Race Recap: 2016 Trailsplus Maroondah Dam Mountain Trail 50km Ultra

The 21st running of the Trailsplus Maroondah Dam Trail Runs was greeted by a glorious Autumn morning…crisp but clear! With the event having been moved back 6 weeks from previous years, the risk of inclement weather was on runners’ minds. We need not have worried – it looked like Melbourne was turning on the weather for us for a perfect day of running.

Since the last Trailsplus event (Brimbank Park in mid March), life had taken over and my training was sporadic…a lot of time dedicated to family, work and study reduced my ability to get out and run regularly, but I have a good base and I was able to continue with several strength and conditioning sessions in the gym and with an outdoor PT group. I just hoped that my legs remembered how to keep me moving forward for 6 or so hours!

The other main change to this year’s Maroondah Dam Trail Run was the course – instead of the bus taking us to the start line at Dom Dom Saddle in previous years, the new courses had us starting and finishing at Hendersons Picnic Ground. Easier for everyone logistically, and it meant an out and back course, which I prefer as it gives me a chance to see other runners coming the other way and give them encouragement and be motivated and inspired by them.

The word from the Run Director, Brett Saxon, and those who had run on the new course in training, was that this new course was more challenging – an extra 350m of elevation for the 50k course, and the new 20km section in the middle which had some good technical single track, especially the Tanglefoot track. The general advice was, expect to be out there for at least an hour longer than last year. With finish times of 6:06:01 in 2014 and 5:55:46 in 2015, I was in for a long day! However, with another year of trail running under my belt, as well as more upper body and core strength, I am feeling as fit as I’ve ever been, so I was still hopeful of breaking the 6-hour mark again.

Arriving about an hour before the 8am start time, race central was a hive of activity as usual, with Brett and his A+ team of volunteers putting the final touches to the timing gantry, finish chute, and erecting marquees. Assistant RD George was as busy as always, going back and forth from one task to another to ensure another iconic Trailsplus event would run smoothly.

I wandered over to the registration tent, where a huge smile and hug from Olivia greeted me, and then I had a great chat with Kathy Mac, who had helped Brett with mapping out the new course – I quizzed her about the top section (middle 20km), as I had run the first 15km & last 15km during training a few weeks ago but had not stepped foot along the top section. Her advice – take it easy early on, don’t trash your legs going up to the top of Mt St Leonard, and take care through the top. The mid-week rain would have made the bark and shrub slippery, there were so rocky sections and there would no doubt be leeches. Once again, confirmation that it was a tougher course than last year!

As I was getting all my gear sorted, a bunch of my mates from my running club, Up ‘n Active, wandered up to wish me luck…it was great to see Linda, Andy & Sue, who were entered in the 10km event, Mitch in the 21.1km, and Jason & Geoff who were gearing up for the 30km. There were so many other familiar faces – one of the main reasons why I love these smaller, more intimate trail events. Fellow Trailsplus ambassador, Heather, said a quick hello as the race briefing started for the 50km & 42km events, which were starting at the same time.

A note here about reading the race briefing notes, familiarising yourself with the course maps, and listening carefully at the pre-race briefing – there’s a reason why it is mandatory to attend the briefing in most trail running events. Unlike road running events where it is fairly easy to follow the course, there are often some sections during a trail running event where you need to have your wits about you, where you come across intersections where you might go one way for the first pass, and then another direction when you come across it again for another loop. If in doubt, stop and read the signs carefully, and if necessary, grab that map out (the pre-race notes mentioned it was mandatory to carry a copy of the map with you in this event) to double-check where the course goes.

This event was no different – there was a 3km loop which had to be completed after the turnaround point…there were several runners who didn’t complete that extra loop and ended up only being credited for 47km instead of the full 50, and therefore relegated in the final positions. Lessons like this are learned early on in one’s trail running career – it shouldn’t dampen your resolve, it should just teach you a lesson and hopefully you won’t make the same mistake in the future.

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The obligatory start line photo – lining up for my 3rd Trailsplus Maroondah Dam 50km Ultra

There was a relaxed, long-weekend feel to the start (it was ANZAC Day the next day)… nobody really stepped up to the start line, so myself and a couple of others crept up as the clock counted down to 0:00, and we were off!

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50km & 42km runners head off (photo credit: Brett Saxon/Trailsplus)

We headed up the stone steps leading up from the start area to the top of the Dam wall and across it. Soon after, we dropped off the main trail onto some single track…I hadn’t run this section during my training run here a few weeks ago, so it was new…and I loved it. By now, there were 4-5 runners ahead of me and I let them lead the way…I had no expectations of a podium placing in this race – I’m better on the flatter courses and not so much on the grinding uphills.

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Running along the top of the Dam wall! (photo credit: Mal Gamble/Trailsplus)

We came down out of this first single track section onto the wider trail that I was familiar with…slightly downhill and then flat through the next kilometre, out through the gate and then the sharp turn heading up Donnelly’s Weir Road. We splashed through the water crossing, which was pretty full after the mid-week rain.

I didn’t feel the need to stop at the first aid station (5km) so just thanked the aid station volunteers for helping out and headed up Mt St Leonard Track. It was around this point that Kathy Mac’s words of advice kept replaying in my head, “Take it easy early on”…as I found myself running side by side with Lucy Bartholomew, already a very accomplished Mountain Ultra Runner at the ripe old age of 19 and most recently taking out the win at the tough Buffalo Stampede in early April. Clearly I hadn’t learned from trying to chase Kirstin Bull at Brimbank Park!

Within a couple of km, I started drifting off the back of the front runners…I figured if I’d tried to keep up that kind of pace, I’d eventually hit the wall and that wouldn’t be too much fun. I started taking recovery walk breaks up some of the inclines, saving myself for the downhill and flat runnable sections, and hoping that this strategy would leave me something in the legs for the bomb back down off the top, on the way back home.

What was also slowing me down was one of most runners’ dreaded nightmares – stomach issues! From early on, my gut felt uneasy with a little sloshing and the uneasy feeling this could derail my day. I tried to put it out of my mind and concentrate on the trail ahead of me and the beautiful scenery around me. I reached the second aid station (10.5km) and once again, felt that I didn’t need to stop and kept pushing on.

I reached the long, grinding 2km hike up the side of Mt St Leonard and, with hands on knees and pushing up through my heels, I trudged up, step by step. With a 30% grade in places, it was a slow slog. The first 11.5km had taken  1:12, the next 2.5km took 27 minutes! The incline just kept going and going…however, I had run this section in training so knew that, whenever I thought the top was nigh, there would be more climbing, so paced myself accordingly.

Finally reaching the top of Mt St Leonard, it was down a steep and rocky stretch which I remember climbing up last year on the previous course. Reaching the third aid station (15km), I grabbed a gel out of my pack while I had a bin to throw the packet out into, thanked the volunteered and continued on.

[warning – a little TMI in the next paragraph or two!]

The next 5km along Quarry Road was mostly downhill, so it was nice to be able to stretch the legs out for a while. Unfortunately, the early stomach issues still remained, and pretty soon, i felt the need to slow a little and start clenching my glutes and looking around for somewhere to take a pit stop. Unfortunately, I was traveling along a winding narrow track which was quite steep straight up on one side, and a drop off on the other…nowhere to duck into the bushes.

In the end, I just had to step off the trail when it leveled out a bit, dig a quick hole and do what bears do in the woods! Anyone who’s had runners trots before will testify that it’s not pleasant, but better to get it out rather than having that uneasy feeling of trying to hold it in! I kicked dirt over the hole, got my pack sorted (including flicking a small leech off the pack…luckily it decided to attack my pack and not any part of my body!), and then stepped back onto the trail.

Heading into the 19km aid station, I knew Shelley and her LTR crew were volunteering there and it was good to see a familiar face – I told Shelley that I was having some stomach issues and she told me just to keep focusing on the scenery around me…I thanked her and the crew and started off down the next trail, knowing I would be back at this aid station in about 10km’s time.

There was a gradual incline between this aid station and the next one at 24km, which was the turnaround point…I got into a good rhythm along the flatter sections and took my walk breaks on any decent rises, and covered this 5km section in 30 minutes. Along the way, I came across one of the intersections which I’d pass twice…the sign said to keep going straight on the first pass, then turn right on the second pass. I made a mental note to make sure that I would go the right way when I came across the sign again. A little further down the trail, I started seeing some runners  coming back the other way, and knew that the turnaround point wasn’t too far away.

I reached the 24km aid station at the Tanglefoot car park, where a couple of other runners (including my mate Gav) were taking their time to make sure they were prepared for the second half of the race. Once again, it was good to see a familiar face manning the aid station…another awesome trail runner, Izzy, was out there helping the runners. I had a quick chat with her while I shoved a couple of handfuls of crisps and a slice of fruit cake down my gob! Izzy was recovering from the Buffalo Stampede Grand Slam a few weeks ago, and it was great to see her being involved in a great event. (check out Izzy’s blog here).

Heading back up the trail, I crossed paths with several other runners as the headed out to the turnaround point…encouragement was exchanged both ways, as we all acknowledged how much work it takes to run a long trail run and every quick comment helps to keep you going! A bit of confusion entered my mind at this point, when I saw Lucy coming the other way…I was fairly certain that we only go out to checkpoint 5 once, but she was on the path to that checkpoint – I was sure she had been in front of me . Either I had read the maps wrong, or she had taken a wrong turn at some point. I spent the next 15-20 minutes replaying the maps over and over in my mind.

I reached the Tanglefoot track and followed it as it wound its way back to aid station 4. Shelley greeted me again and told me that I was looking a lot better than the first time she’d seen me, which was a good sign. I grabbed my drop bag which had some gels and my Hammer Perpetuem electrolyte powder, which I poured into my bottle, and while it was being filled with water by the helpful volunteers, I wolfed down a handful of crisps. Once again, I was grateful for the volunteers who make these events so great!

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Feeling better as I approach aid station 4 for the 2nd time (photo credit: Aldonio/Trailsplus)

Leaving the aid station with another handful of crisps and a slice of fruit cake, I continued the 3km loop, ensuring I turned right at the sign I’d seen earlier and eventually made it to aid station 3 again. I had a gel, some crisps, and a couple of cups of Coke…I usually wait until about 60-70% of the way through a race before I start drinking Coke at aid stations, not wanting to rely on the sugar rush too early.

I trudged up the steep, rocky incline back to the top of the mountain, knowing that once I got to the top, my favourite section was coming up…bombing back down off the top, down the steep rocky and slippery section of trail that I had struggled up a couple of hours ago.

Unfortunately things didn’t go to quite to plan…the discomfort in my stomach was back. I only made it a few hundred metres down the mountain before I had to duck into the bushes again…this was certainly not my day! I made quick work of what I needed to do, then started making my way quickly down to the bottom of the steep section of mountain.

When the trail widened and flattened out, I got myself into a good rhythm and progressed quickly along the rolling, undulating track to the 2nd last aid station. I downed a cup of Coke while the aid station volunteer mentioned that there had been some runners who had already come through but had admitted to not doing the 3km loop at the top, so I wasn’t as far down the pecking order as I had thought. This picked up my spirits and I quickly left the aid station with a handful of crisps, leaving a couple of runners behind who had also stopped at the aid station. More rolling hills followed, until the short downhill sections to the last aid station.

Knowing there was only 5km to go, I decided not to stop – with my stomach issues, the last thing I needed was to put more food into my stomach. I hadn’t felt any cramps coming on, so the crisps I had been having predominantly for the salt content were doing the job…I yelled out my thanks to the volunteers as I continued on my way.

I splashed back across the water crossing and ran back along the road. Coming across good ol’ Mal behind the lens, we had a bit of banter as I ran past…once again, great to see another awesome runner helping out at another Trailsplus event! Don’t forget to send me an invoice for this pic, Mal!

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Home stretch after the water crossing (photo credit: Mal Gamble/Trailsplus)

I walk/jogged up the gradual incline leading to the 3-way fork…I had taken the wrong turn here in 2014, the first time I had run this race. That mistake made it into a 53km run that I didn’t want to repeat, so I made sure to take the right path. Then it was back onto the single track section until I popped up near the Dam wall.

At this point, I had one kilometre to go…a quick check of my watch, which had just ticked over 5:35. I was really surprised that I hadn’t even felt any cramps coming on and that my legs were feeling really fresh, so I thought I’d give it everything I had. I ran down to the Dam wall, sprinted across it, passing a couple of families who were taking in the sights – I had no time for that! I reached the other side and bounded down the steps leading down towards the finish line area, passing another runner along the way.

It’s always a huge relief to see the finish line of an event…the culmination of a hard day’s work. As I reached the finish chute, I could hear huge cheers from the Up ‘n Active clan, all the other runners who had finished their race, their supporters, and all of the volunteers. Always a great feeling at the end of a Trailsplus event! I finished with my trademark jump finish as I crossed the line!

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The trademark jump finish! (photo credit: Ros Sawa)

A medal was hung around my neck, Brett gave me a warm handshake, and I confirmed that I had completed the full 50km (my Garmin Fenix 3 showed 50.03km)…I had completed the new, improved, more challenging Maroondah Dam 50km Ultra in 5:39:16…a 16 minute improvement on my finish time from last year! I was over the moon, to say the least!

I spent the next hour or so catching up with my Up ‘n Active crew and the other runners who had finished, while clapping and cheering those who were finishing their races. The weather was perfect…the sun was out, it was quite warm for an Autumn day, and those first couple of Bridge Road Brewers beers went down well!

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Bridge Road Brewers Bling & Trailsplus bling! Trails ‘n’ Ales!

Another unforgettable day on the Maroondah Dam trails. Thanks again to Brett Saxon, all of the volunteers, fellow runners and their supporters, for another great event! This was my first trail event back in 2014, and it keeps getting better every year! Congrats to all the place-getters in all distances, and all those who just got out there and had a go!

Result: 6th position overall (50km) in a time of 5:39:16.

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My post-run home-made burger & Bridge Road Brewers Little Bling mid-strength IPA

Next event: Ultra-Trail Australia 100km (Sat 14th May)

Next Trailsplus event: Macedon Trail Runs (Mountain Trail Series Race 2) (Sun 29th May)

Race Results: 2016 Trailsplus Maroondah Dam Trail Runs – Results

Strava data: https://www.strava.com/activities/556049410

Photos: Facebook Photo Gallery

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