The North Face 100 Race Report

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‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am wom..’ er, hang on a minute!

I started out thinking this was going to be a bit of a call to arms. A challenge to people to try something different. However during the race, and for some time afterwards all I could think of was why? There just didn’t seem to be any point to running 100km, especially in the dark, at freezing temperatures and up and down mountains. So it changed from ‘challenge yourself’ to ‘for goodness sake don’t do the North Face 100’.

I knew that some barrier would have to break for me to complete the race, either physical or mental. In the end it was mental. I’d come off Six Foot Track, Canberra Marathon and Mt Solitary with nothing left, and none of those events even reached 50km! I knew that it was theoretically possible for people to run 100km, but I didn’t really believe it. And I didn’t really believe I could do it. My race plan had estimates of 8.5 hours to checkpoint 3 (54km) then lots of walking from there. Nobody is more amazed than me that I was able to run a good part of the last 46km. But I can’t really tell you what I thought when Killian described the 100km course with 4500m of elevation ‘fast and flat’, but it’s a two word expression that starts with ‘pig’s’ and rhymes with ‘farce’.

So here was my race- Started in Wave 3 which turned out to be exactly right, and ran with Martyn Dawson and Michael Hahn for a while. Partway through, Martyn streaked ahead and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day. Maybe I’ll try a 3 week taper next time too, Martyn! Checkpoint 1 at 18km was a madhouse, trying to figure out whether to take some layers off, fill my bladder, empty the other one, eat something and get out. In at 2:55 race time and out at 3:01, pretty much on schedule. The next section was along the beautiful Narrowneck ridge, down some nice wide firetrail and a short bit of single track to Tarro’s ladders. Much nicer going down here with a safety setup, absolutely terrifying when you have to climb down the iron spikes in the rock, which we did in training. Down the ridge and follow some fire trail to checkpoint 2- 38km.

By this stage I was wishing I’d put a little more thought into foot care, I was getting big blisters on the balls of both feet, so I went to the medical tent when I got to the checkpoint. In at 5:48 race time (predicted 6:00) out at 6:33. Or to be more accurate, behind the food tent on the grass. There was a sorry assortment of blokes waiting, with a very harassed looking guy repeating ‘I’m not a doctor, but by the look of that, you should pull out now’. One of the guys who had trained with us, Jeff Duncan had turned his ankle and was leaving the course. I asked for some Compeeds, and 20 minutes later the guy came back and said ‘um, I don’t have any but we could strap you up’. Strapped I was, and after entering checkpoint 12 minutes early, I was now half an hour late!

The next section was one we were not allowed to train on. Ironpot Ridge is on private property, and when we got to the climb all I could say was ‘oh, you are f@cking kidding me!’ The climb was bad, the out and back along lichen covered rocks with sheer drops on either side was worse, but the climb down through slippery, talc like dust was just knee destroying. I was actually glad to see a hill ( a nice low hill) after that. Which took us back to some private dirt roads, a decent hill, then single track into checkpoint 3 (54km). In at 8:54 race time (predicted 9:00) out at 9:17. This was the first checkpoint that crew were allowed, and my long suffering wife was there with a cheer! A bit of macaroni and cheese, some delicious salty chips, a boiled egg, refill of bladder and salt tablets, and I was off a little after 4pm, getting back on schedule.

Checkpoint 4 is ‘only’ 16km away, but somehow, this is where the wheels fell of for me. Along Nellies Glen road I was jogging easily, picking off a lot of people who were now reduced to walking, but everybody was still in good spirits. A lot of experienced runners had advised getting up Nellie’s Glen during daylight, but I knew this wasn’t going to happen, so I strapped the head torch on and kept going. At 5.12pm it was still quite light and I commented to someone that we might have 30 minutes of light left. Wrong, at 5.22pm the headlamp went on. At some points up Nellie’s you can see a tiny patch of sky through the trees, the problem was that it wasn’t getting any bigger! At the top of the stairs, we head off onto another track which eventually leads us to some roads and the Katoomba Aquatic Centre, and checkpoint 4 (65km). I had glanced at my watch when I went in, and seeing that it was after 7pm, it looked like my hopes of a sub 20 hour finish were dashed. I was shaking from the cold, I hadn’t eaten enough, my water bladder was still full, and I needed help to get my pack off. I told my wife Sarah that I was ready to pull the pin and drop out. She asked me how the last section was and I tried to describe coming up Nellie’s Glen and just burst into tears. Some macaroni cheese, another boiled egg, water and a protein bar. I looked at my watch and discovered it was only 6.12pm, so I’d been delirious when I checked the time earlier. In at 11:14 race time, out at 12:04. Back on schedule, feeling stronger, I picked up a pot noodle on the way out and was out the door by 7pm. That checkpoint cost me nearly an hour, but I had missed all the signs of dehydration and the cost of not eating.

At this stage if you’re in ok condition you know you’ll finish. A kind of calm settles in and you just want to get the last 35km over with. The stage from checkpoint 4 to 5 is the longest in the race at 26km and also one of the most feared, because it takes in a climb up Kedumba Pass, an 850m climb in 8km. Not steep, but relentless. I’d never been down the Giant Staircase either, so it was a bit of a shock to go down more than 800 stairs in the pitch black, it felt like journey to the centre of the earth! Federal pass had some good runnable sections, and finally hitting Kedumba was a bit of a relief. Not that I enjoy an 8km hill, but there was no pressure to run it, and I knew that checkpoint 5 was at the top. I got to the checkpoint a bit after 11pm (89km), and knew that I was in good shape to finish sub 20 hours. In at 16:12 race time, out at 16:25. Why was this important? You get a bronze buckle for a sub 20 hour finish…….

This was my 2nd quickest checkpoint, my wonderful wife had bought some lemonade to put in the bladder (have you ever tasted Endura Optimiser? It tastes like recycled bile. Unfortunately my body likes it). A bit of food, a quick pep talk from Keith Hong  and off we go. A nice little trot up Tablelands Road into a bunch of houses, then off into the bush again. By this stage I was getting tired, and my feet weren’t reacting quickly enough, leading to some stumbles over rocks and I was forced to slow down a bit. But I knew from the stats that if I just ran a bit more than other people, I’d beat 2:40 for the stage (2:40 is average for that stage for sub 20 hour finishers) and beat 19 hours for the race. I started counting the number of people I passed. By the end I had passed 26 people and even people who got past me (a couple of guys doing marathon pairs -where you run half the race as a tag team) eventually succumbed to my grim determination to get home! I reckon I picked up 40 places in the last 2 stages, I have no explanation for how it was possible after feeling so bad at cp4. My last stage time of apx 2:15 put me through the gates at 1:40am, exhausted and happy. I was still buzzing from the caffeine in the gels, so I had a shower and asked Sarah to put out some clothes for me (if I’d dressed myself it could have been an epic fashion fail). After the shower I bypassed the clothes and went straight to bed. My final time of 18:39 was everything I had hoped for.

It turns out I was kidding myself a bit about the number of people I passed. When looking at the stats I spent so much time at the checkpoints that I needed to pass those people to keep my place! In reality I lost 47 places between checkpoint 2 and leaving checkpoint 4, then made up 56 places between cp4 to finish, giving an overall advantage of only 9 spots. Martyn Dawson had a very experienced triathlete crewing for him, and got him in and out quickly. Martyn lost 13 places between checkpoint 3 and 4 (the only time he lost any places), but overall made up 63 places to get 16th in his age category. Congratulations Martyn!

A few things I learned about Ultra Runners-
1. there are noises in the bush that you can’t explain by ‘squeaky gravel’
2. Nobody cares if you have squeaky gravel
3. Ultra runners want to help you, sprinters want to beat you
4. Normal people don’t understand. My mum asked me if I felt like I was going to die!
5. Ultra runners have an opposite relationship to food than dieters- ‘which one of these has more kilojoules? OK, give me that one’

Quote of the day was from Pat, who I met halfway up Kedumba- ‘I’m going to bloody finish this even if it puts me in hospital again’. Um, ok……. second place goes to Tom Landon-Smith, the Race Director commenting about the amount of blood left on the course- ‘it’s not a mountain bike race people!’

Now I don’t ride my road bike much, and it’s considered a bit dangerous around Sydney, but if running isn’t dangerous- why does my mandatory equipment include a snake bite bandage, first aid kit, space blanket, whistle, compass, extra food and 2 lights?

OK, I promised my wife I’d never do the whole thing again, but who wants to do marathon pairs relay next year?

Finally, a salute to my fellow runners. I met a lot of people that day and night, swapped a lot of stories and took my mind off the pain. NRG had quite a few entrants and I’m ecstatic to say we all finished. Special mention to Sebastian Perhauz who beat 14 hours and received a silver buckle, and Ian Gallagher who has a freakish running talent and came 15th! And apologies to the ladies who I didn’t put on the list before the race, I went a bit cross eyed when scanning the 700 entrants. Here’s a few you may know, not all are NRG members-

367 Ian Gallagher11:32 and 15th overall!
205Sebastian Perhaus 13:36
396Rob Mattingly16:50
780Martyn Dawson16:59
577Michael McGrath17:01
95Helen Macdonald17:24
833Michael Hahn18:20
27Adam Connor18:39
648Margaret Krempff21:20

To all of you, I’m in awe of your achievement. And special thanks to those who donated time, maps, advice and so on for the training. Especially Steve Bruggeman who put the training course together.

If you need some motivation to do something crazy like The North Face 100 next year, consider this- as of May last year I had never run a half marathon distance. Ian also claims to be a new runner but I think it’s more likely that he has been cloned from the sweat glands of Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe. And he takes my ribbing with surprisingly good humour so I’m hoping to get away with it one more time.

Maybe I have an unhealthy attraction to things with ‘Ultra’ in the name. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to Google ‘Ultra Drinking Championships’