The Great North Walk 2012
Running 100 miles (actually 108 in this case) is never easy no matter how well prepared you are. In this case I knew I wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked to be. Sometimes there are more important things in life than running and the last 3 months has been one of those times. Whilst I did consider dropping out before the race had even begun I decided to test my powers of mental strength and see if it could make up for lack of training and get me to the finish. I wouldn’t be chasing any podium spots despite what some people were predicting (I may have the ability but I certainly didn’t have any recent form – in the last two years I have done zero races and had 7 months of no running at all), I would be happy just to finish.
I love ultrarunning, I love the camaraderie, being out in nature at all different times of day and night, pushing my body to it limits and beyond, the mind games and I love the sense of satisfaction and achievement crossing the finish line. So my goals for GNW100 were two things – finish and enjoy as much of it as possible.
I started off feeling great , all my pre race niggles nowhere to be felt. That seems so long ago now. The fresh legs that carried me at the start turned into legs that didn’t want to carry me at all. The question was could I make them carry me to the finish!
The early kilometres were ticked off easily enough and although I lost ground on the really steep ascents I always managed to rejoin the group I was running with when the slopes became more runnable. We were all aiming for a time around 24 hours but as it turned out none of us achieved that.
The first signs of trouble occurred on the first flat section running into Checkpoint 2. My hip flexors felt like they had already run 100 miles , not a good sign when there is 125km to go. I was still able to run and at a relatively good pace so I was hoping that they wouldn’t get any worse. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
The next section involved some fairly technical unrunable trail and some long slight descents. Both of which I felt ok on. This installed some confidence in me which was short lived. As soon as the descents turned steep my legs complained loudly.
The run into checkpoint 4 at Yarramalong at the 104km mark was a 10km section of road. Along this stretch I came to terms with exactly how bad my legs were feeling. I was struggling to run for longer than a few minutes at a time before being reduced to a walk. The lack of training was really starting to take effect. In previous 100 milers I had managed to run everything that wasn’t a steep ascent . Now I was struggling at the 100km mark.
I must have set a PB for my slowest ever 10km (only to be broken later in the race! ) but gradually the kilometres ticked over and with darkness setting in I finally reached the checkpoint.
I sat down to get my gear organised and also to get my head around finishing the race. I could pull out at this checkpoint and become a finisher for the 100k race that was occurring simultaneously. In reality that’s what I should have entered as I just didn’t have the miles in the legs that I had before previous 100 mile races. However I entered the 100miler and I don’t do giving up very easily. So I resolved that as long as I could make forwards progress I would continue. I could still run so as long as I could hold it together I was still on track for a respectable time of around 28 hours.
Leaving checkpoint 4 in the darkness by myself I set off full of purpose and determination. This lasted a kilometre or two until I tried to run again and really really struggled. I gave myself a stern talking to and tried the mind over matter approach and managed a bit further but when there is 70 km to go, running 50 metres without stopping instead of 30 really isn’t going to make much of a difference.
I was alone descending into another forest, it was raining, I had 70km to go and could barely run a step. Despite this I was enjoying myself. Only another ultrarunner will understand why but I do these races to test myself and if they were easy I would find something else to do. Getting to that point where your body doesn’t want to continue anymore is where you start to test yourself. It’s where you discover if you have what it takes to finish or not. Can you override the desire to stop , pull out and crawl into a warm bed. Can you find joy in being in the moment and block out the thought of the kilometres to come.
For me this was that moment when the race went from being in my normal realm of experience to being something that was really challenging me both physically and mentally. It was asking questions of me that demanded an answer.
The situation was this – there was 70km to go, it was dark , raining and getting slightly chilly, I could barely run a step , walking downhill hurt lots, walking on the flat felt ok. Energy wise I felt fine – I have fine tuned my nutritional strategies for running 100 miles and rarely have any dips or crashes in energy.The remaining 70k had some very challenging climbs and descents but I had another 20 hours to finish in.
First question was could I finish and second question was did I want to? As I descended deeper into the forest these thoughts ran through my mind. I couldn’t see any headlights either in front or behind so I was completely alone.
This gave me some time in my head to think and the thought that kept coming into my mind was one of calmness and acceptance – the situation was what it was , nothing could change the way my legs felt but I still had control over how I dealt with it mentally. I was enjoying being out in nature , the darkness accentuated the noises of the rainforest and it is completely different experince running during the night than running in daylight. It is one of the joys of running 100miles – getting to experience nature at different times of the day and night.
I still didn’t know if I could finish but that didn’t matter, enjoy the moment and let the what happens in the future happen. So with an inner smile I pushed on. I still had some negative thoughts but they were quickly pushed aside. I also knew that in ultras you have your highs and lows and it is possible to change from one to the other very quickly so there was a chance that my legs could come good again for a while.
Eventually headlights appeared from behind me and the chat of a runner and his pacer broke the silence, we exchanged a few words and they continued on. Little did I know how helpful the two of them would be over the upcoming kilometres.
As with any race there are often critical moments that go towards defining a race and for me that defining moment happened not long after I was passed. The trail became blocked by a large trees in several places which caused some runners ahead to take a few wrong turns. Ahead I could see a group of runners who had returned from one of those wrong turns to rejoin the trail just in front of me. It was the start of a climb and I decided to see if I could stay with them for as long as possible. Most likely they would all take off running once the top was reached but in a race you use whatever opportunities arise to push you along.
The climb was very steep and I was right at my threshold trying to keep up with the group, I hung on with no idea how much an affect it would have on me.Eventually we reached the top and turned onto a very runnable fire trail. Several members of the group took off but to my surprise two runners and a pacer continued walking. Even as the trail levelled off to flat they continued walking.
Now whilst I am comfortable in my own head – as strange a place as that may be sometimes – and had accepted I would most likely walking the 70km by myself to the finish ( presuming I could make it that far) , having some other people to walk with definitely makes life easier.
So we walked, Scotty the pacer stayed ahead and took care of any navigational issues , whilst Brent ( doing his first and only 100 miler), Rob from Auckland and I followed behind. Brent talked almost the whole time whilst Rob and I kept pretty quiet. Brent’s constant stream of dialogue wasn’t annoying in the slightest and I hope my lack of sparkling conversation didn’t annoy him.
When the trail descended I lost some ground but was always able to catch them back up. Walking through a forest there was no lack of sticks around and Brent picked up one for himself to take the strain off an injured ankle and then found another perfect sized stick which he passed onto me which helped enormously in the descents.
The trail eventually met a road which lead to checkpoint 5. The boys decided to attempt to run into the checkpoint as the road was flat, so we shuffled along. I managed to keep up with a mixture of walking and running.
Going into the checkpoint we resolved to stick together for as long as possible. We left the checkpoint together and continued together until almost the last checkpoint. Upon approaching this Rob started to gain a second wind and Brent seemed to be getting worse. I had gone through a tired patch but the sun was coming up and I was feeling ok.
At the last checkpoint Rob was in and out quickly and Brent took a while to get his ankle strapped up so I set off in the early predawn light by myself. Only 27km to go , surely I could make it to the finish now.
The next section was my favourite of the whole race; alone again , passing by lakes and rivers with the early morning mist slowly rising was beautiful. I was now confident of making it to the finish. My legs hadn’t got any worse over the last few hours and the stick was helping with the painful descents. I was loving being in the moment and even if I started looking ahead to the finish 25km away it didn’t seem like such a huge distance anymore.
As the course starts to climb the sun starts making itself known and it is going to be a beautiful sunny day. The route then crosses a plateau during which I hear someone call “there you are” . It is Brent , with his ankle strapped and painkillers taken he has caught up to me. We push on together as he describes the route to the finish which he has run before in training. Just up this climb, right on the fire track and then descend to the finish. Sounds great but I have learnt from spending the last 60k with Brent that its always MUCH further than it sounds.
The sun has risen and the views which have been obscured by the rain yesterday reveal themselves today and it is a pleasant distraction looking out over the bush covered peaks and the valley floor below. I try and take as much of it in as possible. When running you have to focus on where you put your feet and the scenery becomes secondary. I was walking so could afford the luxury of gazing of into the distance and appreciating the view.
We press ahead, and I am starting to really struggle, I can’t keep up on the ascents and lose lots of time on the descents and even my walking pace is getting slower. Brent waits for me at the top of a climb and we continue. Up the next climb I fall behind again, I would yell out to him to keep going but he is already out of sight. I silently hope he pushes ahead.
To my relief when I get to the top he is no-where to be seen. While his company has been great I don’t want to hold him back. I am alone again with around 10-15k to go. Despite my walking speed slowing to the speed of a pensioners Sunday afternoon amble I know there is no option other than to finish. I will cover the last section no matter how long it takes.
The last part of the course is a long dirt road that eventually leads to the descent to the beach at Patonga and the finish line. Unfortunately the dirt road has a number of turns and at each one I hope that the descent to the beach begins. But at each one the road continues into the distance and another turn.
I know the finish line is near and my mind which has been very good at staying in the present for the last 70km is starting to say enough is enough, I just want this to be over now.
I reach another turn in the road and again all I can see is the road continuing. Every part of this road looks the same even the bush each side of the road looks the same. I seem to be getting no-where , traversing the same stretch of road over and over again. It is mental torture!
Finally the dirt track crosses a main road and I see a sign to Patonga – the finish must be close. But like every checkpoint in this race , it is never as close as it seems to be. I am still walking up a dirt track surrounded by the same looking bush. There is no sign of the coast or any golden sand beach. There is no escape though. Getting to the finish is the only way to end this.
After what seems like days I reach the descent to the coast. I am told by a walker that its not far now, maybe one kilometre. Looking at my watch I see I have 10 minutes if I want to break 30 hours. I attempt to run and am glad there is no-one around to witness the shuffle that my body thinks is a run. I can’t maintain it for more than 50 metres or so and then the path descends steeply. I can see the coast now and it looks a long way down. I give up the idea of sprinting to finish under 30 and resolve instead to see if I can make it to the bottom without falling over and breaking a limb. This involves descending some of the steeper sections backwards which must have made for a funny sight for any on lookers.
The path twists and turns and descends , descends and descends , every step agony in my legs. As I finally see Patonga beach the agony lessens as I realise I am going to finish this. It hasn’t been pretty but I have done what it I needed to do to finish. Reaching the sand I throw away my stick which has been my companion for the last 50km and shuffle the final few hundred metres to the finish.
I hear a bell ringing informing everyone that a runner is approaching and realising that bell is for me I start to cry except there are no tears to be had. I am empty, completely spent and have nothing left to give. I shuffle to the pier and walk the final steps and place my hands on the GNW post that marks the end of this race.
Running 100 miles is an adventure. No two races are ever the same and there are always so many unknowns that present themselves race day. This race was no different. It challenged me in ways other 100 milers haven’t. When you are feeling good and at the front of the field it is very different experience to surviving and just finishing a race. Ididn’t have the training to be competitive in this race but it has never really been about the competition for me. It’s always about my body vs my mind. My body carries me though the first half and my mind the second. The body gets the easy task because everything is fresh , the mind however has to deal with an already fatigued body and attempt to drag it to the finish line. This is the challenge for everybody in an ultra. For some of us it’s dragging it to the finish line as fast as possible for others it’s simply getting to the finish. For me this race was about finishing. Mission accomplished!
A big thank you to the organisers and all the volunteers on the course , they did a fantastic job. Also big thanks to Jaci who was crewing for another runner but found time to help me out in every checkpoint.
Thanks to Shona, Geoff, Spud, Rob, Brent, Matt, Mark and every other runner that said hello along the way. It was great to meet you, sharing the course with people like yourselves is one of the joys of running an ultra.