Tuesday, May 24, 2011

TNF 100 – 2011 Race Review and Lessons Learnt

For this year’s event was a little different to before having been there and done it a couple of times, and given my bigger picture training for my 33 Marathons event in August I had it in my mind to complete rather than compete. But who was I kidding, when you get to the start line and the adrenalin is pumping, excitement all around, you can’t help but realise that you only get one opportunity a year to experience this. So at risk of upsetting my bigger picture training plan I competed!

Andre has completed all Asian TNF's this year!
The build up for me was interesting as my lift to the mountains pulled out the day before, but fortunately my Hong Kong based running friend, Andre, stepped in. I just had to get to the airport early Friday morning. That was an endurance challenge in itself as I was caught in the travel chaos that ensued when some guys decided to protest on the top of the Harbour Bridge, crippling the Sydney transport network. However after a taxi, train, bus, ferry, and another train I got to the airport to meet up with Andre, and legendary ultra runner from Singapore, Jeri.

Registration was such a fun time for me meeting up with so many great running friends, including many new ones who I hadn’t met in person, as well as a number of readers of my blog who introduced themselves to me.  It was so good to be in the company of such a positive and enthusiastic crowd, all united in the same goal of kicking the backside of the Blue Mountains the following day. While waiting for my crewman to arrive I joined up with Ian Dunican and Nick Wienholt and their wives for a beer and to exchange running stories. All good fun, and it turned out to be useful for me as the girls were to step in for my support crew the following day.

So toeing the start line the energy was great and I had a catch up with fellow runners from previous events, Brick, Gordi and Ian.  It was pretty cold, but I knew I’d be warming up pretty quickly once we got going. Still I did hide behind a few guys to keep out of the icy wind!

With Gordi on Landslide
The goal was for a sub 13hr run and had in my head some rough splits, although the main goal was to keep CP times down, and to make sure that I remembered to run when I could. Previously I have got into the rut of walking, without actually thinking that I could run.

I ran the first leg fairly comfortably, and the seeded start made a big difference to trail traffic. I took a fairly big fall at about 15kms on unstable ground whilst wrestling a water bottle from my belt. I actually landed on my face and little finger, and would loved to have seen how it happened. The finger hurt like hell, and swelled pretty quickly, but this was not the time to worry about that.

The golden staircase was surprisingly easy for me, as I decided to pass Gordi who I’d been running with to that point as we’d both had similar time goals. Clearly the volume of trail and hill training I had done was paying off. Out on the trail at the top of the stairs and I was running well again. 

Burning up Narrow Neck (why are the cameras always on an uphill bit?)
At CP1 I refilled one endura bottle, took a gel and a handful of lollies and was on my way. I’d had a sandwich in the previous leg, and probably drunk about 1.2l of the water in my back pack as well as a bottle of endura. I have been guilty of not getting enough fuel and fluid in early previously, so was determined to get it right. My stomach hadn’t been as settled as normal, which I put down to race day adrenalin, and had for the first time taken to eating crystallised ginger every hour or so, along with a berocca one a day sports tab every 2-3 hours.  This seemed to be working well.

Across Narrow Neck is one of my favourite stretches of the course. Great views and the chance to let fly down the hills, to the limits of control (and beyond on occasion). So a nice clear climb down Tarros Ladders and more fun on the technical trails towards CP2. I was running very smoothly and almost without thought along this section. It was as if my mind had disengaged and was just trusting my body to do what we had trained to do. My km splits along here for about 6kms were between 4:45 and 5:20 which is way faster than I’d train, but I felt pretty comfortable and was just enjoying the moment. In the back of my mind I was wondering when the psychological and physical down was going to come, but maintained a focus on the positives while I had them!

CP2, Dunphy’s Camp was another quick turnaround. I was there as Devon Crosby-Helms of the Salomon Team pulled out, which was sad to see, but also a massive boost for me as I didn’t expect to be anywhere near the professionals.  Again I grabbed a handful of lollies, a gel, and then refilled an endura bottle, as well as putting a litre of water into the bladder - just enough to get me to CP3. This is something I learnt from previous years when I would completely refill the bladder, which not only took longer, but was heavier to carry. So I had a plan of approximate volumes to take on at each CP, which turns out was a good one.

On Iron Pot ridge
Typically I don’t normally take gels, but for this race the plan was to use them sparingly, and at points when I knew there was a significant physical effort ahead. I still had my cheese spread sandwich every hour or so, and had alternate options if anything wasn’t agreeing with my stomach. Again a really good learning from previous years.

The third leg was a good one for me. I caught up with Jen Segger of the Salomon team and ran with her up Iron pot and we stayed together for a good 10kms. It was a great opportunity to chat and learn from someone who does this full time. Thanks Jen.

I took another tumble on the out and back section of Iron pot, which I blame on the video guy filming Jen! I lost my balance and got a mouthful of Blue Mountains dirt again – I don’t know what is going on with me using my face as a break, as my running partner Tylana will attest, I never fall and rarely even trip (that’s her department!)

Chatting with Jen I was telling her what to expect in the coming km’s and had clean forgotten about the climb at 48kms on Megalong Valley road (oops!). We were joined by a Kiwi, who was struggling a bit having run out of water, so I shared some with him and we plodded on. Again the hill training was paying off, as I walked briskly up the hills and then cruised easily along the flats and downs. I caught up with Chris Turnbull in his memorable outfit (!) and we trotted into CP3.
Hunting down the Pokemon - Chris!
My crewman John was here and doing a great job, but because I knew I was way ahead of my expectations, my patience was not great. I have apologised, but it goes to show how your mental state is affected after running 50+kms.  The issue was that I was putting on a head camera to get some nice video of the climb up Nellies Glen, and it was taking longer than I wanted (about 10 seconds was my tolerance limit!).  So another quick splash of Endura and about 1l of water, just enough to get me the 11kms to CP4. I also took a gel here and ate it straight away as I knew I’d need it for the climb ahead. I did this last year and it made a massive difference on the stairs.

Along this section of the Six Foot Track I must have passed 40 walkers all of whom said hi and were generally encouraging, even calling out my name as it was on the number bib. Such a great feeling, when you’ve been running for 6 hours.  I did get a twinge of cramp in my quads at this point, so stopped at a convenient tree to lean on and stretched them out. It took all of 15 seconds, but the difference was fantastic.

I have had a bit of a battle with Nellie’s Glen as it nearly beat me in 2009, so much so that I now look forward to it, eager to prove that I have it beaten. Don’t get me wrong it’s never easy, and when you feel you should be getting to the top and you look up to see you’ve still not got any daylight above you, it’s not a happy place to be. I simply focused on the next step, and maintaining momentum. This was just eating up the climb and although I had the occasional urge to stop, I kept plodding on. It is amazing how quickly a climb like that can pass if you can occupy your mind with simple repetitive tasks. 

At the top I let out a shout in a sort of caveman like fashion to signify that I have beaten the stairs again, and enjoy the gentle cruise through the tracks to the next CP. I recall having a pee along this stretch, which was one of about 6 throughout the day. I’m sure you don’t want to know that, but for me it showed that I was keeping up on my hydration and that has been a challenge in previous races. Another mini victory for the day, and one which boosted morale on the way round!

Arrival at CP4 was great, great to be indoors. I head straight for the hot noodles which have been a godsend to me in previous years, great energy, fluids and electrolytes, and they taste great. Halfway through my second I am wondering where John is, as he has the mandatory gear I need before I can leave.  Buzz Lightyear reminded me that I have a phone, so I called John who was just arriving in the car park. He had a good excuse as he was helping Andre’s crew as they didn’t have a vehicle. 

So whilst waiting I sat at the desk and had a couple of warm vege burgers, while the CP volunteers topped up my bladder, etc. I saw Wayne “Blue Dog” Gregory, who I’d met at GNW last year and took the opportunity to chat with him, and what a good thing to do it was. I really respect his ability and opinion and he said that I was looking really strong and that I’d smash 12 hours. This I couldn’t really comprehend as I hadn’t considered anything better than 12hrs 59mins! He basically put it into perspective – “You’ve got 35kms to go and nearly 5 hours to do it. Get up that Kedumba hill in daylight, and look back at all the torches of the others coming up behind you”.

Photo by Rachael of  www.australianrunner.com.au
This really resonated with me. There were all sorts of calculations going through my head as I realised that not only was sub 12 hours possible, it was very achievable.  So I grabbed the compulsory kit, or ballast as I shall call it, and legged it! Running with some of the pairs teams really helped as their fresher legs pulled me along.  I was flying along the tracks to Echo Point, with a dedicated focus on getting up “that hill” in daylight. It was like a magnet pulling me along. I was caught by a couple of other guys coming down the Giant’s Staircase, but as soon as we were running again I didn’t see them. Shortly after I passed Julie Quin, the winning lady, and we exchanged some mutual motivation.

I was loving the downhills, clocking up 3 sub 5min/kms to the bottom of “that hill”. I couldn’t avoid a soggy foot at the last ford, but figured it was only for a 20kms or so, and I could put up with it. This is where the gear came into its own. The Hokas kept me high so that I didn’t get too wet, and the Drymax socks had my feet dry again within 30 minutes, demonstrating the value of decent kit.

My favourite pic from the race
At the base of the climb I met up with Jen Segger again, who had passed me at the checkpoints because of my extended stops. She was suffering with an ankle injury, but kept on going. I was feeling really good at this point, happy in the knowledge that there was only a few kms to the CP, and there was plenty of daylight. I’d never noticed it before because it had always been dark, but the views on this section were spectacular, especially with the moon poking his head over the horizon. I ran where I could and walked the rest of the hill, passing one guy in the process. Again it was just strong walking and a focus on putting that one foot out in front that ate up the kms.

Super food!
As soon as the trail flattened out at the top I was up and running again, and needed to be as it was getting pretty cold. It was warm down in the valley by comparison. The checkpoint was a welcome sight, but one thing was missing, my crew!! This is where I saw Linda and Catherine who’d I’d met the night before, and they ran over to take on John’s role, and they did a great job, thanks girls.  John was getting some stuff from the car and turned up in time to take some photos as I finished off another pot noodle before heading off. It was my fault as I was going far faster than I had planned for!

I was keen to get moving, and made a minor error just getting the head torch (Petzel Tikka XPS) on and forgetting the hand torch. Trotting up the road I was passed by former race runner up Tim Cochrane, and I think my chat motivated him to run faster to get away from me! I clung onto his heels for a bit, but on the single track I suffered from the torch error. With just the head torch I could not get any definition of the trail and took the biggest fall yet, made worse by the fact the my mental and physical faculties at this stage were not as sharp as they might be. I saved my face this time, but gouged a chunk out of my hand, and took out a bush with my shoulder as I hit the deck solidly. 

This didn’t affect my physical ability to run, but it was a major hit to my confidence as it did hurt pretty bad and I had blood pouring down my hand and arm – I needed that blood to keep me going!

Apparently they're worth more as a pair!
So I kept Tim in sight, and was caught by Julie. We all caught up with another guy and ran in a little convoy of four up to about the 98km mark. I was using their light as a means of getting a better view of the rocks and roots along the way.  By this point I knew I was home and dry for a sub 12 run, all bar me taking another fall, so eased off a little and enjoyed counting off every metre as I went. Thinking back to that convoy, we were moving a quite a clip given that we’d been running all day. It’s a real mind over matter moment, when the motivation it there, and the pull from the finish line magnet was getting stronger.

Running up the golf course to the finish line is a great feeling, you can hear the supported and smell the sausages, what more motivation could you want to get running.  As I crossed the line I mustered the energy for a celebratory heel click, something I fear may become a trademark for me now having done it last year too, but it is just a final venting of excitement and satisfaction at a job well done.
Yee haaaa!
So posing for photos after I’m given the formal time of 11:40:55 with a placing of 22nd and I’m very happy with that, and it takes a good few hours for it to sink in. Especially when I was sitting in the bar after a shower, with a beer and we commented that last year at this point I still hadn’t finished. A 1 hour 45min pb!

It was great to hang around and see everyone finishing, especially friends, but also just the raw emotion you only really see at the end of an ultra, when 100kms of trails and many hours of battling with yourself have stripped back the fa├žades we often hide behind.

I was lucky enough to get a mention in the presentation, but sadly for the wrong reasons...I was awarded a first aid kit to repair the damage from my falls :)

So what I learnt this year can be summarised quite easily. You need to prepare well, and train hard for the conditions you’re going to be facing. The extra kms and volume of intense hill training I did paid massive dividends.

Have a nutritional plan and stick to it where you can, but also have flexibility should things not feel the way you would expect them to.

Crewing is exhausting - unsung heroes of the day
Get decent gear. I cannot thank the guys at 2ndSkin, Linebreak, Drymax and Hoka enough for their support. For the first time ever I did not need to change any gear throughout the race. I wore a Linebreak t-shirt under my 2ndSkin t-shirt, with the Linebreak shorts and calf guards. The benefit of their gear has been huge for me, not only in my longer term recovery, bur most importantly for performance improvement assisting my recovery during the race. My muscles felt fresh at the bottom of the hills giving me that extra vigour to attack the uphills. Also I had no chaffing whatsoever which makes the shower after enjoyable rather than torturous. 

The Drymax socks worked their magic again with no blisters, and almost completely dry feet at the finish. And the Hoka Mafates exceeded my expectations given that I’d only run about 30kms in the pair I raced in. 

The one final thing I would say is enjoy it! A number of people have commented on my photos, specifically that I am smiling in them, and that is because I was having a ball out there. Not just from a performance perspective, but the scenery and most importantly the people you meet. I’m sorry if I forget your names (you know who you are!), there were lots of new friends made this weekend, and I look forward to seeing you out there at the next event. 

Run Happy,
“There is no duty we so underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the World” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lighting the way in a Trail Ultramarathon

I’m less than a week out from my next ultramarathon, the North Face 100, so it’s time to start deciding what I’m going to wear and take with me.  Being a tough 100km trail race, there is going to be a significant amount of running done in the dark, and having a decent torch is very important. From a recent post you will be aware that my head torch (a Petzl Tikka Plus) has reached the end of its useful life, and I now have two new torches, a Petzl Tikka XP2 and an Petzl 3+Lite. I haven’t had a chance to use them much so this evening I headed out with the intention of deciding which to use in next week’s race.

The feather weight e+Lite
On first impression the major difference between two is size, the XP2 is small and the e+Lite is tiny coming in at only 28gms!

To be so light the e+Lite has a small body, thin strap and uses 2 of the flat disk CR2032 batteries. What I found with this was that running along the road you hardly knew you had it on, there was no bounce at all. On a technical decent on a trail however I did find it bounced, and tightening the strap made no difference, but this wasn’t so bad as to have too much of a negative effect on one’s ability to see where you were going. The thin strap, whilst effectively holding the lamp well on your head, it does mean that when you adjust the angle or setting of the lamp you do need two hands to avoid it sliding off your head. Again not a big drama, but if you have a handheld water bottle, or have a hand torch, this could be a nuisance.

Cap clip, and ball and socket angling
The e+lite does offer a nifty feature of a ball and socket connection between the lamp and head band which gives complete flexibility as to the angle that you set it. In addition to this it also has a clip function so that it could be attached to the peak of a cap (which would be ideal for running in the rain as I detailed in a previous post) or to your waist band to offer shadow contrast which is so important to see obstacles when running on trails. It is also waterproof, which is a nice feature given that I frequently find myself running in the rain, and it was rain that ended the life of my old head torch.

The other nice touch is that the clasp on the head strap is also a whistle, an item which is becoming more common on the mandatory gear lists for trail ultras.

The XP2 is a different animal to look at. It has a wide headband, and the lamp itself has a wider “footprint” making it far more stable. I experienced no bounce at all on any surface, and it has easy to adjust angle settings which click in place easily using one hand. This is also the case when changing between light settings as you scroll through each function at the click of a button.

Who are you calling "Big Nose"
Being a larger unit the lamp sits forward from your head, whereas the e+Lite needed to be positioned higher up my forehead to avoid glare off my nose! I am known to be well endowed in this department so it may not affect everyone.

What really matters with a head lamp is of course how well they illuminate your path. Both torches have the same functions, maximum beam, economy beam and flashing, as well as infrared beam and flashing.  The infrared is great for being able to read your watch, looking at the ground 2 metres in front of you and road signs at 50ms, but other than that it’s not a function you’ll get much benefit from whilst running. Certainly if walking it would be a nice feature to use.

So let’s look at the battery and range stats:
Economy – 45 hours
Maximum – 35hours (19m range)

Tikka XP2
Economy – 120 hours
Maximum – 55 hours (35m range)

XP2 Light diffuser slides up over the lens
It’s clear the winner here, but really it depends what you actually want to use the lamp for.  The Tikka XP2 shines much brighter with a great range, but to be honest the e+Lite range is more than enough to run by safely.  I’d always run with a decent hand torch anyway for that shadow contrast, and for me the head lamp is about providing general illumination.  The XP2 has a nice function for this, with a light diffuser that slides over the lens converting it from a spot light to a wider diffuse beam. Without a handheld torch you would be better advised to keep the head lamp in spotlight mode as when diffuse it didn’t give me as much confidence in where I was stepping, especially on downhills.

The standout memory of this test for me was when running along a straight stretch of road wearing the e+Lite. The lamp was picking out the road side reflectors at over 120m distance (I’m sure the XP2 would have been as good if not better). For the night time sections of TNF 100 the track is marked with reflective tape, so being able to pick them out from over 100m is comforting and shows that it is a very effective torch.

So both headlamps have their good and less good points. Which will I be using for next week? Well I’ll probably go with the XP2 for my head and may use the e+Lite on my waistband, or I may still go with the handheld. Don’t get me wrong the e+Lite is a great head lamp which I would recommend to anyone, and being waterproof with a 10 year guarantee would be a really good investment for a trail runner. I do prefer the one hand operation of the XP2, and the wider beam function and that has been the clincher for me. It is so light though that I’ll keep it in my bag as a wet weather option if it’s raining.

Good luck to all heading out on the trails this weekend.

Run Happy
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Check out my other Ultramarathon Running Gear Reviews