I write today about a journey from a hospital bed to the mountains. I write about pushing the limits to see what’s possible, especially when logic insists it isn’t.
I first heard about The North Face 100 (TNF100) in 2010. It was an influential time for me, I was entering the working world and busy setting goals. Open to new ideas, keen for challenge, typical early-20s male I guess. I had read a book called Born to Run and become enthused with a question that has been driving me ever since.
‘How far can my legs take me?’
At the time I had never ventured further up the road than the reasonably standard 21km of a half marathon. I had imagined myself running a marathon one day but was relatively naive about possibilities. My eyes were opened by Born to Run. In the book Christopher Mcdougall wrote of 50 mile races, even 100 mile races. I got hold of Ultramarathon Man and it turned out Dean Karnazes’ had run up to and over 200 miles – non-stop! I read about the UK’s ‘Bob Graham Round’ in Feet in the Clouds and Greece’s ‘Spartathlon’ in Why We Run, each of these covering over 100 miles in some of the most extreme terrain possible. A seed was planted. I had never liked the idea of going faster but I was now hooked on the idea of going further.
Fast forward to late last year. I had now run a few 100km solo events, including the TNF100 in 2011. I’d faced a few Oxfam 100km Trail Walkers as part of some wonderful teams. Each time I toed the line it was the same question at the heart of it, ‘how far?’, each time I’d managed to hit the finish line. At this point I had learnt that my legs could go the 100km. The various events had taught me that it actually had little to do with legs, instead it was all about the head and the heart. The Canberra 101 confirmed this.
It was in this race that I had my lowest ever point in a race. I was 45km in and my legs were cooked. I was simultaneously cramping in the calves, quads and hamstrings. I’d run out of water, was moving very slow, and was 10km out from the next check point. For the first time ever I wanted to quit in a race. For the first time ever I realised my legs weren’t going to get me there. As the sun beat down on me my mind was pretty keen to agree.
I hadn’t seen another runner for over an hour, at times I wondered if I was actually lost. I was still following markers so was chugged on. ‘Just get to check point two. It can be all over then. No one will think less of you, it’s hot, you’re just not fit enough today. I’ll train harder for the next one.’ It was a long and lonely conversation full of self assurance that quitting would be perfectly acceptable. Too bad my wife, my dad and my friend Blair had other ideas.
I walked into check point two barely managing words. I wouldn’t remember this bit if not for the stark contrast to the wall of cheer and excitement I was slapped with as my crew threw me into a chair and went into pit-stop mode. Blair was on shoulder massage, Dad re-stocked my food and water supply, Carly took control of the foot situation. All I could think to myself was ‘Holy shit. I’m gonna have to keep going.’
At first this was demoralising and I went into bargaining mode with Carly. ‘Please can I just sit for a bit?’. The response I got was something along the lines of ‘You can have an extra 5 minutes but then you’re out.’ This sounds tough but it’s what we’d rehearsed, what I’d warned her I might say. She knew I’d regret giving up, knew I wouldn’t truly want to give in to negative thoughts so she pushed me. I love her for that. Carly would later say that she’d never seen me look so terrible in a race, never seen me so withdrawn.
What happened next is the reason I now firmly believe these races are about the head and the heart and have only a touch of legs involved. My crew urged me up out of the chair and I started putting one foot in front of the other again. I was forced to accept where I was, what I was feeling, and push on anyway. My legs were stiff and terrible but the change in mindset gave a new spring in my step. I started to run again. Sure my pace was slow but I had accepted the pain I was in and accepted the fact that I was simply not going to stop. I was going to do whatever it took to finish this race. I crossed the line about 6 hours later.
In March this year I got appendicitis. I wrote about it at the time, reflecting on what I had learnt being on the other side of medicine, as a consumer rather than a provider. What I didn’t write about at the time was my running. I mentioned that I missed days on my feet but not that I had just finalised my entry for the 2015 TNF100. This posed a new question, one that I tried to suppress but couldn’t seem to let go.
‘Can I make a 100 after all that?’
Logic dictated that the ‘appendiceal issues’ and the saga that was my hospital stay (the double crack at surgery, the 10% of my body weight melting away in a week etc etc) ensured there was no way I could line up for 100km eight weeks post discharge. Carly agreed with logic. So did Mum and Dad, my new running sponsor Sensecore, my mate Blair. ‘Definitely not a good idea, definitely should sell-off my entry.’ I could see the logic too but I couldn’t quite accept it so I quietly held off on ditching my entry and let the question keep floating inside my head.
Over the week after my discharge I worked my way up to walking around the block, I think I even managed a few hundred meters of jogging at a time by that seventh day. I was sore in the belly but was very pleased to have some normal bowel and bladder function back. The new Sensecore tracking system would ask me my daily energy levels and although they were low they started to pick-up. I got back to school and resumed my daily study routine and then picked up a few short trail runs. I put-off any decisions about TNF100, seven weeks to go after all.
I then flew off to the Norther Territory for a six week placement in Tennant Creek. Medically this was an awesome time, socially it was equally so. I made great friends, ate too many schnitzels at the pub and celebrated a birthday in there somewhere. In terms of running and prepping for a 100km race with 4300m elevation gain….. Not great. I started clocking up daily runs, growing the distances so by the end of week two I knocked out 15km. But with one hill in town I got no upward meters in my legs. ‘Ah well, I’ll just work on the volume.’ I managed a 25km run. Then stepped it up to a 35km run. Somewhere in there I bit the bullet and accepted I was headed to the start line. Ideally I would have liked to have had a 45km run under the belt heading back to the mountains but time wouldn’t allow. A fortnight to go.
Getting back to the cold of Canberra was a shock. With one week to go I planned a week of hills for some last minute conditioning. Sunday was up and down Black Mountain. Monday night Mount Ainslie. Back to Black late Tuesday night. Wednesday night was a final blast around Ainslie again. I was out each night because I was back on placement in the hospital, trying to re-adjust to a very different population, a very different medical world, than where I’d been in Tennant Creek. No time to run during the day so nights doubled as practical timing and a chance to re-learn running with a head torch.
I last ran the TNF100 back in 2011. In that year the 24 year old Spaniard Kilian Jornet blew everyone away in a record time. Sure I trailed him by around five hours but I was very proud. In my first 100km I’d clocked 14 hours 37 minutes and was actually credited with a win in the under 25 class (given Kilian was outright winner he got excluded from the younger class). It was a heck of a run for me, the hills were shocking, the sense of absolute exhaustion at the finish line was unimaginable.
Fast forward to now and the track had changed. There were more climbs and longer legs in the final stages so it was said to be a slower track, a harder run. In terms of belt buckles (the awards given for hitting different time targets) I had originally planned to come back chasing a silver buckle. My 14:37 in 2011 was well within the 20 hour limit to get a bronze buckle and just shy of the 14 hour limit for a silver buckle. Given my less than ideal prep I lined up this year without concern about finish times and belt buckles. I lined up only with the new question in mind, ‘Can I make a 100 after all that?’
I started quick but sensible. It was a crisp morning and I was in the second of seven waves of starters for the 100km. There were ~850 runners all up this year, another 1200 or so in the 50km event. Through legs one and two I walked all the hills, ran the flats at a comfy pace and blasted the downhills when the legs could handle it. The newbies stood out as they always do. They ran the early hills, a clear sign they were yet to comprehend the distance and shear volume of climbing. I must confess that I too had been naive and forgotten what these hills were like. In a word, they’re brutal. I got a good luck text from Blair in the early kms and managed to shoot back ‘I forgot how many hills there are…’
Check point three is 46km in and is the first time you see your support crew. I’d thankfully gotten my early low patch out of the way between 30 and 40kms. This free’d my legs up and I trotted along the trail with a solid smile on my face. Maybe a little ambitiously I was knocking out four minute k’s as I neared the checkpoint. I was drenched in sweat as I dropped into the camp chair at the check point. Once again I had a stellar support crew, Dad and Carly looking after the practicalities, my best man Aidan on pep-talk duty and his wife Gem dishing out the food and taking some photos.
At this stage I was feeling good. Clearing that early crappy patch had boosted my confidence. I was already well beyond the furthest I’d knocked out in a training run so I was sure I just had to keep it in a low gear and keep moving forward. Gem was the first to mention timing. Apparently I was about two hours quicker than what I’d scribbled down as a rough timeline for my checkpoints. ‘Sh*t. Am I going too quick?’ I couldn’t be sure. I was sure that I’d been sensible on the hills, I’d been running my own race and forgetting what people were doing around me. I went back to one of my running mantra’s, ‘When you feel good, go fast.’ – because when you don’t feel good you sure as hell can’t. I better keep moving.
Check point two to three is only 11km but it’s deceiving as one of the nastiest climbs in the race makes up about 3km of it. Nellie’s Glen is the culprit and it’s first real kick in the teeth of the race. At a few spots on the way up the stairs I passed blokes sitting on rocks looking defeated. At a few other points I was using my hands to help me up the hill (yes, it’s that steep). Thankfully time can sometimes warp during an ultra. For me, with August Burns Red blasting in my headphones, time warped at the right time and I was heading into the next check point before I knew it.
Check point four was when I’d been telling myself the race would start. At that point you’re 43km from the finish and with the toughest climb still to come. It’s here that you can start to dip into your energy stores and push the envelope, run a little harder when the legs allow, bomb the hills when you’re feeling brave.
I was still going quick it seemed. An hour and a half ahead of my estimates and to be heading out from check point four with many more hours of daylight left than I thought possible given my prep. There were a few moans of complaint coming from a knee and an ankle somewhere down below, unsurprising to say the least. The last two legs of the race are the longest of the race, 21km and 22km each. That question was back bouncing around in my head, ‘will I make it?’, definitely only one way to find out so I after more pep-talks and a surprise check-point visit from Alison my old flat mate I plodded on.
If I’m honest I don’t remember a great deal from the next leg. There is hill after hill after hill after hill. Each one breaking your rhythm but also giving a respite from running. I nearly elbowed my way through the crowds of tourists before making a toilet stop in the most luxurious loo’s of the track at the Three Sister’s look out. It is such a strange sensation to weave through crowds of people who clearly have no idea what you are in the midst of. There is the occasional ‘good luck’ from a blurred face but for the most part I offer apology after apology as I cut people off trying to get back to the trail.
The final kms into the last check point are rough. Those noises of complaint from the knee and ankle are a little louder and it’s a long road stretch that takes us to this last post. This far into my previous TNF100 attempt I was in the dark but I was feeling strong. I answered the question that time with the legs, this time was to be a head and heart effort again it seemed.
Words of support and smiling faces had me feeling good as I donned my backpack for the last 22km. This was a where things would get mores serious. Typically the further into an ultra the worse the downhills are and this I was about to face 10km of solid down as the sunlight evaporated.
I’ve always found downhills the hardest to run in terms of technique. You need to be brave to do it well, you need to switch off the brakes and let gravity pull you downhill, lean further to go faster. I tried to take the brakes off. I had a few people pass me along the way, each time I prompted myself to up the bravery, ‘come on, last leg, are you gonna make it?’. I pushed on.
What can be worse than 10km of down? You guessed it, 10km of up. That’s the final stretch for the race. About 10% of the total elevation gain is in this final 10km. And it’s rough. It’s dark by now, the track traverses and climbs in the shadows of the Three Sisters and Echo Point so it’s wet. We trudge through ankle deep mud, up stairs, over logs, visible only as a row of headlights from the valleys below.
As I had done in my 2011 attempt I attacked in the dying stages. I dug a little deeper, pushing myself to run all those slight hills I’d walked earlier in the day. I passed person after person, pulling away from those I’d been chasing earlier in the day. I was shocked to be able to push this hard so close to the finish. Up the final flights of the Furber steps you can hear the crowd cheering runners across the line, it’s an intoxicating sensation that pushes you along the track irrespective of will power or personal desire. I now had an answer to my question.
I approached the line, the crowd, my crew. I was going to make it. I looked up at the clock in awe. An hour and 26 minutes faster than my first TNF100. I crossed the line and was handed a silver belt buckle. The elation was immense, the exhaustion overwhelming. I turned to see my crew, Carly, Dad, Aidan and Gem. They were beaming. I could hardly speak. They guided me to a chair and sat me down. A blanket was soon around me and cup of soup in hand.
I had made it. From bed bound to 100km in eight weeks. Woah.