Six months ago I would have told you that the initials CPU had something to do with computers. Now, however CPU is all about running… Centennial Park Ultra (CPU) is an ultra event held in Sydney running around iconic Centennial Park. For the uninitiated, “ultra” refers to any event longer than a marathon.
As a new runner, it is the thought of trying something new that challenges me. And that is why after knowing my run-buds, Kate and Laura for only a few weeks I made that suggestion that we team up for the 3 person 100km CPU relay.
In mid July when I first started reading about CPU I think in my head I was planning my 2017 running events. But crazy running friends are the best and after only knowing each other for 8 weeks, and thinking about it for 5, we fronted up to Centennial Park at 6am on Sunday August 7th 2016.
Until the day of CPU, Laura and I had both run half marathons, and Kate had only ever run 16kms. So this event was going to be a challenge all round.
CPU allows you to run 50km – solo or in a team of 2, or 100km – solo or in teams of 2, 3 or 4. Given that there were three of us, we were in for the 100km.
In the weeks prior to CPU I was running 2 shorter 6km runs, 1x10km run and one long run of around 15kms per week. I was also a regular at the gym working on strength and speed in short bursts to improve my pace.
Ultra events take a little more planning (in addition to physical training) to pull together. CPU is an excellent event for a first time ultra run in terms of the support given to runners. It would be very possible to literally turn up and run on the day as food and drinks are provided.
However most runners prefer to take a more considered approach. As a team we each took on different roles. Kate looked after all the registration details and organised our shelter (we had a gazebo) to keep us warm and dry. I ordered us all matching shirts (very important) and Laura looked after food. We were well stocked, lollies, nuts, sandwiches, water, supplements, chips, fruit, chocolate, and more to see us through.
We ran under the name SOLE SISTERS – this is truly perfect for us as it is just how I think of these ladies – plus I found a cute logo online. CPU was a first for us in so many ways and we just wanted to get out and give it a try. None of us had run this far before, participated in an ultra or completed a team event that required you to run, rest and repeat for up to 12 hours.
Coming into an event like this it is important to spend time answering some key questions-
Who is going to run first?
Does it matter if you have slower and faster runners making up your team?
What are you goals, individually and as a group?
How many laps are you each going to do?
Will you alternate laps or complete your allotted distance in one large chunk?
What will happen if someone has to pull out injured?
Are you each going to look after your own care items or have one central collection?
The week prior to CPU it rained for 6 days straight and I started to worry that we would be running in mud and rain the whole time. Luckily the Sunday in question was perfect running weather, overcast with patches of sun through the day and warm enough to switch to shorts in the middle of the day.
We had a slight dilemma with a non-functioning alarm the morning of the event, but still managed to arrive at the park in time. Centennial park’s gates normally open at 6.30am but as the event started at 7am, the park’s management agreed (after petitioning) to open at 6am so we could access the grounds.
Centennial park is a large circular park with a loop road and a white fence around the inner circle. The loop around the fence is 3.54km long and is mostly on hard packed dirt footpaths and grass/dirt tracks. There are a few rises and dips around the loop but they are more gentle undulations than hills.
We had so many things packed that it looked like we were going away for a week. Upon arrival we unpacked the car and claimed a spot on the grounds. CPU uses the Sydney Boys High School oval as a base for operations. There are two lanes of the track as base camp approaches, one if you are running through for another lap and another if you require a pit stop or to switch runners in a relay.
We scored a particularly excellent position, right opposite the start line and set up our station. Due to our slightly later than expected arrival we were still setting up our station when the pre-race briefing began. Laura was our first runner so the focus was on getting her geared up and ready to run.
The 100km relay involves 28 laps +880 meters (which is run at the very start). For us that meant 9 laps each and an additional tenth lap which we planned for Laura to run, with each of us hoping to join her depending on how we were feeling.
Each relay team is assigned a slap band, in place of a baton, which needs to be exchanged as runners alternate. When a runner enters the pit lane, they cross over the timing mat and then head to the change over area where team members can switch.
Our plan was to begin by running 2 laps each and then change to 1 lap each. The event was a few minutes late in starting and there wasn’t much fanfare as the gun went off and Laura set off on lap One.
Like most runners I take around 10 minutes / 2kms to warm up and settle into my groove. I was the second runner in our relay and set off for my first two laps around 8am. The first lap was great, there were so many people arriving to enjoy the park, new sights to see and the excitement of starting out. However this was the very first ever event I have participated in where the course was multiple loops (rather than a simple out and back course) and even at the end of lap 1 I struggled as I passed race HQ heading for my second lap.
As runners we all have different strengths but generally we were taking around 22 minutes to run a loop. In order to be ready when the runner came in to change over, I found it handy to check the time when the previous runner headed out for their lap. Then 20 minutes later we would start watching to furthest part of the field we could see for a pink shirt. As soon as we saw the runner come in, you jumped up and were ready for them to switch a few minutes later.
After only a few loops, I honed my down-time tactic. As soon as I finished my lap I would visit the toilets. (The park toilets were right near the change over area, they were steel bowls with no seats and several of them ran out of toilet paper over the course of the day, but they were still much better than the porta loos you normally find at an event.)
Then I would head to our tent and have something to eat and drink. At first I was digging into the lollies and sweet things. Then a few hours in it was all about chips and other salty snacks and towards the latter part of the day I ate some sandwiches, a sausage sandwich and even a fancy pasty.
I don’t generally eat much before or immediately after a run so I had to make a conscience effort to keep fuelling when I didn’t feel like it as I knew I needed to maintain energy during the day.
It was also very satisfying at the end of each lap to make a little check mark on our chalk board to cross off another lap.
I made sure that I ate and drank only while the next runner was out. By the time the other two runners where going to switch over I had finished eating, to give my body a chance to digest before I had to start running again. It was also key to get something warm on soon after you finished running. Even though it wasn’t a cold day it was important to not let your body cool down too much.
My longest runs to date had been three half marathons (my fastest of which I maintained a pace of 6:56) and my goal was to run the first 5 of my laps with a pace of under 6:30. I was proud that the first 5 laps went to plan. I stuck under 6:30’s and was feeling strong. I was using my music for motivation and was tracking each lap separately on my garmin but the whole day as one event in my runkeeper app. I did have a concern for most of the day about the batteries in my phone and watch running out so I conserved them as much as possible.
Around lap 5 I changed into shorts – the very first time I have ever run in anything but 3/4 pants, and luckily I loved them!
But despite the power of the new shorts after lap 5 I really slowed down and started adding in some walk segments. I have said before that running is a mind game but it was one I just didn’t win in these last few laps. While my aim in the first five was under 6:30, my aim for the last five was under 7min kms and I somewhat stuck to this. Often I feel that the first time I do an event I am just testing out my capabilities, and I know that IF I were to do this again I would go in armed with the knowledge that it was possible and I am sure I would achieve a much better result.
My team-mates were amazing, powering on through aches and pains and always ready with a smile and encouragement. The atmosphere of the event was fantastic, everyone was supportive, there were lots of different distances being run by lots of different teams so there was always someone to cheer for. It was particularly awe-inspiring to see the solo 50 and 100 km runners fly around the track. Such dedication and strength is just mind blowing.
There was a team of physiotherapists at the event and after lap 7 I was suffering from incredibly sore hip flexors, so I went and had a quick massage which was both amazing and incredibly painful at the same time. Before my massage it was my left hip flexor that was hurting and afterwards it was my right, I just couldn’t win! The lap directly after my visit to the physio was my slowest and most painful.
By this stage I was also making an effort to spend some of my downtime between laps stretching and rolling. I bought out the yoga mat and would just hold some gentle stretches working my leg muscles while I chatted or fueled. Stretching defiantly helped and I wish I had started doing it earlier.
As the afternoon wore on the field and the crowd started to thin out. The 50km runners finished up and then the leaders in the 100km event started to cross the line. Tents were being packed away and park patrons were heading home as the temperature started to drop.
We had in mind a rough finish time of 10 hours and the first 50km was achieved in 5 hours, keeping us on track. However we were a little slower covering the last 50km and finished in 10:46. In our morning rush we each just grabbed a bib without knowing they were individually assigned. So in the stats below Laura is running under Kate’s name, I was running under Laura’s name and kate under mine. Oops.
Lap 8 was particularly difficult for me as for the first time ever I started to feel cramps in my calves – it was such a weird sensation and distracted me for most of a lap. It was starting to get lonely on the course and I was struggling mentally with the impetuous to keep going. I know now that I finished with some in the tank and could have given these last few laps a much better go.
At the end of lap 8 I was approaching 30km and changed into my spare shoes and my compression socks in an effort to reduce the pain in my calves. I was also forming a blister on the ball of my right foot but the change of shoes seemed to help.
Kates husband and children arrived which was an awesome distraction and they bought coffee for the girls, me a drink of coke and also a charger pack which topped up my phone battery to get me through.
As time wore on, most of our conversations with other runners was around how many laps we had left. I was always planning on running the last, 10th lap with Laura, but I didn’t count it in “my” laps. Somehow by pretending I was just helping Laura on her lap meant I didn’t have to think about it. So with great joy I set out on lap 9!
As we approached the end we started to pack things away – darkness was coming swiftly. Kate ran in exhausted from her last lap and (without my bib, so as not to confuse the timing mats) I joined Laura on the final Sole Sisters lap. It has been 4 laps since I had run a complete ring, and Laura is such an outstanding runner that I didn’t want to slow her down but it was a joy to keep her company and I was proud of myself for running the whole distance.
The sun was just sinking as we set out for the final lap. By the time we finished it was dark and even though I don’t scare easily it was a bit spooky – especially under the bigger trees where it was incredibly dark. A head torch would have been a brilliant idea, the sun disappeared so quickly, we just didn’t expect it.
A few hundred metres from the finish, Kate joined us and the three of us crossed the line together. Such an amazing achievement. All of us set personal best’s in terms of distance, and we defiantly pushed our limits. We were sore and tired and really earned our medals.
We had some bubbles (non-alcoholic for me) ready to celebrate and I promise you that nothing has ever felt as divine as sliding my legs into my daggy old tracksuit pants, although my hip flexors were so sore I had to sit down to pull them on. Actually it was 24 hours before I could lift my left leg off the floor without assistance, but all in all I came out relatively unscathed, which is awesome for such a big distance jump.
All up I was pleased with my efforts on the day – although I know there is room for improvement. I did 35.78 kms with an average pace of 6:52 (which is a faster pace than my GCAM half 5 weeks before). I am still in awe of the fact that I ran so far in a single day.
Definitely the hardest thing was that you ran, then stopped, cooled down and it took time to build up your momentum again. That said, if I set out to run 35km in one hit I know I wouldn’t make it, so breaking up the run into smaller segments definitely made this distance achievable.
I think 2 laps to start and then alternating single laps was a great strategy. Using a single laps strategy you were having a rest of around 45 minutes between runs, if everyone did 2 laps it would be so much longer between laps and much harder to get started again.
I highly recommend CPU if you are starting out in ultra/relay running. It was challenging and rewarding, well organised and friendly and defiantly inspired me to do more.
For those of you that are interested, our supplies list looked something like this:
tent / gazebo
tally board (for counting laps)
fruits (mandarins and bananas)
Bottles of water
sultanas, dried fruit and nuts
sandwiches (Nutella, cheese and vegemite)
Champagne and glasses
Voltaren / Panadol / Nurofen
spare running kit (socks, shoes, pants and top)
visor / hat