“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway” – John Wayne.
That is a pretty accurate description of how I was feeling going into this race. I had signed up on a whim, originally planning to do the 50, but deciding to do the 100k event literally as I was online signing up for the race. (Read about it here). I had run 10 marathons in 2013, including 3 ultras, but nothing over 50km. Time to enter the unknown. To be honest, that ‘scared’ feeling actually excited me. This was the first time in as long as I can remember that I had stood on a start line and genuinely thought, “I’m not sure if I am going to be able to finish this race” and it was a great feeling. I have done 50k’s before. I know I can do it. I would rather attempt the 100k race and be broken by the distance at 80k, than finish the 50k and think ‘I wonder how much further I could go”.
I had a less than ideal lead-up to this race. I had a good run at 6 foot track, finishing in under 5 hours, but that’s where the trail running ended. In the 6 weeks leading up to The North Face 100, I had run the Newcastle Marathon, the Boston Marathon, and the Vancouver Marathon, and had spent nearly a month travelling around the USA and Canada, so my running was far from consistent. I was watching the Facebook updates of my training buddy Pip back home, which included 7 hour trail runs. I felt completely underdone. I arrived back from the USA, worked one day, and then flew to the Gold Coast for a week for a work conference. 3 days before the race, while doing burpees in an early morning training session, I jarred my lower back. I could barely walk back to the hotel. I texted Pip, who is conveniently a physio. Her prescription was lots of drugs, heat, and gentle stretches. Luckily I was at a pharmaceutical conference!
The next day, 2 days before race day, it was not feeling any better. When I was laying on the floor on my tummy, I would not even push myself up onto my hands and knees. How on earth was I going to run 100km on Saturday?
On Friday, the day before the race, my conference finished at lunchtime. I headed to the airport, and landed in Sydney at 4.30pm. From there it was a race in peak hour traffic to try to make it to race rego in Katoomba before it closed, and it was a close call. The atmosphere at the race briefing was electric, and Richard was already starting to suffer another case of FOMO, frustrated to be spectating yet another event that he wished he was competing in.
After this, it was back to the hotel, and time to get all the gear ready for the race. I had only taken my pack out for one test run, one week before the race, with a litre of water and a jumper to pack it out. I was a little shocked to find how heavy my pack was when it was filled with all the mandatory gear.
It was a late night, and an early alarm. Time to get this show on the road! Pip and I were starting together in wave 2. We hoped to run the race together, if all went to plan, and finish on the same day that we started. As neither of us had run further than 50km before, we did not know what was going to happen out there. We agreed that there would probably be times we would wonder why on earth are we doing this, and say things like, “I am NEVER running again!”. But running 100km in good company had to be better than doing it alone. It was cold and eerie as we arrived at the starting line. It was still dark, and Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ was blasting from the speakers.
Leg 1- Scenic World to Narrow Neck
We watched the elite runners start, then it was our turn to toe the line. At 6:33 am we were off!
The course stuck to the road for the first 4 km, to break up the starting packs a little bit, and then headed off into the bush. We headed down the Furber steps to Federal Pass, and over the top of the scenic railway station. Then we had to climb the golden stairs. Somewhere between kilometre 6 and kilometre 7, I was ready to quit the race. Going up those stairs was tough, and it felt like people were just flying past me. How was I going to keep this up for another 96km? I was ready to pull out at the first station, ready to blame my sore back (which, remarkably, was feeling fine – so far).
Eventually the stairs ended, and we made it to checkpoint 1, 10.5km in, in 1 hour 21 minutes. I was feeling a little better. I grabbed a cup of Endura, and we kept going.
Leg 2 – Narrow Neck to Dunphys Camp We followed the path for another 10km, to the end of Narrow Neck. This part of the course was starting to look a little familiar to me. I had run it in 2013, as part of the ‘Wild Endurance’ event, but that event had run it in the opposite direction. As the Tarros Ladders were approaching, I had a sudden realisation that we would be going DOWN the ladders, not up them! There was a little line up when we got there, so it was a good time for a photo stop until it was our turn to descend the ladders. The view was spectacular.
From here, we continued along the path, which was quite technical, and involved a lot of log-jumping and scrambling down large rocks. I was thankful for the gloves that I was wearing. We followed the walking track along the ridge, chatting to other runners about ultra marathons around the world. Then, we continued along the Medlow Gap fire trail, and another dirt road that led to our second checkpoint, Dunphy’s camp. 31km done in 3 hours 50 minutes. Here, we stopped to fill our drink bottles (500ml Endura and 500ml water). I also had a serving of Perpetuem, mixed up in a ziplock bag. Time to keep moving.
Leg 3 – Dunphy’s Camp to 6 Foot Track We continued along dirt roads, up the hill, and onto ironpot ridge. Pip tripped over a rock and fell, landing on her bad knee, but got straight up again, with seemingly no problems. She was also starting to complain that her blood sugar levels were all over the place, and she couldn’t get them right. I offered her my second ziplock bag of Perpetuem, because we had more at checkpoint 3. She took it, and it seemed to help. There were ladders in place to assist us in climbing over some of the fences and gates on the course.
After ironpot mountain, we came across a race Marshall sitting atop a big rock. he told us to turn left, where we followed a little out-and-back section along the ridge. It was a narrow track along exposed cliffs, and the view was spectacular. I should have stopped for more photos. Then came a steep downhill section. I was sliding everywhere. I should have let Pip lead this section, as she is stronger on this kind of terrain than me. Instead, she remained behind me. She reached out to grab a tree to steady her on the way down. It was a young sapling, which promptly bent so far forward that it nearly took me out. The next section took us through paddocks, and then a lot of stairs. I was running a few metres in front of Pip. I heard her yell out to me that she had found a friend. When I turned around, I saw that it was her brother, who had come to run us into the 3rd checkpoint. I thought that must have been a sign that checkpoint 3 was just ahead, but it turned out to be still a few kilometres away.
As we pulled into checkpoint 3, we were ushered to a table for a mandatory gear check. We had to show our safety vests and thermal pants. Luckily they were easy to find in my bag. 46km complete in 6 hours 11 minutes. This was the first checkpoint on course where we were allowed to have support crew. Boy, was I glad to see them! Rich did a great job of being really motivating, and also refilling my water and Gatorade bottles, and my little bottle of hammer gel. I grabbed a handful of potato chips and more Perpetuem, and 12 short minutes later, we were on the road again.
Leg 4 – 6 Foot Track to Katoomba Aquatic Centre
We headed out along a grassy track, until we joined the 6 foot track. 480m of elevation was to be gained on the next leg, only 11km long. Bring on the hills.
We followed Nellies Glen road, a dirt road, and followed 6 foot track as it turned into a walking track. I was running along, trying to make it to the 50km mark before 7 hours had elapsed. We made it!
This point marked the furthest either of us had run in the past. From here, we were really starting to push into the unknown.
More stairs followed, and then a rough trail to Stuarts road. We both seemed to be moving well, with no real troubles. Pip’s blood sugar levels seemed to have evened out, thanks to the Perpetuem. A walking track led us past houses and onto a street, where we ran on roads through to Checkpoint 4, at Katoomba aquatic centre. This leg of the race was only 11km long, but still took us 1 hour 47 minutes. Again, it was great to see our crew waiting for us inside the aquatic centre. This was our biggest stop, 57km down and 8 hours 10 minutes elapsed. At this checkpoint, I changed my socks, and Pip changed her shoes and socks, and also swapped her shorts for tights. I refilled all my bottles again, had more perpetuem, and grabbed another handful of salt and vinegar chips, and a few black olives. I was craving anything salty.
Leg 5 – Katoomba Aquatic Centre to Queen Victoria Hospital
For most of the race so far, we had not had much conversation with many of the runners around us. That all changed on Leg 5. We passed Echo Point, and entered the Giant Stairway. Pip and I descended the stairs, which were extremely steep and narrow. Again, I was thankful to be wearing gloves, and that there were hand rails to hold on to. We headed through Leura forest and back onto Federal pass, and up lots and lots of stairs. Whenever other runners would come up behind us, we would tell them to let us know if they wanted to pass, because the path was so narrow. Most were content to stay and chat for awhile. At one stage, Duncan, another trail runner who used to live in Newcastle, was behind us on the path. We chatted for awhile. Then, we were passed by Jarrod, another runner from Newcastle. It was nice to see other people out there on the course that I knew.
We came up the stairs to a grassy picnic area that was the 66km water stop. Pip stopped to stretch out her cramping muscles. I headed straight for the packets of lollies. I had a sore, tight spot at the top of my calf/back of the knee. I jammed it against the corner of the bench seat of the picnic table, sticking the pointy corner hard into my muscle to try to get some relief. It must have looked strange, because one of the marshals asked me what I was trying to stretch. It seemed to work, my muscle got a little bit of relief. After this, it was back to the stairs, until eventually, we found ourselves running along a road. It was starting to get dark, so we stopped to put on our headlamps and safety vests. We only had our small, lightweight head lights. The super duper ay-up lights were waiting for us at the next checkpoint, they were too heavy to carry when they weren’t necessary. As we ran along, we continued to chat to the other runners around us.
It was as hard to know where we were at this point, because it was dark and nearly everything looked the same. At one point, it felt like we were running under a waterfall, and I’m sure it would have looked beautiful by daylight. After what seemed like an hour, we came up to a road, and I knew the checkpoint was close. 2km later, we turned onto Kedumba Valley Rd, and ran into the last checkpoint. Our crew were very glad to see us, and had been a little worried about us out there in then dark. We were later than they had expected. But we were happy with our pace, as we had just completed the slowest, toughest and second-longest leg of the course. 78km done in 12 hours, 23 minutes.
At this checkpoint, I put on my thermal, filled my bottles, had mote Perpetuem, and ate half an olive bread roll. We also ditched our little headlights in favour of the heavier, more powerful ones that could probably take down a plane, they are that bright. Time to finish this thing off!
The Final Leg – Queen Victoria Hospital to the FINISH!
It was at about this point that I started to realize we were actually going to do this thing! It became not a matter of ‘if’, but a matter of ‘how long’. No matter what happened… We would make it to this finish line, together.
The next 7km or so were downhill on a dirt road, and I felt we were both moving really well. This stretch of the course was familiar to me, as I had come UP it for Wild Endurance. Down was better. In 8.5 km, we descended 650m.
I had never trialled my headlamp before. In fact, it only came out of its box for the first time the night before the race, to be charged. As a result, it had not been fitted perfectly fitted to my head. As we ran along, I had to keep constantly readjusting it, but I was thankful for the distraction, because thinking about that seemed to keep my mind off all my aching bits.
It felt like we passed quite a few people over the next few kilometres as we ran all of the downhill, and as much of the uphill as we could, until it was no faster to jog than it was to walk.
We passed a sign that said the 91km emergency stop was 3km ahead. This next kilometre seemed to pass really slowly. The kilometre after that went pretty fast.
We passed a couple of shallow creeks, that had cinder blocks laid out across them as stepping stones so we could keep our feet dry. I was very thankful for this.
We were joking that we would be pretty happy if this event was called ‘TNF91’ because then we would have been nearly done. Unfortunately, we knew what was still in store for us… A great big climb. ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus was belting out in my head.
A few kilometres later, we entered Leura forest. There was only 5 kilometres to go. My stomach was growling for food, so I had more gel and washed it down with water. I realised that neither of us had questioned why we were doing this thus far, or said that we were never running again. I turned to Pip, and asked what she thought about doing the Surfcoast Century, another 100km event, this coming September. She said she was in. That’s right…. 95km into this race, we had just committed to our second 100km event.
The last 5km of the race took us 1 hour 12 minutes. (I think the last km probably took at least half an hour). I am not sure whose bright idea it was to end a 100km race with a climb up 933 stairs to the finish line, but it was really cruel! My legs were burning, and I was using my arms as much as I could to haul my tired body up and up and up. I muttered the word ‘bubbles’ under my breath, because Pip told me you can’t say bubbles without smiling.
Finally, we saw Pip’s brother at the top of the stairs. He directed us to the finish line, and we ran as fast as we could to get there, leaping over the finish line as we crossed, in 16:38:13, and well before midnight. Mission accomplished!
Our support crew were waiting there for us with jackets in hand, and helped us up the stairs (yay, more stairs!) to collect our belt buckles. Rich got us cups of chicken soup, which was so salty, and just what I needed.
Massive thanks go to Pip, the best company a girl could ask for for 100km, to Rich, Greg and Rolly, the best support crew in the business, and to the event organisers, spectators and other runners, for making this a truly awesome event. Especially anyone who cheered for the girls in pink. I saw support crews helping runners who weren’t their own, runners sharing salt tablets and gels, and helping each other fill their bottles and packs. I’m not sure what other sport you get that in. It was my first, but it won’t be my last.
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway”??
No, how about “I am going to succeed because I’m crazy enough to think that I can”, or
“She believed she could, so she did”.