When I signed up to do the UTA50 in the Blue Mountains, it was because of a mega case of FOMO. A lot of my running friends had signed up and they all sounded so excited. Add to that the fact that the event always sells out super quick, and I was having a down day where I was wondering what my purpose was in life, and before you could say “hold my beer”, I was committed.
I hate it when that happens.
That was last year, when May seemed a thousand years away. UTA was Future Carolyn’s problem (poor thing). I’d run a couple of road marathons before and thought they were painful and hard – but I was super proud of myself. But I was unprepared for the exponential growth in pain I was about to inflict upon myself.
First there was the training. And the training. And the training. My longest training runs were four hours long, if that gives you any indication of the TRAINING. Oh, and lots of hill sprints. I was soon to discover why those were a good idea, although all the hill sprints in the world couldn’t have prepared me.
Last weekend, Future Carolyn became Present Carolyn, and man, was she pissed at Past Carolyn. That maniac is always getting us into trouble. She needs to learn to keep her big yap shut.
What I learned on the weekend was that I was utterly unprepared for a run like that. It wasn’t that I was unfit. On the contrary, I’m probably the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. Coach Zoey from Operation Move made sure of that by carefully planning out my training for months.
It was my mind that wasn’t ready. I decided to go for the classic “La la la, I’m not listening” preparation approach. I didn’t look at maps. I didn’t read about others’ experiences of the run. I didn’t look at photos of the landscape. I figured I’d just turn up and let it surprise me.
And it did.
Having run marathons before, I figured this 50km run would be 8km more than that – with maybe some hills and stairs.
I’d visited the Blue Mountains before – once on a netball trip when I was 12, and once when I was in my early twenties, and mainly interested in drinking wine and staying indoors. So this was my first intimate encounter with the area.
I was lulled into a false sense of security early on, with the first 5km being pleasant and gentle roads and paths. “I can totally do this!” I thought as I pranced past those suckers conserving their energy for later. I even sang along loudly to Mr Brightside as it blared out of someone’s speakers by the roadside. Life was good. I was killing this thing.
Then reality hit. When I say “reality” I mean stairs. Thousands and thousands of stairs.
I don’t have an official number but I’ve heard there are over 8000 stairs in total in the 50km trail at UTA. Most of them are between the 5km and 25km mark. Luckily it’s also super pretty so I kept saying dumb shit to myself like, “How lucky am I to be in this place right now?” as I scaled up the side of a rock face like a freaking spider monkey.
I’m a runner, not a rock climber, damn it!
But when I stumbled into the main check point at 28km (past halfway – yayyyyy!) I was grateful to be able to grab some snacks, top up my water, and move forward into the next leg.
Chatting to another more experienced trail runner just as we moved out of the check point, she told me she was happy we’d finished with the stairs for now. We were all aware we had the infamous Ferber Stairs just before the finish line, but that was ages away. This woman said there were no more stairs before then, and I could have kissed her square on the mouth if we both weren’t covered in so much dirt and dust.
Foolish Carolyn thought no stairs meant things were about to get easier. Those who have run the course are reading this right now and laughing and laughing.
Finally curious about the course, I asked my fellow runner what to expect before reaching Ferber. She told me the next 8km were downhill (yay!), and then after that the rest of the course was “undulating”. I should have asked her why she pulled a weird face when she said “undulating”, but I was so excited about the 8km downhill that I almost squealed.
And so I ran the next 8km downhill – plus a bit of flat. A lot of it was through hot and sandy grasslands, but at least I could run rather than scaling rocks in a vertical fashion. It never occurred to me once during that pleasant leg of the race that after all this downhill, I’d somehow have to make it back up to the top of the canyon, where the finish line was.
A lot of the downhill was so steep it wasn’t runnable, but even that didn’t bother me. I staggered down as best I could, thinking I was about to put this run to bed by Mediterranean lunchtime.
When I reached the “undulating” section of the run, I understood why my friend pulled that face (who had accelerated off into the dusty distance kilometres ago, cackling wildly to herself). This wasn’t undulating, it was THE BIGGEST FUCK-OFF HILL I’VE EVER SEEN. Well, mountain, really. And every time you turned a corner, it just kept going. For kilometres. Oh, my god.
There’s a super steep hill in Highgate Hill where I live that goes for about a kilometre. Every time I encounter it, I think about what a crazy hill it is. I will never again fear that hill, for it is a zygote compared with this mofo.
I remember thinking while I was trudging (running was out the window at this point) up those insane angles that this was easily the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life – and that, if someone gave me the choice of doing this again or giving birth without drugs to 10-pound baby again, I’d take the baby. In fact, I’d give birth to all three of my children again rather than put myself through this. As long as I didn’t have to take another three babies home with me, of course.
That section of the run went for around 9km and I still can’t think of it without wanting to weep.
Resting or sitting down wasn’t an option – I probably would have started to slide back down the mountain.
I knew from talking to another runner along the course (who was thankfully more honest about what was going on) that we would soon hit a 5km swampy area that was pretty flat, with the occasional hill. The occasional hills in that swamp section were still killers but after what we’d just been through, I didn’t care. Fatigue made everything incredibly tough going, and I was like a sloth at the end of a hard day at the office.
It was in this section that I started to hear the crowd noise and the guys on the microphone announcing the finishers. That was enough to keep me going. Although it was mildly demoralising to have the winners of the men’s 100km race spring past me like mountain goats, lurching towards the finish line in less time than it took me to run half the distance. Respect to those peeps – far out.
I spent my time in the swamp staring at some woman’s arse, who was just in front of me. She offered repeatedly for me to go around her, but I was just happy sitting on her tail and following her footsteps across wet and slippery rocks. We chatted a little bit but we were both so rooted we didn’t have much small talk in us, so we focused on getting this thing done.
And then we hit the Furber Stairs. The Furber Stairs are 951 steps of vertical torture. They’re so hard, UTA have made them into their own event. The UTA951 sees people race each year to see who can get to the top first. Maniacs.
But we knew what was at the top of those stairs: freedom. And chairs.
I’ll never be competitive in the UTA951, but I took to those stairs with steady determination. When I felt like I’d been climbing stairs for literally my entire life, I encountered a course volunteer who told me I had one set of stairs to go, and then I was in the finish chute.
I took to that last set of stairs like a tortoise on a long weekend. But I could smell the finish and I was going to get there.
The day before my run, I had watched competitors in the 22km event running through the finish chute. There were the sprinters, the walkers, the cryers, the slightly deranged, and the fist pumpers. All day as I worked my way through this course, I never doubted I’d make it here eventually, and I’d wondered what sort of finisher I would be. What would I have left in me at that point. As the run wore on I was increasingly convinced the answer was going to be “absolutely nothing”.
When I hit that chute I found out – with a sudden burst of adrenaline I sprinted towards that finish line like my life depended on it. You know when you see people escaping from a hostage situation and they run from the building to the waiting police? I think I must have looked like that. Maybe slightly more desperate.
I knew my Operation Move buddies were there somewhere cheering me on, and I remember the dude with the microphone mentioning my name and saying something about me pelting down towards the line. But all I could think about was getting this thing done. No smiles, no waves, just done.
And then suddenly it was. After a mandatory gear check, where I fumbled around like a drunk person to show I had indeed been carrying my rain jacket and snake bandage the whole time, I wandered around wondering what to do next. Then I saw my gorgeous Operation Move buddies waiting for me with enthusiastic screams and hugs (poor things – I must have STUNK) and suddenly all was right with the world.
Craving proper food, I bought myself a sausage roll and an iced coffee (the closest thing I could find), and rugged up against the freezing Katoomba late afternoon. From start to finish that bad boy took me just over nine hours – that’s nine hours of hard slog that I will never forget as long as I live.
Straight afterwards I said, “Never again.” But after the run I went back to the house I was sharing with a bunch of other runners from Operation Move. We compared wounds and war stories and congratulated each other on a mammoth day. Each of us had a different experience – some were elated, some were disappointed, but all were proud of themselves and each other. And we all basked in the special glow of being a part of this special group.
So who knows whether I’ll do it again. What I do know for now is that I achieved something I never in my life thought I could do. And every time I do that, it gives me confidence to know I really can do something if I want it enough.
Past Carolyn had the guts to sign up, and Current and Future Carolyn is reaping the benefits of pushing her boundaries just a little bit further all the time. Because every time I do that, my horizons get bigger, my self belief gets stronger, and my network of rad women gets bigger. I love it all more than I can express.
And I’ll probably do it again.