With just two weeks until my first 50km, a trip to the doctors confirmed my worst fear – the fatigue and nausea I’d been feeling since TSP was not one but TWO types of parasites I’d picked up. Suddenly the struggle to get out of bed (not just the darker, colder mornings) made a bit more sense.
The Doctor gave me antibiotics.
“Jess, no alcohol whilst you take these”
I didn’t think about it.
Then, when the pharmacist handed me the antibiotics, she paused and looked at them.
She looked at me.
So terrifying. I nodded to appease her.
The next week was an uncomfortable blur of a different kind of fatigue and nausea – and many failed attempts at drinking red wine.
Would this affect my running? Had it already? I felt good physically – strong. And mentally, that I would last the 6+ hours it would take me to run 50km.
I didn’t think so. So long as the fatigue disappeared before the race, right?
Friday came around quickly and I was suddenly on a plane, and then in the Blue Mountains.
Blue Skies, beautiful mountains, and 7,000 trail runners who were just as excited to be here as me. Heaven.
I checked into my hotel, laid out all my gear on the floor – a huge pile of mandatory gear and all the food I would be carrying with me. I rearranged multiple times, as if that would make it seem like a smaller, lighter load to carry. No good. It was all coming with me.
I wandered down to the Three Sisters, talked to other runners, took photos, laughed, then headed to the race briefing.
There was mention of research around the negative effects of taking anti-inflammatory drugs before or during an ultra-run – it placed too much strain on the kidneys, which were already undergoing something entirely out of their comfort zone by trying to carry you through such a long distance.
With peroneal tendonitis in my right foot, I had planned on taking some to ease any inflammation – but decided that strapping would have to do.
Back at the hotel I wrote out the race schedule – mostly around my food and the times I would need to be reaching the aid stations to run under 6 hours. I knew the course was hilly – 4,000 steps and 2,500m elevation. The first half was a mixture of undulating fire track and trail, the second was a heavy and hard combination of steep downhill fire trail, and all the steps back up.
I was planning to run 5.30min/km when I could – faster if I felt good – then pull back on the ups, and let go on the downs. The danger was to go out too fast in the first half where the trails were ‘easier’ then kill your legs for the harder second half. Yikes.
I wrote the plan out again and again, as though I would forget that I was simply eating a gel and either a banana or some boiled potatoes every 45 minutes. Nerves.
Melatonin. Sleep. It felt like Christmas – which is something I’ve not felt before a race for a while – a new experience? A new challenge that I had no idea how it would pan out. Exciting.
4am and my alarm went off.
I was up and eating a gluten free avocado sandwich and egg whites, with a tea bag coffee (just FYI this is my kind of travel heaven…)
I showered – something I never normally do pre-race (because why would you?).
I strapped my ankles in what’s called a heel lock strap – to ease any pressure on the peroneal tendons during the race. (No, I have no idea what I’m talking about)
I was wired.
I packed the food and mandatory gear into my new Ultimate Direction race vest (a birthday present to myself).
Bloody hell it was heavy. I laughed, knowing I was probably taking too much food (four bananas, 800g of boiled potatoes, 500g of dates, 200g of jelly beans, two bars, two litres of Gatorade and some water. Plus 12 gels….).
Hanger would not be an issue.
I walked to the start line at Scenic World, to watch the first group of 100km runners go off.
Electric – the vibe was amazing. I wanted to stay here forever, around these people. Everyone was excited, happy, inspiring.
Four trips to the toilet and I was ready, five minutes until my group started at 6.39am.
I knew I couldn’t listen to music until the aid station at 28.2km. A challenge, but I understood. The trails, the people, the fact that there would be members of the public on the trail too.
The guy with the mic was counting us down.
“60 seconds to go Group 2. Remember: don’t be a hero in the first half, don’t be a wimp in the second.”
I took a gel, and we were off. A 6km out-and-back along road and fire track – undulating but not too steep.
I looked at my watch 4.20min/km – it actually felt slow, but I knew it was too fast. I pulled back to 5.00min/km. Better.
I found a steady pace, found people running my pace – my pack. We chatted, cheered, waved at bystanders. Amazing.
We passed the starting section again and headed towards the infamous Three Sisters. Yikes.
Stairs – down. Steep, steep stairs, over hanging… absolutely nothing. It was beautifully terrifying. And – at moments – just terrifying. Walking these stairs at a normal pace was scary but trying to race down them….
We hit the bottom, straight into forest, rainforest, beautiful greens and a cool breeze to greet us.
10km had passed so suddenly and I ate my first gel and banana.
I remained with the same pack, all on the pain train, following the leader, shouting out obstacles and trying our hardest to admire our surroundings without tripping up.
We hit stairs. All of them. Someone had found all the stairs in the world and put them into a 2km stretch. We climbed.
I ate my first potatoes, which was an unsuccessful balance of trying to climb stairs, breath, and chew. But energy I needed.
Finally, we were at the top – my legs were shaky. We were now running single track along the mountains, clear blue skies, and clouds (fog, Jess) lingered in the forests below. Suddenly I forgot about the shakiness.
We ran through the first check point at 17.2km. Water, chips and lollies.
No salt – I thought there would be salt. Of all the things I was carrying, that was something I didn’t have.
I don’t normally suffer from cramps, but with a distance I’d never run before, I wasn’t sure. I grabbed the chips; they’d have salt on them. I clearly need to practice running and eating chips.
I checked my watch: I was on for my six hours.
I was still with the same pack and we hit some downhill fire trail. I debated having more potato, but instead decided to pick up the pace and use the slight downhill to carry me.
We hit 20km.
I heard a crack, and suddenly I was on the floor.
There was pain…and blood.
Everyone stopped. The pack.
My ankle. My bloody ankle
“Cramp?” One of the guys asked.
“Her ankle went.”
He knew. He saw.
I crawled to the side of the track, if anything trying to crawl away from the pain in my ankle.
I knew that pain. I knew what had just happened to my ligaments – the unnatural right angle my ankle had just made.
And the blood – on my hand, my arms…then I saw it. The deep cut on my left knee.
What the bloody hell had happened?
“Shall we call emergency?”
“No. You guys go. I’m finishing this race, I just need a minute”
“Bloody oath you are.” Legend.
I told them again to go, and every runner that stopped to help, to go.
I still have so much gratitude for them all.
I choked down tears – of frustration? And helplessness.
I knew if I didn’t get up soon, I wouldn’t be able too.
I had some strong words with myself. I would finish this.
I’d heard earlier that morning there are three types of fun that happen on a trail:
- Fun to do and fun to tell
- Not fun to do but fun to tell
- Not fun to do, not fun to tell
This would not be a number 3.
I got up. Put weight on my foot. I might have whimpered…maybe.
I walked. I could do this.
Running. Sharp pain.
But it faded.
If I could just get to the aid station in 8km to get ice and strapping…
I continued. Determined. A farmer’s shuffle with a slight right hand drop – almost a jig. I’d created a new dance for sure.
I thought about what had been said about taking painkillers in the race briefing. I debated. I had some with me. Was it worth the risk?
A sharp pain.
I took one.
The fire trail continued – then open road.
I caught up with the pack. “You’re back!” I nodded.
Then I remembered my plan, I needed to eat, I needed a gel. I needed to keep my focus on the race. My body was hurting, my quads, my hip flexors. Expected a this point, but maybe not as bad as I thought it would be.
We continued, and somehow, I pulled away from them, said my goodbyes and continued on.
I knew I wasn’t going to make the six hours I’d planned, but suddenly the pressure was off, I just wanted to finish. So, I ran, with no pressure.
28.2km. CP501. The main Aid Station.
“First Aid is that way” A woman told me as I approached.
Blood had literally covered my left knee
I ran into the tent.
I was greeted by smiles and warmth.
“I need….” A new ankle.
“…I fell.” Words escaped me.
A woman, a nurse, guided me to a seat. “Let’s clean up your knee.”
They offered me everything – food, water, tea.
The warmth. The smiles.
“I think I sprained my ankle”
She looked down at it, you could already see the swelling. She nodded.
“I’m going to finish the race, do you have ice?” She nodded again, and another woman went to get ice.
We made small talk, almost banter. I was calmed.
“I’m going to put some iodine on your knee…it might sting a little.”
We laughed – my whole body hurt and I think she knew that.
“This doesn’t look fresh.”
“Made of nails, hey?”
Or just stupid.
We decided to leave the cut open to the air, to breath. And to not take my shoe off – to contain the swelling, so I put the ice down my sock, immediate soothing.
I thanked them repeatedly – the laughter, the kindness. The beautifulness. My heart was filled.
I hobbled outside to a guy who was holding a bag of salt sachets.
“Salt!” Higher pitched than I’d intended.
He gave me some sachets.
“You just open it and…down it.”
The taste was peculiar.
I grabbed some lollies too, to take away the taste.
22km to go.
We went out onto open rolling road. This was good. Only flickers of pain.
And music!! I could listen to music. I debated: the encouragement and the chatter had been so warming, so encouraging. Did I really need music?
My ankle hit a loose rock. Nausea.
I needed music – hardcore, adrenaline pumping music. Slash, Skrillex. Anything.
And another painkiller.
Then we hit it – the steep fire trail. Too steep to run up (cue aggressive lunging) and too painful to run down on a sprained ankle.
I began slow. Really slow.
I was three hours in at this point and this was the first time my mind struggled. The first time I questioned myself, whether I could do this. My quads were on fire and my calves felt like they were one wrong movement from cramping…. and I was getting a weird random chaffing in my right armpit. Not my left though.
The runners around me encouraged – all struggling the same. Tiredness, cramping, stitch, old injuries, all beginning to materialise.
I decided to play with some intervals – ninety seconds of light jogging alternating with ninety seconds of aggressive lunging (when I was on an uphill… otherwise that would have been an incredible waste of energy).
20 minutes passed…. then 40. Slowly – and painfully – but it was progress either way. Music, scenery, blue skies. I focused on the good.
Before I knew it, we hit forest – single track. And a sign: 5km to go.
I know I squealed.
I somehow managed to pick up the pace and ran with another pack.
It definitely wasn’t my fastest running – tree roots meant I had to be super careful with my ankle.
Then, I thought I felt pain in my lower back – around my kidneys. I shook my head, couldn’t be. Was it just my mind playing tricks on me or had the painkillers taken their toll? Was it just lower back pain from the up and downhill?
I pushed through.
My whole body now definitely hurt. Not unbearable, not unpleasant… almost a good hurt. One you’d expect from 45km of Blue Mountain trail. No cramping though, no ITB pain.
Another sign: 1km to go.
I choked back a cry. Happy tears. It was at that point I knew I’d make it.
I knew I could finish.
Just 951 steps in my way….
But, for some unknown reason, I love steps. That’s where strength training comes in to play so well.
I climbed, even overtook, continued. Heaven.
“Three more sets of steps” a volunteer shouted out.
I heard the finish, I climbed faster, and suddenly the turning to the finish.
“Girl power!” A young girl shouted.
Inspired (or terrified) I picked up the pace to the finish.
Crowds, people. Excitement. Amazingness.
I crossed the line.
I was an ultra-runner.
The medal, the crowd.
My legs, jelly.
My ankle, throbbing.
A woman approached me, smiling but serious. “Mandatory equipment checks”. I nodded. I had everything. I opened my bag; she could see that. She nodded.
“Just get yourself to the aid tent….” I’m not sure whether she saw the blood on my knee, the swelling around my ankle, or just the slight craziness in my eyes.
I shuffled along, waited for the pack I’d run with and high fived them. All as grateful as me.
I walked through the food and water tent. My legs, they hurt. I collapsed into the nearest chair I could find.
“My love” A woman was crouching beside me, concerned.
“What can I get you? Food? Water? Tea?”
I couldn’t answer.
“I just need to sit for a while.”
She nodded and smiled. She knew.
Five minutes later and I had found the medical tent. I explained to a doctor what had happened. I took my shoe off for the first time, took off the strapping from my tendinitis.
The swelling looked… strange.
The doctor felt it, pressed it, watched my reactions. She shook her head.
“The pain and swelling are over the bone, not the ligaments.”
I didn’t register.
“We can’t rule out a break, you need to get an x-ray.”
I nodded. Not really taking it in.
For now? I just wanted to soak up being there. Being around 7,000 trail runners, having finished. Everything.
They strapped me up, cleaned and dressed my knee.
6 hours 30 minutes – only 30 minutes off the time I’d wanted.
14th female in category.
30th female overall – in 920.
I was happy.
Despite everything – the parasites, the antibiotics, the sprain – that had been some of the best trail running of my life. Just beautifulness, and beautiful people. Some of the biggest challenges too, which only added to it.
Would I do it again?
In a heartbeat.
I’m already planning the Surf Coast Century 50km – with the aim to qualify for UTMB if I’m lucky enough.
And what now?
I haven’t yet had an x-ray, but I have taken at least the week off running.
You’re welcome, legs.
Next week, I have an adventure race coming up – with my twin sister. It’ll be the first time we’ve ever raced as a team, and the first time we’ve run ‘competitively’ together since doing the 9km harbour bridge run in Sydney, some seven years ago (yep, dressed as Batman and Robin….).
Pure madness I’m sure.
I might also have signed up for another Crossfit competition in July – a two day event. Team of six.
Because why not?