This race story starts almost a year ago to the day. My bestie Nhung Wawatai and I were out on a marathon training run on our favourite Perth Hills trail, having just completed our first half marathon 2 weeks prior. We kept seeing these raggered looking people running past with hydration vests and bibs on. We started cheering them on and eventually curiosity got the better of us and we asked what event they were doing. So that is how we found out about KEP ULTRA. Somehow our running journey escalated throughout last year from marathons to ultras and in January we found ourselves entering the ballot for Kep. Unfortunately, Nhung didn’t get in but I did! Faced with the decision about doing the 75km or 100km, I thought I might not get in the year after, so I’d have a stab at the 100km. After I signed up, I discovered the course is just over 103km. I’ve had really tough year since the ballot, with hospitalisation and injury, financial worries and the serious illness of a loved one. So my training has been sufficient but not ideal and my head has been in a very dark place. Nhung and I have managed to squeeze in 2 x 50km ultras which have been great training and experience but for me this year my focus has been on Kep.
Saturday afternoon of Kep weekend started with my Dad giving me a lift to Northam, an hours drive east out of Perth. It was so nice to spend some quality time with him without the kids but all I could think the whole journey was how far we were driving and that the next morning I would be running all the way back and then some! Upon arrival I checked in to my room at the Duke’s Inn (thoroughly recommend it) and raced down to the bar to enjoy a tasty pasta buffet with some of the other competitors. Then retired early to my room to get some rest and hopefully sleep off a cold I had been keeping at bay for they last few days. I woke up feeling amazing.
Registering in the dark it was hard to see who was who but I found Katie Chinnery who was volunteering and Shirley Treasure and of course the lovely Emma Luscombe. All the nerves, worries and doubts I’d had the week before were gone and I was very focused on the task. As the sun came up, we got a short race briefing from the fantastic RD, Rob Donkersloot and then we headed to the start line on the banks of the Avon River. WA’s ultra scene is quite small and close knit. Even though I haven’t been doing them for very long, I have made some good friends and recognised a lot of the usual suspects. With the beautiful white swans watching on, we started at 7am sharp.
The field started with a pretty mean pace, I think purely to warm up in the frosty Wheatbelt morning. My race plan was never to go faster than 6.30min/km pace and hopefully never have my average pace drop below 8min/km pace and try my hardest in the first 80km to keep it around 7.30min/km pace. In the past, if I go out too hard at the start I burn out even earlier and I usually hit the wall about the 32km mark anyway. So even striding next to Emma doing 5.50 pace to warm up, the crowd was pulling away and we found ourselves at the tail end. As we crossed the bridge and headed west, out of Northam, the crowd spread further in front of us and that collective momentum ceased to carry us so fast and we settled into my desired pace.
Then came the hills… I like hills. I’m a big fan of hilly races. I run all the hills and keep a fairly consistent pace over hills, when most people slow right down. I really had to reign myself in and walk these long rolling hills as I knew they could be my undoing later if I tried to run them all. By about 7km, I was warming up and was starting to feel my toes again and by about 10km, I could feel my fingers and although the trail was shaded, the patches of sun were lovely. There were heaps of vollies and supporters. I was leaping for the cameras. Cow bells were ringing, music to my ears. Life was good. We hit an 8km stretch of road with a lot of downhill and it took all my willpower to keep to my 6.30 pace. Emma steamed past looking fantastically strong and suddenly I was tail end Charlie with sweeper cruising behind me on a bike.
Coming into the first check point at Clackline 19km in, I felt great, and 45 mins before the cutoff. In my mind I had split the race into 5 legs and I had just nailed the first one! I grabbed a banana and a lollie and was off again, feeling confident that I had more than enough water to make it to the next check point at 43km. This was going to be one of the longest legs, but I wasn’t phased as it was early days and I knew I had a while before I started hurting. I passed Emma who was now ensconced in her run/walk strategy and still looking strong and upbeat. I decided to put my music on and enjoy the scenery. Most of the terrain was long gentle upward slope, I was built for this trail! Light scrub and small trees shaded the trail and then I would pass through seas of grass 1 metre high, I put my hand out and enjoyed the sensation of the tips tickling my arms, it felt like I was flying, listening to some old pumping chemical brothers tune. Then I would pretend the grass was hi5ing me as I scooted past.
25km in, BAM!!! I get a stabbing pain in the side of my left knee and under my knee cap, which was gone as suddenly as it came! Oh no! I’d felt this pain 2 years ago when I’d had a massive knee blowout 14km into a 16km trail run but it had been my right knee and had put me out of action for 6 weeks. Please please please stay strong, knee! I backed off had a bit of a walk and started running again. I came upon a guy, power walking with limp. I asked him if he was ok and he said no, combination of factors, but it wasn’t his day. Kep’s first casualty, I hoped I wouldn’t be next.
Then I was passed by a lovely fellow, Frank. I have enjoyed his company in other ultras and he is always upbeat if a little eccentric but this time he unintentionally threw me off my game. He looked at my bib and said ‘ you are doing the 100? Ho ho, you have 75k to go!’ And sprinted off in front of me! Noooooo! Why did he have to say that?!?! I was on my 2nd leg. I didn’t want to know how far I had to go. Then everything started to hurt. My feet and ankles, my calves were burning, my abductors were so tight I thought they would snap, my back was killing me. 28km in was too early to be feeling like this, what was going wrong. My race had been text book so far. It’s not fair. Then the stabbing pain was back and I had to walk for a bit.
During my walk, I started thinking about the Todd Simpson show that had been on the ABC the Thursday before, that a lovely RMA had posted. Whoever you are, THANKYOU, you saved my race! The show was about mental toughness when facing endurance activities. The bit that resonated with me the most, was contextualising the pain, and using ‘good pain’ as positive reinforcement. So in my case. The pain in my feet, ankles, calves, inner thigh and back = GOOD PAIN, TOUGHEN UP AND KEEP GOING! Stabbing pain in the knee cap = bad pain, back off a little. With that in mind, I was off and running again.
At the 32km mark I started to feel like I needed the loo. I had been drinking a lot but thought I could hold it until the next aid station. Then I started getting horrible stomach cramps. My compression tights felt like they were cutting me in half, and my lower back was in agony. This pain was new and I was having a hard time putting it into a category, bad pain, no good pain, no bad pain. I NEED A BUSH NOW!!!….. After my impromptu toilet break, I felt nothing short of amazing and I was off and running again, completely pain-free!
4km short of the the next check point, I ran out of water. I’d drunk 1.5L of water and around 750ml of powerade. That is a lot for me. I’m usually a camel, but I was glad I was hydrating more than usual and knew I could do 4km without it. Finally running into Check point 2 at Wooroloo with an hour up my sleeve. The vollies were brilliant, they had my drop bag ready to go, told me to drop any litter on the ground, they would pick it up after and topped up my bladder and flasks promptly. I grabbed my PB honey sandwich and enjoyed my lunch on the hoof again.
Heading into my 3rd leg, I felt great. The terrain was mainly gently upward slope again and long straight flats where I could see runners dotted in the distance ahead of me. A lot of them were walk/running which I thought was a wise strategy so I adopted it too. But my walking intervals were short and soon I was passing people. The tides were turning…
I was coming up on 50km and my brain was starting to turn to porridge. I thought, I’m almost halfway, Yes! But a little voice said your forgetting those pesky little 3kms at the end. Doh! Had a little party in my head when I got to 50km anyway. I could see a friend Kerriann Bresser (doing the 75km) in the distance. We had been running a similar race the whole way, she’d pass me, I’d pass her, she’d pass me, always with a big smile for me and encouraging words. I got to 51.5km, I was halfway!!!! She was too far ahead to celebrate with so I self hi5ed myself, Barney Stinson style and told myself I was LEGEN … Wait for it… DARY!!!! At this point, I was starting to believe I could do this!
The next time I passed Kerriann I congratulated her on being over 2/3rds of the way there. I hope it’s what she wanted to hear, big smiles and twinkling eyes, I knew it helped. I got to 55km another milestone party in my head! Kerriann passed me again with that sunny smile and kind words that was just wonderful! 57km ticked over and I gave myself another huge self hi5. This was the furthest I’d ever run and I had done it 20 minutes faster than before. I was feeling on top of the world. I was in a world of pain but it was ‘good pain’ and I was feeling unstoppable. And I was in uncharted territory now. I said as much to Kerriann as I passed her again. Passing through Chidlow, I knew I was only a few Km from the next checkpoint, and I was on familiar trails.
I could see another lady in the distance and it took a whole 4km for me to catch up to her. As I came up behind her just before the little dog leg that leads into Mt Helena checkpoint at 63km, I realised it was Shirley. And it was here that I saw the first of many RMA signs! Go Harmony! Go Emma! If she hadn’t been in front of me and I’d had a pen, I would have scribbled Go Shirley! too.
I followed Shirley into check point 3, she had to continue on and do a loop for the 75km course but I was greeted by lots of familiar RMA faces, Katie again, Sandy Whittington and her family, Julie Cleverley and someone else familiar… They had all organised to come without me knowing to surprise me. Seriously how lucky am I to have people like this in my life and it’s all thanks to RMA. But first of all, Katie ushered me to her spot where she took control, And sandy helped me with my drop bag.
Looking up again, I locked eyes on the other familiar RMA. It was Emma… In my scatterbrained state, it took a few seconds to register what that meant. If she was here, she wasn’t running still, she’d had to pull out. I was absolutely gutted for her! She looked so deflated and it really broke my heart. But I was glad that she was ok and its just always really lovely to see her. I was resolved and even more determined now to make it to the finish. I texted my uncle ‘at mt helena now. Should be 2.5hours from now hopefully’, got Julie to read it to make sure it made sense, yes it does, SEND! Finding my nutrition I realised I was one gel short for this leg! How could I be so stupid?! I had obsessed about this, packed and repacked these bags at least twice. How did I miscount my gels? But luckily Emma gave me a spare and I was on my way again by 3pm. I still had an hour to spare.
So I started this 4th leg in high spirits. Collected hi5s from Shirley and Kerriann as they returned from their loops to their well deserved checkpoint stop. I was a little sad to see them go, but feeling extremely confident now in my decision to do the 100km. So began the loneliest section of Kep. My daughters poppy boppy happy music had somehow made it onto my playlist and it was perfect timing. I was belting out Katie Perry, Sia and Taylor Swift at the top of my lungs, to the trees, the birds and the dappled afternoon sunlight. I passed a lot of walkers and cyclists who probably thought I was crazy, but I guess you have to be a little nuts to enter a 103km ultramarathon!
I had remembered this part of the track being mainly downhill but I was encountering some long steady ups too, much to my dismay. How could my memory be so wrong? I had been looking forward to rolling down the hill but the effort of going up these hills again was making me ache. My back was a mess and entire lower body was in constant pain. The ‘good pain’ game was still working for most of my aches. But my back pain was really distracting. So I started playing an opposite game. Every time I thought something negative, a loud voice in my head would scream the opposite positive. My back is a train wreck, NO MY BACK IS FANTASTIC! I’ve got nothing left in the tank, I’VE GOT HEAPS LEFT IN THE TANK!!! I’m dead tired, NO, I’M NOT, I’M SO ALIVE!!! My legs have had it, MY LEGS ARE FRESH! (Fresh legs is an old faithful marathon mantra of mine). Whenever my running pace dropped below 8min/km, I would walk a bit and call them ‘walking parties’. And when I’d start running again, I would feel really rejuvenated and sometimes manage a 6-6.30 pace. Then I decided they were walking holidays. Oh to be a fly on wall of the inside of my skull, listening to the delirious thought processes and constant babbling, verbose stream of consciousness that was going on in there. Scary! The kms ticked by, as did time…
Trundling into John Forrest National Park, I could feel the afternoon getting fresher. I sort out the sunny patches. And now I was definitely heading down hill and gravity was my friend, Thankyou. I was terribly lonely. My light at the end of the tunnel was the next check point maybe just over an hour away (my brain wasn’t calculating maths at all by that stage), and about 1km before that, my bestie Nhung who was volunteering as a marshal at the trail head. Knowing that she was there waiting for me spurred me on but I had so far to run through trees and bush and strangers before I got to her.
And then something wonderful happened. I came around a bend and could see a bridge and I could hear cowbells! Didi Rosevear was just this side of the bridge ringing them like her life depended on it and my heart soared. As I ran past, I nearly cried and thanked her profusely for being there. A dozen or so be-dreadlocked backpackers formed an honour guard on the bridge and cheered me on as I ran under their arms and I felt like a champion. I laughed as the tears spilled (so glad I had my sunnies on still). That was a beautiful moment to remember, courtesy of some complete strangers. Bless them and bless Didi too!
Onwards I ran, gaining momentum and using sweet gravity to help me roll down the hill. I continued the opposite game. My feet are ruined, MY FEET ARE AWESOME! I knew I was getting close to end of the National Park, the sun was setting and I was passing the last of the bush walkers returning to their cars. ‘Are you Harmony?’ A lady says. Yes, blank stare, no idea who she is. She has a son in the same year as my daughter at her school and she recognised me from my school FB page She asks about my run and was worried that I still so far to go and I needed a jumper. I assured her that I’d be warm and waved goodbye. It’s nice to be mothered and mollycoddled sometimes. Completely forgot to ask her name. What a space cadet!
I popped out of the National Park, thanked more marshals and now I was running in Perth Hills suburbia. This is where I grew up, my stomping ground. Home ground advantage. I knew the land and the land knew me and Nhung was only a couple of Kms away, I felt renewed again. I had one last little walking holiday as, call me vain, I wanted to be running when I saw Nhung. Striding out around the bend, I could see her and the lovely Meroe Mozakka in the distance at the trailhead. They professionally directed me across some grass not recognising me at first but as I got closer and the recognition swept their faces and the energy, excitement and love from them both was palpable. Nhung’s personality and spirit is way too big for her tiny body and is constantly bubbling out of her all over the place. Now she was like a pressure cooker with the valve off and I was feeding off that energy. Exactly what I needed. I was torn though. The friend in me wanted to stop and talk and tell them everything I’d been through but the competitor in me was spurring my legs on. I’d made it down the hill 15 minutes ahead of schedule and the last check point at Bellview was only 1km away.
Heading under the bridge in Bellview, I could see the 80km check point down the road. And on the nearest street corner waiting patiently and expectantly with my Mum, were my 2 kids. Weren’t they a sight for sore eyes! When Miss 5 recognised me, she started jumping up and down like she was on a pogo stick and my heart melted. I’d missed these little people! As I crossed the road, they joined me in my shuffle to the check point. My daughter streaming ahead ‘let’s race, mummy!’ And Master 3 holding my hand. Arriving at the station, I took my pack off and noticed Sandy was there again and she took charge with one of the vollies to restock my pack with water and nutrition. I was so grateful she had come and taken care of me at these aid stations. What a friend! And her hubby was dutifully capturing it all in pixels. My daughter was adorably helpful with her gorgeous smile, handing me a banana and a lolly and taking one each for herself aswell. My son pined for a cuddle but I physically couldn’t pick him up. My Mum and Stepdad were there and I unloaded some of my gear on them and she had brought me soup, heaven! I grabbed my jumper, safety vest, head torch and was ready to go again. Seeing my kids, especially my daughter had renewed my spirit and resolve. I was gonna kick this hill in the butt and finish this race strong!
It was 5.30pm as I started on my final leg in the gathering darkness, 23km to go, 17km of uphill. The brief rest had me feeling good again, I was slurping back warm salty soup that was hitting the spot to perfection. I was running and this time I wasn’t alone. I had my running mentor and runspiration and most favourite Uncle with me as my pacer! Phil has been into running since I was a kid, competing with classic sibling rivalry against my Mum in short fun runs in the 1980s and 90s until my mums knees were shot. Since then, his running journey has taken him on 45 odd marathons and ultras over the years, including Paris and Comrades 3 times. His best marathon time when he was younger was 2.59. He advised me on my first marathon training programme and ran my first marathon with me in 2013 at Rottnest. He is 63 years old and still going strong. He just did HBF half marathon and is planning GCAM half and Berlin Marathon later this year. I was honoured that he accepted my request to escort me up the hill and to the finishline. He also knows that section of the trail even better than I do. And lastly, I’m scared of the dark…
I’ve never had a pacer before and in my head I had an idea, of him running when I ran, walking when I walked, with gentle encouragement to pick up the pace. I also had mapped out in my mind where the steep bits were and where I was going to walk. But Phil had other plans for me. It was completely dark when we got to the first steep section about 1km between Boya and Darlington he suggested we do intervals 100m walk/ 200m run. Which was brilliant, after a 100m walk I found it easy to run again and quite often I would keep running well past 200m, but would only walk for 100m. I could see the eerie lights and reflective vests of a pacer/runner team ahead. But I focused on the routine we had going on. I was surprised when we reached the flats of Darlington and overtook them. I was determined to stay in front of her after that. That competitive spark can be a potent fuel when there is barely anything left in the tank.
Climbing again into Glen Forrest with our intervals, I had a quick stop and hugs and hi5s from Sandy (she was everywhere) Julie and Sam Mie. Julie had left RMA signs saying go harmony and go emma at all the crossings. It was such a buzz to see her again. Two road crossings further, bright headlights blinded us and my friends Chris and Sarah were waiting behind the glare. I was thrilled to see them. They had volunteered and then stayed to cheer me on. I had to make a joke to stop myself from crying. So I asked them for a new spine. They said they were all out but would have a beer waiting for me at the finishline. So chuffed they braved the cold and dark for me. Thoroughly hugged, hi5ed and patted in the back, we continued.
But now I was fading fast. I noticed a short distance into the climb, that the volly had only filled my front flasks and not my bladder and the weight discrepancy at the front was starting to make me stoop. Or maybe I was stooping because of the uphill running or simply because I was exhausted. I constantly had to remind myself to straighten up. My back was in agony. The pain in my legs and feet had become second nature to me but the fatigue was pulling me down. I literally was dead on my feet. I thought if I closed my eyes I could probably sleep while running. And all I wanted to do was stop, curl up in a ball and die.
Phil was ahead of me now always talking, with me shuffling along to try and keep up. He said it was his pacer’s ploy to talk softly, to make a runner keep up with him so they can hear. I was beyond doing that and just plodded in a trance behind him not caring what valuable insights and wisdom I was missing from him. If I really needed a walk, I would yell out and he would walk with me but only for 100m and then he would set the pace again ahead of me. Intermittently, we could see the headlamps of the pacer/runner behind us. It was difficult to judge distance. Sometimes they seemed to be right on top of us and other times 100s of metres behind. At this point I was beyond caring if she passed me… But that tiny subconscious competitive spark was keeping my legs going in perpetual motion.
The trail flattened out into the township of Mundaring. I was King of the Mountain, I’d made it to the top but I was so tired. Heading out of Mundaring, the trail split and the marshals were glowing in their vests. Getting closer, it was my friend Emily Laidley (Emily played a massive role in my recent fall injury recovery with knee friendly workouts, and my triathlon swimming training) with the hugest smile, arm raised for a hi5 and Nhung on the other side jumping up and down.
How I love that woman! After my first marathon, busy life had gotten in the way and I had pretty much given up running, but this amazing lady, an acquaintance through a mutual friend at the time, messaged me to help her train for a half marathon. Together through running, hours of pounding the pavement and chatting away, we became close friends. Nhung doesn’t do anything by halves and together in our running journey, the student has definitely surpassed the teacher! She pushes through pain fearlessly and is intensely competitive and an inspiring force of nature. So I was kind of glad I had this racing opportunity by myself to shine, and have her 200% support. Because seriously, she would have been sitting at the finishline with her feet up and a glass of bubbles by now, had she got in the Kep Ballot. Anyway, she was standing there with liquid gold in her pocket. A redbull I’d asked her to bring to Bellview. I hadn’t really needed it then but I knew it would be my saviour now. I could only manage a few big slurps but it was just what the doctor ordered.
As I reluctantly left Nhung and Emily, I could see those 2 pesky headlamps coming up to the trail fork. Time to finish strong. I was still battling the fatigue but I knew the redbull would kick in soon and give me that final kick up the backside to bring it home. I had only done this section of the trail once before. It had been at night and I had forced my brain into memorising mode. Trying to access those memories to map out my journey ahead was fuzzy. I remembered a couple of road crossings, running single file winding through a tall stand of trees, running along the pipeline, right turn and down some stairs, right at a round-about, then a steep road climb to finish??? But as we came to places, I would remember them vividly and know exactly where I was going. The lights behind us would advance and retreat or disappear completely throughout the next 3km. Every time, they were close, I would use that adrenalin rush to mask my pain and push the pace a little harder. I imagined hearing voices right behind me a couple of time and that gave me an adrenalin boost aswell. By the time, my garmin buzzed 100km, we never saw them again. 100km!!! Party time! Self hi5 again as Phil wasn’t going to slow down his pacing duties.
The last 3kms were a blur. I knew I was gonna make it, I could taste that finish line! Cars travelling on the nearby road were hooting their horns at me in encouragement as they drove past. I was getting closer. I was beyond exhausted, beyond agony. I could feel the blisters squidging in my shoes but it didn’t mean anything. I was going to finish Kep! Phil fell over a fallen tree, another burst of adrenalin to get by his side quicker and make sure he’s ok. He is. Thank god. My only worry now is the last couple of right turns. I would hate to get lost this close to the end. I needn’t have worried they were well marked with flour. Down some stairs and then up some more. That was a new and unpleasant experience for my legs, better walk/hobble those.
I was sniffing out that finishline like a blood hound, Yep there’s the round-about. There is a marshal and still some die-hard supporters on the corner, braving the cold, spurring me on, bless them. Turning right onto Allen Rd, I don’t remember it being so long and steep. I’m sure someone has made it tougher since I last did it. Oh My Goodness! Halfway up the hill, my garmin buzzed 103km! Cars were stopping in the middle of the road waiting for me to pass. Nearing the top, Phil turns to me and says ‘you’ve now run further than I ever had, well done!’ As I got to the top of the hill, confusion and blinding lights. Where is the finishline? Then I heard a crowd cheering and I headed down a path.
Crossing that line was the sweetest, most intense and overwhelming feeling I’ve had in a long time! I managed to pause my garmin and bow my head reverently for my medal, before cackling like an insane women! I did it!!! I finished Kep Ultra 100km in 13.50.45. My aim had been to finish within cutoff and I’d done it 40 minutes under. My average pace had been 8.02mins/km and I’d burnt a whopping 6565 calories to get there. Spot on my game plan! I was ridiculously proud of myself!
Nhung’s arms were round me and then there was a crowd of friends and well wishers around congratulating me. Sandy and Sam were there again. What champions, Ive only known them a short while and they had followed me up the hill to help me celebrate this monumental feat. Nhung pushed me into foldout chair and as promised Chris thrust a beer into my hand. With telepathic timing, my phone rang and it was my partner Jimmy calling from the remote minesite he works at. He wanted to know if I was ok and congratulate me and tell me I was mental. Although he is sporty, he finds running a bit alien and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about sometimes but he has been super supportive and understood that this was a huge deal for me. It was great to hear his voice and I can’t wait to celebrate with him when he gets back off shift mid-June.
I’d crossed the line 3rd to last, so I grabbed a coke and a sausage sizzle and settled in to watch the last 2 competitors finish. The lady I’d passed, finished a few minutes after me and my good friend Randy finished in style with only minutes to spare before the cutoff. This year, there wasn’t one single DNF in the competitors that got past Mt Helena. Legends! All of us!
Recovery has been surprisingly good. Muscle soreness was gone after 2 days. There is only a vague residual stiffness. I haven’t gone for a run yet, 4 days on. Tried to run after my son yesterday and my left hip protested strongly. My cold came back with a vengeance. But it was completely worth it!
A few things I’ve learnt from Kep: You can train for a 50km ultramarathon, but anything much over that, it’s 30% training and 80% mental, because you have to give 110% to get through it. In an ultramarathon, there WILL be pain at some stage, there is no avoiding it. But I never really believed pain could be managed and overcome by the mind, until this race. I didn’t realise how scared I was of getting injured and how gun-shy of pain I’d become, but this race had taught me to use pain as a tool. I no longer fear pain. This is a good thing. It has set me free.
And finally, I’ve learnt that, although I might, possibly, maybe have been able to do this on my own, it really is the people that make a race like this, achievable. I’ll be back at Kep Ultra next year but as a volunteer and a pacer (if Nhung wants me). The support and love and energy you get from volunteers, friends, RMAs and complete strangers is priceless, so precious and really does fuel the mind and spirit to triumph and victory.