I don’t know what it is about this race, but it is always the first one I put on my race calendar every year. The Ned Kelly Chase in Wangaratta always has me coming back for more!
The most likely reason is due to the fact that this race was my first Ultramarathon, back in 2013. After running 9 marathons, I decided that running further would be easier than trying to run faster (go figure!), and the inaugural Ned Kelly Chase was being held in October of that year, so it ended up being my introduction into Ultra running.
So it is a good race for me to go back to every year to gauge my progress…in 2013, I completed the 100km course in 11:18:48. In 2014, I had a terrific first 50km (4:27:27) but completely fell apart in the second half (6:20:27) to record a 10:47:54.
In 2015, I ran a lot more controlled race – starting off conservatively in the first 50km (4:37:31) but still slowing down considerably in the second 50km (5:04:32) mainly due to the heat (it got into the mid-30’s). Still, I managed a finish time of 9:42:03 which I was ecstatic about!
Fast forward to April 2, 2016 when entries for this year’s NKC opened. This race has a unique concept in that they want most runners to be finishing at around the same time (12pm), so it is like a self-handicap race…you choose your own start time depending on how long you think it will take to complete the event. During the entry process, you are asked to submit your start time…I decided on 2:30am with a target time of sub-9:30 for the 100km – an improvement on last year and it would be a new 100km PB if I managed to hit my target.
The goalposts shifted when I managed to run 8:58:51 at the Trailsplus Tan Ultra 100km in August… however, knowing that the heat had affected me at the last two NKC’s, I wasn’t sure whether I could replicate the almost-perfect race I had at The Tan, so I stuck with my original target of sub-9:30.
In the lead up to the race, heat was the furthest thing from everyone’s minds. The complete opposite almost caused the race to be postponed or cancelled. This Winter in Victoria was a particularly wet one and there was a lot of flooding in rural areas. Wangaratta was one of those areas affected and parts of the NKC course were underwater throughout September and October.
The race directors, Justin & Sharon Scholz, did a great job of keeping everyone informed of the situation, especially in the last 10 days leading up to race day. As luck had it, the bad weather eased off in this period which meant that the race could go ahead, albeit with some course changes.
Due to continued flooding in the “Southern 50km” section (usually the second half of the 100km race and used for all of the other distances), the major course change was the use of the “Northern 50km” section for all events…and also meant that the 100km runners would run that section twice. It was a good compromise which allowed the event to go ahead on the original race date.
That race date finally arrived (Sunday 23rd October) – my wife & I had driven up on the Friday and had taken it easy. I got out for a shake-out run on Saturday morning, just 5km to stretch the legs and do a systems check of my body…my right calf was a little niggly but nothing that would be a major issue during the race. In the afternoon, we dropped by race central to say hello to Justin & Sharon. While we were there, I came across quite a few familiar faces (Amelia, Geoff, Sue, Frankie, Peter, Karen, etc. – it’s hard to go to any event these days without bumping into several people I know!). Then it was a quick dinner of takeaway noodles and an early night to bed!
Starting a race at 2:30am and with only one other person is quite different to most races…but I had done this 3 times before so knew what to expect. The other runner who I was starting with was Karen Mickle, who I had first met at a race earlier this year (can’t remember which one…probably Trailsplus Brimbank Park Ultra?)…quite an accomplished runner who was targeting a sub-9:30 for her first “road” 100km. We’d had a chat the previous afternoon regarding strategy – were we going to run together or do our own thing? We had decided that we would run independently of each other – she was looking to start out at 5:30-pace and maintain that as long as she could, whereas I was hoping to set out at 5:00-5:05’s, knowing that I usually slow down in the second half of the race.
Justin went through the race briefing several minutes before our start time – I’d heard this briefing 3 times before (in the 3 previous years) so I knew what to expect…make sure you stay on the sealed path at all times, watch out for the minor road crossings along the way, and watch out for the hard-right turn just after you go through the tunnel. Everything else was a breeze.
A quick start line photo and we were away!
Despite the pre-race planning, Karen & I ran the first 7km together, which ended up working well for both of us. Firstly, my head torch was playing up and kept turning itself off. I could have sworn that I had changed the batteries in it the week before, but maybe I hadn’t. In any case, I was happy to have Karen’s torch guiding the way. From her point of view, I’m sure she was glad to have someone with her that knew where they were going in that first 7km stretch – the only tricky part of the course, especially at 2:30 in the morning!
We chatted away and arrived at the first aid station (Bowser Station, 6.3km) – we were both getting into a groove so kept running without stopping. Soon after, we reached the tunnel and then took the hard-right turn onto the rail trail proper. We had been running at between 5:08 to 5:20 per km, which I was fine with – it was a nice comfortable pace to start the run.
Once on the rail trail, I knew it was basically dead flat and straight for the next 18km until the 25km turnaround point. I turned to Karen and told her that I would step the pace up a little and she told me to go ahead…I didn’t feel like I was being rude, as we both had our own race strategies to follow. Although it was still very dark, I knew that I just had to keep running straight ahead so I wasn’t concerned that my head torch was playing up…there was enough light from the moon and my eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough to see the edges of the rail trail.
The next 43km (from 7km through to 50km) felt like an extended tempo run – I was clicking off each km at close to 5:00-pace. Some in the 4:50’s, some in the 5:10’s, but very consistent. There are blips on the pace chart which indicate an extra 15-20 seconds spent at aid stations (grabbing a handful of potato chips) and in-between, when I’ve come across one of my running buddies and given them a quick high-5, a hug and/or words of encouragement. I loved the camaraderie out there among all the runners.
I came across my good running friend Amelia at around the 23km mark (her 27km mark) and had a very brief chat with her…as we parted ways again, I did some quick calculations and knew that not everything was going her way…she had started an hour ahead of me and for her to be only 4km in front of me, she must have been dealing with some issues.
Reaching the 25km turnaround point, it was great to see Sharon manning the checkpoint – she’s been there every year in the early hours of the morning and it’s always nice to see her there. She thought I was sneaking up on her until I explained about my dodgy head torch. I took an extra few seconds to make sure I was right for the return run back into town, grabbed another handful of chips, and I headed back from whence I came.
As always, I started doing the calculations in my head…a 2:09 first 25km was basically right on schedule for my race plan. I quickly told myself to push those thoughts aside – anything can happen over 100km! I settled back into my tempo run again, continuing to tick off those 5-minute km’s!
Karen was only 1.5km behind so she was keeping up a good pace too! A quick “good job” and we continued on. I then crossed paths with David Overend & Kevin Muller, who had started at 3:30am so they were aiming for sub-8:30. At this point, they were approx. 8km behind so well within time to keep me from bridging the gap.
I could just start to see the first light of day as I got through the first third of the race distance. Unfortunately I was running away from the sunrise so didn’t get to see the sun coming up over the hills, but it’s always great to see it getting lighter and lighter after you’ve been running during the night. I allowed myself a quick pause to grab my phone out and take a photo, the only one for the day – this was an “A” race so I remained focused on what I was trying to achieve, not a race to be taking mid-race selfies!
Heading back into town, I started to go through a mental checklist of what I needed to do at the 50km checkpoint…did I need to top up my hydration pack with water? No, I hadn’t been drinking much water to this point – but I had been taking regular sips, so I knew I was hydrating enough. Do I need to switch out my bottle of electrolyte? Yes – I was nearly through the one I had (I was fueling myself on Hammer Perpetuem, which I’ve been using since I started running Ultras in 2013).
A shoe change at halfway is something that I do from time to time – just depending on how the race is going and how my feet are feeling. Lately, I’ve managed to get through my longer Ultras without needing a shoe change, but I made my mind up to do so this time. I had just received delivery of 2 new pairs in the past week – I started the race in a pair of Saucony Triumph ISO2’s…they were great and had plenty of cushioning, but I felt like I might have started to get a couple of hot spots which could lead to blisters if I continued in them. I had a fresh new pair of Saucony Ride 9’s waiting for me at the 50km checkpoint.
I ran back into Apex Park which was a vastly different sight to when I had started the race – it was a hive of activity with volunteers, other runners’ crew, and the 7am starters of the 50km race milling around, waiting for the start of their race. I got a nice round of applause from them all as I came back into the race precinct.
My wife, Ros, had everything laid out for me so I could easily pick and choose what I needed – she replaced my electrolyte bottle as I removed my head torch, beanie and gloves and substituted them for a cap and sunglasses. The sun was well and truly up by now but it was still not too warm, so I opted to keep my long-sleeve top on. I had a quick chat with some running friends who were around while I changed out my shoes.
Having quite a few Ultras under my belt, I have learned to keep these stops at the checkpoints to a minimum – don’t get stuck talking too long to friends, don’t second guess what I’ll need and won’t need, don’t waste too much time. Looking at my split for this part of the race, it looks like I took about 90 seconds at that checkpoint – shoe change and all!
Then I was turning back, thanking my wife and the people who were applauding again, and ran back out of Apex Park – I got about 500m and was already thinking about how foolish it was to change shoes…it felt like I was almost running on the trail without shoes on! I made the mistake of wearing the more cushioned shoe in the first half and then changing to a pair with less cushioning – I usually do it the other way around but for some reason, I didn’t this time…I think I was just hoping that the Triumph’s would be good for the whole 100km. Lesson learned.
However, as with most things in Ultra running, things change pretty quickly – I started getting used to the feel of these new wheels on my feet and thoughts of changing shoes were a distant memory…I concentrated on getting back to Bowser (56.3km) where the next aid station waited. Stopping for a handful of chips (mostly for the salt content) and to blow my nose – a combination of hay fever and the crisp morning air was making my nose run nearly as quick as I was!
Through the tunnel and then hard-right onto the trail again – it was automatic for me now. Settling into another 18km of that long, straight and flat trail, I fell into another rhythmic tempo, now settling into 5:10-5:20 pace – I’d gone through the 2nd 25km in 2:09, matching my first 25km. If I kept up my current pace, I’d come in well under my sub-9:30 goal and could push a sub-9:00!
I don’t really have any mantras that I repeat in my head during my races. It’s usually a few “Come on Mak!”, “You can do it, Mak!” and “Don’t quit now, Mak!” that I tell myself at infrequent intervals. One mantra which worked well for me when I ran my marathon PB at Traralgon Marathon in 2014 was the word “metronomic” – it was my most evenly paced marathon and I kept repeating that word in my head that day, to make sure I was keeping an even pace (as a metronome does in music). The same word was bouncing around in my head as I glided over the trail this day.
I’d arranged for Ros to meet me at the road crossing at 65km…she usually heads out to the 75km checkpoint but with the course change this year, I thought I could get by with just the checkpoint and the volunteers at 75km, and would prefer to see her at 65km (and again at 85km on the way back)…this worked well, as I was starting to get a little hot as the sun starting to peek over the trees, so I stopped to take my long-sleeve top off. I told her that I would change back into my Triumphs when I saw her again at 85km.
Continuing on my way to the 75km turnaround point, I started to see a few more runners, either coming back the other way or as I passed them…there were some runners who were clearly pushing through the pain barrier and gutsing it out. Plenty of words of encouragement were exchanged. There were quite a few cyclists out there now too – the “troopers” as they were known…the aim of the cyclists (troopers) in the event was to chase down the runners (bushrangers) that they were assigned and to “arrest” them…all adding to the theme of the Ned Kelly Chase.
I reached the 75km checkpoint and spent a few extra seconds there to catch my breath, make sure I had everything I needed for the home stretch, and then off I went. My split for the 3rd 25km was 2:14 – only 5 minutes slower than my first 2…I was happy with that. Later, when the results came out, I found out that I had the quickest 3rd 25km overall…I take pride in my endurance and ability to keep going strong later in a race, something that I’ve worked hard on (basically ever since my disastrous second 50km at NKC in 2014). Especially this year in my longer races, I’ve felt stronger as the race has gone on, so it’s particularly pleasing to see that I can match it with the front-runners.
Once again, calculations starting popping into my head…6:32 for the first 75km, so almost 3 hours to get a sub-9:30.If things continued to go well, a sub-9:00 would be touch and go. I just needed to keep the rhythm going as long as I could.
I crossed paths with my buddy Geoff from our running club, Up ‘n Active – he started the 50km at 7am (one of those who were waiting around at the start when I reached 50km)… he was less than 1km behind me, so he was traveling along well – especially considering he had run the full marathon at Melbourne Marathon the weekend before! I gave him a quick high-5 and told him that I’d see him when he caught up to me.
I settled back into 5:15-5:20 pace which surprisingly still felt fairly comfortable – I’d been nursing my right leg ever since about 20km in, with the pesky little niggle in my right calf coming and going, alternating with some hamstring soreness. At a couple of points, it felt like my knee was going to buckle, which had me a little worried, but I kept pressing on.
I made it back to Ros at the 85km point, still feeling pretty strong – I’d already ditched the idea of changing shoes again…I wasn’t feeling any hot spots in the Ride’s and ever-present mental calculations still had me close to a sub-9:00, so an extra stop of 60-90 seconds to change shoes could be the difference. All I asked for was the nectar of the Gods (a.k.a. Coke, in the latter stages of an Ultra) and then I told her I’d see her at the finish.
As I set off, a quick glance showed that Geoff was within a couple of hundred metres – I’d done well to stay ahead of him but was also hoping for him to catch up so we could help each other through the final stretch. Turns out that he was just starting to feel the effects of the previous weekend’s marathon so he didn’t end up catching up to me.
I, however, came across his partner, Sue, and other running friend Linda (both Up ‘n Active club members), just before they reached the turnaround point in their half marathon – I let Sue know that Geoff was only a few minutes behind, as I continued heading for home.
Soon afterwards, I heard a cyclist coming up behind me and I asked, “are you my trooper” to which the reply was “yes, I’m here to arrest you”…so she handed me my handcuff (a wristband) and wished me luck for the rest of my run, as she went to chase down her other bushrangers.
It was around this point that I couldn’t work out whether I had seen the defending 100km champion, Francesco Ciancio, in the second half of the race. Francesco is a gun runner who seems to win almost everything he races and he was a clear favourite to repeat his performance from last year. He started at 4am aiming for another sub-8:00. I remember seeing him on my 2nd 25km (his 1st) and then again on my 3rd 25km (his 2nd), but couldn’t recall whether I had or hadn’t seen him again…I eventually decided that my runner’s brain (now into 90km+) was playing tricks on me and that I had in fact seen him.
With about 5km to go (only one more parkrun!), I was safely under sub-9:00 pace but I didn’t let up – I was feeling great and the knowledge of running another Personal Best time kept me motivated to continue running strong! I came across the last aid station with 2km remaining – as I ran past without stopping, I thanked and called back to the volunteers, “if I stop now, I won’t be able to start again!”, and continued on my way towards the finish.
Heading back towards Apex Park, I finally allowed myself to think about the completion of this race and what this result meant – it was nearly overwhelming to think about how well I had run all day and what this personal achievement meant. 12 months ago, when I had completed the same race in 9:42, a sub-9:00 100km seemed so far out of reach. This would be my second one for the year! All that hard work was paying off!
The atmosphere at Apex Park was fantastic – plenty of runners and crew were on hand to cheer in each runner and cyclist as they crossed the finish line! I got my fair share of cheers as I crossed the line with my trademark jump finish, in a new PB time of 8:50:39!
Soon after I finished, I was able to cheer home some of the other members of my local running club, Up ‘n Active, as they crossed the finish line. At most other races, the shorter distances end up finishing before the Ultra distances so I’m usually the one who is cheered home by my UnA crew, so it was good to be able to repay the favour this time!
This was about as close to a perfect day of running as I could have wished for. I think I chose the right start time (2:30am) – a half hour either side could have had me starting the race with a few other people, which might have put me off my race strategy. A nice conservative start with Karen helped to temper my excitement early on and helped my body loosen up steadily until I reached the long, straight stretch of the trail, at which point I stretched the legs out into that continuous, consistent tempo.
In terms of mindset, I had goals in mind for the 25km & 50km splits, but I was always reminding myself that 50km is only halfway – having made the mistake in the past of setting myself a 50km target and thinking that I could continue on after that, I was very conscious of not focusing too much on just the first half of the race. The second half was where the difference was going to be made, so I was very happy to continue on strongly throughout the entire race.
Post-race protein shake (Hammer Recoverite) was consumed quickly, and then it was time to crack open a well-earned ale!
My mates and I headed to a nearby cafe/restaurant for a well-earned burger and beer before heading back to our respective accommodations. After standing in the motel pool for 20 minutes whilst reading through all of the supportive messages on Facebook & Instagram, it was off to the post-run buffet dinner at The Old Town & Country Tavern, which was abuzz with runners and crew sharing stories of their day. Although weary from an early start and a long day, I enjoyed spending time with my running friends as well as meeting new ones.
As luck had it, my run was good enough for a podium position. 3rd overall, behind David Overend and Kevin Muller. As it turned out, Francesco had pulled out at 50km – lucky for me! It was nice to be rewarded with some extra bling, especially in a race where I stuck to my game plan and executed it well!
The women’s race was won by Larissa Tichon, who had finished 3rd in the inaugural race in 2013. I was really happy to see my running buddy Amelia Griffith complete a hat-trick of podiums (3rd in 2014, 1st in 2015 & 2nd this year)! My 2:30-start time buddy Karen Mickle rounded out the podium – not quite the sub-9:30 she was hoping for, but she held on for 3rd – a great result in her first “road” 100km!
The next day, I continued the tradition which started back in 2013 – heading up to Beechworth for a visit to my favourite brewery, Bridge Road Brewers! The first 10-beer tasting paddle was followed soon after with another one – so many great beers to try – and the brewery burger went down a treat as well!
My wife and I always make a mini-holiday of this trip – Victoria’s High Country has so much to offer in terms of gourmet food, wine and beer, as well as beautiful scenery everywhere you go. We spent the following day up in Bright, starting the day with breakfast at the Rail Trail Cafe in Porepunkah and then headed to Bright Brewery, Ringer Reef and Feathertop Wineries, and finishing the day at Bright Berry Farm!
So, thus ended our runcation for another year! Will I be back to run my 5th consecutive Ned Kelly Chase 100km in 2017? You bet I will!
Race Results: 2016 Ned Kelly Chase – Results
Strava Data: https://www.strava.com/activities/753004687
Photos: Facebook Photo Gallery