Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The North Face 100km 2012

I consider myself an ultra-trail runner. My 2012 target races were to be Bogong to Hotham (64km) in January which was called short at the 34km mark, 6ft Track (45km) which was washed out and Mt Solitary (45km) which was postponed. Was it me or was it someone else? All I knew was that I had entered The North Face for the 5th year and all the signs were anything but positive. Last year I made what had been the most difficult decision of my running career, which was to pull out of The North Face 100 due to an ITB injury. 2011 had a strong international contingent of female Team Salomon runners which I dearly wanted to compare myself against. In the lead up to the event I had been battling injury and subsequently I left my decision to race to the Friday morning before the event. A short run resulted in a lot of pain and discomfort at just the 3km mark. My mind had been made up, I would not start. My first DNS, ever. I was relegated to the sidelines to spectate as Julie Quinn ran a superb race which was ultimately rewarded with a win and new female record of 11:39, bettering her previous record of 12:13. I had come close to that time when I won TNF100 in 2010 but fell short by just a few minutes. Upon reflection I felt that I could have gone a little harder, walked less, been quicker at check points, talked less, so on and so on… 2011 was my chance to see if I really could do better, but my injury would have the final say. I would be sidelined until 2012.

In the last few years I have formed a good relationship with Shane Simpson from the lower Blue Mountains. Shane and I have similar goals for TNF100 2012 and in the lead up to the event I made sure I would make the effort to train with him. Training together usually consisted of meeting at 4am at the base of the Blue Mountains. This meant a 2:30am start at my house. Together with my husband, Brian, we would arrive in the early morning, occasionally greeted by Andrew Lee and co. After a few greetings Andy would run off on his own and we would be in hot pursuit, the gap increasing with every hill. With Shane’s conversation and jokes going full steam the run would end in the upper Blue Mountains where we would jump in a car and head back home for lunch. At the time I loathed the thought of getting up so early for a run, but I put it into perspective and focused on the benefits that these runs were having.
With race day looming ever closer I was contributing to the Berowra Bushrunners TNF100 2012 Entrant Support Group. With 6 members (Noel Annet, Kevin Heaton, Jeff Hodder, Justine Laughton, Gavin Markey and myself) competing this year it would be the biggest representation of Bushrunners in the events history for the boutique running club. We all had different goals and targets in our minds but we all gave equal amounts of support and motivation to each other leading up to the event.
TNF100 race weekend eventually arrived and I found myself in a queue of runners at registration. The growth of TNF100 typifies trail running in Australia over the last few years. My participation in the sport started shortly before the inaugural TNF100 event in 2008 and every year since that first race I have watched the number of runners swell. Its good seeing all the familiar faces at registration, but each person I look at seems to be fitter, stronger and better prepared than I am. It does little to relieve the anxiety ahead of the race. After registration I retired to my families holiday house "The Brow", at Katoomba with Brian, Noel and Kevin for a quiet dinner and some pre-race banter.  It is a time when we can compare gear, bag weight, target times and chat until bed time. I always try to go to sleep early but all that seems to do is to prolong the restlessness. So once again I had a terrible sleep and just when I started to drift off to sleep the alarm goes, signalling that any possibility of a good sleep has now passed.
I'm in there somewhere.
The temperature at the start line was noticeably warmer than in past years. The wind chill was definitely above zero this year. After the pre race briefing it was a matter of following the tide of runners through the Fairmont Resort Foyer to the start line outside. With less than a minute to spare I was issued with a GPS tracker that would keep track of me throughout the race and then the race was on. I didn’t particularly care where I was in Wave 1. I know that there would be a big surge of runners up the Fairmont drive and down the road to the first bit of trail. To run off with them is not my style of running and I know better than to get carried away in the excitement of the start and speed of the road sections. Speed on the road is something that I lack, but this is a trail race and there is a lot more dirt and stairs than bitumen.  I joined the line of runners as they headed onto the trail. I guess that I was about middle of Wave 1, with a handful of girls in front. A small group of people at Gordon Falls informed me that I was 4th female coming through. In the chaos of the start I lost track of where I was positioned so the three girls in front became my targets. I had 94km to catch them, and 94km to stay in front of Julie Quinn. As Leg 1 meandered in and out of the trails I slowly started to warm up and loosen the body in time for the technical decent into Leura Forest. I love this bit of trail. It is a section that I frequently traverse when I’m holidaying in Katoomba, though I am more adept to climbing up from Leura Forest then running down the stairs into it. In a moment of recklessness I found myself running Shona style down the stairs, two or three at a time. All along Federal Pass I held a steady pace, at which time I only had Shona Stephenson ahead of me. I had run with Shona a few times in races and training and I wasn’t surprised to see her put in a solid effort at the start. Leg 1 is more like an obstacle course and a strong runner like Shona is always going tackle it with more aggression than me. I caught up to Noel near the base of the Golden Stairs. Noel suggested that we have a go at beating our time up the stairs. I thought he was only joking but off he ran, taking two minutes off his PB at the top. At least Noel was feeling relaxed.
Courtesy Ben Berriman

I hadn’t done TNF since they moved CP1 to the gate on Narrow Neck. It makes for a good climb up from Federal Pass, all up, up and up. Along Narrow Neck I stretched out a little more taking in the long rolling hills interspersed with some short sharp ups and downs. I quickly caught up with Shona and we ran together for a bit. She seemed so strong when running, I was wondering if my style of running looked just as strong besides hers, though I doubt it. Shona started to drop off on one of the up hills and I stretched out to catch up to the next runner ahead. This is where I was accompanied by myself and my thoughts, and the end of Narrow Neck has to be amongst the best places in the mountains to have that sort of company. The air is crystal clear and you can look out forever across the Great Dividing Range. The next section off the end of Narrow Neck all the way to Meadlow Gap gets the legs pumping with all the short sharp ups and downs. This is also another section like Land Slide on Leg 1 where you need to coordinate your hands with your feet to traverse the ups and downs. It was along this section that Shona whizzed passed me. She must be the most amazing downhill runner I have ever seen, gliding down all the rocks so effortlessly. I caught up with Noel and Shona again on the flatter fire trails and passed them both. Along the fire trail to Dumphy’s Campground (CP2) there are a few places where you can look back upon the trail and see the line of competitors making their way along the course a few km’s behind you, their silhouettes outlined by the sky beyond. I use sections like this to reflect upon the sections of trail I have just been over, safe in the thought that I won’t have to do that bit again. Another spot where you can see participants a few km’s behind you is the section off Iron Pot where you re-join Megalong Road. If you look up over your right shoulder you can see runners as they leave CP2 headed towards Ironpot. It's demoralising if you look down and seeing the runners coming off Ironpot.
Back on the open fire trail heading towards CP2 I caught up with Shane and we picked up the pace and ran together until Dunphy's. After a  quick gear check I grabbed a chunk of water melon and I was off again heading towards Ironpot. It was on this session I saw Jez Bragg. I was surprised to see him this far back as he was one of the favourites to win. I didn't realise at the time that he went the wrong way as he did not mentioned it or seemed bothered at all. He came across as still very composed and focused. I didn’t notice that there were markers missing as my mind was in autopilot, following the TNF trail that I was used to. The section of trail known at Iron Pot is the part of the trail that traverses private land which we are not allowed to train on prior to race day. Essentially over this section we are all on the same playing field. At the end of the out and back along Iron Pot we runners were treated to a cultural experience by the lands traditional people who were playing their cultural songs. It is a rare treat between CP’s. Back onto Megalong Road I was pleased to see the little pony in the farm at the bottom of the hill. When I first ran TNF in 2008 I saw this pony and every year since I say “hello” to him as I pass.
Approaching CP3 I could hear the energy radiating from all the support crew and spectators who had invaded the paddock to watch the procession of runners. Here I was met by Brian and my parents, Jim and Joan. I quickly got refuelled and was pushed out again. As I was running out of the CP I saw Ewan Horsburgh casually standing around after he had finished the first let of the pairs event, before he handed the baton over to Angela Bateup. Ewan looked so fresh. I was envious that he had finished for the day and I was only half way, with the climb of Nellies Glen my next immediate challenge. The last time I had run with anyone was on Iron Pot, and being in the lead on the second part of the run I was forever thinking that Julie would be hunting me down and Shona would be waiting for me to fade. I dug deep on Nellies and made sure that she wouldn’t get the better of me. All I can say about Nellies is that she must have been a B#*^h!
At Katoomba Aquatic Centre, CP4, I was again met by my support crew. They had got a text from some friends at CP3 to let us know how close the next two girls were behind me. All that Brian told me was that I had 15min on Shona and 20min on Julie. I was in front but still far from safe.  Refuelled for leg 5 I headed out towards the Giant Stair Case along with its tourists. As I came running through I got the usual cheers of, “you go little girl” in a smattering of different accents. They all seem to know that we are competing in an event, however I doubt they could comprehend exactly what we had been through, let along what we have ahead of us. I was presently surprised to see that concrete blocks had been placed across the ford for the female runners, though I’m sure that a few of the guys used them as well. I thought this was a bit posh for a trail race. I got pretty close to Oliver Zambon but he took off pretty quickly when he saw that he was going to get chicked. Down in Jamison Valley I caught up with Tim Cochrane who was mixing up walking and running on the up hills. I finally caught Tim Cochrane at the gear check at the base of Kedumba Pass. I got my gear checked then I took off and was soon reduced to a walk up the steep incline. . I dearly wanted to run all this but the legs had nothing in them. I had run up this before with 60km in the legs but with 80km in them I was reduced to a walk. Tim caught me and walked with me for a bit. He had a fall earlier on and looked a real mess (no offence Tim). We saw Mick Donges up ahead and he looked a mess too. I did not recognise him at first because he looked so bad (sorry you had such a bad run). So I was with Mick and Tim and no one had much to say. Tim decided to give running another go and took off and I hurried off to beat the sun to CP5. I was thinking about Mick on the last leg and I was hoping he would make it to the end. I was so glad to see him come over the finish line. What an amazing effort. You are such a good role model for others not to give up when things don't go the way you planned.
Courtesy Ben Berriman

The whole race I had not been focusing on a race time or splits. Not wearing a watch meant that I had no option. My main goal was to get to Queen Victoria Hospital, CP5, in daylight. When I won this race back in 2010 I had come through on last light. I knew that if I arrived before last light that I was on target and a PB (below 12:16). When I came into the CP Brian let me know that Julie and Shona were about 20min behind at CP4. He also said that if I ran a solid last leg that I might get the course record. Doing the sums in my head I figured that that would be a decent PB. With that in my mind and the thought of Julie continuing to hunt me down I headed out of CP5 literally running scarred. With the way I had handled the last let I was sure that she would have closed the gap. I pretty much ran this leg on my own. It is a cruel way to finish an ultra like this and Tom Landon-Smith knows how to set a course that leaves you with nothing in the tank. Last light disappeared at Wentworth Falls and I turned my 'day maker' Ay-Up head torch on to find my way over the last of the course. I know how cruel the last few km’s are on this course. You start heading towards the golf course then the lights of the Fairmont before disappearing back into the wilderness in some cruel test of your desire to finish TNF100. Eventually I emerged from the trail and up onto the manicured lawn of the resort and the long awaited finish line. In previous years the finish line had a clock showing race time. This year someone had turned it around hiding it from view until you had crossed the finish line. I crossed the line, First Female. I had waited two whole years to do this race again and to get First for the second time was just fantastic. But after crossing I heard people talk about the record and I turned to look at the race clock which read 11:18. I went weak at the knees and my first reaction was that I had read it wrong. That was a 58min PB. Going into this years event I had serious doubts about being able to go sub 12hrs, let alone beating Julie’s previous race record by 21min.

I hung around the finish area, mainly the bar, for as long as I could to see friends and competitors cross the finish line. Julie and Shona kept me honest throughout the day and showed that the depth and competition amongst Aussie girls is getting stronger each year (yes I know Julie is a Kiwi, but she is a top athlete so we will forge that minor discretion).

I can now look out from my family’s holiday house above Leura Falls, Katoomba, across the Jamison Valley and Mount Solitary knowing that I have command of the two gruelling solo ultra-trail races in the Jamison Valley and my greater backyard.

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