Out & Back: The Blue Mountains, NSW
Race: The Mount Solitary Ultra
Previous PB: -
Overall Place: 89th
Put one foot in front of the other, and try not to throw up. As I tried to keep down my 4th energy gel for the day, this occupied my thoughts on the descent into the Jamison Valley and the final 15km of the toughest physical challenge I’ve ever taken on.
On Sunday, after two weather inflicted false starts earlier this year, I finally made it to the New South Wales Blue Mountains to conquer the challenge of running an ultra marathon. The event was the 45km Mt Solitary Ultra put on by the incredible Running Wild crew, and pegged as the least #douchegrade ultra in Australia, it didn’t disappoint. Two days on, and I’m still struggling to walk.
Gear check at the start line, what would those numbers read at the end?
The race starts at the old Queen Victoria Hospital on the Kedumba Walls, dropping down into the Jamison Valley and the base of Mount Solitary, before climbing the mountain’s east face, scrambling across its rugged plateau and then descending the western face to the National Pass. This trail follows along the base of the cliffs at Katoomba, with a climb up the Furber Steps to the first and only aid station. A quick pit stop and it’s back down the steps and onto the pass, into the Jamison valley, along some long hilly fire trails toward the Kedumba Walls with a return climb back to the hospital.
Less of a race and more a personal challenge for me, I took several moments to stop and enjoy the magnitude of this unique Australian landscape. No matter how well I tried to capture it in photography, the intensity of The Blue Mountains, the sense of isolation, ruggedness, and the feeling of being amongst ancient geology and fauna probably won’t translate. It’s something you have to experience for yourself, even more apparent when this environment dwarfs your intention of speed. It tends to put everything into perspective.
7am and we were racing with perfect weather overhead
Starting at 7am on a perfect cool and dry day, the descent into the valley quickly spread the field, the pointy end disappearing into the distance as I implemented my survival plan for the day, adapting the Trail Walker mantra – run if you can, walk if you must. Some knarly single tracks carried us to the base of Mt Solitary, where the magnitude of the challenge quickly became apparent. The hill climb I’d been warned about lived up to its reputation, as the false tops only led to steeper ascents to follow. More of a rock climb in part, the 600m gain in 3km floored me with its 50% gradient.
Hand over hand scramble up Mt Solitary
The brutal climb up Mt Solitary kept getting steeper
Once the apparent top was reached it was possible to proceed again on two limbs until reaching the summit near the western face of Mount Solitary. Pictures speak a thousand words, but humbled is how I felt looking out at Katoomba, and then down into the valley below. It’s easy to focus no further than your nose on the ascent, but there was no escaping the sheer cliff face we’d be climbing down to get off this rock.
Reaching the top was a spectacular view, but the single track was hard to find
Rocky outcrops slowed the progress
The gnarly trail on the decent
Happy days descending Mt Solitary
Having descended with no injuries, and feeling generally good about myself physically, I thought the hardest part was behind me. If the event was called the Mount Solitary Ultra, surely that would be the hardest part? Without a benchmark for this distance of terrain, my hopeful optimism would be revealed as nothing short of blind ignorance.
The Federal Pass follows just below the cliff line of the Blue Mountains, and is an easily accessible and popular trail for tourists visiting Scenic World in Katoomba. As a pack of five runners emblazoned with racing numbers emerged from the trail onto the boardwalk, I wonder what was going through the heads of the Japanese tourist? From the valley you have the option of either taking the cable car or the world’s steepest funicular to the top of the cliff. But while we carried everything from space blankets to emergency whistles, not a cent could be raised amongst us. So instead, the poor man’s option of the Furber Steps was our chosen route out of the valley to the one and only aid station.
Looking back at Mt Solitary i was amazed we’d climbed over that terrain
At the aid station I was met by several welcome elements: water, as I’d run out; bananas, as these are now my running food of choice; and Sare, and she had my food and electrolytes. Apparently she also read the expression on my face as one of disbelief at what I’d just done, with a desperation deep down questioning the logic to go on. The food and water did wonders, so it wasn’t long before I descended to take on part 2. As I left, I heard the medical officer at the aid station, question a runner, ‘Have you eaten enough? Have you drunk enough? Your urine needs to be pale and plentiful, otherwise you drink”
Reaching the top of the Furber Steps after a brutal climb out of the valley
Stretching out in the sun at the checkpoint
The next 10km or so saw the Federal Pass follow the base of the Three Sisters, which I was able to follow with a fellow runner with great conversation about nutrition, racing, 100km distances and how to coerce our mates to join us in the mountains. This was a continued theme throughout the day, simply chatting and running with strangers brought together on the trail. It’s something you’d never do it the city, and is an amazing part of this community. But all good pacers come to an end, and once we turned into the valley and onto the steep fire trail descent I was left to question the sanity of this undertaking alone.
Alone on the trails, the beats carried me home
Once the eventual bottom on the Jamison valley was reached, the final challenge of the climb up the Kadumba Walls loomed large and ominous. Fortunately my TrailMix secret weapon was at the ready on the iPhone to carry me through the final 120 minute slog up 600m vertical. And it worked, as I solo powerwalked my way through 121.5 BPM of deep house beats. That is, until I ran out of tunes, then water, then food causing me to bonk 3km from the finish line. I’d hit the wall, but nothing was going to stop me reaching the finishline. I swear those final few k’s were the hardest fought and slowest earned, until a volunteer kindly indicated I could roll down the hill in front for the final 50m to the line.
I was promised I could roll to the finish line from here
7:50:20 to get across the line was a long day
7:50:20 is less time than I spend at work each day, yet I feel I achieved more in this time than I could hope to in weeks behind the desk. I’ve learnt two things about taking on an ultra marathon. Firstly, you must possess absolute stubbornness and the determination to complete a challenge you’ve started. Secondly, you must have the memory of a goldfish, able to forget the pain behind, focusing only on what has to be done in front.
Thanks to the incredible volunteers and first aid officers on the course today. Without their support, none of us could go out and play stupidly in the mountains, reassured that a crew of people with more sense and hydration than us were looking out and keeping us safe.
Two days out and I’m still having trouble walking. But I’ll be back in the gym tomorrow to work out how to get back on the trails to do it all again.