With another North Face 100 only days away, I’ve been reflecting on one of Australia’s toughest 100 km events. It certainly was for me – my first solo ultra-marathon.
I had completed Oxfam Trailwalker events before so I knew the resilience and perseverance required to push through the inevitable pain of long distance running.
But the North Face has a completely different dynamic – it is a solo race. No team members to spur you on when it gets tough, no support crew waiting for you at checkpoints. The only thing waiting for me that bitterly cold May morning in 2011 was my pre-packed bag and a whole lot of darkness.
I had travelled to the Blue Mountains with a good mate of mine. He was the ‘real deal’ – I simply kept up with him on training runs or rather, I tried to keep up.
He naturally started in the first wave of participants and me, I thought I’d let the fast runners get the lead they needed to keep their times as quick as possible.
I’d usually completed the Trailwalker in 24 hours – not a bad time – but I thought I could go faster. I wanted to go faster. So I set myself the goal of completing the race in under 20 hours.
So there I was, waiting for the start, compulsory gear in my backpack and the smell of deep heat in the freezing morning air. I’d prepared for this insanity. 100 km to go.
Waiting was a big mistake for me. And on reflection, it was an easy mistake to make. At least 500 runners had already started in the first few waves. I had really underestimated my speed and not long after my legs got into their usual running tempo I was held up on single tracks looking for opportunities to pass. This stop-start rhythm meant I went way too hard and too fast. I wasted loads of energy but the adrenaline had obviously kicked in because as I neared the halfway checkpoint I was feeling surprisingly good. I was pretty happy with my time and average speed but that’s when my knee went.
In the months of training before the event, I had been having difficulty with my knee at around the 8-hour mark (or 50 km) but recently it had been OK. So into the backpack I pulled out my compression bandage and the Voltaren.
I was in pain. I pushed on to the mid-way checkpoint, called my wife for support, changed my socks, put the Voltaren on my knee and made up my mind that I could still do this. 55 kms to go.
I thought maybe I could just jog a little bit. I knew I had a flat section coming up before the ridiculously steep climb of about 1000m up to Katoomba.
Ah, no. Jogging was definitely not going to happen. I attempted to jog on flat sections but the pain to my knee was like hammer blows. It was time to reassess. If I was going to finish at all, I was going to have to walk – and at a good pace.
So I walked. I made the climb up to Katoomba and had a couple of sausages at the top for dinner. It was night now and getting cold, bitterly cold, but I was in a fairly good head space – I could still do this and achieve my goal of sub 20 hours. 30 kms to go.
Again, I reach into my backpack and I pull out my best friend for the next several hours – my Ay Up head torch. Now, if you have ever walked or run with a head torch you know that you can get by with reasonably good light, especially when you are ‘fresh’. But 70 kms into a 100 km event, in pitch black – any little thing can wear you down. I needed the kind of light to illuminate every tree root and rock – there was no way I wanted another injury; the kind of light that lit up the single track bush path – I was not keen on getting lost. The only thing I did not want to see was my goal slipping away.
My Ay Up lit up the path like daylight and the larger battery took me right through to the next checkpoint with no need to stop and change batteries along the way. I was able to walk and maintain a 6 km per hour pace.
I checked into the last checkpoint, changed my battery, grabbed a drink and headed toward the finish. The toughest 16 km to go.
Each step was extremely painful but my Ay Up helped me focus on the path ahead. Each step was one step closer to the finish. I had a clear vision (literally) so I just kept moving.
At 1:30am, my head torch shone brightly on the Fairmont Resort and the finish line. I’d made it. 100 km in 18 and a half hours. The toughest event of my life.
Oh, and that mate of mine – he met me at the finish line. Only he’d finished 7 hours earlier. And I wish him the best of luck for this years event.
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