Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The North Face 100 - Australia 2015 - Race Report

After recently relocating from Perth to the Blue Mountains only 4 weeks before the TNF100, it was definitely a different feel walking to the start line for what was now a local race for me. Essentially living on the course enabled me to hone in my skills on the TNF course and become as familiar as I could in the build up. 

Race morning was different, I woke up at 1:30am and was wide awake and hungry. In the past I have just fallen back asleep but this time I really needed something to eat. I got up as quiet as I could (staying in our friends' loft apartment meant the kitchen was basically in the same room as the bed, and my sleeping wife) and put some bread in the toaster. I added my new favourite combination that has been passed down to me from my lovely friends the Brischetto family, which includes avocado and Marmite (or for the Aussies, Vegemite). I don't know why or how this flavour combo works but it does. Feeling incredibly satisfied after a bite to eat I was asleep not long after until the alarm went off at 5am.

I don't think I have ever been so relaxed before a race. Liz, Mum, Dad, my good mate Tom and I all walked down to the race start at Scenic World. After a bit of a jog to warm the legs up I made my way to the start line. Not realising the exact time, I worked my way through the crowd before taking place in about row three. I figured this fitted in well with my plan of making sure I started easy and didn't do anything silly from the start line.

The pace on the out and back section on Cliff Drive was fast. Instantly I knew we were running faster than last year so I eased off a bit and let the front bunch do their thing. As we hit Furber Steps I started to bridge the gap as we made our way down the stairs. I caught up to Jono, Tucks and Brendan soon after as we made our way through the landslide section and it was just like a training run with my good mates. We hit Golden Stairs and the climb went by effortlessly. 

Being inside the top ten so early on and feeling like things were ticking over nicely I was really happy. The next section along Narrowneck (11km) was one I had done quite a few times in training. I started off running with Jono, Tucks and eventual winner Dylan Bowman from the U.S. As we made our way along the undulations of Narrowneck I began to get pretty cold and the legs just weren't feeling how they probably should. I put my sleeves and gloves back on and even contemplated getting my jacket out. I put the feeling in my legs down to the cold and just did what I had to do to get through to Tarros Ladders. There was a bit of leapfrogging going on and having Dylan and Francois D'haene just ahead and Jono and Tucks just behind gave me motivation to keep things ticking over.

Having fun in the early stages along Narrowneck.

Tarros Ladder was awesome! The crew who set up that section of the course really do an amazing job. The single track off Narrowneck was even better than what I remember which was a nice surprise. The steep descent down into Dunphy's was fun and it was great to see good mate Kerry Suter there who was doing some live coverage for I briefly stopped with Jono and Tucks to refill my water and then we were off again.

The next section from Dunphy's checkpoint to 6ft Track checkpoint includes a really fun and steep climb up Ironpot Ridge. It also has a stunning out and back section which includes some amazing guys playing the didgeridoo up on the ridgeline. I remember getting goosebumps here last year as we ran past, and as we made our way up the steep ascent I was hoping they would be there again this year. I was stoked to see that they were, it was another amazing experience.

It was just before this section that a little drama had unfolded. Jono was out front leading the race like a man on a mission with a group of four including Dylan, Longfei Yan, Francois & Hoka team mate Julien Chorier just seconds behind. I was about 15seconds behind the group of four at this stage. Due to unfortunate circumstances with the race marshall not being at the exact spot for the out and back along Ironpot, the group of four missed the left turn to go and do the out and back section. As I approached, the marshall was yelling at me to turn left to which I calmly replied that I knew the course and where I was going. As I made my way out, Jono then ran towards me and mentioned that the other four had missed a turn.

I then descended off the ridge and caught up to Jono who confirmed that the others had missed the 1.4km out and back section. Jono and I were both under the presumption that those four runners were going to be disqualified for not sticking to the course which essentially meant we were now in the lead of the TNF100. After a quick gear check I came into checkpoint 3 and there was quite a lot of commotion going on. I quickly found Liz, Mum and Dad who explained that the four guys were being given a time penalty. At first I wasn't quite sure what they meant by that and when someone explained again I instantly had mixed emotions going on inside my head. As I made my way out of the aid station I was followed closely behind by my good mate Dave who was on film and camera duty for the race. I have no doubt that Dave's comments as we left the checkpoint helped shape my race for the next 12km and set me up for a good finish. Dave explained that I now had a bit of a lead on those guys and to just consolidate and keep things together and not do anything too crazy. Dave is a damn experienced guy so I figured his advice was well worth sticking to.

The climb up the Megalong Valley went really well and I made sure I kept the pace comfortable. I had so much information and thoughts going through my head now so I had to make sure I did what I needed to do. As I ran along the road up to the start of the Nellies Glen climb, part of me was elated to be in the lead of the TNF100 but part of me couldn't quite understand why a time penalty had been given. I decided it was best to try and forget about it for now and enjoy the trails, scenery and the race itself. For those who read my race report from TNF100 2014 you might remember Nellies Glen as where my race completely fell apart. After being in 2nd place and feeling great I got to the top of Nellies to only start vomiting uncontrollably. Undoubtedly this was in the back of my mind as I made my way up the steep stairs in the gully. My legs hit another flat patch going up here. As mentioned earlier I knew where I needed to be on the trail, I knew where I should be able to run to before hiking, but today unfortunately I didn't even get close. "Consolidate" I kept on reminding myself that I didn't have to be doing anything amazing, I just had to keep moving. I hit the top and the brief descent gave me time to get the legs working again. At the top of the climb there were more of my amazing friends including Joe, Paul & Janet. They cheered me on as I ran past. There's just something about seeing friends out on course that gives you a special boost.

The Aquatic Centre and checkpoint 4 came soon after and it was great to see my family again. One of my goals pre race was to not spend too much time fluffing about at checkpoints this year. After getting what I needed I was jogging through the hall and as I left I heard cheers as Dylan, Francois and Longfei came in. In the back of my mind during the last 12km I figured they were going to catch me at some stage. I quickly went through my head what I was going to do once they caught up. As we made our way along the cliff top track to Echo Point I kept on playing over in my head "What are you going to do Scotty?" I knew there was going to be a decision that had to be made whether to up the pace and join their group or get spit out the back. 

Really there was only ever one answer and that was to join this trio of world class runners and see if I had what it takes to compete at the top level. Drawing motivation from my good mate Blake and his performance at Transvulcania a week earlier I convinced myself that if Blake was game enough to challenge the best then I should follow suit. I was now going into the unknown for me. I had never been at the pointy end of such a competitive field, 60km in to a 100km race. We then ran the beautiful fast single track trails through to Gordon Falls which was an experience I'll never forget. We were all taking turns in the lead and apart from one point where I nearly got dropped off the back I was enjoying myself. Working hard at times to keep up on the flatter & faster sections and then making up ground on the stair ascents and descents. 

Getting my grind on trying to hang on to the main group.

Not long after the Gordan Falls water point Dylan and Longfei made a bit of a break on myself and Francois. I knew the climb up to the Conservation Hut was coming up so I made sure I prepared myself for that. I felt strong going up here and was still pinching myself that I was leading Francois up the climb. It was overwhelming at times that I was running along with guys who I have so much respect for as athletes and people. We then hit the road section running along to the Fairmont and I could see Dylan and Longfei just ahead, it's amazing how on the trails you feel someone is miles ahead when in reality they were always just around the corner. Their pace up front was just too fast for me and both Dylan and Longfei looked super comfortable as they ran off. I started to make a bit of a gap on Francois so I figured I must be moving ok. 

Ticking things over just before the road section coming into QVH.

My overall race plan from the start was to try and get to QVH feeling as good as possible and then "race" the final 22km to the finish. I knew this section so well including the 15km climb out of the valley. I arrived at the checkpoint receiving info that the two lead runners were only 2.5minutes up on me which gave me a massive boost. I was feeling great and hearing that gave me even more motivation. I knew what I needed to do on the descent down Kedumba. After covering it in training several times I knew that if I just bombed down with no care for my quads then it was likely going to backfire. I was in third place and moving quite well down Kedumba when I was completely surprised to glance over my shoulder after hearing fast footsteps - it was my Chinese friend YanQiao Yun. He said a quick hi before running past me like I wasn't even moving. I had another "What are you going to do Scotty?" moment as to whether or not to chase him and bridge the gap. Initially I pursued and got on his tail before deciding that this pace wasn't sustainable for me so I backed off the gas. I remembered my race plan of trying to smash the final 15km and I felt that if I ran down with Yun then I wasn't going to be able to do this.

I hit the bottom and began the ascent to the 91km checkpoint. It was so motivating and fun chatting to the 50km runners as we all made our way up the steep firetrail road. I tried to get into my climbing rhythm as quickly as possible and stay there. Just as I approached the 91km checkpoint I looked ahead and could see Yun. I quickly called out to the volunteers for plain water and someone came over towards me to fill my soft flasks. He did a fantastic job and advised me I was in 4th place but 3rd had just left. I kept an eye on Yun as my flasks were getting filled to get a gauge for how he was climbing. I left the aid station in hot pursuit to try and get back into 3rd place. Soon after, I caught Yun as I powered up the climb. As I went past Yun I remembered the time gap back at QVH only being 2.5mins to Dylan and Longfei. I figured I had been moving pretty well so they might not be too far ahead. As I carried on up the climb some of the 50k runners mentioned that there was another Chinese runner just ahead. It gave me a massive boost and motivation to push some more and try to catch Longfei. Coming around the final bend before the trail flattens out before the treatment works I caught Longfei. I caught him just as we crested the top, nervously I ran past saying a quick hello before bombing the next 500m to make sure he couldn't hang on. I know what his flat speed is like so I tried to catch him by surprise and make a burst.

I refused to look back, I was told once that looking back can be seen as a sign of weakness so I did all I could to keep my eyes looking in front of me and take the trail as it came. Once I was satisfied that Longfei wasn't going to catch me my focus turned to trying to catch Dylan. I kept thinking to myself during the next 5km or so to the bottom of Furber Steps about the finish from last years race where Stu Gibson and Tucks sprinted it out to the finish line. Secretly I was hoping the same might unfold today. Little did I know that Dylan had absolutely flown during the final leg and was 6mins up the trail.

As I made my way closer to the base of Furber Steps there were more and more runners on the trail and also tourists. I started calling out well in advance to give them warning that I was coming as I was moving pretty quickly by this stage. I can't explain how enjoyable it was flying over those last few km of singletrack. Once I hit the bottom of Furbers I felt I was home. I had done the Furbers ascent over a dozen times in training and thought even on a bad day I could get up in 12mins or so. I looked at my watch and realised that I had just under 15min to reach the finish line to crack 9hrs. I'm pretty sure I let out a yeehaa as I left the valley and took off up the stairs. I basically grunted my way up every single step trying to say thank you to whoever I could as they made way for me coming up. At one stage near the top I got near the base of a metal set of stairs that must have had 10 people on it, but they all moved across to let me through. I was at the stage where I was basically grabbing anything and everything to help me get up. Trying to make out handrails and posts from tourists arms and legs was a bit of a blur. 

Hitting the boardwalk I had to fight back the emotions as I knew I'd sealed 2nd place. I gave it a bit of a sprint and the cheering welcome of the crowd was absolutely electric. I'll cherish that moment and memory for the rest of my life. Looking up at the clock and seeing a time that started with an 8 was so satisfying, I couldn't believe that I'd run sub-9hrs on the TNF100 course. Soon after I crossed the line Liz came running up and I had to fight even harder to hold off the tears. These are the moments that I cherish. Although I'm often out there alone on the trails training and racing, knowing that I get to see my best friend and wife at the end is what motivates me.

Looking up and seeing a time that started with an 8 made me smile for sure!

I made my way over to give Mum and Dad a big hug - it was so special to me that they were there to witness my best performance to date. Not because of the time or place but because I truly had the most fun I've ever had during a race and they were there to share that with me.

Makes all the hard work worth it

Congratulations to Dylan for the win, it was a pleasure sharing the trails with you, and to Yun who ran a crazy final 50km to bag 3rd place. 

I'm still trying to process what happened last weekend and it still seems a little surreal. It was the performance I had wanted and dreamed about in training but to actually do it was amazing. I'm not 100% sure of my race schedule for 2016 but I have to say I feel like I have unfinished business with the TNF100 so I'll likely be back in a years time to have a crack at the top spot.

Thanks to all my sponsors & supporters including Hoka One One, Compressport, Tailwind Nutrition, Ryders Eyewear Australia, Simple Hydration, Ay-Up Lighting and Mike at Northside Runners Crowsnest for their continued support of me chasing my dreams. 

Also thanks to my incredible coach Andy, I know I'm bloody hard work at times but your knowledge and training program has definitely taken things to a whole new level!

Finally thanks to my amazing wife Liz and Mum & Dad for being there to support me as always. Knowing I have such an amazing family supporting me makes this running adventure so much more special. 

Sponsor plug...? Heck yes, the new Speedgoats were insane! 

All photo's thanks to my good buddy Lyndon Marceau from marceauphotography @marceauphotography

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Hillary Ultra 2015

Standing at the start line on a mild and humid morning in Arataki we were addressed by Sarah Hillary, the daughter of the famous Sir Edmund Hillary, who said a few words and presented the race director Shaun with a silk scarf from a region in Nepal where Sir Ed had spent a fair bit of time. It was a special way to start and before long we were sent on our way by a cheering crowd of supporters and a pretty cool horn that Shaun had brought along especially.


Running the first section from Arataki to Huia went really well. We started off at a really relaxed pace as we ran through the final stages of darkness and into the new day. The first section was really technical while we were running through the forrest. This for me was typical NZ trails - tree roots, rocks and mud pretty much covered every inch of the trails we were running over. A group of 5 of us including eventual winner Andrius Romonus, 2nd place Chris Morrissey, Sam Clark from Whakatane and Danny Garrett from Auckland ran together as we made our way through to Huia.


As we were approaching the Huia Dam, Andrius and I broke away from the other guys as we started to come down a really technical descent. The other 3 guys weren't too far behind and not too long after the Huia Aid Station (14km) Chris caught up to us as we started tackling the biggest climb of the day (approx. 400m+ in 1.5km). It was definitely steep but it went by really quickly. It was during this climb that I realised my legs weren't quite firing how they normally would only 14km into a race. I'd been having hamstring issues in the couple of weeks building up to this race but what I was experiencing really didn't seem to add up. I lead us up this climb at my "climb all day pace" and despite having great energy levels my legs felt weak. I figured it would pass and I kept myself in check over the next few km and decided to take things even easier than I already was. Soon after we reached the top of the climb we were being greeted with absolutely breathtaking views of the coastline and harbour. It's rugged and harsh but has an amazing beauty that takes your mind off the gnarly terrain.


As we started the descent to the Whatipu aid station Andrius picked up the pace and his local knowledge of the trails showed as he made a bit of a gap. I continued at my comfortable pace and the gap seemed to remain the same. By the time we left that aid station I was now in the lead after a quick refill of water. I walked briefly to be then joined by Andrius with the intention of running together for a few km to pass some time. Andrius is a general all round nice guy and a great person to be sharing the trails with, he ran a cracking race and deserved the win!


As we cruised along the trails I wasn't felling any worse than earlier but things were still far from good. My nutrition was going to plan, I was well hydrated but my legs still felt half asleep. As we made our way over undulating trails I would look down at my legs from time to time and think "C'mon guys, any time you wanna start working that'd be great!"


Andrius pulled away ever so slightly through some beautiful dense forest trails but was still within sight. Then as we approached the Zion trail section of the Hillary I had my second hiccup of the day. We got to a marker arrow (actually 1/2 an arrow) that pointed left. I obliged and made the turn and carried on along the trail. Andrius was no longer in sight and I was running down the trail not seeing any Hillary marker signs and the only pink ribbon I saw a couple of times was tied tightly around trees (different to all of the previous markers). After going off course in a race back in Perth last weekend I was adamant I wasn't going to do the same here. I ran along for another 5mins and then made the decision that maybe I wasn't on the correct trail. I turned around to run back to the 1/2 arrow and ran for about 5mins before seeing Sam Clark running towards me. He asked what I was doing and I mentioned that I thought we were on the wrong track as I hadn't seen any markers in a while. He informed me that we were on the right trail so I turned around and carried on. Sam and I then basically ran together through to the Piha aid station at 44km. Some wasted time but I was definitely thankful to be on the right trail.


Mum and Dad had made the trip up to Auckland for the race and it was great to see them at the aid station at Piha. After a slightly longer stop than usual to make sure I had everything I needed I left the aid station now in 3rd place and began my journey along the sand of Piha Beach. As I made my way along the beach it was great to see the Australia/ New Zealand Skyrunning President and good friend Marcus Warner who gave some kind words and a cheer. I then caught up to the energetic and enthused 34km Skyrunners as they had just been set off by R.D Shaun Collins.


Piha to Bethells was a real low point in the race for me. Mentally I was in the game but sadly my legs didn't have much to offer. After a while it seemed like my quads were trying to take too much of the load off my hamstrings which wasn't much fun. I then joined up with a group of four 34km runners who were absolutely fantastic and I have them to thank for dragging me along for a while and taking my mind off my stupidly tired legs. On another day I might have skipped past offering words of encouragement but today I felt like I just needed to follow and stick as close as I could to them. As we approached the massive sand dunes just outside of Bethells we hit some more runnable terrain so we said our goodbyes there although I did think it was probable I'd see them again.


I was informed at Bethells I was only 11 minutes behind 2nd place (Sam Clark) and 34minutes behind 1st place (Andrius). Despite the condition of my legs I thought if I can just keep moving forward, I might have a chance of reeling Sam in. A few km after leaving Bethells and after a relatively steep climb up to the top of the coastline I glanced back and didn't like what I saw (no disrespect Chris). Mr Consistent Chris Morrissey caught me up with ease and after a brief chat I explained that Sam wasn't far ahead and for him to 'go get em'. Chris took off looking like he was running a 5km Parkrun and within minutes I looked across the gully and saw Chris far in the distance. Bye Bye 3rd place I thought.


Somewhere about 5km out from Constable Rd Aid (73km) I stopped to go to the toilet. I got a huge shock to see my urine was bright red. I hadn't ever experienced this before and it really freaked me out. I'd heard about kidney failure etc before and kinda knew what it was all about so I knew something wasn't right. I stopped on the side of the trail to get my mobile phone out to call Mum and Dad to find out what I should do. My main concern was if I carried on that I could really put myself in danger and at risk of doing some serious damage. I had no reception where I was so there was no other option other than to keep going. I slowed down even more, which now meant I was going really slow, as I made my way to the bottom of a massive flight of stairs up to the aid station. Then to my disbelief, I looked up and not too far up the stairs ahead I could see Sam looking a little worse for wear as he made his way up the stairs. As I caught up to Sam he mentioned that he hadn't eaten or been able to drink in a couple of hours. On a side note Sam was backing up at the Hillary Ultra after not only competing in an Ironman event the weekend before, but because of confusion at the transition area Sam was sent out for another lap on the bike, so did an Ironman plus an extra 90 bonus kms on the bike. To get 73km into the Hillary in 3rd place was absolutely incredible!


From Constable Rd it was a mere 7km to the finish. I felt confident I could run the final section to Muriwai and not get caught by Sam or anyone else behind me. To be completely honest this was probably the best I felt all day. I laughed as I thought for a brief second that I wished it was a 100km race so I'd have time to try and catch the guys in front of me, then I laughed again and thought "Who am I kidding, you run a good couple of km and think you can run another 20! I don't think so." I was very glad to see the finish line at Muriwai and the sound of the crowd cheering were awesome. 9hrs and 7mins after leaving Arataki I was done. A doctor in the medical tent assessed me and decided that I was ok for now but to keep an eye on things over the next day or two.


My overall impressions of the Hillary Ultra is that it was a truly incredible race. The history behind the Hillary Trail and the Hillary family make it particularly special. Shaun the race director and his awesome volunteers did an amazing job at putting on a very professionally run event. Compared to other Skyrunning events I have done this race definitely rates very highly. The trails were stupidly technical and although there were no 2000m+ mountains involved the constant up and down nature of the course made it an absolute beast. 80km with 3700m+ vert gain are decent stats in my book. The pursuit of running from the beach to the sky and back down was a really great experience. Skyrunning NZ style!


I'd definitely like to return in 2016 with a fresh set of legs and see what I could do here. Despite having a day well below par, my memories of this race are fond and I would highly recommend this race to anyone wanting to experience New Zealand Skyrunning at its finest!

Running along Piha Beach- Photo: Marcus Warner