THE NORTH FACE 100 2015 – A Race Report
Wild Runners headed to the North Face 100 2015, a 100km run through some of the most beautiful and hilly terrain in Australia. Laura shares her experience below.
Lining up at the start of this year’s The North Face 100, I had something to prove. Last year’s fantastic build up ended rather disappointingly in ITB problems a fortnight before the event. 21hrs 25mins of pretty excruciating running, walking and hobbling later, we had crossed the line extremely proud but with a sense of unfinished business.
My training this year was a series of hits and misses. I got far more long training weeks under my belt but none as long as planned. I ran more frequently with some of my mandatory gear but I never ran with the full pack. I had a great lead up race, coming second in the Wildhorse Criterium 55km! But I got competitive during that race and didn’t practice my nutrition properly, which was supposed to be the point.
I also felt to some degree like I was starting back at the beginning rather than building on the months of endurance and strength that had gone into 2014’s race. After last year’s event, I had been forced to take a few months off running and lost a great deal of fitness during this time. I had also stopped doing the weekly session in the gym which has accompanied my running for the past few years. And I have an extra layer around the belly to prove it!
Basically, I really didn’t know what to expect of myself or what to strive for. I thought 16hrs seemed a reasonable goal but decided I’d be pretty happy to finish before midnight and at the very least, I was damn well getting that Bronze buckle this time around!
One thing Tim and I were both looking forward to this year was the number of Brisbane runners we knew taking part. We bumped into some in the supermarket (where I also stood in line behind ultra-legend Samantha Gash!) and others at the race expo. On Friday night, we had dinner with Ben and Giles who would be taking part in their first 100km. Here we also got to meet Giles’ wife, Kirsty and two of his friends, Val and Kevin, who were going to be acting as support crew to him the following day. After dinner, we headed back down to the KCC auditorium to listen to the race briefing, always a pretty entertaining affair.
One confusing and amusing part of the evening came at the end of the safety co-ordinator’s presentation. He mentioned something about looking out for each other on the course and up on the screen flashed the blurry re-enactment picture of last year’s finish which Tim and I had asked a volunteer to take on our camera. We looked at the screen and then at each other and had to try not to laugh too much and distract those around us. With all the official pictures he had to choose from, how had he gotten that one!?
Basking in our 15 seconds (if that!) of fame, we headed back home to pack our bags and try to get some sleep for the big day ahead.
The pre-dawn of race day was a subdued buzz of nervous excitement as runners greeted each other and hopped from one foot to the other in anticipation or an attempt to keep warm. We waved to Giles and his crew from across the start chute and found Jen, a fellow Wild Runner, and her partner Gary who was seeing her off. Tim was in the first start wave so we farewelled him as he made his way to the front. I lost Jen in the crowds around the start but found myself standing next to Ben who was also in Wave 3. We exchanged a few words of encouragement before I said goodbye to him for the last time that day and the gun went off. The race was on!
The first section of the run is a short out and back along the road which separates the runners a little before we all funnel down the Furber Stairs. I bounced down the stairs pretty confidently, passing a few runners that were kind enough to step aside. The run towards Checkpoint 1 was fairly uneventful for which I was grateful. I gave myself a mental pat on the back as I ran through the 7km point, where my ITB had first packed it in last year, and was happy with the way the field was spread out along this rocky, cliff hugging path. And then, abruptly, the runners ahead pulled up and we were at the Golden Staircase.
Winding its way up the cliff, back and forth through the trees, was a long line of people picking their way up this steep stair case. So, I hadn’t avoided the bottleneck after all. This may have been a blessing in disguise as my calves were cramping angrily at the sudden climbing and the slow pace gave me a chance to stretch them out on each step. I was surprised that the line was so dense above me, but only 4 or 5 runners were climbing the stairs behind me. In hindsight and judging by others’ accounts of the timings, I suspect an injured runner who needed a helicopter ride home may have been responsible for this slight gap in the crowds. Poor guy!
Coming out at the top of the stairs, we climbed through a foggy morning towards and beyond the 10.5km mark of Checkpoint 1 and onto Narrowneck. Here, the landscape opens up to either side of the ridge and you can see the runners ahead of you making the same steady pilgrimage towards Tarros Ladders. I began to feel a tightness around my knee but consoled myself that it may simply be the aftermath of the poorly timed stack I had during the week; at least, that’s what I hoped it was.
At the end of Narrowneck, the fire road gave way to rough single track and even some scrambling as we made our way down to the ladders. The field was once again quite sparse at this point so I was surprised when we came across the long line waiting for the ladders. The marshal said the detour via Duncan’s Pass may be faster and since I had experienced the ladders before, I decided to try this alternate route. It is not an official path, open only for the sake of the race, and it shows! We slipped, slid and scrambled our way around to rejoin those that had taken the more direct route down the ladders. It was probably not much faster and we missed out on the opportunity to rest and refuel that the line would have provided but it was good fun and it’s nice to have experienced both options.
After the ladders, the rough, single track route heads predominantly downwards before spitting you out onto a wide, rolling fire road through to Checkpoint 2 at Dunphy’s Camp. In the cooler weather, I was struggling to ingest enough of my liquid race nutrition so I grabbed some fruit and chips, checked my bladder and set off again fairly quickly. Annoyingly, for me and anyone nearby, when I had checked and decided against topping the bladder up, I had forgotten to squeeze the air back out before resealing it. Rookie error! I was now going to be accompanied by a friendly sloshing sound until the next checkpoint, 15km away. At least no one was going to lose me.
I passed a pack of hikers and one of the older gentlemen in the front started asking where our run would take us. I felt a real sense of pride at the way these men and women, familiar with long days walking in this part of the world, were in such awe of what we were doing. It spurred me on and at the top of the hill I farewelled him and picked up the pace again towards Ironpot Mountain. This is accessed by a steep, rocky ascent that seems to come out of nowhere. It is pretty impossible and impractical to run. Most people were bent almost in half simply walking up it. When I stopped to get my camera out and snap a quick, blurry photo of the sight, I was greeted by someone saying my name. Tina, another strong Brissie runner (who I later found out started a wave behind me!) had caught up to me. We exchanged some friendly words before we hit the mountain and then it was all focus. At the top, Tina managed to slip in front of a tall, strong looking man who turned out to be quite cautious and uncertain on his feet. I love a good technical trail and I love a good descent. The last thing I wanted was to spend the next few kilometres behind a runner who seemed to hold the opposite opinion. But that is the joy and frustration of trail running and there’s nothing to be done but slow down and enjoy the view.
The Ironpot ridge takes you on a short out an back which means you get two chances to run past the group of local men playing didgeridoos and clap sticks. It’s a real pick me up after a tough climb. Then the ridge is complete and its down the steepest, dustiest, slippiest section of the course. This is where you are better off trusting your feet and just letting go than trying to put the brakes on. Unfortunately, if you want to avoid a collision, speed is somewhat dictated by what the person in front of you is doing so I hopped down the hill in fits and starts until we were at the bottom and I was watching the rapidly shrinking back of the man who had been almost walking for the last few kilometres. Thems the breaks!
I chatted to another runner and snapped some pictures for a few kilometres until I looked back and saw Jen. I slowed a bit to allow her to finish closing the gap on me and we ran together for a while until I urged her not to wait. I was now certain my knee was more than just an achy graze and the downhills were becoming really uncomfortable. Luckily, there is also plenty of uphill in this section of the course! I power walked up the long climb along Megalong Rd, passing several guys who encouraged me on my pace. I knew I’d probably see them again soon anyway, as is the way in these types of events.
As the road flattened out, four ambulances and a rescue vehicle went flying past in the opposite direction, stirring up lots of dust and questions. What could have possibly gone wrong to require so much man power? I later found out that it was related to a missing bush walker rather than any of our fellow racers but I know a lot of us were looking at each other uneasily at that stage. There wasn’t much time to think about that though, at least for me, as the road tipped back downwards and I started to feel pretty unhappy. I stopped a couple of times to stretch out my ITB and felt like the road would never end. It was a huge relief to climb the stile over the barbed wire fence and cover the last couple of kilometres before Checkpoint 3.
Six Foot Track checkpoint is a great buzz as it’s the first one where support crews can wait. Even when you don’t have one of your own, the whole crowd is excited and encouraging as they cheer you in. As I ran towards the gear check table, Giles’ support crew spotted me and gave a huge cheer which lifted me up considerably. After I showed the volunteer the mandatory gear he requested, I made my way over to the drop bags where I was pleasantly surprised to see Jen. We exchanged some quick words then I fumbled clumsily with my gear as I tried to swap out nutrition with one hand while shoving chips into my mouth with the other. Neither easy or recommended.
Once I had my gear in order, I grabbed a mandarin and stuck to the cardinal rule of checkpoints – get out before you get stuck. In this case, I probably should have taken Jen’s advice and sought out the physio but it was only 11km to the next checkpoint so I made the call to push on.
The Six Foot Track after Checkpoint 3 is where I had my lowest moment (before Kedumba Pass!) last year. I put that vivid, painful memory aside and set myself the goal of running until the 50km mark. It seemed to take forever to cover those four kilometres but I made it and I was still moving forward! Pretty soon the fire road gave way to single track which climbed up towards Nellie’s Glen. Here, runners are treated to a long climb up steep, uneven, eroded, sometimes very wet and muddy steps. It’s slow going at this stage of the day, as we all push on with business. With a distinct lack of strength training in the last 12 months, I was really pleased with my climbing as I passed many of the guys in front of me. It reminded me of the quiet, determined climb Tim and I made together last year. A climb that led to a clearing overlooking Megalong Valley where he proposed and I said yes. I gave a little nod to that spot as I passed, wondering if he’d done the same (he had!) and then focussed on getting to Checkpoint 4.
I can’t say I was moving extremely well by this stage. This checkpoint is in a large hall and reached by running through some local streets. The bitumen and driveways weren’t really doing it for me the way single track and trees always can and I was so happy to reach the hall and pass by Giles’ exuberantly cheering support crew once more. Jen was there too, looking for tea like a perfect Englishwoman. We exchanged hellos for the last time that day as she headed back out.
We had been given an option to collect our fleece and waterproof pants at either of the last two checkpoints, based on the time we expected to reach each. I had put mine in this drop bag, although, as it turned out, I had hours to spare and could have saved carrying both for another 21km. I know for next time at least! I rearranged my pack to fit them in, had a quick bathroom break and set off into the second part of the figure-8 shaped course.
The run towards Echo Point passes relatively quickly in my mental replay although I do remember chatting with another runner and commenting just how long it had been since we’d seen one of the 5km markers so we must have been feeling it a lot at the time. I do remember running past a tourist at the Three Sisters who was taking a photo of me rather than the spectacular rock formation he had come to see. That made me smile and got me through the short footpath section we had to take as a detour this year. Luckily it didn’t last long and we were onto muddy stairs. And boy were there a lot of both mud and stairs in the coming kilometres!
The section between Checkpoints 4 and 5 is pretty much all stairs with a few paths taking you to more stairs. Runners go up and down like little tired yo-yos. Normally I would love this. Running down hills and stairs is my absolute favourite thing and I’d already had a confidence boost in climbing them at Nellie’s Glen. Today though, I was taking it a bit easier. I was starting to hurt and didn’t want to go into Kedumba any worse for wear than possible.
It was during this rainforest section that Giles finally caught and, after a friendly chat, passed me. So that was it for the familiar faces. Thankfully, there are always plenty of great people to keep you company during an ultra and plenty of opportunities for their faces to become familiar. I told one runner to pass me on a downward section. He admitted he had been happy admiring my Running Duds from behind (I hope that’s all he was admiring!) but took my advice and moved into the lead. I would then pass him as we climbed back up again and we played cat and mouse like this through the rainforest until the section of road before Wentworth Falls where I had to stop and walk. I can safely add bitumen to the list of things my ITB doesn’t like.
Despite this, I was thrilled to be heading into this section while it was still light. All day I had been ticking off milestones which demonstrated how different this race was to last year’s and this one was a real thrill. I could see the view! My whole leg and hip were starting to seize up though and I began to feel a bit miserable as I slowed down on every set of stairs and the light started to fade. I realised I was getting quite cold and that probably wasn’t helping my mood so I sat down on a section of path just before Wentworth Falls to stretch while I pulled out my thermal jumper and head torch. The first was there… but where was the second? I checked again. Nothing. I removed everything from my bag. Nothing. I poked and prodded and squished the bag hoping to feel the irregular shape of the Ayups in there somewhere. Nothing! My beloved head torch was gone! I later found out I had left them on a chair in Checkpoint 4 when I’d packed in my fleece and waterproof pants but right now all I could think about was the long, dark 25km I had ahead of me. I can honestly pinpoint this as the low point of my race. I was cold. I was really sore. And suddenly, despite the runners passing by and asking if I was okay, I felt lonely too.
But, I couldn’t very well stay where I was. At the very least, I needed to get to the next checkpoint. Beyond that, I didn’t want to think at this moment. So I strapped on my largely useless (but suddenly critical) back up head torch and slowly made my way along the single track towards Checkpoint 5. I nearly ran straight through a photographer a few metres on, my torch was that pathetic. But it was a light and at the very least I can now add it to the long list of mandatory gear that I have made use of over my two North Face 100s – those organisers know what they’re doing!!
I worked out that I was better off holding the torch in my hand to reduce the bounce it was getting on my head and eventually made it out onto the road and on towards Checkpoint 5. I knew I was going to have to apply the second golden rule of checkpoints at this one: use them when you need them. If you’re at a low point, rehydrate, refuel and recover before you make any drastic decisions. So, it was here that I finally asked for a physio.
I hadn’t spoken to anyone for quite some time at this point and didn’t realise how cold and shaken I was until I tried to explain to the physio what was hurting. My voice came out in a breathless whimper which made me sound like I was about to burst into tears. This of course made me want to burst into tears. The physio was fabulous. He laid me down on his table, wrapped me in a really warm blanket, ignored how disgustingly muddy I was and proceeded to literally give me bruises while releasing my ITB and chatting to me. Once I’d had enough of that friendly torture, I put on my fleece, stood under a heater and ate half a cup of 2-minute noodles. That was all I needed. I was back in control and ready to tackle my biggest challenge from last year, Kedumba Pass.
Leaving Checkpoint 5, the road suddenly goes down. Way down. For about 8km. My leg was feeling a lot better but unfortunately, my head torch still forced me to slow down here. As runners came up behind me, I would try to stay just ahead of them and use their light to gain some speed. This worked relatively well and, combined with the strong marching on the uphills, I was able to get through to the 91km aid station fairly comfortably, even passing a number of others along the way.
I was over the moon. I’d conquered the Pass and was easily on track for a buckle. In fact, I worked out I could probably crack the 16 hour mark if I kept it moving. So that’s what I did and in no time, was in Leura Forest and passing the 95km marker. The home stretch!!
I’m ashamed to say I broke my biggest rule here… I let my head get the better of me. Last year, there had been a marker for each of the last 5km so I worked out how long I had to cover each kilometre if I wanted to finish in 16hrs and then I started counting. I remembered it feeling horribly long between markers so I wasn’t surprised to get the same sense again this year. I was also feeling a bit seasick from using a hand held torch for the last 20km so figured it probably made sense that I was going a bit slower than hoped. Still the 96km marker didn’t come. Where was this thing!? Looking at my watch, I worked out that I wasn’t going to be able to finish over 4km before the 16hr mark. There was no way. I slowed down even more. I stopped and bent over to suck in cool night air and pull my clothes away from my throat. I still felt sick. I walked a bit and pulled out my phone so that I could use that light along with the head torch. It didn’t do much so I put it away again. I must have been a pretty pathetic sight to behold.
And then it hit me. There was no way that I’d only gone 1km! There just weren’t any markers this time around. And by now, my silly mistake had cost my chance at 16hrs. All I could do was finish as strongly as possible. I started jogging again and when I reached the bottom of the Furber stairs, I hauled myself up that beast of a final kilometre with everything I could muster. The line was mine and I was going to enjoy it!
Towards the top, I came out onto a wooden boardwalk and heard a familiar voice encouraging the runner ahead. Tim?
It was him and he’d been waiting there, in the dark, for about an hour! He fell in behind, urging me on and then suddenly I was there, in the light, with actual spectators still lining the finishers chute and a commentator calling my name.
I did it and I loved, if not every second, certainly most of them.
I’m so proud and thrilled to have a bronze belt buckle. But now I have a new sense of unfinished business as I can hear the silver buckle calling my name. I guess that’s what keeps us coming back for more.. the quest to become better, get stronger and keep testing where our limits lie.
For more the North Face 100 inspiration, see Tim’s video of tips he picked up this year.