Always Have A Plan B – The North Face 100 2014

May 25, 2014   //   by phil.ackland   //   Articles, Blog, Fitness, Motivation, Running Articles, Uncategorized  //  No Comments

The North Face 100. It has been my ultimate goal event for two years after first hearing of it’s existence back in 2012. A late night news story about these “crazy runners” working into the night to complete a 100km journey through The Blue Mountains caught my attention and, from that moment, the idea of attempting this myself never really left my head.
In 2013, TNF100 coincided with The Great Ocean Road Marathon event, at which I completed a longest-distance-ever challenge for me of 45km along the iconic coastal road.
Skipping through the story here to save this going on way too long, The North Face 100 was still a seemingly unattainable goal so along the way I sought out a few challenging trail run events to test myself. Marysville 50km, Two Bays 56km, Roller Coaster Run 43km being the highlights. All extremely tough and challenging but all completed.
Moving along again, there was a lot of training leading into the event along with a huge amount of researching of required equipment, nutrition strategy, and the terrain and course itself.
I’ve probably left out enough info from that lead-in story for a couple more posts in the future perhaps? ….We’ll see.
Onto the event itself……..

From the outset, there was never an expectation from me that I would be finishing this event inside the front half of the field, or even close to that. My placement in the 5th of 6 wave starts on it’s own was a suggestion that I would be closer to 80% back at the finish. This event for me was just packed full of unknown factors that I could train towards but truly only discover throughout the day. The distance, location, terrain, nutrition, equipment……..

With the event being what it is, it really starts on the Friday night. Check-in, gear check of all the mandatory equipment, and compulsory briefing are all handled the night before the race. Mandatory being exactly that. If you didn’t pass this check, you didn’t line up in the morning either.

Weather on race day at the start line was cold but not freezing. There was a lot of nervous, excited energy building as runners sorted themselves into their correct start waves awaiting the countdown that would set each group off down the road.
The first stage of the race started with an out-and-back section of road before then hitting Furber Steps and moving into the trail through the valley. Fairly easy going single-file through here until we reached the golden stairs. The first real sign of things to come. Just past the top of the stairs was the first checkpoint and the 10km mark. For me, well and truly time to discard and pack away the excess clothing of long sleeve and pants and mix up my second batch of perpetuem food/drink before moving on.


Stage Two crossed along the ridge tops of Narrow Neck and lead to Tarros Ladder. Along with the ladder descent were a couple of sections of rock face to repel down while holding a rope. On one of these ropes I didn’t quite get the strategy right and found myself gripping the rope waiting for the ride to end as it flung me onto my back against the rock face. My biggest concern was that I had just cut my race short at the 21km mark. Thankfully, it was just scrapes and bruises and nothing that I couldn’t shake off and I kept moving along through the scrub to checkpoint two(31km).

A little on from CP2 was the climb of Iron Pot Ridge. It’s a steep and rocky climb that then has a ridge top out-and-back section across the rocks at the top. Amazing views along here. The decent is equally steep and gravelly but became an enjoyable scramble as a downhill track leading into the farm areas along Megalong Valley Road. Once on the road, it was an uphill slog four about 4km. A walked just about all of this climb but felt ok with that as the rest of the field in my line of sight were doing the same. Once at the top, about 4km of downhill into checkpoint 3. I was able to run with good pace along here making good time while being conscious of using a comfortable pace and not pushing hard with so much of the event still to go.

Checkpoint 3 (46km) was the first opportunity to see the support crews and the family were a welcome sight. I felt really good coming into this point. Nikki made up another bottle of perpetuem for the road ahead (worth noting here that this is only my third of these and about 2 behind schedule already) and I downed a small bottle of coke and a banana before saying goodbye to Nikki and the kids and heading off. Feeling pretty good at this point.

Ok, now things start to get interesting. This next stage began with wide dirt roads, fairly flat, farm and bushland for about 5kms. At this point, about 50km into the course, we began the step and gruelling ascent through to Nellies Glen and Katoomba at the top of the ridge. This section is amazingly scenic through rainforest and alongside a creek. It does also contain around 500 winding timber steps and 400m elevation over about 4km. Now, combining this terrain, at this 50+km mark, with my earlier reference to being behind on my nutrition strategy back at the last checkpoint, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that my body just ran out of fuel. The tank was empty, the climb to the top was relentless. Any gains I had made earlier were lost here as I moved aside to let others pass numerous times. The closer to the top I got, the more people were checking to see if I was ok. I was starting to wonder here how I was going to pull this one off with so far left to go. “Just get to the checkpoint! You’ll get it back at the next checkpoint!” was the conversation in my own head.



Checkpoint Four did arrive, I even managed to get back to a run once the stairs were done. Nikki and the kids were there to greet me again along with my brother-in-law Michael who had ridden up from Sydney just for the support.
57km into the course and now officially my longest distance ever on a single run! Much recovery needed. I had let myself fall way behind the nutrition plan that I had for the day and was feeling it. I spent a full hour at this stop, longer than I had hoped to but as long as I needed on the day. Food (although not very much as it was getting hard to stomach), clothing layers, reflective vest and headlamp and I was good to go out into the dark and get back on track.


Night time trail running, my favourite. I felt pretty good heading out making my way through Katoomba to the Three Sisters and actually stopped here to pack away the beanie, gloves and long-sleeve top as I was getting too warm before descending the Giant Stairway down towards Jamison Valley. Somewhere along here I took a wrong turn and headed off down a trail that was leading deeper into the valley. This could have landed me in a whole heap of trouble. Thankfully, I picked up on the distinct lack of reflective tags along the way before I got myself in too deep and trekked back up hill to check out the last intersection a little closer. Ok. DON’T follow the red [X] sign. DO follow the arrows. Got it!
The next 10km of the course was spectacular by the light of a headlamp and in the daylight must be just amazing as it passed through waterfall and rainforest areas staying close to the rock face walls. Quite a lot of stairs scattered along the way made it hard to find any consistent running pace but everything was going well and I was enjoying the experience, making up ground on several runners ahead and pushing on.
Starting to become a bit of a blur through here in the dark but around the 72km mark I encountered another set of stairs that weren’t any different, steeper or longer than anything in this section so far. These stairs just drained me. Just like before, I had nothing left. The nutrition plan was so far off track and the legs just had no push left in them. This is the spot where my 20 hour time goal was 100% cleared off the table. I knew it, I thought about it briefly then changed focus solely onto Plan B and moved on.
6km to go to the next checkpoint. A couple of slow dirt track climbs and the rest of the stage was across Kings Tableland. At this point it was clear open sky and, without any pace happening, I stopped to put on the warmer layers to get me through to checkpoint five.

Checkpoint five was such a welcome sight after a shuffle along the road that lead to it.
My biggest problem at this point was that after being so far behind on the nutrition plan much earlier on, by this stage there was no chance of catching it back up. I had to eat but I was just not feeling like I could take anything on.
It was great to see the family support crew again for a bit of motivation support and to get advice from a clearer head than my own.
Inside the tent, one of the volunteers sorted out my drink bottles and backpack bladder refills, rounded up a cup of tea and a hot cup of noodles. What more could you want?……… Nikki insisted that I take another flask of perpetuem with me for the next stage despite me saying I wouldn’t bother as I didn’t feel I could stomach it anyway.

The final leg of the course, 22km left. The first half of that, a long descent to the lowest point of the course so far followed by the climb back out of Jamison Valley to the finish.

About 100m into this journey from CP5, I remembered that I hadn’t taken the endurolyte tablets that I should have at the last stop. Not a problem. Grabbed a couple and sipped at the water from my pack…….nothing…..the hose was twisted when it was refilled. I grabbed a bottle instead and used that. This should have been water but instead had been filled with sports drink. One small swig to get the tablets down and my stomach instantly returned everything back up. ……..*Note to self – always check your own gear at the checkpoints*. The backpack came off, I fought with the water hose until it flowed, threw the pack back on and headed off into the darkness. ….”That’s fine. I’m almost there now. Just get it done”…….Almost there?

After a disastrous start to the last leg I regrouped to start the downhill doing ok. My time goal had gone way back on that set off stairs in the previous stage and I was now only focused on completing the damn thing.

So if things got interesting before, they got totally surreal from this point.
Around the 80km mark after a dark and lonely couple of km’s, I caught up with another runner, Ming. He seemed pretty keen to see someone else on the track and I didn’t mind it either. It was a stark contrast to earlier stages of the event by now. Dark, quiet cold and lonely. We stuck together talking briefly but mostly just keeping each other company. As we went on into the night, I noticed I was starting to doze off as I was walking. The terrain was wide dirt road and so it was just steady, monotonous stepping forward. The urge to fall asleep grew greater and greater until I was sure that I was actually falling asleep and still walking forwards. The loose gravel at the edge providing a rumble strip that woke me up if I drifted wide. Further along, working by the light of a headlamp, I began to hallucinate, seemingly seeing the strangest collection of things off to the sides or on the road in front of us and having to shake them off.
…….”Is that a row of shop fronts along the side?”…….. “Why are there stairs in the middle of this road?” ……..”A drinking fountain?”……. “a coffee shop with outdoor seating?”..Hey, there was a video posted of Fran crossing the finish line with a coffee at the same time as me. Is that were she got it? (video in the link)
This went on for hours with forward pace being incredibly slow and then continued in the same way, as we commenced the uphill stage getting closer to the first-aid station at the 91km mark.
Just short of the 91km mark we took a break by the side of road, a few moments to to try and pull something together. Without any sign of warning, I emptied the sparse contents of my stomach aggressively. This wasn’t pleasant but did result in me feeling better and wide awake just in time for a visit from the first-aid patrol. A quick chat and he advised us that it was only a few hundred meters until the aid station with it’s warm fire, food and a cup of tea so of we went. A brief stop over at this one for a chat and refreshments and we moved on again.
We headed on from that point with only 9km left to go at about 5:30am. The same steady climb and the sleep walking was back before long.
Thankfully we hit some narrow trail eventually and the variation in terrain was just what I need to perk up and keep my eyes open.
Weaving along the trail past the base of the Three Sisters and onto the last few km’s was slow but bearable now. The sun came up along the way and we had the pleasure of a second Blue Mountains sunrise for our efforts.
Finally, with 3km to go, I was able to get phone signal and messaged Nikki to give her a location. The first she had heard from me since 11:00 the night before. It was now about 7. She later told me that with 3km to go she knew we had an hour and half to go.
1km left. The base of Furber Steps. A little over 900 stairs would get us to the finish line above.
Getting to the top, Nikki was waiting to meet me and encouraged me to finish it all off. At the top it was great to see the kids there as well and that fellow Mt Gambians Danny and Ange Habets had come out to see me in as well. Danny had completed the course himself during the evening before and it was great to see them there to show their support.
All that was left, the dash along the finishing chute and across the line.

  My official time 25:44:10. Cut-off time 28:00:00

You could say that I made efficient use of my available time for this event.
I experienced the sunrise in The Blue Mountains twice and the sunset once.
That’s some pretty good value for my entry fee!

What did I learn from this experience?
Nutrition for an event like this needs to be given a lot of respect. I set out with a plan but allowed myself to get caught up in the event itself. The course in most parts was so busy and engaging that I was easily distracted. Like a baby with a set of dangling keys. Staying on top of the nutrition plan early, even when you are still feeling good, is crucial. In a shorter event you could get away with this a little. Hitting a wall at the end of a 50km is manageable as it’s the end. Drop this in the middle of 100km and it’s a grueling day in the office ahead. I had read all of this before. I had planned to avoid all of this. But now I’ve learnt it.

On the upside, I’m really happy with my gear choices. I spent so much time researching the many options. The Salomon backpack sat comfortably, the soft-flasks that sat in front were real easy to use. For clothing I went with merino wool head-to-toe. Socks, underwear, leggings, hat, beanie, gloves, t-shirt, long-sleeve. The end result here, absolutely no sign of blisters or chafing even over that duration. Seriously, give the guys at I/O Merino a call if you want to check it out.

The trail runner community is just the best!
You can enter these events on your own, spend up to an entire day on course, and meet the friendliest, most inspiring people along the way, officials and volunteers included. For me, I spent the last 8+ hours with a guy that I had never meet before the day. We were both battling our own different situations at a time that lead us to meet up in the middle of the night, heading for the finish. Not a huge amount of conversation but we kept each other on task to the end.

Will I ever do it again?

Hell Yeah!

I’ve learnt so much from this time through. The maps and elevation chart make so much more sense now than they did before. I’ve already planned ways to make my training more specific. And the nutrition plan will be down pat. I’ve have to make a return to see what I can really do on this course with all that experience behind me.

It’s ok to be thinking “I don’t know how I’m going to do this” along the way.
Just stay away from “I can’t do this”
It could just be the difference between seeing the finish line and landed on the DNF list.

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