Australian Grand Canyon - Blue Mountains (New South Wales), Australia
Serendipity, fate, coincidence, whatever you call it, can be a sweet thing. In this case it resulted in me getting to run the top ultra in Australia, the Hounslow Classic , held in the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney. At work we had been developing a partnership for over a year and when it came together we wanted to act fast and go-onsite to get working. Because of timezones and schedules it turned out the best arrangement was to arrive on Thursday morning and go straight to work and then return to the US on the Wednesday the week after. That meant I had a weekend to do something, so once the flights got booked I started to search around for where to run.
For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately come upon the Hounslow Classic, and then one day my search uncovered the race site. When I saw the date, I didn’t believe it was even possible, it must be for another year. I then realized it was possible, but then became super anxious because what then if I can’t get in? I went to the registration form, it was still open! Sometimes it's just good to be lucky...so, yeah, whatever you call it, serendipity, fate, karma, etc. It can be good.
I registered on August 25th and the race was scheduled for October 9th...only about 6 weeks away. The race is 68k with a total elevation gain of 4800m with a 17 hour cutoff, so not something that you can just train up for in 6 weeks from zero. This is why my overall training program is meant to allow me to be ready for just about any 50k to 100k run that comes up when fate aligns my schedule. I’m not going to win races, but the point is to be fit enough to get out there and participate, since sometimes the best way to see an ultrarunning destination is via a race. I’ll share more on my training schedule in another post. But, suffice it to say that my training was just barely enough to get me through this race.
The Blue Mountains are located about a 2 hour drive west of Sydney Australia. The Blue Mountains have many iconic geological features and waterfalls, but also a lot of miles of tracks. The National Park Service has a great site with many of the hikes laid out, such as the Grand Canyon Track. Another great resource is the Open Hiking Map in Gaia GPS. My personal observation is that the Blue Mountains are a much more lush version of the Grand Canyon in the United States. They are also not as deep, but the views are still epic, and the variety of terrain on the run much more interesting. There are a lot of waterfalls, overhangs, weird stairways on the mountain, dirt roads, stairways with 1000s of steps it seems and densely forested trails. In one way they are very similar, in that when you are on a route out of the canyon, you can see exactly where you need to go towering above you. There is no illusion as to what you need to do to get out.
I’d definitely go back to do a non-race trek to explore more of the tracks. However, as a race, this was one of the most special for me, especially since I finished next to last. With about 2.5 hours to go, I knew it was going to be close, so ran harder than I think I’ve ever run before to finish just under the cutoff. I also bit it twice hard in those final 2.5 hours...the kind of fall where you just sit there in pain wondering what it is you are doing, but still get up and keep going. The pitch dark in the forest made the last hours quite challenging all around with course tracking as well as footing. Funny thing, I didn’t even think about the snakes at this point! Two were on the course earlier, and one piece of mandatory gear was a snake bit wrap! About 25% of the field DNF’ed, and also one of the other finishers who finished 10 minutes ahead of me summited Everest and has three 8000m peaks under her belt, so that’s a pretty awesome crowd to be a part of.
There are lots of options for staying close to the Blue Mountains. I stayed at the Chalet Guest House and Studio. Super highly recommend as they were nice enough to make me a sandwich and leave out some food for me for the race. Excellent hospitality, and you also cannot beat the location, minutes from the parking areas. They were also kind enough to offer to check up on me after the race.
A bit of a bonus when you are in Syndey as well is to do the Bondi to Coogee walk. It’s about 5 miles (8k) right along the coast line and goes past several iconic beaches, towns and cemeteries. Was a great way to recover from the run with a relaxing walk along the sea.
Bondi to Coogee
Part of the fun of this trip was that it was also the first time I had ever driven on the left hand side of the road, and it’d been awhile since I drove stick shift. There was no easing into the experience since I picked up my rental in the city center and had to go right out on the road. The worst part was mistaking the windshield wipers for the turn signals! The road is mostly divided highway, so if this is your first experience, it wasn’t too bad...just keep repeating over and over in your head, “Keep Left”.
The 2 hour drive was quite easy, and from the hotel it’s minutes to many parking spots for where the trails start. An extremely convenient place to get in an ultrarunning adventure.