• Elliot Cooper

Pain Cave (ARF 50km)

Updated: May 23

Sunday April 15, the day of the Australian Running Festival ultramarathon. It’s also the day of the Kagaonsenkyo Marathon in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan. That’s where I set my PR for the marathon last year. 3:29:23 Is not fast by any standard, but breaking 3:30:00 is a respectable achievement; one which I did not hope to achieve that day. But smart running saw me through. On the downside, I was left with a nagging psoas injury which stayed with me for more than a couple of months and made me worry I might not be healthy for the pending events that were more important to me. If I could maintain my marathon pace from last year for 50km I’d be finished in under 4:08:00. That would likely get me a respectable place. The question is then, should I try for a good place and risk injury, or should I play it safe and keep my focus squarely on trail races?

There are no buses on Sunday at this time in the morning so I drive. I leave at 5am, worrying that I won’t be able to find a park. I arrive and the car park is near-empty. Weird, I think. It’s still not time so I sit in the driver’s seat keeping my legs warm and thinking through my strategy. Looking through the list of aid stations on my phone I decide to take 5 dried dates and 1 gel for food, leaving the extra gels and bars, as well as a hand-held drink of magnesium and electrolytes in the car. Walking to the start line I realise that I’d completely forgotten to bring salt tablets with me. Too late now.

I jog a little to loosen up the legs before joining the 200 other runners at the start line. The guy jumping up and down in front of me is Brendan Davies, one of Australia’s top ultrarunners. I met Brendan back in 2014 at the finish line of the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji. I had only just become conscious of the fact that there were people in the world who could run for 100 miles through mountains. At the time the idea of humans running 100 miles seemed so mythical that I felt compelled to go and see if they were real. That year the race was won by Francois D’haene and Nuria Picas. The casual atmosphere of the finish line did not betray the fact that the race was studded with trail running royalty. Ryan Sandes came in second. Moments later I saw him sitting alone wearing that distinct post-100-mile ‘faaaaaaark’ look on his face. Mike Foote came in third. Joe Grant came in 14th. Today’s Canadian hero of endurance sports Gary Robbins was there just hanging around. I couldn’t put names to the faces of these heros, but I’d Googled Aussie trail runners leading up to the race and Brendan Davies’s blog had come up. Watching him arrive in 6th place was a great moment. Here was an Aussie being superhuman. Now, 5 years later, I’m (ridiculously) standing next to him on the ARF Ultramarathon start line.

At 6am we start out into the dawn. A few go ahead and I stick with what I think is a comfortable pace. We head up the hill and around parliament house. I look at my watch and see that we’re doing 4:10 kilometers. A fine pace for me, if I’m running a half marathon. The stream of runners quickly thins out. Just ahead of me are two female runners who I later learn are in 1st and 2nd place. We peel off to the left and round our way up to cross the Commonwealth Bridge. I’m vaguely thinking something about the course. Someone on the footpath yells my name. To my right one of the workers putting out course markers is talking into a radio. I overhear him say, “Nah, they’re running kinda slow”. “Slow?” I think, “You’re the one still putting out course markers”. We peel off to the left again on the Parkes Way Exit. As my brain is firing up to make various computations regarding the traffic speeding past on Parkes Way, my thought processes are interrupted by a voice. “Nah”. The two women ahead of me start to slow. I can see the owner of the voice now, “Nah, wrong way. Turn around.”

うん?…

In a state of disbelief we turn and run directly at the crowd of near 200 runners our way. “Go back!” we call out, “wrong way!”. The expressions on their faces go from disbelief, to confusion, and for some of them, anger. “We’ll, they fucked that up”, says a voice next to me. I smile back “keep it together, there’s a long way to go yet”.

Weighing up what to do about my own race, I take a moment at the first aid station. Looking around I realise I’m dead last. Over the next 5 kilometers I make my way back to the head of the main pack, but I’m still well behind my initial place. That’s ok. Approaching the turnaround at Kurrajong point, I see the women who were ahead of me at the wrong turn have almost made their way back into the lead. “Great work!” I yell. There will be no strong finish for me today so I smile and settle in for the long run. After passing a couple more aid stations I’m aware that the nuun sodium supplement drink on offer at the aid station is very weak, and I again regret not bringing salt tablets.

The course takes us back east for a lap around Telopea Park School, then south down Adelaide Avenue. It’s around here that I notice my pace is going down and some of the steady runners begin to pass me. But now the marathoners are on course and we have started passing the slower competitors from that race. We head out to Kurrajong point. To shut out my boredom with this repetition I yell encouraging words to the runners around me, “Great job!”, “You’ve got this”. After the turnaround a tall guy is matching my pace and we begin chatting about the upcoming UTA. He’ll be running the 100km for the second time. He tells me about his experience last year and how that has influenced his strategy for this year. I wish him good luck as he begins to move ahead of me.

The second time going over Commonwealth Bridge I enter the pain cave. My legs begin to cramp. Badly. I haven’t experienced cramping for years. On Parkes Way the wind is cold and harsh, I tell my legs to move but they are reluctant. I stop to stretch. My calves and hamstrings hint at muscle spasm so I back off. I know I should do some air squats to move the knees but I just don’t want to. I lay down a couple more k’s feeling cold. A medic is attending to someone lying on the side of the road, wrapped in a space blanket. I stop again to stretch. This time I take about five minutes. A lot of people run by. Whatever. I don’t have hypothermia. It won’t be pretty, but I’ll finish.

And where should a turnaround be placed but at the Glenloch Interchange with it’s recent yet accomplished history of sending people in the wrong direction. Fortunately the required U-turn causes no problems, but the dullness of the course is becoming oppressive. I overhear a conversation between two nearby marathoners: “this course is so shit. I’ve hated every minute of it”. It’s a worldview with which I can’t help but sympathize. I maintain my pace and it’s enough to pass spiderman, who is running the marathon. I’m hurting, so I look for ultrarunners heading out to the Glenloch turnaround. I yell, “You’ve got this!”, or “Awesome work!”. Some ignore me, while others shoot back a pained look of, “who the fuck is that guy”.

As Parkes Way becomes Moreshead Drive I walk a little. Another ultrarunner passes me with some remark about how his lack of a beard gives him an aerodynamic advantage. I recall that the two race leaders (who have by now been finished for over an hour) have decent stubble, but I laugh to let the guy know I appreciate his attempt at a joke. Some sounds from the finish line waft in on the wind. Crossing the Kings Avenue bridge I’m hungry and want nothing more than to make a bee-line for the finish. When I realise we’re in for another lap around Telopea Park School I groan audibly. I look for gu at an aid-station: nothing. Approaching the School someone I sort of know snaps a photo of me while walking. Ultrarunners who’ve run a smart race are now passing me in groups.

At the last aid station I look for gu. Again, nothing. Not far now so I push on. I pass a woman who has her earphones in. She suddenly yells out “I wanna be the minority”. I cringe at hearing the Greenday lyrics and think of the The Deadly Runners who have been out there pushing through their marathons just like everyone else. Someone on the sidelines yells out “600 meters to go!” now that’s music to my ears. I pick up my pace and round the last few corners. I see the finish line and cross in 4:59:50.

For the last 15km I was in my pain cave. My legs hurt is ways I haven’t experienced for a long time. It reminds me of my weaknesses; that I could be better at road running. But it reminds me that I do this sport for fun; I don’t need to run 50km road races. This race made me suffer, and not in that enjoyable way of races like Utsukushigahara or Koumi. So I’ll put the ARF another hundred kilometers behind me this week and make sure I enjoy every one of them.

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