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