Monday, May 18, 2009

The North Face 100

On Saturday I had the much anticipated pleasure of lining up at The North Face 100 with 333 other runners. This challenging course takes in some of the most beautiful trails and views within the Blue Mountains World Heritage Park and surrounds. As I was to find I think it also included every set of stairs in the area.

In the minutes before the event starting I caught up with a few friends and familiar faces that I have come to know over the last couple of years and I was looking forward to possibly running with one or two throughout the race.

Just after 7:00am at the conclusion of the race briefing we moved up to the start area and I found myself a few back from the front just behind Dean Karnazes. I thought that was pretty cool and I hoped that I may get a picture running with DK to share with the family.

The race started out at a solid pace at the front and I immediately felt flat and lethargic but I was hoping that would pass quickly. We were led around the golf course and I slotted in comfortably a few steps behind DK.

Following the group we hit the climb out of the Resort and I started to move a bit more freely but I couldn’t believe how weak my legs felt. Tackling the first of the steps I was beginning to entertain thoughts that this was indeed not going to be my day and I was going to have to prepare myself for a long day out. I did however notice that I was moving a lot quicker on the flats and descents on the way to CP1 than the other runners around me. I believed that was my saving grace and I started to push the pace a little harder through those sections. Losing a little time to walking the steep climbs was where I would allow myself to get a little recovery and prepare myself to pick it up at the next opportunity.

While I have never really imagined quitting during an event I did contemplate it and I started running through a list of plausible excuses that I had been subconsciously working on over the previous weeks during a couple of bouts of sickness one after the other and other personal events which disrupted my planned long runs and high volume weekends (maybe a blessing in hindsight). But of course letting myself down would not be as bad as how I would feel facing my wife and children knowing that I didn’t gut it out and make it through this challenge before me.

So much stuff happens inside your head during long events when much of your time is spent alone and this day was no exception. I started formulating plans and playing games to get me through to the end but the one thing that stuck with me was my need to keep up with my nutrition and hydration strategy which I formulated a few days prior based around what had worked for me at 12FT the previous year and the simple strategy Ben employed in his stunning victory at Six Foot a few months earlier.

The climb up the Golden Stairs to CP1 was grueling and I was happy to put an end to it and get up there alive. I downed a few cups of sports drink, grabbed a handful of jelly lollies and headed off. I was surrounded by only a few runners and I thought it was likely that I was sitting in around 20th position (the results later had me in 14th). I climbed the first steep section while slowly eating the lollies hoping that the energy would somehow make it into my legs. It didn’t but I felt neither good or bad and I was happy to just keep slogging away while I could see that I was reeling in a couple of runners up ahead on the track. I was happy to maintain the effort and I was starting to think that I might just get through to the end. Waiting for Jo Blake to get off the ladder at Tarros I started climbing down a little carelessly and my foot slipped on the rung sending my shin smashing into the steel. I almost screamed out with pain but strangely it felt good and the adrenaline was exactly what I needed to kick me into gear. Stepping off the ladder and calling “all clear” I took off and found myself in the zone running quickly along the singletrack. I moved past Jo shortly after and before CP2 I had caught and passed at least another five runners.

The trail down to Dunphys proved a little frightening as the Mizuno race flats that I picked up on Mother’s Day gave little traction on the steep descent. Note to self: I need to find a good light racing trail shoe with a mildly aggressive tread.
Enough can be said for having the support of people you know out on the course cheering you on and when I came into Dunphys to see
Ben and Berro (both members of the Blue Mts Marathon Clinic) I was stoked to hear that I was in tenth place and that the few runners just ahead were close and not looking as fresh as I was looking. A quick refill and couple of pieces of banana and I was off.

I chatted with Prince Donges heading out of CP2 on our way to Ironpot finding out that he was another local Blue Mountains runner before moving ahead at the start of the long steep climb up the ridge. At the top I caught up to another runner and I followed him through to the turn around. On the return I was able to pick it up and run quite quickly through this technical section and following my new race plan I fanged it on the way down to the creek. At the creek and for the remainder of the course through the private property I hit another low point but quickly emerged from that at the start of the long climb up the road. I walked nearly all of this section except for the areas where it flattened out a little on the curves and as I crested the hill my legs started feeling nice and springy and I was able to turn over my legs without what felt like any appreciable effort. I reined in another two runners heading down Megalong Road getting high fives from Long Arms and Ben heading into CP3 at which stage ST told me I was in 5th or 6th position. I still couldn’t believe it.

A quick stop and a mandatory gear check and I was on my way. Running out of the checkpoint full of smiles, energy and on a high... that was until I rounded the corner and out of site where all of a sudden I hit an unexpected slump. I couldn’t believe it. I took in a big drink and started running and within a few minutes the feeling passed and I was happy to start running on familiar track (the Six Foot). After two successful attempts running the 12 Foot Track I was happy to find that my legs were good at this stage. That was until I jumped off the ladder crossing the fence to find that the instant my foot hit the ground my left quad seized into the worst cramp I have ever experienced. No warning beforehand either and I didn’t know what to do as my leg was locked and I wasn’t sure how to stretch it out. I started massaging it and I took two S-Caps in a hope that the cramp would pass and about five minutes later I was able to start walking again and then running.

By the time I hit the stairs both my quads were cramping up but I was able to use my arms on my quads to limit the strain and keep the cramps at bay. As always the climb up Nellies is tough and turning right on the track at the top I expected to be able to start running again with some relief that it was behind me but I was mistaken. Probably the least enjoyable section of the race for me and emerging onto the asphalt on the outskirts of Katoomba I have never been so happy.

I felt good again knowing that I was only moments away from CP4 and I would make first contact with my support crew Simon. Running into the checkpoint to see Sean and his partner Mel also lifted my spirits as they were obviously stoked on my performance. I was currently in fifth place and I was told there were a couple of runners not long ahead so with the help of Simon and Sean I ate some more banana and my bladder refilled, downed some coke and gatorade and the aid station volunteer handed me a couple of gels which I was relying on to get me through to the final checkpoint.

I sprung out of the checkpoint feeling absolutely magic – my legs felt springy and I felt like I was just starting out on what was promising to be a great run. I found myself picking it up even more when about a kilometre down the track I realised when I went to grab some scheduled fuel that I had left the gels on the table. Shit... no fuel except for the diluted 1.5 litres of sports drink and the few snakes I had in a plastic bag contained inside my pack. I did have two sports bars (mandatory gear) but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. With 23 kilometres, at least 2 ½ hours and some significant climbing in front of me I was concerned how it would play out but I wasn’t about to back off while I was still feeling good.

I got down the giant stairs uneventfully and was excited to be running along sublime point as I couldn’t find this track during earlier course recon. I was powering along on the flats and downhill sections and I quickly caught and passed the fourth place runner. It started to toughen up through here as my energy levels starting falling and I started playing a game in my head trying to work out when the next marker would be. I kept hoping it would say 80km thinking that I had passed the 75km marker without noticing but when I came to the next marker to find that it read 75km I was shattered... but only for a brief moment. I shook the feeling aside and set myself the task of getting to Jamison Creek and the start of the climb up Kedumba which I was sadistically looking forward to all day. I slowly reeled in third place runner Clarke and after a brief chat I told him that I would try and start running where I could and said my goodbyes and good lucks. He hung with me nearly the whole climb up till I got to the park gate and I managed to put a bit more effort into it knowing that the hospital was only a few short kilometres away. Spurred on with dehydration and a need to get some fuel in I managed to put a couple of minutes on Clarke heading into the final checkpoint.

It was great to see Simon there along with Ben and Berro (they must have logged some kilometres in the car out there on Saturday) and after a quick refuel (water bottles only) and some more banana I headed off for what I thought would be a relatively easy 11km to the finish. I had already called my wife heading up Kedumba to let her know that I was running well and would probably finish a little over an hour (OK I was a little wrong) and she was already excited as she had been watching the live results and saw that I was running in fifth place at the last checkpoint. She was even more excited when I told her that I had passed two runners over the last 10km to move into third.

I was feeling great heading up along Tableland Road and down Hordern onto the trails but with the fading light my pace slowed. I pulled out the headlamp I had borrowed from Mister G to find that the batteries which I thought were new weren’t and quickly either the light faded or my eyes blurred (I wasn’t sure at the time which). With a few minutes between myself and fourth place behind me I decided to take it as easy as possible while still moving as quickly as needed to avoid rolling my ankle or worse through this section.

The last five kilometres dragged on and when I finally came up out of Lillians Bridge and started circumnavigating the golf course I realised I was almost there. Or so it seemed. The trail around the golf course went on and on and finally when I got to the point when I felt like I was running away from the finish it finally turned and started heading uphill. Seeing the glowing sticks were indeed a relief and I was thankful that a volunteer pointed my in the right direction to the finish line.
Finish: 11:39:22 - 3rd place (out of 333)

Sharing the finish with my wife and kids there was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was also great to have a few friends which made the finish feel like it had been put on just for me. A cherished moment!

Watching the other runners come in shortly behind and sharing their race experience with as they got warm and enjoyed some drink and food also made the event more special than any other event I have participated in.

Congratulations to the phenomenal performances of the ever humble Andrew Lee and Tim Cochrane – you guys are legends. I also want to take my hat off to and give my congratulations to Clark McClymont and Doug Grubert two of the nicest people I have met during an event of this magnitude.

Congratulations to everyone who endured at The North Face 100. I hope to see you all next year!

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