It’s 7:51PM, Sunday night. The moon is full, low in the sky to the North-East direction. Fiona just asked me if I can hear them singing up there; she’s referring to our bikes, Percy and Shelly up on the roof cutting through the air for the 2nd time today. They did this for 3 hours this afternoon while covering 85KM of hilly cycling. They treated us well with an effort that was quite low, recovery Zone 1. But little do they know what their owners did before this ride.
It was March 2013. Fiona and I were dating for a week and we headed to Mt Sonder; the 4th tallest Mountain in the Northern Territory. We camped out at the base, hiked the mountain and then had an amazing ride in a rarity in the NT; rain. According to Fiona, it was here that she fell in love with me (because I can’t just make that claim). Later that year on August 31st, we would once again be at the top of Mt Sonder, at sunrise, on my knee proposing to Fiona with a 1.45 carat diamond in a box of M&M’s with the words inscribed Will You Marry Me? We’ve also had several other training weekends and epic adventures like our Glen Helen to Alice Springs to Glen Helen 7hr45minute, 270KM bike ride. And then on our first anniversary, June 21st, 2015 Fiona surprised me with a non-training weekend at Glen Helen that included dinner at their restaurant, a “hotel” room, Moet Champagne, and the next morning, a 30minute helicopter ride over a large area, including Mt Sonder’s Summit. So this area, is special to us.
At some point over the last year, I had heard that there was an ultra coming to the Larapinta. I messaged Rapid Ascent and was put on their distribution list. When it came out that the race was a 4 day stage race, I was slightly disappointed because I had wanted to run the entire trail, all 223KM of it. But that soon changed when I realized that the 4th stage, the longest stage at 45KM started with a climb up the very mountain I proposed to Fiona on, and only one day shy of it. Well, there was no chance we weren’t doing at least that stage. Now, because I knew we would be in the midst of training for Ironman Western Australia (Base 3, week 2 we started today), and because we ran the Alice Springs Marathon only 2 weeks ago, I knew that the 4 days of racing was out of the question. I also wasn’t interested in doing a stage race knowing how shattered I would feel, but also putting more weight on my real goal, my “A” race, Busso. Fiona bought my $225 entry for my 31st Birthday. Done.
You already know that we ran a marathon 2 weeks ago. My 3:02 and Fiona’s 3:09 were PB’s for both of us. It was a rest week as well that saw us see PB in our swim and bike tests for myself and Fiona respectively. We had taken 5 days off of running after the marathon and recovered with our Plant-Based, Whole-Foods Diet. Then this week, I trained 23.5 hours covering 45.5K of running, 295K of cycling, and 16K of swimming. We started carbo loading Thursday night through Saturday and on Saturday, the day before the Ultra we swam 6K in 1:42 and biked 2 hours at Anytime Fitness. We packed up the car, brought our dog Sydney to our friend Judy’s to see her boyfriend and headed to Glen Helen.
Once there, we pitched the tent, ate some cheap & processed $1 noodle packages, whole wheat bread rolls, some coke, and chia pudding pods. I got all my gear organized which consisted of: shoes, socks, shorts, Anytime Fitness singlet, thermal, beanie, Garmin 310XT GPS, HR Monitor, 2 Red Bulls, 10 Gels/Shot Bloks, 10 Salt Tablets, 3 Liters of Water, 2 racing bibs, a whistle, a first aid kit, a Space blanket, a map, lighter, phone, camera, glasses, and Alice Springs Triathlon Club Visor. In bed at 9PM, right after I saw a dingo walking past our tent.
The alarm woke us up 2 hrs before race time at 5:30. Coles processed muffin & redbull down. Bloks 20minutes before race time. We geared up, grabbed the bus, and met some of the other 57 competitors on the day. This bus was for the long course, the 45K vs the short course which was 30K. I met a guy named Joe from New Zealand who was a really nice guy. We also talked with Shona who was the race favorite. She has ran in Japan, France, Australia, NZ, Italy, and is ranked 12th in the World in Mountain Running. Once at Red Bank at the base of the mountain I also met Paul Munro who I would later find out is very competitive and will place in 100K and 100 mile races against some of the best ultra runners in the World. There were no other runners from Alice on the day.
With 5 minutes to go we headed down to the dry river bed to the Rapid Ascent start line. I looked around, knew Paul would be fast looking at his thin legs, gave kisses and hugs to my wifey, and then we were off.
It’s 8:26PM, we just slowed to a crawl, there were two kangaroos a meter off the road, Fiona’s doing great at driving!
Back to the race.
Paul and Joe blasted off. I followed behind them and was in 3rd heading to the trail amongst the 30+ long course athletes. The staircase is immediate and already I was walking. I looked back and saw Fiona chatting to Shona. I thought to myself, No time to talk Fi, Get Running! (Knowing they predicted the race winner at 4hours 50minutes). The HR immediately shot up to 145. I started eating my gels after each mile or 1.6K since they were taking me around 14minutes during the first major climb of the day. There was a lot of run/walk. I immediately realized that running on HR so high, above my Ironman HR of 133 was unsustainable. So I tried to keep it in check with the running. (Needless to say running up a mountain isn’t very easy). Fiona passed me saying that she would be slow on the decents. I would re-take her at the midpoint of the climb, and she would then again overtake me. Shona was in back of us at this point. At the summit, I caught Joe, Paul was already 15+ minutes ahead of us. It was about 1hr 8minutes to the summit; about 10minutes faster than my time with Sam Post in early February when we climbed this together. That was actually another epic day where I had run the summit return in 2:18 and then biked with Fiona for 6hours 23minutes covering 189K. This was also 2 weeks after the Geelong 70.3 Half Ironman. Fiona and I got a picture at the top but it would be the last time I would see her until the finish.
I descended as fast as I could go over the very technical trail. One that Shona who has run all over the world would say is a 10 of 10 in terms of technicality. Half way down at the 1hr30 mark I found myself doing a super man down to the ground. But my right arm, hand, and right thigh are not made of steel and has left a bloody mark.
Shit. Well, that’s ultra racing. I got back up, Joe had now put another minute into me; he was gone. I continued with the gels and on the technical stair decent while passing other hikers and a friendly supporter Kathy Moylan (a triathlete from town) I had my first redbull; it gave me wings. At the bottom I also saw fellow triathlete Kylie Cowan who was a huge supporter to the race, and athlete too. I had some water, sprays on the neck and took off. I completed this in 1:53 which was about 25minutes faster than I did it in February. I watched my pace drop from 14:25/mile avg down to 13:25. I would then put in a bunch of miles at 9:20-9:40 and see the pace drop to the lowest of 11:13/min/mile but it wouldn’t go lower. It was during this point that I caught 2nd place Joe. He was tall and built and had done the 3 days of racing prior. I knew I had him. Once past though, he stayed 5 meters off the back of me which was so annoying. I had to tie my shoe so let him go.
Once I hit the aid station at the 25K I caught Joe and another runner who started 30minutes earlier. I was very quick to down 3 glasses of water, eat a ¼ orange, some lollies, water on the head, the neck, and then go. It was the last I would see Joe till the finish.
Through the mountains I went, the sun was beating down, not a single cloud in the blue sky, mulga bush, and grasses abundant. I continued to roll my ankles numerous times over the smallest and largest of stones. I passed two women and asked how far Paul was ahead, they said 30 minutes. I said thanks and thought, ok, 2nd place it is. I also knew it was a long day and still had more than 2 hours of running to go. I climbed the next hill, walking mostly this one with an 18minute mile. I had my 2nd red bull and fell a 2nd time bashing my knee; it didn’t give me wings. At the top I looked over and saw the Red Rocks of Glen Helen in the distance but I knew I still had a long way to go. This descent was very technical and I thought about Fiona knowing she would be very slow going on this one. Water started running low and was the only negative; there should have been another aid station. But, this is an ultra, and remote. No roads, no shelter, nothingness. I stayed strong and with 5K to go the sun started to beat harder on me. My HR was still in the high 130’s which was really good for me and although my quads were very tired and sore from the pounding of the mountains, I was able to run all of the race, except for the hills, and some very technical sections. With 2K to go I ran through a large natural hole in one of the ancient rock lines, and then I saw another hill. Then I saw an arrow… pointing to the left, phew.
We passed along the 2mile campground and the water and I thought of when Fiona and I paddle boarded there.
I hit Namatijira Road and could finally run without worrying about rolling my ankles for the 20 or 30th time. I pushed hard here giving it what I could muster and passed another runner from the shorter distance. Right turn, Glen Helen ahead of me, the cameraman snapping a photo, the familiar helicopter to the right, the finish line, not in the front like I thought it was going to be, damn.
Past the pool, down the stairs, and along the sandy/rocky banks of the Finke River, the oldest river in the world. I saw the volunteers holding the finish line tape and had to smile; this was a first. I came to the line, grabbed the finish line tape and hoisted it over my head. 5:07:33 officially. My GPS showing 27.35miles, just shy of 44K. I went over to the water, took my shoes off, and jumped in the cold and refreshing Finke River. Looking up, seeing the dark red colors of the ancient rock, it was pretty awesome.
I didn’t break 5 hours which was my goal and I was not the stage winner. But, I came 2nd place in my first-ever real ultra. (I did a 50K road ultra before with 4 people; Standley Chasm – Alice Springs). And although these guys ran 133K over 4 days, I had run a 3:02 marathon 2 weeks before, and trained for 23.5 hours so I hope they accepted what I had done. I did also run about a 1:33 half marathon 3 days before the race which really made my calfs sore.
Unfortunately, Shona had passed Fiona while Fi spent 5 minutes at the aid station filling up her water bladder, eating cookies, and walking most of the 2nd decent. So, Fiona crossing the line only 11 minutes after Shona, who is ranked 12th in the world and also setting a marathon PB 2 weeks earlier is pretty impressive stuff. Fiona crossed 32:30 after me in 5:40 flat.
So after catching up, eating some fruit, and some Endurox R4 recovery drink, we got ready for phase 2.
We loaded up with a coke each, bananas, Gatorade, and gels. We rode to Ormiston Gorge, then East up the Peak 1 which is about a 150meter Climb over very undulating terrain. We were both exauhsted and just wanted to sleep. But we knew, even going easy, that this was what our training had to be about. Commitment. Finishing what you started. Mental Toughness and focus. We headed back down the hills fluctuating between 10KPH and 50KPH, back to Ormiston, and then up to Glen Helen. But with 2:51 on the clock I left it to Fi. I said Your Choice. She pedaled harder passing Glen Helen. I said Good Girl. We climbed once again the 7% grade to the lookout and out further to insure we hit out time, 3 hours.
We finished. Total training day Kevin – 8hours 8minutes, Fiona – 8 hours 40minutes. Epic. More recovery drink, mountain dew. Fiona showered, I took down camp. Off to the awards.
Dinner and Awards
We sat with Shona and I asked the important questions to this elite athlete. She was vegetarian for 18 years, she’s more paleo now. She ranked the course very unique, highly technical, and will be racing 160K race and a 100K race over the next 2 months. PT from Brisbane and a really nice person. I also made sure to congratulate the 1st Place Overall winner Paul. Tall and thin, he looked like he could just float up and down the mountains, which he did. To beat me by 50 minutes I just felt really honored to meet him and shake his hand. A really nice fella and had some kind words to say to the audience as well. Dinner? Bread, Potatoes, Cheesy Cauliflower, String Beans, Carrots, Pumpkin, and bread.
It’s now 9:39, the lights of the cars are ahead of us. We’ll soon be with our daughter, our fur-child Sydney. Ultra running is an art. It is a culture and an experience. There is a reason why there were more triathletes than runners in Stage 4, and I think the other sections as well. My own personal thoughts are that as triathletes we realize some of the extremes of triathlon and putting ourselves out there in the wilderness, where anything can happen, gives us the opportunity to truly test us and see what we are made of. I am very glad I did this run and I’m happy with my performance. I’d recommend this race to anyone especially from inter-state and international. Having been in Alice for 4 ½ years, I probably take the Larapinta Trail for granted, but to outsiders, I’m sure it would be amazing, as many said so at the dinner. I will finish with thanking my wife. I love our adventures together and can’t wait for our next one!
Great read Kevin, I really enjoyed being there on Mt Sonder to cheer the two of you. I met Joe the Kiwi this morning at Lone Dingo – and yes he is a really friendly guy – we enjoyed a good chat about the race.