Great North Walk 100 Miler 2018
Location: Central Coast NSW
Date: 8-9 September 2018
Distance: 175.3km, single stage
Vertical gain: 6130m
Terrain: Mix of a technical single trail, fire trail, and road
My stare locks onto the weird shape I have just doodled in the corner of the page. “Excellent”, the other half of my brain mocks, “It’s two days before a 175km race and we don’t have a clue how we’re going to run it, but we do now have a doodle.”
To date, my brain has deftly avoided committing to a race plan although, to be fair to the mighty machine, during the past few days it has been weighing up three potential target times. Now sitting here with pen poised over paper, one part of my brain is duelling with the other about which of the target times is going to win out. The doodling tells me it’s a closely-fought battle.
My pen edges closer to write “34 hours” – a couple of hours under race cut-off and roughly two hours outside my personal best time. I have been in rest mode for all of 2018, averaging only around 35 km per week of running. Targeting 34 hours provides the opportunity to build endurance back into my body in preparation for racing later in the year, without risking injury. “Smart thinking!”, the internal victory cry goes out. The pen starts its advance only to be side-swiped by another pesky part of my brain. Argh! “This is a training run, right?” Captain Pesky speaks up at the eleventh hour, “Nothing at stake but a bit of ego and a few sore muscles?”
With unwavering determination, my brain moves onto its next option – 31 hours and 34 minutes – my race personal best. Chasing my PB would provide rolled-gold validation of my progress as a runner. While my training workload goes nowhere near matching that of previous races, the sustained effort over the past five years gives me a lot of endurance credits to draw on. Both sides of my brain started basking in the warm sunshine of self-acknowledgement, a resolution was within reach and the pen started gliding gently toward its papery destination.
“NOT ON MY WATCH!” my gut instinct shouted. My brain snapped to attention, the Commander had just turned up on the battlefield.
“There is a third option”, the Commander recapped for my now quivering brain. “You know it and you have to stop avoiding it.”
“30 hours”, a tiny voice squeaked from the shadows. The Great North Walk 100 Miler’s reputation as Australia's toughest trail race was earned in years past when it was staged during the brutal heat of November. Back then, more than 60 percent of runners were pulverised into whimpering globs of humanity and spat from its twisted, gnarly trails. The attrition rate has reduced with the new September format, but still, it is a race to be respected. Given my low training base, even thinking about bagging a sub-30 silver medal felt dangerously disrespectful.
“This is a training run, right?” echoed the Commander. “So which option is going to teach you the most?”
Pen hit paper. It was game on.
Stage 1 Start to Forestry HQ
Target: 4hrs 45min
Achieved: 4hrs 22min
Overall position: 43
An easy start, nailed.
The first stage of the GNW100M unleashed an early revelry of hills and technical trail, shell-shocking all but the most seasoned runners and causing the morning mist to become saturated with the nervous chatter of newbies trying to exert mental authority over their fear. I felt delightfully disconnected from it all, a privilege to quietly bear witness to their journey with a nod to the life-changing journey ahead.
“How much further do we run through the bush?” shouted a slightly desperate newbie who clearly had skipped the detail about it being a trail race. “Heaps” I laughed back, and it kept me giggling all the way to the checkpoint.
My body loved this stage, as I settled into my ultra-running beat - heart rate hovering around my aerobic threshold, target pace comfortably in the 9s and my goals for the day embedding in my mind. In past years, this section has left me feeling pulped. This year was different.
Stage 2 Forestry HQ to Congewai
Distance: 23.9 km
Target: 3hrs 20min
Achieved: 3hrs 02min
Overall position: 35
More time credits, a nice buffer for later.
The open fire trail and road of this section make for easy running when the weather is good. During hot days it is horrible and claims a good share of race victims. It was fun reflecting on those “bad old days” as I toddled along - the heat exhaustion, falls, bleeding foreheads, broken body parts, bodies on the side of the road and more heat exhaustion.
It was also exciting to find myself among a group of women having their first crack at the GNW100M. Relaxed and confident, they soon left me in their wake as they powered up the hills. The future of this sport is in great hands.
I do believe I was dancing on the inside as I shuffled my way into Checkpoint 2.
Stage 3 Congewai to The Basin Campsite
Distance: 29.1 km
Target: 5hrs 30min
Achieved: 5hrs 16min
Overall position: 30
First dark patch but it was only tiny-ish.
This is when things turned a bit ugly for the first time. Bad time of the afternoon, big climbs, and cranky calf muscles conspired to put me in a mental dogfight about two thirds through the stage. I had just completed the second major climb when the feral dogs in my brain started to growl. Argh!
I was mentally searching for a reason to keep moving, that's all my legs wanted – a good reason - and I had nothing coming quickly. I rattled off some delightfully altruistic, but completely garbage, ideas hoping that one would be the miracle pill that would shift my motivation.
Nothing was working, so I decided to send a voicemail to a friend complaining about how crap I was feeling. No sooner had the words left my mouth then my brain dished out a blinding flash of reality; "Why do it? Because you're always rabbiting on about starting and finishing with the same determination, so stop being hypocritical and get on with it."
Like manna from heaven, Spotify then delivered the best 80s mix ever and the machine as pumping again.
Stage 4 The Basin Campsite to Yarramalong
Target: 3hrs 20min
Achieved: 3hrs 45min
Overall position: 29
Yes, the scarecrows were real.
Eight kilometres into this stage the trail spits its victims out onto an extended road section. I was rejoicing the easy running when my headtorch caught the figure of a nun in my peripheral vision. I jumped, then squealed, but the brave nun didn’t flinch. True story.
I moved well through this section, so was surprised to discover I missed my target time by 25 minutes. My brain started to analyse why; Am I getting tired? Is this the lack of training biting? What was I thinking when I set the target? Can I blame the nun? The negative spin cycle had started.
Snap! I forced my brain back onto the job at hand – “That section has now been written into the history books, there is nothing I can do about it, leave it in the past and get on smashing out the next one.”
Oh, and brain – please note the amazing body attached to you has just run its fastest ever 100km race, on the way to a 100 miler. Game back on.
Stage 5 Yarramalong to Somersby
Target: 5hr 45min
Achieved: 5hr 26min
Overall position: 22
Expected more of a struggle.
My mind had been building this up to be a big, ugly stage that needed to be conquered during the worst hours of the night. As so often is the case, the thing we fear the most turns out to be the most fun.
“No pacer?” yet another person asks me as I try to extricate myself from the checkpoint. “No need.” I answered back. The feminist part of my brain fires off a shot wondering if the male solo runners met with the same volume of inquiry. I don’t use pacers on the GNW because it slows me down; I get too comfortable, I start to talk, lose concentration, and that all adds up to lost time.
To get through the night I set myself goals and games to keep my brain alert. One of those games is to start hunting, I mean chasing down, other runners. No such fun was to be had this dark night. I only saw one other runner through the five hours of darkness, when usually I would see a few. I thought it strange. but then remembered I was currently running in no-mans-land between the front and mid-packs in the race. Midnight came and then the witching hours before dawn. I expected the sleep monsters but they were a no-show.
I enjoyed the company of a really cool owl for a short while, but thankfully no nuns this time.
Stage 6 Somersby to Mooney
Achieved: 3hr 09min
Overall position: 20
My love for kookaburras grows.
Why do the simpler stages always end up a bit sloppy? A change of shoes and clothes, a whole heap of anti-rash powder down my duds, and I felt like a new woman. I wanted to get as close as possible to the next checkpoint before sunrise, so I cranked the granny shuffle into top gear and got on with it. A few frustrations with my prematurely fading head torch soon hampered that plan, forced to move slower under the poor light, and constantly double check my direction. Thankfully another runner swooped up behind me at a great rate of knots, so I squeezed some more life out of the granny shuffle to keep them within sight.
I pumped my fist in the air at the sound of the first kookaburras, the night section was all but done. Now nothing was going to get between me and that beach. The enthusiasm lasted for about an hour then some unwanted house guests, known as the sleep monsters, decided to knock on my front door. It was an unusual time for them to turn up. The checkpoint wasn’t too far away and I knew it would give me a boost so I tried to zone into my beautiful surroundings, recap on all the great work, and stay positive. It worked, kind of.
The Final Push to patonga beach
Target: 4hr 30min
Achieved: 4hr 35min
Overall position: 13
“You know you’re still 20 min ahead of your target, don’t you?” My crewie quietly told me at the checkpoint, while I stuffed my pack and mouth with supplies. I had looked at my watch and there was less than 5 hrs to reach the beach for a sub-30 finish. A few minutes earlier in the tiredness fog, I had decided my target for this stage was stupid. On fresh legs I can run it in a touch over three hours, but today 150km was taking its toll. “I don’t know if I can do this in under 5 hours”, was my response. The moment the words were out of my mouth I knew I was talking BS and my brain started generating the answers to its own self-created problems, “Finish with the same determination…” , “shuffle every step you can”. There was no escaping it’s truth-bombs.
Every runnable step was run, even if it was a feeble shuffle. Seconds mattered. Seconds saved become minutes saved. I went past a couple of runners early and then it was only me against the ticking clock. Every climb drained the life from me, I wanted to keel over, I wanted to sleep, I wanted to cool off in the stream but instead I kept shuffling, knowing I would never forgive myself if I missed my crazy goal by minutes. I passed one of our elite women walking gingerly along. She had raced hard and hit the wall about 60km before and here she was finishing it off. The boost from seeing another human spurred me on for a few hundred metres more and then suddenly all the power in my legs disappeared. I was staggering, the world blurred and disconnected. I knew this feeling - the sleep monsters were attacking hard.
I threw my pack to the ground, grabbed for the caffeine tabs, paracetamol and dosed them down. Definitely don’t try that at home! I pumped sugar in while I sent a garbled voice message to my crew saying I was about 14km out, feeling like crap and no idea what time I would get to the beach. I dragged my pack back on, I looked to my watch to check the time and it was dead. I couldn’t be bothered reaching for my phone so just set the goal of shuffling until I could see the ocean from Mt Wondabyne and what I thought was the “12km to go” sign (proof I was completely gaga).
The sign turned up quicker than I expected and when I read that it was 10.5km to go the first thing out of my lips was “WTF?" 10kms?” I reached for my phone to check the time and I had 1hr 55min to reach the beach. F@@!!##!! I yelled, followed by a horrendous chain of expletives to which only God will ever bear witness. My goal was still within reach, but if I wanted it I was going to have to run it in. I yelled again, everything was hurting and in that moment my body hated my brain. The adrenaline rush was intense.
The next clock I saw was on the finish line.
29hrs 38min, 2hr PB, 3rd female, 13th overall, 5th fastest overall on the final stage and a completely different view of my abilities as a runner. These are the core principles I used to achieve my race plan.
Break the race into small parts (I use 5km segments) and mentally high-5 yourself every time you achieve a segment within target time range.
Leakage of time throughout the race kills the final result. Focus on saving 10 sec per km by shuffling instead of walking, talking less, and forget looking at the scenery - you’re not on a sight-seeing tour.
Start & Finish > Same Determination
You start out determined to achieve your plan, so finish the same way. When the enthusiasm starts to wane reconnect to your early determination.
Bag It - Move On
Treat each race stage as a separate race. Deliver your plan and then move your mind on. Don’t drag the issues of one stage into the next.