The story of Stromlo Running Festival has its roots in the devastating bushfires that struck Canberra back in 2003, claiming 4 lives, destroying over 500 homes and razing hundreds of acres of native forest. One of the people who lost their house and everything in it was Australia's fastest-ever marathon runner, Rob de Castella. In the 80s and 90s Deek and many of Australia's other top runners had done much of their training around Mount Stromlo ,and so in 2009 he was instrumental in the development of the new Stromlo Forest Park, which has become Australia's best off-road running and cycling venue.
So Deek remains an important part of the Stromlo Running Festival; you can read more about it here. My own connection to Stromlo began in 2015 when I signed up for the 50K but (for reasons I can no longer recall) was not able to actually run it. This year I seem to have developed a bit of an appetite for sadomasochistic running feats - see my post about the Fuxian Lake 50K as a reference - and so Stromlo made perfect sense. I signed myself up for the 30K because I knew the course would be super-hilly and honestly, I'm not THAT much of a masochist.
After China I ran Melbourne marathon and then attempted to take some downtime, which for me means running 70-80 miles per week (around 120km) without speedwork or particularly long runs. But since I was only planning to do the 30K option at Stromlo, I didn't bother with any sort of taper; 30K isn't even a particularly long long run when marathon training. In fact, the three weeks before looked more like a peak than a taper:
So it was off I went to Canberra without a second thought, really, for a nice long run and (just in the back of my mind, really) the idea that I might be able to place or even - dare I say it? - win. No big deal.
We find our way to Stromlo Forest Park and only get lost once on the way (for Canberra this is a big achievement), and we've got the new tent that came with the new Jeep as well as all the sorts of things that make camping bearable: air mattresses, a machine to blow them up (no more hyperventilating), a big quilt and many pillows, plus comfy chairs on which to sit under the awning. It's only $10 to camp onsite the night before the race and it will save a lot of pre-dawn driving too.
|Should camping be this comfortable?|
In the process of picking up our bibs, however, an unexpected glitch appears - in the form of an extremely young, fit-looking female who is chatting with the race director. He's been told, by one of Australia's fastest distance runners in fact, that she's going to win tomorrow. Uh oh! I strike up a conversation with her as we check out the dinner options and yep, she's doing the 30K.
Suddenly I'm filled with an inexplicable desire to switch distances.
I'm not exactly trained for 50K, but on the other hand I'd rather do a longer run if I'm not going to win. 30km is not exactly long in terms of weekly long runs - although the elevation profile will more than make up for that - so a longer run would be preferable, and yeah, knowing that the best I can do is second place is definitely a factor in my decision.
|Original course profile - we'll be doing the middle part twice - the hills are so big they have their own names|
The weather is significantly improved on last night's tempest and I head over to change our bibs and pick up a coffee just after 5am. The wind has dropped but there's still a bit of cloud cover - this will be useful later on if things start to warm up - and all in all, I'm sort of inappropriately excited to take on what is undoubtedly going to be a tough day's running. Perhaps there's a touch of denial there as well, who knows, but in any case we're feeling ready.
Milling around at the start we are a little concerned to note that we're almost the only runners NOT wearing complicated-looking hydration vests; this speaks volumes about our general lack of experience with this sort of mad trail ultrarunning. Joel informs me that we're supposed to be carrying a minimum of 600ml of fluid with us - this is per the race guidelines which I seem to have neglected to read - so we decide he'll refill and bring the Gatorade bottle he's holding.
There are *supposed* to be water tables at least every 5km so I'm sure I'll be ok, but extra water won't hurt either of us. Due to the late change I only have 4 gels with me - everyone around me has significantly more, of course - but whatever, I'll be fine! Denial: not just a river in Egypt, it's a lovely place to hang out before a murderously tough trail race.
Loop 1: 10K
50:16 - pace 8:05 min/mile, 5:01 min/km (hmm)
|I look resigned, Kelly looks determined and Joel has disappeared altogether|
Off we go, directly into the rising sun. The first loop takes us at first around the flat asphalt of the cycling track where we've all been camped overnight, before heading off onto the fire trails around the side of Mt Stromlo. It undulates quite a bit but all in all, I spend the first few miles thinking this isn't really too bad. In retrospect this is probably due to my legs being still fairly fresh - let's see how I feel about it all in a couple of hours, hmm?
The field has strung out fairly fast and I'm pretty certain I'm the female leader already. Joel and I are running comfortably together, occasionally chatting with other runners but mostly just pacing along together at a conversational pace. The second lap is going to have some unpleasantly large hills and due to the late course change we'll be doing them TWICE, so there's no need to exhaust ourselves now.
A few kms in there's a guy running close with us and so we strike up a conversation; it turns out he's planning to run Boston next year and so we of course have LOTS to say about that, being veteran participants and everything. The conversation is slightly interrupted by the onset of some rather nasty steep uphills - and the first water station, near the top of the hill - but as we turn left and head back down towards the start precinct, he catches us up again and we resume our reminiscences about Beantown.
Pace-wise we're ranging between 7:10 - 8:04 minutes per mile depending on the up/down, and that's perfectly fine by me. But by the time the end of the first loop is approaching it has become clear that it's longer than 10km; this does not bode well for the rest of the race, but perhaps it's Garmin error or something? The water stations have been, well, almost non-existent, so we stop right after the finish/start/end of lap archway to get a drink.
Joel is still carrying our water bottle and our Boston-bound friend (whose name it will turn out is Warwick) is still right with us as we set out on lap number 2, and as we exit the criterium track there's Kelly-Ann with her entourage, about 3 minutes behind. Here goes loop 2!
Loop 2: 10-30K
20km in 1:52:57 - 9:05 min/mile, 5:39 min/km (slowing down hmmm)
The first part of this loop is the same ground we've already covered and we plough onwards with Warwick towards the 5km water station, where this time we turn right instead off left and head off into the hills. The incline up to the water table was a little more unpleasant this time but overall, things aren't so bad for me right now. Joel, though, is moaning faintly about how he's feeling and at one point tells me he'll see me later before falling about 50m behind. Hmm - it's very early still in a looooong race - who knows what will happen? And I'd much rather have company that not, so I keep trundling along and am very pleased when he suddenly catches up again before too long.
At the half-marathon mark things still aren't too bad really - a few sharp hills so far but nothing prolonged - and we're still holding a pace around 8:00 min/mile (5:00 min/km). But mile 14 is a massive reality-check; Warwick has disappeared behind us and for the first time our mile split is over 9 minutes. "That had to be the Mother, right?" asks Joel - that's the name of the biggest hill we'll have to face today - but no, I'm pretty sure it's not. There's another water stop which is also offering lollies, Coke and sports drink, so we stop briefly to refill the water bottle and off we go again.
A long uphill begins at the start of mile 16, and it just keeps on going...and going. It's still not the Mother, though! When she finally does arrive during mile 17, the incline is enough to almost stop us dead in our tracks: ranging from 12-18%, it's a battle not to walk, because honestly it probably would not be much slower. The mile split beeps 10:41 (6:27 min/km) and I just want to laugh - that's probably the slowest mile I've "run" in my life! Joel is ahead but I catch him at the top; together again we struggle through the Kicker (ugh) and then the extremely welcome downhill that follows.
|We're still alive! Major thumbs-up|
There's one more significant uphill to conquer on our way back to the start but there are 10K runners all over the place and this keeps us moving nicely (pace back around 8:00/5:00) - we pass our friend Ewen, who bellows encouragement - until finally, FINALLY, we are closing on the 30K mark.
Except that we're now closer to 32km by my Garmin, and Joel's Garmin agrees. In fact, 20 miles (32km) has come and gone by the time we turn back into the cycling track and make our way once again to the water stop just past the finish line. Uh, I don't want to think about how far this 50K race might turn out to be in the end. It's looking more like 54km, which is just ridiculous! I'd rather believe that there will be some sort of miraculous short-cut that will bring us in right on 50km, so with this delusional thought off we go on lap 3. Wheee?
Loop 3: 30-50K
20km in 2:00:49 - 9:43 min/mile, 6:02 min/km
The small undulations that seemed so insignificant on lap 1 are now serious obstacles. It's hard to think about the fact that we have to summit the Mother again this lap, and in fact I really would rather not think about anything just now. We trudge onwards to the first water stop and hang a right turn once more. This time it's my turn to whinge and fall behind - my legs are NOT HAPPY - but Joel (still carrying his magic water bottle) very kindly slows down and so pretty soon I'm able to toughen up and stick with him. Phew!
The thought of the massive hills still ahead is daunting and the only time our pace is faster than 8:00 min/km (in my mind this is the threshold between running and jogging, somehow) is when there's a considerable elevation loss going on. Every incline gets us around 9:00 or slower (5:35 min/km) and it's just a slog, period. Thankfully the sun has gone behind the clouds, but it's getting pretty warm - the Gatorade bottle is doing double duty as a source of water to dump on our heads - and I'm out of gels. Ugh, I might have to pick something up at the next aid station, if it ever comes along.
Finally we're approaching the one that we know heralds the start of the Mother; when we stop I take the opportunity to grab a cup of Coke and to my surprise it goes down very well! I don't feel thirsty but the extra sugar will hopefully help me deal with what lies ahead, even if only from a mental perspective.
The second lap up the Mother (and that a-hole hill the Kicker) somehow isn't quite as bad as I was expecting: the two miles of torture record splits of 9:00 and 10:38, with no walking (ok maybe just a few paces) and only minimal profanity running through my head, along the lines of "Why the bleep am I doing this, again?" Finally we're done with the major hills and are heading steeply downwards; at this point with quads that feel like jelly, going down is just as dicey as going up and not a lot faster.
31 miles comes and goes, and we're not at the start/finish area, not even close. The much-desired shortcut has failed to materialise! My watch reads 4:20 and that's a personal worst for the distance, but what's really worst is that I'm still running. There are quite a lot of 30K runners on the course and as we pass I hear some of them moaning about the distance, too; it's clearly not a Garmin malfunction, the course really is significantly long. SIGH.
32 miles, then 33 and STILL we're not near the finish line. I'm starting to get really pissed off about this situation: I was mentally prepared to run 50 difficult kilometers but this extension was not in the contract! Even on the flat and downhill stretches it's a struggle to do more than shuffle/jog sullenly along. Joel is still running quite strongly in the final, mercifully flat mile (7:55 pace, which right now feels ridiculously fast) and I deeply resent having to keep up. "Can we please stop SPRINTING??" I snap, and he wisely has nothing to say in reply.
|Me: <incoherent yelling>|
At last! We're on the criterium track and the finishing arch is in sight. There are a few people yelling my name - this will turn out to be runners I know from our post-Melbourne celebrations - but I'm too hosed to respond properly, I just want to stop running. Sorry!
photo credit: Cath Tompos
Finish time: 4:44:02 (9:08 min/mile or 5:40 min/km but for the actual distance, more like 8:23/5:12)
Placement: 1st woman, tied with Joel for 5th overall
The total distance run adds up to 33.8 miles or 54.5km, a error that is quite astonishing to contemplate. Fit fast young chick has indeed won the 30K and she's in the shower room complaining that it was more like 32km when I head in there to clean up: I'm caked in salt as well as a liberal helping of dust and dirt up both legs. Ok, so loop 1 was over by just under 1km and the loop 2 that we ran twice was probably over by about 1.5km. Amazing!
It's an exquisite relief to be finished, although my legs don't feel nearly as beaten-up as I would have expected - perhaps that's due to how much slower the pace was than in the other 50K races I've run before this. Back at the tent my companions are enjoying a beer, so I stagger around a bit gathering food and then it's time for the presentations; I've won both overall female and my age group! Deek's on the microphone and he apologises for the length of the course, promising it will be fixed for next year - "Good," I tell him "because otherwise I don't think I'd like to come back!"
So this was a personal worst by almost an hour (after Fuxian Lake's 3:55:04), although if you allow for the extra distance it was only 25 minutes slower, or thereabouts. The elevation profile is frankly hideous and explains the whole disaster - but further analysis over breakfast and on the ride home shows that we only lost around 8 minutes on the final loop, compared to our first trip up and over the Mother. Almost all the other runners lost a fair bit more; this is proof of our endurance and something to be pleased about for sure!
|If this was an ECG I'd be applying the defibrillator paddles, stat|
In retrospect this was a pretty fun thing to do, despite the over-the-top difficulty rating. The last-minute switch plus the extra distance made this my longest run ever, as well as my first major trail race, the camping was awesome...so perhaps I will be back next year after all.