Thursday, 19 May 2011

North Face 100 May 14-15 Blue Mountains

A while since my last blog post and i was still getting up to date, but with a notable race last weekend thought i should update.

The North Face 100 is a 100K Trail race in the Blue Mountains, where every March i run the Six Foot Track Marathon to Jenolan Caves and a place i have spent many weeks hiking over the years ever since 1979 when i went with a week long hike from school (and spent the last 4 days hiking on a broken ankle unbeknownst to me !) and is one of a serious of races all over the world where North Face is the naming rights sponsor.

It is in it's fourth year and the field of 850 sells out way before entries close and i admit it was a race that i never had a great urge to enter, as simply i could a 50K or 50Mile race up at the Glasshouse Mountains only a 2 hour drive away rather 900K's away, as well with less than fond memories of incredibly cold and wet and snowy days spent there in winter never thought of it as having a climate ideal for me.

Anyway around Easter, a running friend offered me his number (one of the very few races where number transfers are allowed in Australia), and with no Badwater run for me this year (well the official race at least, i will be there crewing and am looking at doing a solo run beforehand but that's still to be finalised), i was very tempted by the challenge and eventually decided that this would be my year there.

I'd run a reasonable race (apart from running off course on the 5th lap :-)) at the 53.5KM Wildhorse Criterium so had 3 weeks without races in between, so after getting some back issues sorted got some significant training mileage in, with 230K's over 9 days of running, so that was good.

Sadly my Nike Free Run+ Shoes had finally fallen apart at that run, so i was looking at getting the new model of these for the race, and spent the next couple of weeks haunting the local Rebel Sports store (only way i was going to pay $160 for a pair of shoes was using a Rebel Gift Card i'd received for winning the Marysville Ultra Marathon, otherwise i'd pick up the same shoes when in the US for around $70 !), finally the Monday before the race the shoes arrived, so that was one part of the puzzle solved, only trained twice in them but they would be fine.

I'd be honest and say the other reason i'd been previously less than enthused about this race was the fact that there was so much mandatory equipment, i'd run with a similar level of equipment at the 3 Peaks race in Tasmania (that had even more gear requiring a sleeping bag, but did not need as much if any fluid to be carried) and i felt like i was carrying my whole house, at a guess this was around %10 of my body weight, i knew it was necessary but i didn't have to like it !.

Drove down on the Thursday, staying at Buladelah the Thursday night, certainly waking up to a cold, crisp day there i was worried that the Blue Mountains would be much cooler, still just as long as the rain stayed away !.

Got into my accommodation in Katoomba at lunch time Friday and it was as cold as i could remember, very thankful the apartment i had had heaters !, with a check in at 4 had plenty of time to have a rest and have a warm lunch and in theory i'd be early for the check in which i assumed would be pretty busy. Slightly lost on the way to the Leura Fairmont Resort but what a shock to arrive and see massive lines of people in the conference room where the number pick up and gear check were being held.

Join my queue and ultimately get signed in and pay for my number transfer and get my gear checked, have a chat with a few people but eventually back home at 6, 13 hours before race start. Cook some pasta, pack and repack and repack again my pack and in bed by nine with an alarm set for 4:30.

4:30, as i usual i wake a little before my alarm and it's freezing cold, i'd woken just after midnight and turned the heater off as it was too hot, didnt have that problem now :-).

Breakfast and i was off by 5:30, this time made it to Leura more directly and was happy to find there were still car spaces available.

Had a couple of drop bags, checkpoint 4 (which had my compulsory fleece and waterproof pants as well as a change of shoes and some spare food) and a drop bag with warm clothes and towel and sleeping bag for at race end, i rather doubted i would be heading anywhere post race.

Time for the pre race briefing, firstly from one of the aboriginals of the tribe that lived in the Blue Mountains first, complete with some native dancing and then from the race director with the sobering thought that of all the crowd in the hall it was likely 150 wouldn't finish (okay i admit i was thinking that unless the course was booby trapped and had snipers out waiting for me i wasnt going to be one of those 150 :-).

I found the wave starts a little strange as you could go into whatever you thought your time would be, from what i had seen of previous runners that i knew i was reasonably confident that if i got through the weather low 13 Hours was possible so went off with the Gun runners, including a large international contingent with Team Salomon runners such as race favourite Kilian Jornet (, overall there were 75 or so international runners although the only one i knew being North Face Sponsored NZer Lisa Tamati who i'd had battled with at Badwater in 2008 and 2009.

Finally we were off, i'd thought long and hard about starting in tights but decided eventually that i'd be going to fast early on to be wearing more than my usual running shorts, nevertheless i did take one thermal top out the pack and put it underneath my short sleeved X-Bionic Fennec top, was a little worried my arms would be too cold, with only my gloves on my hands and also two buffs one on my head and one on my neck.

First mile or so was road and worryingly i was passed by a number of familiar faces, really couldnt get the muscles in the legs warm, funniest thing was being passed by Mal Gamble, we had a quick chat and then he fly by and turned a corner, next thing i see a number being blown along in the breeze and Mal chasing it, so i repassed him as he went the other way (made me glad i didnt use a triathlon belt for my number), but he was soon passing me again.

Off on to some trails and then more road and then finally it looked like the trail race proper had begun, as we headed onto thin trails with some ups and downs, was happy enough to let some people pass me as i was still finding my feet.

Now at least i knew where we were as i'd often hiked around Leura Falls and towards Katoomba, but being familiar with the course wasn't helping my running as after only a few steps i was beginning to feel my left knee, a problem i've had at last years Sydney Trailwalker but nowhere else, felt very tend as i thumped down what seemed endless steps, and not much better as i went up others. Still i'd found a group at around my pace and we were moving fairly well, and really enjoying sections that let us stretch our legs a bit more, enjoyed the boards near the Scenic Railway but then it was off onto the landslide and i was struggling there, with my big, clumsy feet not really being at there best on these more technical bits, was a relief to finally hit a dirt road and many cheering spectators including my injured mate Blue Dog (he provided the photo in that blog, looks awful sunny when you consider how rugged up i looked) . At that point was still trying to get warm so i had no intentions of spending large amounts of time at the first checkpoint, grabbed a muesli bar, but found it was rocklike in the cool conditions so gave up on that and had an Engura Gel washed down with raspberry endura.

Now we were on a dirt road and i found i could move fairly well, wasnt missing the steps at all, and by now i was even starting to get some feeling, so for a little while removed my gloves and let the sun soak into them.

Made it to Tarros Ladder and was very happy to see that the normal handholds had been replaced for the day by ladders, so much easier and enjoyed that section, enjoyed the more technical trail section after somewhat less. Still i was moving forward and that was the main goal, another quick stop at the next aid station and a fruit bun after my Endura Gel, and i was feeling pretty good, unfortunately i then reached the out and back section i'd read of and i found that totally demotivating, hard to explain but with thin trails and runners constantly coming towards me i just lost my mojo, possibly it was the fact i was seeing runners in front of me i expected to see behind and some behind me who i didn't expect to see but i struggled on that section, was very relieved to hit the turnaround and at least was entertained by an aboriginal playing "Clapsticks". Still the highlight of this section was hitting the real course again, now i felt i was going somewhere. Had lost quite a bit position wise here and struggled a little on the loose dirt on the single trails here but once off them was on road and made the most of that, particularly happy to reach the 50KM sign from then on it was less than half way.

Looking at the results i'd made it to the 54KM checkpoint in 7 and a half hours, hardly quick but at least the sun was still high in the sky (i had my mobile phone somewhere amongst my compulsory gear but couldn't imagine having to use it, as i'd have no signal on the Three network anyway). We had our gear check (only to check we had lights, i actually had my new 45 lumen headlamp, my favoured led torch and a second old everready headlamp so had 3), and then it was time to get some food into me, noodles and another fruit bun. Mel Parry was here (her partner Sean Greenhill was elsewhere following the leaders) and she gave me a hand getting food while i sat down, i made the decision at this point it was time to put on my running tights as i knew the next stop was Katoomba and warm and May are two words not used at the same time there. Heard a few people complaining that the mobile pizza van that was meant to be there hadn't made it, but considering i never carry money when i run (whether in training or racing) was no issue to me, found out later the road had been too rough for it to get there.

15 Minutes later i was off, refueled and refreshed, however it was a little depressing being passed by one bloke absolutely flying past, i assumed he was one of the running pairs as this checkpoint was the changeover point.

Ran through a few paddocks and finally past what seemed like deserted stables and onto Nellies Glen Road, now at least i was dead sure what was ahead of me, as of course Nellies Glen is where the steps go to at the start (rather lemming like nowadays) of the Six Foot Track Marathon.

Soon i head footsteps behind me and a familiar voice, Alison (Coolrunner "Eveready Bunny"), think she was a little bit surprised to see me at this point, but i'd seen her come into checkpoint 3 when i was leaving, so whilst normally i wouldn't be expecting her to pass me in a race (going by races such as Coast to Kosci and GNW100 Miler) but this wasn't normal times.

Normally i don't talk much when i'm running, okay sometimes i do talk a little in an attempt to intimidate runners who don't know me :-), but found chatting along the way made the long climb up the stairs go faster, certainly when we reached the top i had no ambition to start heading towards Jenolan Caves.

A few little paths and then we were on roads around Katoomba, sort of vaguely knew where i was but was thankful for the course marking to Checkpoint 4 at the Swimming Pool (complete with a 65KM sign), felt strange running into a building as a checkpoint but realised that it wouldnt be long till it would be truly cold outside. More noodles, another bun and some lollies, then it was time for my battle to fit my compulsory fluoro vest over both me and my pack (now i have a full set of fluoro vests, one with European Specifications bought for Transe Gaule, one with US specifications courtesy of a race sponsorship arranged by Matt Mundy for Badwater and now one with Aussie specifications - i'll either have to race everywhere or just get a job on a road gang or construction if i want to get full use from all of these :-)).

Eventually i headed off, apparently i'd been there 15 minutes, however just as i got to the road crossing i realised i'd forgot all about by drop bag and compulsory gear (fleece and waterproof pants), so back i went. Took a while to find my bag and then the problem of getting my fluoro top off and back on again, must have wasted 10 minutes there, and i'd also got a little cold, not sure why as i was indoors.

Finally off again, and onto some trails heading towards the oval and then Katoomba Falls, had memories of the carpark at Katoomba Falls the day before my first Six Foot Track (in 1992) when i brilliantly managed to lock my keys in my Holden Camira and had to wait in the cold for the NRMA to break in for me, it was getting cool now and although only just after 5 was begiing to get dark. Was enjoying the run along the cliff top (always love it there), but knew that soon the fun would be over and we'd dive into the valley.

Lots of tourists as usual at the Three Sisters, so we had a whole new audience to applaud us which is always good for the ego. Next it was down the Giant Stairway, was glad i had the headlamp as with the thin steps i was using my arms on both rails, love it here but as it was getting dark felt i was on my way down into the bowels of hell or something a little less dramatic, soon though i was on the valley floor and now i knew it was the time to make up some ground running along the road which best of all was mainly downhill, of course i knew that later this meant uphill as we did have to make it out of the valley floor.
Finally in the distance i saw a 5K marker, believe me i was hoping it wasn't the 70K Marker (i hadn't seen it, i'm assuming it was somewhere around Echo Point) and it was the 75K, at this point i had a couple of runners exuberantly passing me and saying only 25K's to go.
It was great running on the long 4WD track but thankfully being in the valley made it very cold meaning i didnt need to drink, i'd discovered 2 problems with running with the fluoro vest over everything, one shoulder strap kept on slipping of my shoulder which was simply annoying (and made me thankful i wasnt a girl, must be a problem they have all the time with dresses), and secondly if i was going to get my 500ml bottles of cytomax/accelerade mixture out i was going to have to stop and take the vest off as simply i couldnt reach in the side pockets of my pack because of the vest, so i was stuck with what i consider to be the most useless fluid for ultras, water in my camelbak bladder, i'd actually probably used a litre or so from there in the whole previous sections so had plenty in my 2 litre bladder.
Now we hit a creek crossing, a little frustrating as i'd done over 3/4 of the race without getting my feet wet, but i guess it's a case then of having faith in your socks and i did (my Drymax Maximum protection Trail socks had done just over 1,000K's since last August and they'd been through heaps of rivers and creeks, so i had no worries), was certainly entertained by some runners around me who got out plastic bags and carefully put them over their shoes, very strange, i'll even admit that whilst cold that water was very refreshing, not making me any colder than i already was.
I few uphill sections, where i caught some of the runners who'd passed me exuberantly earlier and then another creek crossing and again runners with plastic bags and various other attempts to keep their feet dry (in this races short history i know i've often thought disparagingly of it as the City to Surf of Aussie Ultras with a very long cutoff time - 28 Hours - for the 100K's and a big dnf rate simply because a large proportion of the field were runners who to my mind had achieved their goals at the City to Surf - the worlds biggest fun run 14ks from Sydney to Bondi Beach - and then decided they would try this as their next challenge - only logical explanation i could see for the sold out field of 850 for this race, i'm pretty sure there aren't that many "real" ultra runners in Australia going by entries in other race, still i take my hat of to them for attempting this and going out of their comfort zone, but i couldnt help but think all this as i was watched people desperately trying to keep their feet dry !!!).
Eventually we made it to a corner and out of the mist a bloke tells me 2K's to the checkpoint, i'm not a great judge of distance but i could see the cliffs still far away and as far as i could work out we still hadn't the 85K mark, a while later we did hit that 85K mark and a little later i'd hit the checkpoint.
Was fine when i got there, just cold but sat down with some noodles and couldn't stop my teeth chattering, obviously i was fine while moving but as soon as i stopped my body couldnt handle the cold, was glad to see my Melbourne Trailwalker mate and all round good guy Keith (Coolrunner Buzz Lightyear) working the aid station he remebered how bad i was in the cold at Trailwalker last year as we'd sat down with Bryan when he was looking at pulling out.
So he put me in front of the fire and i had two cups of coffee and then two cups of tea, with all that caffeine i don't think i was going to sleep any time soon !!, him and another checkpoint person helped me change into my spare thermal and compulsory fleece as well as a new buff and beanie, only problem was my spare gloves were in my drop bags at CP4 and the finish, so Keith lent my his pair as mine were no longer keeping my hands warm.
Finally 38 minutes later (and having something like 30 pass me in that time) i was off, was so glad to be running on a real road, although with lots of traffic to and from the checkpoint (and half the road blocked for us) was not enjoying the car headlights.
After a while i was off on to tracks and the undercliff track which i could vaguely remember walking years ago (in daylight), very slippery and muddy but by then i was not worried about keeping my new shoes clean !!.

At points i was quite glad my light wasnt showing how sheer the drop off was of some of the cliffs as i remembered but by now it was just a case of getting to the end as fast as possible (and whilst having no idea of the time - hopefully in the same day i started). One cameraman in the middle of nowhere and he tells us there's 4K's to go, seemed a little optimistic and sure enough a bit later i see the 95KM marker. From then on K Markers all the way to the finish, i could see lights in the distance but was pretty sure the Fairmont Resort was around a corner and out of site, eventually i come of the trails and am on the manicured lawns of the resort, just before the final corner i catch up with Natalie (Coolrunner Go Girl) obviously she'd passed me when i was having my cold issues at the checkpoint, she tells me to go on (which i did as i was sure that she would ultimately beat me having started in a later wave) and then the finish line.

Barbie going and lots of lights, i'd done 16:35L43, around 3.5 hours more than my guesstimate time and 231st of 501 finishers (looks like the race directors estimate of 150 was actually on the low side ??), but this was one one of those times where it didn't really matter, now i could get warm in a hot shower i hoped.

Grabbed a cup of coffee and lined up for my Belt buckle (only a bronze one, needed sub 14 for silver, but i felt like done more hard work for this one than i'd dnone for any of my Badwater ones) and a certificate which ahd to be made in front of me as the pre prepared one still had Brendans name on it.

Finally off to the shower and warm clothes, although with the caffeine in my system and probably being too tired to sleep simply a case of lying in the sleeping bag in the registration room, funny enough tiredness didn't hit me till around 2PM on the Sunday on the drive back, 200K's north of Sydney where i had a nap in a rest area and didn't wake till 3 hours later.

A really great course, a glorious place to run, but truly May is not the time for me to be there, not sure if i'll be back, certainly it worries me that i only have knee problems (left knee) on trail courses with lots of steps (or maybe my knee doesnt like Sydney ????? :-)), certainly a warmer time of year and i'd be back for sure trying for silver and possibly trying to cram everything into my camelbak, racing packs are just too big for me and i don't enjoy, certainly the fact that i am thinking of ideas to improve there may mean i'll return sometime. Still at present i think my mind is on a North American summer, after of course a good run on my home course in the Gold Coast 100