Peak Season

April. The time of great sun in Cuba and also Easter bunnies. It’s also my ‘peak’ season for this current training block and time to see what effect the training I’ve been doing has had. Starting with some stats first, I’ve monitored the last 15 weeks of running and averaged 110km in this period. From Week 6, where I was back at 100km per week, I have maintained 130km per week. Pretty decent for my first training block since 2020. My consistency with supplementary training focuses of nutrition, strength training and recovery protocols has been probably my best yet and is a direct result of having my own space in Quorn where I’m not distracted.

At the beginning of Pre-Season I set out to improve:

  • My aerobic capacity
  • Leg strength and resistance to fatigue from pounding up and down hilly terrain
  • Nutrition management during long runs and races

I’d put a tick against improving my aerobic capacity. The simplest goal of the three, I really enjoyed just working on long slow running and feel like I’ve built a great base for the rest of the year now. My legs also feel stronger and recover quicker from runs so that’s two from two. One key ‘workout’ that I think makes a big difference to my leg strength is the scrambling I do around places like Moonarie, Rawnsley Bluff and Devils Peak. Not only is jumping between rocks and boulders extremely fun, it is also some natural plyometric training and great for improving my proprioception skills. The third aim was to get better with fuelling. This involved a few successful experiments, (half a peanut butter and honey sandwich is delicious) and a few unsuccessful ones (not enough water and a Vegemite sandwich is a bad choice) but at the end of the training cycle I think I’ve got a better strategy than I had at the start so that’s a win.

Graph of running kilometres.
A pretty graph of the training so far. Week 15 is Five Peaks week and Week 17 is Alpine Challenge week.

So where does this leave me entering Peak Season? Fitter? Yes. Ready for Alpine Challenge? Not sure. How can I be more sure? Well, I could back myself in and know that you’ll never be as ready as you want to be. Or I could look to gain some confidence by testing myself out in an ultra race environment so the whole ‘I’m doing an ultra for the first time since 2020’ nervous energy doesn’t go too overboard. This option also protects against the fact that I could do a heap of training, prepare well for race day and then be struck down by the dreaded Covid lurgy. And, running races are fun too and I’m pretty big on doing things that are fun. So, on the first weekend of April, in the brilliant cool sunny weather I started to plan what running Five Peaks, a 58km ultra in Adelaide, would look like.

Here’s the results of that analysis…

ProsCons
Get to enjoy a holiday weekend in Adelaide and see my familyMight not recover in time for Alpine Challenge
Test out my nutrition strategy in a race environmentMight get all grumpy and not want to do Alpine Challenge
Know the course well and get too just cruise along with not much emotional investment in a raceAnother $300 of expenses incurred that I wasn’t planning on…
Get a better understanding of what it’s like to back-up quickly between ultrasLeave my Airbnb guest alone in my home for the first time.
A quick analsyis of the situation

I then looked at this analysis from the perspective of ‘What will be the best for my long-term development as an outdoor athlete?’ From that angle, it’s pretty clear that doing Five Peaks and acquiring more evidence about nutrition and recovery of an ultra will be more beneficial than throwing all my eggs into basket for the Alpine Challenge event. Sure, it was a bit of diesel money down the drain but it’s also an ‘investment’ into potentially becoming a better runner. It’s important to note as well that the thought of winning was never a consideration in doing the race. This is because:
1) You never know what will happen over 5+hrs in an ultra.
2) You never know what competitors will rock up, some hot shot ‘pro’ ultra runner could rock up and blast everyone off the course and
3) A week before the race I wasn’t thinking about it at all so it’s not like in a weeks time I’m going to build up all this emotional energy and motivation to do really well and dig deep. No I’m saving that for the Alpine Challenge. I have to keep the goal the goal.

Cool, I’ve entered Five Peaks! I get a weekend in Adelaide to hang out with my family! Or so I thought… my little sister got Covid herself and turned the Darcy Family home into a half isolation house, half Mum and Dad house… This was a slight spanner in the works as I didn’t want to risk catching it by staying in the Mum and Dad half of the house. Instead, I asked my other sister if I could stay with her which I’d always wanted to do but had never had a reason for it. Plus, they live in Warradale in a small house with lots of fancy decor items. It’s kind of like the opposite to my place in Quorn in some aspects and would feel like my own Airbnb getaway which was cool!

On the weekend in Warradale I caught up with my ‘hosts’, had a jog around the Seacliff Parkrun, watched a mate play SANFLW which had also been on my list of things to do this year and just generally enjoyed the Saturday sun in Adelaide. Pretty nice weekend so far. I also found the time to outline a few goals for the race on Sunday and came up with the following:

  • Try and stay as aerobic and good form as possible, don’t get sucked into a fast pace early
  • Maintain good nutrition habits
  • Sub 5hrs finish is an A grade mark. B grade is 5-5:25 (my last time) and c grade is 5:25 below.

I also set out some post-race goals because one of the experiences I was testing myself out on was whether or not I could recover well enough for Alpine Challenge so there had to be some direction in that aspect as well:

  • Drink and eat lots of GOOD food to help with recovery
  • Maintain good lifestyle habits of walking/stretching. Don’t enter celebration mode of doing an ultra.

Race Day

The forecast was for a warmer day than usual which was something that would test out my fuelling strategy seeing as I sweat a lot (I was the guy in high school who’s underarms on their shirt were always wet…). My prep the night before and taper had gone really well and I felt ready to run physically but mentally I was probably just going through the motions a bit. I started out at a good pace and let someone else dictate the pace while I just cruised along not thinking about much. This went on for the first 10-12kms before old mate dropped off and I took off down the technical single track of Morialta. I love singletrack and I like Morialta due to having climbed there a fair bit so at this stage life was good and I was on track to reach all three goals.

runner smiling in an ultra race
Happy Frasie on his way to Norton Summit.

Coming into Norton Summit I was hoping to stop, fill all my water, smash some electrolyte, grab some chippies and move through pretty quickly, however, the aid station was a bit of a jumble of people and this didn’t eventuate as smoothly as I hoped. I don’t think anyone realised I was in a bit of a rush (it’s a race after all) and I probably looked a bit like a prima donna as I tried to fill my own bottles instead of stopping to accept a sticker from a small child. There was also no electrolyte left anymore which was a bummer and a good lesson to not rely on this for future races, I should bring my own! Anyway I got out of there still feeling pretty good but not as refreshed as I was expecting.

The next stage of the race was pretty ok but by the time I got to the Coach Rd checkpoint I was starting to feel a wee bit hot and needed some electrolytes. This aid station was a lot smoother, the helpers didn’t have many hangers on distracting them and were really helpful filling my bottles and giving me some electrolyte. I also got a quick update on the pace of the others behind me and was happy with where I sat. So far, so good, 32kms to go.

Running the next section through Lofty was pretty nice. I’ve trained a fair bit along those trails so relaxed into them and was just pretty happy to be running through there on a Sunday. It was a bonus it was in a race. On the uphills my legs were starting to feel pretty heavy and my pace was dropping. I wasn’t too worried though because from Mt.Lofty there’s only a couple more major uphills to go. Entering the aid station at the top was a bit like Norton Summit again and I worked my way down the table of helpers until I found a bloke (actually he found me more so and realised I was first I think) who was like my personal support crew, legend! Until he pointed me the wrong way! And then I got even more discombobulated when I was on the right path for this years course but it was different to the last time I had run the event, all because we were directed onto a new trail. Poor form from me not to trust the course markings that were out there. I also saw the No.2 and No.3 runners at this point which put a little bit of spice into the mix.

Heading down from Lofty I was starting to descend into the Pain Cave. I had been eating and drinking as much as possible but I just felt cooked from the heat and probably the fast pace I had been going at. The legs were starting to whisper that cramping might happen sooner rather than later so I backed off the pace knowing the next aid station was 10km away. Lo and behold heading into this aid station at 42km the second placed runner caught up to me and he seemed in a lot better spirits. I smashed some coke, water, electrolyte and watermelon at this point and let him continue out in front while I tried to maintain forward progress. This was 4hrs in so I knew I was looking at a C grade time in my mind but I could still continue with gaining nutrition experience and just finishing the race. The next section through Brown Hill to me is a pretty crappy section of the race and this reflected in my mood. I was walking a fair bit here and had the third placed runner catch up to me and go past. I even had a little bit of a vomit as the coke didn’t agree with my stomach. After that, I entered into just get home mode and had to fight away thoughts of ‘why bother to even finish? I came here for a 5 hr run to test out my training and nutrition, I didn’t expect to be in the hurt locker this much…’

Runner in an ultra race
The must finish look.

But, that’s not the way someone with a long-term view of development should look at it. Sure, the race mightn’t have meant much to me, but the ability to stick it out in tough conditions would be good mental scarring to draw on. Heading through the Brownhill area I knew that Mum and Dad would be heading to the finish line and expecting me soon. I sent them a text to send out the cavalry and fetch me a pail of water and a cold towel so that (a) I could cool down and have a chance of finishing still and (b) so they weren’t left waiting at the altar for me at Belair for too long. When we rendezvoused at Brownhill creek half an hour later I was a very happy boy. I hadn’t seen them in a couple of months so for them to see me as cooked as I was would’ve been something different but I was just focused on the water and the towel. I told them to meet me at Pony Ridge and that I’d be a while. I plodded off expecting a brigade of runners to slowly consume me as I trudged along the road.

Heading up Pony Ridge I was starting to come good a bit. Probably due to the fact I was nearly finished and no-one had passed me again so I was still in third. Another rendezvous with Mum and Dad was a good pick me up but the best second wind I’ve ever got came when I stepping into Belair National Park. I’d throw my hat in the ring for the award for most time spent running in Belair National Park in the last five years so to return there felt like how Indigenous people talk of being on country. After not running much in the last hour, suddenly my body went into auto-pilot mode and I was running uphills! It was amazing! Another contributing factor was I did a number 2 and emptied my gut which always feels nice too 🙂

Coming through Belair on the final stages I was picking up the pace knowing it was almost over and I could begin my recovery phase when suddenly, old mate that I thought was first was now behind me! I looked at him and said ‘what the?’ to which he replied disappointingly, ‘I took a wrong turn’. I didn’t think about my reply but now knowing I was in second my body again took things into it’s own hands, said a quick ‘we’re on here’ and I put in a final kick of pace like I was Peter Bol. A couple of minutes later and I came in second at a touch of 6 hrs and was very glad it was over. I didn’t feel too flash for the next hour and had some sports drink, some brownies, a whole packet of Jatz, some choccy milk and sat under a big gum tree by myself as I waited for the presentations. It was here I was able to relax in Belair, listen to the Bombers get up for their fist win of the season and reflect on the days learnings…

  1. I ate and drank as much as I could consume from the aid stations. I could’ve improved my consumption though by carrying my own sports drink. I think I lose sweat and salts at a a greater rate than most, judging by the look of my clothes compared to others (salt-stained on mine) so when I’m racing in the heat I need to almost over-consume fluids and be smarter. It’s an annoying ‘excuse’ to have because it’s not necessarily fitness related but just more maturity/body management related.
  2. Starting out fast when it’s hot may lead to a quicker time, and therefore less time in the heat, but it’s also a quicker recipe to blowing up. The results for all the 8am runners across the board were pretty poor in comparison to previous years as everyone struggled with the heat. I’m still not very smart when it comes to racing and take off too fast and pay for it at the end but I just like being out in front more than I like sitting in the pack.
  3. One positive of eating so much food during and after the race is that post race (this is being written the day after the race) my body feels not too bad and a small jog is on the cards later this afternoon perhaps. This is the most pleasing outcome from the race because, as a reminder, one of the main aims was to test out what it’s like to recover for another ultra in two weeks.
Post race. Lots of salt on those shorts!

So overall where does this leave me in feeling about entering Five Peaks and looking forward to Alpine Challenge? I was glad to have entered Five Peaks and enjoy a weekend in Adelaide. That was a nice tick. I was not glad with being so hot. That was a cross. It was nice to complete the race when I wasn’t too invested in it and still come second. Tick. My focus is now directed purely on the Alpine Challenge race, instead of umming and ahhing about Five Peaks, and I can’t wait to finally peak at that race. A surprise benefit of doing Five Peaks in 6 hrs is that my goal time for the Alpine Challenge is 7 hrs so I got some idea of what’s it like to be out there for that long again. A final analogy that sums up the weekend and my future endeavours is that every summer, tennis players have a big off-season, build their fitness, maybe try a new racquet etc. and then have a big lead-in tournament before signing up for the first Grand Slam of the year at the Aussie Open. Players are just looking for match practice at these lead-in events and if they win, it’s great, but if not, it means they get more prep time in for the Open. For me, Five Peaks was my lead-in race and the Alpine Challenge is my first Grand Slam of the year and I’m pretty pumped for it now!

Recovery process has started, one Gatorade down!

2 responses to “Peak Season”

  1. […] up in Quorn over January to March that had me almost ready for the race at the start of April. A tune-up race of Five Peaks kickstarted the final phase of training for me that also sharpened my focus on finally getting to actually go out and test myself against […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Rather than walk you through how it all played out and what led to the event instead, let’s put the magnifying glass on what was different in my preparation for the first ultra of the second half of my year compared to the first ultra of my year, Five Peaks. […]

    Liked by 1 person

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