Running my first ultra marathon – by Nicole Bunyon

This post has been a long time coming. I ran my my first ultra marathon on the 2nd of November, yet here we are in mid December and I have only just found the time and the words to recount exactly what this race meant to me.

The dream all began last September when I embarked on my first marathon, the Sydney Blackmores Marathon. Something changed in me that day. I had trained hard for months for that race completely on my own and one night while I was relaxing on facebook I decided to start Running Mums Australia. Since beginning this amazing network I could not help but be continually inspired by the people that I have met, spurring me on to bigger and better things, but it is within the resolve of my heart that I knew that I would be an ultra runner and that I was made for distance running. The challenge that comes with running further than people think they can go is something that I am excited by and it leaves me wanting more. A drug if you will, but one that touches on the raw emotions of the human spirit. Ultra running is not about winning. Ultra running is about finding yourself completely open to the challenge that lay ahead and facing it head on, on your own, believing that you can keep going even when times get tough and aspiring to push through to reach your ultimate goal. So after Sydney I decided to run a few more marathons to prepare my body for what dream I had in the back of my mind, not really knowing exactly where that would be fulfilled. So I ran the Gold Coast Marathon in July, Adelaide in August and Melbourne in October. I also had a few half marathons thrown in for good measure throughout the year. All of these marathons taught me something. The Gold Coast taught me that my mind needed to be stronger. Missing my sub 4hr goal by 1 minute because I knew that I had given up in the race, which is what had cost me my time meant that I needed to train my mind to push through the hard times in a marathon which WILL always come….but that I am tougher than what my mind tells me. Adelaide taught me that running marathons is fun and I loved that race, pacing and enjoying the 42.2km for my friend Luisa for her first marathon experience. Melbourne taught me that all the hard training had been worth it and by God I wasn’t letting go of my sub 4hr dream and I would get it and I did, finishing in 3.57. I couldn’t have been happier that day.

Before Melbourne I made a deal with my coach that I wanted him to train me up for the Carcoar 60km Ultra marathon which would be 3 weeks after my Melbourne marathon PB. I chose Carcoar because I had heard great things about it from my new running friend April, but I also chose Carcoar because I didn’t want to just step it up to 50km for my first ultra. I wanted more. 60km sounded just about right to me. It was also in the country on country roads and I do love a country road. Plus I didn’t want to be running with crowds of people. I wanted to do this alone. I wanted to KNOW that I could do this alone. This would be a big test of my mental strength and will, and I wanted to prove to myself that when I say I’m going to start something I am going to finish it.  Brendan my coach had all faith in me, even though he had only just started training me and he set me up perfectly for the task in my training. I asked anyone I could about this race and I managed to get a team of RMA girls interested to come along to run in some other distances for the day for support.

The day before the race we drove to Bathurst to my parents and I remember driving from Lithgow to Bathurst and it was exactly 60km. I remember thinking that it was a LONG LONG way….and in my mind I started to wonder what I was thinking when I signed up! When we arrived in Bathurst I headed to Carcoar with my mum to pick up my race pack. Upon arriving there was a few people milling around the most gorgeous quaint country town of Carcoar. We headed into the courthouse where I grabbed my race kit and happened to meet Gemma from RMA in there who was running the 6km. Then I headed outside and mum and I got onto the tour bus to take us around the course.

Mum’s face was looking nervous and I was actually feeling nervous being on the bus. This ultra was quite a climb in the first section and then the last 10k had a mountain to go up and over! The course was quite undulating in nature. I tried not to panic and remembered saying to myself “you can do this”. I am actually glad I took the bus tour now as on the day I knew exactly what was coming and how to pace myself accordingly and it payed off on the day.

The night before the race I stayed about a 40 minute drive away in Bathurst at my parents place. My sleep was restless, but better than I have ever had before a long race before. I woke about 5am and set myself about getting ready. I had a breakfast of my usual pre-race bowl of oats with banana and a slice of toast but I really couldn’t muster to eat very much at all. The nerves were starting to set in.  Hubby and I drove out to Carcoar and the kids stayed at mum and dads and they planned to bring them in later in the day to see me finish.

When we arrived in Carcoar it was a cool crisp 4-7 degrees and I went to the bathroom (which was a new experience as there was absolutely no queue)! Then I took myself off to the start line. A few people were milling about and looking nervous and we chatted briefly as we all waiting until the race would start. As 7am was drawing closer my coach and his wife appeared (he was running the marathon) and we had a brief hello and ‘yes Im ready’ before the race director Andrew came along and gave us a quick briefing. As I was waiting I introduced myself to another one of the female runners (there was 4 of us out of about 13 runners). Her name was Di and she was lovely. She had run the year before and she made me feel at ease and comfortable and ready to run. A few minutes in, a quick kiss for hubby and we got the countdown by the race director and we were off!

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The first 500m was uphill and so I just walked up some of it (as most people did) There was no point in wasting all my energy at the start of 60km! The climb to the first 10k was up and up but the scenery made up for it. I had a chat with a few of the runners and just focused on putting my feet in front of the other and maintaining a good pace. I actually felt pretty good so in some sections I pushed it a little but I felt strong. The aide stations along the way were about every 4km. I had my hydration pack on but I did drink from all the stations and the people were so friendly. The roads were mostly dirt and the weather was perfect, slight headwind in parts but cool and perfect running conditions. I stopped every now and then to take some pics of the amazing scenery.

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As I hit about 15km Di came up behind me and caught me so we ran together for a while chatting away. She said she was going a bit fast so wanted to slow down so I slowed with her for a while, then she took off! I didn’t bother trying to catch her as I didn’t want to blow out so I just maintained my pace, running and walking some of the hills when I felt I needed to. I tried not to let myself walk unless there was a hill, and this ended up being a good tactic throughout the race. I continued to take my hydration from my pack and my gels I had about every 45 minutes. At one aide station I grabbed a cookie and then I had a funny stomach for a while so I didn’t do that again.

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As I came towards Neville around the 22km mark I could see my husband off in the distance. This lifted my spirits as I was actually feeling a little tired and the doubts started to set in at this stage wondering how I would do another 40km feeling like I felt. I grabbed some banana from him and set off to do my loop of Neville. As I started to run towards the aide station I turned around and low and behold my coach Brendan was smashing down the hill towards me in the marathon which had started an hour later than the ultra. As he ran past me he said “see!, I told you it was easy!”….haha yeah right Brendan!!! I headed up into Neville and around the loop of the town. This bit confused me a little as there was a little loopy bit but as I ran past it about 100m down the road I started to wonder if I was supposed to do that twice, so I ran back up to the turnoff that I had gone past to check and it didn’t say so back I ran again down the road costing myself about 400m!!! At this point I saw some RMA girls running towards me cheering me on which lifted me again although I think I told them that ‘this was bloody hard’ and kept moving towards the turnoff to do my second lap of the first section.

This was the hardest part of the race for me the second lap as I was completely alone the whole way. There was one stretch of road that was so long and it just seemed to go on forever. I started to wonder if I had taken the wrong turn! I was getting a few texts from friends at this point when I went to reply to one and BAM. My phone just turned off! No phone. I tried not to panic thinking that I was alone in the countryside on a road with no phone and I could die out here. This pretty much lasted about 10 minutes until I got myself together and pushed on. Finally a long while later I came across the aide station we had passed in the first section and the turn and I knew that I wasn’t lost after all!. Amazingly later on in the race the phone came good again. I think it was just testing me to see if I could do it without support!

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I battled along this section and this middle part of the race was the hardest for me. I decided to bring out the iPod nano that I had chucked in my pack last minute to distract me from my thoughts and I actually laughed out loud when I realised that it was full of KIDS MUSIC. Thinking that some was better than none I just kept it in one ear anyway and pushed on. As I neared Neville again I knew that I would see hubby and that would make me feel better knowing that I would be a third of the way done. As I approached Neville I saw hubby laying under a tree alone. There was none else in Neville pretty much except him and the aide station attendants. I needed to use the bathroom so I decided to have a quick pee and so I gave him my pack with instructions to fill the bladder to 600ml and get me out half a banana. So as I did my business he did that. I actually decided to leave my pack with him as I did my Neville loop and when I returned he was like “wow, you were fast on that loop!”…..I have a feeling my pack was weighing me down substantially but I wasn’t prepared to leave it behind not knowing what lay ahead with having to climb a mountain in the last 10k so I grabbed it back off him. He said that the third female (Di) was not far ahead and if I kept up that pace I would catch her. So that is exactly what I intended to do. I actually passed a few guys in the next 2km and headed off towards to 50km mark.

This road was long and rolling hills. I could make out Di off in the distance about 1km ahead of me. I could see her when she stopped to walk and turning around to see me. She said to me later that I was like a gazelle hunting down its prey and that is exactly how I felt. I wanted 3rd place and I was going to get it. I remember passing the 42.2km mark and texting my friend April who was so excited for me and officially announced me an ultra runner. This made my resolve to finish this thing and finish well even more enticing to me. So I ramped it up. I pushed on when I felt good and power walked when I didn’t and soon I was approaching the 50km aide station. I could just make out a fire truck and in the distance I could see people running towards me. They seemed so far away. All I wanted was to get to the aide station. Closer and closer they got and before long I realised it was my kids. I was so so excited to see them. It was like an oasis in the desert. They had been waiting there the whole race cheering people past and when they saw me coming they ran to run to the 50km station with me. I grabbed my phone and we took  a selfie together to mark the occasion and my heart was just so full it could burst. Having my children see me achieve something that means so much to me, and having them be a part of it is something that makes me the happiest mum in the world.

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I saw my dad just past the aide station with his camera taking some shots. I was so happy that he brought his camera out to mark this occasion and he managed to capture some amazing shots of my first ultra. He is a very talented photographer.

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As I said my goodbyes I knew that I only had 10km to go and that it was going to be a good uphill climb up Mount Macquarie before a nice downhill run to the finish. The climbs were tough. I ran what I could but most of it was walking and running the flats. I could see Di in the distance now, only about 500m ahead and another guy about 200m behind me, approaching. I wasn’t going to let anyone pass me at this point so I dug deep and I knew I wanted to catch Di. As I got closer and closer to her I realised she was struggling. As I went to pass her I asked her if she was okay and she said she had cramps and problems with her ITB. I offered her some salt tablets and I said I would stay with her but she said no, Just go and finish it and enjoy your moment. I felt really bad leaving her but I could see a support vehicle hovering behind so I knew she would be okay. I pushed on up the mountain knowing that I only had about 5km to go and when I reached it I text my hubby and Brendan to say where I was.

From this point on in the race when I reached the peak of the mountain I knew I was home and hosed. It would be all downhill here and I was feeling fabulous. There would be no stopping me. I kicked it into second gear and smashed that downhill. Coming into 1km to go and hitting the bitumen where we started the climb out of carcoar almost 7 hours ago was like a godsend knowing what lay at the bottom of the hill around the corner at the finish line. The town seemed quiet, but a few people shouted words of encouragement from their houses. I pushed on almost thinking that none would be at the end waiting for me! As I ran over the bridge into town I heard the announcer say….’looks like another ultra runner coming in’ and from there people started cheering. I saw all the RMA girls who had stayed around to support me and I just sprinted that finish like it was the start of a race. I couldn’t wait to get over that line and the runner behind me was right on my tail and I was not going to let him pass! I sprinted to the finish and when I reached it the relief was like nothing I have ever felt and the pride and emotion I felt was overwhelming. I hugged the poor lady with the medal like she was my own mother and started to break down. Then I saw my family and gave my kids and hubby, my coach and all the RMA girls a huge hug. It was the most amazing thing I have ever experienced.

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I believed in myself that I could do it and I did it. I had accomplished my goal.

As I type this I think about what I would say to someone wanting to run an ultra marathon. What advice would I give. Do it. You won’t regret it. Believe in yourself and believe in your training.

What would I have done differently? I probably would have done more hill training! and I would have probably not used a hydration pack, maybe just a fuel belt so that I didn’t feel so weighed down, or at least trained in my pack as I hadn’t done that either.

Will I run another ultra? Yes. For sure. Im setting myself bigger goals for the future so watch this space.

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