Monday, May 26, 2014

The North Face 100 - Race Report

It's definitely possible to be disappointed and satisfied at the same time. Totally demoralised, yet absolutely exhilarated. The North Face 100 was an ongoing contradiction, both while running it, and in the days after. My lofty expectations for the race had been well and truly torpedoed before the halfway mark, but despite feeling miserable for a good portion of the day, I was still able to enjoy the incredible beauty of the country we ran through, and appreciate how lucky I am to be able to compete in such an event.

The weekend started with a Friday morning rendezvous at Melbourne Airport with my travelling companions Andy, Simon and Dave. These guys were great company all weekend. Lots of laughs, and I couldn't have imagined a better bunch of blokes to take on this monster with. At my insistence, we arrived an hour before boarding to ensure we enjoyed a pre-flight pint of Guinness at PJ O'Briens, and then it was off to Sydney. On arrival, we picked up the hire car for our drive to Katoomba with Andy at the wheel, and after a couple of wrong turns, I was quickly sacked as navigator, and Dave guided us safely to our destination.

Our cabin was right by the start/finish area at Scenic World, and as soon as we checked in, we all got our drop bags ready and headed up to the registration and briefing. At the expo, I had a quick chat to Stephen Rennick, who I had run with for a while at Roller Coaster. A really nice guy, and we wished each other well for the next day. The elite athlete forum was held on stage before the briefing, and as it was the first of these I had ever attended, I listened hard, hoping for some insights. It was a bit disappointing - I had hoped to hear more about shoe and gear choice, hydration/nutrition strategy, etc - and is probably something I wouldn't bother with again. What had become apparent though, was that my target time of 11:00-11:30 based on previous years was probably unrealistic. There was plenty of chatter about how the new course would add at least half an hour to times, and I decided that sub 12 would be my revised goal. I was also slightly disconcerted by the constant mention of stairs. I knew there were stairs, but I had possibly underestimated how many!

With Dave, Simon & Andy before the start.
Mick Keyte (42) on the left photo-bombing.

I slept pretty well, and was up at 4:30 for a quick shower and breakfast, then had a light jog to warm up before heading back to the cabin to collect my pack. Back at the start line, the energy was amazing, as people bounced on their toes, stretched, and got their game face on for the day ahead. At 6:30, start group 1 of 6, was sent away, with the rest of the groups to follow at intervals. It was a 4k out and back road section to break the field up, and the pace was solid early, and while I wasn't really pushing, I was definitely at the outer limits of how hard I wanted to be running at that point. I hit the top of the Furber steps descent in about 25th position, but as soon as we started down, I was quickly passed by a few people more nimble on their feet. Almost straight away, I was dripping buckets of sweat, and I had to stop and stow my beanie and gloves, which cost me another 10 places as people came hurtling down the steps. By the time the trail levelled out through the rocky Landslide section, I was stuck behind a long train of people with limited opportunities to pass. Stupidly, I became anxious about losing time, and wasted too much energy in passing, when I should have just sat back and conserved.

At 9k, we began the 250m ascent up the Golden Stairs, and I hiked solidly up it, passing a few people along the way, including Stephen, who I chatted with for a bit before heading on my way. Near the top, I got my first indication that things may not be going as well as I planned. I was already feeling some real heaviness in my legs which I was not expecting. This should have been an easy climb for me this early in the race, and I was surprised how much it took out of me. At the top of the ascent, I headed down a short track and through CP1 at 10.5k in 30th place, then onto Narrow Neck on a dirt road which undulated for about 9k. Along here I felt like I was running comfortably, but on the ascents started reeling a few people in, before joining a group of 5 at 13k which included Mick Keyte. We had a bit of a chat - it was his first 100 as well, and we both agreed it was tough to know how to pace. Eventually I decided the group was going a little hard for me, so I let them go, and was just cruising on a downhill section when all of a sudden I was on my face.

A little dusty after deciding to inspect some firetrail close up

Not concentrating properly, my toe had clipped a rock and I had flown forward, landing hard with my forearms and left hip taking the brunt of the fall. Stunned for a moment, I took stock. Nothing broken, some skin lost, bit of a gash on the right arm, but OK. I stood up, collected my drink bottles which had bailed out (cowards!), and continued on my way. Trying to stay composed, I attempted to run at an even pace, but my heart rate was through the roof, and I ran the next split way too quick. Both hands had gone numb, so I shook them as I ran along, trying to get the circulation going, feeling incredibly embarrassed at falling flat on my face on a straight stretch of dirt road, even though fortunately no one had seen. By the time I reached the Tarros ladders at 20k I was reasonably back under control, although the hairy descent did nothing to improve my mood. My view is, if you have to use your hands, it's not running, and if there's ropes involved, IT'S DEFINITELY NOT RUNNING.

After the ladders, there was  technical descent where a few people flew past me again, then more fire trail before CP2 at 31k. I refilled one of my bottles with water, and somehow, left the checkpoint in 29th position, and that was as good as it got for me for the rest of the day. I didn't feel too bad on the climb up to Ironpot Ridge, passing a couple of people, and then being joined by American Joelle Vaught (eventual 2nd female), who I hiked with for a while, enjoying her lovely chatty personality before she powered off. At the out and back section along the top of the ridge I started to really feel the pinch, and on the way back passed a group all looking strong in hot pursuit. Heading back down the ridge, it was very steep and slippy, and I once again cursed my ridiculous shoe choice. My toes were starting to hurt from digging them in trying to brake, and even my iron quads, fired hard in the heat of Maroondah Dam and Roller Coaster were starting to bother me. This I had not expected. Of all my body parts, I thought my loyal quads were least likely to fail me! At the bottom, we passed through some farmland, where I was caught and passed by Stephen (and others), who gave some encouraging words as he ran on, looking very strong and going on to have a great race, finishing 27th.

Then it was another 6k of dirt road, including a long grinding uphill, which should have been one of my strongest parts of the day, but instead I struggled up it, being passed by another few people, and finally jogging down to CP3 at 46k, trying not to think about the fact that I still had more than half the race to go. I had my first drop bag at this checkpoint, and swapped my bottles quickly, before heading back out in 40th place. Shortly after the CP I was joined by an English girl running in obvious pain, and with an obviously swollen knee. I had been carrying a couple of panadol for my own troublesome knee, but as it had been behaving itself, was happy to offer them to her. She was very grateful, and then proceeded to zoom off into the distance. Well, the knee can't be hurting THAT much I thought. I later found out it was superstar Claire Walton, who ran 95k with a fractured patella and finished 5th female. Talk about tough!

The next part of the course was on the famous Six Foot Track, and I ground away trying to get something going up the dirt road, but as it started to get steeper, the beginnings of cramp appeared, and by the time it turned into the walking track and the massive climb up through the stairs in Nellies Glen, I was cramping regularly, having to stop every few steps. Fortunately, this gave me plenty of time to admire this beautiful part of the course. Finally the climb was over, then it was a short road section before arriving at CP4 at 57k - Katoomba Aquatic Centre. The volunteers at this CP were great, one retrieved my drop bag, while the other filled my water bottle and grabbed me a chair. I sat down, but quickly sprang up as both legs started cramping again. So I just grabbed my fresh bottles and headed out again. I was 105th quickest on course through Leg 4, and dropped 7 places to 47th. But worse was to come!

Some sweet single track

Leg 5 was the most brutal, beautiful, agonizing and challenging part of the course. First through the streets of Katoomba, we passed back very close to the start line, then worked our way along the cliffs to the Three Sisters lookout, then began the long descent down the Giant Stairway. My quads were well and truly screaming by this time, and I was pretty slow down the stairs, still pausing occasionally when I cramped. At the bottom of the stairs, there was some track, then some more stairs that you went up, then some you went down, then some more you went up, and it went on like that seemingly endlessly, passing waterfalls, fern gullies, waterholes, then some more cliff top track, through Leura forest, then on to Wentworth Falls. The views were amazing, and despite progressing slowly and being passed regularly, I kept moving forward and made sure I enjoyed the scenery. I had pretty much given up my hope of sub 12, and was now just hoping for my buckle. Eventually, after another climb, and more stairs, there was another road section, and down the hill to CP5 at 78k. It had taken me 3 hours and 17 minutes to run the 21k leg. I was 155th quickest through the leg, and had dropped another 13 spots to 60th. On a positive note, I was pretty quick in and out of the CP, 24th quickest for the day at only 2:38! Also, after dogging me for 25k, the cramping had finally disappeared and didn't return.

Not far from CP5

The next part of the course I was not particularly looking forward to - a 650m descent in 8.5k of dirt road on smashed quads. At first I tried to descend smoothly and easily, but it was hurting just as much and was taking longer, so I just let the legs go and tried to ignore the pain. I never saw a single person for the whole descent, which was quite eerie, as if they had called the race off and forgotten to tell me. At the bottom of the descent, I crossed Jamison creek, rounded a corner, and three runners came into view ahead. I was pretty chuffed as it felt like I hadn't passed anyone in about 5 hours, and I was able to pick off a couple on the uphill with a combination of running/hard hiking. It was now getting pretty dark but I held off putting on my headlamp until the 91k water point. By the time I reached the stop, it was pitch black, and the vollie told me I needed to put on my light. Yeah, no kidding. I filled my bottles, and as I turned to leave, a massive pain shot up through the outside of my knee, and I was reduced to a hobble for the next half a kilometre until it settled down. We were still on dirt road, as we had been since CP5, and there was now another big climb where pre-race I had pictured myself flying up (in daylight), leaving the inferior climbers in my wake. Back in reality, I hiked mostly, and ran where I could, until finally we were back on a trail and I knew the end was close.

Clearly having a WTF moment.
Enlarge to get full value from expression.

On the trail it was a bit congested, as I had picked up the tail of the 50k field, and there was a section where the 100k runners were going back the other way at about the 60k mark. I had never run with  headlamp before and it was a bit tricky, managing my 4th fall of the day (although none like the first), but passing a couple and being passed by others. As I reached the base of the Furber Steps, even knowing I had 995 of them to go couldn't dampen my lifting spirits, and I went up them pretty well, passing 3 people on the way up and not being passed. Perversely, I probably felt as good as I did all day. At the top, I ran up the chute, and around the corner to the very crowded finish line, crossing in 12:44:24, and 60th place - exactly the position I had held at CP5.

Splits & finish details

I'm pleased I stuck the day out even though things went off the rails pretty early. There was never a time when I felt great, and ultimately I feel like I was about an hour outside what I was capable of. So where did that hour go? Firstly, it's hard to quantify what sort of effect the fall had, but maybe up to half an hour. It certainly rattled me, but more importantly I think it was the adrenaline that shot through me in the immediate aftermath that used up precious energy reserves.

Secondly, I was simply not conditioned for the amount of stairs in the race. There are a lot. I'm pretty sure this lack of specific conditioning was a major contributor to the cramping I experienced. Thirdly, I don't think my preparation was ideal. Two hard races in 13 days, followed by recovery, a quick build up, then taper again all within 6 weeks was probably not ideal. A slow build up with more specific long run training probably would have been better. I did one 6 hour training run, and at least 2 or 3 of these would have been preferable.

Finally, I just don't think I have enough experience yet. This was my 6th ultra, with my first only 16 months ago, and it was my first time over 56k. I really need some more long races to cope properly with an event like TNF. The bone-deep fatigue I am still feeling a week after the race is probably a good indicator that my body is still a work in progress when it comes to seeing these races out. I'm also not sure that I really put it together mentally for the task of running more than twice as long as I ever had before. I found myself quite overwhelmed with the job ahead at times, particularly from 35-50k when things weren't panning out for me. 

So, some things went right yeah? I was fairly happy with my nutrition and hydration, and my efficiency through the checkpoints despite not having a crew. The extra time on course meant I was down to about 230 calories an hour which is maybe a little low. I would probably take an extra gel per leg, but that is all I would change. I never had any stomach issues, which is always a bonus in long races. I loved my UD pack, and all my gear was fine except for shoes. I will definitely be looking at some trail shoes in the next month or so. I think the Inov-8 Trailroc series could be the go.

So will I be back? You bet. I still think I have a sub 12 in me, and I won't die wondering. From mid January on next year there will be plenty of trips to the 1000 steps in the Dandenongs for training sessions, and my build up will be aimed specifically at the race rather than having it tacked on as an end of season afterthought. Already, I can't wait to go back. The atmosphere of the event is a huge drawcard, and the set up with the start and finish at Scenic World is perfect.

My next race will be the 80k Trails+ event at You Yangs in July, which will basically be a training run for Surf Coast Century in September.