Leg 4: 54 to 65km
This was a short leg, only 11km which took me 96min, but it was the hardest of the day. After leaving my crew at check point 3 I felt amazing… for about 3kms. Then for some reason I started to feel fatigued. Not sure why, maybe I hadn’t been eating enough, maybe I went out too hard from check 3 after feeling so good. Whatever it was, it shouldn’t really have been occurring here. Between about 54 and 62km the track was relatively flat and wide. There weren’t many severe inclines and I really should have been able to jog this entire section, but I was feeling a little drained.
The mind games started to kick in: ‘Here it is then. Here’s my wall. I knew this would come. You shouldn’t have gone out so hard in the first half Betsy you moron. You knew the golden rule!’
A quote from one of the most famous ultra marathon runners in the world, Dean Karnazes; “In an ultra, if you think you’ve gone out too hard, you’ve definitely gone out too hard. If you think you’ve gone out just right, you’ve gone out too hard and if you think you’ve gone out too slow, you’ve probably still gone out too hard.“
Right about now I was thinking I’d gone out just right which meant I’d gone out too hard and I guess was starting to feel the effects of this 60km in. I reminded myself of my own Golden Rule for today; Don’t let negative thoughts affect your performance. Think positivity and I remember the story I once heard from Commonwealth Games Marathon gold medalist Heather Turland, about how her thoughts became negative during the stinking hot KL marathon and she started to slip back in position during the race. She had to give herself a strict talking-to and consciously created positivity in her mind. As soon as she did this, she found herself picking up pace again and not only catching up with the second and first place runners, but overtaking them to win gold.
Like Heather, I gave myself a talking-to at the 60km mark and pushed some positivity into my mind. It felt corny and cliche but I truly believe it worked and I truly believe, had I not forced these positive thoughts, I would not have finished with my excellent result. I forced myself to think; How lucky I am to be able to run out here in full health and fitness. Thank you God for making this day so beautiful and this countryside so picturesque. Thank you God for making sure I haven’t yet tripped and fallen on my face. Like I said; corny, but no sooner had I started to think these things, that the terrain changed completely and I was distracted from my thoughts all together. The mild, flat road quickly turned to steep, narrow up hill and then steeper, narrower stairs.
Nellie’s Glen stairs were the most intense and fatiguing section of the entire 100km by far. I managed to power walk the dirt hill section at the start of them and overtake a few people, but once the steps started, there was no overtaking. Every runner slowed to the same snails pace as we just could not lift our knees any higher or any faster. There was a lot of deep breathing and leaning on knees to push up onto the next step. We must have been traveling at about 20min kms – very slow. At one or two points, I event stopped in my own tracks, hands on hips, to try and settle my intense, heaving breaths. I would glance behind me in fear that stopping would mean I’d be overtaken, but the next runner back was doing the same thing anyway, looking back up at me with helplessness. Every now and then I would glance up desperately trying to catch sight of some kind of top, some indication that the stairs finished soon, but this didn’t come for some time.
We climbed these bastards for about 30-40minutes and when we finally did reach the top of them, I was surprised at how quickly my breathing recovered and I was able to continue moving without taking a break. This was one of my favorite fitness adaptations coming from North Face training; my recovery after an intense cardio workout was the fastest it has ever been.
Pretty soon after we emerged from Nellie’s Glen we found ourselves in residential Katoomba and it was only a couple of kms before we hit the 65km mark; check point 4 at Katoomba Sports and Aquatic Centre. As I trudged up the hill onto the basketball courts where the support crews were setup, Dom was standing right at the entry to greet me with a big smile and a joke. I was really happy that I was still in pretty good shape and great spirits to be able to banter back and forth with her. So many of the stories I’d heard about runners in previous years described how they were starting to lose it at the 65km mark. Other than being a little wiped of energy after the ridiculous stair climb, I felt quite good. No muscle soreness, no cramping and still completely sane, I think.
I sat in the camping chair at check point 4 whilst the guys refreshed my bladder and food/gel portions and I started to get myself ready for night. It was approximately 4:47pm and I had been running for nearly 10 hours. The daylight didn’t have a lot left to offer and it was starting to get cold so I pulled off my salty visor and shoved on my buff (a really thick, warm headband). I put my head torch on, changed my sox again and pulled out my high-vis vest which was compulsory to wear from check point 4.
I was lucky enough to have an experienced ultra-marathoner and marathon nutritionist Matt Cheesman with me at this point. He asked me how I was feeling and I described to him how I was not sore anywhere, but just tired. He said I need to get more energy in and I needed to start eating a gel every 30mins and a salt tablet every 40mins. Then he pushed a jam sand which into my hand and said: Eat! It was the last thing I felt like eating at that stage, it felt like choking down a tea-towel, but I knew it would do me good, so I got it down (well, most of it). Matt grabbed me firmly by the shoulders, looked me square in the eye and said again; “It’s extremely important that you listen to me. You need to eat a gel every 30mins and a salt tablet every 40min.”
The team pulled me out of the chair, wrapped my pack and vest over my shoulders, turned my head lamp on and pushed me out the door after just 10 mins at check point 4.
Leg 5: 65 to 89km
Leaving check 4 I had 2 things rotating in my head;
1- Gel every 30 and salt every 40
2- I just need to get through this leg and then I’m home free with only 11km to go.
Leg 5 is the longest at 24km. It gave us a long steep downhill;Â 800m decline over 15km, followed by a long steep uphill; 700m elevation over 9km.
After the Sports Centre we weaved through Katoomba and soon found ourselves at another major attraction that conjured up some more fond childhood memories for me; Echo Point lookout. There were a lot of tourists around and we had to often shout out for them to move out of the way of us runners. I suppose the blinding head torches, trekking packs and fluoro yellow reflective vests weren’t signal enough. Next we were moving down a steep metal staircase that spiraled down right beside the Three Sisters. I’m a wimp going down stairs, especially when it’s a little damp, so I slowed down to a walk. I even hopped down them with my arms propped on the hand rails on either side to take my body weight so that my poor quads didn’t have to bear the eccentric load.
I had hoped earlier in the day that I would have made it to this point with enough light left to appreciate the magnitude of these stone monuments, however I was just about out of luck. I snapped this shot of one of the Sisters at what must have been almost 6pm.
At the bottom of the metal stairs we were back in bush track and actually passing through a point we passed in leg 1; Federal Pass. I recognised it, but this time we were heading in the opposite direction. For a long while I trailed behind a string of four runners who all kept about the same pace. I realised that this pace was actually a little slow for me and one by one I politely asked if I could squeeze by them to overtake. When I found myself in the lead of the string I had a fleeting thought that maybe overtaking them was not a great idea as we were in near-complete darkness and the tiny reflective strips marking the course every 40-50metres were getting awfully hard to notice….Oh well, getting lost is what iPhones are for.
The trail turned to wide 4WD track and went down, down, down and down some more. It was dark, we we’re about 75km in and I think I was on a bit of a sugar high because I was freely thinking out loud and chatting to every single runner as I passed them. Being small was a massive advantage for me here. I didn’t have to produce a lot of braking force going downhills as I don’t weigh a lot, so I was able to pass a heap of people on the downs, even really fit looking young men.
The 30min gel and 40min salt rule was helping the time to pass extremely quickly because I was just working in 30min lots and the salt worked a treat. I have done 8 marathons before and in every one of them I cramped up badly in the quads and calves after 35km. But no sign of cramps today. Salt; I could just kiss you! With the time passing quickly and me overtaking many runners my attention was brought back to my finish time. I had reached each of the previous check points about 40min ahead of my predicted time. There was still the lingering thought that I was going to hit a wall, but if there was a wall coming, it was running out of time! At this point, I only had about 20km to go and I still seemed to be holding it together.
The downhill felt like it went forever but it was probably more like 90min. Just when you hit what you think is the bottom and start trudging up the hill on the other side, the hill disappears and you find yourself rolling downhill again. I asked a couple of the nearby runners whether we were far from the bottom and one mentioned that he remembers 3 bottoms from last year. Finally we got to the third bottom, the real bottom and I heard some advice ring again from Matt back at check point 4; “At the bottom of the hill, you have a 9km climb straight up, so you’ll need some energy.” I squeezed a gel into my mouth, a mini mars bar and a hand full of jelly beans. Good to go.
I turned on the uphill engines and started my trek up Mount Solitary. At 80km in, most runners were starting to falter at this point. Many had resorted to what looked like a drunken swagger and weren’t in the mood for chatting. I still had a bit of juice to get me up the hill so I decided to keep to myself as I passed them. I had a decent chat to one guy; Morris, a chef from Sydney with one daughter and who had done this event twice and eight-9ths before. We talked for a little while before I left him in my wake also, but I would find Morris again in leg 6.
I approached a random gear check table which was a nice way to break up the hill. As I pulled out my wet weather jacket and compass to prove to them that I was following the rules I asked where we were and how far till the next check point. “This is 84km. You have 3km of hill left then 2km of flat before you hit check 5.” Brilliant. I powered up the last 3km and broke into a slow trot as the road flattened out into the 89km mark. Bright lights and fire barrels lit up check point 5 and my eyes frantically darted from side to side as I looked for Dom. “Maxwell!” There she was. Again, she wrapped her arm around my shoulder and led me to the loot.
“What do you need?” Batteries for my headlamp, 4 big blister pads and 2 small ones. I replied. The skin on my feet had been screaming at me the entire way down the hill after I’d left check 4 and the brightness of my head lamp was embarrassing compared to the other runners around me. I could barely make out what was on the ground in front and it wasn’t until about 80km that I noticed the glorious beacons of light streaming from the lamps of other runners I figured mine might need a battery change. I did have spare batteries in my pack but in the dark I decided that would have been too hard to fumble so I just pulled out my spare hand torch and used it for the last 15km of leg 5. As I was being prepped by my crew, handed bottles to skull from and pills to shove down my throat, a spectator came to me and said; “I have just been on the phone to a friend of mine who has just finished. He says it’s freezing across the ridge as you leave the last check point and as you get back down into the valley it’s very wet and slippery so be careful.“
Tom Landon-Smith was right at his race briefing; ultra runners are so considerate and supportive and have no ego. I thanked the guy for sharing this advice with me; a complete stranger.
After a pee stop, a battery change, a blister popping session, a hand full of magnesium tablets and shot-gunning a can of full-sugar V, I was back on the road in just 12mins. Only 11 km to go.
Leg 6: 89 to finish
As I walked out of check 5 my feet were stinging. When I had peeled off the last blister pad at 89km the entire piece of skin that formed the blister had peeled off with it. So I had a section of skin, about 3cm by 3cm on the sole of my left foot that was completely red, weeping and raw. I’d covered it with a new pad but it still stung like gangbusters which made it extremely painful to run. So I walked the first 2km out of check point 5. It’s crazy that the thing that stopped me wasn’t a muscle or bone injury, no, I would have run through that pain, it was a stupid little blister. I wondered briefly if this was it for me; Would my blister resort me to walking the last 11km? But after about 20min, I think my feet either went numb or my body turned on it’s protective mechanism and blocked out the blister pain, because I was able to break into a jog again.
The first part of leg 6 was relatively flat and open, then we crept down into the thick bush of Wentworth Falls. The ground became very wet and muddy and there was a lot of run-a-bit, walk-a-bit, maybe because of the unstable terrain, maybe because everybody was just spent. I started chatting to the other runners again every k or so to gauge if my estimation of distances was correct. My Garmin had died way back at about 70km so I was relying on the North Face veterans around me to indicate how far we had left. I asked one guy in front about the distance left and he had a very clear description of what we could expect coming up. It sounded as though he must have done a few of these before and when I asked he said he has done two and eight 9ths before. I was running with Morris again. This time I asked him what time he was hoping for today and he said 15hours 45.
15 hours 45?! This time I let myself get excited. Here I was, about 5km from the finish and I was running alongside an experienced 15:45 runner. I don’t think the wall was coming and if it did, I was too strong for it. We had probably less than an hour left and I was on track for a sub 16 hour North Face. I was ecstatic. I wasn’t finished yet though, so I contained my excitement and just focused on the last 5km. I passed Morris. Sorry Morris.
To the next lady I approached I said: Nearly there! She responded “Yep. We have another down hill and then anther uphill and then we’re pretty much done.” It helped a lot to break the leftover into distinct stages like that and she was exactly right. We did have one more down hill left and boy, was it a bitch of a downhill. It probably wasn’t any steeper than previous downs we had mastered today but I think just the fact that my legs were 97km in and I could hear the cheering at the finish line made it harder to bear. The predominant thought filling my head in these last few kms of the race was: Are these race directors kidding! What were they thinking giving us a down hill like this 97km in! But of course, the ancient Roman proverb reigned true: This too shall pass.
The bushes started to open up and we could see flickers of light from the Fairmont hotel rooms. We ran onto a newly mown grass clearing, up some stone steps right at the back of the hotel and onto the grass finishing chute. There was a decent crowd cheering us in for 10:33pm at night. Somehow, I was able to muster a bit more of a sprint to cross the line. At least I felt like I was sprinting. I leapt under the finish banner and swung around to look up at the digital clock over the line to confirm whether my dreams in the last 10km were true. I knew long ago I would go under 16 hours, but how far under?
As I glanced up at the clock, it was blank. Dead. Not on. A marshal was on the microphone reading out runner names as they crossed the line and she must have seen the look of despair on my face as I looked at the blank clock. “Yeah sorry the clocks out. Were fixing it now. Betsy Maxwell you finished in 15 hours and 33 minutes.”
Oh My God.