The North Face 100 Australia
It’s 8.30pm the night before The North Face 100 Australia 2014, and I’m laying out my race kit for the next morning. But something is missing. “Where are my shorts?” I desperately start turning the hotel room that I was sharing with my parents (my dad would also be running the 100k while my mother had volunteered to crew for me) upside down, tipping out the contents of every bag that came near me. “Not sure how they would get in my toiletries bag, bag I’m going to check anyway!” While I was highly successful at making a mess, my goal of finding pants failed miserably. “They must still be in Brisbane.” Although pants technically aren’t on the mandatory gear list, I wasn’t really fancying the idea of facing the cold morning weather without them! Luckily at this point we remembered that there had been a North Face tent at the event expo, so crossed our fingers hoping that it would still be open and raced back down to the registration area.
Fortunately, they were still open. BUT they had sold out of running shorts in my size. It was at this point that Dad suggested some of the women’s shorts. With my ego in check, I tried on pair…they fit beautifully. After establishing that they didn’t make my butt look big, the shorts were purchased and it was settled; I would be running 100km in women’s pants.
As is always the case before a race, I hardly slept that night, but still woke up feeling excited and ready to go (40 minutes before my alarm). After downing my Spiz and coffee for breakfast, followed by applying copious amounts of Body Glide (I wasn’t taking any chances with these new shorts!), I was on my way to the start line chatting to the other runners on the complementary start line bus.
Having been taught a harsh lesson at the Buffalo Stampede about not going out too hard in ultras, my plan for the day was simple; run the 100km in under 10hours and FORGET ABOUT WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING. Knowing from previous years that people tend to bolt off the start line, I made sure I was 3-4 people deep as we waited for the race to begin. During the flat 4km along the road at the start I must been as far back as 40th position at times. Hence I was getting some worried looks from those that knew me when we returned back past the start before heading down the Furber steps. But I felt in complete control and from checking my Suunto Ambit 2, knew I was running faster than the required 6min/km.
Due to inevitable traffic, I was taking things particularly easy down the Furber steps and then along the Landslide. The slightly technical nature of the Landslide combined with being only a meter behind the person in front of me meant that I was focusing on the ground right before my feet. Suddenly, I found myself lying on my back with the person in front now 10 meters up ahead. Startled, I jump back up and hit the top of my head on a thick, low hanging branch. “Well, that explains a lot!” I thought to myself. As I became aware of the fact that my forehead also hurt and my teeth felt as though my jaw had snapped shut. I quickly put the pieces of the puzzle together and glanced behind to check if anyone had witnessed me knock myself out on the branch. Luckily for my ego, the next person was only just coming into view (which was only a few meters back as this was quite a narrow and twisty part of single track). After a quick self-assessment to check that my vision and coordination were still fine, I kept on running, not wanting to focus on this minor incident.
As I continued along Federal pass I began to open up a little bit more and started to move my way up the field. Then along came Golden stairs, the first of several stair climbs for the day. I loved the chance to start power hiking and quickly caught several more runners, including eventual women’s third place Fernanda Maciel. But as the stairs ended and I started running up the incline that leads into the first checkpoint, I began to feel tightness in my hamstrings left over from the Australian Mountain Running Championships the previous weekend. I had thought I’d gotten over that just in time, but I wasn’t going to let it deter me.
I came into the first checkpoint (10.5km) just behind a large group (that included Núria Picas) in 1.01.15 (25th place). After quickly filling up my water bottle (passing several people through the checkpoint), I was on my way along Narrow Neck running at what felt like a very comfortable but steady pace. Along the way, I caught up with Surf Coast Century race director Sam Maffett and began chatting as we made our way towards the always fun, Tarros Ladders (Sam would go on to have a great run and finish in 10th place).
Having missed the turnoff to Dunphy’s camp in 2012, I felt just a little bit uneasy running along the Meadlow Gap fire trail that came a bit after Tarros Ladders. Every potential turn off, I checked and then double checked for the crosses indicating not to go that way and would begin to freak out every time I hadn’t seen a course marking for more than 15 seconds. But of course, this is TNF100 and the course was ridiculously well marked, so I found my way to the second checkpoint without any drama.
My coach, Andy DuBois, was waiting at the checkpoint with some words of encouragement. I was sticking to my plan and although I was still outside of the top 10, I was feeling great and knew I would be probably catching more people soon. I purposefully didn’t mention my hamstrings, blocking out all negativity (or as some people might put it, I was “in denial”).
Next up was Ironpot ridge, which is always a major highlight of the course. The sound of didgeridoos filling the picturesque valley is a very unique experience, but the fact that course runs out and back along the same route meant I would be able to see how far ahead some of the other runners were (although I was focusing very much on my own race, I was still curious!). I could see that there were four runners less than 5 minutes ahead of me, but the others were so far ahead, I didn’t see them at all. But that didn’t matter, as I was still well on track to run under 10hours and was feeling good.
I had my first true indication that I was going to run faster than in 2013 when I found that I was running the whole way up the hill along Megalong Valley Road and feeling great doing so (albeit, quite aware of my hamstrings…but I had convinced myself that they would be able to handle it!). I figured I would probably be closing in on the runners I had seen ahead of me along Ironpot ridge and sure enough, as I made way back down towards checkpoint three, I could see runners up ahead.
I love checkpoint three. It’s always a bit of party there and this year was no exception. The atmosphere is so uplifting and the couple of kilometres after it always seem to fly thanks to the high from having just been cheered on by so many people. There was also a mandatory gear check at the checkpoint and this year I had come prepared! While last year I spent a while rummaging through my pack trying to locate the right piece of equipment and then putting it back, this year I was carrying a Hoka One One pack that seems to have been designed for gear checks! As it opens up completely with a single zip, I had arranged my gear so that every single item was readily on display. I could produce anything quickly, and without having to then rearrange my pack when I did it back up. As a result, I overtook another runner through the checkpoint.
Kokoda Spirit Racing teammate, Moe, quickly updated me on the other runners as I left the checkpoint and headed off towards Nellies Glen in a very positive state of mind. My favourite part of the TNF100 course was without a doubt, Nellies Glen. I think it is a well-timed opportunity to change from running to power hiking but I also reached Nellies in a hotter part of the day, so the cool change was very much welcomed. On the way up I passed the ever strong and positive Andy Lee.
I came into checkpoint 4 feeling fantastic. I was well on track to finish under 10 hours and yet still felt fresh. I couldn’t wait to get into the “business end” of the race and spent a grand total of 11 seconds at checkpoint 4 (which included crossing the hall) — credit goes to my mother for being such an efficient crew (I suppose there is no one else more practiced at feeding me from a bottle)!
Regardless of how good I was feeling, my descent down the Giant Stairway was rather slow. Perhaps is due to a lack of practice on similar stairs but I simply couldn’t travel down the narrow stairs particularly quickly. On the bright side, it meant I could enjoy the wonderful views of the iconic Three Sisters. Furthermore, it meant I felt even better when I hit Dardenelles Pass below. It wasn’t too long until fellow Hoka One One athlete Scott Hawker came into sight on our way up the stairs that lead into the Prince Harry Cliff Walk. It was unfortunate to hear that he was having stomach problems, but I reassured him I had suffered the same thing at a similar point in the race last year and it worked itself out in the end.
I actually remember very little of what happened over the next 10km, but I do remember feeling fantastic. By the time I came across Andy DuBois and the Ultra168 boys at the 75km mark I was about to move up into 4th place and was becoming genuinely surprised at how good I was still feeling. My hamstring tightness had only worsened a little bit but nothing else was really hurting yet. It was such a stark contrast to how I felt three quarters into the Buffalo Stampede! Of course, the toughest leg was still to come.
I passed Jono O’Loughlin as we made our way along Tableland Rd, but I could hear that he wasn’t going to let me go so easily. I tried to focus on what was in front of me, rather than behind, but I wasn’t pulling away. In the end, I think it was another quick checkpoint transition (thanks Mum!), that got me away.
It pretty much goes without saying that I felt considerably better running DOWN Kedumba than I did running UP it the year before and was just hoping my legs would still feel strong when I hit the bottom.
And they did…for about 100m of uphill running. Then suddenly, I found myself REALLY wanting to walk up the gentle slope rather than run. I stubbornly persisted as my run deteriorated to a shuffle. By now I was doing my best to block out all memories of collapsing at the Buffalo Stampede with a mantra of “Relentless Forward Progression”. But it wasn’t too long until Jono passed me and by the time we had a short section of downhill, he was pretty much out of sight. I had to force myself to run the downhill…I was too stubborn to walk! I don’t think I was moving too quickly, but at least I was running. However, when the course turned to climbing once more, I was walking pretty much everything. On the occasions there was some flat respite where I would force myself into a shuffle, but simply didn’t seem to have the strength to run uphill. “How could things have changed so quickly?”
This painfully slow ascent continued until, with 4km to go, out of nowhere, Quentin Stephan passed me, running incredibly well. Instantaneously, a switch was flicked in my brain; I was being chased by a French lion and needed to run!!! And somehow, I was running up inclines that before I was struggling to walk up and feeling good doing so. I spurted pass Quentin and didn’t look back. I had no idea where this energy had come from but I was going use every bit of it!
With 1km to go I hit the Furber stairs; nearly 900 steps just to put the nail in the coffin! I was cramping, but I was giving it everything I had and was breathing hard. I refused to look for Quentin, so as far as I was concerned, he was right behind me. I was so relieved when I hit the top and it was only with 50m to go that I finally looked back to check whether a dreaded sprint finish would be required (as had been the case for Andrew Tuckey and Stu Gibson!). I crossed the finish line in 9.56.16, and lay down next to Brendan Davies. I was spent, but VERY satisfied. I had achieved all I set out to do; run my own race and go under 10 hours.
Looking back, I am really pleased with how my day unfolded. It was the complete opposite of what I did at the Buffalo Stampede…and that was the point! I can’t be sure why didn’t feel strong on the final climb despite feeling so good just 10km earlier. While the 1000m descent probably had something to do with it, I suspect that it was actually largely mental as I had been telling myself leading up to the race that I would reach 80km feeling good and then see what happened. As a result I may have just not been prepared psychologically for that final climb which was why my legs seemed to just give up, even though it was evident that I still had plenty of energy. I will take a lot of confidence away from the race and feel that I will be better mentally prepared for future ultras because of it. Above all I had a really fun day and I am incredibly grateful to all the event organisers, supporters on the course and to all the other runners and crews who make the race so wonderful!
And I am pleased to say that the women’s shorts worked brilliantly…no chafing!