TNF100 2015

May 31, 2015   //   by phil.ackland   //   Articles, Blog, Events, Motivation, Running Articles, Uncategorized  //  No Comments

There are a lot of big  trail running events springng up around the Australia but, in 2015, The North Face 100 in The Blue Mountains is still the biggest, and most hottly contested, on offer in the country

For me, this year was a chance to really test myself against my own performance here in 2014. Last year it was an event full of unknowns and inexperience. The North Face 100 of 2014 very nearly beat me into submission and I only just managed to hold onto a finish. Something which many starters did not acheive. It was a super-proud moment but a huge learning curve and experience.
I decided, towards the end of last year, that I would get a lot of value from lining up with a coach that knew this sport, and specifically, this event, inside-out and I signed on with Brendan Davies on the same day that I registered for the event.

This year, I travelled to the Blue Mountains with a team that consisted of my wife Nikki, Scott and Nicole Sawyer, and Justyna and Daniel Grosse. Scott and Justyna were both lining up for the 50km version of the event for the first time. It made for a fun and adventurous road-trip style extended weekend away. Friday was put aside for being tourists in The Blue Mountains while avoiding the tempation to do too much on the day before the event.

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Race Day

The day, like every other event day for me, started much earlier than it needed to. I’ve not once been woken by an alarm for an event and this was no exception. With an alarm set for 4:30am I was awake closer to 2:30. The biggest difference this year was that I didn’t let that stress me. I lay quietly and calmly, keeping relaxed and mostly thinking of the day ahead……..for two hours.

Start – CP1

Heading out from the start, the first 4kms of the course is a road section that works well to spread the field out a little before we hit the first stairs and narrow trail sections.
It’s a fairly uneventful through here but the course soon hits the Furber stairs downhill and onto the rainforest tracks that lead through the landslide section along and around the ridge to the Golden Stairs. This staircase leads up to Narrowneck on on to CP1 at just over 10km.
I was feeling pretty good with the run through here and settled in to the pace with the other runners around me. Not a lot of opportunity for overtaking and there’s a little self-imposed pressure to hold your place in the cue.
Arriving at the first checkpoint in around 1hr 15min I was spot on my esimated time. No need to stop I ran through the checkpoint and continued on.

CP1 – CP2

This section is mostly open fire trail with regular sweeping views of the valleys. The main feature being Tarros Ladders somewhere around the middle of the leg. There wasn’t much of a line-up here but still an opportunity to have a quick breather and a moments rest. There’s time for a bit of general discussion with other runners  and I overheared one runner ask “Is this the 14hr train?” (in reference to the sought after silver buckle cut-off time) I realised that I was currently on track for my “If everything falls into place on the day” goal at around 21km into the race. A little mental boost but still too early to make such a call.
There are also some scrambly single track sections through the scrub here that were a bit of fun to fly along. More fire trail and we were approaching Dunphys Camp. It was at this point I started feeling a bit “off” Getting towards mid-morning and the temperature was just starting to get a little warmer.
No major problem but I did bring my pace back and played things a bit more cautiously for a while. Still a long run ahead.
In hindsight, I may have been pushing a little to quick in the early stages even though it didn’t feel that way at the time? It’s a hard one to pick.
Arriving at CP2, I made a fairly smooth and to-plan stop. Refilling both water and Tailwind supplies and moving on.


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CP2 – CP3

Between these checkpoints, there’s a really interesting section that has you climbing to the top of Iron Pot Ridge. It’s a steep scramble to the top before making a rocky out-and-back pass along the top of the ridge.  The reward for the effort is the amazing views over the gully below and the sound of a digeredoo being played as you pass by.
I made the climb to the top ok but didn’t have the pace I would have liked across the top. It’s a shared single-track, meaning you need to negotiate the track with runners moving in both directions. I took a conservative approach and allowed runners moving in either direction, with a bit of urgency in their stride, to go past. It was frustrating but I had to consider the distance yet to travel and play it smart. The run down from the ridge is gravelly and steep. Taking corners like a mountain bike and aiming for trees to use as the occasional brake to slow the decent. On the dirt road stage into CP3 I began to utilise my run/hike startegy to keep a steady push forward before striking  a good downhill run  into CP3. The first stop that support crews had access to.

Arriving in at the checkpoint, I was glad to catch up with Nikki. I was feeling pretty flat at this stage of the race and I felt that I really needed to grab some moral support to keep holding it together. I was pretty much unresponsive for the first few minutes and just wanted to stop and regroup. Once I was ready to talk about things and discuss the situation, we stuck to the refuelling plan and worked towards getting back into the race.
One aspect of having run this course before, was that I knew what was coming up. This has it’s pros and cons but at this point, it was having a negative effect in terms of my headspace, being aware that the stage ahead had a particulary gruelling climb along the way.


CP3 – CP4

Beginning as a gradually building climb, mostly along access roads, I had a consistent run/hike strategy here. The plan involved counting 1-20 in continous loops. I would run for  (x)number of 20 steps, hike for (x)number of 20 steps with (x) depending on the terrain and how I was feeling. Running about 70% of the distance. It proved to be an effective strategy for getting more running in than I otherwise would have.
Moving off from the roads into the more winding trail section that leads to the stairs of Nellies Glen, I was certainly not forgetting what this section of the course meant to my efforts last year. If you’re not fimilar with my 2014 experience, this climb last year almost ended my race with it’s relentless incline and gruelling stairs.
A big strategy this year, was to fully take on Coach Brendan’s advice about fuelling up ahead of the climb. I had a flask of Hammer gel in my pack specifically for these “in-need-of-a-boost” stages of the course.
At the suggested course mark, I downed a slurp of gel and preared for the ascent. Ok, let’s not kid ourselves and say this was easy, it was really damn hard but, it was  a great deal less trouble than during the year before. I took the occasional quick breather on the way up and another shot of gel somewhere around the middle but made it to the final stairs, took a moment at the top and cotinued on.
Between the top of the climb and CP4 at Katoomba, it’s was mentally a case of consistently moving forward. I knew it was close, I knew I was now guaranteed of reaching that point. Beyond that…….let’s not think too far ahead just yet.

This next checkpoint at the Aquatic Centre, is a welcome sight….. It’s 57km into a mountainous course. Of course it’s a welcome sight!
It was great to see Nikki here again, even if I didn’t give her that impresssion when I arrived. Like the previous stop, I wasn’t being very responsive. I was drained, tired and feeling a bit fragile and emotional. Initially I just needed to stop, breathe and settle my thoughts before I was ready to talk about the race so far, let alone what the plan was moving forward.
Feeling better, I downed a cup of soup that maybe should have been the proverbial cup of cement instead.
In 2014, I  stayed at this point for just on an hour. This year, the plan was for 8-10mins. I was there for about 30mins. Not a bad compromise I thought. The major difference though, I was leaving this checkpoint more than 3 hours ahead of last year and in bright daylight instead of in the dark. I was feeling flat but this marked a massive improvement so far.


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CP4 – CP5

After spending the remainder of the course in the dark in 2014, it was a goal from the outset this year to see as much of this fifth leg in daylight hours as I could. Hoping to get to CP5 just after sunset.
It’s an amazing section of the course in terms of scenery and adventure with loads of weaving single-track, cliff-top views, and waterfalls.
With this though, comes a lot of stairs and climbing. I was definitely finding this section to be pretty tough going. I was being overtaken much more often than I was overtaking others. That, in itself, can be mentally challenging and draining. It’s certainly an aspect of an ultra-distance race that you need to be able to deal with and manage if you’re going to make it through. It was important to put any ego aside, focus on my own race, and hold focus on consistent forward progression. Even if I wasn’t holding the pace I had been hoping for at this point.
Just after passing through Leura, at around 70km, the sun was setting and the reflective vests and headlamps came into play. Only about 8km short of my goal of CP5 before dark.
Eventually hitting the road section that leads to the checkpoint, I found a bit of energy and picked up some pace to take it in. Pleasantly surprised to see a car of familiar faces driving by and shouting encouragement. Scott, Justyna, Nicole and Daniel had finished up their 50km roles for the day and made the drive out to catch up with me on the way through. Uncanny how good their timing was here considering the course layout and timeframe variables on the day.

Reaching CP5, 78km’s done and the trek through the valley ahead.
The mental boost you receive by seeing a familiar face at this point cannot be overstated. After the previous two checkpoint stops, I was feeling much more alert here. Nikki even got a conversation from me, having to wait for only about 5 minutes first this time.
It was great to have a drop-in visit from the rest of the team at this point too.
Not doing so well at staying focussed on the job at hand, the challenge here was working with Nikki on the important final-leg nutrition plan. By this point, it’s crucial to have flexibilty built into the original on-paper plan and be able to work together in response to current conditions. My nutrition plan had worked well enough so far to get me to this point but it was starting to fade. Nikki threw some ideas at me and we came up with a solution and packed a plan B and plan C into my pack as well…….ready to head into the valley and the final leg to bring it home.

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CP5 – Finish

Time of day was now 8:00pm. Still at least 3 hours ahead of the same point last year and heading into the valley below.
It’s a pretty lonley stage of the race as the feild has well and truly spread out over the course. I started off from the checkpoint with a fairly average pace, returning to the run/hike strategy to push on. My plan, and coach’s advice, for this long downhill stage was to make the most of it, even on tired legs. Use the downhill for some pace in this last stage ahead of the long climb that follows.
Good plan but my body had other ideas. Running the downhill, I developed a dull stitch under my ribs that meant I had to walk more often to stretch it out. The valley at night is so quiet, calm, and still with a constant hushing sound of flowing water. Now, imagine you were to buy a relaxation/meditation CD to put on at home…….rainforest sounds, flowing water?
With my now fatigued state, slowed pace, and soothing enviroment, the dreaded hallucinations and sleep-walking that plagued my final leg efforts last year where settling in again. This was a huge confidence drainer. Memories of last year and knowing what was still ahead had me seriously concerned that I was in for another all-night slog if I was going to see it through. This went on for the remainder of the downhill section but, before long, I was pleasantly surprised to find I had reached the creek at the bottom in much less time than I had anticipated. (Maybe because I slept part of the way?)
I’m pretty sure I was asleep on my feet as I approached the creek and the sound of the rushing water grabbed my attention. I hadn’t been aware that I was approaching it but, suddenly, it was about 10 meters away.  Before making the crossing, I decided to use the cold mountain water to refresh myself, splashing it onto my face and rubbing my eyes.
This was a major turning point. From here, I was wide awake and ready for the long uphill stage coming up.
It sounds weird to say, but I enjoyed the climbing section out of the valley much more than the decent into it. I set up a solid and steady rythmn and pushed through to the aid station at 91km, stopped to refill supplies and carried on. On a few occasions I took the time to look around and appreciate being alone, at night, in the amazing landscape of the rainforest.
With a little over 5km to the end, the course becomes an interesting and technical single-track section. It’s a really enjoyable stage. Even at the end of a long day.
900 metres to go and almost 1000 stairs to the top. Time to just dig in, grit your teeth and get it done.
All that’s left here is a short run to the last few steps the lead you to the finish chute.

Cheering crowds, a fist pump in the air to cross the line and a finisher’s buckle to top it off.

100km in The Blue Mountains in a time of 18:21:24
A PB time for me by 7 hours 20mins!


Huge thanks has to go to my wife Nikki for supporting me on these adventures.
Support crew, logistics manager, motivator, and event planner, to name a few of the roles she takes on and does so well. I doubt I would even get close to the starting line at all without her support.
I’d also like to thank coach Brendan Davies for his insight, direction, and coaching this year in the lead up to this event and getting me so much further ahead than I was 12 months ago.

Will I do it again?
Considering discussions on potential improvements for 2016′s event were taking place on the day after the race, I’d say it’s very likely.
I’m really pleased with my result this year but there’s definitely still so much potential for improvement. ……always a work in progress.


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