It’s a brand new part of the Ultra-Trail Australia family, but some things never change. It was an old-fashioned duel up the dreaded Furber Steps that decided the winner of the first Pace UTA22.
The 22km race across the Jamison Valley from Wentworth Falls to Katoomba attracted a field of nearly 800 runners on a perfect autumn Blue Mountains day on Friday, but it was the final kilometre of agonising climb up to the Scenic World finish line that allowed Sydney runner David Byrne to cross the finish line ahead of all of them.
Among the big field were some people content to walk the entire distance. At the other extreme were elite runners, including local champion Brendan Davies, who famously won the UTA 100km in 2013.
For most of the race it was a flying Davies so far out in front that those coming behind couldn’t even see him. Davies, however, didn’t go into the race expecting to win. The 39-year-old was using the UTA22 principally to “get the quads toughened up for road running”. In a fortnight, he’s going to fulfil a long-held dream of competing in the famous Comrades Marathon in South Africa – a 90km road race and the world’s oldest ultra-distance running event.
“I was quite surprised to be alone and in front with 3km to go,” Davies said. “I was starting to have dreams of crossing that finish line in front when I heard the sound of footsteps behind me and David was there. We ran together for about a kilometre and he made his move just before Furber Steps. I thought if I could stay with him up the steps I could get past him but he was always 10m to 20m in front of me. He was just too good.”
Byrne, 35, was amazed to have triumphed over one of his trail running idols.
“I honestly didn’t think I would beat him. I got in front of him and we just slogged it out up the stairs. He was behind me all the way up. It was a really tough way to finish. We were just hauling ourselves [using the metal hand rails]. I was on my hands for a bit. It was embarrassing. It was definitely a mind-over-matter situation because I had nothing left.”
Byrne finished the race in 1:43:27, with Davies 15 seconds behind.
The first woman across the finish line was 24-year-old Stephanie Auston from Merimbula on the NSW South Coast.
Usually a road runner, this was Auston’s first trail running event but won’t be her last after she led the female field most of the way to finish in 2:03:28, almost 10 minutes ahead of second-placed female Lucy Bartholomew.
Auston said that while Merimbula has plenty of hills, it has no steps to match Furber, and “I can’t wait for next year to do it again”.
On Thursday afternoon, Davies had competed in another new event, the Scenic World UTA951. It’s a time trial that sees runners climb more than 200m over little more than a kilometre as they slog up all 951 of the Furber Steps.
Could that have robbed him of the ability to catch Byrne on the steps in the 22? “It might have cost me a little bit going up the steps, but only a couple of seconds,” Davies said.
“I think what probably cost me going up the steps wasn’t yesterday’s race but the 21km before I got to the steps today when I hammered myself. I really enjoyed both races and I wouldn’t change anything.”