Well, hello. It’s been a while between posts, for which I apologise. Today, though, I’m bringing you a cracking read. My partner Ciaran recently completed in a gruelling ultra-marathon, the 100 km Great North Walk. Far from a walk, this is a run across a challenging 100km section of this famous track – starting north, near Newcastle in New South Wales and heading south through the searing heat of the day day and into the night. What an amazing combination of mental and physical preparation and tenacity, as well as community spirit. You can read his original post here or I’ve included it in full below. Enjoy!
At 9 minutes to midnight on Saturday, 9 November 2013 I crossed the finish line at Yarramalong, a sleepy hamlet 90 minutes north of Sydney, to complete my first 100 km ultra marathon race. I set myself this goal since leaving Checkpoint 3 (81.6km) at about the same time the previous year, as a volunteer, heading home after an amazingly inspiring day. How the hell did I finish this year, when the conditions were atrocious and claimed many, many runners?
“How are you feeling?” was the question I kept getting asked in the week leading up to the race. “Calm” was my reply and “I just want to get to the start line and get it underway”. I can imagine most runners were feeling the same.
It’s always a restless sleep the night before a big race and with this race it was no different. Driving to the start at 5.00 am the car thermometer said 25C. Not a great omen for the day.
Before I knew it I’d checked in at Teralba, a sleepy outer suburb of Newcastle, the starting point for the race. Wristbands on (one recording my number and one recording my weight), weigh-in, toilet stop done, compulsory pre-race coffee in hand and we were listening to the race director’s briefing. Lots of familiar faces in the crowd, both runners and supporters to say hello to, good luck, can’t believe we’re doing this etc. Every little personal interaction gave me a lift, mentally and physically.
Before long we’re making our way to the start. 6.00 am: we’re off. It was all a bit surreal but in a calm way and just relieved to be under way. Eight months of hard training and I have gotten to the start line injury free. Tick – first goal achieved.
A quick look at my watch shows I was running at 5:30 min/km pace. There’s no way I could run 100 km at this pace. Continue this fast and your race will be over very quick, I told myself. So I slowed down and walked up the hill out of Teralba.
The field became strung out quite quickly and I found a good rhythm, while chatting away to fellow runners. 7 km down and we’re on the trail. Kevin Andrews, from Terrigal Trotters, was there at the Wakefield trailhead, dressed in Elvis attire, cheering on the runners. He checked me in at the start and I seemed to see him everywhere on the day. Each sighting gave me a massive lift. Thank you Kev.
My hydration and nutrition was going well. My plan was to eat and drink heaps for the first leg. Thankfully I was able to do this as very often I can struggle to get food in. Passing under the M1 Freeway (at 10 km) it started to rain very, very lightly. I remember thinking “ah this is nice but what if it rained heavy all day?” Ha – wishful thinking!!
15 km down and we’re crossing Freeman’s Drive, a major road to the Hunter Valley wine region. I stopped to adjust my left sock as I could feel it rubbing on my little toe.
Surely not a blister, surely not this early? Across the road and a quick “you’re going great” from a fellow Terrigal Trotter and we’re on the huge climb up to Heaton Lookout. I was so glad to have done this section of the track as a training run 2 months previously. Knowing what was coming next is a huge advantage in any race. The climb is long and hard but I got to the top feeling fresh and ran to the lookout with a fellow training buddy. I took my left shoe and sock off and indeed I had a blister on my little toe. I stuck a band-aid on it and was thankful that I had a change of shoes to put on at CP1.
Through the jungle section, a particularly dense rainforest section of the run, no problem with a train of 4-5 other runners. Past Macleans lookout and onto the gravel road towards Checkpoint 1, 28.6 km. I came across a runner swaying as he ran. Really? So early into the race? I thought. I stopped to see how he was and he had run out of water. The only water I had left was in my hydration pack which he happily accepted.
Feeling fresh as I ran into Checkpoint 1. There was Elvis again aka Kevin Andrews. Support crew there. Everyone saying I looked really good, really fresh. Spirit boosted. After refueling and a change of clothes and shoes I took off towards the often dreaded Congewai Valley. I was walking most of the hills at this stage not because I wasn’t able to run them but as a way of conserving energy. It wasn’t a slow walk but a fast power walk about a 6 km/hr pace. I’d done a lot of this in training after reading somewhere of the importance of it. “Even the elite runners walk some of the hills” it said. Well I’m not elite so I’ll be walking a lot of the hills I figured.
Not long after Checkpoint 1 the clouds broke and a brutal sun came out. I remember suddenly being aware of this, looking up and literally seeing the clouds rapidly evaporate. I knew then a very hot Congewai Valley awaited. Still I was hydrating (or so I thought!) and eating well. I could feel the heat building, evaporating the sweat quickly and drying the throat.
I managed to pass a few runners on this leg but always made sure to have a chat as I passed them and see how they were doing. Running along with one runner we got on the subject of billabongs along Congewai road and the possibility of jumping in one. Then we came across the greenish, slimiest billabong ever. It didn’t stop us submerging out hats in the foul water and putting them back on. Our need to get cool water on our heads was that great.
On the downhills into Congewai valley my left shin was causing me a lot of pain. I couldn’t run the downhills. Bugger. Just before I got to Congewai Road I caught up with a fellow Terrigal Trotter and GNW rookie Mark Hope ahead of me. That gave me a massive lift. He was doing it very tough though so I walked a bit with him and tried to lift his spirits. We tried to walk a kilometer, run a kilometer into Checkpoint 2 but the conditions were too oppressive. The temperature was 38 degrees in the shade! As I past the GNW turn off towards the communications tower, the route I would have to take after leaving Checkpoint 2, I could see runners walking very, very gingerly up the track. Not a great sign. Everyone was doing it tough.
I finally made it into Checkpoint 2, Congwai Public School – 52.5 km and the weigh in showed I had lost 4.5 kg! That was a massive surprise to me. I thought I was hydrating well enough. Apparently not. I sat down with my support crew and all I could say was “it’s so hot, it’s so hot”. I caught tidbits of updates and realized quickly that many people had pulled out, top runners included. I tried not to focus too much on this. I remember thinking “what if I was unable to continue?” Then I focused on all the long hours of training I had done, how I had been thinking about this race everyday for the last year, how shit I would feel in the next few days if I did not complete it. This solidified my reserve to continue as long as I felt a bit better. I got lots of fluid into me, including my not so secret weapon – hot tea. If you know me you’ll know how many cups of tea I have a day. It’s an Irish thing. Even on a stinking hot day it restores me physically and mentally.
After the first cup I began to feel just that tiny bit better. I put 100% of my focus on this feeling and it grew. Another cup of tea and I felt a little bit better. Change of clothes. A bit better again. And so on until I felt strong enough to continue. A kiss good bye to support crew [the spectacular – ed.] Maddie and daughter Eva. Bag check and gee up from fellow Terrigal Trotter Ian Temblett and I’m off. Eva and her best buddy Nina ran along the school fence shouting goodbye. Yet another boost to my spirit. Every little boost helped and added up to pushing me along towards my goal.
From here I walked slowly to the top of the communications tower. It was hell. Runners were either coming back down, crashed out on the track or walking soooo slowly. Half way up the climb I was buggered. I sat down and threw up 3 times. Somehow this helped and with renewed vigour I continued up the climb. I came across Graham Ridley, another fellow Terrigal Trotter in a bad way ¾ of the way up the climb. Cramping really badly and in considerable pain he was pulling out. We phoned the race director and Graham decided to head back down to Checkpoint 2. At that moment a top runner came down the climb, pulling out, heading back to Checkpoint 2. He looked pretty fresh and I was surprised to see him pull out. It didn’t stop me continuing, just hardened my resolve in a perverse kind of way. Stupidity or stubbornness? Probably a combination of both!
I finally made it to the top. I sat down with 2 other runners, nobody really saying much and had a banana. I was feeling much better now and decided to go for it and ran off towards Checkpoint 3. I had heard that a cool change had come through down the coast a bit and I was beginning to feel the effects of it. I shouted with joy at one stage, welcoming the cooler winds.
Somewhere along this section I realized I was going to finish the race. I remember getting a bit emotional and then quickly telling myself I’ll have plenty of time for this at the end. That I was wasting energy that my legs needed. I actually visualized pushing the emotion from my head down my body into my legs. That sure helped!
When I did this section of the trail, Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3, in a training run earlier in the year I ran most of it on my own. I knew that would stand me in good stead on the day and I was not wrong as I ran most of it alone during the race.
Steep descent into Watagan Creek valley, still sore left shin but moving along nicely. Such a beautiful valley. The climb out of the valley was hard as expected but I managed to pass a few runners on the way. Pleasantries exchanged which always gives me a lift and I’d like to think they felt the same.
Thankfully the water at the unmanned drink stop at the top of the was not too warm. I filled up 2 bottles and continued on to the Basin, Checkpoint 3. A combination of running and speed walking got me to the Basin with the last bit of daylight in the sky. That became a goal during the day, get to the Basin before it got totally dark.
I changed my clothes again at the checkpoint. This was a good strategy that helped enormously on the day. I also refueled with veggie soup, tea, cold mango and cool drinks. Good to see plenty of Terrigal Trotters around, chatting to them lifted my spirits even more.
After about 20 minutes at the checkpoint it was on with pack, hi-vis vest, light and off for the last leg. I saw fellow Trotter Mark Hope coming into the checkpoint as I was leaving. I was so happy to see him make it as he was in a really bad way at Checkpoint 2. I felt and knew that nothing was really going to stop me finishing now. I’ve never felt so focused and sure on anything before. In what felt like no time at all I was on the road into Yarramalong, the 100 km finish line. Mark Hope caught up with me and we ran for a bit. He had more running left in his legs and ran off ahead. Rather than try and keep up with him, maybe make a race of it (dangerous thinking), I was just happy for the guy that he was going to complete the race.
I thought the road section into Yarramalong would be a breeze but it dragged on and on. But eventually I made it to Yarramalong, running the last kilometre then up the driveway into the school and under the finish banner! I finished the GNW100km ultra!!! Wow. Gobsmacked.
Thank you Ken Hickson, another Terrigal Trotter, for putting the medal around my neck and thank you awesome support crew Maddie and Eva. Finally thank you to the organizers, amazing volunteers and fellow runners for making this race what it is.
Things that motivated me and got me through the day:
- Prior knowledge of and training on the course
- Pacing oneself – not going out too hard too early
- Walking lots of hills to conserve energy
- Knowing that no matter how bad you’re feeling this will pass and a period of feeling good will follow
- Backing yourself/belief in yourself – in my case I knew I’d done the training and was capable of finishing the run
- Having mantras – in my case “Failure is not an option” and “one step at a time” helped enormously
- Have fun and enjoy the day no matter how crap you may be feeling
- Unless you’re in a position to win the race, stop now and again and enjoy the scenery. Take some photos. After all the training you deserve this
- Always focus on the positive, no matter how small, accentuate it
- Block out the negative
- Lastly it felt like something was willing me along to finish that wouldn’t let me fail. It was like every cell in my body has decided to finish this race and nothing was going to stop it.
Food that got me through the day:
- Water in hydration pack
- 2 x bottles of half/half water/sports drink mix
- Muesli bars
- Protein sports bars
- Jam/marmalade white bread sandwiches
- Gels – Cadel Evans brand
While at Checkpoints:
- Cups of hot sweet tea
- Water melon
- Hot veg soup
In short I try to have as much ‘real’ food as possible and less of the ‘unreal’ sports orientated food.
– So there you have it. What a great example of making fear a minority shareholder, and getting on what what you really want to do. Ciaran only ran his first marathon (42.2 km) in January of this year and his first half (21.1 km) a few months before that. He has natural talent but he also plans thoroughly and works hard. Anything is possible! Brilliance.