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Life Lessons On The Run: Ultra Trail Australia

24‐05‐16

As a mad keen ultra marathon trail runner, I was super excited to take on Australia’s premier ultra-trail race recently, the 100km Ultra Trail Australia in the Blue Mountains on May 14th. I posted a video the day before the race, reflecting on why I undertake these sorts of events and how I see them as a metaphor for the challenges that we all must face throughout life. Checkout the video below:

Why run an ultra-marathon

Well I’m pleased to say that I finished the race unscathed, in one piece and in a time that was marginally slower than my target, but one that I was still very pleased with. After all, 100km is a long way, so just to finish such a race is an achievement.

Lots can happen when you’re out on the trails, hiking and running for almost 14 hours. I was pushed to my limits at various times during the race and on reflection, there were three really important take-aways that I have from the race that I’d like to share with you.

Make a change

Otherwise your results will remain the same

After a good steady start, my race started to take a turn for the worse from the 50km mark. I’d just completed a 20-minute climb up a seemingly endless line of uneven stairs. Coming out of that climb on a flatter section of single track, I took a fall and stripped some skin from my right knee. The damage was minor, but the fall was an indicator of trouble, and it shook me a little. This was where the wheels started to fall off.

Ultra Trail Australia - Andrew TerlichThere was nothing major physically wrong with me, I had some sore spots and niggles, but after almost 60km that’s to be expected. I was developing blisters on 4 toes, and that was playing with my head, and I was also struggling to eat enough calories, with my mouth feeling bone dry and my stomach a little queasy. With blood trickling from my damaged knee, I limped into checkpoint 4 at the 57km mark almost sobbing. My head was telling me that I was in a lot of trouble, and that my race might be over.

At the checkpoint, my incredible support crew of my wife, 3 kids, and my parents (who found themselves literally amongst the blood, sweat and tears of ultra running for the first time) were cheering me on. I took on lots of ‘wet’ food. Watermelon, mandarins and an incredibly satisfying banana / chia / hemp / coconut water smoothie. I ate way more than I normally would in one sitting during a race, which is normally a recipe of nausea, but I threw caution out the window. With a quick massage of my aching legs, a neck massage, a brief hamstring stretch and lots of encouraging words, any thought of giving up now disappeared.

After a 10-minute break to recover and re-assess, I was back on my feet. As I jogged out of the checkpoint area, I was feeling better, but still a long way from feeling great. The next 20 minutes were spent slowly ticking a few more kms off whilst I re-assessed my race plan and got back into the groove. I was in a vastly different place than just 30 minutes earlier.

The break, the support, the food, the massage, the encouragement, the love. All of these things represented, and manifested themselves in, a change both physical and mental, that allowed me to go on at a time when it seemed very unlikely. If I hadn’t had the chance to break the downward momentum I was in, if that checkpoint had been a further 10 kms down the track, I doubt that I would have continued my race. It was this forced change that allowed me to get my race back on track. 

Negative self-talk is the enemy

But it will always be there, learn how to manage it

At various times during the race, that old foe inside my head popped up to tell me that completing the race was beyond me, that failure to finish would be ok. It told me that my knee hurt, that it was hot, that I was feeling sick and that the stairs in front of me were too many.
The reality is that some of these things were true. My knee did hurt and I was feeling sick. It would have been so easy to listen to that voice and to let it conquer me, particularly as I hit my bad patch at the 57km checkpoint.

Later in the race, with 8 kms of hills and stairs to the finish line, that same voice told me that finishing within 14 hours was impossible. This was after a fellow runner told me the same thing. I sarcastically laughed to myself about the power of surrounding yourself with positive people, I didn’t need that comment!

But we all face challenges in life, be they by choice or not. I chose to run this race, so that I would be challenged by this voice during precisely these difficult moments. Because the reality is that this voice will always pop up at uninvited times. The trick, the challenge, is to drown this voice out. I choose to do this with an opposing, positive voice. With affirmations as to what bought me to this moment in time, and how the effort now to prove this negative voice wrong will be richly rewarded later on.

I’m a huge believer that we all have an incredible amount of untapped power within our minds. I’ve heard it said that at your breaking point, where you think you can continue no longer, that you’ve tapped into just 50% of your human capabilities. I don’t know how true that is, but its both a scary and powerful thought. And it gave me enough incentive to silence that negative voice when I needed to.

Goals are critical to success

If you don't have one, you don't know where you're going

Ultra Trail Australia - At One paleo barsGoal setting is something that I’ve focussed much attention on in the past year. I used to be one who had some loose goals in the back of my head, but other than that I pretty much went where the tide took me. Specific to this race, I started with a goal to finish in 13hrs30mins. I missed that goal by 21mins, but looking back at what I did on the day in attempting to meet that goal, I felt at the finish that I’d given it my all and I finished the race happy.

I’ve learned that good goal setting technique means having a long-term goal, then drilling it down to sub-goals that are designed to contribute to the long-term goal. With this in mind I had set training goals about distance per week, elevation per week and so on.

Then I had goals on the day, in terms of time to each of the checkpoints. These did not always go to plan, so goals were re-assessed on the run. And reflecting back now, I realise that mini goal-setting had now become part of my automatic thought process. As the final cruel km, consisting of 951 stairs of climbing to the finish line, I was struggling up the stairs, having to stop to catch my breath every minute or so. And without thinking about it, I started to break the stairs down in my head to 50 stairs at a time. I would work to climb 50 stairs, tick that off in my head, then continue to climb the next 50. This went on until, before I knew it, I could hear the buzz of the crowd and I could see the finish line. Those mini-goals added up and drove me towards the end goal.

And after months of training, early morning runs, late night runs, runs in the rain, hill repeats and so on, the goal of completing the UTA 100 was achieved. After a night of recovery, this called for a big breakfast the next day, followed by a big lunch with a few celebratory drinks, then a big dinner! Believe me, after running 100km your appetite is endless, and you don’t have a caloric care in the world, knowing that you’ve just burned in excess of 7000 calories in one run! Achieving a goal is cause for a celebration!

The addiction

But a final word about goals, they can be addictive! Before the pain of sore knees and aching quadriceps had passed, I found my mind wandering off to thoughts of faster times, more challenging races, other challenges. But whatever the next goal is, there’s sure to be challenges, failure, lessons, tears, heartache, pain, success, jubilation. And that is why we do these things. That is the essence of life…

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  • Comment

  • 25/05/16

    Amanda, South Melbourne

    As hard as it can be at times, writing down your race report is all part of the learning process. I could read the honestly of this race, the hurt, the mind tricks and the exhaustion but I could also read the love, the fondness and the appreciation for a race and distance that either breaks you or powers you. A cracking day out in the office and I look forward to hearing more of your adventures as you continue to the healthy addiction of ultra running. See you out on the trails.
  • 24/05/16

    Luke from Tamworth

    Well done Andrew on completing the race and providing an enjoyable read on setting goals.
  • 24/05/16

    Sharni

    Thank you Andrew. I loved reading this. Such an awesome insight into human endurance and the power of the mind. With my first marathon planned for September this year your blog has given me even more motivation and belief in myself so thank you. And congrats. I loved seeing Tara's updates on your run and seeing the smile on your face at the end made it obvious it was all worth it a thousand times over!

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