Will Thames

swim, bike, run, tech

Race Report: The North Face 100km

Introduction

This post is quite long, worthy of the race it reports. Grab a cup of tea, sit down, and read on… Mostly written on Tuesday and finished off with pictures on Sunday.

Race report

After my inauspicious lead-up to the race, I continued the non-training bits of race preparation as best I could, sorting out my energy drink sachets so that I had 16 bags with 50g each (thankfully I didn’t have to explain the baggies of white powder at airport security), packing my race kit and supporting my support crew.

This was my first race where Peta was supporting in a participatory sense, doing more than cheering (or writing encouraging messages in chalk on the Ironman run in Zurich!). I wasn’t totally sure what I would need, but wrote some checklists for each checkpoint including location, estimated time of arrival and what things I might need. This allowed me to defer decisions such as whether I’d need a change of shoes at checkpoint 4 or 5 (or, as it turns out, at all). I could also give Peta a funnel to fill my bottles with powder, and carry warm clothes for later, and give me the food I’d prepared. All in all the checklists were pretty successful.

Also in the build up to the race, I found the Unofficial North Face 100 Training page on Facebook, which led me to a great blog including preparation tips including the checklists idea.

I still wasn’t feeling 100% better on the Friday, and I found the slight incline from the parking to registration at the race start really affected my breathing. However, it was also very cold, and I was suffering a little from pre-race nerves.

Race registration, for me, in 2014, was amazingly efficient. I got to registration at 7pm and by 7:02 I was registered and by 7:04 I had the goodie bag. Unfortunately I then had to stick around another 30 minutes until compulsory race briefing which started late and ran long. I should have grabbed a seat before it started as my legs were sore during the night following an hour standing. I would complain more but the Welcome from the traditional owners was very moving and I wouldn’t have missed that for anything. The lovely elderly woman who thanked us for coming and loving the land was truly touching (and perhaps more generous than deserved given the amount of race litter I saw, only some of which I had the energy to pick up and take out with me).

After registration I went home, we finished cooking dinner, ate, and once I felt that everything that needed to be done was done, I went to bed. I slept well for the first half and then I got hot and my leg was very painful — I was half convinced I might have deep vein thrombosis or something — but whatever it was, I never felt it after I started running.

Parking at the start wasn’t great, but we didn’t have to park too far away, and got to the start in plenty of time. Although I miscounted the wave starts and thought the third was yet to go when mine was 2 minutes from starting — I wasn’t as ready as I’d have liked at that point, but sorted myself out in time.

There was always a doubt in my mind that I might make no further in the race than the first 5km, which was an out and back where if I was feeling truly dreadful still, then would be the time to withdraw. The out and back was pretty enjoyable for an uphill slog (followed by a downhill slog I suppose) — we drove the same route on Tuesday morning and I thought “Wow, I ran (ok, walked) this”. Great views, fun times, lots of early camaraderie.

Back at Scenic World, Peta had picked a great spot to stand — I could see her a few hundred metres away and give her a big wave to warn her I was on my way and to have the camera ready. I stopped for a quick kiss and to let her know I was feeling good and was running well, which was a nice surprise for me too.

Down the Furber steps we went, the steps taking their toll on my quads, and then along the Federal Pass, past the landslide (where things got a bit slow and queuey) and then to the bottom of Golden Steps. These steps were probably the toughest of the day for me as I’d yet to learn how to deal with them, but the answer was to take more breaks, and sooner. My lung capacity due to my cold was not 100%, and that meant that it was easy to over do it. On all later uphill stairs, I did stop often and never felt quite so out of breath.

Still, once at the top it was a quick jaunt to the first checkpoint, where I refilled bottles and camelbak. Signal wasn’t good enough to send a text to Peta, which I should have done anyway — I didn’t realise until the next checkpoint that the online tracker never showed me arriving at checkpoint one, and people were starting to get concerned back home!

I had my one stack of the day where I tripped on some hidden obstacle and went flying. Thankfully it was mostly sand/dirt road, and I had nothing more than a graze or two and some wounded pride. A young American woman who I’d just passed stopped to make sure I was ok, and then we ran for quite a while chatting happily, which is always unexpected and pleasant. I let her go on at the 20km point so I could take a 20km selfie! Shortly after the 20km point we had the Taros ladders. Chatting to another American lady later, if you were in a later wave the queues were bad and the detour was horrific, so I was very pleased to get to the ladders with only a few people in the queue — it was perfectly fine for me, the benefits of getting a good starting wave.

From Taros to Checkpoint 2 seems utterly unmemorable now — there were lots of steps down where I felt uneasy, and very worried about later steps if I felt that wobbly there, but it turns out I recovered fine later on — I was probably still feeling Furber steps!

At Checkpoint 2 I let Peta know I was doing fine (in fact I was pretty much bang on ETA) refilled everything I needed to refill, ready for the next 15km stage. The route to Checkpoint 3 was much more memorable. The hike up to Ironpot ridge looked horribly steep, but wasn’t actually as bad as it looked — Chainsaw on Camp Mountain is the same steepness, but the path is straight up it, whereas this path zigzagged. Along Ironpot Ridge we came across King David who’d given us the welcome the night before, playing his clack sticks, with some friends playing the didgeredoo, and they were very friendly and encouraging (only 65km to go! — yeah, thanks!). The run down from Ironpot ridge was probably the worst section of the race for me — completely did my knees in and might have contributed to how bad I felt for the last 20km. It was basically a steep and dusty downhill, very tough on the legs.

After the joys of Ironpot ridge, we had the fun of the rise up to Checkpoint 3. This was a hill that rose for 5km. I wasn’t convinced I was actually going to run any of the last half of this leg at all, but after that long 5km it flattened off and then went downhill, so I actually managed some quickish kms (it was also the middle of the day so there was a little bit of run/walk too, not to mention stops to get crap out of my shoe!) to get to Checkpoint 3. The gear check was a little bit of a faff, as I had to get my fleece out of my stuff sack, but I totally understand the point of it, so I just treated it like a mandatory rest!

I had written instructions for Peta at Checkpoint 3, but only to be used if I was running at least two hours late — in the end I was bang on time. This was to save her the hassle of in my mind an unnecessary burden — it was only 11km to the next checkpoint with an expected time for the leg of two hours. I’m still very happy with this decision — it probably gave Peta more than two hours back of her day and I was still feeling great at this point. I knew any leg that was suggested as taking 2 hours for 11km wasn’t going to be easy, but then again, not much of the course is!

Onwards to Checkpoint 4 along the Six Foot Track, and here I met what turned out to be a great race friend, who saw me trying ineptly to take a 50km selfie and said ‘if you wait 30 seconds, I’ll take it for you’, and did so. After that we ran together for quite a bit, and also bumped into another of his running club mates, Erika, who was also very kind — she heard me coughing and offered me her inhaler — she took the offer back when I told her it was my cold, but it was really nice of her. Both Peter and Erika really helped me mentally get up Nellies Glen, which is the step-filled trudge back up from the valley to Katoomba. I saw Peter quite often for the rest of the race, until he went flying past me on the descent from Kedumba around the 85km mark — he finished half an hour before me in the end, which given his performance on uphill and downhill (I was quicker on the flat, which was no help for the last 20km!) was deserved.

After Nellies Glen, it wasn’t too far to get to Checkpoint 4 — Peta was again well placed to spot me, and she saw me before I saw her for some more photos. Unfortunately neither of us knew that she’d have to take a very long route into the sports centre to be able to support me, but in the end it just meant I had a couple of minutes extra rest — and I was out again in 10 minutes or so, much quicker than the two people who left at the same time as me and started talking about their 25 minute luxury stop! Together Peta and I sorted out filling bottles, feeding me, checking off the checklist. My new running friend Peter had given me a top tip, which was to try and get down Giant Stairway before dark. So I didn’t hang around — Peta and I got a bit confused when she said ‘See you at 5’ (meaning the checkpoint) and I said ‘that’s only an hour, I’m going to take four!’ but we quickly worked that out!

The next stage of the run was the bit of the North Face 50 from last year that I’d really struggled with. I was convinced the race director was a sadist and put as many stairs into the section as possible. This year, my frame of mind was very different — I’d trained for stairs, I accepted it as very much a key part of the North Face race, and was ready for it. And I felt happier and easier doing the stairs this year than last year, even though I’d run 20km further at that point. Sure, I forgot about blocks of stairs but I never found myself particularly annoyed by them.

At some point on the stairs, we came across a cockatoo, just standing on a step. I said “Hello Cocky!”, to which he/she replied “Hello!”. So of course I had to say hello again. Presumably it’d either escaped from a family or had just learned to say hello on the trails, but it wasn’t at all bothered by all these trail runners going past!

It was great to stop at the 66km water stop, where I was well looked after by Steph, a three year old, who helped fill my camelbak (with the help of her mum).

After a couple more kms, I was convinced I must have passed the Fairmont and was ahead of schedule, so I texted Peta to let her know this crucial fact. Ten minutes later, I realised we’d just reached Sublime Point Road, and I was probably about on time, so I texted Peta to cancel the crucial fact. I’d likely have been more on time for the checkpoint if I hadn’t spent all that time texting! Still, I made the best of the steps down from the Fairmont, and it seemed to be a long and wiggly and windy path to Wentworth Falls, but I got there in the end, and crossed the falls for what I expected to be a long and lengthy climb back up to Kings Tableland, but it was nowhere near as bad as I expected, and it was all relatively straightforward. I walked with Peter while the path still tracked uphill, but once we got onto the roads, and it started going downhill, I set off, determined to be as on time as I could — it was a run/walk combo, but I was still definitely running at times!

Checkpoint 5 was a bit of a nightmare — I messed up filling one of my bottles, and filled it with energy drink rather than water. I also needed to pick up my mandatory fleece. I decided to change my top in case I got cold too. I did get cold for a few minutes in the next section but I’d have been better off keeping my original short sleeved top as I was too hot at times in the next section, and only ever slightly cold briefly. Amazingly the breezes coming out of the valley were warmer than the rest of the air (we’d been warned to expect cold breezes, which seems a sensible warning most of the time!)

And then almost 10km downhill. In 2013, that 10km took me about 50 minutes. This year I was a lot slower — about 90 minutes, because I was no longer comfortably able to run downhill — my knees and my quads were just not willing to suffer in silence. I was actually happier going uphill — it was slower, of course, but I felt like I was making as good progress this year as last year.

The distance between the 90km marker and the supposed 91km water point seemed enormous but at that point everything was a walk, uphill, and thus taking nearly 15 minutes to do a kilometre. I could hear people around me complain about the length of the hill, but I was at peace with it — it was a long trudge but I preferred it to the succeeding flatter section. After the climb came the clearing, and then upwards again to Federal Pass, which felt pretty comfortable. The run through Leura Forest felt fine but I really slowed further for the last 5kms — I was stuck behind some people but really didn’t have anything left in my legs to want to overtake.

Finally I got to the Furber Steps and tried to text Peta. But no signal. So I proceeded up the steps, and then tried again. No luck. A bit further, I tried again — still no signal. Higher up, I received a text from Peta, so I stopped and tried again. In the end, I got to pretty much the top and called Peta to warn her I was on the home stretch. So, top tip for any TNF 100k-ers — make better arrangements to meet at the finish. I’m not sure what else I could have done, because I was much slower over the last 5km than I expected, but at least I might have known not to bother trying any earlier. Still, I needed some rest stops on the way up, but probably not quite that many.

And then I was walking up the boardwalk to Scenic World, and saw a sign saying last 5 steps, and so started running — I bounded up the steps, and then finished strong nearly across the line, pausing slightly to let Peta take a photo, and then crossed into her arms. After some uncertainty about what happens next, I went to collect my medal, and bumped into Peter on his way out, so it was great to find out how he’d done. I then had the best chicken soup I’d ever had (another top tip — have chicken soup as a meal — the meal I prepared myself was very stodgy and unappealing). Peta then drove me home, ran me a jacuzzi and opened the bottle of fizz that we had in the fridge, and all was good with the world. I also took the opportunity while the jacuzzi was being run to catch up on all the vast amount of good wishes that people had left on Facebook, it was lovely to feel so well supported.

100kms in 17:51, about 40 minutes slower than the first four checkpoints suggested I should manage, and certainly I did feel like the wheels fell off a little in the final stage (although I actually picked up 8 places), but well within the 20 hour cutoff for bronze buckle, and significantly under the 28 hour cutoff for the race. I earned my 4th wave start position (45-60th percentile) with last years North Face 50, and I believe I justified it with this year’s North Face 100 (456th out of over 1000 entrants — I don’t know yet how many actually started)

Kit

  • Bamboo technical top (Royal Parks Half 2010 finishers top — my most visible top for Peta’s benefit) until CP5
  • Gore Running long sleeve with mitten cuffs — good for the first 2km when I was cold and my hands were wet after the checkpoint, too hot afterwards. Should have just worn running gloves for a couple of ks.
  • Ronhill shorts with just a little inside flap as a pocket — didn’t think I needed pockets given my backpack but they’d have been good to keep e.g. gloves in.
  • Salomon Crossmax shoes — probably one of their last runs — they’ve done over 500km since I started tracking my shoes at the start of the year, it’s probably nearer 1000km in their lifetime. And even Peta thinks they look like they need replacing.
  • Salomon S-Lab 12. Gets rave reviews, barely moves on the body, has excellent front pockets for bottles. But has wire reinforcement that really digs in, and a stupid front securing mechanism needing to connect or disconnect 4 different clasps everytime you want to take it off or put it on. And while it is 12L, some of that only works if you put everything in a stuff sack, which is awkward for gear checks. I think I’ll be replacing it and hoping for a good price on ebay (I hope noone reads this before buying it!)
  • X-Socks marathon. Great, although perhaps a little short for this event as grit got in too easily — but so so comfortable on the feet.
  • Neutrogena Beach Defense spray on sun protection. Allows me to sweat with it on, which beats most sun cream.
  • Skin slather lube. I had no chafing where I used this, and it quickly resolved where I missed using it.
  • I was pleased with my nutrition/hydration choice. I’m not at all affiliated with Tailwind Nutrition, but their product works for me — I had something like thirteen out of the sixteen planned pouches. I did get a bit peckish around the 70km mark, and had a Boost. I also had a little of my sausage and potato food, but really not very much. It was easier to keep on top of the required amount of Tailwind when it was warmer — probably the 70km flagging was because I had only drank half the amount I should have from the 56km checkpoint. But I think chicken soup at Checkpoints 4 and 5 would have gone down well.

Post race thoughts

I don’t feel the need to do that particular 100km again, although I’ll never say never. If I thought I could get a silver buckle to go with my new bronze buckle, I might, but shaving nearly four hours off my time seems near impossible. There are so many great races to do that would be difficult to do in the same year that I also want to do — Tarawera and Cradle Mountain being two off the top of my head. And I’d also like to try some of the other Blue Mountain races, such as Mount Solitary or the Six Foot Track.

On North Face 100 preparation, aside from my cold, which may well have been a blessing in that I was definitely well rested and couldn’t go too hard early on (I felt much better later in the day, perhaps after I’d cleared myself out), there are some things I’d suggest. Very steep downhill training (I can only think Chainsaw) but that has its own risks — either of falling or just damaging knees in the practice. More step walking. I did plenty of stair running (it’s probably impossible to do too much but I felt I did enough) but specifically downstairs walking, preferably with unevenness. Also more downhill running training — the 10km from Queen Victoria Hospital to Jamison Creek could have felt easier.

Other race top tips. Wear gaiters. The amount of time I spent getting crap out of my shoes was probably getting towards 10 minutes. And grit got in the top of my socks and rubbed the tops of my feet such that I’m wearing blister plasters there now.

Peta and I worked out the support strategy quite well for a first time. Having spare bottles and camelbak would have meant we could just do bottle swaps rather than me having to fill them (supporters weren’t allowed near the water). And the 99km texting was a lesson hard learned, that I should have realised given the paucity of the GPS signal down there, but no regrets.

Unlike in the 50 last year, where I swore to give up trail running, this year I felt happy and confident the whole way through. I never felt like I would need to give up (although how difficult I found the first stair climb gave me some cause for concern, and my legs felt a bit shaky on some of the technical downhills around the Taros steps, and I worried that they’d feel worse later, but neither worry was serious nor, in hindsight, warranted!). I don’t recall many races where I felt so capable!

 Acknowledgements

Thanks to Peta for providing the middle ground of being suitably cautious about my crazy ideas, but going along for the ride once convinced. Her support on the day and indeed the days afterwards has been invaluable. We’re going to have many more adventures together, and more holidays in the Blue Mountains where I can actually do some decent walking with her!

I would like to thank the traditional owners of the area for their heartfelt welcome and the work they do to conserve the land for generations to come.

The organisation of the 2014 North Face seemed even better than usual (I think the change of venue helped them) — it was well marked, everything was smooth (except perhaps the direction at the finish, but when I did ask what to do next, they were very helpful). I think Tom and Alina and everyone involved do a fantastic job. I’d like to particularly thank everyone who volunteered their time as marshals, at checkpoints, and start and finish.

My new friends I made on the race — I’ll probably never meet them again but Peter and Erika from Sydney Striders, Charlene who made sure I was ok after my fall, Ariane who helped me sort my light out and the other people with whom I walked the slow climb from Leura Valley, whose names I never knew, it was still great!

The Bunyaville Trail Runners have been a great set of training buddies — so thanks to Grant for doing a great job organising it, and to everyone on the weekly runs, plus particular thanks to everyone who’s gone on a long training run with me — Aaron, Paul, Brad, Stuart. Oh, and a big thanks to Shayne for his valuable mantra ‘Trust in your training’ which spoken by him sounds like an instruction from a Jedi Master.

This year most of my social running has been with my trail buddies, and I’ve had to neglect my parkrun friends to concentrate on longer things (and avoid the risk of injury from short sharp runs!). I’m looking forward to going back and seeing everyone, and I’d like to thank Brendan Smith, a fellow endurance runner who’s just come back from doing two marathons in China (including a ten hour effort on the Great Wall — lest anyone think he’s a slacker, the winner did it in six!) who said ‘Bragging rights are forever’, another helpful mantra for my run, and much more positive than drug cheat Armstrong’s ‘Quitting is forever’.

Thanks to everyone who liked or commented on Peta’s updates on Facebook — the tracking that Peta did was more up to date and accurate than the official timings, and she was able to let me know how much everyone was cheering me on. And I did really enjoy catching up on it all after the race, so thank you all!

Photo credits

Photos are credited in the thumbnail titles (i.e. when you hover over the images in this post):

Uncredited photos are self-portraits by me.