By Dan Lewis
On his Facebook page just a few days before his greatest victory, Spaniard Pau Capell posted a message with a photograph of himself out trail running. “No parare hasta conseguirlo!” it declared. The translation is: “I will not stop until I get it!”
The 24-year-old says the post was about his life goals in general, but it could have just as well applied specifically to the Ultra-Trail Australia 100km race in the Blue Mountains on May 14.
Although he has only been running ultra-marathons for three years, Capell stormed home to comprehensively defeat a well-credentialed international field of elite athletes in Australia’s biggest and most prestigious trail running event. In his broken English, Capell exclaimed at the Scenic World finish line in Katoomba: “I don’t believe it. This is a dream. I dream about this. I think this was amazing.”
He finished in 9:20:14 ahead of Australia’s Ben Duffus in 9:39:25 and Yun Yanqiao of China in 9:42:09. Ryan Sandes of South Africa, who won the same event in 2012, was fourth in a time of 9:48:24.
Katoomba-based Kiwi Scotty Hawker, who placed sixth in 10:01:13, can claim some of the credit for Capell’s achievement.
The pair share a sponsor in Compressport and after Capell arrived in Australia Hawker took him for a few pre-race training runs out on the course.
Hawker’s performance was also impressive. He came second in last year’s UTA 100 but then had to take a long break from trail running on the advice of fertility specialists to help his wife fall pregnant. This was his first major race since returning to training late last year.
Capell, who calls Barcelona home, turned his win into a political statement, wrapping himself in the flag of Catalonia at the finish line. He explained that while he loves Spain, he passionately believes that his native Catalonia region should be an independent nation.
United States runner Mario Mendoza led the 100km race for the first half from a United Nations of top 10 runners that also featured representatives from South Africa, France, Lithuania, Australia, China and of course Hawker’s New Zealand and Capell’s Spain.
Around the half-way mark of the race a small pursing pack eventually caught Mendoza and went past him, with Capell out in front for the final 42 kilometres as he built up his ultimate winning margin of 19 minutes.
Mendoza pulled out of the race at the Fairmont in Leura, citing stomach problems that started to bite as he descended the Giant Staircase at Katoomba. “My stomach is in knots and I cannot get anything in, there is nothing I can do,” he said.
In the women’s 100km field, it was Aussie, Aussie Aussie in the lead in the early stages thanks to the efforts of Gill Fowler, Beth Cardelli and Amy Lamprecht. Cardelli, who also won the UTA 100 in 2010, 2012 and 2013, went on to claim her fourth title in a time of 11:16:14 ahead of New Zealand’s Fiona Hayvice in 11:33:13. Another Australian, Kellie Emmerson, was third in 11:53:30.
Saturday’s 100km and 50km UTA races were both sellouts, with each boasting about 1500 runners. On a postcard perfect autumn day, they got to run over some of the iconic features of the Blue Mountains landscape: Narrow Neck, Jamison Valley, Dunphys Camp, the Six Foot Track, Megalong Valley, Kings Tableland, Ironpot Ridge, Kedumba Pass, Giant Staircase, Golden Stairs, Furber Steps, Prince Henry Clifftop Track, Federal Pass, Dardenelles Pass, Tarros Ladder, Valley of the Waters.
Sydney-based Kiwi Mark Green streaked away to climb up the Furber Steps out of the Jamison Valley and win the men’s 50km title by a remarkable 23 minutes. His time of 4:24:30 was less than a minute outside the race record and he was delighted to have achieved his goal of breaking four and a half hours. “It was fun, but it hurt a lot,” Green said. “I kept expecting someone to catch me.”
The remarkable Australian runner Hanny Allston, a world orienteering champion, similarly dominated the women’s 50km field, finishing in 5:08:15 and 17 minutes ahead of second place. Her effort also placed her ninth in the race overall. Allston put in such a big race that she was sobbing in a world of pain after crossing the finish line.
On the Thursday, Green and and his three young children also competed in the new Scenic World UTA951 up the Furber Steps. It’s a time trial that sees runners climb more than 200m over little more than a kilometre as they slog up all 951 of the Furber Steps.Green proved that taking on the stairs event doesn’t mean you can’t quickly backup to win one of the longer UTA races.
He was the third fastest male in the UTA951 with a time of 9:39 while the quickest of all was Aaron Knight in 9:05. The fastest female (and second fastest overall) was Marnie Ponton with 9:33.
There was another brand new part of the Ultra-Trail Australia family as well, and the Pace UTA22 also ended with an old-fashioned duel up the dreaded Furber Steps to decide the winner.
The 22km race across the Jamison Valley from Wentworth Falls to Katoomba attracted a field of nearly 800 runners on a perfect autumn Blue Mountains day on May 13, but it was the final kilometre of agonising climb up to the Scenic World finish line that allowed Sydney runner David Byrne to cross the finish line ahead of all of them.
Among the big field were some people content to walk the entire distance. At the other extreme were elite runners, including local champion Brendan Davies, who famously won the UTA 100km in 2013.
For most of the race it was a flying Davies so far out in front that those coming behind couldn’t even see him. Davies, however, didn’t go into the race expecting to win. The 39-year-old was using the UTA22 principally to “get the quads toughened up for road running” in readiness for the famous Comrades Marathon in South Africa – a 90km road race and the world’s oldest ultra-distance running event.
“I was quite surprised to be alone and in front with 3km to go,” Davies said. “I was starting to have dreams of crossing that finish line in front when I heard the sound of footsteps behind me and David was there. We ran together for about a kilometre and he made his move just before Furber Steps. I thought if I could stay with him up the steps I could get past him but he was always 10m to 20m in front of me. He was just too good.”
Byrne, 35, was amazed to have triumphed over one of his trail running idols. “I honestly didn’t think I would beat him. I got in front of him and we just slogged it out up the stairs. He was behind me all the way up. It was a really tough way to finish. We were just hauling ourselves [using the metal hand rails]. I was on my hands for a bit. It was embarrassing. It was definitely a mind-over-matter situation because I had nothing left.”
Byrne finished the race in 1:43:27, with Davies 15 seconds behind.
The first woman across the finish line was 24-year-old Stephanie Auston from Merimbula on the NSW South Coast.
Usually a road runner, this was Auston’s first trail running event but won’t be her last after she led the female field most of the way to finish in 2:03:28, almost 10 minutes ahead of second-placed female Lucy Bartholomew. Auston said that while Merimbula has plenty of hills, it has no steps to match Furber, and “I can’t wait for next year to do it again”.
On Thursday afternoon, Davies had also competed in the Scenic World UTA951, producing the fourth fastest male time of 9:51.
Could that have robbed him of the ability to catch Byrne on the steps in the 22? “It might have cost me a little bit going up the steps, but only a couple of seconds,” Davies said. “I think what probably cost me going up the steps wasn’t yesterday’s race but the 21km before I got to the steps today when I hammered myself. I really enjoyed both races and I wouldn’t change anything.”