This edition’s member race report covers a race from a different perspective – women doing trail ultras. More and more women are doing 100km events and beyond. Others think it is beyond them. One of our members, Kirrily Dear puts it out there that with the right attitude and preparation, nothing is beyond you.
Why Trail Ultras are God’s Gift to Women
If you think Brad Pitt is God’s gift to women you would be wrong, it’s trail ultra-marathons. Rarely do women have the opportunity to be berated from the stereotypes of gender inferiority and treated as equal. Trail ultras not only give that opportunity, it flings open the front door with welcoming arms outstretched and a big smile. Ultra challenges any belief you hold about what your mind and body are capable of achieving and delivers a deeply seated personal confidence that fuels growth in all aspects of your life. It’s also a ripper of an excuse to spend a day out in the bush.
I sound like a zealot I know. I am addicted to a sport that until two years ago I didn’t know existed. I want more women to experience the feeling of fulfilment, freedom and reward. I know a trail ultra isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve had the slightest pang of curiosity hopefully sharing some of my newbie experiences will help you set a path to the start line and I would especially like to see you at the start of my favourite trail ultra, the Great North Walk 100.
1983: Gumboots were the running shoe de jour for my childhood sporting hero. I believe our goal in life is to become the person we aspired to be as a child. I had forgotten I wanted to be an ultra-runner.
2008: I could run 5km on a good day, 10km was something to write home about. I had been watching the Six Foot Track marathon for about ten years and was in complete awe of the finishers. Those runners were not just in a different class to me it felt like they were from a different planet.
The biggest excuse I used for not running longer distances was my body shape and weight. It was all wrong for a sport that was seemingly dominated by bean poles. I held that view until around two years ago when I fell in with a crowd who challenged my thinking and started putting other ideas into my head. There’s no doubt ultra-women are a breed of their own but it has nothing to do with body shape.
A passion for trail running was something I discovered by chance. I enjoy bushwalking. One weekend up at the Watagan Forest I had forgotten to take my walking boots but had a pair of runners which I donned instead. It was fun, moving faster along the trails, covering a bit more ground. I found I couldn’t run much without getting puffed so settled into a rhythm where I walked most of it and ran the easy bits.
The next time I went out I took only my running shoes. I planned a 16km loop and found with the combination of walking and running I covered the distance fairly comfortably. I then set the goal of running more than I walked and within a very short period of time I could run 16km. Yippee! I then extended the loop to 25km and conquered it. The realisation hit me that with relative ease, I was having too much fun to call it hard work, I had smashed through the half marathon barrier.
That same formula took me through the successful completion of the Six Foot Track Marathon, then the 50km, 75km and 100km barriers tumbled. I’m not fast by any measure but I know I can cover just about any distance by walking when I need to and running when I can. I went from 16km to 100km in just over 12 months and it felt good.
This formula also saved me from a DNF at this year’s GNW100. I had bad stomach cramps from about the 30km mark and by 60km I was depleted and ready to pull the plug. I came across a friend sitting on the side of the trail so we had an impromptu picnic, shared our woes and managed to get some food in. With little choice I focused on walking when I needed to and running when I could, I was likely to miss the cut off but at least I was still moving. Eventually I came good.
In trail ultra you have to learn to look after yourself. You need to be self-sufficient because support is rarely at hand when
you need it. You need to learn how to navigate, to understand your body’s nutrition and hydration requirements and learn
how to deal with challenges. You also need to be comfortable with being out in the bush on your own at night which I know is confronting for a lot of women.
My bushwalking experience laid some good foundations but with the added dynamics of running and long distances I am still on a steep learning curve. You need to prepare yourself. Running Wild is a great way to start getting comfortable with trail and meeting other trail runners. Most of my learning is wisdom handed down from other runners and refined for my own needs through practice. Learn to read a map well. The GNW course is relatively well marked but with darkness and exhaustion even the most experienced runners come unstuck. Train on the trail whenever possible, both day and night. Familiarity reduces risk and builds confidence.
Trail ultras rarely go to plan – there are too many variables involved. My last 25km at GNW100 this year looked something like an episode of Fawlty Towers. In the dark I lost my footing on a section of single trail I have run countless times before. I found my leg wedged under a boulder and had one of those moments where you wait for the pain to cut in, but it didn’t. I got up and started running again only to go for a big slide trying to get around a fallen tree and earned myself some lovely lacerations. Coming out of CP3 a beetle flew into my mouth which induced a spate of vomiting. Recovered from that, I started making some good progress. I stopped about 12km from the finish to consume some food at which point my head lamp blew up. It was pitch black and I was completely alone but fortunately had my back-up torch. In 20+ years of adventure sport I’ve never had a head torch blow up. Surely the running gods were having a joke, so I sat there laughing along with them.
By the time the finish lights were in sight I was doing that crazed laughing-crying thing induced by the ridiculousness of what had gone on. I was the second last survivor across the finish line in a race where nearly 60% of starters had DNF’d.
Resourcefulness had got me to the finish line, not my running ability and it felt good, really good. I think that’s why women have such a high completion rate at ultras, we have resourcefulness by the bucket load.
It took 38 years to complete my first trail ultra, now I’m doing one about every six weeks. I wish I started earlier. There are so many great runs to do and so little time. The wish list just keeps getting longer. It’s exciting to consider the possibility and then achieve it. The satisfaction is immense. My hope is that more women will come over to the ‘dark side’ and reap the rewards. If I can do it anyone can. Challenge yourself and you will be surprised just how much you will get from it.
To all the girls out there, I hope this has got you thinking of what you might be capable of achieving. Don’t let the moment pass you by. Think of all the reasons why it is possible, rather than impossible. See you at GNW100 in 2011!