Lessons from Training for + Running Ultra Trail Australia


Ultra Trail Australia or UTA is basically a massive trail running party, held over 4 days in the Blue Mountains. You can sign up for either the 11, 22, 50 or 100 kilometre course. It may seem extreme but Joanna Woutersz went from hiking to trail running to ULTRA trail running in less than six months and here’s her story…

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About 19 years ago, I went on my first ‘real’ bushwalk in the Blackheath in Australia’s beautiful Blue Mountains. I was an inner-city girl back then. I fell over, grazed my knee, sat on a rock and cried. My partner later took me to a lookout and said ‘can you imagine living here?’. I replied, ‘I would feel like my life had ended if I lived here...’

Fast track 10 years and we moved to the Blue Mountains, in the midst of a deep, cold winter, complete with a most gorgeous newborn baby in tow. I went from a career driven woman living in a modern, one-bedroom inner city apartment to living in a small mountain village without knowing a soul, in a four-bedroom house. At that time, you had to go to the post office to get money out from the bank! I spent many days, weeks and months, walking the streets with my curly-headed baby in a mountain buggy pram. 

Fast track to today and that baby is now nearly 11. Last year, in the midst of one of the worst years of my personal life, I said to a good friend, ‘I think I might do Ultra Trail in May next year’. At that stage, I had done little running other than around the block and half-heartedly trying to do Couch to 5k. Even still, my friend encouraged me to go for it!

What training for Ultra Trail looks like…from the very beginning!

I started doing more running around my neighbourhood and in December 2018, I begun hiking by myself. I remember my first time hiking Katoomba’s Giant Staircase. I guess it isn’t easy to forget 900 steps! I start adding to these hikes to become longer as well as more challenging; for example, I hiked the Staircase then to Furber Steps and up the Prince Henry Cliff Walk. I have found that hiking is not only good for the soul but it helps build muscle and endurance which is essential for running.

To work on my running, I joined a local group, Blue Mountains Fitness, that trains specifically for Ultra Trail. For my first 11km run, I placed myself in the ‘Turtles’ group as I didn’t even have a proper backpack. Halfway through, they changed me to the ‘Hares’. I finished the run out in front, alongside a woman who does 50km triathlons. I don’t think I will ever forget the euphoria I felt when I knew I was front of pack or when I climbed those last steps to the finish. Running with Blue Mountains Fitness has not only given me great tips and perspective but I’ve also met so many amazing, like-minded people whose support continues to make a big difference.

I also swim as part of my training (about a hour each day), do strength training such as squatting and of course, stretching.

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What I have learnt

Trail running has taught me so much about finding my pace, the value of endurance, pushing through obstacles, challenging myself and gaining strength in the face of adversity. 

It has taught me to trust my body; to build trust in myself and what I am capable of doing.

And yes, it is mind over body in some ways. But it is also about body over mind. Our bodies have a natural wisdom all of their own –if only we nurture, trust and treat them properly. There were many times during my fitness building journey over the last year when it would have been easier to listen to my mind, particularly when I was anxious or upset. But instead, I went for a walk, a run or a swim and I always felt better afterwards. Movement is truly everything.

My biggest achievement

In May, I finally ran my first Ultra Trail and came 6th place womens in my age group. Of all my achievements in life, this is one of my proudest - not only because it is amazing to start trail running only three months before and get this place, but because I know what it took emotionally, spiritually and physically to get this result. 

And as for those mountains, that once symbolised the ‘end of my life’, they are now my peace and my place of connection with the earth. Nature has healed me as a woman and as a mother.

The other day when I was faced with a particularly difficult personal challenge, a friend reminded me, ‘Jo, you can literally run up mountains.’ And when the difficult day came, I felt that the mountains were indeed inside me. Not bad for a woman who once cried when she grazed her knee bushwalking!

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All images are thanks to Ultra Trail Australia