Contributed by Phil Gore, AURA member (WA)

1st Male 50km

The WTF Ultra has a rich history, holding the title of the first 100-mile trail race in WA. I first heard of this event in 2015, but I had no interest in running anything further than a marathon back then. 100 miles (or even 50 miles for that matter) was a distance I never considered doing – not even in the “maybe one day” category. So, WTF was an event I never imagined I would take part in.

Eventually, I did progress to becoming an ultra-runner, but I gravitated towards the timed (12hr/24hr) and backyard events, and still didn’t really consider entering the 100-mile or point-to-point races. When I heard that 2022 would be the final year for WTF, I thought that if I’m going to do this event, it’s now or never. However, with my A-race of the Backyard Satellite Championships only 3 weeks later, it would have been unwise to sign up for the 50- or 100-mile distance. Fortunately, with the new addition of the 50km, it worked out perfectly as a training run, and meant I could still be a part of the event. Although not technically a point-to-point race, it would still be my distance PB for a non-looped course (WTF consists of three out-and-back legs, two of which you complete for the 50km).

About a week and a half before the race, I made a trip down to Dwellingup with my mate Chris to do a recon run. We covered about three quarters of the course, just missing the second half of leg 3. Before the recon run, I remember thinking that the race would be a nice easy 50km run with a few little hills, but afterwards I was thinking “What the f*** have I signed myself up for?” (I could now understand the inspiration for the event’s name). It felt a lot harder than I imagined it would be, and the hills weren’t exactly ‘little’. I had guessed the event might take me around four hours or so, but after previewing the course I thought five hours might be more realistic (or possibly even optimistic). I questioned if it was still a good idea to attempt this event three weeks before my biggest race of the year, but ultimately decided that as long as I didn’t get caught up in trying to ‘race’ it, and listened to my body, then I should be okay. I didn’t set myself any time goals or expectations of a podium finish, instead focusing on completing the run comfortably without injury and without burning myself out.

On race day morning, I was picked up by Shannon and Justin Wakefield at around 4:00 am and we made the drive down to Dwellingup. They would both be running the 50km as well, and as an added bonus, Shannon was celebrating her birthday there (Happy Birthday Shannon!). She even brought birthday cake for the aid station. My wife Gemma would drive down later to see me finish, and I gave her a ballpark estimation of “about 5 hours, give or take.”

We arrived at Nanga Bush Camp – the race HQ – at around 5:00 am. I collected my bib and placed my drop bags in the relevant containers. The HQ was a hive of activity and nervous energy as runners made their final preparations . Just before 6:00 am, all runners from all distances congregated around the start line and there was a (very) short race brief by race director David Kennedy. Everyone started at the same time and ran the first leg together. I started out conservatively and stayed with the front of the pack for a short distance, before taking the lead about 1km in. I was on my own for a lot from that point. That’s one of the things about a non-looped course – it can get a bit lonely. Not to worry, I had downloaded a new audiobook to listen to – “Artemis”, by Andy Weir. I had absolutely loved listening to one of Andy Weir’s other books – “Project Hail Mary”, which had helped me get through Herdy’s Frontyard earlier in the year, and so I was quite looking forward to listening to this one. It didn’t disappoint.

Race brief from David Kennedy at the start line. Photograph – Heath Watkins.

The first 9km was along a wide fire trail, and whilst it was undulating, there weren’t any serious hills. I found this part quite runnable and settled into a comfortable pace. With my headphones in, I couldn’t hear the footsteps of Nigell Lee who was quite close behind me, so I was slightly surprised when he pulled up alongside me. I paused my audiobook and we had a bit of a chat, he was doing the 50km as well. After the first 9km, we reached Aid Station 1, which was just before the aptly named “Loop of Despair”. This loop was about 5.5km, the first 1.3km of which has about 180m of elevation. And you had to do it twice! As I had reconned this part of the course, I knew what to expect, but for some reason it didn’t seem as bad as I remembered it. Nigell and I were still both together as we ascended the hill, and we helped spur each other on. There were only a few little sections here and there that I walked, the rest of it I was able to run (as opposed to the recon, where I had walked almost all of it). After the uphill was out the way, it headed back down, nice wide trail at first but then it narrowed into a single track that was quite overgrown. I literally had to duck whilst running to get through some parts.

A memorable part of this section was the water crossings. Most were easy enough to step over, but there was one in particular which you couldn’t really get past without getting your feet wet. However, thanks to my recon, I knew it was coming. As I got to the crossing, I let Nigell pass me and I stopped and pulled out two plastic bags from my pocket. I placed them over my shoes, waded through the stream, and made it across to the other side without getting my feet wet. Shortly after this part, the course looped back to Aid Station 1, where you had to turn around and head back up the hill and do the Loop of Despair all over again.

Nigell and I stayed roughly together for the second loop as well, and we got the chance to say hi to a few people who were doing the loop for the first time. Up and down we went, and again I pulled out the plastic bags to help me cross the stream. We then passed the aid station for the third time, and I dumped my rubbish before heading back towards the race HQ. I did have a drop bag at the aid station, but I didn’t need to use it (it just had a spare pair of shoes and socks in case my plastic bag trick hadn’t worked). Back on the wide fire trail, I was able to pick up the pace and started to pull away from Nigell. I was back to being on my own, so I put my audiobook back on. I think there was slightly more elevation on the way back than on the way out, but it didn’t seem to slow me down too much. I embraced the undulating nature of the course and every now and then I would pause my audiobook and just focus on the surrounding environment and being in the present moment.

Heading up the Loop of Despair for the second time. Photograph – Heath Watkins.

I made it back to the race HQ and was greeted by a lot of familiar faces cheering me on. It was a nice little morale booster. I had completed 29km by that point and was feeling pretty comfortable, much better than I had at that same point during my recon run.  I quickly stocked up on nutrition supplies that I had stashed in my drop bag and headed out on leg 3 (the 50km skips leg 2). There were no surprises for the first part of this, but once I passed the halfway(ish) point it was all new ground to me. It was the only part of the course I hadn’t reconned. This was probably for the best though, as there were some really tough hills in this section that I would have been dreading the whole race had I known about them beforehand. I thought the worst of the elevation had been covered in the first leg and was expecting an easier second half. All it required though was a slight mind-set shift. Instead of looking at these hills as a hindrance, I saw them as an opportunity. Every hill was an opportunity to practise my power hiking, which I knew I needed more training with. It was a training run, after all. I ploughed on through until I got to a marker at about the 40km point, where I got to turn around and head on back. I got to see a few more friendly faces on the return, and we cheered each other on as we passed. I also got a good indication of how the field was spread out. I worked out I was at least 4km in front of second place, and so I had all but assured first place (not that I had that as a goal, but it was nice to know). Feeling confident with just over 5km to go, I kicked it up a notch, which was helped even more by it being mostly downhill. I was ecstatic to finish in first place in a time of 4:22:11. I even had time to have a shower and get changed before my wife showed up about 10 minutes later. Should have given her an estimate of 4 hours.  

The podium finishers for the 50km. L to R: Carl Douglas (3rd), myself (1st) and Nigell Lee (2nd). Photograph – Peter Barry.

This is the first non-backyard event I’ve gone into without any performance goals or expectations of podium position, and I am super stoked with the result. I feel that I possibly even performed better than I would have done if I did have a target. As much as I am proud of my time and position, what I am more chuffed with is how I felt during the race and how much I enjoyed the experience. I wasn’t fixated on my pace or stressing about what time I was going to finish it. I felt strong from beginning to end and it was a massive confidence booster heading into the Backyard Satellite Champs. Mind Focused Running played a big role in this.

I compare this to races where I have had goals, only focused on the result, and have been disappointed when I have just missed it – despite still finishing in a respectable time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have goals, and it’s an amazing feeling when you can smash them, but if you make that your only focus then it can ruin the whole experience if you don’t quite get there. Goals are good for setting a direction, but they can create an “either-or” scenario – either you achieve your goal and are happy, or you fail and are disappointed. I can tend to be a very goal-oriented runner, but using this event as a training run allowed me to free myself from any expectations, and I definitely noticed a difference in my overall experience.

The other thing that helped me do well in this race was getting my nutrition right. I felt I had the right amount of energy from the start right through the end. It was the first time I’d followed a proper nutrition plan for an ultra on the “shorter” end of the spectrum. I’d never really put too much thought into before as I didn’t think the run was long enough to warrant it. I’d usually just run the first 70% – 80% really well and then just “hold on” until the end as my energy levels dropped – and I thought that this was just the norm for running an ultra. It was great to test some strategies in a smaller event and take some learnings for the bigger events going forwards. Thank you to Gaby at Intenseatfit for working with me on my nutrition plan.

I’d also like to make a mention of the gear I used for this event (and pretty much all my running in general). Thank you OC Clothing Co for the running tops (and for also designing the event top). Thank you T8 for the Sherpa Shorts (perfect for carrying all my nutrition as well as the mandatory gear) and Commando Underwear. Thank you Steigen for the anti-blister socks. Thank you Trail Brew for the electrolyte endurance fuel. Thank you Squirrel’s Nut Butter for the anti-chafe salve and Happie Toes foot salve. And thank you to Tribe & Trail for being my go to shop for all the above gear and much more.

Pre-race gear flat lay.

Thank you David Kennedy for all the time and energy you have put into this event over the last nine years. And thank you to all the volunteers who helped make it possible. Hopefully a way can be found to continue this event in an official capacity for future years.

Featured Image: Supplied.