The North Face 50: notes from an also-ran

June 12, 2013 § 5 Comments

There’s this great grab from the 2010 North Face video (the one where James Knight candidly narrates his race going pear-shaped in spite of months of ultra distance running and carefully planned nutrition). Julie Quinn has just crossed the line in second place. It’s night, and it’s freezing, and a camera is shoved in her face. She grins and says “I ache…ALL OVER” with the words “all over” spilling out of her mouth along with the thrill of relief.

I’d never done a marathon. As my first and modest (50k) ultra trail race approached, I kept Julie’s words in mind. At the finish, it’s okay to ache all over.


I have no natural athletic ability. In school sports I was good at…nothing. Six years ago I was so hobbled by pelvic instability from my first pregnancy that I couldn’t sit, stand, roll over or go for a walk pain-free. Even my dogs could do these things.

But over the last few years I rehabbed to the point where I could jog a little. Then figured out that I liked trails, and that my shortcomings as a runner became less obvious the steeper and rougher the trail was. It helped a LOT that my other half is my faster half. After hanging around at trail ultras for the past few years I had an itch I was burning to scratch.

I assumed that my body would reach some point of failure like an engine that blows a gasket or a horse that lies down and refuses to move. But it kept on delivering, absorbing the effort and the soreness and regrouping for the next thing.

Still, for me, it was a crazy goal: 50km of off-road terrain and a couple of thousand metres of vertical climb. How did I prepare?

  • I spread the load. I’m a below-average runner so some of my runs were bike rides. My longest and hardest ride was the 95k Five Peaks ride (1,400m of climbing).
  • I did a couple of shorter, faster runs per week, and yoga (Ashtanga, for agility, flexibility, strength and balance, as well as mental discipline and peace of mind).
  • I trained on hills. Big hills. Steep hills. Hill repeats. I built up to a peak (in April) where my long run was a Booroomba Rocks/Mount Tennent loop in Namadgi National Park, which was >30k and 1,500m of climbing. Lots of this was more like hiking than running.

The stunning cliffs of Booroomba

  • (Unsurprisingly) I got fitter.
  • It got easier. This is the sweetest reward – to go running and realise that you are enjoying it, or that you can keep it up for much longer than you used to, or that you can run uphill if you want, or that you can speed up a little bit at the end.
  • My times for shorter races of between 5-10k kept inching down. Another sweet reward.
  • I lost 5-6 kilograms (over the course of about a year). Endurance sports really do eat you alive.
  • I was so, so, so, so tired. SO TIRED. OMG. TIRED.

Morning on the slopes of Mt Tennent

It began to look like I would, at the very least, make it to the start line. This in itself seemed like an achievement.

But making it to the finish line was another thing entirely. Having never gone further than 30k in training, the thought that obsessed me over the last few weeks was “Where is that extra 20k going to come from?” On this point, my coach and partner Richard was completely confident. It just comes.

Race day

For the third year in a row it was great weather – cool but sunny. I started out with 500ml of a sports concoction only. The first 11km was relatively quick and enjoyable and I crossed the timing mat at 1:20, put a litre of water in the pak, filled both of the 500ml bottles with Endura, ate one of my gels and grabbed a banana.

Settling in near the start

Settling in near the start

The middle leg was 25k, comprising about 10k (and 700m) downhill followed by 15k (and 800m) uphill. I jogged down, crossed the creeks, finished my banana, ate a gel, drank sports drink. At about the 25k mark I started to get some waves of nausea that came oofn and made me feel a bit queasy. This slowed me down and I walked more of this section than I wanted to and didn’t feel like eating. But kept moving steadily up the valley. I was looking forward to the Furber Steps but it was a haul because of my stomach. Ran out of water about here but it was only a few km to the checkpoint and I still had some sports drink. It was great seeing Richard at the checkpoint and filling my water bottles. The second leg had taken me nearly four hours (3.53). Forced down half a sandwich by dunking it in water (wtf) and headed out with a gel.

It took me 30 minutes to eat that fucking gel.

The final leg took many people by surprise as it was harder than it looked on paper. Only 14k but consisted of multiple dips down into the valley and out again. Lots of steps and stairs, coupled with the late stage of the race was hard going. I felt like I was moving slowly but I passed a LOT of people on this section and it was easily my best leg (a bit over two hours and 150th for the split).

I spent the last few Ks commiserating with a bloke from England over the pain we were in. We managed to beat the sunset (and the dreaded high vis vest) and jogged into the Fairmont together. What a great welcome party!

In the end I took 7:47 and finished in the middle of the pack (219th overall and 65th female) which I was pretty happy with. No, really happy.

The world's most comfortable spot, on the Fairmont carpet.

The world’s most comfortable spot, on the Fairmont carpet.


I held off on this race report so that I could study my recovery. Truth is, it was slow. No injuries from the actual event (just  a whole new level of DOMS and a couple of bruised toenails) but the very next time I went running I pulled a calf muscle. Things must have been hanging by a muscle fibre or two.

So that took a week to fix and then I was just…dead…for a few weeks. I did all the usual stuff but sluggishly, feeling slow, unmotivated and weak.

But the whole time I was thinking about how I could do it again, better. Besides the obvious (ie running faster) things I’d fix would be:

  • faster transitions at checkpoints – the 10 mins or so I spent at the checkpoints were my slowest splits (375th and 276th) so that’s fairly hopeless
  • more careful preparation of drinks – one of my mixtures was too strong and I couldn’t drink it and ended up pouring most of it out on the road
  • more practice with nutrition that I can eat mid-race as I couldn’t face most of it, although I’m not sure why
  • switching to proper running music for the last leg – might have enjoyed the last few Ks a bit more

Bring it on.


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