So, why did I decide to fly to the other side of the world for the 2nd year in a row to compete in The North Face 100 Ultra Marathon? The answer is simple – The Blue Mountains in New South Wales is the most spectacularly beautiful place I have ever been too. Everything is different there compared to the UK, the wildlife, the trees, the incredible waterfalls and the reliable weather. In May its Autumn so at night it can be chilly but during the day the temperatures range from 20-25 degrees Celsius so its perfect for trekking and of course racing. Obviously my return to The Blue Mountains wasn’t just about racing but was my main holiday of the year too so I arrived 7 days before race day staying again at The Silvermere Guesthouse in Wentworth Falls then returning back to the UK 7 days after so I had plenty of time to prepare and recover from the race plus be a tourist too.
Last year my race time was 15 hrs 33 mins for 100km, anyone coming in under 20 hrs gets a North Face 100 bronze buckle belt so that was easily won. If you come in under 14 hrs you get a silver buckle belt so I had my sights set on achieving a sub 14 time in 2013. I knew that shaving 1.5 hrs off last years time was not going to be easy but a combination of hard training over the winter, a top 10 finish in The South Downs Way 50 miler (UK race) 5 weeks before TNF100 plus getting into start group 2 gave me the confidence that it was possible, I would give it my best shot!
A minor disaster!
This year I suffered quite badly with jet lag for 4 days waking up at 4am every morning no matter what time I went to bed, my body clock was all over the place and I felt very tired during the daytime. However it didn’t stop me getting out each day for long treks around the mountains and for some pre-race recon in areas I could get to easily on foot. I wasn’t that worried about getting out for a run because my last training run a week before I flew out was 33 miles in 5:15 so a couple of weeks off running plus 4-5 days trekking would offer some level of rest for the legs leading up to race day. But by Tuesday I couldn’t resist going out for a little run around the lake near to where I was staying so headed out once the sun had risen. I’d only been out for about 5 minutes on the walking path that goes around the lake when I saw a flash of neon through the bushes coming towards me, it was a cyclist heading straight for me. I knew that if I didn’t get out of the way quick it would be a head crash so I jumped to the side of the path to get out of the way as quickly as possible and the worst thing that could happen did – I tripped on a root and came crashing to the ground landing on both knees sliding across the path. The cyclist stopped and asked me if I was ok and I just said “yeah mate I’m fine”, stood up and continued on my run with a limp. It really hurt and I had that sinking feeling of what had just happened 4 days before the race, I didn’t look down and just carried on around the lake (just a few kms) until I reached home again. It was then I saw the blood running down my right leg and realised that I’d cut my right knee open plus the left knee was badly scraped too. I was gutted and upset and knew that this was not good at all and would need to spend the next few days ensuring that I did everything I could to get these knees into some kind of shape for Saturday. My friend Kirsten (@_papergirl) who would be my support crew on race day came over with the first aid kit, she couldn’t believe what I’d done but it was what it was and I was not going to DNS no matter what so would just have to deal with it as best as I could.
Registration on the Friday night before the race was chaotic! This year the organisers had added a new 50km race into the event so not only was there 100′s of 100km runners (1,022 in total) waiting patiently for their bib, maps and other race instructions but there was also many of the 50km runners there too (500 in total). It was a slow process but I got chatting to some local lads plus listened to a Q&A session that was happening on stage to my right with the likes of Brendan Davies and Ryan Sandes. I was actually limping around the hall because my jeans kept rubbing on my scabby knees causing a lot of pain but I just tried my best to ignore it. Once my mandatory kit was checked and signed off I got my bib and race goodie bag and headed off home to eat, re-pack my bag and do one final kit check, everything was sorted and I was excited! I even managed to get 6 hours sleep which is unusual for me before race day so I awoke feeling refreshed and ready to roll…..
Leg 1 – Fairmont Resort to Narrow Neck (CP1) – 18km
The race starts at The Fairmont Resort in Leura which is a huge hotel & leisure complex, Kirsten and I arrived at 6am and the air was full of excited and nervous runners chatting to each other noisily. One thing I always notice about these starts is how colourful all the runners are. Kit choice is a very personal thing and I love seeing what choices others have gone for, it seemed that I was not the only one doing this as pretty much everyone else was checking out each other too, it was like an ultra runners fashion parade!
Once we’d had the final race briefing plus a comedy talk from a local indigenous man we headed out to the start line. Start group 1 would leave at 06:50 and I would leave at 06:53. Once start group 1 had gone there was another brief comedy moment – there was a scrum from the start group 2 runners to get behind line but someone had kicked the air pump over that was holding up the inflatable start line so it deflated and came crashing to the ground, it was very funny but was fixed immediately and we were ready to go.
The 1st 1.6km is on tarmac and I went off like a rocket keeping up with the front runners in my group. My reason for going off so quickly was so that I could get to the start of the trail path as quickly as possible because I knew that if I didn’t there would be the chance of a long bottle neck that I remembered from 2012. This year it didn’t happen and I hit the trail with no congestion at all. The first section of trail is just a short 900m before running on more tarmac for a further 2km before hitting the trail again at Prince Henry Cliff heading towards Leura Cascades. The trail here is rough and technical and was the 1st time I realised that I was dragging my right leg because I kept clipping tree roots and small rocks. The pain in my right knee wasn’t that bad but I knew I wasn’t picking up my leg enough to clear what was on the ground so tried to concentrate on every step which is not easy when you’ve got so many runners in front and behind you to think about too. A few km’s on and the inevitable happened and I stacked it not once but twice in spectacular style landing on both knees each time, the runners behind me asked if I was ok but there was no time to stop and think so I just carried on ignoring the pain.
The 1st test of the day was the Golden Stairs which is a steep, rough stairway of 200m up. It was quite a shock to the system but was just a taster of what was to come later in the day. Once at the top of the stairs we reached a fire road and then ran 1km into CP1. I spent 10-15 minutes at this CP firstly because I desperately needed the toilet (no more info on that) plus I wanted to check the knees, they looked ok so I filled up the bottles and headed on towards CP2.
Leg 2 – Narrow Neck to Dunphys Camp (CP2) – 38km
Leaving CP1 I felt ‘relieved’ and fairly calm after the incidents during leg 1. The next 10km was along Glenraphael Drive which is a long fire road of varying gradients with stunning views in all directions. I used this time to pick up the pace, relax into the race and get some fluid down me. By this time the sun was warm but the wind was cold so was glad I had decided to wear a thin windproof from the start. I remember thinking how stunning the Blue Mountains looked from up here and it really too your mind off the running. After 10km the course turned right onto a narrow walking track heading down towards the Tarros Ladders at the bottom. (The Tarros Ladders are erected for this event only and enable the runners to get down a very steep section of the course.) Before reaching the ladders you have to negotiate a steep path going down holding onto ropes secured into the rock and more temporary steel ladders. Once I had reached the start of the Tarros Ladders I made the decision that it would be foolish going down them with my legs in poor shape so asked the marshal if I could take the alternative route which is usually used in case of congestion and is about 400m longer than going down the ladders, the marshal said it was fine and I moved on with no one following me and this is when another comedy moment of the day happened. I’d only ran about 20 meters along the dusty path when I tripped over again, but what was different about this fall was that instead of falling forwards I fell to the right and went sailing head over heals down the side of the mountain. Luckily the ground was soft and after 3-4 tumbles I came to an abrupt stop in some bushes. My heart was pounding but realised the funny side of it immediately and was glad that no one had seen it happen, I climbed back up to the path and made my way down to the bottom of the Tarros Ladders to re-join the main route with the other runners.
The next section was a fun but technical track through trees and rocks which goes up and down Mount Debert, once at the bottom there was another steep section down before reaching a dirt road. Then it was a relatively simple 6km on fire roads and walking tracks into Dunphys Camp and CP2.
It was here when the 1st mandatory kit check was requested, the marshals needed to see both my head torch & backup light plus my fire lighter block & waterproof matches (given to us at registration). I was so pleased with the way my packed worked this year, I was using an OMM Ultra Light 15 which has incredibly fast access into the main compartment, I had also packed my mandatory kit into 2 separate dry bags (one large bag for clothing, one small bag for anything else). This meant that as soon as I was asked to show an item of kit I knew I could get to it quickly and be on my way without too much hassle and it worked really well this year.
I filled up both bottles (or so I thought I had), grabbed a quick bite to eat and moved out of CP2.
Leg 3 – Dunphys Camp to Six Foot Track (CP3) – 54km
For those that know me will know that I love to eat anything cheese related during training and long runs. My favourite is a cheese and onion pasty which I always carry in the UK however in Australia they do not exist, the only thing that comes close is a cheese and spinach pie that I knew I could get from the café in Wentworth Falls. This year I found at Coles Supermarket (same as Tesco) some individually wrapped strong cheddar bites and these were perfect for race day. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t just eat cheese during a race but I do find that this ’treat’ at a certain distance always gives me a lift. For some people its flapjacks but for me cheese always hits the spot and I left CP2 with a cheesy grin on my face!
Unfortunately my happy cheese grin didn’t last long as I was about to approach a very tough section of the course – the ascent of Ironpot Mountain.
Ironpot Mountain is stupidly steep, its one of those hills that when you look up from the bottom you can see the other runners in a long line snaking up the narrow track, it almost looks vertical when you are at the bottom. So using feet, knees (ouch!) and hands I started the 1st section of the climb negotiating fallen trees, rocks and other obstacles along the path. Eventually the track levelled out along Ironpot Ridge but despite the easier gradient the path was indistinct in parts and tricky because you had other runners coming towards you at the same time. The reason for this is because at the top of the mountain there was a marshal writing bib numbers down, you had to run to the top, turn around and then run back down along the same ridge going towards other runners going up. One of the highlights of this section was listening to the didgeridoo players along the ridge, I said “hello” and they returned the compliment saying “good luck mate” which made me smile.
After coming down Ironpot Ridge the route took a very steep descent to the left which was pure comedy! The path was dusty and soft with minimal traction so you had to use anything you could get your hands on to help you get down. Because the terrain under foot was so soft you didn’t have to worry about hurting yourself so I just ran down as fast as possible while being choked by dust from the runner in front of me, it was good fun!
Once at the bottom of the comedy descent I hit a dirt road for 1km, the route then went across some grassy paddocks and farmland, across Galong Creek before reaching Megalong Valley Road (dirt track), from here it was 6km to CP3.
This is when I realised my mistake at CP2 - I’d only filled up one bottle and the bladder in my pack was also empty. I didn’t fill the bladder at CP2 knowing that I could get through the next stage easily with just 2 x 500ml bottles but in my rush to get through CP2 and not realising how much I’d drunk between CP1 and CP2 I had only filled up one bottle. I knew the next 6km would be fairly easy as it was on undulating fire roads but it was hot and I was thirsty.
After running about 2km along this fire road I came across a car full of DNF’s, I’m guessing the reason they were there was to pick up a fellow runner but it was strange seeing them in an area that I thought was out of bounds. Anyway I took a chance and asked if they had any spare water and luckily they did and without question filled up one of my bottles for me, I was very grateful and relieved to have some fluid to get me through to CP3.
Eventually I came to the 50km marker, I glanced at my Garmin and could see that I was just under 7 hrs for that distance so was on track for sub 14 hrs. It was then 4km to CP3 where Kirsten would be waiting for me and I could re-fuel before going up the Six Foot Track .
Leg 4 – Six Foot Track to Katoomba Aquatic Center (CP4) – 65km
Coming into CP3 was a bag of mixed emotions, firstly it was the 54km point so it felt good knowing that I was halfway through the race but on the other hand I knew that the next 2 stages would be the toughest of the whole day so I felt apprehensive, also CP3 was the 1st time the runners would see their support crew.
The CP was buzzing with families and crew waiting for their respective runners and there was a thick smell of BBQ food in the air which made me feel hungry. As I arrived I was clapped and cheered which was an amazing and uplifting feeling after running for the last 7 hours. I found Kirsten easily and she had everything I needed out on a small table, while I munched on small pieces of sausage roll that I’d prepared the night before plus 2 small cans of coke Kirsten filled my hydration bladder and bottles with water and electrolytes. The sugar and caffeine from the coke hit my system immediately and I felt instantly energised, I said thank you and made my way out of the CP, past the tents with food and back onto the track.
The 1st 5km was along an undulating dirt road so the running was fairly easy however this quickly changed once I reached the walking track and one of the biggest climbs (up stairs) of the day. From here to the top was an elevation gain of 480m mostly up stairs so I was glad that my blood was full of sugar to get me through this tough section. Just before I got to the stairs I saw some Kangaroos in a field to my right, it was the 1st time I’d seen them in the wild so I stopped for a brief minute to take a quick look.
At this point I was joined by another runner called Scott, he was from Sydney but had lived in the UK for many years so knew all about the areas I had been training in. We both chatted and wheezed up the stairs together until we reached the top, I’m not sure what happened to him after that because I didn’t see him again for the remainder of the race but this always happens in long races like this, you chat to this person and that during the day and rarely see them again.
After about 45 minutes of climbing up the stairs the track reached a junction with a marshal ensuring that runners took the right hand path, at this point you were fooled into thinking that the stairs had finished because the route went along a flat dirt road for about 500m which was a welcome relief. However the route then turned left back into the trees and up yet more stairs, it was a real test for my sore legs and a tired brain but I eventually got to the top coming out onto a tarmac driveway in a quiet suburban area of Katoomba.
From here it was a simple 2km on tarmac until I reached Katoomba Aquatic Centre and CP4.
Leg 5 – Katoomba Aquatic Centre to Queen Victoria Hospital (CP5) – 89km
Once again the smell of hot food coming into this CP was overwhelming but I had to resist stopping for long and concentrate on getting re-fuelled ahead of the longest and toughest section of the day so I downed some more coke and drank a warm coffee that Kirsten had got for me. At registration we were told that we would have to carry our fleece jersey and waterproof trousers if we arrived at CP4 after a certain time, I couldn’t remember what time that was so asked one of the marshals what the score was? To my relief I’d arrived at CP4 well before that cut off time so was told I didn’t need to carry them. “Thank goodness for that” I thought as I didn’t need any extra weight on my back for this long 24km stage as I would need to carry a full 1.5 litre hydration bladder plus 2 full 500ml bottles to get me through. I ditched my cap in favour of a lightweight thermal beanie instead, this is because in a couple of hours time it would dark & cool plus it would be time for the head torch to come out. I said thank you to Kirsten and got on my way after a few minutes.
The next few kms headed towards a popular tourist area in Katoomba of Echo Point and the Three Sisters. After spending so many hours ‘in the bush’ with very few people it was strange having to say “excuse me” so many times so I could get past, everyone was cool though, some clapped, some said well done (even though I’m not sure they even knew what this strange running man in tights was doing). Running through Echo Point and past the Three Sisters was such a buzz because all the tourists were clapping, cheering and some were even taking pictures. Once past the Echo Point visitor centre I ran downhill for a few hundred metres towards the top of the infamous Giant Stairway.
The Giant Stairway descends for over 200m with 800 steep steps to deal with on the way down, it wasn’t easy with tired legs plus all the human traffic in the way going up and down. Once again a polite “excuse me” was all that was needed. Once at the bottom the route turned left and followed the ‘Federal Pass’ track which I ran along at the start of the day, the marshals had been out during the day reversing the way markers. In 2012 it was 5:30pm when I reached the bottom of the Giant Stairway and had to put my head torch on because it was getting dark, today I arrived at the bottom at 4:00pm so knew that I had at least 1.5 hours of daylight left.
The route continued further along the Federal Pass before a right turn onto a wide grassy track, across a bridge and back into the forest on a wide dirt track. It was at this point that I took a small breather and a stretch as I knew what lay ahead of me. The next 11.5km would all be run on this dirt track in the dark which at first went steeply downhill for a very long way before going back up just after the 75km marker for another 5km, it was this section that almost broke me! It was so steep and so long that it was impossible to run it so I just had to make do with a fast trek up until I reached a large pitched tent where the marshals were waiting offering hot drinks plus checking mandatory kit, this time they wanted to see my waterproof jacket. Its worth bearing in mind that the mandatory kit list is essential for a race like this and anyone caught missing an item will not be allowed to continue. A lot of runners would be out for 24hrs+ so its vitally important that the correct kit is carried at all time. Leaving the tent the path still went up for another 2-3km and once at the top the path flattened out at a clearing and I was relived that I could finally run again into CP5.
To give you an idea of how hard this section was it took me 3 hours and 31 minutes to run/walk 24km!
On arrival at CP5 I glanced at my Garmin and could see that the time logged so far was 12.5 hours and realised that my sub 14 hour goal was not achievable. It may only be 11km to the finish line but I knew that because of the terrain on that final section it would take more than 1.5 hours to complete so I settled down for a PB on last years time instead. Kirsten gave me some great words of encouragement saying that I looked strong and was doing really well, I drank some more coke and coffee and set off for the final leg.
Leg 6 – Queen Victoria Hospital to Fairmont Resort (Finish) – 100km
The 1st 2km of this final leg was along Tableland Road which had been partly closed for the event, the runners had the left hand lane and the cars had the right hand lane limited to travelling in one direction at a time. There was only one other runner in front of me but there was car after car of support crews coming past me heading to the finish to meet the runners when they arrived. It was quite a surreal experience running on that road with head torch on and neon safety vest (mandatory kit after CP5) flapping in the wind. Kirsten drove alongside me and shouted more words of encouragement before zooming off.
At the end of this road the route went down a dirt track towards Rocket Point and then downhill all the way to Wentworth Falls waterfall. I’d been trekking around this area for most of the week so it felt very strange crossing under the falls at night with a just a head torch on. Then after some stairs the route went along the Undercliff Walking track before turning off again and following another section of steps towards the Wentworth Falls conservation centre. It was at this point that the fatigue of all the steps and climbs of the day finally hit me but I knew there was more steps still to come, all I could do now was walk anything that went up but tried my hardest to keep the pace as quick as possible. After the conservation centre I followed the way markers towards The Valley Of The Waters nature track and down a very steep flight of wooden steps, across a river then back up to the top following another flight of steps. When I got to the top I passed Leaura golf club which is within the Fairmont Resort which meant I only had 1km to go, the path flattened out and I started to run across the grass towards the resort hearing the noise that was coming from the finish line. I turned the corner and crossed the finish line with the MC announcing my arrival – what a buzz!!
My finish time was 14 hours and 27 minutes taking over an hour off my time from 2012, I was disappointed that I hadn’t gone sub 14 but was really pleased with my time on what is an extremely tough course. My official place was 197/1022 starters.