The consummate ‘quiet achiever’, Katherine Macmillan is one of those reassuring faces you see at the start line of an ultra, calmly stretching her quads, confirming your belief that there is order in the universe. Asking Kathy what her target time is for the race is like calibrating the altitude reading on your Suunto Ambit watch (or in my case, Garmin Fenix, but that wasn’t the best example because Garmin users are not the types to calibrate their altitude – such behaviour is for Suunto nerds) – I trust Kathy’s honest assessment of how she’s going to go and I habitually know a reliable offset for how far behind her I should be. It’s called the K-Mac Index (as opposed to the Big Mac Index).
I have decided to reproduce our little Q&A pretty much verbatim, although I’m going to start with a summary of some of her results, which actually blew me away when I looked at it. For some reason, I had had this impression of a journeyman who, over years, slogged her way up the field from the middle of the pack, gradually improving over time to eventually start winning and placing, but it turns out that I kind of made that up. While there is no doubt her improvements have been meteoric, she has actually been haunting podiums for years. It’s no coincidence that her initials are ‘KM’.
Some Races & Results
2010 – 1st Walhalla 50k
2011 – 1st Mt Macedon 50k
2012 – 2nd Cradle Mountain 82k; 1st Alpine Challenge 100mi; 1st Spiny Cray 58k
2013 – 2nd Cradle Mountain 82k; 1st Mt Macedon 50k; 1st You Yangs 50mi; 3rd GNW 100mi; 2nd GOW 100k; 1st Duncan’s Run 100k
2014 – 4th Bogong2Hotham 64k; 2nd Cradle Mountain 82k; 9th Tarawera 75k, or so (cyclone-shortened event); 3rd Buffalo Stampede 76k; 2nd Canberra 50k; 1st Mt Macedon 50k; 7th TNF 100k; 1st You Yangs 100mi; 2nd GOW 100k; 1st Marysville 50k
2015 – 3rd Cradle Mountain 82k; 2nd Maroondah Dam 50k; 6th TNF 100k
JL: So, when did you start running?
KM: That’s a tough question because I have always been a runner to some degree. I did not join the cross country team at school, but I used to run around the block a bit.
My first year at Melbourne Uni coincided with the formation of the Melbourne University Girls Aussie Rules Side (MUGARS) and I signed up in O-Week. I played for a few years, but was pretty hopeless – I did not have great ability and was gutless with the physical stuff – being what was termed a ‘lurker’. The team went on to much bigger and better things once I left, probably not coincidently!
At a reunion years later, my old coach told me ‘I remember you – you could run all day’ and I think that pretty much summed it up. I enjoyed playing football because there was a lot more opportunity to run than there was on a netball court.
At the start of 2007 my younger sister told me that she wanted to train for a marathon and that she thought we should do it together. Sure, I said, it was on my bucket list.
To cut a long story short, she packed up and left to work in the ‘States halfway through the year and, come October, I lined up at the start line of the Melbourne Marathon alone. Things went well until my knee gave out at the 42k mark and I limped around the MCG for a finish time of 4:18. My knee quickly recovered and I thought I could do better, so took aim at a sub-4 marathon. In retrospect, I should have paid attention to my knee and had it looked at back then – it would come back to haunt me years later and resulted in a very painful 40 kilometres at B2H [Bogong2Hotham]. The dreaded ITB!
I ran a sub-4 marathon on my second attempt at the distance – Canberra in 2008, and went on from there, eventually getting my time down to 3:24 before switching to the dark side.
JL: I remember when I first started seeing your name. I saw you as being a strong runner, but perhaps more a middle-front packer (albeit, in the men’s field) than the fairly consistent place-getter you have become, did you realise from early on that you could reach the level you’re at, and you had a plan to get there? Or was it more a case of suddenly deciding to step it up? What was that thought process/learning process like?
KM: I had always considered myself a middle-pack runner, too. Honestly the reason I moved over to the dark side [ultramarathons] after several years of running marathons, was that I felt I was a tortoise and better suited to the longer events. I still feel I am a very one-paced runner. I have one speed but I can keep it up for a long period of time.
The aim with my running is always to do better. I made some big steps forward after attending a couple of weekend training camps with Matt Cooper, held in the high country. I am very much self-coached, so receiving some advice from a top runner really helped me improve. I tweaked my running style and mental approach to racing and it helped a lot.
But really, it is a lot of small steps forward. Often I have learned the hard way – I have made mistakes that have caused me discomfort for countless hours on the trails. Identifying the problem and moving to fix it for next time helped me progress and improve my performances. I find that 100 milers are the biggest teachers. I have run three so far and two of those had me finishing in a less than ideal state. There are things that you can ignore over 100km that slap you in the face in a 100 miler and make you pay attention.
JL: Can you tell me how your training evolved in that journey?
KM: I spent a year racing as many times as I could afford to. I think it was 2012. I enjoyed the social aspect of it and loved being out on some brilliant trails. I had a great time. I did not do a lot of training during the year – it was mainly tapering and recovering. But in that year I built my base and my body became comfortable with running the long distances.
In the last couple of years I have backed off the racing and picked specific goal races to focus on. I have been able to train harder and add a lot of quality sessions to my training which have helped built up speed.
JL: Did you have preconceptions of yourself that needed to be overcome, before you could start believing in your own potential? Did you look at other runners and assume you couldn’t get to that level?
KM: With trail running I am in it for myself. I battle the course rather than fellow competitors.
I remember a few big moments in my running where I had to battle my demons:
- My very first ultra – the Walhalla 50k in 2010. I passed the magic 42.2k mark and I remember my body feeling suddenly drained of energy for no good reason just because my head was saying “Hey there, you’ve just passed marathon distance. I think that is the limit of what we are meant to be able to run. Shouldn’t we just stop now?” It was like my legs no longer wanted to work anymore…because of a number (admittedly it was also two-thirds of the way up a bloody big long hill) [JL: I love that hill at Walhalla]. Overcoming that and being able to fly downhill for the final 3k was a big thrill [JL: that descent is 4k at least].
- In my second ultra, the Razorback 64k, I found myself clinging to a snow pole halfway up Swindlers Spur. I was incredibly negative on myself, telling myself I was not an ultra runner and I had no business being out on the trails, attempting those sorts of distances. I was really, really hard on myself. Eventually I managed to crawl up to the top of the hill and into the Mount Loch carpark checkpoint which was managed (actually he was the only one there) by ultra legend Mal Gamble. Mal sat me down in a chair, fed me fruit cake and told me that I was doing great and that I was second female at that point. I was so chuffed by this news, I sprang out of the chair and managed to limp/stagger/hobble the 20k home. I was later to find out that what Mal had neglected to tell me was that all the girls behind me had either gotten lost or pulled out and that I was also LAST female at that point! Worth a chuckle later.
Of course the demons come out to play during most ultras that I run at some stage, but I find I am much better at beating them back into place. It’s the confidence you gain from having a lot of success.
At the recent TNF100, an ‘A-race’ for me, I had a lot of problems in the first 35k. I lost a contact-lens twice and had to stop to replace them, losing a lot of momentum. Then my stomach started to do cartwheels and I had to visit the bushes, losing even more ground. Instead of panicking and letting those demons that kept yelling ‘you suck at this, go home’ come out to play, I just kept moving forward and found that things did improve. I was able to run the last half fairly strongly and manage a PB [JL: and 6th place!] so felt pretty good about that.
JL: Is there a female runner, either locally or internationally, that comes to mind first in terms of inspiration/role model? What is it you most admire about them?
KM: I think there are a couple that come to mind here – Beth Cardelli and Gill Fowler. I have spent a lot of time eating their dust in races and am in total awe about the consistency of their performances and their ability on all sorts of terrain. The tougher the course, the better they get.
JL: What would you say was your favourite event/race to date – either due to the result, experience or combination of both. What made it so great? Just a pick a stand out, if you don’t have a ‘favourite’, per se.
KM: I would have to go back to my first GOW [Great Ocean Walk] in 2011, which was also my first 100k race. An amazing course and it was particularly special that year because there was heaps of mud in the first section leading up to the Blanket Bay checkpoint. I love mud – there just isn’t enough of it on Australian trails for my liking [JL: you should have been at Macedon on Sunday!].
I had struggled with an 80k race a couple of months before and had to walk the last 10k home, so I came into the race very nervous about the extra distance and whether I would be able to finish.
Shortly after the low point in the race for me, Johanna Beach, with that infamous kilometre of soft sand [JL: and that guaranteed bastard headwind], I joined up with ultra legend Paul Every and pretty much stayed with him for the last 40k or so.
I can remember running the last couple of kilometres to the finish line and thinking “Wow, not only am I about to finish 100k, which I didn’t know I was capable of doing, but I am finishing it running strongly and uphill to boot!”
It was an awesome race for me in so many ways. Sure, I have gone back and run GOW much quicker than I did on that day, but it can’t match that first experience.
JL: Tell us about your career in veterinary sciences. Do you feel a connection between your work with animals and your relationship with the bush/trails? Do you have a canine running partner?
KM: I have been working as a vet for 14 years now and I love it. It is a very challenging and rewarding career. I do not think that there is a connection between working with animals and a relationship to the bush – sorry! But I do know that my ultra running helps me with work.
Work days are generally long and frequently intense, but I find that what I learn out on the trails can really help – breathe deeply, take one step at a time and take time to enjoy the views/fun parts of the day.
My chief training partner is my 5 year old Working Kelpie, Rikki. She is an incredible athlete – she doesn’t really like going on really long runs but she will get back from a 35k jaunt and look fresh, while I will be feeling it in my legs. She loves running trails and any run with her will quickly become an impromptu fartlek session if she spots a wombat, wallaby or rabbit.
JL: Have you adjusted your work arrangements to suit your running goals? Is it a temporary arrangement?
KM: I have adjusted my work arrangements recently to fit with buying a new home and taking on a mortgage (as in, working extra shifts whenever I can). Running is squeezed in around the edges – in the dark and the cold. Hopefully this is a temporary arrangement!
I remember reading someone state that, as a non-professional athlete you will never achieve the performances you are physically capable of as a runner. Because running will always be behind work, friends and family on the priority list. You just have to accept that. I think that is very true.
JL: How do you plan out your races? Do you know far in advance which ones you’re going to ‘race’ and which are just there for the running, or is it a little more speculative than that? Have there been any big surprises where you’ve found yourself placing or winning unexpectedly?
KM: I usually plan a few ‘A’ races for the year where I will aim to peak and run a good time, and I work around that. There are other races I will use in the build up, or just run because they are brilliant courses and I love running them.
Probably the most unexpected placing I had was 2nd in the Canberra 50k in 2014. One: it was a road race, which wasn’t my forte. Secondly: I had run the inaugural Buffalo Stampede eight days prior, a race I totally underestimated – I was so sore with DOMS after that run that I could barely walk all week. I boarded the plane wondering if I was wasting my time, and I was concerned I would be in for a long hobble and that I might not even make it back to my hotel in time to check out.
But for some reason, everything seemed to be OK on the day and I managed a 2nd place, along with my goal time of sub-4 hours. I really shouldn’t have managed it! There is a photo of me on the podium with my short stocky trail running legs next to these two, tall road running gazelles. Pretty funny.
JL: What’s your injury avoidance strategy? Have you had many setbacks? What do you think is the most important thing you do to try and stay injury free?
KM: I think my work schedule prevents me from over-training, which is probably key to injury prevention. I am not afraid of taking a day off if I am sore or just generally run down.
I guess I am fairly lucky in that I have been relatively injury free despite racing fairly heavily at times. My worst injury was a torn glute that kept me from running for a few weeks a few years ago.
For the past couple of years I have had an ankle problem that I have had to manage. It makes me a little less agile and confident with technical terrain, but hopefully I will be able to keep it under control.
JL: Where do you stand in the big diet debate? Vegie? Paleo? Vegan? Ketogenic? Whatever you feel like?
KM: I am very suspicious of fads when it comes to food, so I happily sit outside of all the food cults. I believe in eating nutritious, unprocessed food. My diet is mainly vegetarian but I will still eat meat and fish.
On race day, however, the nutritious aspect of the diet gets thrown away. Simple carbs mixed with fats and plenty of caffeine are the order of the day. My breakfast is typically donuts and cookies and during the race it is chocolate bars and coke that get me through.
JL: If you were to set a really big, gnarly goal that you’re not sure would be logistically/financially feasible for you or within your capability – if there were no constraints at all – what would that goal be? (or have you already set it….?)
KM: I would love to do some of the big international trail ultras. I had an entry into UTMB last year but unfortunately had to pull out for work/financial reasons. So I have a few on my hit list – UTMB, Western States, La Reunion. I would also like to do some more running in NZ, because there are a lot of good trails over there (and lots of mud).
KM: 2015 is meant to be the year of the sub-3 marathon for me. I have entered Gold Coast but I do not think I will be in good enough shape to run that time by early July, so will focus on Melbourne Marathon instead. Even though this means I will be missing GOW, which is on the same weekend, which will nearly kill me.
But when you have a marathon PB of 3:03 and you are getting older and slower each year, I know I have to crack that magic 3-hour mark soon, or I will miss my opportunity.
The most difficult thing will be doing the necessary speed work. I am allergic to intervals.
JL: Well, I wish Kathy the very best of luck for Melbourne Marathon this year, where I will also be going for a PB, albeit around ten minutes slower. Based on the reliability of the K-Mac Index, I have every faith that she will meet her goal…and somewhat less faith in my own. I look forward to seeing her calmly stretching her quads at the start line.