. It was quite demoralising and much of this section was really dodging runners in the opposite direction and navigating the muddy steps and trails. After exiting the last trail, I was running on a seemingly long stretch of the road against runners who had left CP5.
It was agonising because my legs were so tired to run the road, but you knew the CP wasn’t that far away. I soon heard the loud music of Eagles – Take It Easy from afar, which jostled some life in my legs and I started running. The joy of reaching the CP would end up being short-lived though, as I was instructed to run 1.5 km down Katumba Valley Road to a u-turn point before running back into the CP. I later found out that at the end of the 1.5 km was where we were supposed to continue on the original route, had it not been changed.
CP5 – Queen Victoria Hospital
As I was exiting the dirt road after the u-turn to CP5, I bumped into Duwei whom I last saw at the start of the race. We spoke for a bit before he continued on while I entered CP5. Although I was still in the running for the buckle, I decided to spend a bit more time to get some nutrition in. I had a cup noodle, filled my bottle with coke, spoke to some runners before hustling my way out of the CP, for a total of about 15 minutes or so.
As it was a u-turn route, we returned to the Water Point at the resort for another check-in before continuing on to the finish. While leaving the CP, I was accompanied by a veteran runner from Gold Coast. He shared that he was running his 3rd UTA but didn’t have a buckle to show for it. We ran together for a bit before I pushed on and lost him on the trails. I was pushing hard for at least 10 km of out the 20 km I had left. But I knew by then that time was running out and I was quite exhausted. I watched as the watch dialled into the 20-hour mark as I was still on my way to Furber steps. I decided to just finish the course in possibly under 21 hours.
Finish – Scenic World
Furber steps were long, arduous steps to the top. But the sight of green cones at the top meant that my journey was about to end. I walked to the finish line, there wasn’t any need to run any further.
I was surprised to see Wei Chong was still awake to see me at the finish line. After a brief gear check on the warm shirt and buff, I slowly made my way to the recovery zone. Duwei would finish about 40 minutes behind me.
As I finished the race, I told Wei Chong that I was disappointed in not getting a bronze buckle. I guess it still holds true. I believed I was capable of running a 100km under 20 hours. But it wasn’t meant to be this time around. Still, I finished another race without injuries and had a great time doing it. I also took comfort in knowing that I’ve progressed a lot in training in the months since CCC last year, completing 2 races and cutting significant finish times between them.
It’s been a blessing to be able to run and travel with good friends and this trip was not an exception. I highly recommend this race to anyone looking for a new and breathtaking trail-running adventure. Thanks, Sydney, it’s been a pleasure.