Saturday, November 20, 2010

GNW 100s Unabridged Race Report (almost as long as the race itself!)

OK, so I’ve just about got over the never again thoughts, and am feeling about normal again, so it’s time to tell the tale of what I’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks. This Saturday and Sunday I completed the Great North Walk 100, known as Australia’s Toughest Trail Race, and a deserved title it is.  The “100” down plays things as the 100 mile race is actually over 107miles, an almost round 174kms!!


For me this weekend has been the highlight of my ultra running life to date, and the reason for my silence last week was due to my own personal specialist form of tapering. Basically I did nothing all week, and had very little to write about! 


I stayed with a friend the day before in the beautiful Hunter Valley, and avoided the temptation to sample the local wines. Instead I sat with my feet up eating oats, nuts, fruit, salads and other healthy, carb-rich stuff, and drinking rich fruit juice all day. I took one gentle walk outside from where I could see part of the race course through the shimmering haze – it was about 32c but felt hotter. My thoughts of the next day were partly concern for the heat, but it actually enabled me to adjust my race strategy.  I had planned to carry one sports drink bottle with my 3l water bladder, and instead elected to take 2 bottles and the 3l bladder which proved to be a very wise choice.


When the alarm went off early Saturday morning I felt ready for the day, and calmly prepared my honey and banana sandwich and large glass of V8juice – my standard race morning breakfast.  The start of the GNW100 has a unique atmosphere. A real mix of emotions running through the quietly massing runners from silent almost trancelike meditation to raucous laughter as old friends meet up digressing over previous races. 
Ready to go!


The Race Director delivers his normal “motivational” speech with warnings of snakes, leeches, fallen trees and of course the heat. He even took great pleasure in noting that there was an improvement to the course as the unmanned water drop had been moved to the top of the hill as this would make it easier to medivac you out of trouble – so if you’re in a bad way all you have to do is make a 300m vertical climb over steep gullied trails in searing heat. Very reassuring.


He also introduced some of the international visitors to the race, Jon, Jeri, Don, and Bryan, who are readers of my blog. This gives me a great feeling and is motivational to get to the end.


The race starts with little fuss, and as happened last year I didn’t even hear the starter’s “Go!”.  All that is going through my mind, apart from enjoy the moment, is to go slow there is a heck of a long way to go. Last year I foolishly drifted into my normally LSD training pace, which isn’t sustainable over these distances and especially in this heat and humidity. I don’t know what the temperature was at the start, but I remember chatting to a guy 2kms in commenting on how heavily we were sweating for 6am.


The first section is the most sociable. Lots of chat, we’ve all still got the energy and before you know it you find yourself joining into small groups of 3 and 4 runners of a similar pace.  This usually changes on the hills as the different training regimes of the previous months show. Most of us are walking, but some faster than others, and I am at the faster end of the scale, but not in the lead of those elite few up the front who are running the hills too.


I’m fortunate to be quite a quick downhill runner and use these sections to make up a lot of time, but really it’s not about time, it’s about self preservation. A friend sent me a text the day before when I mentioned the potential of a hot run, to which his response was it was the same for anyone. The thing was I wasn’t racing anyone anyway, and that is the case for nearly everyone in an ultramarathon.


The first section goes across some varied terrain, coarse fire trails in the bush, stair climbs and a single track through rainforest where the humidity was brutal. Conscious of this I was diligently drinking all the time, taking salt tabs every 45mins (I’m a heavy sweater) and my cheese spread sandwiches every hour (including one before the start).


Approaching CP1
Had some great chats with Rob, Kieron, Graham, Jon and Kelvin (Badwater Marathon, and Simpson Desert as well as numerous multiday races under his belt – learnt a lot, thanks Kelvin) which made the time fly past. 


So before I knew it I had arrived at the first Checkpoint, 28kms and about 4hrs 20min (45mins slower than last year). Had got through 4.5l of fluid, and was really pleased with this as hydration was my biggest concern, hyponatreamia is never a consideration given my high sweat rate.


Section 1 Stats 


The volunteers at the checkpoint are the best I have ever experienced by a country mile. They could not do enough for you short of throwing on the pack and running in your place! So I munched down watermelon, orange, loads of sweets, and bananas.  The CP folk returned my bladder, I organised my maps, and checked out for the next leg. 24kms of trails, and a 7km section of what would be midday running with no shade.


Being aware of what was ahead I knew that keeping on top of my hydration was essential. This was made challenging when after 10kms I had drained one bottle of powerade and my bladder had run dry. When the helpful guys at the CP had refilled the bladder they hadn’t realised that the kit in the pack was squeezing on the bladder so it seemed full when there was probably room for another 2l of water.  This was a problem, but there was nothing I could do about it.


With one bottle of powerade left I had to ration very carefully. I felt great, which helped. The temperature was up around 35c, which didn’t help one bit!  As I got down onto Congewai Road, the exposed stretch, things were pretty tough. I only had enough fluid left to help me down a salt tab and a couple more sips for the long hot run to the CP. 


I was lucky here as I met up with Luke, full of enthusiasm, and great company.  He is an Ironman more than a runner. He didn’t get into the event he wanted to, so decided to enter the 100km (103km) version of the GNW100 for the challenge and to get one up on his brother! After about 5kms together of chat it turns out he’s a follower of my blog, which lifted me. We ran on to the checkpoint, walking the hills, and slowing through the 50m section of trees to take advantage of the dappled shade they offered on this unforgiving stretch.
Cheese Sarnie at CP2


So after 3 hours, 24kms and 2.5l fluid we ran in to CP2. My crew, John and Mark, were waiting for me with a chair in a shady spot, perfect.  Ate more Cheese spread sandwiches and got loaded up on fluids. The guys put loads of ice in my drink bottles and bladder, which I could feel on my back and it was something I had learnt from last year. 


Section 2 Stats 


After about 10 minutes it was time to head back out into the heat. Luke and I had agreed to run together for the next section as we enjoyed each other’s company, and he wanted someone with him on the next section as it is where I had a close encounter with a large and evil looking snake last year! The first few kms are quite gentle, but then starts the climb over rocks, roots and rubble for about 350m vertical, and it was hot.  About halfway up Luke told me to go on as I was feeling pretty good, the weeks of hill training were really paying off as although they weren’t easy by any means, I was maintaining a good form and my Heart Rate was under control. 


About an hour in the first hill is completed. I passed about 5 others guys on this stretch, it was like a battle field with bodies lying about the place. I was getting into my fluids well and eating regularly. 


As you come off the top of this climb you descend back down the other side of the valley to Watagan Creek. The trail opens up here with fields either side, and I couldn’t see anyone in front or behind. This was one of the first times I had been alone for the entire race, which is really very unusual.


Crossing the creek made wet feet unavoidable, but I knew I had a change available 12kms further down at the next CP. After crossing the creek, there is another climb up out of the valley, this one about 400m and far more intense.


As I started the ascent I met another runner James, who had been in some difficulty and was suffering with stomach cramps.  We walked up for a while, but before long he had to step aside and try and ease the problem, so I gave him some privacy and continued to walk on up. At the top I met the Race Director, Dave Byrnes, at the unmanned water stop. This was a pleasant relief. Not only could I replace much of the water that I’d gone through, but also could get an update on how things were going. James (who had got to the top by now) and I were at the top end of the field, and travelling well. We’d also learnt of a lot of very capable and experienced ultramarathoners who had dropped out because of the tougher than normal conditions.


Buoyed by this we ran on continually checking on each other’s wellbeing. About 5kms out from the checkpoint James complained of pain in his feet, brought on by the soaking at the creek earlier. We decided that the right thing to do was to sit down and sort out the problem as there was still one hell of a long way to go. It showed to be a good choice as he had a pretty nasty blister on his heel, which he dressed and was got on our way (a little slower than before).


The last few kms to the checkpoint are tough single tracks through dense forest. Each Km takes twice as long as you think to cover, so it becomes a mental challenge to keep spirits up. This was pushed further when we find a massive tree across the path, with no obvious route around it, not helped as twilight was fast approaching. So we clamber down the slope through thorns and sliding on loose leaf litter, and then have to climb back up through the same to rejoin the track. This was tough on the legs, but we did spare a thought for the leaders who would have been racing and had no easy way past, as well as thinking of those folks behind us who would have to deal with this in the dark.


The next CP, the Basin Campsite was a welcome site. Both James and I got some medical attention to our feet, as I too felt a hot spot in the last km or so.  Here I tucked into hot noodles, boiled potatoes, fruit and lollies as well as loads of fluids. From here on we were dealing with leeches, as they excitedly gorged on our highly oxygenated blood. I had sprayed both pairs of shoes with Tropical strength Aeroguard (insect repellent) and it certainly helped but is by no means foolproof.


Arriving at the Basin Campsite
Section 3 Stats 


We had spent the shortest hour of my life at that checkpoint, but we had to get on as the light was all but gone and we needed to get back up out of the valley before it got really dark to make navigation easier – we were still with it mentally to be thinking logically at this point.


We had to pass that fallen tree again, which did not make for much fun, and then take a sharp turn up out of the valley which was tough.  This was the first time that I felt any tiredness in my legs, and as we had been on the go for 12 hours I considered this as pretty good.


I had been suffering from mild digestive stress, finding it harder to eat and drink. I put this down to the dehydration effects from earlier and not enough blood getting to my stomach and intestines. However as it got a little cooler, around 20c, and we slowed the pace a little I did manage to rehydrate a little, which eased the difficulty.


On this section we encountered fireflies, a beautiful distraction from the rigours of the race. We eventually hit the road (one of the few sections of road in the entire race) which is dead flat and runs for about 10kms. You may think this makes things easy, but you come across different challenges. The biggest is boredom, as you’re not running all that fast at this point and if you’re going slow then time passes very slowly.  


We mixed things up by running a K and walking a K. We varied this to continue to walk if there was an incline. Cheating the rules, but neither of us was complaining, we were 100kms in at this point and thought we’d earned that right!


CP4, Yarramalong, was a welcome sight, as we gathered the energy to run the last 100m in the CP to impress the onlookers. I met with Luke, the Ironman, who was proudly wearing his medal, what a great effort on his part.


Section 4 Stats  


James and I looked back on the previous CP and agreed we wouldn’t have taken quite so much time if we only had another 22km to go. It really emphasised the differences in strategy of self preservation when running these sorts of distances.


So more fluids, lots of vege soup, cake, fruit and of course my sandwiches. I enjoyed the sit down and it turned into a 40min pit stop. I was in no hurry as the next section was a tough one, and one that had taken me 8 hours last year as I walked the entire distance with another injured runner.


Heading out, 103kms done
Out on the trails again and the stomach trouble was mine this time. I just had to go, but there were a couple of guys about 30m behind us so I thought I’d let them catch up and pass. Trouble is they didn’t so I had no option but to get off the track and drop my shorts. Perfect timing as the guys following came past! How this event strips away all that we preserve in normal life. I did apologise, but there reaction was one that suggested it was perfectly normal behaviour! Perhaps this is what I love about this sport.


It has to be one of the only sports where you are farting openly in front of people you have met only minutes earlier, and it isn’t considered impolite!


The remainder of the section was spent power walking mostly, removing leeches and watching the sky go through its morning colour changes. It was one of the most memorable images from last year’s race and was again this year.


We reach CP5, Somersby, having covered 28kms in 5:45. Didn’t break any records, but have regained some fluids, and am feeling pretty good. I take the opportunity for fresh socks and a fresh shirt. I also tuck into 3 cups of coffee and 4 pieces of Vegemite on toast – the cheese spread sandwiches had lost their appeal. This stuff really hit the spot. I had been eating chocolate covered coffee beans since CP 4, and these coffees just set me up a treat. It probably explains why I look so full of energy in the photos.
Leaving Somersby


Section 5 Stats 


I was now into new territory as I had withdrawn from the event at this point last year. I was feeling pretty good, and James was still having trouble with his feet.  It took a good 10mins of walking before the feet were numbed enough to move freely.


Sore feet
I suggested jogging a bit and we basically kept it up for the entire leg (including a 5:30km!). This section is mostly gently downhill or flat travelling along Mooney Mooney Creek. Unfortunately, this was really the calm before the storm. 


We arrive at the final CP in 2:30 for the 17kms and we’re in reasonable shape. My CP crew were still asleep, not expecting me to be there so soon! Had to feel sorry for them, they had only had a few hours sleep that night, unlike us lazy runners who’d been on our feet for 26 hours!


Section 6 Stats 


Knowing that the final section was ahead and the temperature was getting up there I made sure bottles and bladder were full, and that I made the most of the fuelling opportunity. Fresh socks again, and an unhealthy application of Vaseline to tend to the increasing areas of chaffing.


We headed off in high spirits knowing that whatever happened now we were going to finish, after all we had about 9 hours to cover the final 25kms, which would be easy! The temperatures were climbing, and so were the trails. I found the first 10kms or so relatively comfortable, with no issues on the hills, just frustration at the height of the steps we had to cover and the apparent lack of progress we were making. James was finding things pretty tough, but just kept on going, no complaints.


Two and a half hours in we are at the bottom of a gulley with an impressive waterfall where we met Robin and her pacer. They suggested taking a dip, which initially I thought was a bad idea, but they insisted.  What a great piece of advice that was. I wanted to take off my shoes and socks, but as my foot was taped I didn’t want to risk that coming off and rolling up in m sock, so I kept both shoes and socks on.


The water was so cold as to take you breath away, but I reckon it dropped my core temperature by a couple of degrees and that had to be a good thing. We got back into it with the knowledge that at the top of the valley was another unmanned water stop. The climb back up wasn’t too bad, still benefiting from the effects of the dip. The downside was wet feet, which were itchy by the time we got to the water stop. It was my turn to feel rough.


As we got moving again I found myself in the toughest running conditions I have ever experienced. Obviously my legs were tired, we’d covered 160ks by now, but the heat was intense, there was no shade whatsoever, we were running over bare rock, so the heat was radiating at you from above and below (and still getting hotter as it was around midday), the terrain was so similar it felt like we were running in circles and we could see no hint of our prized destination.


This is where James came into his own. The batteries in my Garmin had gone by this point, so I was relying on his for an estimation as to how far we had left. We were like school kids on a long drive “are we there yet?!” He’d say “Only 10kms to go, but the last Km will be easy so only 9kms really” I knew we’d still have to run that last Km, but strangely this optimism worked and on we went.


Part of Section 7 stats  


Finally we could see water which meant the beach and finish line were at least in range. This was no mirage although it was hot enough for one.  There was still time for one last trick when we were told by a tourist that the beach was just at the bottom of the hill, so we started to run again. Where we got the energy to go from I don’t know.  At the bottom of the hill we had to turn a sharp right as the beach in sight is Pearl Beach, and we need to go up and over the headland to get to Patonga Beach. An evil trick that really tested out fortitude.  At last we can see the finish line through the trees, but still about 1km away.


We continue to run on, trying to beat 33 hours. James is counting out our strides in military time as we hit the beach. Here the worst sight we could have possibly been greet by appeared – two runners about 200m in front of us. Both highly competitive we increase the pace and charge on up the beach. About 100m to go and we breeze past. Given the distance we had covered to get there we must have looked crazy, I sure felt that way. The thing is I felt that I could have kept on going.


Got them!

20m to go
10m out we linked hands and reached out for the long awaited finish post. Emotions are racing all over the place, I can’t really appreciate that we had finished, the effects of the final few kms hit home and it’s all over (for this year!). 


The official time is 32 hours, 57 minutes and some small change. So happy to have finished as there were plenty of times in that last 15kms that I thought it was out of reach. 


We had timed our finish perfectly to be there 3 mins before the presentation, and I am in awe of those leaders who finished more than 8 hours ahead of me.


I removed my shoes to take a swim to cool off, and I was greeted by an interesting sight. My feet were pickled and the blisters had swollen nicely. The doctor was more keen to take photos that treat them, although there was little he could do as it was best they just dry out. He was right as within 12 hours they were almost back to normal.
Wait for it...
Yummy
Pure bliss




The next 24 hours were great, just eating, drinking, a little sleeping and chatting. Thanks to all that I shared the experiences with out there, especially John and Mark the premier support crew and a big shout goes out to James with whom I shared the highs and lows and extremes of life experience over the tougher 110km of the 174km!


If you have read all the way to here you too deserve a medal. My apologies for the lengthy nature of this report, as I normally try to keep things more informative for your benefit rather than a drawn out personal story. This is something that I shall use for future events and future years, as there is much for me to learn here.
Two very happy guys
Normal postings will resume, with topics inspired by this event such as the differences between 100km and 100miles (ignoring the obvious!) and race preparation strategies.


Happy Running
Andy


“If something is humanly possible, consider it to be in your reach”