I believe I have procrastinated enough over how to describe my latest challenge. The Great North Walk 100 miles. Which actually was 175.3km, but who was counting. Well I know I was in the final 25.4km leg when the characteristic of the trail had described the final 10km’s as “HARD” they meant it.
I went into this event knowing all to well of the stories from runners being defeated by the rugged terrain and the demanding ascents and descents. Along with the added creek crossings, slippery rocks and roots and a hard to follow trail. As an Ultra endurance runner what more could I ask for in a challenge?
Leading into the event I had faced many challenges within myself. Training solo and at times feeling as I was losing my mojo. It took a couple of quick trips down south to run a 55km Glasshouse trail event “Flinders Tour”, coming in 5th Female and the Rainbow Beach Marathon coming in 2rd Female to get myself refocused and bring back my love for the trail along with my confidence. Training Solo for many hours each day for a miler does test your commitment. But I have had this one on my radar for a while and I just knew this was my window of opportunity to experience this tough course. Knowing all to well the history behind it.
It was a first that I was totally prepared for an event. Knowing I was stepping into the unknown I was not able to be anything but ready for the unexpected. I had read the map and detailed directions and had many concerns, which I was hoping to resolve prior to the start line. Even with the comfort from previous years runners reassuring me that if I stick to the directions the trail is tough but easy to follow, I still had doubts of some sections.
So at the start line I stood in the drizzling raining knowing all too well that there was no time for doubt now and bring on the challenge. The finishing line is only 100 miles plus some away, I have 36 hours to get there. A small amount of time out of my life to have an amazing journey.
6am and 150 runners start their journey. Many re attempting a finish or going from a 100km finish to attempting the big Miler. The first leg was 29kms of a variety of sealed and trail road along with the first tough climb with some amazing views, then descending into the Old Watagan Forestry known as “the jungle”, a true description of its beauty. Wet slippery and tough all in the first Leg of the race.
Reaching Checkpoint 1(Old Watagan Forestry HQ) my adrenaline was pumping and excited at what was ahead. The field of runners where spreading quickly and on leaving Checkpoint 1 it was not long before I found myself solo and now having to rely on my map descriptions and keeping a close eye out for markings.
The second leg I remained focused for much of the way until hitting the open gravel road leading into Checkpoint 2(Congewai Public School). I was feeling good but I knew the third leg was going to test me out. It was not only going to be tough with ascents and descents but also technical. Obtaining my walking poles at CP2 was a good call. Already I was hearing of runners being defeated by the rugged terrain and many knew all too well what laid ahead going into the next Checkpoint. At times I felt like I was on my home training ground running up the back of our Mount Archer or running through the Glasshouse mountains. Other times I felt like I was reliving the beauty of New Zealand’s Tarawera Ultra and whilst crossing farmland filled with cattle I was reminded of my adventures on the Heysen 105 trail.
So much diversity all in one day already, but what I was about to step into was my worse nightmare.
Night was falling quickly and I knew I needed to cover ground fast knowing I will be stepping into darkness and had concerns going into the 3rd checkpoint. My fears quickly turned into reality as darkness fell and with it came silence. I had used running shoe marks in the ground as a comfort knowing I was heading in the right direction. This comfort was no longer there and now I had to visualize what I was told the previous night. I soon found myself on the wrong trail. Knowing where I was, was good but were to go back to get on the correct track was getting me emotional stressed and I had no alternative other than to back track and re evaluate my position. I soon surrendered and had no alternative other than to wait at the turn I knew the lead runners were going to be coming back out from Checkpoint 3 and get directions. It seemed like forever till I saw headlights and the comfort of voices. They quickly got me back on track and I soon found how I easily missed the trail. I had also had a fall in the dark a slid down the embankment, having to claw my way back on the trail during my disorientation. I had also lost my sunglasses which although are materialistic I shed some tears, thinking how was I going to not let this race defeat me. I had taken wrong turns on even marked trails before but never could call myself disorientated or lost that could bring such fear out of me. I entered Checkpoint 3(Basin Campsite) got checked in and dove into my husbands arms for security and reassurance. I knew I had to tag onto another runner to get myself to the next checkpoint. Not because of the not knowing where I was going but for the reassurance of having the company. The long day of much of it running solo was playing games with my capabilities after going off track. I quickly tagged a 100km runner eager for some company to his finishing line being my ½ way mark. My anxiety quickly settled once back out on the trail with the 100km runners grouping up being their last leg. It was great running with some company. I was looking forward to the next checkpoint. It was the finishing line for the 100km runners and that meant excitement and lots of smiles. Plus food, as my body was telling me it was now time for dinner.
On approaching Yarramalong Public School, Checkpoint 4, husband Phil was there ready to rug me up for the cool night ahead and provided me with some warm soup and reassurance. And guess what was waiting there also for me? My lost sunglasses handed in by a runner. I felt fate was on my side again.
We both knew I was concerned with the next leg. The directions seemed vague and being in the darkness I was not keen to head out alone. So off we went seeking a pacer waiting for their runner on a mercy mission. One was found but the runner was another 30+ minutes out, then I had to wait for the runner to recovery and ready to leave. I had plenty of time up my sleeve and decided to wait it out rather than risk the unknown. With 1 ½ hours at Checkpoint 4 I am sure the volunteers were starting to wonder if I was ever intending to continue. Hearing that 27 runners had already pulled out at Checkpoint 2 along with more planning to end their Miler at the 100km finishing. The Miler had defeated them. I was starting to get more determined to finish this Miler. Though I had some more unexpected hurdles unknown to me at this time that I was about to be confronted with. As if continuous ascents and descents weren’t challenging enough.
Leaving Checkpoint 4 was exciting I had fresh legs, fueled and armed for the darkness. All was going well but with fatigue setting in and having some difficult climbs that were technical being in the dark we slowed quickly. The night air was getting colder and the night demons were closing in. It seemed like the rocks were never ending to climb up or down and unforgiving. I was thankful for the walking poles aiding for additional support. When we entered out onto the fire trail it was like hitting an ice wall, the mist in the air biting any bare skin that was not covered. We had slowed too much that our core body temps had dropped and I knew we were in trouble. The night demons had caught us as well. I had dozed off into space a couple of times and was getting wobbly on the feet. I knew I had to leave the comfort of the pacer and runner and keep moving. I had reached a car of a crew going in to collect a runner. I had decided that I was in no state to go back into the forest for the next climb. Between the cold and night demons I could not even read my map directions. As a tear rolled down my eye thinking how could I let it finally defeat me? I also felt for the other runner I had left behind knowing all too well of his fate. Was this to be my first DNF…Really… I made it this far……
But fate was not going to allow this to happen. I heard voices of runners, at first I thought I was hallucinating. They stopped and knew I was in a bad way. I was unable to speak clearly but they knew I needed to get moving and put another layer over me to get me warm. Once moving my core body temp warmed and my head started to clear. Before going back into the forest they fueled me with coke and it was not long before I was back to the land of living and I had left the night demons back on the fire trail. To this day I owe my finishing to a runner called Tez and his pacer Cress. They knew I was in my darkest hour and what to do as any trail runner does. They quickly accepted me as baggage till I could hold myself together. Unfortunately for Tez I enjoyed his company so much I tagged him all the way to the finishing line. We watched the sunrise going into Checkpoint 5(Somersby Public School) for breakfast and got to know each other through to checkpoint 6 (Mooney Mooney Creek)covering ground quickly.
Checkpoint 6 was the best. I finally got my Vegemite sandwich I had been hanging out for and we were headed to that finishing line. The scenery was stunning down in the rain forest pockets of the valley. Waterfalls and streams were refreshing. But then followed steep climbs leading to open Sandstone Plateaus. The views were just magnificent and the site of water meant the finishing line was close.
Tez and I had got to know each other well over many hours. I am sure if you asked Tez he would know exactly how many. He joked how he couldn’t dump me and I think at times I became his nightmare of that female voice in his head. The final 10kms seemed forever. The rock climbs that many hours ago seemed fun and amazing were now relentless and tiring.
Our humor became our survival. “Rock what Rock”. To this day I do not believe I will ever create a rock garden. I suddenly could feel and smell the sea air, my want for the finish was growing. We were hoping for a 3pm roll in on presentation but it was not meant to be. 7kms out I finally got phone reception and called Phil. I really just needed to hear his voice. He says “See you in a half an hour then darling, you are nearly here”. Like as if…Rocks…Still more Rocks to go down. Yes down is easy for someone who has not already ran, walked, climbed and crawled the last 170km of rugged terrain. So I will leave it to your imagination of the descriptive words that came from my mouth when I saw the climb down to the beach. I am surprised that Tez did not push me down to relieve him of some of his pain.
We were both hurting but Tez had continually spoken of his family, the love for his wife and young children was a joy to hear. They were waiting at the beach entrance for him to run him home. It was knowing this that got him through the pain of the final decent. Being greeted on the beach surrounded by his beautiful family, running to the kissing pole (the finishing) was such an amazing and memorable feeling. I could see the emotion in Tez’s eyes hidden behind his glasses. These young children inspired him and kept him going through the long torturous hours of pain he had endured. Their excitement of seeing their Dad made all the pain go away and I was so grateful to experience and being a part of his journey, becoming part of mine. Running those final meters surrounded by his loved ones was the highlight of the entire event. Thank you Tez for putting up with me along with my really bad sense of humor. I do act like a lady off the trail…Really.:-) Sharing 33rd place was an honor. With 85 starters for the Miler, only 46 survived and we were two of them. Cress.. Thank you for you quick actions in saving me from that DNF option. Dean and Brad I am so grateful for allowing me to tag along and sharing your stories throughout the final hours keeping me focused on the finishing line. Brad I am so sorry for my bad ars attitude responses to your encouragement of “we are nearly there”. I hope I am forgiven and I am no longer a bad memory. All you guys were awesome.
My husband Phil, we made a super amazing team (finally we got it right). Knowing you were waiting at each checkpoint freezing you backside off and not complaining once. Providing me with all my needs and reassurance to get to the next one. I could not ask for more in a crew and in a husband with such commitment. I love you dearly for not just being there throughout the event but during the long months of many training hours leading into race. I could not ask more from such an amazing man and husband.
The volunteers were all amazing at each checkpoint. Your support and passion for the event that could not happen without you all, I know all the runners are sincerely grateful. Race Director David Byrnes your love for trails and allowing endurance runners to experience their boundaries in such an event in our home country we cannot thank you enough. Your website warning lives up to each word written. This race is one that deserves respect and appreciated for it toughness. I once said I would never do a race twice but this one has got me. I will return more aware and prepared but also still with the respect of what it may deliver. Greg Brown, thank you for setting the challenge, along with your hospitality and caring for my needs after the race. My Coach Greg Rowsell your ongoing commitment to get me mentally and physically prepared for every start and finishing line. Along with never doubting my ability to achieve my goals, I could not thank you enough. My physio Erin from Movement Improvement for your ongoing care to ensure my body is fined tuned and remained injury free.Your honesty and advice is priceless.I could have written a race report on the beautiful scenery or many other descriptions of the trail. In reality this race is spectacular and with amazing views to see but it is about the runners seeking to challenge their bodies and pushing the boundaries to see what they can achieve is the true story behind this race.
Love My Running 🙂