These words certainly ran true for me during the 24 hour period that I was up on one of Australia’s highest mountains, competing in the Rapid Ascent Falls Creek Mountain Raid – 3 trail runs held over a 24 hour period to test your strength, fitness, endurance, pain threshold and mindset.
3 weeks prior to the event date, I decided that I needed a worthwhile goal to aim for to ignite some passion, focus and direction to my daily training routine. I had an itching desire to compete in a race that would challenge my current state of physical conditioning. Following two failed attempts at entering upcoming half ironman triathlons (both due to the fact they were either sold out or entries had closed), I found the answer on the Rapid Ascent website.
Once I had committed to participate (i.e. paid up for the entry and sorted out accommodation for the weekend up at Falls Creek), I read, and re-read the course descriptions several times until I could comprehend how I was going to be able to cram in enough specific run training to get me to the start line in reasonable condition. The disclaimer here is that I’m always carrying a pretty reasonable level of fitness and general conditioning. It’s the specificity that’s the key to being successful at a competitive level. To elaborate, if you’re aiming to run as best you can for a 5km race as opposed to a marathon (42.2km), your training is primarily running. However, to be specific with your training for these races requires a different approach to how long, hard and fast you run, what type of cross training you do, how much time you spend training and what your nutrition strategy is.
Over the past 18 months my training has consisted of the following…
- Ride 3-4x per week (60-80km per ride)
- Body weight strength sessions 2x per week (30min per session)
- Swim 2x per week (30-40min per session)
- Pilates 2x per week (45min per session)
- Run sprints 1x per week (20min)
It’s clear to see that my run training had been minimal at best (except for a 4 week block of running 3 times per week leading up to Ironman Cairns in June 2014). However I was confident enough in my overall conditioning to dedicate the next three weeks to specific run training. Well that was the plan anyway. I continued with the sprint sessions and included a couple more runs of 8-10km each and dropped the body weight strength sessions – I carry way too much upper body muscle for a “runner” anyway.
With only a 3 week lead up, race weekend snuck up very quickly. Vicky and I palmed the kids off to the grandparents for the weekend, and we set off for Falls Creek on Friday afternoon. The temperature was in the low 30’s (degree celcius) until we turned onto The Great Alpine Road, at which point the temperature was dropping 1 degree every 10 kilometers. By the time we arrived in the town of Bright it was raining and less than 20 degrees. We stocked up on some food for the weekend (more of that later), and snaked our way up the mountain. By the time we arrived it was 12 degrees, wet and windy. We got settled into our accommodation, had a small plate of dinner and went off to sleep.
My main considerations for the 3 runs over the 24 hour period were as follows…
- Nutrition – getting this right was important to have sufficient energy, ensure my gut did not feel too heavy/bloated, and adequate hydration (we were told there would not be much water/hydration on any of the courses).
- Lack of specific conditioning – running on roads is one thing. However, running trails (especially in the mountains) is a whole new level of unknown. I have done a fair amount of trail running events and training runs over the past few years, but I had not yet done any mountain running.
- Short term recovery – I needed to ensure that my nutrition (food and fluids) supported me pre, during and post runs. I packed massage cream and a foam roller for recovery massages, muscle release and joint mobilisations.
- Changing weather conditions – you often hear stories of weather conditions varying greatly within short periods of time and at different parts of a mountain range. I had looked at the weekend forecast prior to leaving Melbourne, however I was not properly prepared for the cold, wet and wind (both physically and mentally).
Here’s how the weekend of running, eating and drinking coffee panned out…
- Dinner – lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, salami, brie cheese, smoked salmon
- Woke up to the sound of rain and wind – great!
- Double espresso pre-run
- Run 1 (11.5km) – The race briefing went something like this… “Reports from the top of the mountain is that it’s a lot worse than here at the start line – cold, wet and windy with minimal visibility. We recommend you take extra clothes.” And there I was shivering in my Lululemon shorts and Nike singlet! I was feeling very out of my depths with the other competitors looking hardcore with all their mountain running gear – trail runners, gators, compression socks, wind vests and hydration packs. Vicky was at the start line to capture some of the action. I’m always happiest once the gun goes off. There were a lot of uphills, although the really challenging part for me was the 2km section of very steep downhill. Remember that this is not on perfectly smoothed roads. Every step counts when you’re trail running in the mountains. You have to keep one eye on your feet and the other on your surrounds. There is no time to “zone out” or experience an “active meditation” – you really need to concentrate otherwise you’ll most likely trip and fall. By the time I got to the bottom I had fallen several times and my quads felt absolutely SMASHED! And I was only just over half way through the run. The remainder of this run was a gradual (and sometimes steep) uphill to the finish. I was very glad to see the finish line, and rather surprised to have grabbed 5th place overall.
- Vicky seemed even more relieved to see me cross the line. Supporting events in the cold and wet is not that much fun.
- I hobbled down the hill to our accommodation to rest up for the next few hours in anticipation for the next event.
- Lunch consisted of the same list of ingredients as the previous nights dinner and a cup of herbal tea.
- I lay on the bed and gave my quads and calves a well deserved self-massage.
- Before long, it was time to head up to the start line for another race briefing. The weather had deteriorated since the morning (if that was possible) with even less visibility, more rain and an icy cold wind.
- I asked Vicky if she was coming along, and she was pretty quick to refuse the offer – fair enough.
- Run 2 (4km) – This run was short yet very tough. It was an “out and back” course with the first 2km straight up the mountain following the line of one of the ski lifts. There was not much running happening from any of the competitors – the ground was slippery underfoot and we were using our hands a lot to assist our legs (it’s not often that I’ve been able to max out my heart rate by walking!). At the top (finally!) I got my wrist ticked off with a marker pen by a course marshall, and then it was back down the same way that I went up. This is where the real damage was done to my poor little thighs. Every tentative step was excruciating. By the time I crossed the finish line (5th place overall again), I wasn’t confident of my ability to get back to the accommodation (approx. 500m away – all downhill!).
- After successfully arriving at our room, I hobbled in to find Vicky reading a book and warmly tucked under the bed covers.
- Post race nutrition consisted of a handful of macadamias and almonds.
- I gave myself another post race massage, and agreed with Vicky that a gentle walk to get dinner was a good idea to help loosen up my legs. Feeling like a new born kudu with wobbly legs, it took around 30min to walk the 1km to the restaurant.
- Dinner was delicious – chicken tenders wrapped with prosciutto on a bed of greens and a garlic butter sauce.
- I had a restful sleep although I had an awareness of my legs aching and twitching throughout the night.
- My first thought was “How am I going to get out of this bed?” The slightest of movements sent sharp pains along the front of my thighs. I was seriously considering pulling the pin on the third and final run. I felt as though I was in injury territory, and with an overseas holiday coming up the following week I wasn’t keen to use a wheelchair to get around.
- Looking out the window was enough motivation to get going. The weather had cleared up with sunny blue skies.
- I ate a date and had a cup of herbal tea whilst attempting to warm up and stretch.
- Run 3 (10.5km) – All the competitors seemed a lot more sprightly with the prospect of running with the sun overhead. This was described as the easiest of the 3 runs, however with my legs in their current condition it was anything but that. There was still plenty of ups and downs, but there was a fair amount of flats and gentle uphills at the top of the mountain with some amazing views of the high plains.
- After an hour of mountain running, it was a relief to cross the finish line for a third time in 24 hours – this time nabbing 3rd place overall.
The wrap up (reflection and lessons learned)…
- I felt a huge sense of achievement by completing this event, and I’ll aim to go back next year for more “fun.”
- My nutrition intake from Friday afternoon to Sunday post race was minimal yet adequate to keep me well fuelled and clear of any gut issues. I continue to accumulate personal anecdotal proof that you can maintain a healthy, nutritious diet in your everyday life, training and racing. There is very rarely a need/requirement for sugar filled, highly processed sports nutrition products to “keep you hydrated” or give you enough energy. Once you’re “fat adapted” your body’s system is able to tap into an almost endless fuel supply.
- Drink to thirst. I had no water, electrolyte drinks or sports drinks out on the course. The lower temperatures meant that I wasn’t losing as much fluids so the need to drink was not as great. Dehydration is a state; it’s not a condition. Overhydration on the other hand can lead to hyponatremia – a potentially fatal condition which has seen a massive spike since the sports nutrition market has been flooded with sports drinks and electrolyte replacement formulas.
- My specific mountain/trail running condition was well below where it needed to be. My quadriceps muscles were not prepared for the downhill onslaught that I dished out to them. This did have a slight impact on the enjoyment of the event for me as I was in constant pain. It took a full 10 days for my legs to completely recover.