Ultra-Trail Australia: 50km and 2500m of sheer joy

Or should that be sheer hell? One of the hardest races I’ve done, but one of the most satisfying and one of the best weekends for fun.

Each year in May the town of Katoomba is descended upon by thousands of runners keen to take on the quad-busting ascents and descents of the trails in the Blue Mountains National Park.

I’d been to the Blue Mountains once before back in 2014, but I’d just broken a rib in an unfortunate-but-probably-fully-preventable bar stool incident in Sydney, so any treks were out and I’d spent a whole day in Katoomba A&E waiting for an x-ray and some strong drugs.

I decided signing up for a 50km, 2500m ascent/descent race in the UNESCO World-heritage listed area would be a great way to go back and have a look around. I’ve been using running and events as a way to explore places for a few years now, and it’s one of my favourite things to do.

The journey on the Blue Mountains Line from Sydney’s Central Station takes a pleasant couple of hours, and I tried to make conversation with someone at the train station who I could just tell was doing the race. He seemed a little scared to talk to me; I put it down to pre-race nerves rather than surprise at being accosted by a chattering stranger. Free event shuttle buses ran regularly between Katoomba town centre and the race village a couple of kilometres away, allowing easy transition between the two, meaning I didn’t have to expend much more energy than I needed to. Although, my event accommodation was 200m from the start line but I spent a good couple of hours walking around from there, up (yes, up a hill) to register, then back down, then back up for the briefing, then back down in a slight pre-race fluster because I left it a bit late by the time I got there. Also I was FUCKING HUNGRY and everything seems to be faffy and take longer when you’re hungry, we all know that.

Getting there early to soak up the atmosphere and have a look around the expo is worth it, and you can pick up anything you still need as well as buying a souvenir. Of course, I didn’t have time to do this, because I was too busy running around in said fluster trying to sort out admin and GET FOOD. 

There’s the option of carb-loading at the pre-booked event buffet, or heading into Katoomba to sample one of many restaurants. I tried to get into the buffet because it seemed the closest (and therefore quickest), but the queue was bloody massive, so I headed into town. All pizza and pasta places were pretty busy, but I found a Thai restaurant which served the most quick and delicious holy basil and chilli. Which, quite frankly, was a godsend as I was on the verge of a hanger meltdown. Which is unusual, because I don’t get hangry, but I think I was just having a nervous adrenaline spike at this point. 

The event village was buzzing on race day with runners nervously waiting and families keen to offer support. Once off, I found myself running along wide fire tracks and snaking through forests on some delightful single tracks. The 50km has over 8200 steps, which at least means you can slow down and enjoy the surroundings, if you can ignore the burning in your legs (easier said than done). The first section of the course has jaw-dropping views, meaning this is not a race to rush. It’s a run to savour, and stopping for photos is a must. Stopping also allows some rest breaks and a nice distraction from the constant “what the fuck am I doing” internal dialogue.

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I ran with a delightful chap called Chris for quite a few kilometres. He was a Brit who’d lived in Sydney for about 10 years after his wife had been transferred here for work. Possibly. Could have been 8, or 15. It was one of those conversations that I don’t remember anything about, but was just easy and chatty,  helping us both take our minds off the running.

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My legs and feet got more tired and sore as the kilometres wore on, but the joy in my heart grew. You can’t beat that feeling, it’s why I love endurance sports. It’s hard to explain, but there’s just something wonderful about feeling weary and worn out, but pushing yourself to carry on. To embrace the discomfort alone inside your head.

As we hit 5km to go, we were still dropping height. Looking up, I saw Scenic World on the edge of the cliff. I knew we finished there, and I started to realise we had some serious height to gain. I didn’t really study the elevation chart before the race, as I prefer to not know what’s coming because that way I just have to deal with it at the time. No need to worry about what’s coming up, because you don’t know. But in that moment, I started to worry about what’s to come because I could bloody see it.

We were still going down at 2km to go. What the absolute chuff?!

“We’ve got to go up to finish, right?” I asked the runner in front of me.

“Yeah, it’s all steps in the last kilometre. All 950 of them.” She replied.

Oh shit. My heart sank. I was still feeling pretty good, running downhill, if not a bit sore, but I knew how much energy steps took out of me. 950 steps in the last kilometre? What kind of sadists planned this at the end?

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Soon we were upon them. One step at a time. Up, up, up. Past signs that said Steps: Grade – Hard. You could hear the crowds and the loudspeakers the further up we got. It helped. But honestly, it went on for fucking AGES. Looking at my results later, it was 20 minutes to be precise. 20 minutes to do 0.9km. 

“Only 3 more flights to go. You’re doing great. About 300m to go. You can do it. Whoop whoop. Yeeesssssss!” The marshalls were fab. But 300m may as well have been 3 miles. Literally, it was one step at a time.

The last flight was lined with supporters. They all cheer and shout and holler your name, because it’s on your number. “You can do it TARA!! GO GO GO!”. Adrenaline surges, and you look up into a sea of faces. There’s a camera clicking, people clapping. It’s overwhelming but at the same time, so helpful. It’s emotional, your throat catches, and it’s hard not to cry.

The top of the steps bring relief to my burning legs, pumping heart and panting lungs. I jog off down the path now, it’s flat and the end is near. I get caught up in a bunch of supporters running with someone they know, and for once I think how lovely it would be to do a race where I have people I know to come and cheer me on, for I mainly do events on my own.

I get past and I’m literally flying. I sprint down that finish line like someone’s just put a rocket up my arse, and leap over the finish line. Always leave a bit in the tank.

A medal is thrust round my neck and I have to do the mandatory gear check, all in a bit of a daze. The finish is all you can think of for most of the race, yet when it comes, it’s like a slap in the face. It’s all over (hurrah), yet it’s all over (sad).

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I head straight for a shower, then to the Recovery Zone, where I meet a rather nice Australian. No race is complete without celebrations, with bars in Katoomba becoming full of tired-but-happy runners, sharing stories of tough times over a drink while live music tempted weary legs to dance.

If you’re into endurance running, this truly is an incredible way to explore. Some parts of the route are privately owned, so you really do get off the beaten track. Sadly I didn’t see much wildlife, but as Australia is renowned for snakes, I figured that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

A couple of days mooching (slowly, with slightly stiff legs) around Sydney with some fabulous friends, fizz and sunshine topped off one hell of a weekend.

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