November 29, 2020

Race Report - Summit Shoalhaven 55km

Race Report - Summit Shoalhaven 55km
The Bugong Creek crossing. Taken nearly 2 years before the race.

Hot. Very hot. A race report of the 2020 Summit Shoalhaven 55km. This was my first Ultra since recovering from a stress fracture in my Fibula, and it was certainly an interesting day. The stress fracture injury meant I couldn't run for about 6 months, including time to build back up avoiding further injury, so it was good to be back on the trails.

Unfortunately I don't really have any photos of the Summit Shoalhaven. There were no photographers out on course (I imagine due to the heat and/or the race being rescheduled several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and I was too busy concentrating on not wrecking myself from heat exhaustion to take any photos...

The summit Shoalhaven was originally scheduled for late July, but was postponed to November 2020 due to the ongoing  pandemic. The course was also modified a couple of times to accommodate various restrictions, but settled on a 55km course on mostly fire trail, with a small amount of something closer to single track, and a 10km out and back section.

The race is set in Kangaroo Valley in the Shoalhaven region, and takes runners over Mt Scanzi and down towards the Shoalhaven River, before returning back over Mt Scanzi to the start/finish line.

Unfortunately, the temperature on the day was forecast to be about 40ºC. Much of the course had been hit by bushfires in early 2020 as well, which meant that there was little tree cover out on the course to offer reprieve from the sun.

The start of the race was moved to 0630AM due to the forecast conditions, so we got out there bright and early and stood around (as one does before a race) until the time came to start - being a smaller trail race with a casual vibe, that meant the group of people milling around just casually wandered out to the start line.

Socially-distanced milling around waiting for the start.

The time came for the race start and we were off! The course heads straight up a hill, I ran some of this before dropping to a hike as it got steeper, not wanting to overcook myself too early, but at the same time having this possibly counter-intuitive desire to make as much distance as I could before the sun came up from behind the escarpment, so I ran down the other side pretty quickly and then got onto the flatter bits of the trail.

From here the course follows a well-maintained gravel road with some gentle undulations and a creek crossing at a causeway with a steep descent and climb out. I was running most of the gradual uphills, and ended up moving at a pretty similar pace to another runner, so we had some good chats running together for about an hour or so.

As if the heat wasn't going to be bad enough, the noise from the Cicadas was absolutely deafening. Cicadas are common in this area in summer, but they were especially noisy this year - so much so that on the occasional moment that the noise dropped off, you realised that you were yelling at the person next to you just so you can hear each other.

If you've not heard Cicadas before - this is what they sound like (this video was taken the day before the race in the same area):

It was definitely starting to get warmer as we turned off the main gravel road and got onto a lesser-used road that takes you past some properties, before a nice descent down to an aid station at around 19km. It was at this aid station where I discovered that warm Zooper Doopers where, in fact, the best thing I'd ever tasted (a Zooper Dooper is a flavoured frozen ice pole product).

I refilled water, shoved some ice in my hat (also a great feeling) and moved on out of the aid station.

After the aid station, we head out on a brief bit of single track before beginning to climb out of the valley. This was about 20km in, and although it was only about 8:30AM it was already starting to get really warm - with the sun now above the escarpment it was really starting to beat down on us. It was a long drawn out climb - or at least it felt like a long, drawn out climb. At this point I thought it would be a good idea to re-apply sunscreen, but it was a little difficult with so much sweat.

With the climb in the heat I was beginning to wonder that this might be a little more difficult than I anticipated, and I was starting to get a little concerned about how much water I had left - I knew there was an aid station coming up, but it was still another 4-5km away along exposed fire trail. The only thing I had going for me was that once we reached the top of the climb it was relatively flat to the aid station.

As luck would have it, the race organisers had put out a bonus water station at the top of the hill - if it weren't for COVID restrictions I probably would've hugged the volunteer who had brought the water out.

Back on the fire trail and moving again, it was definitely getting very warm and there was the odd runner seeking shelter in shade under a tree. After another 5km we turned back onto the main road at another aid station where I topped up water again (and had another melted Zooper Dooper). From here - the second half of the race - it was going to be fire trails, gentle undulations and a big climb to finish off the course.

There were plenty of people around for the next 10km, as the 40km and 23km runners where out of the course. The creek crossing on the way back was a welcome sight, with many people just walking straight through or jumping into the creek entirely to try to cool off a bit.

The creek crossing.

After another 10km I reached a decision point. Turning right would take me over the hill and I could finish the 40km course, or I could continue straight onto the 15km out-and-back section to complete the 55km course.

It was bloody hot, but I was actually feeling pretty good, and I came here to run the 55km - so I topped off my water and off I went, back on my own again without any other runners around.

This is where things started to go south - I was only a couple of kilometers into the out and back when I started to struggle quite a bit. Going back to the historical weather data, it was about 42ºC at this point and there was just no shelter from the sun and heat. I was hiking up hill when the medical car came up behind me - my partner had dropped out at around 25km or so and was in the car on the way back to the start/finish - a very smart decision given the conditions we were running under.

From this point I was really starting to struggle. Running was difficult, I couldn't get away from the heat and I was beginning to feel slightly nauseous (on reflection I don't think I had consumed enough calories given the conditions). There was an aid station coming up at the turnaround point, and I was seriously considering dropping out there. But I also knew that it was 15km back to the finish from there. My (perhaps flawed) logic was that I run 15km distances all the time. No big deal.

I smashed some Coke (bad idea) and a bunch of water at the aid station and decided to carry on.

After leaving the aid station I met up with another runner here - Peter - and we ran together for a while, trying to knock off the kilometers but to be honest it felt like a bit of a death march to the finish and we moved quite slowly through the next 10km. We passed a runner or two who didn't look to be in a great way - asked them if they needed anything and gave a rough estimate of time to the aid station. We eventually ran it into the aid station at the intersection and had a bit of a chat with the race officials who were there - They had made the decision to cut off the 55km course, and were no longer allowing people to run the out-and-back, instead they would finish the 40km course.

Given the conditions, I think this was a very wise decision for the safety of the athletes.

From this point it was only about 3km over the hill back to the finish line. The guys there gave us some bottled water and sent us on our way up the hill - we also had an official vehicle pass us and offer more water.

Pete and I hiked our way to the top of the hill, then ran in the last couple of km down the hill (I was feeling absolutely shocking at this point) to finish the 55km course in 6hrs 43mins (2nd in my age category, as Elite Energy generally do age group awards).

Overall, given the conditions I'm quite happy with the result. I think I learned a fair bit to help manage races in hot climates in the future.

I'm looking forward to returning to the Summit Shoalhaven, hopefully in some cooler weather!