The last of the light seeped from the sky and a chilled air crept in to take its place. Running footsteps approached in the dark then faded away again. Dave and I continued down the trail, following the spheres of light cast by our headlamps. More runners passed. All we saw of them was the light of a headlamp as they came near and their reflective vests as they departed. We offered quiet words of encouragement. Most of them greeted us in return but only briefly and with much effort. Then they were lost in their own lonely world again, no doubt a world of pain but with a precarious determination.
Anyone who knows me well knows I have an aversion to long distance running and that I will frequently imply those who run any more than about half marathon distance are, quite frankly, a bit bonkers. They are running for hours, sometimes many hours. Have they got nothing better to do? Why would you choose a hobby that involves hours of sweat, blisters, muscle cramps, vomiting, chafing, sickening gels, sickening electrolytes, annoyingly cheerful volunteers and the sudden desperate need to do number two’s in the most inconvenient of locations? Bleugh! I can tolerate a 5km pretty easily, even regularly a 10km and a half marathon at a stretch. With these distances you may get away without any of the above, save for a bit of sweat. And if you do need to endure them, it is not for very long.
So how did I end up among all these runners who were definitely not just cracking out a quick 5km? Well, I wasn’t competing with them, that’s for sure! I was here a a volunteer. Dave and I were sweeping the last half of the 50km race at Ultra-Trail Australia. This meant walking or running behind the last 50km competitor, making sure anyone sick or injured was taken care of and nobody was left behind out in the bush. This was also the route for the runners competing in the 100km event so many of them would be passing us. We’d be looking out for them too and we carried first aid equipment and a two-way radio so could call for help if required.
Previously known as The North Face 100, Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA) is one of the most well known ultra running events in Australia. It is held in the stunning Blue Mountains National Park, with its base at Scenic World in Katoomba. The runs on offer are the 22km, the 50km and the crazy, only-insane-people-allowed-to-enter 100km. There is also the UTA951, a lung-busting, leg-burning bolt up the Furber Steps. 951 stairs in 1.2km! Eeek! I can feel the pain from here. Actually, all of these runs are guaranteed to come with a good dose of pain. Someone please remind me why anyone in their right mind would do one…
Dave and I started our sweeping shift at the Queen Victoria Hospital checkpoint, 28kms along for the 50km runners. We would be following the route that the Pace UTA22 event takes, and that the 50km and 100km events end with. Below is the profile of the course. It is not flat. In fact you would be hard pressed to find a flat section in the whole 22km. And as if going up hill for the last 14km is not daunting enough, there are the Furber steps right at the end.
It was 4pm when we began our sweeping. I was assured we would only be walking as it was likely that the person at the back of the pack would be going pretty slowly, possibly stopping frequently to either stretch out cramped muscles, vomit or cry. Perhaps all of the above. Having already toughed out 28 nasty kilometres I wouldn’t blame them. But by the time we arrived at the checkpoint (a bit late due to crazy UTA spectator traffic), the last of the 50 runners were a fair way ahead of us. Which means we’d have to run to catch up.
I wasn’t expecting to be running so had stuffed my pack to bursting with everything I could possibly need for a long, cold night in the forest. By the way, I don’t own a running backpack. I don’t run far enough to warrant owning one and I never planned to exceed the distances I currently run so was happy not owning one. Well, here’s the time when I wish I owned one. A non-running backpack, packed to the seams with cold-weather clothes, piles of snacks, water, first aid gear, two headlamps and a camera, bouncing around on my back like a toddler enjoying a piggy-back ride. Not particularly comfortable. In an attempt to tame the bouncing bag, I held onto those straps so tightly that the next day my triceps were sore. I reminded myself that I was only running/walking 22km while hundreds of people were out there running 50km and 100km. I should probably harden up!
About 5kms along we caught up to the last of the 50km runners. They were a middle-aged couple who, contrary to what I was expecting, were neither crying nor vomiting. They certainly were not running, but they were walking at a good solid pace. They looked strong, like they could keep going for a long time. It was a lovely mild evening and the fire-trail we were following was bordered by beautiful forest and a lush undergrowth of ferns. The trail was gradually descending into the valley. Dave and I settled in for a long but hopefully enjoyable and uneventful walk.
Dave asked me “are you going to run the 100km next year?”. I nearly spat out my yoghurt-covered sultanas. “No, of course not!” I shook my head and chuckled a bit. What a silly question! But Dave, being a veteran of multiple 100km races, seemed generally surprised at my certainty. I think he has spent so much time with other 100km runners that he thinks running these distances is normal. I attempted to explain that actually no, running 100kms is not normal at all and those who choose to do so must have a few screws loose. He did not believe a word of it and probably, to this day, still thinks ultra running is normal. Well, I tried. But you just can’t help some people.
Sweeping UTA is not all fun and games. There were some serious bits, like stopping to help very sick runners, where we were unable to do much except try to make them as comfortable as possible until a car arrived to collect them. Or walking with runners through their pain and nausea, encouraging them to just make it to the next checkpoint. While thinking, “Why do you do this to yourself??” you also need to admire them for attempting it in the first place. Being amongst the runners really gave me a sense of the magnitude of these types of events. Not only are they pushing their bodies to the limits of endurance, they are doing so in an unforgiving environment. The terrain is rough in some places making the risk of injury far greater than that of a road run. Plus they are out in the wilderness. At some points they could be running all by themselves, with no other runner in sight, and there are only certain places where a car can get in to collect them if something goes wrong. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted!
The light faded quickly and we strapped our headlamps on. In the beautiful Blue Mountains National Park our view now only consisted of a sphere of dimly lit trail. The faces of runners were no longer discernible, their visible features now only a headlamp and bits of reflective tape. We had begun our climb back out of the valley, winding our way up into the mountains. Sometimes, if we looked to the left across a valley, we could see a line of headlamps ascending the trail, where we had just been previously. I imagine it would have been a comforting sight to a lonely runner, to remind them there are plenty of others out there.
With about 12kms to go we came upon one of the 100km runners who was feeling very unwell and was considering pulling himself out of the race. He knew that the last section of the race was through tough single-track and of course up the challenging Furber steps. A car could not get in there to get a sick runner out, so once you get into that section there is really no way out except to go all the way to the end. He knew that it would not be a good idea for him to attempt it. The last aid station was in a few kilometres so we encouraged him to walk with us to that point where he could make his decision.
On the way, he and Dave chatted about ultra-marathons. I could not involve myself in that kind of crazy talk. Seriously, you’d think there were only a handful of people insane enough to do these silly runs. But in fact I was surrounded by them!
Suddenly up ahead there was what looked like a party in the middle of the forest. Lights flashing, music playing, lots of people standing around a blazing fire eating chips. Wow! This is cool. It was the last aid station and we were welcomed with open arms and offered drinks and food. With the exception of a few dejected looking runners huddled in blankets by the fire, everyone was in a very festive mood, it was such a cool atmosphere. And if your drink of choice is water or electrolytes and your favourite food is potato chips or bananas, then this is your kind of party. Presumably those loco 100km runners felt right at home here…
I was happy to stay at this bush disco hanging out by the fire for as long as I could, but our hardy 50km runners had not even stopped and were heading back out into the dark already. I hastily filled my water bottle, stuffed a handful of chips in my gob and hoisted by bag onto my back.
We left the fire-trail behind and entered the single-track. The trail wove its way through the forest, up and down, around and around, barging through small streams but detouring around large boulders and cliff faces. It was necessary now to keep our eyes on the track in front of us as there were rocks and tree-roots jumping out at us at every corner.
Strange animal sounds punctuated the quiet night. Unseen streams splashed and gurgled nearby. Cool winds created goosebumps on my bare arms, then gusts of warm air removed them again. If it wasn’t for all the other people out there it might have been a bit spooky.
Quite unexpectedly, there were signs warning us that our photo would be taken in 20 metres. Then suddenly “FLASH!” Caught like a dear in the headlights! Pretty sure that photo of me will be mighty attractive. Luckily there were more cameras. For the next one I crept up behind Dave and attempted to photo-bomb him with outstretched arms and a crazy face. Well, one must find ways of amusing one-self when one is walking slowly through a dark forest for several hours…
Frequently the headlamps of 100km runners would approach us from behind and we would step aside to let them pass. One of these said headlamps did not pass by but in fact came straight towards me, followed by a pair of out-stretched arms. I was being attacked by a large, dark monster with one big, bright eye. My initial alarm quickly turned to relief when I realised it was my friend Emma embracing me. I was pleased to see her, to see she was still on her feet and doing really well. After the brief hug, she was off again, down the dimly lit trail. I know she was excited to see me. Not because she missed me or anything, just because to see me (as the 50km sweeper) meant she was onto a good time for her 100. Go get ’em Em!
I must make a mention of the wonderful volunteers we saw during our walk and how hardcore many of them are. Some of the marshals, particularly on this part of the course, were staying out all night. They had little tents pitched at their marshal spots, complete with sleeping bag and mini camp chair. I don’t know whether they were expecting to sleep or if the tent was just somewhere to escape the chill wind and get comfy and warm, but that’s dedication for you!
There wasn’t a lot of sight-seeing on our hike. It was dark, you see. We were in the Leura Forest so presumably if it was not dark there would have been some beautiful things to see. For example, at some point we heard the sound of waterfalls close by. I had to imagine what they looked like. I’m sure they were lovely. There were gurgling streams and the faint outline of cliff faces but we saw only brief glimpses as our lights passed over them. We came upon a sign that said “You are below the Three Sisters”. I looked up, just in case. But no, just darkness.
We came upon some stairs. “Hey Dave, are these the Furber Steps?” Dave had travelled this route several times so was relatively familiar with the course. “Not yet”, he said.
“Oh, so these are bonus?” It seemed a bit unfair that we were climbing stairs but we had not even reached the start of the infamous Furber Steps yet.
More stairs. “Are these the Furber Steps Dave?” “No Jodie” he sighed.
And more. “What about these Dave?”. “Not. Yet. Jodie”. I wondered if his kids ever played the “Are-we-there-yet?” game on long car journeys. If so, that would explain why he was rolling his eyes at me.
And then there was a sign that said “Furber Steps”. Yay!
It was not surprising that this section was where we saw the most runners struggling. Poor buggers. Seriously. Who was the sadistic person that put a massive bunch of stairs at the end of a 50km and 100km run? Come to think of it, I’ve been to a few trail running events that have stairs at the end. Do all the trail run organisers have a little competition to see who can inflict the most torture in the last kilometre of their race? Having only come about 21kms and having walked most of it I was still feeling quite good. But if I’d just run 99kms I can guarantee there’d be a lot of cursing going on (between the sobs).
Our tail-end 50km competitors had now been moving for almost 14 hours and their physical and mental exhaustion was obvious in each step they climbed. Dave became super encouraging at this point, quietly reassuring them that they were doing great, and if his encouragement did involve a few little white lies like “Nearly there now” and “I’m pretty sure this is the last set of stairs”, well, it still really helped.
As you reach the top of the stairs and step onto the boardwalk you know you are only a stone’s throw from the finish line. You can’t help but feel a sense of excitement. For the competitors I’m sure it is not so much excitement as sheer bloody relief. Dave and I held back to let the tail-end 50km runners go through the finish line by themselves and have their moment, then we wandered through.
At 10:40pm, 6 and a half hours after starting our sweep at the Queen Victoria Hospital checkpoint, Dave and I walked through the Ultra-Trail Australia finish line. At that time of the night there were still a lot of spectators out. They cheered us as we walked through, no doubt assuming we were competitors despite our lack of bibs. I was slightly embarrassed, wanting to explain that actually, we are just the sweepers. But you can’t help enjoy the atmosphere. The MC gave us a special mention and announced to the spectators that now that we had come through, the 2016 UTA50 event was now officially closed.
I was so distracted by all the cheering and all the lights that I forgot to try and steal a finisher’s medal.
Now, where is the burger and chips I was promised??
The next morning I woke with really sore legs, sore enough to make me limp. But when wandering around the finish line among all the 50km and 100km runners I forced myself not to limp as I felt I did not have the right to. It really humbles you being amongst these people, some of whom can run 100km and be able to walk limp-free the next day!
The 100km runners were still coming through the finish line, having spent a lonely night on the trail. We waited at the top of the stairs to cheer them on. The last runner came in at about 11am, 28 hours and 39 minutes after starting the race on Saturday morning! Holy cow, that is some stamina!! You have to admire that! And these were the people that actually finished the race. Of the 1201 runners who started the 100km event, 252 did not finish. So yeah, just finishing the race is a very big deal!
A big shout out to those amazing runners Dave and I met on our epic hike. James, I hope you made a swift recovery and I look forward to seeing you next year, this time knocking over that 100 and earning yourself a big ol’ shiny buckle. Adrian, it takes a very strong and smart person to pull themselves out of a race so close to the finish. You made the right decision, even though you may doubt it now. I hope also to see you next year. I’ll be at the finish line cheering you home. Frank and Lindy, you guys are so strong and determined, I was so inspired by you. Fabulous work! And to all the other runners we met on the way, whether we shared a quiet word or we sat with you while you rested, you are amazing for just being there. Yes, I still think you are a little crazy, but it is definitely crazy in a really good way.
Dave, yep, you are crazy but please don’t change. Thanks for letting me be your Wingman.
Will I be back next year? Absolutely! It is a really fun weekend, even if you are not competing (actually probably more fun if you are not competing).
I’ll be sweeping again next year but I may actually be competing too. Only the 22km of course. Though somebody told me the views are better on the 50km. Really? I do like a nice view…
Guess I’d better go and buy myself a running backpack…
If you’re bonkers enough to want to come along next year, keep an eye on UTA’s website here for details. Apparently tickets go on sale in October sometime but make sure you have your racing shoes on because they often sell out pretty quick.
See you there!