Road to Ultra

I have been running ultras for less than 12 months at the point of writing this. Heck, a year ago I was training for my first road marathon, although I had already signed up for an ultra by that stage. Whilst my growth in ultra running and my jump to begin ultras was faster than most, two years ago I would have NEVER imagined where I would be now. January 2014 marked just shy of six months of living in London. It was probably the first period of my life that I hadn’t done any structured exercise, at age 27. How I went from never really running to obsessed with ultra running, is one of the most common questions I get asked. Based on that, I will give a detailed version of exactly what led me to running ultras. 18 months ago I had never run more than 10kms. And whilst that is confronting to many and remarkable to others, it always gives an incomplete picture of how I got to where I am. So in long form, this is how I found myself running ultras.

I was swimming before I could walk. My mum and dad both met as swimming instructors, and ended up owning a public swimming pool teaching beginner to advanced classes full-time. From birth, I was around the pool, and thus swimming training was a normal part of my life. In primary school, I won Champion Boy every single year at school, and at the Inter-school competition, I was runner up every year except one year where I was Champion Boy. Back in Primary school, the competition began in Year 5 (age ten approximately), and was calculated by overall performance across all strokes at the 50 metre distance. I won a highly competitive Statewide tournament in Year 6, which determined the state ranked swimmers, ranking me number three. Ironically, I had no idea that I had that ranking until two years later when my coach at the time said that the winner of that tournament becomes #3 in the state. I never verified that information, or went back to that touranment again. I swam because that’s what I knew; I just loved being in the water, and whilst I was competitive, I never really took it that seriously. It was just what I did, and I always knew that my success was just due to hard-work. Come high school, I dominated in Year 8, but as my competition matured physically (as happens in those teenage years), I found that their new size alone put me back from firsts and seconds, to more thirds, fourths or even further back. From Years 9-11 I remained competitive, and continued to train just as hard. I hadn’t had the same level of physical growth, and the sheer size (and not training or hard work) difference meant I would be beaten in training, and that third and fourth was far more common than first and second, and with a significantly reduced margin. My coach recognised that, and never allowed me to lose faith or drop- off. As my final year of school came about, I had grown and that swimming season I was back with a vengeance, with size no longer being a factor. I rejoined the top ranks of my age group, and played a key role in my school’s resurgence in overall competitiveness that year (when I started, we would be consistently last or second last, and by my final year, we were just edged from First Place). Once the Year 12 swimming season finished, I never went back to competitive swimming. From Years 8-12, I played both school and club field hockey, and whilst I was only ever a good player, I was consistent and always played positions that required endurance and lots of running. I was always playing the ball, so whilst other positions were either defensive or offensive in primacy, my role was to run up and down and follow the play. In my entire 12 years of school, I never once did cross country or track running.

After high school, I spent a few years going to the gym (although I never really took to it), outside of generally being active at the beach and in the outdoors. In 2005 I began training and eventually teaching martial arts, of which for several years became my full-time profession. Whilst gaining a huge variety of training experiences, I also thoroughly enjoyed teaching, adding a range of qualifications and knowledge to my experience. When I left in 2011, it was only at that point, at age 25, that I started to run.

I was running 4kms, a few times a week. Sometimes by myself, but normally with my best mate, Mark. Mark and I would meet on the South Perth foreshore, and use the run as a means to catch-up, and just enjoy the sun and outdoors. We also would go to Kings Park, and do repeats on Jacobs Ladder, a notoriously steep set of stairs, and a popular place for Perth fitness training. We then moved around the corner, to the more challenging Kokoda Trail staircase, which saw stunning views of the Swan River and Perth City. We would do this right up to 2013, when I moved to London. I don’t think I had ever run more than 8kms up to that point. I was fit, healthy, and had been exercising for my entire life in some shape or form. But whilst I had always run, I never considered myself a runner, and even the thought of a 10km run caused me to doubt my fitness and ability. Running a half-marathon was never on the horizon, and the prospect of a marathon seemed like a far off and probably unattainable bucket-list item. I had probably heard of endurance events greater than a marathon, but honestly they were not even close to being inside my frame of reference.

Fast forward to London, and January 2014 I had made the decision to start exercising with some specificity. I joined a gym, and after maybe 3 weeks of some weights, treadmill and core work, decided I couldn’t stand the gym, and would rather just go running. Outside. So I began running. I was living in Queens Park, so would head out for a 5km run, which would take me generally around Paddington Recreation Ground, and be some track, but mostly in and around the local roads. After six months of that, I had begun to call myself a runner. A 10km run was a far more achievable prospect and would constitute my long run from time to time. I then moved to West Hampstead, and after a trip to Australia to be Best Man at a wedding (actually in Bali), I was straight back to my running. I went to lunch one Sunday, and after probably a little too much wine, came home to find my then housemates discussing how they had signed up for a half-marathon. On a whim, I signed up for one myself. The next day, although new to the area, I ventured off to run in Hampstead Heath, for my very first time. With intentions to run 12-14kms to start my half-marathon training (depending how I felt). I made the rookie mistake of taking no phone, and no bank card or oyster card. Just a GPS device, to track how far I ran. The short version, is I got lost. Pretty badly. And as the miles ticked over, I didn’t stop running. As I eventually started to find my way back (I had started to head to East London and in my naive wisdom, my ‘corrective directions’ only took me further away), I was getting closer and closer to actually running the 21kms or half-marathon distance. By the time I got home, I had ran over 21kms. I was tired, hungry, positively shocked, and yet something else was there. Once I had resolved that I was running home, and as I got deeper into the run, I felt better. I felt clearer. More at peace. More free, more energised, more engaged. I ran more than double the distance I had ever run before, and enjoyed it ten times more. I don’t really know what happened that day, but the idea of just stoping and walking, was out of the question. I signed up for a marathon straight away, and 10kms became my short run from that day forward. It was that run that shifted my frame of reference for distance, and my own abilities.

My obsession with studying things I was passionate about, led me to Youtube, where I found a video on a channel by ‘The Ginger Runner’, called ‘ Crewing States’. Watching that video changed my life. It was that video that introduced me to this incredible race, the Western States 100. The original 100 mile mountain race. And the focus of the video, was Nike Elite Trail Runner Sally McRae. And her journey running the 2014 race. The moment I saw that, I knew that I was going to run ultras, and that I had to run Western States. Literally seconds after that film stopped, my whole understanding of what running was for me, had changed. My approach to my training changed, my obsession for everything ultra and trail running was relentless, and when Billy Yang Films released his movie about Sally in the same race, it was further quantified. My mileage accretion was off the charts. I signed up for my first ultra, months before even running my first marathon. I ran two half-marathons within two weeks of each other, running a 1:28 and then a 1:25. My long runs then became anything from 10 miles to 42kms, well before I actually ran my first marathon. I began to plan what ultras I wanted to do, and come 2015 whilst I had two marathons booked (Rome, then Geneva), ultras had become my sole focus. I was drawn to the 100 mile distance, and felt that starting with 100kms was a good base. Back to back long runs on the weekend ensued, and I was running up to seven days a week at times, and putting in serious miles at every opportunity. As the mileage soared past 100kms a week, yoga and mobility based exercises slowly grew from occasional practices to equally as frequent. A close friend of mine in Perth (@caitlintheyogibear on Instagram) took me through a Vinyasa yoga sequence, and several days of consecutive yoga had completely rid my body of several issues that had been present during my higher mileage weeks. I was completely in love with yoga from that point, and as it became an equal partner to my running, I was running longer, harder, and recovering faster. I also loved the balance that yoga brought to my training and my life. It became and remains my key strength, stretching, and mobility training both to aid my running, and as part of my lifestyle. After encouragement from my best friend Tara (@tarawoolnough), I began practicing at a studio in London (Yogahaven) as my yoga journey continues. In January 2015, I also met someone who would become one of my key training partners, Maggie (@magsmay_d). As we both ran and paced for Nike London, we started training together and soon my passion for ultras inspired her to focus solely on ultras as well. Living close to each other, we began training together, and simultaneously fuelling both our passion to run and race in some of the most amazing places in the world. As we spent more time together, more and more people joined us.

In March 2015 I ran my first marathon in 3:11, a time I was honestly disappointed with, despite a successful run. Four weeks later, I ran a 3:01 in Geneva, loved the experience and achieved my only marathon goal, a Boston Qualifier. The difference between the two marathons was huge, both in terms of my approach and how I felt pre, during and post run. Two weeks after that (so two marathons and a 56km ultra in six weeks), I ran my first ultra. An event with various distances and both serious and casual runners and walkers, I ran off in my wave and within 100 metres, I was ahead and running away from everyone. I really had little understanding of what I was doing that day, but after leading for majority of the race, I was bested by a female runner who raced with serious grit, to finish in a closely fought second place. Until the moment I was told I was second, and saw the Facebook posts of people live-tracking me, I had NO IDEA how well I was doing, or that I was actually winning for most of the race (with four total start waves, runners from the three race distances were mixed together). I’m positive at one point around the 35km mark, I told myself I had totally over-estimated my abilities and maybe should re-assess ultra-running. Finishing that race, and putting it all in perspective, it was such an incredible journey, and I was in love with the world of ultra-running.

The moment I ran past the marathon distance, knowing how I felt (strong), and knowing I had plenty more in me, was a rush and a feeling like no other. My expectations of myself were blown away. The limits and ceilings I had previously placed on myself, were shattered. Every idea about running, my capabilities, my endurance, my potential, all of it was completely changed. Limits became limitless. Possibilities became probabilities. It not only changed how I framed running, but also how I framed things in my life. Constraints on my potential were removed. I was already thinking differently about goals and challenges. I was feeling different too. 42kms no longer felt far. It felt normal. Like an average run. And I don’t say that to diminish the distance. A marathon is a serious effort, and a serious distance. Prior to my ultra, that was the limit. That was the benchmark. The moment I ran past that, my understanding of time and space changed. I respect all distances in running. A mile hurts when you run it hard and each distance no matter how short or long, has its challenges. There was just something remarkable that changed when I chose to run an ultra. And every ultra-runner I have spoken to has that. Whether they can articulate that consciously, it is something that they carry with them. Something powerfully empowering, from a place where fears are banished, doubts conquered, and boundaries pushed. Ultra-running is a process, an experience and something that only the often called ‘crazy’ people that run them can really understand. I don’t know where I would be or what I would be doing if I hadn’t gotten lost that day. I still think about it, still wonder what would have happened if Ethan Newberry hadn’t put together the ‘Crewing States’ video. Would I have found ultra-running? Or would I still be shackled by fears, doubts and dogma. Regardless, I am an ultra-runner, and I look forward to continuing to explore this absolutely incredible journey that in this short space of time, has led me to some of the best people, the most amazing places, and to be set to race in some of the toughest and most incredible races in the world! I sit here writing this, days shy of racing the Tarawera 100km, my first International race, a race on the Ultra Trail World Tour, and my debut elite level race. I am excited for the future, and always so grateful that I am on this weird and wonderful journey!

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