Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The North Face 100km

I randomly picked up a little postcard for the Wild Endurance 100km team race and was instantly drawn to doing something that would present me with an extreme physical and mental challenge. After an unsuccessful bid to sign up friends, family and lastly any willing body, I resigned myself that I would not be able to enter. I then read about the North Face 100, in which I could compete as a solo entrant.

The idea of testing myself, of seeing what I could achieve in a relatively short period of training (10 weeks) and of seeing some stunning “nature porn” (a term I learnt from a fellow runner called Andrew Fist) had me signing up to the 2009 TNF100km hosted by AROC. I had been training with a small bunch of other runners:

James Owens

James randomly joined us on a training run, and I soon saw that he was a very level, steady runner. We share a similar passion for trail mix , technical gear, and adventure, and many talks were had about potential adventure tourism business ventures we could start to escape the rat race. James introduced me to INOV8 gear, to Nuun electrolytes, and demonstrated the wonders a Snickers bar can work when the chips are down. James and I ended up running the race together.

Tony Golden and Andrew Jordan

While training, Tony was our “expedition leader” and always had our training runs mapped out on his GARMIN watch. This definitely came in handy on some of the more remote trails deep in the BM National Park. More than once a wrong turn was made which Tony’s programmed watch would correct. We soon learnt NEVER to doubt the GARMIN, no matter how good our instincts were. Tony now knows the Mountains like the back of his hand! Tony ran the race with Andrew Jordan as a 50km Team Relay

John O’Regan.

John came over from Ireland to do the race, so I only met John the night before the race. It was lovely to meet John as his running career and support has been great inspiration to me. John's gentle demeanour hides a steel core that saw him complete the whole race with a terrible ITB flair up (something I would also come to experience first-hand!). This strength will stand him in good stead, as he has been selected to be on the Irish team to compete at the 24-hour World Championships in May 2010.

Race Day

The morning started with the ritual breakfast rites. For me this includes toast with peanut butter and honey. Camelbacks were filled; last minute gear checks were made. I had on my beloved label – Salomon – and felt nothing could go wrong!

Soon it was time for us to pile into the car to head to the Fairmont Resort in Leura, where the race started and would finish later today.

As we arrived the sun rose, giving us all an immense amount of energy, and raising the cool mountain air a couple of degrees. Nevertheless, the pre-race briefing had us all shivering, and wishing to get the legs moving.

We were also very interested to catch a glimpse of Dean Karnazes, also known as “possibly the fittest man alive” or “that man that once ran 50 marathons in 50 days.” We wanted to see some of these claims tested, and were sure that our mountains and Australian terrain would provide Mr Karnazes with a challenge.

The gun sounded and bodies started moving over the mist covered golf course through which the first 2km of the race ran.

Our first checkpoint at Narrowneck Road was 17km away. We had energy to burn, and it was difficult to keep the pace steady with so much testosterone around me! I was so excited to be running effortlessly through the beautiful stretch of rainforest that marks the first 10km of the Federal Pass. In fact, I was so excited that I tripped over a tree root...twice...and injured my knee. At the time, I didn’t notice the injury, but the pain would come later!

I was running with my friend James, and we kept a nice steady pace going on the Federal Pass trail, past the Scenic railway, the Landslide (a trail winding through large rocks that have fallen down from the towering cliff face above) and up the Golden staircase to the first checkpoint at the start of Narrowneck road. We were met with a banquet of muesli bars, fruit and electrolyte drinks, and very enthusiastic supporters who really buoyed our spirits. James and I only made a quick toilet stop before heading off for the next section.

The day was starting to heat up, but as Narrowneck runs along the ridge of a plateau, it is quite exposed to the chilly wind that can come up from the valley below. While running we would play leap-frog with other runners, passing them only to be passed later by them. This made for great camaraderie and the runners all gave each other an immense amount of support. At the end of Narrowneck Road we hit a queue of runners waiting to descend the one-man-at-a-time Tarros Ladders. This usually consists of iron pegs bolted into the cliff face which you have to hold onto as you lower yourself down 20m. For the race, the organisers had erected a ladder which could be climbed down a little more safely. While waiting, the wind swept past us, and runners could be seen huddling with hands under the armpits, or squatting into a small ball to keep warm. Finally it was our turn to descend and start our run through the Megalong Valley to the second checkpoint at Dumphy’s Campground. The reserve is a beautiful patch of green that appears as you emerge out of bush, and is a popular site for campers and hikers to picnic. Again, we made only a brief stop, aware that we had some tough climbing ahead of us.

The next section of the run was completely unknown to us. It ran through Private Property and thus we had been unable to access it for training prior to race day. IronPot Ridge was meant to offer some of the most spectacular scenery across the Blue Mountains, but all I can remember is the steep scramble up the side of a mountain to reach the ridge. Climbing hand to foot and sometimes sliding as our hold on loose dirt faltered, our spirits were weakened as we reached the ridge. We then had an out and back loop to complete, our eyes only focusing on the ground ahead which was scattered with grey rocks that could easily trip. The descent back down into Megalong Valley was more of a slide down dirt and dust and completely uncontrolled and put an immense amount of strain on the knees. From this point my injured knee started to give me some pain, and running required more effort. Finally we were back in the valley, out of hell, and on Megalong Valley road on our way to the third checkpoint. Our legs were sore and the climb out of the valley was deceptively steep, but we pushed on. We passed one Swiss runner whose face was smeared with dust. He was patriotically wearing his Marathon de Sable buff and grunted to us that this race was too difficult and that the organisers must be sick. We took pride that this seasoned runner was struggling the same as us. Finally the climb levelled off and the road once again descended down to Old Ford Reserve, the first checkpoint where we could have support crew waiting. Cheers erupted as we arrived.

Our crew consisted of my father, Louis, my brother Werner, Andrew Jordan’s Auntie Val (waiting with her famous Tea Cake) and Tony Golden, who was waiting to start the second half of the team relay. We had a quick gear check, James pulled out his baby wipes “for freshening up,” I tried to eat some instant noodles and soon our quick break came to an end and we faced the reality that we had a short but horrifying section ahead of us.

Only 13km away, the next checkpoint sat at the top of the cliffs, and the only way up was via Nellie’s Glen and the gruelling staircase that took you from scrub and into a mossy Planet-of-the-Apes rainforest. These stairs are also synonymous with the start of the 6-Foot-Track Marathon, but here they are run DOWN, not UP. As James and I approached the staircase our spirits where broken by runners passing us with fresh legs, smiles and a sprinting pace. We soon realised they were the second runners in the team relay and were only just starting. Then, as we started climbing the stairs, we would encounter broken men sitting down, face in their hands and not quite sure how they would manage to keep climbing. By now, the sun was setting and as we reached the top (and the 6FT sign warning of a “steep descent”) we were running in twilight. I was really feeling my knee, and didn’t talk much, all my energy focusing on placing one foot after another and reaching the next checkpoint. James was a huge amount of support and running behind him allowed me to switch off and just follow his pace. As we neared the first signs of Katoomba Falls Oval, we passed one young man – I call him “marathon man” - he was walking and told us that he had run numerous marathons and had thought he was super fit, but that he couldn’t continue.

At Katoomba Falls Oval, the 67km mark, we had a stop for about 30min. This partly because we had made up so much time on the last leg without realising it, and also because when we got to the checkpoint the support crew hadn’t got there yet! A change of socks and shirt, a stretch as some of the muscles were cramping, and some of my mother’s chicken noodle soup, and we headed off.

By now it was dark, and we were running by the light of our headtorches. We ran along the top of the plateau to the 3 Sisters, then descended down the Giant Staircase back into the valley. My knee was feeling much better, and we were running really well after our last stop. We had energy, smiles, and were passing many runners who looked broken and dejected. As we ran away from the 3 monolithic rock pinnacles, backlit by an orange glow from Katoomba, James and I realised we were in uncharted territory – anything could happen – we had reached the furthest we had ever run. We were running on fire trail, and had 2 river crossings. Here we had Tony Golden to thank: He had provided us with large garbage bags to put over each foot and to then simply wade through the ankle deep water, reaching the other side with feet still dry. At the 80km mark, this was a pleasure! The climb out of the valley – a long, steep continuous climb that doesn’t seem to end - was eerie: Every now and then your heachtorch would flash off a lone runner up ahead, and as you passed them, their light would soon fade and you would be surrounded by pitch black again. The bush is also very still, a legacy of a fox infestation that killed all wildlife and left the National Park barren.

The last checkpoint was at the old Queen Victoria Hospital at the 89km mark, and even though we were arriving at 9pm, we were met with a wild cheer and huge support from locals and organisers from AROC sport.

We stopped only briefly to refill camelbacks, but the support and encouragement from our crew really gave us the energy for the last 10km. By now, my knee was excruciatingly sore, and anyone who has had an ITB inflammation will attest to the debilitating ache that can stop you in your tracks. I told James that I was physically unable to keep running and that I would walk the last 10km, and that he should keep running on. He decided to stick with me and for this I am grateful, because the last section consisted of continuous ascents and descents through windy, narrow trails that led from Wentworth Falls, past Conservation hut (at which point no Conversation was had!) across Lillian’s Bridge and then up AT LAST to the golf course at the Fairmont Resort. As the lights of the finish came in view James and I picked up the pace to a slow jog, but after 3 steps decided it was too far to jog and that we should keep walking until we were closer. With 30m to go we decided we could manage a jog, and ran up the fairy-lit runway leading us to the finish line, emotions overwhelming.

We finished the 100km in 16hours and 3 minutes, and I came in 8th female overall (See article published by Planet Ultramarathon.)

AROC sport had really outdone themselves. Waiting at the finish was a full sausage sizzle, a hot room with blankets, fruit, drinks and a really festive atmosphere. We stretched, changed clothes and swapped stories with the other runners. My favourite story is of Dean Karnazes: before running TNF100 he had run a 300km race, and had flown in the day before. Apparently he was still feeling the effects of jetlag, so much so that he had a “micro-sleep” out on the trails – anything is possible! The race had been an amazing experience and somehow the kilometres had blurred into nothing and we had emerged out the other end happy and already looking towards the next race!

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