GNW100s 2011. The race within.
I wasn't going to write a race report on this years GNW. Good race reports are full of drama, tragedy and misfortune. I had none of that. All my drama took place months before. By the bucket load. But this years GNW was by far the single most important I have run. It was by far the sweetest finish of all my seven GNWs. Despite being November, it was my first race for the year and more importantly my first ultra post catheter ablation surgery on my heart. So even though my race unfolded relatively uneventfully I was in fact running the race of my life. And surging just below the surface was a tide of raw emotions battling to take control and derail my efforts. This is a story within a story. A race within a race. It may be merely just another race but to me it was a stepping-stone to reclaiming my life. My life as an ultrarunner.
A thousand clichés come to mind when I think of how best to describe this race. But none do justice. A thousand words could describe this race. But even they wouldn't suffice. At 174km it is not only longer than the standard 100-mile race, it is regarded as the toughest 100 miler in Oz. No arguments here. The dropout rate testifies to that. 50% failed to finish. That is huge. Nevertheless, I finished. And that means I have finished every year, the only person to do so (despite the first year only entering the 100km). I am not interested in bragging rights. For me, this was a race against myself. A race against my own limitations. A race against my illness. The course simply provided the playing field upon which I would test these limits. There was no guarantee that I would finish. There never is with a race this brutal or this long. And like I said, it all started months before and was still going on even on the start line. Beyond all else, I needed to know if I could still run ultras. This was going to be my big test.
Teralba footy oval at 5am was almost balmy. 100 runners milling around, exuding nervous energy as they registered, fidgeted with gear and went through last minute rituals. I was participating in a voluntary research study that required me to give a blood and urine sample and answer a short questionnaire. Once that was sorted I mingled with the crowd of regulars. I was strangely calm, fully aware of what I faced. And fully aware of what it was going to take to finish. Hanging over me was the cloud of uncertainty of how my heart would react to the burden of stress from continual physical exertion for up to 36 hours. For 7 months Atrial Fibrillation (AF) had restricted my running to 3 or 4 easy 8-10 km runs per week. Perhaps 'easy' is the wrong word. None of those runs were easy. But this is the abridged version. Every one of those runs was a challenge on it's own. Just getting out the door was a challenge much of the time. The medications and the disorder combined to restrict my ability to run. In fact restrict my life, my ability to work and simply function. But I refused to give in. I refused to believe that I couldn't beat this thing.
Ten weeks before GNW I had surgery. It took 5&1/2 hours and I was in Coronary Care for 3 nights. Hopefully it would correct or at least reduce the attacks of unregulated heartbeats. I couldn't run at all for two weeks after that. In fact I was worse than before the surgery. By week 3, with the blessing of my cardiologist, I started ramping up my training. I had 7 weeks left until GNW. 4 weeks out I reached 100 km per week for the first time in 8 months. I had niggles all over in protest to the rapid acceleration in mileage. I strung together 3 weeks of 100 km, which left me one week to taper. Still my longest run since March was little more than 30 km. I would be running on muscle memory. And my muscles have some very ugly memories from this course. I had no other choice. As the only person to have finished every GNW I felt a responsibility to keep this unique streak alive.
Standing on the oval at Teralba, I flicked on my Garmin. I was wearing a 310XT with a foot pod. This would allow me to turn off the GPS but still have a rough guide to distance and pace. But most importantly it would spare the battery so that I could monitor my heartrate for the entire race. The screen lit up and my heart sank, figuratively. My heartrate registered at 120bpm. Standing still and at rest. Oh crap. That is almost AF territory. In fact my first thought was that I was in AF. I felt the pulse in my neck: regular but fast. I was sure I wasn't in AF. I tried to relax and breathe slowly. It lowered a bit but was still over 100bpm when I lined up for the start.
Dave Byrnes sent us on our way right on 6am. I walked from the start. Close to Bill Thompson who usually walks the whole way. Second last place with the sweep car flashing right behind me. Once off the bitumen and onto the bush track I tried some slow jogging but my heartrate would jump straight up. So I walked for the first couple of hours with only the occasional trot on the downhills. Even on the long drop into Heaton's Gap I restrained and shuffled easily down putting my ego away. This would help spare my underprepared quads.
I passed a few runners on the monster climb up to Heaton’s Lookout. Then a few more including Susannah and Tanky as I scurried through the rainforest. The path was little more than a crushed leaf litter footpad through the trees. First time ever no leaches. Bill was right behind me, his powerful walking stride matching my run/walk routine. We walked into Checkpoint 1 together. Allison, Leslie and Mick all jumped in to help refill my bottles and sort through my drop-bag and reload my pack. I walked out eating a can of rice. I did this at each CP. It allowed an easy transition back onto the course, gave me time to digest and reduced eating times at CPs.
My heart rate had settled a little more now so I ran until it hit 130 bpm then walked until it dropped to the low 100s. Repeat. All the way along the road until finally dropping into the Congewai Valley. Again I eased into the long downhill to spare my quads and keep my HR down. I climbed onto the road and ran steadily all the way to the school and CP2. I felt great. I was really starting to enjoy this. I passed several runners then crossed some others on their way back out from the school. The six previous times I have fought with this road and it went on forever. Today I skipped along leisurely and it was over in no time. I was really enjoying this.
Tim was at the school to crew me. Di helped out as well. It was quick and easy. I gave another blood sample. Answered the questionnaire again: any nausea, stomach cramps, bloating, confusion, vomiting? Nope, I feel great. Reloaded, refueled, I walked out with customary rice in hand.
The climb out of the Congewai Valley is the biggest of the entire course. It destroys many runners. Two-thirds the way up I found a guy lying on his back, pale with zinc cream plastered on and bathed in sweat. "You OK?" "Yep, just overheating." Lucky this is a cool year, I thought to myself. The several false summits didn't phase me. I climbed like I was out for a Sunday stroll, easy and casual, constantly checking my garmin and keeping things under control.
Past the tower I started running again along Cabans Road. I came up behind a walker clearly not well. He was swaying across the road with the occasional stumble. I stopped to check on him. It was Roland from Switzerland and he was not well but had resolved to walk down to Watagan Creek Road and get a ride out. "Have you spoken to your crew?" "No, no reception." I knew it was a long drive in for the crew and once we drop to the road there is no phone reception. So I tried to ring Dave B to get a message through. Voicemail only. So I rang the radio operator at Somersby School who would be able to pass the message on. That done I checked he was OK to walk out and got back to business.
Reaching Watagan Creek there was a new footbridge so dry feet for a change. Very welcome. The climb out of the valley is brutal. No other word for it. But once again it just ticked away and soon I was refilling at the unmanned water drop at the top. Last year I had met Dog here in the back of Dave’s 4WD. No-one here this year. Somewhere along the road I did encounter Dave B driving into the water drop. He stopped and we chatted. He commented that I looked fresh. And surprisingly I actually felt it. The late afternoon sun was filtering down through the trees and I was out for a day in the bush. And really enjoying it.
The race was on to get into CP3 before dark. I started pushing a little harder and watched as my HR crept up and my threshold for what I would allow went up with it. I started dropping into the basin. I slipped on a leaf-covered step and slid down several steps, bump, bump, bump, hitting the back of my head hard on the steps as I went. I lay there doing the mental check: legs? Fine. Arms? Fine. Head? Sore but OK. Only one crushed finger that I had landed on. It was sore but nowhere near as bad as the little toe I broke 2 weeks before the race. I could feel that all day swelling up in my shoe.
Approaching the basin darkness finally overtook me and I started crossing paths with runners coming back the other way. I pressed on without my headlight feeling my way and relying on night vision. I was rewarded by the most spectacular show of fireflies dotted throughout the trees. They flickered like little christmas lights, trying to guide me on my way. It was one of those magical moments that make it all worthwhile.
CP3 is always a welcome sight after the long haul from the school. Tim was there to help, as was Seris with her heavily bandaged and grazed face courtesy of a bad fall that forced her to pull out. Dog was stretched out on a cot under a blanket. I tried to convince him to come with me. I offered to walk with him. We had plenty of time. I knew how much he dreaded a DNF at CP3 after last year. This one would be hard to take. I figured if I could get him to CP4 he might improve or at the least have a 100km. No chance. We shook hands and I was off. It always hurts to see those around us fail and reminds us of our own vulnerability.
I partnered up with a guy leaving CP3. I never caught his name but discovered later it was Richard. It was his mate I had encountered halfway up to the comm tower laying on his back. I always find the turnoffs deceptive after leaving the basin. The tracks go for much longer than I remember and I start to doubt my navigation. This time was no different with the tracks going on and on. Finally we peeled off and were dropping to Cedar Brush trailhead. I continued to preserve my quads which by now were starting complain on the downhills. So it was a very leisurely cruise to the road. I passed some runners after climbing the fence. And then some more along the road, checking their maps. The full moon lit up the valley so I turned my light skyward to run in just the moonlight. The trees were hulking silhouettes and a misty fog lay across the fields. It was almost surreal in the moonlight. Another one of those purely magical moments. I realised I was running solidly so I watched my garmin closely. All good. I kept the heartrate under control but peeled off a solid 11 km and reached the school at Yarramalong right on midnight. Wow I was about 2 hours ahead of expectations. I would need every bit of that buffer.
CP4 was buzzing at midnight. I was weighed and gave blood again. Ticked all the boxes and surprised everyone with how good I was feeling. Where is the drama? Where are the bad patches? My crew, Tim, had planned to pace me from here to Somersby but had been struggling to get the car shuffled ahead. Turns out he wasn't even there and had been called away on a minor emergency. Jane asked me if I would be ok and even offered to pace me despite having her face all bandaged and looking rather battered. Despite her generous offer, I said I was right and once fueled up and loaded headed off into the night eating and walking per my routine.
The section from CP4 to CP5 goes through the dead of the night. I always struggle here. This time would be no different. A veil of fatigue descended on me and I couldn't shake it. Fatigue has been an ongoing symptom of my illness. I haven’t worked a full day in over 6 months. I have been tired in races before but this time there was no shaking it. Nick Barlow flew past me. He had been sleeping in the checkpoint and said he felt like a new man. I was jealous. I couldn't take caffeine and was craving some spark to keep me moving. I thought of napping and looked longingly at patches of grass but everything was wet with the dew. And I figured it would pass. It didn't. I shuffled the new road section. Back onto the trail and past the old water drop site. The dreaded sleepmonsters were heavy on my shoulders. I started hallucinating. Keep going. If I could make it to sun-up I knew I would feel better.
Finally I broke from the forest into the farmland around Ourimbah Valley and I simply could go on no longer. I was literally falling asleep on my feet. I was staggering. I would wake-up suddenly while walking off the road. Constant microsleeps while on the move. The sun was coming up and there was no magical revival. I picked a small patch of gravel off the side of the road, set my phone alarm for 15 minutes and collapsed in a heap just as I was. I was asleep before my head hit the dirt. The alarm went off in the blink of an eye. I could have lain there for hours but I had a job to do. I wasn't refreshed but I was now wide-awake and ready for the big climb into Somersby.
CP5 was subdued early in the morning. I had lost a lot of time, taking over 6 hours stumbling through the night from Yarramalong. I had soup and refilled for the next leg. I still did not think about the finish. I focused only on the next checkpoint at Mooney Mooney. Rachel Waugh was here after having a bad time of it and we walked out together. But she was keen to get it over and took off before we hit the trailhead. I was moving well again and despite the fatigue felt good. Running alone allows you to reflect on many things. I found myself lost deep in thought and smiling contentedly as I picked my way over the rocky terrain. I was loving every minute of it. I was back where I belonged: out on the trail.
CP6 was rewarding, knowing beyond this I was on the home stretch. Nothing would stop me now. I was an hour and a half ahead of my 12pm deadline. I knew I could finish easily inside the cut now. My gear sorted I was off in no time. I almost dawdled down to the swing bridge. Suddenly I was in no hurry. The finish time was irrelevant. In fact I realised even if I didn't finish now I had proven to myself that I could run ultras again. That made me smile again. That was all I really wanted from this race. A finish would be a bonus.
Richard, whom I had run with the night before, caught me up and I hung onto him and his fresh pacer for a while. The day was heating up and when out of the breeze it became stifling hot. The soles of my feet were feeling very macerated. I could feel the pain but it didn't seem to bother me. We climbed and dropped. And then climbed some more. In the distance the gunshots from the rifle range rang out. A helicopter droned constantly overhead extracting felled trees. You could hear the rotors straining as the huge trees swung pendulum like below the chopper.
I found myself alone again and sat in the rock pools cooling off and having some tinned spaghetti. I was really enjoying this and in no hurry for it to end. One last big climb to the unmanned water drop and I was there an hour inside the cut-off.
Susannah and another runner, both with pacers caught me while I refilled. We chatted and then I decided it was time to finish this thing. I ran most of the way from there to the finish, walking the uphills or when my heartrate nudged above 130bpm. I passed Richard again and kept going, ticking off each familiar landmark as I went.
The road to the Warrah Lookout went on forever. My feet burned now like someone was applying a small blowtorch to them. My achilles ached with every stride. It felt like there was barbed wire in my sock digging in with every flex of my ankle. But the pain was detached. Really weird. More surreal time. It did not belong to me. I could feel it but it made no impact on my stride. I was on autopilot, in cruise control. I felt myself smiling almost in defiance of the physical discomfort. It was like the pain was just there to remind me that I was very much alive and doing what I love to do: running an ultra on trail. There was nothing else I would rather be doing. There was no other place I would rather be. I thought of the finish that was now irrevocably mine. I pictured the beach not a mile in front of me. I had run it many times before but never had it meant so much. Never had I been faced with the prospect of giving up running before. Never had I faced my mortality the way the illness and treatment had forced me to do. I had embraced what I needed to do and proven I was capable. Seems melodramatic now but at the time I had bottled my emotions for 34 hours. I had reigned in every bit of energy and channeled it into one focus: getting to the finish. And now I was nearly there and the relief was overwhelming. These emotions that had been surging just beneath the surface now burst forth and washed over me in wave after wave of relief and pride. Tears streamed uncontrollably down my face. I didn't care. There was no-one to see me. It was cathartic and uplifting at the same time.
I ran hard, as hard as you can after 6,000 metres of climbing and 172 km of running. I passed a Nick who had passed me so long ago in the early hours of the morning. I dropped from the Warrah Trig onto the gravel road. I ran UP the hill. I hit the singletrack. I dodged and weaved. Wave after wave of emotion continued to wash over me. Tears welled in my eyes and the path was a blur. I was on the trail but could not feel it. Yet another surreal moment. I dropped the last few steps and hit the sand. I could see the finish at the other end of the beach. I could see the crowd of supporters gathered. I could see the banners and the marquees. They couldn't see me. I wasn't quite ready for this all to end. I wanted to soak in this feeling. To bask in this glory. I stopped. I sat down on a rock and buried my head in my hands and purged the doubts, the fears and the darkness that had hung over me for months.
Not more than a couple of minutes passed but with it passed those months of anguish and despair. It was long enough for me to regroup, and I got up and ran again. Weightless. The soft sand carried me forward. I swear it felt like I was floating across it. I could see the finish line getting closer. I could hear the cheers and the clapping. A bell was ringing. But the real clamour was now inside me. My heart beat loudly. My heart beat proudly. I had done it. I had overcome the physical limitations and run on sheer will. I ran across the soft sand without breaking stride. I pumped a fist against my chest, discretely, acknowledging to myself that my heart had got me there. A private little celebration. The cheers and clapping carried me up the beach under the finish banner. I touched that little wooden post signifying my sixth straight 100 mile finish with a sense of relief that words will never do justice to. I hugged Dave and thanked him for giving running back to me. For giving me back what I love. I might not be fully cured and this might be as good as I get but I now have the measure of this disease and I am not done with yet.