3rd time lucky?
So, would 2014 be the year I achieved my goal of running a sub 14 hour TNF100 ?
Its worth mentioning before I talk about the race itself that when I entered back in December 2013 I was unaware the course for 2014 had been given a re-vamp including a new start/finish at Scenic World plus the final 2 legs of 21km & 22km respectively would be an almost reversal of the old course with a few extra & painful bits thrown into the mix. Last years winner Brendan Davies who lives in The Blue Mountains told me the course was much harder and that I should maybe add around an hour to my 2013 time of 14:27. This was not a good thing to hear because despite the harder course the organisers were sticking to their buckle prize times of bronze for sub 20hr and silver for sub 14hr, gold is reserved for the male & female race winners only.
I knew that ramping up the training during the UK winter months was essential for me to have any chance of going ‘sub 14’ so I made a plan. My preferred choice of getting to work is by bicycle however I decided the best way to ensure I was maximizing my endurance potential which would be key for this race was to start doing back2back run commutes carrying a weighted pack. In previous years my training consisted of running say 25/30 hilly miles on a Saturday then spending the following week recovering (while cycling to work in between) then doing the same thing over and over again. This time though my training went something like this – Monday cycle to work, Tuesday, Wednesday & occasionally Thursday run to work and back using a combination of varying distances of 5.5 miles, 7.5 miles or 9.5 miles depending on how I was feeling, Friday cycle to work then Saturday was either hill training (25 miles max) or arranging a long run with friends and Sunday was a rest day. As you can see these are not huge distances but the combination of back2back runs plus the cycling increased my endurance capabilities immensely and I really started to feel the improvements over the winter months.
As a test I entered the 85km TNF Trans Gran Canaria to get an idea of how this new training plan had worked plus to gage my fitness level, the race was in early March which gave me plenty of time to recover for TNF100 plus it had a similar total alt gain of around 4,500m so it was a pretty decent test. To my surprise I finished the race in 119th position (time 13:22) out of 345 finishers (95 DNF’d) which considering the mountainous terrain compared to Surrey where I live plus the roasting temperature of 28 degrees on race day (UK was wet & around 9 degrees) I was really impressed by my performance and this filled me with great confidence for the TNF100 in 2 months time.
In terms of diet I made no changes. For over 2 years now I’ve been following a low carb/high fat eating plan with plenty of fruit and veg, good quality protein from meat, fish and eggs plus nuts, butters, oils etc. Its worked for me plus I always look forward to filling my face with sugar on race day.
Registration & race day morning.
This years registration was a simple affair for 2 reasons. Firstly I was able to get my mandatory gear checked and signed off prior to registration via a local agent in Katoomba, I had this done on the Tuesday before the race which meant I could relax knowing this was done. The TNF100 organisers take mandatory kit very seriously because of the remote location of the event and there are random kit checks during the race, if you are missing an item then you are either not allowed to continue or incur a heavy time penalty. Secondly I turned up so early for registration on the Friday before the race that I was 1st in the queue and was in and out within 10 minutes of opening unlike the 2 hours it took the previous the year. That night I made last-minute checks with Kirsten (support crew) and got my kit ready for the morning – it was now getting very exciting indeed!
My race start time was a 06:33 (start group 2) so I made sure I went to be bed as early as possible the night before. I set the alarm for 4am which gave me enough time to consume and digest a breakfast of bacon and eggs which is my favourite race morning breakfast. Kirsten came round to collect me at 05:15 and after a quick coffee and pre-race chat we set off….
Leg 1 – Scenic World to Narrow Neck (10.5km)
The 1st major change to this years course was the out & back 4km road circuit from Scenic World before the descent down the Furber Steps. Kirsten and I had checked it out a few days before and despite the immediate steep ascent of around 1km I wasnt too worried. I’m pretty fast on tarmac so knew I could get away quickly so the plan was to start on the start line and leg it and that’s what I did. It worked because I stayed with the front-runners for the entire uphill section but lost a few places on the way down as usual because I’m quite sluggish running downhill for some reason – it must be my short legs or something. Anyway going back past the entrance to Scenic World on the way back down I heard someone shout ‘go Tim’ but I didn’t look to see who it was because I was so focussed, I knew I had to get down the Furber Steps as quickly as possible to avoid any congestion before the scramble along the Federal Pass. It was a swift ascent down the 900 or so steps and to my relief no congestion, once at the bottom it was a right turn to run past the Scenic World mining displays, claps & cheers from a few keen tourists made me smile and I thought “its 6.45am and its only been light for 30 minutes so how come you’re down here so early?”
The trail along the Federal Pass is very technical so it was important to keep focussed as the pace was high (I tripped over here in 2013 so was determined that this was not going to happen again.) It was around this time that I got chatting to a fellow Brit who was running right behind me, it was his 1st TNF100 and I talked to him briefly about my 2 previous years running on the old course. It then dawned on us that we had been chatting via twitter for over a year – small world!
The 1st real test of the day was climbing the Golden Stairs which was a real shock to the system. These stairs were part of the old course but I didn’t remember them being this steep and difficult, my heart sank a little knowing what was to come later in the day and also ‘not’ knowing what was to come too. After 200m and much relief I reached the top of the stairs to a clearing, it was then a simple 1km uphill run along Glenrapheal Drive (fire track) to checkpoint 1.
Leg 2 – Narrow Neck to Dunphy’s Camp (31km)
In 2013 not only was I running with 2 cut knees because of a fall 3 days before the event but I was also suffering from horrendous stomach issues from the off but not this time. I arrived into CP1 in tip-top shape & despite soaking myself with water while trying to fill up my hydration bladder I was in & out within a couple of minutes.
The next 10km were an absolute joy because it was just pure running along dusty fire roads. I had the opportunity to look at the wonderful views to my left & right of the Blue Mountains and felt very privileged once again to be running in an area that is usually out-of-bounds to the public. It was around this time that I noticed I was running alone. There was no one was in front of me & no one behind me and this felt very strange. I usually get to this point during the latter stages of a race but not the start so I knew that I was making good time, I also realised that I was running up all the hills too which wasnt the case in 2013 and this gave me a massive confidence boost!
At the end of Glenraphael Drive the course takes a sharp right down a very steep path where ropes & steel ladders have been put in to help the runners get down leading to the Taros Ladders which are also only erected for the event. Once down the ladders it’s a fast & technical ascent down where you need to take care not to trip on the loose ground underfoot. Then there is the easy ish ascent & descent of Mount Debert before hitting another dirt/fire road that takes you into Dunphy’s Camp and CP 2.
Leg 3 – Dunphy’s Camp to Six Foot Track (46km)
My main concern arriving into CP2 was not being able to contact Kirsten, In previous years the mobile network had worked perfectly but after leaving CP1 it went dead. Kirsten needed to know a rough arrival time of me into CP3 whch is the 1st time during the race you get to see your support crew so I was quite frustrated not being able to contact her. However a comedy moment happened around this time – I mentioned to one of the marshalls that the phone network was down and she said “oh if you stand on that picnic table over there you will get service” and I thought to myself “are you joking?” Also and unlike the previous 2 years there was no mandatory kit check at CP2, I was all ready to show my compass or waterproof jacket etc but was just told to move on so I filled up my bladder, took down a gel and quickly walked over to the picnic table. Luckily for me (as I hate being the centre of attention) I didn’t need to stand on the table because my phone connected to the network and I was able to send a message to the crew.
Moving out of CP2 is an easy affair of which the 1st 8km is through private farmland with amazing views. However, and especially for the newbie TNF100 runners that easy 8km suddenly turns into the horror ascent of Iron Pot mountain. This is a hill that is not runable at all, it’s just a slow and painful hands on knees trip to the summit. It levels out for a bit at the top but I knew that shortly we had the out-and-back section along Ironpot Ridge. This is one of those cruel sections (intended to avoid cheating & is pretty standard on races like this) that takes you out to a point where your chip is recorded then sends you back. Ironpot Ridge is incredibly technical & you need to take extra care because there is two way traffic. Fortunately for me this year the traffic wasnt as bad as the two previous years because my time was good so I breezed through this section with ease. One of the highlights of this section is running past the didgeridoo players, the sounds plus the amazing views of the Blue Mountains make it very special – I just wished there was time to stop and take it all in.
After the out & back section the course goes steeply down Tinpot Hill and when I say steeply down I really mean it! There was ‘caution’ & ‘warning’ signs throughout this crazy decent. The ground was so dry, dusty & loose that you had to take extra care, I was holding onto trees & branches just to get down safely. To be honest it was proper comedy at times and I could hear people behind me cursing to themselves. One runner shouted out “this is a great lesson in how to ruin your quads in 5 minutes” which made me chuckle, he was so right! Once down the hill the course goes uphill again for a short time then making its way through scenic farmland, creeks & paddocks before eventually reaching Megalong Valley Road (dirt road). At this point I knew it was only 6km from CP3 but also knew that this 6km would not be easy, it starts out fairly flat but soon goes up & up & up – for me it was not runable so I power walked it. Once at the top though it was max pace down for the next 2km. Shortly after this decent I started to hear the noise of the spectators at CP3 in the distance which was a massive relief because I desperately needed a refuel and brief rest.
Leg 4 – Six Foot Track to Katoomba Aquatic Centre (57km)
I’ve run the TNF100 for 3 years in a row now and for some odd reason those last few km’s running into CP3 have always been tough. I always feel low and negative about what lies ahead during the next 50km and this year was no different. However (and like every year) a quick pit stop was all that was needed to get me on my way again with renewed energy. So after a quick chat to ‘the crew’, a few bites of ham and cheese plus 2 mini cokes quickly gulped down I was off again. Running over the chip timer on the way out of CP3 I glanced to my left and spotted a large sign and arrow that said ‘withdrawals here’. I quickly cleared that from my head but what was to come a short time after was even more horrifying! The runner in front of me (around 100 metres) had clearly doused himself in aftershave during his CP stop and the smell was horrendous! Now don’t get me wrong, I wear aftershave, on a night out, but not 50km into a 100km ultra marathon. Luckily for me he eventually took a walking break and I passed him while thinking about my ‘heady’ nightclub and DJ days in the mid 90’s because that’s what the smell reminded me of.
Leg 4 mostly consists of running up the Six Foot Track towards Katoomba. Its tough, really tough, consisting of many steps and around 480m elevation. In 2013 this section almost finished my race so I was dreading it however within a few km’s from leaving CP3 I was feeling good and realised that I was still running up all the hills which boosted my confidence. The trail then changes from fire road to walking path before the start of the long climb up on the steps.
It was around this time that I was joined by a fellow Brit called Tom who was currently living in Australia. I generally avoid conversation during races preferring to keep myself to myself but I immediately clicked with this dude from the off and we got chatting. One of our conversations was about how many people where using poles in this years TNF100 which I’d not seen in either 2012 or 2013 and I came to the conclusion that it was the ‘European effect’. What I mean by that is so many people are travelling around the world now to race (especially Europe for the UTMB races etc) where poles are pretty much standard issue and this trend has caught on. In 2013 I ran the UTMB CCC and used poles for the 1st time because I was told I would definitely need them so that’s what I did. However (and as a test) when I ran TNF Trans Gran Canaria back in March I decided to take poles with me but keep them in my pack unless I really needed them. The poles never saw the light of day and to be honest it felt much better without them. Tom and I both agreed that the people we’d seen with poles today were definitely struggling especially during leg one where its a bit of a scramble plus on the steps where you really need your hands free.
Eventually (and with much relief) the trail comes out onto a road in Katoomba and then its a simple 2km run on tarmac down to the Aquatic Centre and CP4.
Leg 5 – Katoomba Aquatic Centre to Queen Victoria Hospital (78km)
When I arrived into CP4 the 1st thing I noticed was how quiet it was. In the previous 2 races this place had been buzzing with many runners and their crews but it was fairly calm this time. However my crew was not going to have me standing around for long so after a quick bite to eat plus a mini coke I heard the words “I want you out of here in 30 seconds!” So again, I legged it…..
Leaving CP4 I was very anxious about the next 21km to CP5 because this was where the route would completely change compared to the previous 2 years so I was heading into unknown territory plus this stage was also 11km longer than previous years. The initial few km followed the original route along Echo Point towards the Three Sisters which was very busy with meandering tourists. New South Wales was currently basking in a rare Autumn heat wave so people were flocking to the Blue Mountains, and why not, its one of the most beautiful places in the world especially when the sun shines.
I eventually caught up with another runner and noticed he was wearing a Union Jack sweatband so this obviously turned into a conversation from the initial “hello mate, how you feeling?” etc words. Turns out he is an ex soldier called Steve who did his service in Hampshire England which is near to where I live so we had some common ground, why he was living in Australia I never found out. Anyway while Steve and I were chatting a group of local kids decided it would be funny to run behind us then overtake us going up some steps, I remember shouting at them jokingly “oi that’s not fair, you have fresh legs, try doing it with 60km in them!”
Arriving at the Giant Stairway there was a warning from the marshal that it was very slippery and he wasnt wrong. Extra care had to be taken especially on the metal stairs but it wasnt that congested compared to 2012 & 2013 so the decent down the 800+ steps was fairly quick. Once at the bottom the course turned left as usual along Dardanelles Pass and through Leura Forest picnic area. It was here when a few tired looking TNF50 runners came running towards me and I wondered what they were thinking about looking at me and visa versa.
This was the point when the course changed from the previous years because it took a sharp and brutal left turn up many stairs towards Prince Henry Cliff Walk and this is also where Steve and I got chatting again and the subject again was about poles. Apparently during TNF100 2013 he’d been using poles but had unfortunate accident. He was using them to get down some slippery ground but they failed causing him to land on his face knocking himself out and perforating an ear drum – he’s vowed never to use poles again. (I would love to hear your thoughts on poles). Shortly after this conversation Steve and I both arrived together at the 66km emergency water point and thank goodness we did because I’d drunk almost 2 litres of water since leaving CP4 – it was getting very hot.
So, after many more stairs and steps both up & down throughout Leura Forest the trail (to my relief) eventually came out on a flat clearing and I took a walking break. Back at CP4 I’d decided to carry a mini coke with me just in case I needed it and that turned out to be the correct decision because my stomach was not capable of taking down food or ‘energy products’ anymore. Problem though – I want to drink the coke but had had nowhere to dispose of the can. Answer – give empty can to random lady standing outside her van, cool! Problem though – random lady was trying to persuade her broken TNF100 runner daughter to get out of the van and back on her feet. I immediately thought that once you’re sat down in that state its unlikely you will get back up so I wished her luck, thanked her for taking my empty can and moved on towards the Fairmont Hotel Resort for 1km along Sublime Point Road.
It felt strange running though the Fairmont Resort during the day because in previous years this was the race start and finish. However I was pleased to be running on familiar territory again heading towards the Conservation Centre and Wentworth Falls along many, many, more steps both up and down. It was at this point I started to come across lots of stationary and ‘broken runners’, way more than I’d ever seen before in any race. I didn’t know what to do – what do you do? “This is a race” I kept saying to myself so kept on moving knowing they were not far from emergency help if they really needed it. Running across Wentworth Falls I stopped briefly to take in the views and look at the waterfall and my head was saying “why don’t you just stay here, call the crew and throw in the towel?” Then I firmly kicked myself up the arse and moved on up the steep and rocky ascent towards Kings Tableland Road. It was here that I caught up with Paul who I’d been running with during leg 1 and I immediately knew his mindset was not in the best place because he was being very negative about getting a sub 14 time. And you know what he was more than justified to think like that because this was becoming a bloody tough race and at this point all sorts of mental negatives had to be dealt with regardless of how the body was feeling. I knew what was to come though after CP5 because it was a route reversal of the previous 2 years (going downhill at the start for 8km out of the 22km till finish) so I reassured him that a sub 14 time was still possible in the time we had left which was around 3.5hrs from leaving CP5.
Thinking back I couldn’t believe how long it had taken to get to CP5 because leg 4-5 had been truly brutal! When I arrived I remember Kirsten saying something like “don’t look around you, its total carnage here!” “You’re on track for sub 14, can you do it?” And I really wasnt sure….
Leg 6 – Queen Victoria Hospital to Scenic World (100km)
It’s hard for me to explain how I felt leaving CP5 knowing I had another 22km to run. However I did have some course knowledge from the previous 2 years and one thing I did know is that it was going to be all downhill for the next 11k so guess what? …. I bloody legged it!!
But clearly I wasnt legging it fast enough because after a few km into this downhill section I was passed by Paul (who I’d lost at CP5) shouting something like “SUB 14 IS DEFINITELY DO-ABLE MATE” as he ran past me. I shouted “go Paul” as he disappeared into the darkness. It was actually very dark by this time with only my head torch for company and once again I was surprised how alone I was. At one point I thought I’d taken a wrong turn because (in my head) I hadn’t seen a fluorescent route marker in a long time so I turned around and starting walking back up. I then saw a light coming towards me so took a gamble that it was just me and turned around again. Luckily it was just me and my messed up head and I was back on track!
The next few km were the toughest I’ve ever run before. The ‘death march’ up towards the emergency CP at 91km was soul destroying, I passed a runner that I’d seen earlier in the day lying on a stretcher with a medical team and hoped he was ok. When I finally reached the emergency CP I made a comment to the marshal that “the person who’d put this course together needed a slap”. Of course this was a tongue-in-cheek comment which the marshal found funny but I was shocked to hear from him that they had been dealing with broken limbs this year. I grabbed some water and moved on….
The final 9km are a bit of a blur, firstly because I still had some uphill running to do and to be honest I just wasnt in the mood for that anymore and secondly because my GPS watch kept saying ‘you are not going to go sub 14’ over and over again. I was convinced it was not possible for the 3rd year in a row and I was gutted but I kept pushing on towards the Furber Steps and the final 1km ascent of the day.
This final 1km was the most dramatic and horrific of any race I’ve ever done before. I kept looking at my watch thinking 14:10, or maybe 14:15 but no way sub 14. I came across a lady at the top of one of the ladder sections who was trembling with either fear or exhaustion, I said “please take care” and moved on still convinced that sub 14 was not possible. Then suddenly without warning I’d reached the top of the stairs, I could see North Face banners, lots of people and bright lights and thought this is not where I thought I’d be right now. I then heard a shout “mate you need to leg it” – so that’s what I did – I legged it!!
I crossed the finish line with the clock showing 13:59:59 but because my start time was 06:33 there was 3 minutes to come off that so I’d gone sub 14 by just 3 minutes. I was speechless from both happiness and tiredness.