Ben Duffus – There & Back Again

In the scheme of things, 2017 has been a wonderful year for me, with trips to stunning locations like the Australian Alps, European Alps and the Canary Islands. But for someone who dedicates much of their time to the sport of ultramarathon running, there haven’t been many ultras run.

Winding back the clock to the start of the year, I kicked things off with the iconic Bogong to Hotham 64km race. With the 125km TransGrancanaria race several weeks away, I was trialling some different nutritional strategies. While training is a suitable place to test various nutrition ideas, it’s only when performing at race-intensity for several hours that we really find out what does and doesn’t agree with our gut. Turned out, that what I tried didn’t agree with me and after a few hours of pit-stops and stomach cramps I walked in most of the final 15km to third place. So, I knew what I wasn’t going to be eating the day before and during TransGrancanaria!

However, once I arrived at the Canary Islands, illness quickly set in and I didn’t even make it to the race’s start line. It was a lot of travel for a DNS, but I quickly set my sights on returning to the Ultra-Trail Australia 100km to see if I could improve upon my 2016 race.

It was in the build up to UTA that things really started to unravel for me. A bulged disc in my lower back left me unable to even tie up my shoelaces without shooting pain (and running was simply out of the question). In hindsight, trying to ramp up training after an inconsistent summer – after all, most overuse injuries are simply a result of doing too much, too soon – coupled with a genetic predisposition (I’m not the first in my family to have problems with this particular disc!) were what probably lead to this breakdown. The Indooroopilly Allsports Physiotherapy clinic became my second home for a few of months as I slowly built myself back up.

I learnt how particularly “not-fun” back injuries can be. Many running injuries may stop us from running, but don’t affect day-to-day activities like getting dressed, cooking, driving, sleeping, using a computer, watching TV, etc. I quickly came to appreciate that it is impossible to even stand, sit or lie down without some form of pressure on the back and just about every movement seems to involve some degree of stabilisation or movement of the torso. To say the least, those first few weeks were great motivation to take the rehab seriously.

Eventually I was going for flat-walks and I built up to hours of walking each day for a few weeks. Various forms of cross-training and strength work came next, all laying the foundations for when I would run again. Any runner who has comeback from a multi-month injury layoff can testify to how simultaneously joyous and nerve racking those first few runs can be. Fortunately, I had paid my dues and I felt better which each successive run.

The UTMB’s little sister, the CCC, was on my radar and I was becoming increasingly optimistic. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet, as to carry all the mandatory gear, water and nutrition I’d need for that race, I was going to need to be able to run with a pack on. My first attempt of a run with a very light pack was my also my first setback. I was smart enough to not push to the point of flaring anything up, but it was obvious that even that slight increase in load was too much. My focus had to instead shift to some shorter (non-pack-requiring) races.

It was at the Pomona King of the Mountain race on the fourth Sunday of July that I finally put on a race-bib again. This (approximately 4km) course runs from the heart of Pomona to the 439m summit of Mt Cooroora and back, via what is still the most technically challenging route I’ve seen at an Australian mountain race. A nice little duel with (past Vertical World Circuit Champion) Mark Bourne ensued, but he was simply too strong for me in the final kilometre. I was worried I had pushed too hard when my back muscles seized up after the race, but all was settled by the evening and I was in the clear.

Although no longer running the CCC, I still headed over to Chamonix to train and spectate the various races at UTMB. I had previously read about, and been told stories of, the incredible atmosphere that surrounds this race; but experiencing it in the flesh was something else. Being one of hundreds of spectators cheering on runners in the middle of the night (despite freezing rain) and then watching the lead runners come in from a front row spot in the finishing chute – I had to secure my spot 4hrs before the first runner came in! – left me more motivated for these races than ever before. (And I feel like I had previously been pretty motivated!) During my time away, my training progressed well, and placing 3rd at the Nantaux VK (in a time of 35.38) was an encouraging sign that my strength was slowly coming back. Importantly, I could run with a pack on again.

Just a couple of days after returning to Australia, I once again lined up against Mark Bourne at a mountain race. The 6.5km Chincogan Charge, similarly follows the format of taking runners from Mullumbimby, to the 260m summit of Mt Chincogan and back. This time, Mark and I swapped places, which was another promising sign for how things were progressing.
Of course, endurance is built through consistent training over months and years, so I understand that a lot of hard work lies before me to get ready for my target ultramarathons in 2018. Given there were days in this “winter” when my home town of Brisbane was seeing humid days in the mid-thirties, I suspect another tough summer lies before me. However, I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and feeling optimistic for the year ahead. Before then, I have a couple more races to round out 2017; the next being the 21km Skyrun at the Hounslow Classic, down in the Blue Mountains.

Having run the 68km ultramarathon at Hounslow and 2015 and then spectated in 2016, it’s one of my favourite Australia trail races and I have nothing but fond memories from my previous experiences. Each challenge is a stepping-stone towards the next, so I’m looking forward to taking my step on this running adventure.