Saturday, May 24, 2014

That Deep Sense of Satisfaction - TNF100 2014

The North Face 100 is the biggest trail ultra event in Australia. Not because of it's toughness, large participant levels or it's big elevation +/-. Not even for the amount of stairs! No, nothing like that. It's simply the biggest because it's the one day of the year when so many people run, walk, limp, hobble, and crawl a bloody long way in order to experience our beautiful sport and achieve a massive goal. In the months leading up, there's the endless long runs, hill repeats and hours enduring Blue Mountains roadworks on route for training runs on the course ;-) In the lead up there's battles with pre-race nerves and self-doubt and during the run we all suffer, reach depths we never thought we could reach, fight the elements and then collectively as a group, once it's all over, celebrate in each others joy and achievements. This is ultra-trail running at it's best!

It's a race at the pointy end, no doubt about that. But looking around at the finish line on Sunday at the presentations I took a moment to reflect on my first trail ultra, and stepped into the shoes of the so many around me; those there not for the purpose of a finishing position so much but more for a finishers buckle or time and that deep sense of satisfaction that comes with completing what was a massive journey towards that finish line.

Well all one in ultra trail at least...
I fondly remember my first finish at an ultra (6 Foot Track 2008), and the sense of both shock and achievement of what I'd just done. I felt like I had fluked finishing it, and that somehow I had dodged all the bullets (injury, nutritional problems, dehydration etc). Fact is, that with all things new, I was taking a leap into the unknown, stepping out of my comfort zone and having a crack like so many others did on the weekend. But I had also done sufficient enough training, had researched and discussed ad nauseam on CoolRunning all the ins and outs and turned up ready as I could be on the day. So whether you finished or not in your goal time on the weekend, you turned up ready and willing to have a crack at 50 or 100km; which is in my opinion, is just as worthy as a finishing time.  So before I go into the race details from where I ran, I have to congratulate all the ultra first timers who toed the line on Saturday. You've now joined a special sport full of special people and I'm sure you'll all be back for more (but it might take you a week or so to come to that decision!)

The deep sense of satisfaction of completing my first ultra has long been dulled by many shifts of the goalposts as one does. After UTMF, I had purposely tried to put TNF100 out of my mind. I just went about my training as per normal, trying to just get back into my usual WSER training routine. The taper was short, I skipped my usual midweek long run on Wednesday and track session on Thursday, and had Friday off. I wanted to go into the race treating it more like a training race for Western States, pushing hard when I needed to and testing myself on the faster sections. I didn't really have a goal in mind apart from racing hard and strong and coming away mentally and physically tested. If I did that, there would be the reward of a massive confidence builder. Like always, the placing would look after itself. It nearly always does!

About to head down Furber Steps with Jorge
Photo courtesy of Jared Cox
The race started under beautiful conditions; the Blue Mountains had definitely sensed the significance of the day and delivered. The new race HQ at the KCC and the new hub at Scenic World I believe has added much value to the race. I got to the start around 6am and felt as ready as I could be to run 100k. I had visualised how I was going to run and was happy with the plan. Although I hadn't told him, and only told those close to me, I though the man to beat from the local contingent was Scott Hawker. His form this year has been outstanding; 5th at the Vibram Hong Kong 100, 5th at Tarawera and then winning the local Mt Solitary Ultra in race record time. But I guess it was when I got to run with him just over a month ago did I realise that he was in a special place with his running. There was also the other top Aussie guys; Tucks (who is always so tough), Ben Duffus, Andy Lee, Jono O'Loughlin (who aims up every year for this one) and the darkie Stu Gibson, who amazingly, I have never raced before. There was also Jorge Maravilla from the US who comes with a big CV and Quentin Stephan from France whom I had met at Tarawera. Both gentleman have won some big, hard races of late.

At 6:30 we were off. The new course up and down Cliff Rd enabled some easy chit chat and I settled into the front group. I took the role of tour guide, leading the way, pointing out to Jorge the mighty Narrow Neck plateau that we would soon discover. The return leg to Scenic World was wonderful! So many friends and runners wishing me good luck, it was a real boost and very appreciated. I felt for poor Jorge, thank you to that one person who wished Jorge the best too. Oh well, nothing beats having the home ground advantage! I took it down Furber steps pretty fast, aware of not holding up the huge mass of runners behind. The views across the Jamison Valley were spectacular as always. Once at the Scenic Railway Station I settled into a groove and Quentin took the lead along the flowing single track along the Federal Pass. Quentin lead us through the landslide section and as we exited again onto the single track Scott put in a surge and took control. It definitely looked like he wanted to get to the Golden Stairs first. I held back and chatted to Quentin. I found out he lives in Chamonix and trains with Kilian. Yep...I was listening!

Golden Stairs is always a tough old grind
Photo courtesy of Rod Cutler
I managed to bridge the gap to Scott by the turn up the Golden Stairs, close enough to quip that 'straight is a shortcut!' Up we went, and I ran most of the ascent as is my style. Jorge and Quentin power hiked and kept up easily while Scott extended the slight lead. He was working this section well. As we hit the exposed plateau of Narrow Neck, Mick Donges was there to greet us. It's such a shame he is injured and unable to race, but great to see his positivity out there supporting everyone. Along the fire trail, Tucks and Jono joined us and soon were climbing the small ups together. Half way up Stu eased by and took up the challenge to chase Scott. As we hit the first aid station, the small pack stopped to refill their bottle. I stopped to fill my 500ml bottle (I also had a litre in the bladder), and Stu ran through to take the lead, followed by Jono and everyone was gapped in that move. Stu was playing a card early but no one seemed to mind too much. Tucks and I ran a lot of the leg together and he commented to me that seeing Stu out in front was like watching me last year along the same section.

We pushed on and I definitely felt as though the pace was faster than previous years. The splits show this to be true too, with a 1:31:15 leg this year compared to a 1:33:51 last year. Granted though, we had run an extra 7.5km before the leg last year. Down Tarros was fun as always and I went down with Tucks, Jono and Scott right behind. Quentin and Jorge were right there too. The next section through Mt Derbert and the tricky single track is one of my favourite sections and by the time I hit Medlow Gap I had gapped my chasers and nearly caught Stu. Once on the fire trail, I made up some ground and Stu and finally, after years of never crossing paths, I got to say g'day in person. Way back in the No Roads Trail Running team days, we were actually team mates, but we unfortunately never got to run together as Stu got injured before our first Kokoda Challenge in 2011. After a little while Jorge joined us and we ran the section to Dunphy's basically together. After a quick transition, again just filling the water bottle, we were on our way to Iron Pot.

Jorge and Stu pushed along the fire trail and gapped me quickly. Approaching the base of Iron Pot, a frisky colt in the paddock was showing his dislike for runners by running back and forth perpendicular to the fence, kicking his back legs out in a show of who was boss! Needless to say I ran this bit quicker than I would have liked. Thankfully the farmer was out in the paddock and I told him that his horse was a little flighty and I think he must have moved him. Up Iron Pot Spur was fun as always, I felt strong and hit the top running. The distant tapping of the clapsticks and hum of the didgeridoo is always a very welcome sound. It's a very special place up there. You don't get to stop and see it, but there are numerous Aboriginal grinding grooves up there by the turnaround. It's definitely worth a hike up there one day.

Stunning scenery on way to CP3
Photo courtesy of Lyndon Marceau
The turnaround always is a good chance to see how others are travelling. Within a minute of turning I saw Scott, Tucks, Jono and Quentin. The rest of the way to the drop down off Iron Pot, no one else was seen, which was quite encouraging. Knowing we had already gapped the field somewhat kind of told me that the winner would more than likely be one of us 7. Through Green Gully, Scott and I were joined by Quentin and it pretty much remained this way to Megalong Rd and to the base of the climb to Saddlepacks. On the climb, Scott and Quentin were going stride for stride and I dropped off the back. By the top at the locked gate they had 150m on me, but this was quickly bridged on the downhill run which is another favourite section of mine. By the 6 Foot CP I had passed both and found some breathing space. The gear check went pretty smoothly and I was glad to get to the CP in 3rd and see Nadine.

Coming into CP 3 to see my supercrew!
Thanks Kellie Gibson for the photo!
A sign of the changing practises of ultra running is how short the stoppages are at CPs now! All of the guys I saw were using bottles and this makes my method of using a bladder seem laboured and very outdated! Scott was in and out in 30s with a quick bottle swap. I thought my transition of just over 1 min was quick, definitely the quickest I've ever been at that CP, but things are now at a different level. Nadine was brilliant, swapping my now almost empty bladder with another full one filled with Enduralyte Fizz and water, loaded me up with a new gel flask and Hammer Bar and out I went. It was all a blur!

Along the 6 Foot Track, I got to enjoy the company of Scott and feared it wouldn't be for long! We shared some thoughts on Stu and Jorge out in front and we both agreed that them being under 2 minutes was definitely nothing to be alarmed about just yet. Along here we managed to drop Quentin who up to here had seemingly been happy to run to our race plan. I opened up a small gap on Scott but this quickly disappeared once the grind on the single track to Nellies Glen started. I told Scott this was my least favourite section of the whole course and off he went.

My plan to run to the first step on Nellies eventuated and I started the stair slog with purpose, taking them as quickly as I've ever done. Not quick enough to hold Tucks off though; around 3/4 of the way up he bounded by and he had dragged Quentin with him. Finally at the end of the death march, I hooked the right down to the Nature Track. I love this section, with the Fern Gully, so lush and verdant; the front page photo of this blog was taken through here. Going back up a small stair case I passed Jorge who was cramping up so I gave him a couple of Enduralyte capsules that would hopefully ease them a bit for him. I wished him well and went on.

Running with Scott along 6 Foot Track
Photo courtesy of Moritz auf der Heide
Approaching the exit of the single track at the back of the residential area, I began to hear loud, distressed noises what can only be described as a cross between a howl and a heave. I'm sure it must have brought a few of the locals out into their backyards, such was the anguish in the sound and concern it would have ellicited! Unfortunately it was Scott who was having some stomach problems. I felt for him, I've been in that spot too and it's not nice.

At the CP I found out I was a minute or so behind Tucks but Stu had come in 10 minutes in the lead! Whoa...he had put a massive gap into us on what is a very tough leg. He had definitely played a major card now and we all had to respond to that. Had he used up all his bikkies or would we burn ours in the chase? The race was now taking a seriously interesting turn. At the checkpoint, Nadine again did a sterling job, sticking to the plan as per CP3, and I was on my way. I let Liz Hawker, Scott's wife know that he was having a few issues, but he would be along shortly.

Out of the CP, I made quick tracks along the reserve to the Cliff Top Track and ran this section hard. The wind was cool and relieving and I was loving the flat sections. I was using a polite assertive tone to warn the tourists and the they were all very accommodating. I hit the Giant Staircase wanting to get down them ASAP, desperate to connect back onto Tucks. I descended them very quickly, two at a time and sliding down the handrails of some short stair cases. I got to the bottom knowing that I must have dragged back some time, and finally, 100m or so along Dardanelles Pass I spotted Tucks. We would run most of the next leg together.

Prince Henry Cliff Walk is hard work!
Photo courtesy of Nadine Davies
Andrew looked very comfortable along the trails; his breathing was easy and he was taking the stairs with purpose. At the base of the Leura Forest stairs, I said 'let the fun begin', somehow wishing we were turning down towards Sublime Ridge instead of heading up! Being behind Tucks I basically took his lead, when he walked so did I, when he ran I ran and this went on pretty much all the way to Gordon Falls. Even though I was always close to Tucks, I never felt once like I had the strength to pass and keep in front. Any pass would just mean a repass by Tucks and I didn't fancy a yo-yo game with him. In any case, I was enjoying following the bright green beacon of the shirt he was wearing, and I felt he was pacing this leg really well. After Gordon Falls and towards the Golf Links Lookout, Tucks gapped me again and I only really rejoined him going over Lillian's Bridge at Empress Canyon approaching Conservation Hut. Again, I didn't feel I had it in me to pass, I feel I'm quicker on the stair descents but Tucks has it all over me going up stairs. As I reached the shortcut track, I just caught a glimpse of the green machine as he took off around the corner 100m up the trail. From here I knew he would probably get to the last CP in front of me.

Along the Little Switzerland trail approaching Hordens Rd
Photo courtesy of Lyndon Marceau
Approaching Hordens Rd, Team Greenhill let me know that I was a couple of minutes off Tucks but more importantly still only 10 or so behind Stu. Things were good. Stu had maintained his lead without pulling further away. The race was far from being a foregone conclusion. I pushed hard on the road to Queen Vic hospital and got in and loaded up with water and caffeine for the final kick home. I was confident I could make inroads on both Tucks and Stu by the bottom of the valley and then it would be game on in the last hellish 12km!

I took off with a surge from the CP and ran the mile or so to the start of the descent proper hard. I ran the downhill with a lot of purpose, and as quick as my aching quads would allow; this type of stuff is really mind over matter, blocking out the pain and just going with gravity; leaning from the chest forcing your legs to up the cadence and keep up or else! I reached Jamison Creek half and hour later, happy with the pace of the drop down to the floor, but with Tucks, to my mind, no closer. This was a little disheartening but I wasn't defeated. I started the climb out and I was passing many of the 50km runners now who were all giving me great encouragement. Apologies for not always replying beyond a thumbs up, I was really in the zone here :-)

The push down Tablelands Rd towards CP5
About a kilometre of lumpy up and down I started a steep pinchy section and quickly realised that I'd made a pretty basic error and was reaching empty on energy. In my haste to get down the big hill, I'd forgotten to take in some calories before the climb out. Now I really only had one option, to walk a bit, suck down some gels and wait until it kicked in before I could start a run again. The walk wasn't overly strong either, I was pretty spent and pretty much came to the realisation that my hopes of catching Tucks and Stu were fading and that I'd have a fight now to hold onto 3rd. As soon as the energy levels restored somewhat, I took off running again. It was slow, but 'any run is faster than a walk'.

I finally reached the sewage plant and ran the little single track well to the Federal Pass. Turning left, I was getting lots of support from the 100km runners heading out on the Federal Pass and more 50k runners whom I passed. I was running with all heart now, and the km signs began to tick down. I ran all of the trail to Furber, including some little staircases that really hurt. No doubt about it Furber is a tough tough way to finish any race, let alone a 100km one! I began walking up; trudging is probably a better verb. I was saying to myself 'keep moving forward' over and over. The steep stairs sent my heart racing and I decided that even with only 500m to go I probably had another 5 minutes out on the course and sucked down more gel to get me home. Reaching the junction, I wasn't aware we had to take the left to Scenic World unlike the way we entered Furber from Katoomba Park. More stairs, and steep buggers too! Once I turned left and had descended a couple of switchbacking stair cases I heard a marshal say 'the next guy isn't too far in front' and turned back. God, it was Jono O'Loughlin, powering up like a freaking steam engine up the stairs! Where did he come from? I had been looking back constantly up Furbers and nothing but just like that here was Jono ready to snatch the podium in the last couple of hundred metres.

Relief! Jono would have been just about to enter the frame
The only thing I could do was put my head down and just keep going. I finally got to what seemed like road level and just one set of stairs to go, I knew it was going to be close. Reaching the board walks I just drew on everything I had left and went for it. I was sure Jono was right there and ran like that all the way to the finish. I had a quick look back in the last 20m and couldn't see him, and it was then I really only could celebrate. I fell in an exhausted heap and went straight to foetal. My mum was one of the first to come over to me which made the whole experience even more bazaar!

A couple of minutes later I heard the full story of the battle between Tucks and Stu and really couldn't believe it. Tucks had closed that race amazingly well and Stu, who did all the racing early, was rewarded for his courage but not without a real fight. It probably would have been a race were a tie would have been fitting, but hats off to Stu, he was the deserved victor and knowing Tucks, this will make him even hungrier for next year.

The aftermath! Jono is a top bloke
and a great athlete
I am completely satisfied with how my race went and has left me so excited for many reasons. I've said all year that my focus has to be Western States, and now another piece in the Western States puzzle has been laid and it fit perfectly. I've come away feeling that the plan I laid out at the start of the year, the plan that I backward mapped from the big day on June 28th is almost complete. Saying this though, would I have loved to finish first home again? Hell yes! I would have loved to keep the title up here, but it simply wasn't to be. Am I disappointed? Hell no! I ran the best I could but Stu Gibson and Andrew Tuckey (amongst many others) were simply superb on the day. I now have 4 consecutive Top 5 finishes in this race, filling every position except 2nd. Perhaps next year shall be Tucks' year. That would be most fitting. But something tells me the young guys like Scott, Ben Duffus, Caine Warburton, Moritz auf de Heide and the 7 race veteran who just keeps getting better Jono O'Loughlin will push me down the pecking order.

Lastly I would just like to say a massive congratulations to all the UP Coaching clients that I took out either on TNF50/100 preparation days, gave guidance to at the Lake Crackenback Trail Running weekends or generally mentored along the way. It was very satisfying seeing so many of you reap the rewards of hard training and proper preparation and smiling at the end of the race! I get a massive buzz out of passing on what I've picked up in this trail running caper and I look forward to expanding my coaching horizons in this direction further post Western States.

The Top 10 (without 8th place Jorge).
RD Tom Landon-Smith is left on top row in red shirt.
Gear and Sustinence
Top: Hammer branded Ultra Tank
Bottom: Inov-8 Race Elite 135 Ultra Short
Socks: Injinji 2.0 Mid Weight Mini Crew
Wheels: Inov-8 Trail Roc 245
Pack: UltrAspire Omega
Timing: Suunto Ambit2; Movescount move

Hydration: Water in bladder with Hammer Enduralytes FIZZ
Nutrition: Hammer Gel and Hammer Perptuem Solids and Hammer Bars

Crewed by: My awesome wife Nadine.

Some fun with Tucks and RD Tom