Halfway up Nellies Glenn and a jet roared unseen across the sky high above me. Steps and more steps, ever upwards. Then another jet? No, that was the wind roaring through the trees on the ridges high above the valley. The hot sweat dripping off my nose will soon chill me once I am exposed back up on the ridge to Katoomba. What a day of contrasts. That is the North Face 100 trail race. Highs and lows. Climbing and descending. Running fast and walking slow. Smooth, wide-open fire trail and narrow, gnarly singletrack. Soft, leaf-lined soil paths and brutally hard steel steps. Warm sun and bitter cold wind. This race has it all.
The early morning start saw the 300 plus runners stream out of the Fairmont Resort in Leura and wind our way around iconic Blue Mountain landmarks like the Three Sisters, Leura Falls and under the Scenic Skyway on smooth rolling trail. A conga line of runners kept the pace in check but allowed glances across the valley at the early morning light dancing over the escarpment. I was frustrated by the slow pace on the very runnable trail but sat back and enjoyed the view. After a steep climb up the Golden Stairs, I was at Checkpoint 1. I waited for Tim to come in. He was still getting over a bad cold and in hindsight probably shouldn't have been there. He could see I was biting at the bit, and he was clearly in for a bad day. He sent me on my way, alone.
I knew the Tarros Ladder was in the next sector so I ran hard hoping to beat the queue. Mile after mile of firetrail rolled out as I climbed the Narrow Neck. Around every bend more runners to chase. Spectacular views unfolded on both sides as the world fell away to the forested valleys far below. The wind whipped across us as misty rain sprung from the low set cloud. After leaving the road, a short rock scramble led to the top of the infamous Tarros Ladder. Oh crap, around 20 runners were huddled in the biting wind, each waiting their turn to climb down the jury-rigged aluminium ladders, encased in a cobweb like rope net. 20 minutes seemed like an eternity but my turn eventually came. Down one step at a time, slow going. Releasing the bottom rung I cut loose and ran hard to warm up again, greeted by tight singletrack and steep, slippery gravel where I slid out of control and bounced off the trees like a pinball. After breaking from the trees more firetrail led down to the welcoming CP 2.
Shortly after leaving the comfort of the aid station the course climbed the Ironpot Ridge. Hand over hand scrambling. You could hear the deep breaths of runners gasping for air. At the top we were directed along the ridge on a technical out-and-back section. Runners kept coming towards me, punctuating the rocky landscape. The exposed outcrop marking the turnaround provided great views. Back down weaving through the trees and oncoming runners. Then a steep drop off the ridge, free falling through the forest. My feet clawed at the ground but slid forward inside my shoes, the soles burning as I slipped and slid down to the creek. Then the track wound through farmland before emerging into the upper reaches of the Megalong Valley road. Horse country. My nostrils filled with the strong aroma of horses and horse manure, a total contrast to the crisp forest air just minutes before. I was feeling strong so ran the road hard to CP3.
Mandatory gear check was the first priority. Done. Refill and refuel. Done. And on my way onto the Six Foot Track headed towards Katoomba. A couple of kms down the track I realised I hadn’t refilled both my bottles and suddenly felt very thirsty. I slowed to conserve what water I was carrying. Runners were few and far between. I passed a few. A few passed me. The climb up Nellies Glenn bunched us all up in a kind of communal effort. As we broached the top of the stairs we moved into yet another weather zone and suddenly the warm afternoon sun was but a distant memory as the icy wind tore at any exposed flesh. Sensing the next aid station and more fluids I ran hard through the fringes of Katoomba to the oval and CP4. I collapsed on the damp grass and guzzled the softdrink my crew provided. Elixir of life. I donned my light jacket and headlamp in preparation for the approaching night and headed off.
Echo Point was buzzing with tourists and they looked on with perplexed amusement. I passed a little posse of runners before realising one of them was Dean Karnaze, the man himself. Cool. How many sports do you get to compete against international sporting celebrities? A guy dressed in civies and carrying a huge camera was running along ahead of Karno snapping pics. Then came the quad-busting Giant Staircase. Down, down, down. I thought it would never end. Relief came on the mossy forest trail at the bottom as the fading light struggled to reach the valley floor. I ran hard to use the last light before reaching the open firetrail that descended further down Sublime Point Ridge. It was dark now as I wound down, down until my quads thought they would explode on the hard packed road. The reflective ribbons marked the course, reassuringly. I splashed through the shallow Jamison Creek before starting the long climb to Kedumba Pass and then the old Queen Vic hospital site. Head down and grind it out.
CP5 was a welcome site in the now cold, lonely night. Crew huddled around a blazing fire, the warmth beckoning me. Tim Cochrane offered me some pizza and he didn’t have to ask twice. I knew he had finished second to Mark Lee, and here he was back out helping other runners. Great effort on both counts. I had been resisting trying to chase the 14 hour silver buckle cut-off but weakened now. I wondered how much time I needed. I asked him what would be a slow split for the last sector. He said he couldn’t remember his time. I said a slow split! Never mind, I would just go as hard as I could.
Out on the road a young runner caught up and passed me. He asked how far we had to go and if he could make 14 hours. I said no-way but he took off anyhow. I passed him about 3km later dragging his feet. A valiant but futile attempt. The trail dropped back into the valley and I thought it would never end. Then the new Lillian’s Bridge and I started climbing for the last time. The trail popped out onto mowed grass and I knew I was close. Glow sticks marked the way. I could see banners flapping in the wind. Across the lawns of the resort the finish chute was in sight. I dug deep. People were clapping. It was cold, dark and late but the support warmed my heart as the emotions of a day of honest toil washed over me. I ran hard to the line to stop the clock at 14:30. Tired but happy. A very solid hit-out before Hardrock and a faster time than last year without any taper.