Tough cookie: Laura Hedges reveals the ups, downs and exhilaration of conquering a 50km ultra-marathon

Trail and marathons are on my running bucket list. So when I heard that my friend Laura from my hometown of Shepperton, now living in Australia, recently ran a 50km ultra-marathon combining distance and trail, I had to find out more.

The event was the North Face 50, part of the North Face Ultra-Trail World Tour Series. Running through the stunning Blue Mountain National Park, this phenomenal mental and physical challenge demanded:

  • Training runs of up to 36km
  • Pre-run sessions of pilates, yoga and weights
  • Prep for hazards including snake bites, dehydration and getting lost
  • The power and stamina to tackle an array of terrain including rocks, hills, steps (and more steps), streams, fire trail and excruciating valleys
  • A final uphill challenge at 49km: 900 relentless steps to the finish line

In her goosebump-inducing account, discover how the inspirational pint-sized Laura tackled and conquered the ‘exhausting but uniquely unforgettable’ run.

First things first, did you think running 50km (31 miles) sounded a little crazy?
It did sound crazy but a huge challenge and something that would keep me focused on exercise and training routine. I signed up about 4 weeks after I’d run my first marathon in Sydney in September 2014. I said when I finished that I wasn’t doing any more long runs or training, and look where I ended up a few months later!

How much training did you do? Had you done much trail running previously?
I’d never done any trail running before, all road running for half/full marathons so trail was very different and felt strange at first. I properly started training after my Christmas break in England as I thought with five months to go it was plenty of time. I was running four times a week at the peak, anywhere from short 5km runs after work to the longest training run of 36km. We went up to the mountains to see what we were in for and did about 20km up there. I was also doing pilates and yoga twice a week to get some good stretching in and core work, and then a body weight session once a week to build core strength again to try and minimise injuries. Food wise, I carb loaded the whole week before!

Did you run with a team?
For the most part I was on my own. I started out with my two friends Dave and Brian and we chose to run for Ovarian Cancer Australia, and raised nearly $4000. Dave went on ahead – he’s like a whippet! Brian and I stayed together for maybe 10km and then I began to drift behind him. I think the longest I went without seeing anyone was about 15 minutes. The atmosphere and feel was great, everyone was very friendly and supportive. At one point I got cramp in my calf and another runner waited with me while I took some salt tablets and had a food bar to refuel and get back on track.

I take nothing with me on a 5km or 10km run. I’m guessing you took some kit/equipment…
The main hazards were exhaustion, dehydration, fatigue, and snakes of course! Mandatory gear included water, a thermal top, whistle, compass, compression bandage for snake bites, gels, snacks and course maps (all in my 2litre camelbak). I ran in 3/4 length compression skins, a normal running vest and my sun visor. I’d investigated whether I should get proper trail runners, but to be honest, I didn’t need them. My Asics did me well – fairly new with plenty of grip.  I also wore my Garmin watch (which unfortunately ran out of battery half way through).

Did you need to be a good map reader?
I was very worried about this initially. You’re advised to carry a compass and whistle in case you get lost and the race pack provided emergency numbers and maps. Thankfully the trail was really well marked with pink ribbons every so often, so I had nothing to worry about.

THE BIG DAY: 16 May 2015

Here’s the running commentary from race participant #5877 herself. Prepare to be amazed…

“With so much adrenalin running through me I just wanted to get started”
My group’s departure time was 7.27am with a cut off time of 13 hours. I felt so many things – scared, nervous and extremely anxious but also excited whilst waiting for the countdown. I was thinking erratic stuff such as ‘will I finish?’ ‘will I finish before the cut off time?’ ‘what if I get injured?’ and ‘I can’t wait to cross the finish line!’ Basically, lots of emotions.

The weather was perfect for trail running, a fresh 8 degrees at the start and hit a high of about 15 degrees. It was cloudy and sunny in places but no rain thankfully…I wasn’t looking forward to running 50km with wet feet (agree with that – Bedfont Lakes puddles are bad enough).

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The first 5km on tarmac wasn’t too bad, then it went downhill (literally)

The terrain ranged from tarmac, to rocks/boulders through small streams, to underneath huge rock formations with waterfalls. A big chunk was through bush, so quite soft under the foot, and very muddy and boggy in a few places. There was a lot of fire trail which is an expanse of flat, smooth rock to stop bush fires from spreading. To make it even harder there were steps and stairs, both natural (rocks and tree trunks) and manmade (concrete/metal). Some were very slippery as it had been rainy in the lead up to the day. A real mix of terrain.

My pace ranged from 6 minute/km through to 15 minute/km, depending on the incline. The hardest for me was the fire trail, it was all down hill and hard underfoot so I felt every impact.

“At about 20km my knee started to niggle, and going downhill was quite painful. And, what takes an hour to go downhill, takes about three hours to get back up”
I did feel like giving up a few times. Probably the first moment was at about 20km when my knee started to niggle and going downhill or down steps was quite painful. I just ignored it and kept going and then I hit the 30km mark, which despite being downhill again, was horrible. It consisted of very steep fire trail for about 1 hour. I popped a couple of pain killers at that point but was doing more of a hobble than a run.

All I could think was that what goes down has to come up, and what takes an hour to go downhill take three hours to get back up. I hit the bottom of the valley and then the up began…I’ve never seen hills like it! I think I attempted to run up for about 20 metres but had to walk. I felt I was almost going backwards at some points. Up, up, up and then as you think it’s about to level out, it keeps going up. In the end I pulled my cap visor down over my head, looked at the ground and just focussed on moving my feet and watching the floor, as it was a bit soul destroying looking up at continuous hills for so long. Going up and out of the valley lasted about 15km and took me to the 45km mark. I then picked up a bit of speed to tackle undulating terrain across mossy paths and over some waterfalls.

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Stunning views, which slightly alleviated the pain

“The Blue Mountains are just absolutely breath taking”
I spent so much time looking down at my feet because the trail was uneven and I was worried about getting my footing wrong and twisting my ankle. I had a couple of moments where I stopped and just spent a few seconds taking in the amazing scenery and reminding myself what it was all about.

The snakes… well, I didn’t encounter any which was great, so those snake bite instructions remained in my backpack! There were some bush turkeys and eagles soaring along the way – they didn’t pose a threat!

The crowd support was fantastic. There were checkpoints at 13, 28, 41 and 49km, providing drinks, energy gels and sweets (the 28km one was the best, offering fruit and muffins!). Some runners had support crews and they cheered everyone on. My name was on my bib, so everyone would be shouting ‘Laura!’ as I went past which was a big boost. There were more spectators than I was envisaged, which was great.

“Subliminally, I could hear my dad’s voice pushing me along”
I drew inspiration and motivation from the charity we were supporting, and all those who sponsored me and sent so many supportive messages. in the lead up to and on the day. I could hear my dad’s voice a few times pushing me along (he’s also into hiking and pushing yourself). When I hit the 45km marker I had a vivid flashback of 7.5 hours ago when I was only at the 5km mark. What an amazing feeling, I had come so far! Several male runners from the 100km event then ran past, which really fuelled me. I thought ‘if you guys are doing double the distance in less time, I’m sure as hell gonna make sure I finish this thing!’

“‘I can’t do it’ I said to the marshal at the bottom of the final 900 steps” 
However, then came the final moment where I didn’t know if I’d make it. The 49km check point marked the base of the ‘Furber Stairs’…900 man-made steps up to the top of the valley and to the finish line. I’d done these steps in training but only after a 20km run, not after 49km. I just looked at the steps. A marshall asked if I wanted a hug, then said “now get up the steps and finish this!” And with that I was off – slow and steady.

“A spectator shouted out, ‘200 metres to go!’ I nearly cried at that point!”
I thought I must be close to the end, and a spectator shouted out, ‘200 metres to go!’ I asked him how many more steps, and he said only a couple more to go. I nearly cried but then ran the last 200, up along the boardwalk and along a big crowd of supporters and sprinted the last 100 metres across the finish line.

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Amazing achievement, and the medals to prove it
I get a bit emotional just thinking about that moment – so many feelings including pride, exhaustion, surprise and shock that I’d actually done it.  I was aiming for 9 hours but finished in 8 hours, 15 minutes – and was over the moon.

“In the moment that I finished I couldn’t have given any more”
Weirdly, at that moment in time when I finished, I couldn’t have given any more than I did. But after ten minutes I felt kind of ok! We had grand plans of going for drinks but after a few hours went home… to sleep.

“It’s absolutely motivated me, and flowed through into other aspects of my life”
Looking back, I’d probably have done more training runs up in the mountains to get familiar with the terrain, and step/stair training. However, I’ve learned that I am actually capable of quite a lot! I had real doubt moments at certain points, but I pushed through and that’s taught me that mentally I’m pretty tough. If I really put my mind to something, I will finish it. I’m not sure I realised this before.  And yes it’s absolutely motivated me more, to think about what’s next and how can I push myself again, and it’s flowed through into other aspects of my life such as work. When the going gets tough, I put my head down, dig deep and get through it.

Even after hating running at certain points during the day, I do really love running!”
And would I do it again? Absolutely! I’ve got the trail bug (and a whole lot of gear!) It’s just so exciting and interesting, especially over here in Australia where you can run along some amazing coastlines and phenomenal scenery.

…Indeed, Laura is planning to enter a 64km trail run in Bruny Island, just off the east coast of Tasmania (the day after her birthday this December). It goes from the very top of the north of the island all the way down to the tip of the south of the island.

She’s also keen to repeat the North Face 50, aiming for 7.5 hours. I have a feeling the 100km is on the cards too!

Laura, you are a true inspiration and I’m now one step closer to attempting trail running. Good luck with your future events!

Additional info:

The North Face 50 is part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour Series. About 1,000 runners took part in Blue Mountain National Park 50km and 100km events.

Laura is 31, originally from Shepperton in the UK. She is currently living in Sydney where she works in digital advertising. Laura, Dave and Brian ran the North Face 50 for Ovarian Cancer Australia.

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