The North Face 100 2014- Stair Master Edition- Race Report

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‘But I thought you were fast!’

I’d walked past a lady who had just finished, and she said ‘I know you- you’re the guy that, that, um….’ So I heaped her out a little by mentioning the thing that I’m most known for ‘I run the Unofficial TNF training page on Facebook

Instantly she looks dubious ‘but I ran with you today- I thought you were FAST!’

I got a good chuckle out of that but- “Nope, I’m a middle aged bloke who haunts the middle of the pack, I write more about running than I actually run, and have no particular talent or ambitions. But I love to help others’

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Some of the NRG Runners- the ones who could still walk on Sunday

But let’s get back to the start. We’d done the final 2 sections a couple of times in training and decided that Brendan Davies was right- this new course was going to be about 1-2 hours slower. However when I actually looked at the course description I figured that they’d simply moved a bunch of the tough bits to the end. There is still a few ‘free’ road km at the start, and the only other difference is the soul destroying descents and ascents from CP4-5.

Who's the lucky boy who got to carry the unreleased Salomon Sense Flyweight Jacket? ME!

Who’s the lucky boy who got to carry the unreleased Salomon Sense Flyweight Jacket? ME! Thanks to Salomon Australia

I was reasonably well prepared, training had been spotty but I’d come good a few weeks before the race. I’d decided this was not going to be a big push as I have other stuff to do this year, but I think that’s the voice of a scared little boy worried about the new course. Then I also had to deal with the blasé old man who had done the race 3 times before and wasn’t worried about anything. Both of them got me into trouble.

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The dark dark night before the race

I’d decided that I’d be happy with a sub 18 hour time, and told lots of people. This took a lot of pressure off, but I should have been a bit more aggressive and put a bit more into training, I took the easy option.

Saturday morning arrives and we get up at 5am to get organised. Then couldn’t find my sunglasses. I always leave them in a very visible place and I freaked out a bit about not having them- I knew it was going to be a bright sunny day and I am susceptible to headaches from sun exposure. I also left my Ventolin puffer on the table at the accommodation. I don’t really need it most of the time, but I do get a tight chest when running in cold air and it does help. That took the wind out of my sails, then we were in a rush to get to the start, picked up Mike McGrath, Ben Rollins and Ian Rowe (and possibly one other?) and headed off. Then the sports field parking was closed off and we had to park on the street, I forgot my sports drink that I always drink at the start, went back to the car to get it and missed my start wave!

So I headed off in wave 4 instead of wave 3, my head a bit messed up because of all the mistakes, but I had one thing going for me- all the blokes in wave 4 who wanted to beat me would now have to finish more than 5 minutes in front instead of simply catching up to me……

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I think Joe Hedges added the motion blur- I wasn’t going that fast!

Off we went and I spent some time running with Tim Lyndon (who finished in 13:55 to get a silver buckle), and we settled in for some fun….. down the Furber steps and across Dardenelles Pass to the landslide, where someone (NOT me) dropped a fart that would have been banned by the Geneva Convention. This was the start of 16.5 hours of completely inappropriate conversations. Ultra running is such a glamorous sport.

We were held up maybe 1-3 minutes at the landslide, but not enough to destroy anyones race and it’s always nice to have a break!

Up the Golden Staircase I had my first bit of positive news. In previous years I’d struggled up here and had to step aside several times to let people past. This year I only had to do it because I was talking too much, rather than about to die. I know it is a few km earlier on this new course, but believe me, it’s not the extra 5km, it’s those bloody stairs! Running Curry Mountain reps definitely helped here, unfortunately looks like I have to keep them up!

My race plan was to carry no fluids for the first 10km, but my carrying capacity was made up of 2x front bottle 750ml each and a squishy hand held of 500ml. I carried 500ml of water in that but didn’t need it because of the 600ml sports drink I’d had at the start. As per my plan I filled the 2 bottles at CP1, grabbed some fruit and took off. Race time into CP1 was 1:26 but this was not recorded by the timing mats. I saw Martyn Dawson, Tanya Carroll and David Madden here looking happy so we all took off hoping to murder the others in the next section. So along Narrowneck we went, and this was where I met Duncan Bell, a former Melbourneite doing his first TNF. I had a fantastic chat with him, and although we finished only minutes apart hardly saw him for the rest of the day. In fact what happened was he was running faster than me but I was spending less time in checkpoints. Sometimes old age and treachery does win hey!

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I got talking to Damon Roberts who has come along to some of the training runs, and we descended Mt Debert into Medlow Gap and headed off towards CP2, Dunphy’s Campground. I hadn’t tightened up my shoelaces enough and my toes were bashing into the front of my shoes. I’d made a promise to myself to fix this at the CP, but got distracted by going to medical. I asked the guy if he had any Ventolin, which he did, and after a couple of puffs I was on my way. Adam Darwin had come over to see if I was ok and taken off. The Ventolin had very little effect but as the day was getting warm I just wanted it for prevention I guess. I caught Adam Darwin and we had a little chat to the bottom of Ironpot Ridge, then I steeled myself for this vicious climb.

I managed to get nearly half way up before my calves started to cramp, and I started screaming. This is only about 32km into the race but I’d forgotten my race plan which was to take 2x salt tabs at 20km and 1-2 every 10km after that. Another blow to the confidence! But why was it so bad so early? Maybe because I’d eaten some of my wifes’ hot chips the day before and needed to drink loads of water? Maybe because this year it was a little hotter than previous years? I don’t know. One more clue is this- although I felt I was taking in loads of fluid, my wee was telling me that I was dehydrated all day, and I did eventually get quite sick of drinking Endura.

Last year Andy DuBois had emailed me after the race and said ‘you could go 20 minutes faster along this section’ – he’s right, but it wasn’t going to happen this year either! Along the top I saw 3 runners helping a female who was on the ground screaming from cramps, I gave them 3 salt tabs and moved on. My cramps came back when coming back on the out and back which is a little scary with the sheer drops on each side but I made it without further incident.

The descent off Ironpot is horrible. It’s pretty much the entire reason why I was wearing my Hoka Mafates, but at least this year the dust was a little less like talcum powder and I only saw one or two falls. About 1km on I saw Kieron Blackmore who looked to be having a tough day, I couldn’t do anything to help so I moved on. After that there’s a couple of creek crossings and then a short, steep ascent to meet back up with Megalong Valley road. My whole leg seemed to seize up here, just as a whole bunch of runners passed me. I’m sure it looked pretty comical!

By this stage I was getting passed a lot and I knew that I couldn’t really push on too much without aggravating the cramps. I should point out that I NEVER thought I wouldn’t finish- I was managing the things that went wrong without too much drama. I’d already decided not to compete with the guys I normally dice with so I had no pressure, and apart from not being able to move very fast and my feet starting to hurt (I STILL hadn’t tightened my laces) I was having a good day.

I did finally catch up with one guy who did a massive power chunder right in front of me, so I asked if he was ok. He didn’t look too good but unfortunately he seemed to speak no English. I reassured him that it was only 5-6km to the checkpoint, which he seemed to understand and I carried on. Damon caught me on the big hill out of Dunphy’s and said ‘I don’t remember this hill!’ and I agreed that it’s not one of the epic climbs that you remember, but it’s bad enough to make you have a little cry inside. We made good time on the road into CP3, but again I couldn’t use any serious speed because of the cramps.

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Possibly the last time I looked serious during the race

Checkpoint 3 is great because it’s the first time you get to see a bag with your own stuff in it. I’d packed a 600ml coke and that was the first thing I knocked the top off. I dumped some rubbish, picked up a flask of gel and took off. This has got to be my fastest ever time at CP3, I’ve always been a bit slower before but I think this might be because it’s been a bit later in the race, and I mentally view it as an opportunity to rest, whereas this year I felt like I needed to get on and finish.

I’d walked out of CP3 still holding my Coke and realised I’d have to carry it to the next checkpoint. Probably should have spent an extra 20 seconds to drink the lot and dispose of the bottle, oh well. Along Six Foot Track I saw Nigel Huband, who I thought should be way ahead of me, but it was nice to chat for a minute. He was lamenting his decision not to bring along any bacon flavoured gels (yes they do exist), but I was trying to coax my shattered shell into running the flats and he soon took off to brighten someone else’s day.

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CP4, but not everyone likes my brand of comedy

It’s really nice to know that you’ll get into CP4 (Katoomba Aquatic Centre) during daylight. In my 3 previous attempts at this race, I’d only managed to get in AND out in daylight once. But of course it’s now at 57km instead of 65km so we were probably an hour earlier. I ran through my mental checklist when approaching the centre and then got really confused about what I was doing. Ended up having to go from one side of the centre to the other a couple of times before getting all of my stuff together. Picked up my fleece, head torch and spare battery (yes I had little ones for the daylight hours). Time- I knew from previous years that getting to CP3 at 54km within 8 hours was a good goal and would contribute to a good time, so this year with CP4 at 57km I figured 8.5 hours would be nice. Sure enough, I made it in 8:16, so pretty much on target. I also knew from doing the last 2 sections twice before that I could do them in 9 hours or 7 hours. Seven hours would get me sub 16, but 8 hours was much more likely! Drank my next coke and put the bottle back in my bag, picked up some noodles and headed out. Through the park, across the swamp and into another park where the track leads to Echo Point, where I saw Martyn Dawson sitting at a park bench. The poor guy had blown his ITB and was pulling out. He’s had a great lead up to the race, running strong and far, but sometimes it’s just things that we can’t control. He’s tougher than me, so I reckon he’ll be back. I sat down with him and ate my noodles, left, came back to collect the fleece that I’d forgotten and hit the track again.

Coming across the park was Beth Cardelli (who welcomed me by name! Wow!), she was in casual gear so I figured she had finished her race already. I later found out she was a DNS but whatever happened I’m sure she will be back stronger than ever.

Up at Echo Point all of the local tourists were making a big noise when they saw runners, it was excellent to get some recognition from these people who sometimes view us as a bit of a pain, it was a great buzz. Down the Giant Staircase I got behind a group of people including the legendary Greg Brown, who I met a C2K last year when he was running and I was crewing for Jane Trumper. He was pretty hard to miss as he had a koala teddy bear strapped to the back of his pack. Mate if you want to scare the tourists, paint some blood around its mouth…..

During this descent there were a couple of women behind us discussing if they were dehydrated so of course I yelled out to a bunch of compete strangers ‘what colour is your wee?’ I heard crickets.

Back on to Dardenelles Pass and into the most hellish part of the whole race. In the last 2 sections you go down into the valley more than 2.5 times (perhaps 800-1000m ascent and descent each time) and at least 1.5 of those is in this section. If you take out the 3km from Hordern Rd to CP5, that means you hit a possible 2000m of climbing in 18km. It’s f/ing hideous. But pretty. Did I mention how pretty? I got to the water stop near Conservation Hut and grabbed a few lollies, oops one of them was a black jelly bean. Normally not a problem, but this time it provoked gut problems that were to plague me for the rest of the race. Not bad, but enough to be uncomfortable. I shouldn’t complain though, I have iron guts compared to most people. Another bad cramp going up some stairs, more salt tabs and at 5:07pm I had to use my head torch for the first time when I went into a lush, slightly hidden under cliff ‘valley’. Just before 6pm the head torch went on full time. It was nice to see Wentworth Falls finally because that meant I would be climbing out Rocket Point Track to Hordern road and some actual running for the first time in a while.

Out onto Kings Tableland Rd a runner who had passed me several times said ‘I can’t really tell if we are going uphill’ and I replied ‘we are, but we go downhill after the next corner’. Sorry runner I meant ‘after the next 3 corners!’. I saw Allison Lilley along here, she was supporting, and when I got into Queen Victoria Hospital CP5, I was mobbed by helpers! That’s pretty good for someone who had no crew!

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Pick the NUTR

Tylana Woodward (who should have been running but pulled out with an injury and then decided to help- aren’t ultra runners awesome?) filled up my bottles, Kath Carty went through my checkpoint list with me, Andrew Bowen hovered in the background trying to look menacing as the grim sweeper, and Kate McElligott got the photos. It was like a Formula 1 pit stop- I knew that I had some food on my that I’d been carrying from the start, so I didn’t pick up much more. Andy said I didn’t have to carry the fleece as I was leaving before 7:30pm (it was apx 7:10pm) so I ditched it. ! drank my 600ml Coke, picked up some lollies and a (pre peeled) mandarin, snarfed down some watermelon and headed out into the night. The mathematical machinations were in overdrive now- to make a sub 16 hour time I needed to finish in 3:40 or less. I knew I needed 20 minutes to climb the last 976 stairs up Furber (for the pernickety- yes I counted them. This includes stairs that go down, does not include drainage channels, but does include one or two stairs that don’t have much ‘rise’. I’d say overall it’s pretty accurate, let’s say 976 +/- 2 stairs). So I had 3:20 to make 22km. There’s 8.5km down to Jamison Creek, I figured if I could make it to Jamison Creek in an hour, I would have 2:20 to do the last 13.5km. An average over this terrain of 10min/km would give me 5 minutes spare. Would my body rise to the challenge? Um, no.

Watch out for this guy. In fact, you can't really miss him......

Watch out for this guy. In fact, you can’t really miss him……

What actually happened was this- I made Jamison Creek in about 1:10 (I think, can’t be sure), but my average over those last 13.5km varied from 9:30min/km to 15min/km. I just couldn’t give a toss about going any faster, so my next challenge became beating my 2012 time of 16:34. I was pretty sure I had this in the bag, but I couldn’t relax. Happy to get to the old sewerage works and head into the single track again. There’s some sharp uphill then you head back along Dardenelles Pass to the foot of the Furber Stairs. I felt like I was moving pretty well here, but my speed was atrocious. At the bottom of the stairs I dumped my last fluids and hit the climb. It was a brutal as expected. My legs were not cooperating, so I had my gloves on and pulled myself up using the handrails. Distracting my mind by counting the stairs and looking up occasionally to see the bright lights at the top- you could hear the crowd, it was very comforting!

I finally hit the top of the stairs and went across the walkway, I turned off my headlamp kind of hoping I could make a quiet slink across the line, but then the crowd started to roar. I couldn’t believe that so many people were still so vocal at this time of night and so I lifted my hands up a bit higher and the crowd got louder! This encouraged me to do a heel clap across the line (I’ve never been able to do that before) and so it was over. A few seconds before the next minute ticked over got me a 16:25 and my second best result in this race from 4 attempts. Very happy as my aim was sub 18 hours. It did look like sub 16 was available at some stage, but I don’t care. I took it pretty easy and I do think that taking an hour off that time wouldn’t have been impossible- HOWEVER- People like Adam Darwin, Chantelle Farrely and Rocco Smit all did around 15:30 and they are all better runners than I am so that will remain unknowable!

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It didn’t FEEL like I was wearing hover shoes…..

Having so many cramps during the race really f’ed up my legs and I only managed to get them moving better by having a little run on Monday, but now my toes are the big problem- big toes and little toes on both feet are a bit black. I don’t think I’ll lose the toenails, but they are quite swollen and bruised which is new for me. No blisters though, which is nice. Oh yeah, my sunglasses were on the table in front of the TV, but they’d been covered by a plastic bag. Oh well! Eight hours 16 minutes for the first 57km, 8 hours 10 minutes for the last 43km. Sounds about right!

Nutrition
Start to CP1- carried 1 gel flask, 1 packet Clif Shot Bloks Margarita flavour, 6x Hammer Perpetuem solids, 1 packet Strawberry Gu Chomps, 1 packet Cranberry Apple Gu Chomps, 1 tube of 12 Gu Brew tablets, 1 Lemon Sublime Gu, 1x 140g packet of the Natural Confectionary Company Strawberries & Cream Bliss, 1 Gu Roctane for emergencies. 500ml water.
Actually consumed- about 2 sips of gel
Still in my bag at finish-  6x Hammer Perpetuem solids, 1 packet Strawberry Gu Chomps, 1 packet Cranberry Apple Gu Chomps, 1 tube of 12 Gu Brew tablets, 1 Lemon Sublime Gu, 1x 140g packet of the Natural Confectionary Company Strawberries & Cream Bliss, 1 Gu Roctane for emergencies
I filled up my bottles with Endura at CP1, and by the time I got to Tarro’s Ladders I still had most of it left, meaning I had 1.5l of sports drink for the next 11km. So I dumped the water from the soft flask and didn’t use it for the rest of the race. Couldn’t dump it though, because then I wouldn’t comply with the 2l fluid capacity requirements. I could have however swapped it for my 600ml Cokes at the last 3 checkpoints, and probably would have if I had a good spot in my pack.

CP1-2
Actually started taking in fluid and food here but it was too late, I was dehydrated for most of the day.
Consumed- 1 packet Clif Bloks Margarita, equiv 2 gels, 1 mandarin and 1 piece of banana at Tarro’s, watermelon and a toothpaste flavoured Endura gel at CP2.

CP2-3
Gel before Ironpot, 2 salt tabs halfway up, 2 more 10km later, more gel. At CP3 I drank 600ml coke, ate watermelon and a couple of lollies

CP3-4
I tried to eat a BSc Missile Bar along Six Foot Track, not very successful, ate about 60% of that and had some gel at the bottom of Nellie’s Glen. At CP4 I drank a 600ml Coke and grabbed some cup noodles and left.

CP4-5
Ate the noodles while stopped with Martyn Dawson. Ate some lollies from Conservation Hut water stop, more gel. Worried about running out of fluids so I took some water from this stop as well. I did consume some, but still had heaps when I arrived at CP5. At this CP I drank a 600ml Coke, grabbed some lollies, 1 piece of watermelon and a pre peeled mandarin. Filled bottles with Endura and left. Had this and some gels on the last section.

Totals
I was drinking an average of about 600-700ml fluids per 10km, which is a bit low for me. My consumption of gels and food was surprisingly low as well. I guess this could have something to do with my reducing my sugar intake for the last 4 weeks before the race. I’d forgotten to get the boiled eggs into my checkpoint bags so I didn’t really have anything with loads of protein except for the Missile Bars and for some reason had trouble getting these down. My home made gel consumption was about 3.5 of the 5 flasks I had available. There’s about 4 gels in each of these so I had about 12-14 gels in total. I probably could have saved myself from carrying about 400g with all of the extra food I didn’t eat!

A note about supporters- for NRG, we’ve had about 3-4 entrants in 2011, 6-8 in 2012, around 12 in 2013 and 45 in 2014! What an amazing result, and some really fast times too. I won’t even mention that I beat Robyn Bruins last year and she came back this year to make 12th Female. Oops. This huge increase in numbers has led to a massive increase in supporters and we love you. I’ve never exactly been lonely out there but coming into a CP and having a huge cheer go up really makes your day. It’s often cold and boring for those people, so a huge thank you for making the effort- see you next year as a runner?

I'm having a bit of trouble turning any of these into silver- know any alchemists?

I’m having a bit of trouble turning any of these into silver- know any alchemists?

Now, you’ve seen all of those names and you’re thinking ‘geez what a name dropper’. Well, you’d be right. Every one of those people, whether they know me or not, has contributed to my being there, and the happiness it brings me. I’m amazed that I can just casually have conversations with superstars like Brendan Davies, Gretel Fortmann, Jo Brischetto and others, but basically we’re all in it together…….Most comical part of the awards presentation was when Tom Landon Smith (the Race Director) was showing off the swollen knee of a female English competitor Claire Walton. She’d come 5th, but had fallen in the first 5km and fractured her patella. He leaned in and said ‘I just want to find out if your knee has anything to say about the fact that you dragged it along 95km while busted’ and he put the microphone down towards her knee and we heard a whispered ‘faaaaark youuuuuuu’

Brilliant.

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Photo credits- Tylana Woodward, David Brown, Kate McElligott, and the amazing and talented Joe Hedges!