About 18 months ago, I got the urge to do something a bit crazy. Two weeks ago, I did it – the North Face 100 ultra.
The race took me a bit longer than I expected, and so has getting this race report together, partly because I wasn’t going to do one, until I started reading those of other runners, and partly because I had a small hiccup in getting my race images. But here it is.
TNF100 had ups and downs, both physical (stairs, stairs, stairs…) and mental (er, stairs there too, actually…) but it was one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever done. Big thanks to Geoff Evison and Lisa Brentnall for encouraging me to go for the big one, rather than the 50km option. You see, outside some runs around the paddocks up at the family property in Qld, I’d done no trail running whatsoever when I entered TNF. I hadn’t run further than 42km either, and I’d only done that twice, in two road marathons. So no trail experience, and I was going to do 100km over the ups, downs, ridges and creeks of the Blue Mountains…
Things didn’t start well. As Christmas, and the temptation to do less and eat more, approached last year, I came across an online run challenge: run every day from Christmas to New Year. Great motivation to keep active, but on New Year’s Day I woke up to discover my right knee was protesting this unusual running streak very, very loudly. Four days off to rest and all felt ok. Until I ran. A week off, and the same result. Another thanks goes to Lisa here, as she recommended a chiro who she said was brilliant with knees (Brett Edmunds at Paramount Sports) – and he was, although he was on holidays and I couldn’t get in to see him until the end of January. Between Brett’s magic hands and a careful return to running, I was eventually able to return to a decent training load. I was a good six weeks behind on training, but I was just happy that I was going to be able to toe the starting line, something that had looked pretty doubtful for a while.
In the lead up to the race I had a lot of fun buying gear – the mandatory gear list for this race is looooong, but I kept finding bargains. Very satisfying. I did pay full price for my new hydration pack, the Salomon S-Lab 12 Pack, but it was worth every cent. Love that thing.
So on to the race weekend…
My sister Laura was my crew for the race, and we drove up to Katoomba together on the Friday afternoon. We went straight to registration, and that’s where the nerves hit.
It had occurred to me several times during the week before the race that given my lack of training (only two excursions to the mountains, and only one run over 40km), swapping down to the 50km race would have been the sensible thing to do. And it occurred to me again at registration. Because here I was, undertrained, doing my first trail race, and with no experience of about half of the course, and around me were all these fit, confident people who clearly knew exactly what they were doing. I felt physically ill. But I completed registration. When we came back later that evening for the pre-race briefing, I felt sick again. But a stirring “welcome to country” helped rekindle some of the enthusiasm, and surprisingly, that night I slept fairly well.
On race morning, Laura and I, and Lisa and her support crew, and “Tall Geoff” Evison, who’d snagged a last-minute entry – we’d all shared a house – headed up to Scenic World. A huge thumbs up for the start/finish, lots of music and a great atmosphere.
I didn’t know anyone starting in my wave, but I was soon chatting to a gal beside me called Justine. And then we were off. Less than 2km later I realised I had forgotten to apply Body Glide, and given the length of time I was going to be out there, is seemed like a pretty bad omission. I stopped to put some on – if I’d realised there would be bottle necks at the stairs and the landslide, I would have done it then. Beginner’s mistake. But it was good to start with a few kilometres of road to get the legs moving.
We were soon through Checkpoint 1, at 10.5km, and I was right where I expected to be. Somewhere not long I tripped – on a flat piece of road – but there was no major damage so Justine helped me whack a plaster on my hand and on I went. I knew that after Checkpoint 2 there was a challenging climb ahead and my fantastic dietician, Rebecca Hay, had warned me I should eat before I got there. I had made a mental note (actually, I’d made a note in bright red bold type on the little race plan I carried with me, detailing distances, expected arrival times, cut-offs and what would be available to eat. Yes, I do like a list…) to eat plenty at CP2. I filled my water bladder, went to the loo, ate some fruit and a muffin, and headed out, feeling fine. It didn’t last. There’s a small hill just out of CP2 and I think the combination of sudden effort after a break, and an over-full stomach, meant digestion didn’t kick in properly. By the time the climb up Ironpot started, I was feeling odd – not nauseous, but vaguely light-headed and with no energy. I fell over again. And my calves cramped on and off the whole way up, and along the ridge too. That doesn’t feel like the safest place for your legs to be doing unpredictable things! But seeing two guys up there, playing the didjeridu and the sticks, in front of an amazing view, reminded me what a privilege it was to be out there, in such fantastic surroundings.
One of the other brilliant things about this race was the other runners. I am just so amazed at what a friendly, helpful, lovely bunch ultrarunners are. Everyone seems to be out there to have a good time and, even when they are suffering themselves, offering encouragement. I ran most of CP2 to CP3 with the same small group and it was fantastic to share stories and hear about how other people had ended up doing this race.
CP3 was a welcome sight, as it was the first time I’d see Laura since the start. Laura is officially Super Support Crew. I’d packed everything in three separate labelled bags, one for each checkpoint she could come to, and asked her to put everything from the appropriate bag out on a blanket so I could see it all easily. (I read that somewhere; I can’t remember where, but I’m so glad I had, as it made checkpoints very low-stress. I saw quite a few people pawing through one big bag trying to find things, and looking various degrees of frustrated and desperate). I also made a list (like I said, I like a list!) for each checkpoint, so both of us knew exactly what I needed to do/eat/take each time. Laura not only put it all neatly out, she made me a banner that said “GO KYLIE” and managed to make me drink plenty at each checkpoint. That was the item on the top of each CP list. (At the bottom of each list it also said “forgive me if I am cranky”. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that!) She got me in and out of each checkpoint feeling happy and I got everything I needed each time.
CP3 to CP4 wasn’t too bad initially; mentally I was feeling fine after seeing Laura and then passing through some nice spots, including a very unexpected farm. But then we got to Nellie’s Glen…
My plan had been to eat several kilometres out from the foot of this 500-stair climb, and I did, but at the bottom I tried to eat something else and suddenly everything made me gag. And as soon as I started climbing, the cramps in my calves came back.
This was the low point in the race for me. It was a very slow ascent, and many times I thought “I can’t walk and I can’t eat, how can I possibly go any further.” But I was lucky to have someone behind me who kept encouraging me the whole way up. I was worried I was holding people up and she kept assuring me they didn’t want to go any faster and I was doing a good job. Thanks “other Kylie”!
The camping and inability to eat continued after the top of the stairs, but on the way into Katoomba for CP4, I had time to convince myself that if I wanted to quit, I could do it at CP5, but right now I had to keep going. I told myself Laura hadn’t taken time off work to come up to Katoomba so I could stop at 50km. And a few more personal things that reminded me giving up right then just wasn’t an option.
There’s also a small downhill section of bitumen on the way in that gave my legs a break and the cramping stopped. Thankfully, that was the last time I had to deal with that.
I tried to eat some of the supplied food at the checkpoint but that still wasn’t a happening thing. I filled my water bladder, drank some of my home-made sports drink (I’d made plenty to leave with Laura because I knew from experience it was one thing I could get down even when I didn’t feel good), changed into warmer clothes and finally managed to eat a bit of banana. So I grabbed another piece of banana, and a crust from one of the loaves of bread on offer, and headed off into the night.
This is where I got very lucky. I ran into a gal called Hailey who was limping a bit, and we decided we’d both be very happy to take it a little bit slower and we’d travel together to CP5.
There are what feels like never-ending stairs between CP4 and CP5 and poor Hailey couldn’t climb them easily. Her injury was getting worse and worse, but she’s one strong woman; she just kept going and going, and she never complained once. By the time we got close to CP5 it was clear the pain must be pretty bad, but she just kept moving. When we popped out onto the road leading into the checkpoint, I asked if she would mind if I started running. The road was well marked and I could hear some other runners behind us, so I thought she’d be okay to make it in from there. Having taken things slowly, I’d gotten over the problem with eating, and been able to take in plenty of fluids, and my legs were feeling fine too. She waved me on, saying she was going to have a lie-down at the checkpoint and see whether things improved. I discovered later that she wasn’t able to go on, but she should be hugely proud of the guts she showed in getting to CP5. And I know she’ll be back next year to go all the way. Thanks for the company, Hails!
I trotted into CP5 feeling positively perky. Poor Laura had been out in the cold for ages waiting for me, but she was up and in Super Supporter mode as I arrived and helped me stock up, don another more clothes (including a second layer of gloves, nifty fingerless woollen ones knitted by my other sister, Allison) and get going again.
Progress wasn’t fast on this last leg, and the lack of training was pretty clear on some of the long climbs, but there was something really special about being out there alone in the night. I did pass a few other folk and we exchanged hellos, but for most of the last section I was by myself. We’d been very lucky with the weather, so it was a still, full-moon night, quiet and calm and not too cold. I guess that’s one bonus of being slow – the fast folk finish don’t get the chance to enjoy those quiet hours just after midnight.
By the emergency aid station at 91km I had realised I really didn’t need the extra layer I’d put on, so I stopped to strip it off.
Then it was a matter of counting down the kilometres. They felt like some of the longest kilometres I’d ever run, not the hardest, just long. But eventually I got to the bottom of the Furber Steps. I had to stop a couple of times on the way up, but near the top some folk had come down to encourage us back-of-pack runners who were trickling in after dawn and it was wonderful to hear the words “you’ve only got a few steps to go”.
Then it was along the boardwalk and into Scenic World, with a brief smile for the wit who’d put up a handwritten sign that said something like “the last stairs you have to climb” beside a small set of about five stairs on the way to the finish.
And suddenly it was all over, with Laura there to hug me and Tall Geoff there too, unexpectedly.
It took me 24 hours and 36 minutes.
As we were walking back to the car, Geoff asked me if I’d do it again. “Ask me again in a day or two” I think I said. It only took one. I can’t wait. Bring on 2015.
Why? Because that was one of the best things I’ve ever done. The organisers and volunteers did a brilliant job (one of the many nice moments in the race was running into a former work colleague, volunteering at the 66km aid station), the checkpoints were all really well organised, with heaps of food even for those of us at the tail end, and the course was very well marked. The other runners were the friendliest bunch of people I’ve ever spent a day with, and the scenery is amazing. And because I want to do it faster, next time.
PS. I mentioned at the start that initially, I wasn’t going to write a race report. Then I read lots of others and it helped make the week after the race almost as much fun as the race itself. In one of those reports, the runner said he wanted to write it so he could thank a bunch of people. That was one reason I changed my mind and wrote this. A pile of people helped me get to the start, and to the finish: lots of fellow runners, including Denise, who loaned me equipment and gave me good advice, Matt M, who was so patient with my plodding pace on a training run – I was SO glad to have done that second half of the course – and Lisa, who did a brilliant time and deserved it; Brett and Rebecca for the expert advice; David Jones, my personal trainer – all those kettle ball swings and squats definitely helped; Ant, for the bars; Pace Athletic, for getting me a Salomon pack when there were none to be had, Australia-wide; Geoff, for telling me there really wasn’t an excuse for not finishing, because the cut-off was generous and people could walk most of it and still finish in time – you probably didn’t expect me to take you quite so literally!; all the runners out on the course with me, especially Hailey; all the family and friends who thought I was crazy but wished me luck anyway, especially my Mum, who listened to me talk about the race for months and months and months; Allison, for the mittens, and the Facebook posts during the race – it was lovely to read after; and especially Laura, for lifts home after training runs, and for giving up her weekend and being calm and organised and everything else you could want in a support crew. And finally my Dad, who is often with me when I run. Thanks all.
(Pics during race by Aurora Images)