To understand what the TNF100 means to me, first flashback one year to TNF100 2012. I started the race severely under-prepared and with no race plan what–so–ever. After starting out at what felt like a “too easy” pace (it probably wasn’t, given my lack of preparation!) for the first 5km I decided to just “pick up the pace a little bit” and had caught Jez Bragg before the first checkpoint (and as an over confident 19 year old, I decided it would be appropriate to try to keep up with him!). After overshooting a turn to checkpoint 2 by a couple of kilometers, by the time we turned around to retrace our steps, my legs were already slowing down dramatically and I was left watching Jez speed off into the distance. From there things only got worse but out of shear stubbornness I kept pushing until at the 75km mark my good friend Delina Rahmate found me staggering at what I later worked out to be about 45min/km downhill, in a state where I was so hungry and thirsty that despite still having water in my bottles, I was too delusional to work out how to get the water from inside my bottle to my mouth. Fortunately for me, Delina has trained as nurse and knew exactly what to do to bring me back to life and sacrificed her own race (for which I am extremely grateful!) to huddle with me on the side of the road, wrapped up in space blankets waiting to be picked up by a safety vehicle. It was my baptism of fire into the world of ultra trail running… and I loved it. As we headed towards checkpoint 5 in the 4WD, instead of on foot, I vowed not to make the same mistake again and to return in 2013 for redemption.
Over the following 12 months I did what I could to ensure that I would be as well prepared as possible. I researched and trialed a wide variety of gear and nutritional products. After many hours of on-trail testing (including races) I came to the conclusion that Hoka One One Stinson Evo’s would be my shoe of choice. I found that after covering about a marathon in distance that the major reduction in fatigue, particularly in my feet, calves and ankles, that the Hoka’s provided meant that I could be confident that I was getting the maximum return for my fitness levels that I would experience less deterioration of running form in the later stages of any ultra. After trying a variety of different energy gels and drinks I found that Hammer gels, Perpetuem, and Endurolytes consistently kept my energy levels high and cramps away without causing any stomach problems. I also sought advice from my nutritionist-in-training and Australian trail ultra-running representative friend Mandy-Lee Noble for advice on the optimum nutritional intake. Even after deciding on which pack I would use for the race, after trying my Dad’s Ultraspire Omega I decided it was simply too comfortable to race with anything else. Of course there would be little point in having all-the-gear-and-no-idea, so after reading many of his articles on Ultra168 and his blog, as of mid-November I also started to be coached by Andy DuBois, who not only sorted out the few niggles I was having but also showed me that I was capable of training harder than I had previously thought possible. Finally to help me keep any future injuries at bay I also started receiving regular sports massage with Craig Smoothy, who has been a brilliant supporter of my running.
Come race day 2013 I woke up from a restless night’s sleep to get about my pre-race business, downing my Perpetuem breakfast and going though all the mandatory gear one last time. I was joined this year by my Dad, who after not being able to stand watching online as my race splits became increasingly drawn out last year, had decided he would do the race himself, and my mother had volunteered to be my support crew for the day while she temporarily takes a break from running due to recent back surgery.
My plan had been to hang back somewhere in the top 20-30 off the start line and to simply run as I felt was sustainable. Heading down to the Leura Cascades, I made a point of easing back just a little bit on the stairs as this was where I started to go out too fast the previous year. Despite being one to usually feel the cold, by the 10km mark I had taken off my arm-warmers and buff and was down to a singlet and gloves (which stayed on for the entire race). Reaching the base of the Golden Stairs was the first real mental milestone in the race as the long stair climbs are the parts on which I feel most comfortable. Getting into a comfortable rhythm of two-steps at a time, hands-on-knees power hiking, I quickly made up the distance to Grant Guise but decided to drop my pace a little bit to hang with him so I would have someone to run with into checkpoint 1 and along Narrow Neck. We were also joined by Perth-based runner James Roberts and sharing a few laughs and stories over the next couple of kilometers was one of the highlights of the race.
Scrambling over the rocks around Tarros Ladders was also a particularly fun part of the course but despite my best efforts to prepare for anything in the race I realized that I hadn’t left every stone unturned as I had forgotten to practice climbing down ladders. Fortunately this wasn’t too detrimental and soon afterwards I found myself running by myself, which was to be the case for most of the remainder of the day. Heading along the fire trail, I picked up a couple more places but was constantly glancing at every side trail, not wanting to miss the same turn as last year. The inclusion of the many red crosses on the course indicating which trails not to take were great as they meant I was very sure all day where I should be going and I wish more trail raced included these. Fortunately the turn was very well marked and I breathed a sigh of relief as I headed towards checkpoint 2.
I had managed to pick up 3 places, moving up from 12th at checkpoint 1, to 9th at checkpoint 2 but I clearly needed to have practiced getting my gear out for the mandatory checks, as I watched on in amazement as Mick Donges leapfrogged me through the checkpoint and gear check. Last year, Iron Pot Ridge has been torture but this year I was feeling strong and was able to catch-up the positions I lost through the checkpoint as I slipped back into my power-hike. Brendan must have already finished the out and back section by the time I reached it as the first runner I saw coming in the opposite direction was Vajin, who was looking incredibly strong. The turnaround was another big mental checkpoint as I knew that approximately marked the marathon mark in the course and I really felt like that flicked a switch in my mind and I entered ‘ultra-marathon mode’ as I accepted that soon my legs would feeling fatigued but I would simply need to run with my head, not my legs.
The descent off Iron Pot Ridge was a ton of fun, especially with my Hokas saving me from any jarring. The series of short sharp ascents that follow meant that I spend the next couple of kilometers switching between running and power-hiking. Hitting Megalong road (I swear they included such an aptly name section on purpose!) my legs were starting to hurt and I knew that I would soon be entering unknown territory in terms distanced covered while racing hard. As the road began to incline, I kept reminding myself of Andy’s advice, “Let your mind control your legs rather than the other way around”. I would always look ahead and determine whether I thought I would cover any given part of the hill faster running or hiking and made sure that I let that decision alone determine when I ran and when I hiked. It was a great feeling reaching the top, knowing that I had stuck to this plan and I had a burst of confidence which drove me into checkpoint 3.
I have been saying for the last year that TNF100 would be a fun race to crew at and the party atmosphere that greets runners at checkpoint 3 is one of the main reasons why. Even last year I had a bit of high patch coming out of thischeckpoint and this year, the ‘post-checkpoint high’ was even greater. I was really looking forward to Nellies Glen as this would present another opportunity to hike up the stairs. It was not long after reaching the top that I had my first real complication of the day: a stitch. It wasn’t a bad one, but it was ill timed as I was consuming a large portion of my water at the checkpoints to minimise the amount I had to carry, however due to the stitch I hardly drank when I reached checkpoint 4 (by this stage I had also moved up into 7th place).
Luckily my stitch temporarily went away, and I was spurred on by the support of the 50km runners and tourists along the stretch to the Giant Stairs. Descending these steps was another section which I realised I had not practiced due to a lack of similar conditions near where I live. Whilst I don’t think I would have lost much time on this section, as I started the long descent down into the valley, my stomach was starting to feel a bit off. Upon reflection I am pretty sure this was due to me keeping up my Hammer gel/Perpeteum/Endurolyte intake while the lack of fluid intake at the previous aid station meant that what was sitting in my stomach was too concentrated and wasn’t being absorbed properly. I could also taste some left over Endura in my bottle (which I was borrowing from my Dad), which was something that I wasn’t use to.
I tried to just let my Hoka’s do their thing on the downhill and just focused on getting to the final aid station, telling myself that all my problems would go away when I just got to the aid station and re-hydrated. I passed the point where I had laid on the side of the road the year before and used this as motivation to just keep pushing though. Hitting the climb up Kedumba was a massive mental hurtle, knowing that I would have to face the longest climb of the day feeling the worst I had felt all day. Never the less,I stuck to Andy’s advice and continued to choose with my head when to run and when to hike and simply tried to ignore my legs and gut screaming at me to always choose the former. The gear check halfway up was a godsend, as with the station came a supply of water and I was able to re-hydrate. I probably was much slower through the gear check than I should have been but I left it feeling refreshed and smiled when I saw the steep climb awaiting me after it, knowing it was time to power-hike once more. I felt so much stronger over the second half the climb, but was still suffering from a little bit of nausea that was to remain with me for the rest of the race.
Being able to run still feeling relatively strong into checkpoint 5 was a massive mental boost as with only 11km to go I knew that barring some catastrophe, I would be finishing the TNF100 this year. Seeing Mum and Andy at the checkpoint only lifted my spirits further and I hit the road section leading out the checkpoint determined to finish well. That final section is a great test on tired legs, having to switch gears between uphill and downhill running on a series of short-sharp stair climbs and descents. When I passed the 2km to go mark I decided to see just what I had left in me and surprised myself at what my legs were still capable of doing (all those tempo runs at the end of long weekends of training had paid off!).
As I came into sight of the Fairmont I could hear my mother yelling out my name and great feeling of accomplishment swept over me. I knew that I had tamed the beast that almost destroyed me the year before. Not only that, but I had also finished comfortable under my goal time of 10:30, finishing in 7th place in 10.18.53. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that silver buckle (I can finally make the joke that you know you’re an ultra-runner when you have more buckles than belts!) and it was fantastic to share that moment with my Mum and with Andy. It goes to show how much one can learn from races that go badly, having no real complications other than the somewhat upset stomach this year; not even chaffing (thanks to an obscene amount of Bodyglide) or blisters (thanks to Injiinji Trail 2.0 Mid Weight Mini Crew socks).
But of course, there is no rest for the wicked, and after a quick shower, my Mum and I headed to checkpoint 5 to watch my Dad pass through. I could tell he was in the hurt-locker but he’s so strong willed that there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to finish strongly. In fact, he finished so strongly that Mum and I actually missed him finish in 14.08.17 (unfortunately we did something similar to him at the Glasshouse 100 last year as well, so I think next time we are just going to have to tough out the dark and cold and wait at the finish line for longer!).
The next day, as I watched some of the runners finish more than 24 hours after the start, I felt so much respect for those guys. Whilst there is often the most attention on what goes on at the front of the race, I have always thought that the person who comes last has to be the mentally toughest. Having said that, I have so much respect for the likes of Brendan Davies who showed that Australian trail runners can compete with the best in the world. Whilst there is so much more to running than simply records, seeing Brendan reclaim the TNF100 record for Australia, despite the caliber of the previous winners, has filled me with the belief that more Australians will follow his lead and be some of best trail runners in the world.