The Perfect Race - Zaccy Harris
Words & Images: Zaccy Harris
“I couldn’t have dreamt of a better run.”
These are the words that kept replaying in my head after I crossed the finish line of Ultra Trail Australia 100km in 13 hours and 7 minutes after an incredible day of running through the Blue Mountains.
But first let’s go back a little.
I never really enjoyed running for the sake of just running. It was always a biproduct of other sports I was involved in. I could never mentally get myself to just get out the door for a run. It wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to January 3rd 2019, I’d been playing soccer for most of my life and I was coming off an indulgent off-season over summer and with pre-season training looming, I knew I was out of shape. I decided I’d try and do a few short runs. I laced up my old Nike trainers and ran out the door. In my team I was always known as one of the fitter guys though when it came to just running, I couldn’t even run 5km without stopping. In hindsight, I was probably just trying to run too quick. I had no idea about pacing and would stop at every bubbler I came across for a short break and a quick drink, and yes, I even stopped my watch.
This time was different though, I kept pushing. And after pushing through the mental barrier for the first month, you know the one, where the hardest part is just getting out the door, I started to really enjoy it. I started seeing my times improve and my runs get longer and longer. I was enjoying it. It felt great to get outdoors and just run.
The easier it became, the more I loved it, and the more I wanted to run and learn what my body was capable of.
Over the next few months, I entered as many races as I could and the more races I was involved in the more I discovered…like Ultras!!! “One day, I’m going to run an Ultra.” Something about the mental strength it took to accomplish running 100km (or more) was intriguing to me.
September 2019, just 6 months after I committed to running (I gave up playing soccer before the season officially began), I ran my first 50km trail race, The Ultra Trail Gold Coast (UTGC), in 5 hours 25 minutes. I had such a great morning, not really experiencing any major lows, and upon finishing immediately thought, “What’s next?”
The Brisbane Trail Ultra 110km. “That’s the one. That’s the race I want to be my first 100km Ultra.”
Originally scheduled for July 2020 (postponed to October due to Covid-19) I decided I couldn’t do this alone. Some would say that signing up for a 100km race just 18 months after you began running is naïve and a bit crazy. I agreed. Even though I had a great experience at the UTGC I knew I had a lot to learn. So, I enlisted the help of a coach who over the next few months helped get me into the best shape of my life. I felt like I was physically and mentally ready to tackle the big race.
October 3rd 2020, Race Day. I toed the start line with passion and ambition. Ready to tackle the course it was just me vs the mountains. I said to myself, “Just get it done, time doesn’t matter.”
Leading into the race I had studied the course back to front several times, I compiled a spreadsheet of goal times and paces for each section, I thought the more I knew the better I would run. I didn’t even worry about booking accommodation for the night of the race thinking that I would be finished early enough that my Wife could just meet me at the finish and drive me home. I was very wrong.
As the race went on and the heat climbed to over 30 degrees, the physical and mental fatigue grew stronger and stronger. My mind even created an injury to my left knee that upon reflection the following day, didn’t exist.
I pushed through all the pain and the back and forth of my inner monologue for as long as I could but by 60km I had convinced myself that I was done. I would walk (due to the phantom injury) 10km to the next aid station and call it quits. I was done.
My parents were waiting for me and as I told them my decision, I had no regrets. I was stoked with what I had accomplished that day. I had just ran 20kms further, and 5 hours longer, than any previous run before. I said then and there that I would be back the following year to finish the job.
Shortly after the race my Wife and I found out we were pregnant, and guess when our due date is? The same weekend that BTU is on in 2021. Guess I won’t be back for redemption after all.
I really wanted to run a 100km Ultra before the baby came along so I started looking at what other races I could do and settled on Ultra Trail Australia (UTA), the biggest and most prestigious Ultra in Australia.
Training for UTA went a little differently. I was still being coached, but I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of guys who were also lining up for UTA so most of my long runs were done with at least one other person. It was a great group and we all encouraged each other.
Unlike my preparation for BTU, I went in to UTA without studying or analysing any of the race at all. I briefly looked at the course map and elevation profile when I signed up months earlier but really the only knowledge I had was from what the guys would say during our runs. Though, I did make sure I booked accommodation for the night of the race this time.
A few of them had the goal to run under 14 hours and achieve the coveted silver belt buckle. Initially I thought that was way out of my capabilities. I mean, it was only 7 months earlier that I DNF’d at 70km in 10 hours 45 minutes...I would have to run an extra 30km with over 1000m elevation in a little over 3 hours…impossible. As race day approached however, I was feeling pretty good (perhaps a little too confident) and thought, why the hell not. Let’s have a crack.
I woke up on the morning of the race still unsure if sub 14 was too ambitious. I met a couple of the guys on the start line and thought I’d stay with them for as long as I could, and then just see what happens.
The first 30kms flew by. Running side by side with two friends we were making good time. My legs were already feeling a little sore and I was experiencing some discomfort in my left foot (which never went away the entire race) but I was in such a good headspace that it didn’t matter. I started to move ahead of the boys and reached the next aid station on my own. I refilled and restocked and got out of there before the others arrived.
However, by 45kms I was starting to struggle. After running just 15kms on my own and knowing I wasn’t even at halfway yet, the voices started. Though this time, something was different. That inner monologue stayed entirely positive. Here I was going through one of the toughest sections of the race, on my own, and I felt completely ok with it. I kept repeating things to myself like, “it’s just a day in the mountains,” “how incredible is that view” and “run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, just keep moving,” (one I learnt from the great Dean Karnazes). I also kept reminding myself of something I would tell others when they would ask me, “Why do you want to run 100km?” – “How amazing is it to be able to spend a day in the mountains!” I would repeat these mantras to myself over and over, even out loud at times (when no one was close enough to hear).
All of this got me through what turned out to be the hardest part of my day. By 60km I had caught up to another two friends who I had done a bit of training with. We ran together on and off for the next 20km. Time vanished behind us. We were chatting, cracking jokes, running along the ridge lines with incredible views. Even though we were all hurting you couldn’t help but feel small and in awe of what surrounded us.
I reached the final aid station at 78km and was feeling strong. I had 4 hours to run just 22km to the finish and I began to feel elated. Unless something drastic happened, I knew I was going to do it. I was going to run under 14 hours and claim my Silver belt buckle. It didn’t matter what happened now, I was going to finish UTA100.
I ended up running the final 7km with yet another friend from our running group and we crossed the finish line side by side. I had the biggest smile on my face and was blown away with what I had just accomplished. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better run.
Looking back on the two races, BTU and UTA, I discovered three key difference between my DNF at BTU and success at UTA.
Number one was how much I had learnt about the importance of mantras. Being able to call upon something so simple but so powerful really helped me. They helped distract me, yet at the same time allowed me to be present in the moment and forget about the larger task. They redirected my thinking from the enormity of how much further I had to go and brought me back to the beauty of the present moment. I encourage anyone who has decided to embark on an Ultra journey to find a few mantras that work for them. Either steal ones you’ve heard from others or come up with your own. It doesn’t matter, as long as they work for you.
Secondly, was how much running I did, both in training and during the race, with my friends. Finding like-minded people and running alongside them. Spending all that time together, you just feel so connected. You know that each other is hurting and pushing hard to achieve their own goals, and you encourage each other through the good and the bad, sometimes without uttering a single word. Simply knowing they are on the same course as you helps get you through those difficult moments.
And finally, I realised that the race day itself is the reward, not the result. You spend months and even years training and preparing yourself for a big race and sometimes we forget to enjoy the day when it finally arrives. For me, my day in the Blue Mountains couldn’t have been better. I was so happy to be there and to be capable of running through the mountains with my friends. Every ridge line, each set of stairs, the countless waterfalls and creeks, the volunteers, the spectators, my Wife, and family back home. It all just made me so incredibly happy to be there. And after months and months of training through a Gold Coast summer I realised that this day, this race, is the reward."
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