Will Thames

swim, bike, run, tech

Race Report: The North Face 50km

One week on, and a race report gets harder to write as memories of pain and suffering fade. If I leave it much longer I might accidentally document that it really wasn’t that different to the average walk in the park.

The Day before

Skip this section if you just want the race details!

I flew down to Sydney on the Friday morning, picked up my hire car from the airport, and drove straight to Leura. I did want to get to my accommodation as early as possible as the descriptions sounded sufficiently complicated that I didn’t want to try it first in the dark. But I was hungry as it had gone 2pm and I hadn’t been fed much on the flight. So I got to Leura, found a great sandwich at Wazygoose and went for a wander to eat lunch in tranquility.

After lunch I bought dinner for the next two nights (bacon and courgettes and mushrooms and pasta), cereal for the next two mornings (It was supposed to be cereal and muesli but they didn’t have my type, and I rarely risk new mueslis!). From there, it was back to Wentworth Falls and finding my cottage, Wattle, at the end of a long and bumpy dirt track, which I was glad I tried in daylight.

By now it was 4pm so I quickly moved some of my luggage around in a vague attempt to start preparing for the morning, before heading back to Leura to have a look at the North Face shop (lots of stuff I didn’t need and nothing I did actually want) and listen to the Runners Forum, which had some great tips for training and preparing for the race, but any really useful advice would be a bit late by then! I also met up with Dave and discussed plans for car sharing for the morning (parking wasn’t allowed anywhere near by so getting dropped off was almost essential).

When I got back to the cottage I lit the fire, had dinner, ensured all my stuff was in the right place for the morning, chatted to Peta on the phone, read for a bit and went to bed not long after 10pm. I had to be up at 6.30am, which is almost a respectable time of day for this kind of thing.

Race Day

In the morning I had breakfast and a cup of tea, sorted out what I was wearing in the race, what I’d take until leaving the car and what I’d have in the bag for emergencies. I had a good idea what the temperatures would be (a low of 6, a high of 16) but didn’t really know what that would feel like. I was also worried about cooling down in the case of injury or getting lost, and so wanted to pack conservatively. But even so, I think I packed too much stuff, which would have consequences later.

I got to Dave’s, dropped off my car there for the rest of the day along with my fleece, and we headed to the start with his parents. We had some fun taking some photos and then it was time to head to the race briefing. The first wave went not long after at 8:50am, and then at 8:55am, it was time for us to go!

The first couple of km were around the Fairmont Resort golf course, which was certainly hilly enough for me to slow down to a walk and be out of breath within a km. I don’t have any timings as I’d turned my watch on before leaving home, told it ‘yes, I am indoors’ and then forgot to turn GPS back on when going outside. I managed to fix that on the run, but only after a couple of kms.

After about 3km we started heading down some steps, and then the bottlenecks started to become apparent. This is always likely to be an issue, as some people are good at steps but slower at running, and others like me are middle of the pack at running and terribly slow at steps. I tried to let obviously faster people through, particularly when the faster third wave runners caught up, but it was the same for everyone really. I never minded (unless I was holding people up), a slow pace up steps just keeps me well below threshold.

There were some ladder climbs to get back up the cliff, then some biggish hills before we hit dirt track and then road on the way to the checkpoint. I’d thought the checkpoint was at 15km, so was surprised when someone said it was only a couple of kms, but my watch being 2.5km behind, and the checkpoint being at 12km combined to make it arrive quite soon.

I wasn’t able to fill my bladder very much at the checkpoint - my bag was full and compressing the bladder. I could have taken some stuff out, and repacked it again, but I took the risk with it being a cooler day.

The next 10km were downhill, pretty much, so that I did them in about 50 minutes to take me to the 2 hour point at the 20km marker. After this I calculated it would be mostly uphill for the next 3 hours (based on 5km/h which was what I was doing when walking). There were the odd few kms where I was able to run for a while, meaning that I was getting 5kms done in 50 mins rather than the hour, but I realised I’d need that for the steps, where I’d get no horizontal distance in a lot of time! I could see the Three Sisters from below at one point which was quite exciting.

I took a bit of a sitting break around the 30km mark to get some food and water into my system before the last couple of kms before the steps. As expected, the steps were hard, and took a while, and a few breathers to get to the top, but finally I made it!

From there it was roads to Checkpoint 2. I ran those I could, and walked the hills, but I made it to the checkpoint with about five minutes to go before the 5 hour mark. I hoped to be out by 5 hours, but I faffed around for a bit (I wasted time going to the toilet - it was near the entrance but I only found this out at the food station on the opposite side of the hall). I took down a lot of melon, had some energy drink and water and a few chews. I put what I thought to be a sensible amount of water in my bladder, but didn’t fill it, as I just had the last 14km to Leura - how hard could that be? In the end I got out just after the five hour mark.

At this point I was hoping for sub 7 - I realised 14km in 1:30 was likely to be unrealistic, but surely 7km an hour was doable. Even though I’d just had a break, I found it very difficult to maintain a good running pace for the next couple of kms, I would have to run and then walk. I realised shortly after that those two kms (and a few beforehand) were completely exposed, and once I got back in the shadow of the cliffs I was able to maintain a decent pace, when I could actually run.

My memories of the last 10km are just one set of steps after another. I felt able to run when the track was runnable, but there were sections where I’d descend 200m vertical in steps, and then almost immediately ascend again. There were more kms which took 24 mins (so joint slowest with the Furber Steps!) and it just felt relentless, particularly around the Leura Cascades. When I got to the top of the Olympian Rock lookout, someone said “it’s runnable for a bit now” and it was, but that bit was very short as I went down towards Gordon Falls! Suddenly we were off the tracks and onto tarmac, and then it was just the couple of kms. At this point my water error had finally materialised and I was totally out, but thankfully I no longer needed any. Indeed, the last km was very runnable (i.e. it was mostly downhill) and so at least I felt that I finished strongly - in fact, my best km since around the 18km mark.

After the finish gear check I collected my medal and tshirt, grabbed some water, and energy drink and a couple of sausages, and then went to get myself together so that I could let Peta know that I was safe, and call Dave and find a lift home. Dave actually found me, and then sorted me a cup of tea, and we compared stories. It was reassuring to know he’d found it just as tough, particularly the steps. He even said he’d found it tougher than last year, although I do wonder whether the memories of last year had faded!

My final time was 7:24:52, and I was 130th out of 266 runners. I was very happy with that, and pleased not to have to run another 50km. While on the course, at one point I gave up on my goal of ever doing Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and then even considered retiring from running entirely!

Photography notes

Many of the photos are from Aurora Images, the professional photographers on the course. I have noted these with (Aurora) in the photo titles.

David Abrey took the photos credited with (Dave), Chris Abrey took the one credited with (Chris).

A couple of photos were taken by fellow competitors while on the run, apologies for lack of credit.

Inspirational race reports

Well, mine is a report from the middle of the pack. The winners’ race reports are happily both online and make for inspiring reading, perhaps because they’ve both come such a long way in the last few years - I’m sure they both have innate talent too, but working hard can make a big difference:

The Day After

I went to find Bridal Veil falls, which Peta tried to show me seven years ago on our first trip together to Australia, after several years of drought, and the falls looked a bit pathetic. It looked much better! I also took a trip to Cliff View lookout at Katoomba, and Wentworth Falls lookout. It was a beautiful day and I was happy to be walking without too much pain (down steps was the only tough move). I bumped into a guy who’d done the 100 and was out with his family, and had a nice chat with him. I badgered some other tourists to take my photo at Cliff View.