The North Face 100 is Australia’s premier 100km trail running event. It’s by far the largest trail run I’ve participated in and the setup, operation, course marking and everything else involved was top notch. There was no mucking around here, the instructions alone (before you even get on the course) are 32 pages. This is a very serious race…. But in saying that, it’s also completely and utterly spectacular.
I picked up all my gear at 4pm when rego first opened, then after a pasta dinner it was back to the auditorium for the 7:30pm race briefing. I have to say that this race briefing was by far the most entertaining one I’ve been to, now I’m not going to say the Race Director was drunk, but he did trip over twice while getting on stage and then proceeded to give us a very casual and amusing run down of the race instructions. There was nothing new here, pretty standard stuff, just presented entertainingly. The brief set the tone of the race, it was serious business, but why not have some fun while you’re out there. After the briefing we went to leave by cutting across in front of the stage, it was also at this time that the race directors threw out some of last years buffs to the crowd. There were buffs everywhere! I couldn’t move and they just kept on raining down on me. I came away with about 5 buffs stuck to me. I’m sure they’ll come in handy.
The following morning I was up at 4:30am getting ready, oats with salt, banana and honey for breakfast, another banana for just before the race and we were off. I got to the start line at Scenic World about 5:20am, an hour before my wave started and plenty of time to get nervous and finish getting ready. The temperature was cold, but it was also overcast, so it wasn’t completely freezing (I’m looking at you Glow worm). 15 minutes before I was set to go I entered the runners shoot. I was wearing my standard running gear but with some added arm warmers that I’d borrowed off Matt, he clearly has bigger muscles then me, because I couldn’t keep them up, so switching them around the wrist end fitted nicely around my biceps. I positioned myself somewhere in the middle of Start Group 1 and at 6:20am exactly we were off.
The course started with a little tour of the hill next to Scenic World as we wound our way up it, then turned around and came back down to help spread out the runners a bit before we hit Furber Steps. I was sitting nicely somewhere in the middle of a bunch making our way down the steps, there were a few keen runners who ran past, by far the funniest was one of the Chinese girls who would run up behind people and start saying “shoo shoo shoo shoo”. I’m not sure if it was a noise she was making or if she was literally trying to shoo people out of the way, I joked about it with another runner. Anyways, it confused people enough that they got out of her way.
Reaching the bottom of the steps we turned right and headed towards the Landslide, then started the climb up the Golden Stairs, as far as stairs go these weren’t particularly hard, a few stairs, some running, a few more stairs. I started to overtake people on this climb and quickly overtook “shoo”. Reaching the top it switched from single trail to wide fire trail and was a short run to Checkpoint 1 - Narrowneck 10.5km. I grabbed a few lollies at this checkpoint but I’d only been running for a bit over an hour so I didn’t need any serious refuelling (CP1 127th overall, 7th female).
From here the fire trail wound it’s way around Narrowneck, easy sort of running with spectacular views over Megalong Valley (when the fog didn’t get in the way). I chatted with a few other runners or listened to them as they talked to each other, I was happy just to run along at an easy enough pace, no need to push myself too much yet. We started on the downhill towards Tarros Ladders and I let myself go pretty lose on the downhill sections and just flow down them, normally I suck at downhill, but during a race I find it easier to let go, It’s like my risk vs rewards calculations switch around and almost nothing is too risky. Anyways, I found I was overtaking people on the downhill and when I got to the ropes leading to the ladders I was in a good position near the front of the group.
The ropes were great fun. It was kind of like the Knife Edge section of Solitary with big drop offs as you bouldered your way down the rocks. But because there were ropes there I ditched the scrambling, grabbed the ropes and threw myself out backwards… One of my favourite things at the obstacle races were the rope climbs and this was a reverse rope climb. I smashed it! and it was fun! By the time I got to the actual ladders I was pumped and couldn’t wait for the next obstacle. Fortunately the line was very short and after less then a minute of waiting I was making my way down the ladders. The ladders were specially built for the race to enable as many racers as possible to get down the 8m rock face safely. It was straightforward, climb 8m down the ladder. I will admit that I was disappointed to reach the end of the obstacle racing component of the race. But there was another 80km to run and that was going to be challenge enough.
After a bit more single trail it opened to fire trail again and I met a nice NZ women who was running TNF for the second time, I was moving slightly faster then her so stepped it out and headed into the next checkpoint, Checkpoint 2 - Dunphys Camp 31km (CP2 107th overall, 5th female). Here I was delighted to find mini muffins, so leaving the checkpoint I spent the next 500m or so feasting on a chocolate mini muffin. It made a nice break from the Nutella & Honey sandwiches which I’d been eating so far.
From here it was hiking time as I followed the track up towards Ironpot Mountain, turns out this was a good size mountain and it took a while to hike, but once at the top we were directed onto the out and back section of the ridge. This in itself was exciting as we came up past the course marshall and were greeted by the didgeridoo players situated on one of the rock outcroppings, there was something special and kind of surreal about the whole thing. The out and back was straightforward single trail and it was cool to see other runners on their way back. It was probably my second favourite part of the race after Tarros Ladders. We got scanned at the turn around point and once back to the original marshall we were directed to head straight down the side of the mountain, I had Buffalo flashbacks as I was slipping and sliding down the steep descent and as one of the other runners put it “this was a terrible way to lose all our elevation”.
Once at the bottom we entered private property and got to run around some paddocks, this was fine. easy running and a few creek crossings, where rather then taking the slower stepping stones I charged straight through. Although I will say that I was completely horrified to see one of the guys filling his drink bottle up with water from the creek, I mean it was running through the middle of several paddocks, that surely can’t end well. But he was behind me by the time I’d thought that through and well, it was his choice (still a bad choice…). The course took us up a dirt road that wound it’s way past several locked gates (that you had to open and close). This was walking stuff, that dirt road was surprisingly steep and every time I thought surely I was at the top, I was not. It was also at this stage (around 45km), that I saw the first nighttime markers. The standard course markers were pink tape, but the nighttime markers had additional reflective strips added to them. It was 10:45am and I just couldn’t fathom being out here of a night and still have more then half the course to go. Not being out on the course past dark was an enormous motivator for me.
Reaching the top we got a nice reprieve and got to follow the road as it wound down a nice gentle slope, and into another paddock where the first of the Checkpoint 3 spectators and support crew were waiting. Checkpoint 3 - Six Foot Track 46km (CP3 79th overall, 5th female) was the first checkpoint that spectators and support screw were allowed to access and it was going off, there was a full band there and all. I ran into the checkpoint and the random gear check where I quickly showed my space blanket and rain jacket. I’d packed almost all my mandatory gear in one large clear sealy bag so I could rip the entire thing out of my pack and just point at whatever they needed to see without having to fiddle around with individual items.
Mum was ready for me as I ran towards her in the support crew section. I filled my main bladder with water (watering down any Tailwind that was left in there), grabbed 2x250ml soft flasks filled with Tailwind and switched out my supply baggy (gels, salt, jellybeans, pretzels etc). Mum is now a pro at support crew work and we’ve got it down to a fine art, I’m in and out of checkpoints in less then 2 minutes now. Leaving the checkpoint I was carrying a full 2ltrs of fluid, which was going to be heavy for the next uphill section, but there was nothing for it. I needed the water/tailwind and it was too much to risk not having it.
The next section was deja vu, just in reverse as the course followed Six Foot Track towards Nellies Glen. I clearly needed to turn around at least once during Six Foot Track because there are spectacular views of the cliffs if you run the track this way. I also didn’t realise quite how much we were running downhill during Six Foot Track, this alternated from false flat to actual steep sections. By the time I was at the bottom of Nellies Glen I was glad to just get the serious business of climbing the stairs underway.
Nellies Glen is very pretty when it’s not dark and foggy. The climb itself didn’t take any longer then a Six Foot Track Wave 4 conga line, but there was a massacre of male runners cramping on the side of the course. Even as I got over the top there were more of them, they were dropping like flies. I’m sure women cramp at different times to guys, because even though I was feeling the climb, I wasn’t cramping. From here it was all new to me as the course followed an undulating and stair filled path towards Katoomba, we got a nice break at one stage when the track spat me out onto a long downhill road section that I called the Pretzel break as I happily munched on my bag of pretzels while jogging down the hill. Then it was back into some scrubby Katoomba bush before a climb up the road towards the aquatic centre.
I got to Checkpoint 4 - Katoomba Aquatic Centre 57km (CP4 63rd overall, 5th female) 15 minutes ahead of schedule and surprised mum who wasn’t yet expecting me but still had everything ready to go. This was a very quick checkpoint, I dropped one bag, grabbed another bag with food, 2 new Tailwind soft flasks and I was out of there in less then a minute.
The course headed into the back blocks of Katoomba, I don’t actually know where I was, but there were markers and other runners so I was fine, we did a tour of Katoomba shortcuts then it was onto the tourist filled Prince Henry Cliff Walk, I was running with a couple of other guys at this stage and they seemed happy to follow me as I charged through the tourist masses while yelling clearly “EXCUSE ME, PASSING ON YOUR RIGHT” or something along those lines, most people very quickly got out of our way and seemed used to seeing runners (it’s not like we were the first ones here). Then there were the even cooler people who yelled out encouragement. The whole tourist section made it rather entertaining and a nice break from straight running, so many distracting things going on….
Reaching Echo Point (so many tourists!) the course wound it’s way up to the road and then followed that briefly before heading onto the cliff side tracks. This section I was not expecting, I’d seen the course profile and it looked undulating, nothing too hard. I was so very wrong! For every down there was a painful stair climb up. It got to the point where I was dreading any and all descents because I knew I’d have to hike up stairs to get back out. Don’t get me wrong it was scenic, spectacular even. The track follows the cliff edge with endless views, waterfalls, bridges across giant drop offs, rainforest type sections, open clifftops. I would have enjoyed it more if I was hiking it, but running it meant that I was pushing and those stairs, dear god, the stairs… I still have PTSD from them. One of the things that kept me going however was that I met a couple of really nice guys who were moving at a similar pace and were happy to talk, either to me or between themselves, that and the view were my distraction from the stairs.
Leaving the cliff top tracks the course turned onto Kings Tableland road towards Queen Victoria Hospital. I have never been so happy to see open running road dirt, or bitumen I didn’t care, the important part was that it wasn’t stairs. Getting into Checkpoint 5 - Queen Victoria Hospital 78km (CP5 48th overall, 4th female) was exciting, from here there wasn’t far to go, I could push through it, and I was still making great time on course for a sub 12. I’d started to feel cramps coming on after the stair nightmare so hit up the pickle jar at this checkpoint, I’d heard that pickle juice was great for cramps… turns out that’s more gherkin juice and not the mustard pickles that I proceeded to drink/eat. Sometimes I know what I’m doing, in this case I was running on the full placebo effect of “pickle juice” as I headed down Kedumba Pass. (I still haven’t researched the pickle thing… If you have knowledge of this, please fill me in).
Kedumba Pass is a steep access road and a straight 6km descent. I went loose on this and just rolled down the road, it was easy running and pretty enjoyable. At around the 80km mark I came across the tail end of the 50km runners (they do the second half of the 100km run, so had covered 30km by the time I came across them). They were walking and looking at many hours in the dark and cold, especially as they were walking the downhill section. Hitting the bottom and crossing Jamison Creek, Stephen who I’d been running with earlier caught up to me and I totally credit him with pacing me through the next tough climbing sections as we climbed the dirt roads, then got a short reprieve with some downhill, then more climbing, it was a very gradual and undulating ascent. Without him there I don’t think I would have pushed as hard. He was both distracting and encouraging because I was hurting. My legs were tired, my body was tired, my mind was tired. It had gotten to the point where my body is shouting at me to stop and all there is is pain, pain that’s hard to see past. Just pain. I know that being able to push through this pain is what makes the difference between good and great runners. Some runners can push through and not show any outward signs of it, others grunt, groan and whinge but still push through and then there are the runners that surrender to the pain. I was not going to surrender to the pain, but I was very unhappy about the situation.
It started to get real dark at about the time we hit Leura forest at the 95km mark. So the headlamp came out and I could feel the temperature starting to drop around me. I was still in a singlet and little running shorts so had to keep moving if nothing more then to keep warm. That last 5km was the hardest, Stephen pushed on ahead as I was slower on the single trail through the forest. But the constant stream of 50km runners that I was overtaking did encourage me. Hitting the base of the Furber Steps was a huge relief as the marshall there told me I had 900m to go.
900m sounds so easy. Sure I’d done this on a walk with mum & during Solitary, easy as, right? Hell no! PAIN! PAIN! my legs were burning and my body was not going well, I was staggering up the steps, still moving and still overtaking 50kers but it was like I was racing against my own body, I was told 250m to go towards the top and that was one hell of a hard 250m, more staggering, then 100m, more staggering and hiking up the ramp before SCENIC WORLD and running time as I came up the ramp and into the finishers shoot, down the final stretch and into 4th place female and 45th overall in 11:50:58. Sub 12!
The finish line was exciting, there were congratulations and photos and people and confusion and I wasn’t so sure I could remain standing, then I was being sat down by mum under a heater and first aid gave me a nice blanket and I could sit for a while. Sitting was good. I was not feeling very well, and somehow ended up with a 50km finishers medal. Then mum went and got the car while I started to feel worse, fortunately a guy I knew from OCR found me and was watching that I was alright/not completely dead, looking back on it I was well on my way to hypothermia again. But then it was into the car and back to our accommodation. I spent a quality 20 minutes in a hot shower raising my temperature and the world began to return to normal. I can happily say that at the end of that race I was spent. That was all I had to put into it and the result was better then I’d expected. So much better then I expected actually. I thought sub 12 hours was a crazy goal.
The next day I headed back to Scenic World for the presentations and traded in my 50km finishers medal for a silver belt buckle (I think I need a belt now). The presentations were great and they gave out prizes for the top 10 women, plus I got 2nd place in my division (Shona who came 3rd, 3 minutes ahead of me got 1st in the division). I’m stoked, I got a new super fancy North Face duffel bag, socks, a headlamp and some other bits & pieces. Will I be back for TNF next year? Hell Yeah, but not until I get over my stair phobia!
Nutrition (during the race):