June 18, 2023

Race report: UTA 22. (Long post warning). 


This was a very highly anticipated event. In Australia, UTA has kinda 'mythical' race status, being the second largest trail event in the world and discussed in running circles ad infinitum. The event runs over 4 days and you can take part in the 11, 22, 50 or 100km events. 

Blue Mountains
View of Blue Mountains

I had heard endless magical tales of the incredible views, race day vibe and the stairs. But I really wanted to experience it all for myself. More than that though, I had a personal score to settle. Last year when I was completing my level 3 coaching I ran in the Blue Mountains with a bunch of super experienced, talented runners. Think world champions, western-states-ers and experienced milers. But when we practiced running up the Furber Steps together, I made the mistake of trying to keep up. Needless to say it did not end well. I mean, what was I thinking? My run turned to a walk, my walk faded to a crawl, my vision greyed out, my heart thumped up through my mouth and I watched my oncoming heart attack from some ethereal place above my body.

Okay, I didn't really die. But I learned a hard lesson about staying in my own wheelhouse. And once I'd recovered I realised what a gift it would be to do that spectacular course, and those stairs, but without redlining. I wanted to replace my embarrassment with pride. 

So fast forward to six months later and the dawn of race day. I had no goal except to feel strong the whole race, to step outside my comfort zone but not too far, and to have enough energy in the tank to make it up the infernal stairs without redlining. I didn't know how I wanted to race to go, but I knew exactly how I wanted it to FEEL. I wanted to finish strong.

I travelled up the day before the race with two special friends who were also running, and cheered for some clients who were running the 11km (more about that in the rest of my feed.) We ate pizza and chocolate and giggled like schoolgirls at a sleepover as we tried to ward off our nerves. I slept quite well, they didn't, and our alarms went off in unison at 4.30am. 

Which was just enough time to get ready, leave the hotel, drive into Katoomba, navigate the parking, scull some coffee, survive the toilet queue, watch the faster runners depart and take up our places. And before you could say 'bucket list' it was our turn and we took off into the spectacular wilderness.

For the first km or two I struggled to control my breathing, as my nerves threatened to overwhelm me, but once the thump of the footsteps and the magic of the vistas worked their magic I began to enjoy the day. There were some steep-ish sections but it was easy to forget them by distracting myself with the views; - - the world was a cerulean cup and the misty valley floors were the creamy leftovers from a giant's morning coffee. My idea of heaven is literally this, surrounded by misfits and natural beauty and cool air and time on my own. 

But soon enough the technical descents started. I was actually grateful for the numerous bottle necks because it took the pressure off the need for a speedy descent. There were slippery bits and fallen trees and landslides and rocks, but all the while the jaw dropping views. We had to climb over boulders the size of cars, jump across creeks and coordinate stepping stones. I ran the bits that were runnable, enjoyed the views when I could, and did all I could to manage my energy. I wanted to work hard, but not so hard that I had nothing left for the stairs. 

Oh the stairs. The never-ending, mind-bending, mother-f#%*ing stairs. I don't know how many there were, at least eleventy-billion, enough to reduce my quads to butter and cause my toes to cramp. We climbed almost a full kilometre straight up over the course, and I passed many runners crying and cramping and vomiting and sitting on the side of the path. I did have one significant, ankle-bending fall. But my triumph was that I was able to manage my energy. I stopped often enough, always before my needle hit the red, and continued when I could. Many runners passed me, and I lost heaps of time on the stairs, but that was fine. It was never about the speed. It was about the feeling. 


The day unveiled parts of Australia I never knew existed; magical forests and mythical peaks and gorges and waterfalls and canyons. I saw people helping people, sharing snacks, exchanging information, high-fiving and cow-belling and cheering like madmen for people they had never met. It was visceral and painful and magnificently beautiful.

The final set of stairs, the same Furber ones that nearly decimated me last year, were my final release to the noisy finish line and the relief of knowing it was all over. I had a short but very ugly cry, always my body's way of unloading, and then celebrated in the glorious sunshine with friends, clients and strangers, a smelly, sweaty, happy and very unruly tribe. 

It's not about the race. It's about finding a new gear, going to a new place, doing something you didn't think you could do. As the great Eliud says, no human is limited. There is a mystical process that's as simple as left foot right foot. If your repeat it often enough, it can take you to literally anywhere. Maybe that's why it's called Trail Magic.