Ultra Trail Australia: Smashing Limits, both Physical and Mental.
by Will Wood
“We are what we repeatedly do: excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – William Durant
Long-distance running is self-inflicted masochism, a strange habit. Pain and suffering in both the body and mind. A thousand hours of training, alone, often at night, is beyond what I thought possible, or probable. A love affair with distance running undoubtedly takes time and energy away from things that some might find important - family, friends and (less often) dates are impacted by the adverse time constraints and the consistency of hours necessary to commit to training. Then the impact begins to turn inwards - as taste buds begin to crave nutritious, wholesome and healthy foods, more money is spent on those foods. But as one starts to challenge the preconceptions (perceived limitations) of both body and mind, a magical transformation begins.
This transformation has been called “transcendental” by some runners, meaning you transcend the physical body and see your life as a bigger picture. It is something to be experienced (rather than intellectualised). I have discovered through running (and life itself) a journey that must be lived and practiced to be understood. As the saying goes 'Pressure makes diamonds', and so, the pressure in my life is shaping me. With every run I venture upon into the unknown, I take with me the cumulative quality of an adventurous spirit. Undoubtedly this has contributed to the ultra-marathons in my life.
This adventure led me this year to Ultra Trail Australia, one of the world’s toughest trail races. Last year I completed this race, spanning 100km of total distance and 4.5km of vertical ascent/descent in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, for the first time, but this year was tougher. I had trained differently for the race, neglecting the longer runs that are necessary to understand my body’s endurance.
Fifty kilometres in, things started to get tough. Food was becoming hard to enjoy, and the battle between nausea and forcing myself to eat to take on calories ensued. I also had a splitting pain in my left knee. It felt like someone was hammering a nail into my patella every step I took. My quads were beginning to cramp. At this point in the race, you begin to power-hike up a steep gully known as Nellie's Glen, with a vertical gain of 450m. It’s a leg burner even if you are fresh and in the best state of mind. Strangely, amidst the nausea, excruciating pain and cramping, I happened not to be in the best state of mind.
I wallowed in self pity all the way up the dark hill, looking for the sunlight at the other end. Starting to dream of schnitzel, beers and the pub in town didn’t make it any easier. I was down, and felt that I might be soon be 'out’ too. My internal dialogue argued that I was selfish for doing all this running. That I was a bad father. That I wasn’t even that good at it and maybe the most logical thing to do would be to give up now and preserve the miserable life that I had left. It was a spiral of negative thought that only comes in the depths of the most painful moments.
But things started to change. Coming into aid station 4 at 57km, another runner put his hand on my shoulder and, as if he almost sensed my internal dialogue, looked me in the eyes and said as he smiled, ‘’They don’t hand it to you do they?” And that little bit of optimism reminded me of a positivity and spirit that does exist.
Competing without a support crew, I thought I would be alone at this aid station and would have to search for my bag with the pre-prepared meals. I was not sure whether I could continue. But alas ... my best friend Zoe and my Dad were waiting to surprise me! "F#%k"! I thought, "I'll have to continue now. At least until they are out of sight!" I sat down while Zoe took embarrassing photos of me and handed me food. I re-fuelled and listened to the new Bon Iver album. Maybe I could turn this around? I literally danced out of checkpoint 4 fresh as a daisy, and feeling so much gratitude to Zoe and Dad for turning up. As I ran through the nearby field, I was alone with the sun shining down on me. My music was playing and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I could feel my throat welling up. I actually cried and thought about my family, my friends and the amazing support of the volunteers on the course. It was a happy cry. Even in my darkest and worst times there were people there.
The race continued, the course altitude swinging up and down, influencing my mood, but I kept going until Checkpoint 5, actually running the fastest 80km of my life - 11 hrs. Leaving the checkpoint was challenging in the dark though, as I began to wind down the 8km decent into the valley. A few ambulances and police cars drove past me on the fire trail, the dust from the road stirring up and reflecting off my headlamp beam, making my feet nearly impossible to see. I coughed and choked on the dust as I ran through the wake of each passing vehicle. I even tried breathing through my shirt.
At the bottom of the hill I slowly made my way up the steep fire trail which followed. Here the nausea worsened, and I felt so sick that it was hard even to walk. My vision was blurry and when I looked up, everything began to spin. In hindsight this was probably the onset of hyponatraemia. I had drunk too much soup at camp 5 and my blood was thin and lacking in salt. The temperature was 0°C so I didn’t need as much water. I sat down on the side of the trail with my head in my hands, deciding whether or not to vomit, but I didn’t have the energy to do it. A passing competitor stopped and asked me if I was okay. My slurred speech probably indicated to her that I was not, so she urged me to get up and walked every step of that next hill with me towards the 91km emergency aid station.
Once there, a giant fluffy unicorn threw my arms over her shoulders and, whilst telling me how good I was doing, escorted me to the medics. I knew I needed to regather myself if I was going to be able to continue without the help of an ambulance. In the medical tent was a patient lying on the floor, who I thought looked worse than me. He looked towards the doctor and said, “Here mate, I’ve been in this guy’s position before and it’s not fun, I’ll get up”. I must have looked really bad. I lay down and watched the guy, now sitting on the chair next to me, throw up violently eight times. He wiped his mouth, questioned his sanity in regards to running ultra-marathons, and loped off in the direction of the finish line.
I lay on the floor for approximately 3 hours covered in blankets, shaking uncontrollably from the cold and weakness in my muscles. Occasionally the shaking would coincide with both of my legs cramping. I was waiting for the nausea to pass, which eventually it did, at which point I stood up and checked both of my knees were working. Surprisingly, they were. I couldn’t eat anything but I figured if I sipped water and walked slowly for the next 8km I would be at the finish in two hours, and so the long haul continued. The last 20km took me 8 ½ hours (in training that same distance takes me 2 ½ hours) but I finally crossed the finish line.
The race shattered me. I was physically and mentally spent. My ego had well and truly been confronted and since the race I have asked myself many questions about my direction, purpose and intentions with running. I am still working out what I got from the experience. I think ultimately I proved to myself that I can push past my perceived limitations to accomplish great things. I have become physically stronger since the race. The character of the people I met and the community has inspired me. These experiences we go through, I believe, become part of our character. They also help us lose ourselves. In a modern world where technology and ego-identity form such a big part of our day-to-day existence, these feats of the soul humble and inspire us to see life and ourselves differently.
Final thoughts on the race: challenge yourself beyond what you think is possible; recreate yourself in both your dreams and every moment; use whatever your discipline is, whether running or any other sort of adventure, to inspire yourself and others to live well and understand more about yourself. You will be surprised where you end up. The journey and hard training put in along the way end up paying off, and these epic missions can become a celebration of that hard work.