Great North Walk – 100 Miles (well 108 miles, but who’s counting?)

11 September, 2016

The Great North Walk 100 Miler is described by ULTRA 168 as “an ‘old skool’ event. A no frills trail run if you like. Minimal aid stations, no specific course markings other than the bushwalking posts. One that includes snakes, leeches, hills and heat only to end in a ‘death march’ from Mooney Mooney across rock platforms to the end on Patonga beach.”

Unsurprisingly, I’d thought more than twice about entering a race of this length. Last year I did the 100km event. When I finished that race last year I was so relieved I didn’t have to run a step further. I sat down at the finish line or check point 4 for those doing the miler, and watched the competitors running 100 miles come in and then head back out into the night for the additional 75km.

This year, feeling bold and having missed a lot of running earlier in the year, I thought I’d give the 100 miles a crack. Enthused and scared I grabbed on to Chantelle’s encouraging words: “It’s good to do something that scares you, Kath.” So after half my training was complete with no injuries, I ‘upgraded’ my entry from 100kms to 100 miles.

Leading into the event I was nervous, for weeks! I questioned why I was doing this to myself. I had no expectations going into the race, just to finish and hopefully have a good race. It was a privileged to be named a contender for the race in the Ultra 168 race preview along with three other awesome chicks I’ve had the pleasure to run with: Robyn Bruins, Chantelle Farelley and Susan Keith.

After suffering from ‘over use’ injuries training for 100km evens in the past, I’d decided to get a bit of help so had the awesome Scotty Hawker put together my training plan. My 12 week training program involved running 5 days a week. I missed one of these sessions on a few weeks due to work commitments, but I’d clocked up just shy of 1,000km in preparation for the race.

Race days – yes multiple days
We arrived at 4.30am to check in. I weighed in at (56.3kg). I remembered joking last year when I was given my wrist band at weigh in that it may have been for express hospital admission should things go awry – eekk! I quickly put those thoughts out of my mind. I delivered my drop bags for check points (CP) two, three, five and six and caught up with all the other runners I knew that are mad enough to take on this challenge, most of them returning year after year!

Start to CP1 Forest: 28.6km – 2015 Time – 3:34 – 2016 Time – 3:22
After about 10 trips to the bathroom – my stomach was playing up on me – I hoped my nerves and stomach would settle down. The last thing I wanted was ‘bathroom challenges’ on the trail or to be sick from the start.

After the race briefing we were off in a misty rain. It was light and refreshing. I ran briefly with my training buddies but then on my own trying to relax into the run.

I met Gavin Markey, a former winner of the race and “Mr Tailwind” and had a nice chat to him in the first section. I saw Gavin and Joe Ward hug on the trail ahead of me and have a chat. That’s something I love about trail running: the comradery and the great interesting people you get to chat to.

I can be a bit of a terror at pacing and being my first attempt at this distance, I had no idea how to set up 100 miles. I thought do not run past Gavin or Joe, they’ve done this race multiple times and quickly. I didn’t want to go too hard early and ‘blow up’ but I also didn’t want to go slow and hold back if I couldn’t run well in the later stages of the race anyway. Somehow I found myself in front of Joe and Gavin – Plan fail!

I arrived at Heaton’s Gap and decided to fill up my soft flasks. I’d drunk 1Lt Tailwind, my main fuel and hydration for the day, so I filled up with 1Lt water and crossed the road for the first big climb of the day.

Feeling fresh about to climb up Heaton Gap

I caught up with Mike Dalgarno from my running club, NRG, in this section. We chatted away and the kms flew and before we knew it CP1 arrived. I freaked out a bit as I was WAYYY ahead of time but I was feeling comfortable. Rocco helped me fill up my flasks and 2 mins later we were off.

CP1 to CP2 Congewai School: 23.9km (52.5km total) – 2015 Time – 2:32 – 2016 Time – 2:27
I kept thinking take it easy and slow down on this section. I chatted away to Mike. He hadn’t run on the course so I tried to describe it to him. I’d trained on the course and run the 100km last year, so I felt comfortable with the directions. It’s still easy to take a wrong turn and many people do at some stage.

We hit some nice single track along the ridge and enjoyed the descent down into Congewoi Valley. I was really enjoying the day out running and feeling fortunate to take on this challenge. I tried not to think about how far I had left to run, relax and keep drinking. I ate a banana and realised how stuffed with food my pack was. I had a second banana  – out it went – a jug of 5 serves of gel, a single gel packet and a Cliff Bar. There was no risk of me running out of supplies before the next check point!

We were lucky it still wasn’t too hot in the valley after the morning’s rain had stopped. Last year it was pretty warm. I was conscious to hold back on the flat along Congewoi Rd and managed to keep around 5:30min/km.

Ticking off the kms with Mike

Rocco was in the checkpoint at the school and helped me to fill up my supplies again. I ate some watermelon, gave a volunteer a sweaty hug – my day was going really well so far. I was trying to enjoy all the good moments. I was weighed, got my mandatory gear checked and set off.

CP2 to CP3 The Basin: 29.1km (81.6km total) – 2015 Time – 4:18 – 2016 Time – 4:03
I was a bit quicker than Mike so I headed off on my own. A few kms later as I started to climb out of the valley the dirt road I was on turned into a field. After scurrying around trying to find the trail up the ridge line and trudging around between trees, I realised I must have missed a turn or sign. I gave up and checked the directions which instructed ‘stay beside the fence line’. Fail. There was no fence line in sight, so I back tracked down the hill and road.

Simon Byrne was heading up the road – I’d met Simon and his mate Jules on the run last year. I yelled down that I was on the wrong track. Simon turned and yelled back to Mike who was further down still, he found the sign and we all got back on the tail.
Yes, it’s easy to get lost on this course. Fortunately, it was a good place to go wrong. I think it only added 1km to my race.

The three of us started to climb out of Congewoi Valley. Before long it was just me and Simon, so we got to have a great chat. I was rather disappointed that Simon wasn’t wearing colourful Hawaiian print shorts this year. Instead he had donned a traditional running outfit including compression shorts. Unexpected attire from the Byron Bay local.
We approach the climb. It was my nemesis from last year’s race. I’d suffered badly with both my legs cramping during the first climb last year. There were two big climbs with almost 400m of elevation in this section. We chatted and did our best to laugh our way through the kms. It was great to have company and I was still really enjoying the day out. I took a gel in the valley as I felt a small flat point between the two climbs.

As we headed up the second large climb we caught up to two guys ahead. I passed one and he sat down on a rock. Simon stopped and chatted encouraging him to get up and keep moving. I didn’t know at the time it was his friend Levi who’d placed in the race previously. I waited and cheered as Simon got him going and gave him one of his flasks of water.

As we continued up the climb towards the old unmanned water stop, I saw something large and reptilian hide under a rock on the side of the trail. I moved swiftly past the spot and wondered snake or lizard? Probably snake from the way it seemed to retract. Phew. We’re past it.

It’s a beautiful scenic run down in to the basin with some lovely and technical forest. With about 3km to run into the Basin CP my stomach gave a lurch and I scurried towards the CP for the facilities.

I hit the Basin, had the lovely Emma Ward and Mrs Tailwind helped me fill my flasks and hydration bladder as I went to the camp toilet – no luck. Hmmm. Oh, well.

I didn’t feel hungry and I was feeling good so I pushed on.

CP3 to CP4 Yarramalong: 22.1km (103.7km total) – 2015 Time – 2:43 – 2016 Time – 2:35
I left the Basin at 4pm, well ahead of plan. I’d expected to be at 100km at about 7:30 – 8pm. Ross, my pacer, said he’d be there from 6:30pm but my husband Marcus who was bringing my gear for the night wasn’t going to be there until later. I had no mobile coverage and as I trotted along trying to figure out how long until I’d reach Yarramalong, I contemplated my options.

I didn’t like the thought of heading out into the night after 100km without a pacer. I pulled out my mobile and checked for signal as I climbed the hill out of the Basin. As soon as I had coverage I called Ross, to let him know I was well ahead of time. Ross was already on the road and would be there at 6:30pm. Hmmm. OK, can’t change that. I rang Marcus, he was at home in Coogee. I told him, ‘ leave now!’

I ran this section on my own. I really like this part of the course. There’s an easy downhill section before a bit of single track. I hit the road to Yarramalong as the light was starting to fade.

I tried to eat something but failed. Solid food had become difficult. I forced half a bar down and slurped down more fluids. I tried to run a steady pace on the road. My legs were starting to get tired but didn’t feel too bad. I was aiming for around 6-6:30mins/km. It felt like a long road section. I got some high fives from kids on a farm as I ran along. Their excitement gave me a lift.

I arrived at the CP4 about 6:35pm. Marcus was just getting out of the car and ran up to the CP with my gear and a chair. I was almost an hour ahead of the time I’d run the 100kms in last year.

I swapped my socks and applied new blister pads to my toes, put on calf guards and changed in to a fresh tee-shirt. I was ready to go but my hydration bladder had sprung a leak. Talk about unfortunate timing. After a few of the NRG team trying to fix it, someone gave me an extra flask and Ross and I were on our way.

100km down and 75 to go

CP4 to CP5 Somersby: 28.4km (132.1km total) – 2016 Time – 4:14
We headed out into the night and saw a few of the crew running in. Robyn was in the CP when I left and Chantelle and Joe were heading in as we approached the big climb up Bumble Hill and out of the valley.

It was 30mins plus of climbing but it was a lovely night and great to have Ross for company. He was good at making me eat and drink constantly through the night. It may sound silly, but it’s something I wouldn’t have done without the regular reminders.

We chatted about all sorts of things and the kms ticked by. My watch battery had run out so I wasn’t thinking about the time or speed. I’d run this section as a night run and day run in training so felt pretty comfortable along the way. I’d prepared for this to be a long section and mentally tough as the night and fatigue closed in.

I tried not to think about the distance or worry about how my body felt. I recounted some of the songs I’d had in my head earlier on trying to distract myself.

I felt like there was a big fat leech in my shoe after my feet got wet. I was sure a could feel a slimy leech that had gorged itself on my blood. Oh, so disgusting. I stamped my right foot on my left where I could feel this creature. Ick!

Ross was a champion – he kept reminding me to drink. He fed me a couple of gels on this section. I’d tried but couldn’t get anything solid down. I’d drunk 2Lt Tailwind so felt pretty hydrated.

We passed Dead Horse Creek then climbed up towards the end of this section. We ‘motored’ up this as best I could and shuffled to the CP – yay! Things were starting to get tough.

In the check point I checked my socks for the leech I thought was there. No leech just a stray slimy blister pad that had escaped from my toe. A quick refill of my flasks, a cup of coke, a cup of the best minestrone soup I’ve ever tasted (I later found out it was from a can, but I stand by my claim of the soup’s quality) a slice of white bread and we were away.

CP5 to CP6 Mooney Mooney: 17.8km (149.9km total) – 2016 Time – 2:30
We’d just left the CP when Robyn and Richard, her pacer, arrived. It was tough to leave the comfort of the CP. I know my mind wasn’t that sharp and I doubted how well I was moving. With no watch to tell me I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

This section is relatively ‘down hill’ to Mooney Mooney. Funnily enough I was starting to have trouble navigating the down sections. I joked that I had jelly legs, surprising after a mere 140km of trail, ‘eh? I was having a bit of a low spot and my feet were getting wet. I willed them to go faster but my legs were misbehaving. My mind and the body were no longer in sync.

After about 10km Robyn came flying past me. She was chirpy as ever and we hugged before she left me in her wake. How was she moving so well?

We hit the flat and I picked up the pace. I was feeling a bit better. Then suddenly I needed the toilet. I was waiting for an appropriate bush and then I realised saving my dignity required an immediate bush stop. I love trail running but pits stops are challenging and undignified at times!

We trotted along and reached the CP in the dark. It was getting pretty hard now. Surprisingly, Robyn and Richard were still there.

I changed my socks ate some more minestrone soup – this chef’s version was good but not as good as the previous one. (Um, in hindsight I’m sure it was probably the same type of canned soup) – and drank a cup of coke.

I said farewell to Ross and with my pack full, Lachlan, my second pacer and I headed off for the last 25km.

CP6 to Finish Patonga: 25.4km (175.1km total) – 2016 Time – 4:49
This section was tough. I didn’t want to quit but I just wanted to get there. We weren’t going fast. I was really trying but my body was revolting. I could shuffle a bit on the flats but things just got progressively harder and harder.

It started being difficult to go down steps. My right knee didn’t want to bend any more. I was scrambling down steps, almost on all fours. Then climbing up steps also became really difficult. I was grunting or whimpering with the effort. I imagined I was like Golumn from The Lord of the Rings; some terrible creature inching it’s way forward across the rocks.

Lachlan was great encouraging me along. I did my best to reassure him that despite how slow we were going I really was trying. 15km in we heard voices behind us and I knew we would be passed. It was great someone else was still able to run at this stage but I felt disappointed that I was going so slow.

Joe Ward passed me and gave me a hug. I had expected it would be Chantelle and Rocco passing me. I’d paced Joe on this section of the course over a year ago when he ran the full 250km from Newcastle to Sydney in one go – what a legend!

This section just stretched on forever. I ended up taking a pain killer as my right knee was so sore to bend. It managed to mask the pain and we continued on.

We finally hit the tip/quarry. The sun was starting to come up. I tried to take my mind to a happy place and think about the beauty that was all around me.

We finally hit a bit of open trail and I was able to shuffle a bit. We crossed the road and I knew there were only a few kms down to the beach. I managed to pick up the pace again, woo. I was running – hooray for flat bits of trail!

Patonga Beach with Lachlan and that long awaited finish line

After a painful descent down to the beach and we were finally there. Yes, we had made it.
Running up the beach I felt an overwhelming wave of emotion. 175km. I was sore, I was relieved and I was exhilarated.

I was so lucky to have Marcus, my dad and Ross cheer me in at the finish – thank you! I was so grateful to  be able to take on this challenge. I’m not sure if i’ll do it again. Time will tell.

Special thanks to my two unbelievably good pacers: Ross and Lachlan for giving up your night and the comfort of your bed to help keep me sane and get me to the finish line.

Simultaneously smiling and almost crying with my amazing pacers Lachlan and Ross

Robyn had broken the record and I was thrilled for her. She’d had a cracking race and come home really strong – what a champion!

Now it was time for a good sit down and to cheer other runners in.

Overall result– 24:40, 2nd female and 5th overall 100M
2015 result – 13:22, 1st 100km

With the winner, Robyn and her gold medal for finishing in under 24 hours

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