9 April 2014

The Ups and Downs of the Buffalo Stamepde Ultra Skymarathon

The Beast that is The Buffalo Stampede
Dave Byrne said to me on Sunday after the marathon, you must be pretty happy after such a build up to a race.  This got me thinking, and he was right, I was happy and it was such a big build up that anything could have happened. I cashed my chips and ran to my potential on the day, had a blast all weekend and can now reflect on what was truly a special weekend, shared in a special place with special people.

So this is going to be a long one, here we go….

It all started with an email from Sean Greenhill last year asking if I wanted to be part of the Buffalo Stampede MountainSports team.  I was excited and eager with the opportunity and it was a massive privilege to be considered as an athlete in the team and someone Sean and Mel would want representing MountainSports. The event was due to launch and I was given a sneak peak of the website and its content, including the elevation profile, the excitement was then joined with fear and shock!

The launch went well and I began planning my year around this race, it was the big one of my A races and wanted to do well in Bright come April.  I was to start prep with a camp in Wolgan Valley mid November with the other members of the team, Jo Brischetto, Ingrid Donald and Mark Lee (he couldn’t make it due to a race in NZ).  Unfortunately the training aspect of the camp was cut suddenly short after a mishap crossing the river resulting in a Grade 3 tear of my right ankle. The weekend otherwise was fun, camping with the kids and hanging out with Sean, the Brischetto’s, Andrew and Alix, and Ingrid and her son was great, but the damage caused by the injury was going to cost me up to 5 weeks.

Dakota, Reese, Kel and I post Friday Fun Run
Fast forward a few months and my injury woes were behind me and I was knocking out solid weeks in training and beginning to race more competitively again.  I approached the Stampede with Skycamp, 6 Foot and Orange Marathon as well some other key runs and events in my legs.  This year my training runs have gotten longer and I have noticed greater improvement in my long endurance. I have been running more easy paced runs on trail as opposed to the road, shorter in distance around 30 – 45min longer but normally up a big climb (200-300m), across a few rollers and then back down, normally a scrambly single track or on a mountain bike track. I enjoy this running and aim to use it more in my training in the future.

The medal with a bottle opener.
As the event came closer I became more and more focused on the race.  I began my prep studying the profile and developing course notes in the weeks leading into the race.  I sorted out when we were arriving in Bright and on my gear and nutrition as far out from the race as possible to avoid the stress of worrying.  I approached the event with a plan, a plan that reflected my ability, training and strengths/weaknesses that I could be confident in executing on the day.  I was honest with myself and knew what I could do, so planned around doing so, running the downhills carefully, building into my climbs and running within myself throughout the race making sure I could run the last 15km to Bright.

I utilised my blog, Facebook and Twitter to post in the lead up to the race, this was able to generate some interest and allowed me to keep focused and motivated for the race. I’m sure I maybe got a few people thinking, here is Wes posting again, but the interest in the race was big and it is what it is, Skyrunning is massive internationally and to a part of it is awesome.

The trip down to Bright was good, Kel and I were both looking forward to the weekend.  Unfortunately Kel was only just starting to get running again and had withdrawn from the marathon, so her Skyrunning debut would have to wait until 2015 where she will be ready and eager to go.  We arrived at Velo, and were greeted by Wayne and Sean. From here we were allocated a room and started seeing plenty of familiar faces about the town, Kirsten and Jen were helping out and Kevin Orrman-Rositer was also racing the ultra.

Pre-Race dinner at the Brewery
We met up with Marcus and crew, the crew was pretty solid with trail running weapons (to quote Caine Warbuton).  I met Clark McClymont (who I’d heard a lot about from Brendan), Grant Guise, Matt Bixley, Reese Ruland and of course the US draw card Dakota Jones, Mick Donges was there as well and he was past his injury issues and ready to run come Saturday. We headed to the Bright Brewery for dinner and had a good meal together. Sean asked me to help him finish marking the course and I went out with him around 9ish, while Kel stayed back and hung out with Mel. I marked from Buckland to the base of the wall.  I must admit I was a little cranky I didn’t get to bed early but I was more happy to help Sean out for obvious reasons and it did give me another look at the wall plus a section that I hadn’t seen yet.

Friday Fun Run
Friday had arrived and Kel and I planned to have breaky and then go out and check out the aid stations and the top of Mt Buffalo before settling into the afternoon activities.  We were able to drive the course to the bottom of Keatings Ridge giving me a look at all but the ridge itself on the course at that point. It was pissing rain and cold atop of the mountain so we high tailed it back to Bright.  The day had started with a group run around the Ovens River and as a result we took some time for ourselves in the arvo (I had a stretch and roll) before checking in.  At this point I had realised I had several items of mandatory gear missing, yes several, what an idiot! My space blanket, whistle and spare light were all at home so I had to make a quick trip to get these items.

The athlete’s forum and check in were great, an opportunity to catch up with friends, listen to some of the best and soak up the atmosphere.  I really was feeling good about the race at that point and after a great dinner with Kel, Brendan, Nadine and Blair it was time for bed and a few last minute things. I went with the UltraAspire Omega to carry my gear and finalized my splits and nutrition for Kel to crew.

Lights out.

Just before the start of my first Skyrun.
Saturday had come and my biggest race after my biggest buildup was upon me, I was nervous, excited and confident.  I met Brendan and we slowly jogged down to the start with Kel, I noticed my quads were not “right”, weird sort of, not sore but not fresh, I hoped this wasn’t going to be an issue.  The start area was abuzz, head lights were a plenty and we mustered eagerly for the start. It was a special 5 minutes or so and I said goodbye to Kel and took my place in the strongest field I have ever ran in.  A cowbell rang and we were away.
Leg 1 Bright to Buckland 15km: Easy Does It Leg!

The summit of Clearspot about 10km in.
A very slow start resulted in a train going up Mystic, I could see Mick at the front and was happy with my pace, effort level and heart rate.  I planned to run with Mark Lee early to make sure we held back and I could see his hand torch just behind so I was happy.  After the lookout on the firetrail the lead group went and I let them go, I reckon I let close to 25 go onto the single track that led to the summit of Mystic, again I wasn’t fussed this was too early to worry about racing.  I hiked this track strongly, literally walking at the pace everyone else was running, I kept my breathing solid and heart rate down which was a positive sign for the remainder of the race.  I was joined by familiar voices in Amadeus and Mark close to the top and we had a chat and talked some crap reaching the summit of Mystic in just over 30min.  We descended carefully off the hill down Mick’s Track and went through the Bakers Gully checkpoint quickly ready for the beast that is Clearspot.

I had a plan and stuck to it, hike the hell out of the hill.  Mark was right by my side and we got to task, chatting but keeping our effort level solid and cadence high, apparently Amadeus had different plans because it was at this point the “German Darkhorse” flew off to our cheers, he is an awesome hill climber and will go close to winning the TNF 50 in my view (I really hope he does anyway!). I felt really good on this climb and we caught about 4 or 5 runners who were busting arse, it was a good boost for the confidence and sign for the later part of the race.  At the summit Dan from Ultra 168 greeted us with some smack and a photo and we quickly approach the wall, named “Warner’s Wall” after Marcus the President of AUS/NZ Skyrunning.  Matt Bixley of BCR fame joined Mark and I on the descent where Mark had opened up a slight gap on us.  At the base Matt and I ran together chatting and holding a very comfortable and sensible pace on the gradual downhill to Buckland.  I enjoyed this part run and made sure I didn’t cash in too many chips too early, I was also looking forward to seeing Kel even though I was 30-40min ahead of plan.

At the aid station Kel had a chat and encouraged me, I had a quick drink and pushed giving her a rough guess of my eta for Eurobin.  Kel was there ready, as she was to be all day, ever reliable and encouraging throughout.

Leg 2 Buckland to Eurobin 24.7km: The Bixley Leg!

Mark Lee = Champion
Matt and I ran to the base of Keatings where he let me go, only after a few jokes of the snakes that he would see and his view of Aussie trail roads!  Up the climb was pretty constant, run 20 right foot steps, walk 20 averaging around 7:30min splits without exerting too much.  I reached the top dwarfed by the mountain on my left, Buffalo. This was followed by a solid descent to the next checkpoint at Eurobin.

Amadeus Gladbach = The Darkhorse
On this descent I ran within myself and finished my Perpetuem as I had a fresh supply waiting for me there.  I had a gel and some water and approached the road section on the entry to the National Park feeling really positive and ready for the massive climb ahead. As I hit the checkpoint I was keen to get in and out asap and onto the climb.  Kel gave me my nutrition refill and we had a chat, then it was time to go. I ran from the checkpoint encouraged by Kel and keen to tackle this beast as I’d planned to, the plan however hadn’t included a near race ending slip on the bridge, lucky for me I managed to catch myself without major issue (bloody hopeless on wet wooded surfaces at the moment)!

Leg 4 Eurobin to Chalet: Yes it’s called the Big Walk Leg!

Summit of Mt Buffalo, all smiles.
I started the Big Walk hiking up the steep early few k, I planned to do this and was battling the steep incline and fatigue constantly. The climb was relentless and ongoing but I stuck at it waiting for the road crossing that would mark the point that I had  planned to begin running from.  I managed to run from this spot to Mackey’s Corner, I took it easy and ran within myself but ran the middle section well.  It was at the start of the granite I identified an issue, cramps in the inner quads, yes cramps, wtf!!! I could not manage more than a hike up this section, the switching back and technical terrain was causing me great grief, I was still catching runners in front so I didn’t panic, my race in Canberra taught me to worry about myself not others in races.

I downed some Endurolytes, changed to 1 each 20 minutes and pushed on.  I approached the Chalet feeling positive, no one had gone past on their way back so I couldn’t have been doing all that bad.  Around 1km for the checkpoint Dakota floated past effortlessly in total control, what a freak (more on him later), I had caught the runner in front around this point and began running again. Close to the Chalet Ben Duffas and Blake Hose came screaming past. These boys are young and are the future of Australian Ultra running, they are good and payed for going out hard with Dakota and not being able to finish, but they ran well and had a real go so hats off to them, lessons learnt pay in the future I believe.  I didn’t have much to do with Ben but Blake I spent plenty of time with, he is a good bloke and I reckon is destined for greatness plus he helped Wayne at Velo out all weekend making coffees and still smiled all day long after a tough day out.

Once the boys went past the now familiar and encouraging cowbells began ringing, the Chalet was near!  I could see a few familiar faces and one big smile, Joe Brischetto was atop of Buffalo loving every minute.  Kel led me to the gear and again we quickly chatted and I passed on what I would need after the loop.  I began to realise this run was going to be a real battle, I was feeling tired and my legs were pretty smashed but I wasn’t holding back and was keen to push on.  I went ready to roll and keen to enjoy the loop as much as possible.

Leg 5 Chalet Loop: Your in for a World of Hurt Leg!

I was thinking this loop would be a cruise in around 50min or so, oh I was wrong.  I really underestimated how long getting up, around and off Mt Buffalo would take me and how much the beautiful trail that takes in the Gorge, Chalwells Gallery and Lake Cantini would tax from me.

I ran to the base of the Gorge well, Dave Ross (thanks champ) came along with me for around 500m and I was keen to get moving again along this section.  I knew the stairs up would be tough and it was here I saw Tucks, Guisey, Caine (who earnt the prize to France and deserves the stop no doubt, I wish him all the best and hope he has a blast), Moritz and Brendan, these guys were battling out the front and pushing the pace hard, I can only hope I will be at that level in the coming years, consistency and patience!

Looking calmer than I felt at that point of the
Descent down the Big Walk.
After I climbed from the Gorge the track makes its way towards Lake Cantini, I was running this section, slower than expected but still running, and I was really starting to hurt.  When I finally made it onto the trail around Cantini I was busted, but my spirits were lifted by seeing the other guys coming back the other way and having Dave Byrne give me a big cheer.  I turn onto the little loop track and got to the Gallery ready to get through without an issue, I successfully got down without a cramp but managed to reset my watch and save the activity!  This was a problem, my nutrition was based on the time, which was now out, and I had to guess the km’s back to the Chalet, Eurobin, etc. plus I could only worry about how I was going to merge my Strava activities, yes first world problems at their finest!

I got over my little issue and pushed on to the Chalet, passing back through the field was good, giving and receiving encouragement is a real boost in tough times and I certainly was going through a low point during this leg.  I really enjoyed making it back to the Chalet, this was 5.30hr in and I was on track for a sub 10:45hr time which was great!  Kel was there ready with the modified nutrition and I took a moment to compose myself ready for the Big Walk.

Leg 6 Chalet to Eurobin: Oh my god I can’t descend anymore Leg!

Dave Byrne - "Your in for a World of Hurt", trying
to deflect the pain elsewhere!
10km of downhill is normally my cup of tea, I seriously love to run down and think I can do a pretty good job, especially if the trail is technical, but man I had nothing on this descent.  All the way down from the Chalet to Mackeys Corner was a battle, I couldn’t open up or free myself at all and I was hurting big time, it was a blessing that gravity was on my side otherwise I’d have dropped further back.

When I hit the single track that flows down that bottom half of the Big Walk I managed to free myself somewhat, although I was still really cactus on the steep last few km’s where I passed Gretel and Brick, who were sweeping, both they and the rest of the field were encouraging but I was grinning and bearing it at that point.  Bixley had caught, passed and trash talked me and I re-entered the battle with another runner by the checkpoint.  Brick had told Marcus Warner that I look very stiff, he was right, I felt like the “Tinman” from the Wizard of Oz.  The cowbells signaled the end of my descent from hell, and I was sooooooo relieved to see Kel and get on the flat again (I was dying for the climbs).  Kel mixed up a Hammer Fizz, this is more fast acting and was just what I needed, kick starting my return from hell.

Leg 7 Eurobin to Buckland: Rise from Hell Leg!

Sunday at the Chalet with NSWIB crew
Mike Miles ran top 10 in the mara.
I ran to the base of Keatings Ridge, this was gradual up hill but I wanted to run it and then employ a hike or run/walk plan, whatever was quicker. It turned out my hike was on so I pushed on up the hills taking in fluid and nutrition to make sure when I hit the last 15km I was ready, my cramps had settled at this point and I was really practicing my mindfulness techniques getting in a better  headspace.

At the summit I looked at Mt Buffalo with content of how I had covered the trails in the last few hours. I got on with my descent and ran carefully down the steeper sections onto the tar road that lead to the checkpoint, it was more exposed and hotter than I’d expected but I knew I was close and trucked on slowly. To my surprise Kel had ran down the road around 750m to greet me with good news, I was 15th, I had a little moment and told her I didn’t want to worry about that yet (but looking back it meant I knew where I was at, as I had started to stress a bit about dropping back). At Buckland I had some Heed and took my time to cross the road all the while eyeing off the spot in front, I took off and promised Kel I’d start running soon!

Leg 8 Buckland to Bakers Gully: Smashing the Wall Leg!

I knew this next 5km were vital in getting ground on those in front of me and I planned to run to the wall and then get my hike going again.  I decided to count my steps to keep moving and I think I counted around 1700 odd right foot strikes over to the wall, of these only 35 were walked, heck I even saw a snake in the grass of the road. Upon reaching the base of the climb my spirits lifted, 2 runners were in eyesight and I was getting them before the top.

I flew, in an ultra manner, up the wall. I had caught my friend who I’d been dueling with by the top and had Sean Sweetman in my sights as well.  I dropped the guy I’d just passed and pushed onto Sean, who was struggling on the ups, reaching him around 300m from the top, we hit the top together and had a good little chat about the race that had been unfolding.  He was conceding to me on the ups, but I told him I had nothing down and the ups were now 1 less than the downs, he then flew off the hill running away into 11th spot.
My descent was far less epic, I struggled, it hurt and I had to stop briefly for a moment.  I have honestly not ever wanted something to come to an end more!  When I saw the top of the tent at Bakers Gully I seriously nearly wet myself with joy, man I was happy.  I approached the aid station with Paddy O’Neill waiting, being chicked was looming as Jacinta was leading the women’s field and she is a very strong descender. At the aid station I was greeted by Coops, Jo Brischetto and Blake, who informed me he had dropped, these guys really lifted my spirits and Jo sent a photo through to Kel to let her know I was coming! I quickly checked my bladder and headed off towards the last hill, Mystic.

Leg 9 Bakers Gully to Bright: Don’t be a sook and run downhill Leg!

At Bakers Gully...ready to go!
The short section of trail between the climbs went past quickly and I was being stalked by another runner, damn it, time to work I was thinking.  Micks Track was tough, steep and unrelenting from top to bottom.  It was here that I had finally buckled on the climb, loosing form and just crawling up, technique was now out the window I just needed to get up to the top as fast as a I could.

There is a spot when you think you are at the top, you get there and your not, 400m further to climb, thanks Sean. I swore at the point!

Anyhow I sucked it up and pushed on logging my slowest km split of 22min at this point.  I didn’t care or actually know, I was just happy to be back on the firetrail that lead to the summit.  I tried to run and it didn’t work so I hiked to the top in the hope I could run off this hill.  At the launch point where just on 10hrs earlier I had passed through, I now started my run to the finish.

No words can describe this...
a special moment
I ran well, knowing there was to be nothing left in the tank and the downhill track was less damaging than the other drops had been.  I actual enjoyed it, slipping and sliding down the trail was good fun and my training on the downhill tracks at Hassans had payed off as I had gapped the runner behind.  When I reached the Huggans Lookout I was very happy, this last trail to the road leading to the finish was quite gentle and I enjoyed it immensely, the heavens opened slightly and as I ran towards the finish through the caravan park I had a moment to celebrate my victory, finishing this race!!

10:32:34 12th place
I crossed the line in 10:32:34, 12th overall.  I was greeted by Kel and we shared our moment together, she has put as much into this as I have, I love her so much and to have this experience with her means the world to me.  Sean presented me my medal for finishing and Mel presented my chips for recovery, I also congratulated the other finishers, hearing their tales on the course was an experience in itself.

The Aftermath

I went back to Velo and had a shower, cleaned up and got ready to go to the Brewery to watch the rest of the field finish, attend presentation and catch up over a pint.  We had a great night, everyone was satisfied and of the opinion that the Buffalo Stampede was a beautifully brutal race, an epic event for Australia.  I was impressed with those finishing in the rain and dark after 13, 14 and 15 plus hours on course, one of those runners was Blair Hurst, a good mate from Bathurst, who had crossed the line in 15hr 17minutes, after battling rain and mud he conquered the race.

I was pretty spent and keen for a good day on Sunday so we headed back to get some sleep, Kel slept I lay awake for most of the night.  The following day I went up to Eurobin, then onto the Chalet for the Skymarathon and the opportunity to take in the race from a more relaxed view.  To sum up the marathon I’ll go dot points;

  •  Dave Byrne suffered and finished joint winner with Vajin Armstong, at top effort from both runners. Dave then went on to amuse me with his humor all afternoon and evening, he is a top bloke.
  • Anna Frost led home some solid Aussie girls and it was great to see Jo Brischetto finish well with a smile on her face.
  • Wanye Hildred finished with his all star crew of Blake Hose and Dakota Jones pushing him along the whole time.
  •  The celebration after the marathon at the Brewery was slightly longer and involved more pints than the ultra, and yes I payed for it on Monday!

I do want to mention a few a people.

First off with Sean and Mel from MountainSports, their vision, their race, dead set legends and I can not speak more highly of them. Also to Marcus Warner for his role in this race, he puts so much energy and many other things into the sport that often goes unnoticed, hats off to him.

Sunday Arvo Drinks - Good Times
Second to Wayne at Velo, that place was the spot to be when we weren’t running or at the Brewery, he did a top job with his staff and a few blow ins behind the counter (Donges, Hose, Rouland et al).

Brendan Davies who has been my coach and mentor since November in 2012, he believed in me and has been massive in my progress.  I thank him for his time and energy over this period and can not wait to see him duke it out in Western States 100 later this year, thanks champ!

Onto the elites, Anna and Dakota.  These athletes are the real deal on all levels, both are friendly, down to earth, modest, approachable and really nice people. I spent a lot of time with both and really got along well with them, Reese and Dakota especially were very accommodating of both Kel and I.

Lastly to everyone involved in the race, supporters, athletes, volunteers, marshalls, crew and everyone else, wow!  Life long memories, heart ache, sweat, pain, cowbells, tears it had it all! I loved every step in my journey for this event and cannot wait until version 2015, bring on the pain!
Hursty = Legend

Gear and Nutrition

Hammer Shorts & Visor, Aldi Compression Shorts and Short SleeveTop & Skyrun Bib.

Inov-8 X-Talon 212 and Barefootinc Toe Socks

Ultraspire Omega Pack with 1.5 litre bladder

Garmin Fenix – Thanks to Stew Sewell for the lend, I am onto a Fenix 2 for sure!

Hammer Nutrition
-       Perpetuem 2 Scoops per 500ml every 2.5hr
-       Endurolytes every 20minutes or more
-       Heed at aid stations
-       Gel at every climb and half way up each big climb.

Photo Credit - Alix Campbell, Dan Bleakman, Dave Byrne, Kel Gibson, Marcus Warner