Memories of The North Face 100

Entries for the 2016 North Face 100 open this week, and while I’ve got no plans to do it I thought it might be fun to revisit the article I wrote for the Sydney Striders club magazine Blister just after I completed this event for the first (and only) time back in 2010.

The Preamble

Still early ... smiling and thumbs up

Still early … smiling and thumbs up

There’s nothing like the breathless race reports in the wake of an ultra-marathon to elevate your heart rate, spike interest, and generally lead to the rash conclusion that it’s the logical step after the marathon battle has been fought and won.

Which is why I found myself at the TNF100 homepage clicking ‘complete payment’ in March 2010, just in time to avoid being trampled by the recent Six Foot Track finishers racing towards their next ultra before you could say ‘how many toenails did you lose?’

Most people – runners and non-runners – can kind of get their head round the idea of running a marathon as something they think they might like to do, maybe, at least once.

But tell the (non-running) world you are planning to run 100km and you might as well have told them that you drank your own pee once, when you ran out of water.

They can see how you could do it, but not, under any circumstance, why you would.

But I decided I would, and I trained, and then I was ready … kind of.

Before these running legends disappeared into the distance ...

Before these running legends disappeared into the distance …

So, fast forward to a beautiful Blue Mountains May morning and some 500 or so runners are loading up on last minute supplies, telling bad jokes and generally expelling a great deal of nervous energy.

Personally I felt relatively calm. I slept very well the night before, despite my hotel room being on top of the local train station.

It all felt very different from the broken sleep and dreams of failure that usually precede my marathon attempts.

I can only attribute this calm to sheer ignorance. I just didn’t know what was coming.

The Highs

Still looking pretty good ... I have no idea how far this is but its still light so can't be too far in :)

Still looking pretty good … I have no idea how far this is but its still light so can’t be too far in 🙂

I‘ve never been one of those runners with perfect recall. I can just about remember the finishing chute of the few races I have grimaced my way to the end of.

Maybe that’s because I’ve run most of my races around various neglected industrial estates. One abandoned factory looks pretty much like another after a while.

OK I’m exaggerating but much as I love city road running I only ever end a race with a vague sense of what I just ran past.

So I would love to say the memory of running 100km in the bush is as fresh and vivid as if I were still on the track, but it’s not.

But I do remember the experience of running in the Blue Mountains to be beautiful and revealing. Up close it’s some of the most breathtaking and unexpectedly varied scenery.

I also remember the camaraderie.

Large city marathons draw a mixed and pretty competitive crowd of runners, especially those vying for a front-of-the-pack start.

It wouldn’t be uncommon for a passing runner to quietly celebrate an over-exuberant first-timer grinding to a halt at the 30km mark as one less person to beat to the finish.

Hey I beat a guy

Hey I beat a guy

I’m not saying that ultra runners are all laying down their capes for the ladies at every puddle, but there is something about the long stuff that adds a degree of mutual support not so common in more mainstream races.

It’s all so bloody hard there’s an overwhelming desire by everyone for everyone to finish.

The Lows

There are two things you need to leave at the start line of a 100km race: the first is your ego, the second is your dignity.

OK you can hang on to your dignity for a few km but you better to be ready to hand it over at Checkpoint 4, around 67kms into the race.

Peeing outdoors is easy when you’re a bloke – some guys don’t even stop racing!

I may or may not have just been for a pee

I may or may not have just been for a pee

But for women it’s a pain; and after 70-odd kilometres running it’s a pain in the glutes, the back, the quads (my god the quads!) and pretty much every other muscle engaged in the ever more difficult task of moving forward.

It’s just as well I handed in my dignity at CP4 because ‘squatting for a pee’ (up to CP2), had become ‘crouching for a pee’ (up to CP4), had become ‘bending at the waist and sticking my bum out for a pee’ (CP4 onwards).

By then any lower and there was a serious risk of my being found the next morning, immobile, still squatting, with my compression tights around my ankles.

Not being caught with your compression tights at your ankles is just one of a series of mini goals that make up the ultra-runner’s goal.

I changed into long pants and it got dark ... things are getting serious now

I changed into long pants and it got dark … things are getting serious now

Getting to the next Checkpoint, getting to the next 5km marker, getting to the next tree – all stack up in pursuit of the ultimate goal of finishing the race in one piece.

So I ticked off the 5km markers with increasing gratitude as the day progressed.

Sometimes they appeared quickly, sometimes it took a while, but mostly I got to them at the expected time … until a confused marshall told me I’d already passed the 85km mark and the next (and last!) checkpoint was only three kilometres away.

‘Hurrah’ I thought – I am ahead of schedule by 20 minutes or so. Of course my normal rational brain would have questioned that – how could it be? Did I accidentally take a short cut?

But my delirious up-all-day-and-half-the-night running brain accepted it like a thirsty man falling on a cup of water in the desert.

Dignity still intact ... just

Dignity still intact … just

Imagine my dismay a further kilometre up the track when suddenly the 85km marker appeared like the grim reaper at the side of the road.

You might think ‘what’s a couple of kilometres between friends?’ and usually I’d agree, but when 15 minutes per km is a stretch target, suddenly having to run two more than you thought you did is like hearing a boyfriend say ‘it’s not you it’s me’.

Let’s just say it almost brought tears to my eyes.

The Finish

But I soldiered on, and having overcome the highs and the lows all that remained was for me to stay on my feet and avoid breaking something over the last stages to the finish line.

Teleoanticipation’ is a fantastic theory that attributes a runner’s ability to get faster at the end of a race to the management of pace by the brain’s ‘central programmer’.

Basically we all get faster because we anticipating the finish and the brain lets us speed up.

Of course sometimes the brain is just too busy managing other tasks related to survival to pay too much attention to just how fast the body is moving.

And recalculating the average pace for the last 75kms and flicking the ‘speed up a bit the end is in sight and you want to finish in under 20 hours’ switch is not always top priority.

But I stumbled though the last 11kms in an average of 16 minutes per kilometre, finishing just before 3am on Sunday 16th May 2010. The big red clock said I’d been moving for 19 hours, 42 minutes and 32 seconds.

Sub-20 meant a bronze buckle, not bad for a debutante.

The. Finish. Line.

The. Finish. Line.

The Aftermath

This wasn’t one of those races where, I crossed the finish line shouting ‘never again!’ … that came much earlier in the race.

But given my notorious lack of race recall, 24 hours later I was excitedly describing how I would do things differently next time.

Five years on there still hasn’t been a next time and its unlikely there ever will be, but I’ve done it once and that bronze buckle is still one of my proudest possessions.

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