Trail running – A coming of age through the eyes of the Ultra Trail Australia event.
The phenomenon that is a good summary of what trail running in Australia has become, with a focus on this years UTA 22 by runner Vlad Shatrov.
The phenomenon of off road running aka “Trail Running” has certainly has a significant increase in participant numbers in Australia in recent times. Whilst around the globe this type of running has been popular for quite some time, its =only really the last couple of years in Australia that we too have fallen in love with running away from the traditional road running surfaces.
Competing in the recent Ultra Trail Australia (UTA) event himself in the Blue Mountains 2 hours from Sydney Vlad Shatrov has best tried to explain the reasons for the explosion in the sport through a wrap up of this years event.
Its 10am on Friday (a difference in itself) and I’ve just caught the event shuttle buses from Katoomba around to the start of the first event in this years UTA event. It’s the Pace 22. A 22km trail run with 1200m of vertical gain! That’s very challenging for an event of 22kmkm but pales in significance to the xx and xx of the other two marquee runs.
This year is the second running of this distance and the field has more than doubled. A traditional “Welcome to country” ceremony is performed as the rain starts to come down. Its cold, and wet and the journey ahead for many will take more than 4 hours! For me it’s a shorter run than I would normally do but it suits me perfectly, its mainly a very runnable course, not too much technical single trail but plenty of perfect fire trail ideal for running. This course starts with 8km downhill before two brutal climbs of about 3-4km in length each, and for many they are forced to walk the majority of the steeper sections.
However today I’m feeling good, I’ve trained very well in the lead-up to the event and am using it as a hit-out before taking on the worlds oldest Ultra Marathon in Durban in a couple of weeks time. Off we go, it’s a fast pace and quality runners surround me. We are carrying our mandatory gear making it an even bigger challenge as we run down the hill at speed. To have 10 plus runners all together running at this pace is exhilarating in itself, the depth and talent of off road runners has also increased in recent years.
Whilst being very careful not to slap my feet and extend myself too hard on the down hill section, I’m also conscious that there are a few runners in front of me and I want to be able to keep them in sight, so I focus hard on good form and staying close enough to the front runners as we head to the bottom of the hill.
As soon as we start climbing though its just me and Blake (a very talented runner) and we run up the first half of the first hill evenly matched, we are working hard but I’m in control as we create a gap on the rest of the field, after a short respite we then take on the second section of this hill and at about 11km I’m at the top and feeling good as I run up and over the hill – I’m now by myself, already. Now it becomes mentally tough, I break it down, focus on 14km, then the top of the second hill! I continue to extend my lead I think, but now it’s just a personal challenge to keep running strong to get the most out of this race myself.
From about the 16km point the terrain goes to more technical single track and its muddy and wet, dark and cold. 100% concentration is required as you sense the finishing line, however there is still another surprise, the race finishes with having to walk, crawl or climb up over 1000 stairs before the final 300m push to the finish. Your legs burn forcing you to walk almost all of the stairs whilst using your arms to help pull you up this final savage climb, near the summit the crowd urges you on and the finsh-line at Scenic World is jam packed with spectators. I’ve had a good day, the feeling is incredibly special, and I’ve managed to break the course record completing the event in 1 hour and forty-two minutes.
And this is just the start of the weekend, Saturday the real races start with 1he 100km main event kicking off from around 6am followed by the 50km race an hour or so later. Many runners have trained a full 12 months to prepare for these longer events and it’s not a solo affair. Checkpoints along the course allow points of assistance by volunteers friends and loved ones and from about 3pm on the Saturday the finish line is electric with activity as the first 100km and 50km runners start finishing, these are the fastest only with an average time for the 100km siting at around 16 hours!
The event now in its 10th year and from an initial field of 70 or so runners in the 100km event its now over 3000 runners with a third of the field attracted from overseas. Running across three days the entire family can take part, which is a part of the reason for its success. If I had to point out the main differenced between taking on an event like this and a road running events it would be
Whilst it varies significantly from event to event, most trail running events will take runners across multiple surfaces and varying terrain. Running well requires a different type of training and an increased strength adaption if you are going to do well. Traditional road running shoes just wont cut it either, especially in the wet.
The requirement to have mental toughness
Often in remote areas and often alone for long periods means you are going to need to be strong enough to do it alone. Without familiar sights, noises and cheers of onlookers in road events you can be isolated and in the dark. You need get comfortable with being uncomfortable and be able to ride out the tough times that will no doubt challenge you.
The time to complete the event
In the extreme some events go for days but even in shorter events be prepared to double the time when compared to the same distance on the road, its not an in and out before breakfast type of event. You will need to fit other aspects of your life around this and not the other way around.
The time taken to Train for the event
Anything over 4 hours in duration, and some serious time will be required to get your body prepared for being able to complete a challenge like this. Many will choose to run and study sections or the entire course thoroughly earlier in the build up and or take part in event specific camps. This is a part of the fun, spending time with like-minded runners in the process and creating special friendships shared out on the trail
The equipment needed
This is no small thing. This varies significantly from race to race but often as a minimum emergency equipment and all your nutritional requirements must be taken care of by you. Not only will you want to source and test it but be comfortable carrying and using it on the run. This takes practice.
It’s no wonder then that those runners coming across that finish line at this years UTA event portrayed tears and smiles of joy and pain. Relief and exuberance. The best way for me to describe Trail races are that they are an experience not just an event! Especially one so epic at the UTA.