Completing the North Face 50km Race: elation, exhaustion, and elation

Friday night before the race; we arrived in Leura, in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, checked into our hotel (and let it be known that the Waldorf in Leura bears no relationship to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City)…

The Waldorf Astoria, New York. What I was hoping for, but it didn’t quite turn out this way!

and then walked straight to race headquarters with kids in tow (“I don’t want to walk, this is stupid, I hate walking, you’re so mean…”).  I paced on ahead, leaving my husband towing the kids, feeling my pulse rate rise with each step.

On entering the Fairmont, my mouth dropped open.  Literally.  Right in front of me was a glass window with a view onto the majestic mountain range.

View from the Fairmont

View from the Fairmont

A cold finger of fear ran down my spine.  Surely this was just a photograph, surely I wasn’t really going to run out there.  How could I possibly get down those sheer cliffs?  I turned away, marvelling at the runners who were sitting in the atrium below, calming drinking coffee.  Other runners prowled the hotel, looking thin, wired, nervous, or, alternatively, surreally calm.  I went to explore.

I found the site of the finish line, stood and tried to picture myself crossing the line the next day; I couldn’t.  The kids were naughty, jumping into the giant North Face float, picking up on my nervous energy.  We went back to the car to go look at the mountains.  Someone at the hotel had mentioned there were fantastic views from Sublime Point and it was great for kids.  We drove there, parked, walked down a short trail, and suddenly, all around us were teetering cliff-edges.  My seven-year-old daughter loves to play “Scare Mom” and pretend to run at these edges.  We arm-wrestled her back to the car, and locked the door.  Not a good pulse-settler.  Driving further, we found Echo Point, which appeared to have a good view of the Three Sisters, and was a bit safer with young kids.  Having never felt a biting cold wind before, my daughter ran howling into the gift shop.  My son stood contemplating the view quietly.  I stood next to him, looking out on the mountain range.

Of course, I’d read all the course descriptions and scary disclaimers about how difficult this trail race was, but standing there on the edge of a thousand-foot cliff looking down into a limitless green valley, it all became rather awfully real.

Fear in my eyes

Fear in my eyes

The wind blew cold, and my eyes searched in vain for steps up the sheer cliff face.  I couldn’t wait to get back into the car.  Later that night, I tried to explain my fear to my husband but I couldn’t put that cold sense of terror into words.  He told me to stop driving myself crazy, which I took to mean he believed I could do this thing.  There was nowhere to go but the starting line.

The next morning came quickly.  I had found a new psychological place by then, one of quiet determination.  It was almost as if my body had taken over, and knew what to do.  I walked alone to the Fairmont, dropped off my after-race bag, and shortly met up with my family and Ben Clark, a fellow Melbourne runner.

Ben and I at the start

Ben and I at the start

Ben and I had decided back in November to do the North Face 100 as Marathon Pairs, but this option was replaced by race organisers with the solo 50 km event.  Ben was much faster than me, and we went into our respective starting waves, him in Wave 1, myself in Wave 2.  Being in Wave 2 was a slight triumph for me, as I’d expected to be in the slowest wave.  Having never run this far, I just assumed I’d be slower than most.  But my race results had been reviewed by the race organisers, and here I was in Wave 2!  Expected finish time between 7:30 and 9:15.

Ben’s Wave took off, and I stood there alone on the cold hill, checking my Garmin, trying not to think about the course.  I was here; the course would come and I would face it as I had planned.  The countdown began, but the person counting skipped a few numbers – it went something like 10,9,8,7,6,5  GO! – seems she was misreading her watch.  I liked this – I had less time to worry.

So off we ran on the golf course, green grass, my pack feeling way too heavy, my untried triathlon strap impeding my breathing.  I was suddenly doubting my training.  Why was everyone else not having trouble breathing?  I watched for treacherous changes in footing, trying not to race others, just getting a flow going.  That feeling came soon, thankfully, and in a few minutes, we were off the golf course and onto some real trails.  I’d love to be able to describe every trail in detail, the footing, the views, the shrubbery.  The truth is, I was focused mainly on my feet, and in those early stages, on letting lots of people pass me.  It was disheartening, all these people who were faster than me, but I was conscious of the 47km in front of us, not wanting to get hurt in the early stages of what would be a long battle.  So I stood aside and let lines of runners by me, and talked kindly to myself, trying not to judge.  The steps here were difficult.  Instead of the gradual inclines I’d been training on, this trail had been broken up with wooden steps every five feet or so, requiring continual attention to land well and not trip.  This type of footing was to be a feature of much of the course, and it was a challenge.

But, delightfully, the trail soon became a dirt road.  I was running much faster than I’d expected, flying downhill, the kilometres ticking by, the first checkpoint coming fast.  I was a full thirty minutes ahead of schedule, and the fear I had been feeling was subsiding.  Perhaps I was really going to do this.  The first 11km passed in 1:21.  But here was where I knew the downhill began in earnest, the place where much of my worry had centered.  If it were highly technical, it would be hard.  But, in fact, in great joyous fact, it wasn’t!  It was more like a four-wheel-drive trail or firetrail for much of the way, and I was right back in Hong Kong in my head, flying down the hills.  Though I shortened my stride because of my minimalist footwear, I was still tearing it up.  So much so that I began passing people!  Me!  I came up behind a group of five or six runners, some with hiking poles, and skirted my way between them.  Suddenly I found I was alone on the trail, flying fast downhill, and this sound just burst out from me, one of my favorite Bon Jovi songs – “We weren’t born to follow, come on get up off your knees, when life is a bitter pill to swallow you gotta hold on to what you believe…”.  I was smiling, laughing, singing, crying, all at once.  I was doing this, this thing that had terrified me, that I had been planning for and training for and waking at 5 am for – I was doing it!  And life over the last five years had held a few bitter pills.  This race, this trip, was a form of breaking free, of proving that we could travel as a family, and break free of the box that our lives had become.  It wasn’t just a race; it was a returning to the person I intended to be.

We crossed some watercourses, tiptoeing on cement blocks.  At one, the blocks looked unstable so I just plowed across in the water.  As it filled my shoes, the coldness of that water took my breath away.  For a moment, I doubted the choice to get wet feet, then I just got on with it.  I’d run in many races with wet feet.

We turned uphill and I suddenly couldn’t remember the course’s elevation profile – a big mental blank where it should have been.  All I knew was it was going to be tough, and that the toughest climb was at around 35km.  I walked many of the larger hills, being sure to take in the spectacular scenery.  I shared words with many runners, just moments in time where we ran shoulder to shoulder, shared our stories, and then separated.  Most were friendly, elated.  Some were battling cramps and fatigue.  A few wore headphones, isolating themselves in their own worlds.

But all the way, we followed the blue arrows and pink ribbons, which, when they occurred, were the most reassuring thing I’d ever seen in my life. Once, a man and I began running together, chatted, took some photos,

Magic scenery

turned up a hillside, and ages went by without a ribbon.  I was afraid we were lost; when that ribbon appeared, it was like a ray of sunshine.  And we needed sunshine.  The trails, possibly overhung by a cliff, were dark, like we had lost several hours and the sun had begun setting.  I checked my watch: still daytime.

But we were headed straight for my second big worry of this race: the Furber Steps.  I knew they climbed up a cliff-face; I just didn’t whether they exposed us to a drop.  To my delight, they were fully fenced in.  They were physically challenging, but nothing as scary as I’d expected.  Especially because I would not allow myself to look down.  Up to the top, climb, swear, climb, high-fives from agile children with smiling, cheering parents, and suddenly we broke free of the trails and began to climb on the road towards the second checkpoint.  I was thrilled with my time, heading towards 35km, because I could see it was only just nearing 2:00, and at this rate I’d be back before dark.  But the road stretched upwards forever, cruel, sunny, bitumen.  Oh, I hated that road, how it went on and on and on.  We turned a corner, I was sure we were at the checkpoint, but we weren’t, there was more horrid road.  Up we went.  And then, just outside the checkpoint, I saw, with more delight than I can describe, my husband and children.  It was as if I was on the front line of some great and dangerous battle, and there, just there, was home.  I wanted to cry, but I was so elated, I couldn’t.  I made sure to high-five both of my kids, to shout “I love you” to my husband, and then I continued on into the checkpoint.

A strange moment.  All I wanted was water for my pack, having decided not to try anything I’d not tried in training.  But it was like there was a party going on in there.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to eat noodles and sit down by a heat lamp.  Instead, I filled my pack, and ran out the door, where again, I saw my family, felt like crying with joy, and ran off, shouting, “See you at the finish!”.

IMG_0964

Beginning the last 14 km

Up until then, the race had been easier than I expected.  My worst fears had not occurred:  I was not suffering hypothermia; my nutrition was working great with water, gels, salt tablets, and bananas; my feet felt fine; and it looked like I’d be back before dark.  I ran off, reminding myself that it wasn’t over yet, there were still 14k to go, and I had only ever run 43km once in my life.  Good words of wisdom, it turned out.  That last 14 was the toughest of all.  Lots of stairs, gathering dusk, tired legs.  Tourists cheered us, I followed the ribbons, and coached myself not to trip.  By this point, I’d been running 5 and a half hours.  That was okay.  It was just the incessant visits down to waterfalls and back up the stairs that began to kill me. It was beautiful, ferny, waterfally, but God, I was having trouble not tripping, keeping my feet placed well within each step.

At some stage, I shared a salt tablet with a struggling female runner, and we ran near each other for much of the last 8 km.  It was tough.  My Garmin had lost the satellite feed at some point, so I didn’t know how much further we had to go.  I couldn’t use my usual tricks of just going one more kilometre.  I kept singing Bon Jovi’s Army of One, “never give up, never give up, never give up, you’re an army on one…” to myself.  Keep going; I just had to keep going.  I had packed a second banana, and feeling exhausted, downed half, took a fifth salt tablet, and later, at what I guessed to be about 46 km, downed the second half of the banana.  The increase in energy was immediate and reassuring.  I wanted to finish strong.

On the final ascent, a rocky, technical climb, there stood a young boy who must have been six or seven.  He cheered, clapped, gave me a high-five.  For that last climb, he gave me wings.

Suddenly, we were on the road, on the final ascent to the finish line.  The woman I’d helped with the salt tablet passed me, but that was okay, I was only racing myself, and I let her go, passed her anyway when she started walking, and then she passed me again.  All I knew was the finish line was near, that I was doing it, was going to make it.  On I ran, into the resort, up a path (‘Five-hundred metres to go,” someone shouted, which seemed forever, and broke my heart).  I ran on, hurting, pushing.  And there they were, my family, just one hundred metres from the finish.  Out ran my daughter to run with me, out ran my son.  Together we sprinted that last one hundred metres, my arms outstretched to them, theirs to me.

We crossed together.  I had done it; we had done it!  Run fifty kilometres through the Blue Mountains, faced down the doubts which had threatened me, the fears which had chilled me.  So many obstacles overcome.

To say I became someone new when I crossed that line would not be true.  I became someone new the night before, when I decided that I was going to do this race no matter how scared I was.

IMG_0963Today, someone asked me how the race was.  I had to pause.  I cannot put into words, for someone who has not done it, how the race was.  But I will try.  It was a tremendous battle.  It was a joyous dance in magnificent mountains.  In the course of that seven-and-a-half hours, I felt every emotion possible.  I sang, I laughed out loud, I cried.  I learned.

The journey began eight months ago.  It began as a dream, a fantasy.  With the help, advice and training with many another runner (thanks to the Dandenongs Trail Runners for the long, hard runs; to Hanny Allston of Find Your Feet for training advice; thanks to Scott Knable for the inspiration; thanks to Ben Clark for long training runs), and with the support of my wonderful family, I have done it.

How was the race?  Life-altering.  Astonishing.

What next?  Standing still and celebrating.

Oh, and the little matter of the Salomon Trail Series beginning in June!

Salomon Trail Series 2012: Anglesea Race, smiling all the way

Salomon Trail Series 2012: Anglesea Race, smiling all the way

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12 thoughts on “Completing the North Face 50km Race: elation, exhaustion, and elation

  1. Well done Patricia. What an amazing journey you are on. It’s a joy to follow along as you keep getting stronger and stronger and going further and further into the wild. Very much looking forward to sharing a trail (and tale) or two over the colder, darker muddier months.

  2. I started reading your post knowing that I was going to cry at the end- I love reading inspirational running posts- what a fantastic successful day out you had. Congratulations!

  3. Well done Patricia, congratulations. An amazing journey of overcomng fear and doubt by finding the courage and belief in yourself to go where only your dreams can take you. Inspirational stuff, keep running, see you on the trails.

    • Thanks Scott! Did I tell you what happened just before the start? I said to Ben something like, “Who’s idea was this anyway??”, and he said, with a very straight face, “Scott’s”. We both laughed, wishing you were there with us too! Perhaps next year…

  4. Pingback: Recovery (the restlessness of a caged tiger) | patriciaabowmer

  5. Patricia, I’ve read every word of this – very entertaining, but more than that. I wish I was your kind of athlete, but I’m not… my sister certainly is. However i do know what it’s like to stick with it and get to the line. On some of the legs in the Laotian mountains last November, and the Kimberley in 2010 – it was like that to me, a tremendous effort to get there, a real battle in the soaring heat and pain, and so rewarding when you do. But your achievement is amazing. 50km on THAT kind of terrain. I like the comment about the key being the decision the night before, to do it despite the fear.

    • It sounds like you’ve done some amazing things yourself. Fear is an interesting thing. My goal is to use it to prepare as best I can. It doesn’t go away but I walk with it as best I can.

  6. Pingback: So what’s the North Face 100? And why? | On the way to 100!

  7. Pingback: I made a promise… | patriciaabowmer

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