Sam McCutcheon – Ultra Easy Race Report

By February 8, 2016

“You couldn’t even pay me to run that far” – This was the standard response I got when I told people I had entered the UItra-Easy 100K

I had always wanted to run 100K at some stage in my life; although I hadn’t really been planning on running it this year, or even in the foreseeable future.

Last year I ran my first 60K, the Kepler Challenge and really enjoyed it. After finishing the Kepler Caine from Skyrunning contacted me and suggested a couple of races I might be keen to run in 2016. The two suggestions were the 100K Ultra-Easy or the 42K Moonlight Marathon. My immediate thought was that the 42K sounded a lot more achievable than the Ultra-Easy, but after checking my calendar it looked like it was the 100K or nothing.

When making the decision about whether to commit or not I remember looking at the course with my partner Sarah and thinking that it had quite a lot of hills in a 100K run. But then we saw the name, Ultra-Easy, and thought that they couldn’t actually be that bad so I jumped in. This assumption would prove to be completely incorrect.

Before running the Ultra-easy my longest race had been the Kepler which was in December. The bad part about this was that I only had 6 weeks to prepare for the Ultra-Easy; the good part was that I only had 6 weeks to worry about finishing. Either way I looked at it, it was going to be a challenge.

Down to the race. I arrived in Albert Town on the Friday and was shown to where I was staying. For someone who has not really been in the ultra-scene this was a trial-by-fire. I was staying with some seasoned ultra-runners including Grant Guise, Ben Duffus and Bryon Powell. Aside from the living room looking like a quazi-coke factory, with all the white power, the chat was good and it was cool to hear about all the different ultra-races around the world (Barkley Marathon to name one). After meeting the crew it was off to the race briefing before getting an early night in preparation for the early start tomorrow.

The race started from the Albert Town Tavern (300m) and after a personalised role call from the race director Terry we were informed that despite best endeavours to awaken the proprietor the first drop bags were still locked in the tavern behind us. Terry assured us this was only a minor issue and no one would need a drop bag at 5am anyway.

12647028_864119077043185_3270826076143243628_nFollowing this public service announcement we got underway around 3am. The start was steady and took us through the Albert Town streets before heading up and over Mt Iron [548m]. While there is nothing that can fully make-up for starting a race in the middle of the night; the view from the top of Mt Iron went close. From the top we all got a fantastic perspective of the lights of Wanaka stretching down either side of the lake.

If we had have come to Wanaka for sailing we would have been out of luck with not a breath of wind; however, for ultra-running the midnight conditions were perfect. As Darryl from the Castle would say ‘ah, the serenity’.

Everyone more or less started the race out as a group, but by the end of Mt Iron the pack had split up. From there it was a short jog into and through Wanaka Township and onto the lake track leading to Mt Roy carpark.

When we arrived to drop bags at Mt Roy Carpark it became apparent that Terry’s repeated calls to the tavern owner had paid off and we were greeted by drop bags at the first aid station. From there we followed a DOC (Department of Conservation) track up to the Mt Roy ridgeline. The track is essentially 100 or so switchbacks that takes you up to the peak of 1578m. Along this assent we were again treated to those stunning views back to towards Wanaka and across the lake.

12622423_904940172946437_3080502735855127787_oThe track was relatively simple to follow until you got to the ridge. Unfortunately this was also the same time as we entered the fog. Despite the visibility being little more than 4m I managed to navigate my way along the ridge, only going off the track twice.

After reaching the summit at Roy’s Peak we were sent further along the ridge to Mt Alpha (1630m) where we were greeted by a 4WD aid station equipped with electrolyte and a pie warmer. Although I didn’t dabble in the steak and cheese goodness I think the effort to lug a generator and pie warmer 1600m up a rough track in time for a 5am checkpoint cannot be understated. After passing the golf-ball of fat we were directed down the 4WD track into the Cardona Valley towards the second aid station.

Now, despite Terry asserting it would be impossible to get lost I managed to take myself on a bit of an involuntary detour. I am a little unsure exactly where I went wrong but probably should have figured something was wrong when I started herding cattle and sheep through farm paddocks. A good early lesson and one I’m going to put it down to being a little green on the ultra-scene. This greenness was confirmed by the rest of the field managing not to get lost and follow the right track.

The second aid station provided scones with jam and cream before we were sent across a river and up towards Mt Pisa. Now this climb was a grind. As I had gone out a bit hard over the first hill my legs really let me know about it on the assent to Pisa. Another DOC track that climbed rather steadily up to 1341m and a drink station. From there the track flattened out somewhat but still continued to climb up to the Pisa summit of 1910m.

By this time the sun had come out and it was starting to heat up. Luckily I had made a last minute purchase and acquired a hat and this proved to be worth its weight in gold on the day.

Before we reached the Pisa summit we passed the third full aid station (Bob Lee Hut) and the proving grounds (facilities where they test out new model cars). Unfortunately we were not able to get anywhere near the proving grounds this year and a slight detour of about a kilometre was required before the Bob Lee Hutt (1500m) and the third aid station.

The menu at the third aid station was sushi and fresh fruit, served under a gazebo. After this it was a short climb to the Pisa summit and Sally’s Pinch (saddle).

The Ultra-Easy is run in conjunction with a number of other races including a mountain marathon and a mountain bike race. The bike race must have started about 30 minutes after I passed Bob Lee Hut because from the Saddle until the bottom of the hill I was continually passed by mountain bikers smoking it down the hill. By this point I was too tired to really move out of anyone’s way so it was good that the bikers were skilled enough to avoid a skinny white guy stumbling down the hill.

After I passed the upper side of the Pinch I remember thinking that it was good that I had the downhill to recover ahead. However, this race did not let up. The downhills were long and either too steep, or too technical to get into any real rhythm. The one saviour was a drink station around half way down the hill before we had to start our final descent into the Lake McKay Woolshed and the fourth and final full aid station.

Down this hill it is worthwhile taking your eyes off the uneven track to take in the spectacular views on both sides; Lake Wanaka to the left and the Clutha River on the right. Also as you drop down from the Pinch you round Lake MacKay which was pretty much a mirror.

The Woolshed is at the bottom of the hill and around 13K from the finish; needless to say I was pretty happy to reach this point. Again the volunteers at the aid station had turned it on and had mocktails to accompany the food and electrolyte. The Woolshed is also the start of the 13K run and a kids’ bike race so there was a lot of people and support as you passed through this point. It was also about the time that the temperature peaked for the day at somewhere around 25 degrees.

We were promised a flat 13K to the finish, although I think undulating would have been a more accurate description. The last part of the trail follows the river track back to Albert Town and starts off teasing you with tree cover before becoming exposed for the rest of the track. After passing a final drink station around 7K to go we were led through a final river crossing and then round to the pub and the finish line.

12615642_862721543849605_3408698758623481457_oI was pretty happy to cross the finish line, after being on my feet for 10 hours 36 minutes it was a great feeling completing my longest race to date and managing to secure a win at the same time. As the cut off time was 20 hours (11pm) the prize-giving was held the following day. As we hobbled in it was good to see how everyone had scrubbed up to receive their finisher’s medals hand-crafted out of matagouri and some fence-wire sourced from the course.

On the whole it was a great day out. Terry and his team obviously put in a lot of effort to make sure that everything ran smoothly and that everyone got home. A big thank you to all the aid station volunteers for the kai and much needed support along the way.

After the race I was left thinking what kind of person would this race appeal and this is what I have come up with: If you love hills, great scenery and a good challenge then this race is for you. If you are unsure whether you like those things or not then why not enter next year and find out.

Sam McCutcheon